Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Evening Note for Tuesday, September 25

Thought for the Evening: 'Classical Theism'

'Classical theism' is a term invented by the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne to describe that in opposition of which his 'neoclassical' or 'dipolar' theism was developed. It essentially refers to positions that take God to be simple and immutable, although in Omnipotence and Other Mistakes he gives a more extended characterization of it as involving six elements:

(1) God is perfect/absolute.
(2) God is omnipotent in the sense that every other thing depends on Him.
(3) God is omniscient in the sense that He has eternal foreknowledge.
(4) God is immutable and impassible.
(5) Human beings are subjectively immortal.
(6) Infallible revelation is possible.

Regardless of whether one takes it in the narrower or the more extended sense, 'classical theism' necessarily covers a family of related positions, not a single position. And while it encompasses a significant bulk of historical Jewish, Muslim, and Christian theological views, it's worth noting that it does not cover all of them. Likewise, although Hartshorne (rightly) thinks that these positions tend to be attractive to Platonists and Aristotelians, one may legitimately be either Platonist or Aristotelian without being paradigmatically a classical theist -- arguably, for instance, a lot of Aristotelians historically don't strictly accept (3) in the above list in the sense that Hartshorne means. The theological motivation for being a classical theist is the doctrine of creation; if God creates ex nihilo, it is fairly easy to prove that something like (1)-(4) must be true. It's certainly the case that, while it's not mentioned in the above lists, Hartshorne's own view is inconsistent with the doctrine. Precisely one of the principles of process philosophy is that God and World are necessarily complementary; you can't have one without the other. But that is precisely what the doctrine of creation ex nihilo denies.

The preliminary argument for creation ex nihilo is nicely summed up by the great Saadia Gaon in the ninth century: as the world is finite, composite, mutable, and temporal, there is nothing that we can find in it that could possibly give us reason to think it eternal, so it must be created; but nothing can create itself; therefore there must be something uncreated that creates the world, and to be uncreated it must be infinite, noncomposite (simple), immutable, and eternal. I say 'preliminary' because one can throw up any number of arbitrary suppositions to complicate the argument, and because it's not just a matter of a positive philosophical case but involves a negative case, as well, refuting opposing positions, and a purely theological one as well. But the summation of Saadia makes clear the link between creation ex nihilo and what Hartshorne calls 'classical theism'.

Ages ago, when I was an undergraduate and first started arguing these matters with people, the fashionable view in many theological circles was still that God was passible -- that He could suffer, and not in a metaphorical sense. I spent uncountable hours on mailing lists and the like slowly tearing apart arguments that if God were immutable, He could not create, that if God were impassible, He could not love, that if God were not temporal, He could not interact with temporal creation. Refuting the same arguments over and over and over again. Endless quantities of my life that cannot be restored. But even then there was already a reaction brewing, and now, outside of a few places (there are always a few to maintain the reputation of theologians as those people than whom no more stubborn can be thought), it's fairly rare for people to argue directly for divine passibility, in the sense of arguing that divine passibility is some essential precondition for theology. In philosophy, you no longer find many people who will argue for it at all. And while you still occasionally get people raising the same old conundrums about immutability and eternity, they are fewer and fewer.

Ironically, I think Hartshorne is partly responsible for it all. He sometimes called his view 'neoclassical' because, despite thinking that it made some significant mistakes, he actually had a fair amount of respect for the classical theism he was opposing, and thought that some of it needed to be given a clear exposition so that it could be reclaimed in a 'neoclassical' analogue. (Thus, for instance, the thing he is most famous for is making Anselm's argument in the Proslogion a major philosophical topic and no longer something that would be brought up to be dismissed without much analysis.) It was slow going, but he was a cause in making it more acceptable to take the older arguments seriously. And he also took the opposing mutabilist, passibilist view and made it something precise rather than just vague claims about love requiring the ability to suffer. For the first time 'classical theists' had something to argue against, not just a feeling or a bit of question-begging. (In part, he made this possible not just by himself, but by giving other talented process theists, like the Whiteheadian Lewis Ford, a richer set of materials to work with.) He wasn't the only factor, by any means, but I think it can be argued quite directly that he was a contributor.

In any case, because people in analytic philosophy of religion occasionally read Hartshorne, the term 'classical theism' passed from him to them, and became quite common somewhere around the late eighties or early nineties. I think a potential problem with it is that, as I noted above, it's actually a diverse family of theistic views, not a single position, and I think this is sometimes getting lost in discussions today. Perhaps someday it will have to be shed in favor of something less vague. Until then, it's a handy enough term.

Various Links of Interest

* Skholiast interviews R. Kevin Hill on a wide range of topics concerned with Nietzsche.

* Rawad El Skaf, What notion of possibility should we use in assessing scientific thought experiments?

* Adrian Currie and Arnon Levy, Why Experiments Matter

* DarwinCatholic, Scandal and Truth

* Tommy Wiseau as the Joker in The Dark Knight:

It's surprisingly good; his highly erratic acting kinda works here.

* Christopher Jacobs, The Cajun Navy Heads to Help with Hurricane Florence

* Chicken Fried Bacon

Currently Reading

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin
Catharine Trotter Cockburn, Philosophical Writings
Giambattista Vico, Keys to the New Science
Michael G. Sirilla, The Ideal Bishop: Aquinas's Commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles
Lloyd Humberstone, Philosophical Applications of Modal Logic
Jules Verne, In Search of the Castaways

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