Book Review: ‘An Introduction to Metametaphysics’, by Tuomas E. Tahko

An Introduction to Metametaphysics‘, by Tuomas E. Tahko

Cambridge University Press, 266 pp. $29.99

At first glance, the term ‘metametaphysics’ can be a little off-putting. For most folks, the term ‘metaphysics’ is off-putting, and to add an extra ‘meta’ may seem to border on self-parody. For those of a more ‘scientific’ mind or those who view metaphysics with some suspicion (for which there are both good and bad reasons), ‘metametaphysics’ might as well say ‘armarmchair’ speculation. Slightly awkward terminology aside, metametaphysics is actually what those suspicious of metaphysics should be thinking about, and Tahko’s book is a brilliant guide to a broad and often complex topic that anyone, suspicious of metaphysics or not, should read.

Tahko says that this is the first systematic introduction to metametaphysics available, and as far as I can tell he’s completely correct. There are some well known collections of essays as important articles in collected volumes, but to date there has been a lack of systematic introduction. This volume offers just that – and, for someone like me, who wasn’t as familiar with this subject, this is about as good of an intro as I can imagine being written. There’s no unnecessary jargon – there’s definitely some, but it’s kept bearable. The entire volume feels almost conversational, especially since the majority of the text is overview and interaction with various positions. One almost feels as if the book is a conversation with Tahko on the state of metaphysics, and this is definitely a good thing.

The basic goal of the book is, roughly, to look at and discuss just how metaphysics works – the epistemology, methodology, subject matter, etc. Tahko interacts with a substantial number of writers and thinkers in the contemporary metaphysical scene, but by and large, he appears to largely be answering the kind of thinking that is exemplified in Ladyman and Ross’s ‘Every Thing Must Go‘ (head here for a good review), where metaphysics, if it has any role to play at all, is more or less a lackey for the natural sciences, since Ladyman and Ross don’t think that metaphysics contributes to human knowledge at all. Over the course of the book, Tahko does a couple of things: he shows how the assumptions undergirding that particular viewpoint themselves need to be questioned, develops just how metaphysical debates actually happen, and fleshes out the relationship between contemporary metaphysics and the natural sciences.

Significant amounts of time are spent analyzing things such as ontological commitments and existential quantifiers, ontological grounding and dependence, the fundamental levels of reality (if there are any), metaphysical epistemology and the interplay between science and metaphysics. My personal favourite section was on epistemology, where Tahko spends a good deal of time breaking down just how our modal knowledge ‘works’ (a priori? a posteriori? Essentialist? A combination of all these?) Also enjoyable was Tahko’s interaction with the natural sciences – the examples and thought experiments are all clear and demand no prior knowledge of any specific science (even if they do get a bit technical at times).

If you have any familiarity with analytic metaphysics, then this volume should be fairly easy going for you. There’s nothing outrageously technical, though the chapter on ‘grounding’ can at times be fairly heavy going. However, the best feature by far here is the glossary, where nearly every technical term Tahko uses is presented clearly and concisely. While not exhaustive in terms of definitions (the definitions here are a sentence or two at most) it is extremely helpful for someone like me, for whom ‘existential quantifier’ or ‘quantifier variance’ are not everyday terms. For folks who need a quick reference here and there, this is the ideal tool. Not enough philosophy books provide helpful glossaries – kudos to Tahko for providing one.

There isn’t much here in the way of positive metaphysical positions that Tahko defends – though his own sympathies are clear – and that’s what makes this volume so important. Skeptics of metaphysics will come away not learning what hill Tahko has chosen to die on but just how metaphysics and science can learn from each other and just how metaphysics actually ‘works’ and just how (and what) it contributes to knowledge. Proponents of metaphysics will not come away learning why their position is wrong but how to better think about the meta-attitudes (the value of various metaphysical theories, the nature of the disagreements between different branches of philosophy) that they hold explicitly or implicitly and so be able to move forward constructively in metaphysics.

All in all, this is an easy-to-read and much needed systematic introduction and survey of a prominent topic in philosophy. Tahko is a superb guide, and I highly recommend this volume to anyone interested in philosophy, metaphysics or the relation between the sciences and philosophy/metaphysics.

A Rather Simple Concern

This is a post about the doctrine of divine simplicity – or, more precisely, a meta-post on the doctrine of divine simplicity. I’m not going to defend or critique any given model of simplicity (there are plenty of models, critiques and defences) but I’m going to try and unearth that which the doctrine of divine simplicity is concerned with from a theological standpoint. The point here is to identify why one would want to hold to simplicity – in order to move forward in a constructive (or de-constructive) way.

The overall thesis that I want to unearth is that the doctrine of divine simplicity is fundamentally a theological doctrine, and not only a philosophical construct. There is a dialectic and interplay between positive and negative import here. There is positive import because such a doctrine tells us true things about God, what God is, by way of negation. The priority here must be conceded to the negative, however, because my assertion in this post is that though there is positive import for a doctrine of simplicity, it is primarily a negative doctrine. The doctrine of divine simplicity, I’m going to argue, is primarily concerned with guarding against idolatry, and any doctrine of simplicity that isn’t (say, a more purely ‘philosophical’ doctrine) doesn’t fit the parameters for a proper doctrine. I’ll argue also that simplcity is a way of identifying God, and that any way of identifying God is concerned with guarding against idolatry. Stephen Holmes notes that just such an identification lies at the heart of simplicity:

‘”Simplicity” is, traditionally, a central divine attribute that claims God is in no way composite or divided. This conditions the accounts of all the other divine attributes, which are clearly multiple. So we claim that God is variously good, just, loving, omnipotent, eternal, and so on, whereas the doctrine of divine simplicity insists that God is in fact just God…’ (‘Divine Attributes’, in ‘Mapping Modern Theology’, eds. Kapic and McCormack, p. 62)

As I said above, I’m not going to go into the gritty details of every formulation of simplicity. There’s no shortage of books and articles on the topic, but for my money, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s essay on the topic does a lot in the way of clearing up why modern criticisms of the doctrine tend to miss the boat.

In ‘The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas’, Etienne Gilson spends several pages laying out Thomas’s doctrine of simplicity. Aquinas’s doctrine is fairly well known, but Gilson identifies a key point where Aquinas argues that God is not a body:

‘Now, we have shown that God is not composite; He is consequently not a body; and therewith all the idolatrous pagans are refuted who imagined God in a bodily form, as well as the Manicheans and Greek philosophers who substituted celestial bodies for the elements for God.’ (p. 101)

Thus, by identifying God as non-composite and therefore as non-body, idolatry is, if not explicitly, implicitly refuted. However, there is more to simplicity than mere non-composition. Perhaps the most important element is God’s non-contingency, or his not being dependent on anything for his existence, which contrasts sharply with our experience of created being, all of which is contingent and non-necessary. Christopher Franks draws out how Aquinas’s distinction between existence and essence relate to this:

‘Thomas’s fundamental insight into the discontinuity between God and the creature is expressed in his famous rejection of any distinction between existence and essence in God. His point is to shake up our normal assumption that “being” is a sort of given substratum onto which forms are added, bringing perfections with them. Burrell points out that when Aquinas interprets esse in terms of act, essence becomes not the perfecting factor but the limiting factor. Therefore, in Carlo Leget’s words, “esse as actuality contains every possible perfection and the fact that a substance does not possess every perfection must be ascribed to the limitations of its essence”. A reversal is worked here whereby our existence, which appears more sure to us, is confessed to be contingent and fragile in the face of the absolute priority of the existence of God. This does not give us some handle by which to understand God. In fact, by identifying God’s essence with esse as pure act, Thomas excludes the sorts of distinctions we would need to get a grasp on God. But this move does help us see the sort of dependence all beings have on their Creator, and thus it points in the direction of just how radically different God is from any being.’ (‘The Simplicity of the Living God’, p. 279)

This is a clear affirmation of the creature/creator distinction, and we also see that such an affirmation is built into, as it were, the doctrine of simplicity:

‘Using this notion of pure act to specify how God is incomprehensible to us is precisely what Thomas is doing in the discussion of simplicity. For Thomas, simplicity is not an attribute of a being with no distinctions. It is the necessity of denying that any of the distinctions that help us discern created realities can possibly help us when our subject is the One who is the cause of all being. Again, simplicity is a way of ensuring that the One of whom we speak is indeed the prima causa of all things. Something that does not exist, that is not “in act”, cannot bring anything about. Thus, what is only “potential” cannot bring itself about, but must be brought about by something in act. If God has any potency, God would need to be acted on by some other agent, and so would not be the ultimate cause of which Thomas is trying to speak. If this notion of actus purus in all simplicity does help us speak properly of God, then we certainly must confess that everything that is in God is God. But this is, again, simply to guarantee the proper distinction between God and the world, a distinction that reminds us that how our language refers to God remains a mystery to us.’ (p. 279)

Simplicity, then, for Aquinas, is fundamentally concerned with preserving the creature/creator distinction. Franks notes that since for Aquinas God is not a being, ‘God’s simplicity, then, is not the simplicity of a perfect being’ (p. 286). Franks finds an ally here in Karl Barth, who with his ‘wholly other’ way of thinking about God refuses as Aquinas does to map human ideas of simplicity onto God. The absolute qualitative distinction between God and creation prohibits any such idolatrous conceptual mapping. For both Aquinas and Barth, then, the affirmation of simplicity is an affirmation that God is God – and such an affirmation operates on a logic that is keen to guard against any conceptual idolatry.

In her ‘Systematic Theology’, Katherine Sonderegger draws on Aquinas as well in order to guard against idolatry:

‘That which is conceivable, the “intelligible” inhabits the intellect “by essence”, Augustine affirms – that is the force of Augustine’s reflection upon truth residing in the mind when it affirms that which is true. Perhaps unexpectedly, Thomas does not meet this Augustinian position through a direct application of his long-standing objection to a Platonic theory of forms. Rather, Thomas argues simply and profoundly that God cannot dwell in us by essence, for it is only in the blessed that God could so dwell. Death casts a line on this earth between knowledge of God under some form of negation or indirection and the full knowledge of God as He is, by his Essential Oneness. Here we see Thomas taking up the scriptural prohibition against graven image into the doctrine of the knowledge of God, or in the older and fine idiom, the doctrine of divine names.’ (p. 31, emphasis mine)

Sonderegger rightly notes just how radical Aquinas is here:

‘It is important to see how thoroughgoing, how searing Thomas really is here…we see in this article (note: Sonderegger is glossing Q3 A5) how Thomas has taken to heart Scripture’s absolute prohibition on image, likeness and form, to idols of all kinds. Those who imagine that Thomas works in some thrall to “Greek metaphysics” have not reckoned fully with this article, for here he takes up the conceptual language of metaphysics in order to set it aside, to purge and purify it.’ (p. 32)

Simplicity is, then, according to Aquinas, Gilson, Franks, Barth and Sonderegger, a smashing of the conceptual idols. If God is God, and if divine simplicity is a way of stating that God is God, then the doctrine of divine simplicity is concerned with guarding against any and all graven images, conceptual or otherwise. Simplicity draws out the radical distinction between God and creation in order guard against predicating mere human concepts of God. Perhaps I can even be a little more radical here. I stated in the opening of this post that any doctrine of simplicity that wasn’t concerned with guarding against idolatry would fall short of the criterion for a proper doctrine of simplicity. But we can see now that any doctrine of simplicity that isn’t fundamentally concerned with guarding against idolatry is, itself, a form of idolatry.


Book Review: ‘T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation’, eds. Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell

T.F. Torrance and Eastern Orthodoxy: Theology in Reconciliation‘, eds. Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell

Wipf & Stock, 360 pp. $33.60

With any luck, if you’re reading this blog, T.F. Torrance doesn’t need any introduction, but I’ll do a quick one anyway. Torrance was, quite simply, ‘the man’. That should suffice, I think.

Torrance’s proficiency in church history, philosophy, science and theology is well known, but if there was one thing that stands out about him, it’s his ecumenical work, and it’s that particular aspect of his accomplishments with which I am least familiar, so for me, this was a quite a fun learning experience.

This is an important volume, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a collection of substantial, critical, appreciative and respectful engagement. There has been lots of engagement with Torrance, but to have a single book with so much engagement is, to me pretty significant. Second, it’s critical. While it’s appreciative, it points out some serious issues in Torrance, ranging from theological to scientific. For my money, it’s this aspect that is the most important, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

At 360 pages, and covering most of the issues Torrance is well known for, I’ll refrain from writing a summary of each individual essay and concentrate on a few broad factors that make this volume so important. Right off the bat, the third chapter by Jason Radcliffe, ‘T.F. Torrance and Reformed-Orthodox Dialogue’, gets my endorsement as the most useful chapter. Radcliffe gives you the cliffenotes version of a huge effort at reconciliation and dialogue, sketching broadly the major issues, such as divergence over which early Fathers are the most important, essence/energy, Augustine and Augustinianism, and the ‘Athanasius-Cyril axis’. Chock full of references to correspondences, official minutes and other sources, this essay is worth its weight in gold for a concise but thorough lay of the land.

There are two factors that get at what, to me anyway, form the crux on which so much of Torrance’s theology turns: his interpretation of Athanasius and his scientific realism. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Torrance’s theology stands or falls on his interpretation of Athanasius, and it’s just this interpretation that is criticized sharply by Vladimir Cvetković in his essay, ‘T.F. Torrance as an Interpreter of Athanasius’. You’ll have to read the book for the full story, but the main points of the critique are roughly this: Torrance’s insistence on the importance of the homoousios and perichoresis for Athanasius is not supported by the actual data, at least not in the way Torrance wants it to be (Cvetković notes that while Torrance wants the terms to apply to the relationship between the Father and the Son and the relations within the Trinity, for Athanasius the term is used to describe the relationship between the Son and the Father). Cvetković also notes that the terms were developed significantly after Athanasius’s death. The case is thus made that Torrance was reading these more developed terms back into Athanasius. This is, as far as Torrance’s theology goes, no small assertion.

The second factor, Torrance’s scientific realism, has both substantial as well as methodological import. Torrance’s realist method, argues Stoyan Tanev, in ‘The Concept of Energy in T.F. Torrance and in Orthodox Theology’, led him to oppose (what he took to be) everything dualistic, whether in physics, theology, or philosophy. His realist method formed the backbone of his scathing criticism of the ‘Latin Heresy‘, his rejection of the Orthodox distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies (this essay is also helpful) as well as his distrust of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. In all of these Torrance saw the same destructive dualism at work. Tanev astutely notes that, in the area of physics, Torrance’s commitment to realism as he saw in Einstein put him at odds with the latest developments in physics. Tanev traces this to a deep but ultimately narrow engagement with physics, a result of which is Torrance’s misunderstanding of the Copenhagen interpretation (as was held by, for example, Bohr), and shows how a sympathetic understanding of Copenhagen can actually be more ‘realist’ than Torrance’s own brand of realism. The fundamental issue here is that the dualism which Torrance saw himself in perpetual struggle against is more a dualism of his own making than a dualism-in-fact. This, to reiterate, is no small assertion.

These three essays are for me the most important. The close critical engagement brings out some potentially serious issues and defects in Torrance’s thought at the level of material as well as method – which, if Torrance is to have any relevance for theology today, is exactly the kind of engagement that needs to happen, as well as showing just how the dialogue can move forward. By concentrating sustained criticism on the two most central aspects of Torrance’s though, we are left with both a clearer vision of Torrance’s own theological contributions as well as a clearer way in which to reflect upon the issues with which Torrance was concerned. And these are surely issues worth reflecting clearly on.

While these three are the standouts, there are several honorable mentions (and let me state for the record that every essay is top-shelf). Perhaps the most constructive is Donald Fairbain’s fleshing out of Torrance’s understanding of justification in Cyril of Alexandria – which is a paragon of close exegetical work, especially considering that Torrance himself never wrote at any great length on this subject (it’s noted that Torrance actually only referenced this once in writing in a very quick sidebar). Taylor Carr’s comparison of Torrance and the Orthodox theologian Dumitru Stăniloae on the subject of the rationality of the universe was also delightful, since this was my first engagement with Stăniloae in any way. I also found Mark Mourichian’s essay on the realism of Torrance and St. Ephrem the Syrian fascinating – tracing out similarities in the thought of such distant figures is no easy task, and Mourachian fleshes out quite nicely the importance of realism in both figures. The debate between Torrance and Zizioulas on the divine monarchy makes an appearance in an essay by Nikolaos Asproulis, which gets at the one of the most important theological debates Torrance engaged in. Of no small value is the amount of primary sources – correspondences between Georges Florovsky and two pieces by Torrance on the Orthodox Church really bring home just how committed to ecumenicism Torrance was. As I said above, it was this aspect of Torrance that I knew the least, and the extent to which he put himself into the ecumenical effort is just staggering.

I really have nothing but good things to say about this volume. Even in you didn’t care about Torrance, this book is filled to the brim with serious, scholarly theology – methodological, dogmatic and practical – and charitable, constructive and critical engagement. But, of course, you do care about Torrance – so go out and get this book. You’ll be glad you did.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

Against Narrativity

In a fascinating essay, ‘Art and the Moral Realm’, Noël Carroll argues that art is a valuable component of our moral reflection, and he argues that in particular narrative works of art shape our moral reflection in a unique and profound sense. This is so primarily because we have to see or configure our lives as narrative in order for them to have any significance:

‘…to answer the question of whether our life is worthy, we need a holistic sense of it, and that holistic sense is best captured by narrative – an incomparable device for organizing or colligating or collecting the diversity of our experiences into a unity. To see our lives as significant requires at least an ability to configure them as meaningful stories. But whence do we learn the skill of rendering or configuring our lives as meaningful narrative?’ (‘Art and the Moral Realm’, in ‘The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics’, p. 133)

The answer to this question Carroll finds in the exposure to other narratives, bildungroman, where we learn how to best how to configure our lives into a meaningful unity:

‘…mindful exposure to sophisticated life narratives communicates to us the knack of how to begin to tell our own life stories, if only to ourselves, and, in that way, they augment our capacity to find holistic significance in what otherwise  may feel like the rush of one god-damned, desultory thing after another.’ (p. 134)

The main point here is that Carroll sees that meaning can be had only if we see our lives as a narrative unity. Thus, as far as the moral realm is concerned, narrative unity has a logical priority over ethics, because without narrative unity, there can be no ethical unity or formation. Carroll’s logic looks something like this:

Narrative —-> meaning —-> ethics

The obvious implied negative here is that if one doesn’t configure their life into a narrative unity, one is living at the very least an ethically defective life.

Galen Strawson disputes all this. In two essays, one popular and one technical, Strawson argues that:

‘…it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing. These are not universal human truths – even when we confine our attention to human beings who count as psychologically normal, as I will here. They’re not universal human truths even if they’re true of some people, or even many, or most. The narrativists are, at best, generalising from their own case, in an all-too-human way. At best: I doubt that what they say is an accurate description even of themselves.’ (from his popular essay. The following references will all come from the technical essay)

Strawson identifies two claims involving narrative, one descriptive and one ethical. The former he identifies as a description of the nature and structure of human experience, and the second is a ethical and normative claim, that we ought to live our lives narrative-ly.  So the former is, then an empirical, psychological thesis and the latter a normative ethical thesis. If we apply this to Carroll’s logic above, we can see that if the psychological thesis is false, then the ethical thesis folds.

Strawson argues more against the reductive nature of narrativity – that is, the idea that only as a narrative can life be lived meaningfully. He draws a distinction between two kinds of experience or structures of experience: diachronic and episodic:

‘The basic form of Diachronic self-experience is that [D] one naturally figures oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in
the (further) future
– something that has relatively long-term diachronic continuity, something that persists over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life. I take it that many people are naturally Diachronic, and that many who are Diachronic are also Narrative in their outlook on

If one is Episodic, by contrast,

[E] one does not figure oneself, considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further) past and will be there in the (further) future.

One has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the(further) past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being. Episodics are likely to have no particular
tendency to see their life in Narrative terms.’

A second key move is made by Strawson in his unpacking of the term ‘self’ or ‘myself’ or ‘I’ in terms of the Episodic life:

‘I will use ‘I*’ to represent: that which I now experience myself to be when I’m apprehending myself specifically as an inner mental presence or self. ‘I*’ comes with a large family of cognate forms – ‘me*’, ‘my*’, ‘you*’ ‘oneself *’, ‘themselves*’, and so on. The metaphysical presumption built into these terms is that they succeed in making genuine reference to an inner mental something that is reasonably called a ‘self’. But it doesn’t matter whether or not the presumption is correct.’

Strawson concludes events in his remote past didn’t happen to Strawson’s self* but to Strawson as a human being as a whole, as a biological and physical entity with a history (I find this specific part of his thesis puzzling).

Strawson then moves to the Narrative life, drawing on Charles Taylor, Daniel Dennett and Alasdair MacIntyre (among others). MacIntyre Strawson sees as arguing that in order to live the good life as a narrative quest, which mirrors closely Carroll’s thesis above. This cashes out roughly to the seeking of the good life requiring a narrative outlook on life – in other words, no good life without a narrative life.  Strawson, of course, does not accept this:

‘Is any of this true? I don’t think so. It seems to me that MacIntyre, Taylor and all other supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis are really just talking about themselves. It may be that what they are saying is true for them, both psychologically and ethically. This may be the best ethical project that people like themselves can hope to engage in. But even if it is true for them it is not true for other types of ethical personality, and many are likely
to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling, and that we have here yet another deep divider of the human race.’

Strawson’s overall position thus far is this: the ethical narrativity thesis is false, and the psychological thesis is false in any non-trivial sense. He then links the narrative ‘attitude’ to the idea of construction – that is, the narrative attitude consists in more then just conceptualizing one’s life as a sequence of events structured in a narrative patter. The narrative attitude consists in a construal of one’s life as a narrative, grounded in what Strawson calls ‘form-finding’ (F), which is the tendency to seek and construct patterns in one’s life (Strawson holds that F doesn’t entail narrativity – one can engage in F without being psychologically narrative). Under the heading of F Strawson includes ‘storytelling’, which is where He finds, to my mind, the most serious criticism of the narrative thesis (he doesn’t think its as serious as I do, I should note), the revision thesis:

‘According to the revision thesis Narrativity always carries with it some sort of tendency to revision, where revision essentially involves more merely than changing one’s view of the facts of one’s life.’

Now, I think that, coupled with some other considerations, the revision thesis is damning for the ethical narrative thesis. However, the overall question here remains this: is narrative the only way in which people can live non-ethically deficient lives? The answer appears to be ‘no’. Empirically, it is quite easy to imagine people (and Strawson draws from Shaftesbury and Montainge here) who have no concept of their life as a narrative – which is enough to make us doubt if not reject the empirical, psychological narrative thesis. Strawson is worth quoting at length here:

‘The aspiration to explicit Narrative self-articulation is natural for some – for some, perhaps, it may even be helpful – but in others it is highly unnatural and ruinous. My guess is that it almost always does more harm than good – that the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature. It’s well known that telling and retelling one’s past leads to changes, smoothings, enhancements, shifts away from the facts, and recent research has shown that this is not just a human psychological foible. It turns out to be an inevitable consequence of the mechanics of the neurophysiological process of laying down memories that every studied conscious recall of past events brings an alteration.46 The implication is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. Some are constantly telling their daily experiences to others in a storying way and with great gusto. They are drifting ever further off the truth. Others never do this, and when they are obliged to convey facts about their lives they do it clumsily and uncomfortably and in a way that is somehow essentially narrative-resistant.

Certainly Narrativity is not a necessary part of the ‘examined life’ (nor is Diachronicity), and it is in any case most unclear that the examined life, thought by Socrates to be essential to human existence, is always a good thing. People can develop and deepen in valuable ways without any sort of explicit, specifically Narrative reflection, just as musicians can improve by practice sessions without recalling those sessions. The business of living well is, for many, a completely non-Narrative project. Granted that certain sorts of self-understanding are necessary for a good human life, they need involve nothing more than form-finding, which can exist in the absence of Narrativity; and they may be osmotic, systemic, not staged in consciousness.’

We have every reason, then, to doubt (contra Caroll above) that to live a good and meaningful and ethical life requires one to live their life as a narrative. In fact, those non-narrativists may just be in a place to live a more ethical life, given the considerations above. I’ll quote Strawson in conclusion (and at this point, with all my quoting, you hardly even need to go read his essays, but you should, of course):

‘There is one sense in which Episodics are by definition more located in the present than Diachronics, so far as their self-experience is concerned, but it does not follow, and is not true, that Diachronics are less present in the present moment than Episodics, any more than it follows, or is true, that in the Episodic life the present is somehow less informed by or responsible to the past than it is in the Diachronic life. What is true is that the informing and the responsiveness have different characteristics and different experiential consequences in the two cases. Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it.’

Sondergger vs. Barth on the Sinlessness of Christ

In her contribution to ‘Theological Theology: Essays in Honour of John Webster‘, ‘The Sinlessness of Christ’, Katherine Sonderegger looks at a variety of ways of thinking about the doctrine non posse peccare. In its own right it’s a fantastic essay, focusing primarily on Aquinas, with a glance at liberation theology as well as patristic theology. She also sketches out her own approach which closely follows the classical accounts (namely, that Christ did not and could not sin), which she develops in light of and against Karl Barth and Edward Irving’s understanding of Christ’s assumption of fallen human flesh. It seems to me, though, that her own approach is marred by a serious misreading of Barth, and it’s on this specific aspect of her essay that I want to focus on.

Sonderegger gets a good deal of Barth right. However, the misstep occurs when she equates the assumption of fallen flesh, as Barth conceives it, with the possibility of sinning, even though Christ didn’t in fact sin. Sonderegger pegs this idea as disrupting the unity of the hypostatic union, which is a serious error for any christological doctrine to commit, especially for a christology so relentlessly committed to the hypostatic union as Barth’s. I’ll quote her at length:

‘Should we assume this new maxim of our day, that Christ could have sinned – indeed as a child of Adam bore sin in his flesh – but in fact did not…Christ cannot sin because the bare possibility of it – posse peccare – is the possibility, ex hypothesi – of the human nature of Christ going its own way, seeking its own end, joining in the rebellion against God. The personal unity of such a Christ can only mirror the obedience of Adam and Eve: it is good, we might say, as far as it goes. But we do not seek an amalgam of this sort in Christology! What we can break apart is fragile, whether riven apart in the end or no.’ (pp. 274-275)

The logic appears to go something like this: (1) Christ assumed fallen flesh (2) to assume fallen flesh to assume the possibility of either sinning or not sinning (3) Christ either could have sinned or not sinned (4) thus the unity of the person of Christ is threatened, even if it in fact did not occur. The correction she offers is after the manner of Cyril of Alexandria: Sonderegger argues that Christ experienced suffering perfectly, and was born into a perfect reconciliation with God, instead of, as she sees Barth, healing and redeeming and reconciling the humanity over the whole course of his life.

Sonderegger’s logic is tight enough so far as it goes, except that Barth says nearly the exact opposite when it comes to Christ’s sinlessness. There’s a lot of material on this in the Church Dogmatics, but to my mind the most immediately applicable text is from IV.2, which I’ll quote (again, at length):

‘We may indeed say that the grace of the origin of Jesus Christ means the basic exaltation of His human freedom to its truth, i.e., obedience in whose exercise it is not super-human but true human freedom.

From this point it can be understood as the grace of the sinlessness of His human essence. This, too, is a grace – a determination of the human essence of the Son of God from the fact that it has existence in Him alone, that it is actual only in the Son of Man.

“Without sin” means that in our human and sinful existence as a man He did not sin. He did not become guilty of the transgression which we in our human essence commit. He bore an alien guilt, the guilt of all men, without any guilt of His own. He made our human essence His own even in its corruption, but He did not repeat or affirm its inward contradiction. He opposed to it a superior contradiction. He overcame it in His own person when He became man. And we can and must say that He overcame it at the deepest level by not refusing to accomplish the humiliation of the Son of God to be not only a creature but a sinful creature…the sinlessness of Jesus was not a condition of His being as a man, but the human act of His life working itself out in this way from its human origin.

He did not sin, because from this origin He lived as a man in this true human freedom – the freedom for obedience – not knowing any other freedom…Because and as He was man only as Son of God, it was excluded from the choice of his acts. In virtue of this origin of His being, He was unable to choose it. Therefore He did not choose it. And He did not do it…it is not really of necessity, but only in fact, that human nature wills to sin, and does sin, and therefore can sin. We are in self-contradiction in this capacity, in our posse peccare. It is not our genuine freedom, our liberum, but only our servum arbitrium, that we choose evil…we do not act freely but only as those “possessed”, when we do wrong…thus the man Jesus does not transcend the limits of the humanity common to Him and us, or become alien to us, when in His acceptance of human essence even in its perversion He does not repeat the perversion or do wrong, when in virtue of His origin He cannot will or do it. He is just what we are and how we are. The only difference is that He is it in genuine human freedom.’ (pp. 92-93)

When Barth is taken on his own terms, the force of Sonderegger’s criticism all but evaporates. Barth’s own logic is far more subtle than Sonderegger’s on this point, since (and the enhypostatic/anhypostatic distinction is surely in play here implicitly) for Barth, it is because of the hypostatic union that Christ is unable to sin. It is not a case of two natures, one divine and one human, each with the possibility of ‘doing their own thing’. He truly is human, and to be truly and humanly free is to be unable to sin, since that it is only out of its origin in the Son of Man and not out of its own being that the human essence of Christ has any being at all. Far from rendering the unity of the person of Christ a frail construct, Barth is seen to have, on the basis of the unity, affirmed a strong doctrine of the non posse peccare. 

Book Review: ‘The Holy Trinity – God for God and God For Us: Seven Positions on the Immanent-Economic Trinity Relation in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology’

The Holy Trinity – God for God and God For Us: Seven Positions on the Immanent-Economic Trinity Relation in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology‘, by Chung-Hyun Baik

Pickwick Publications, 234 pp. $20.80

The debate surrounding the immanent/economic Trinity is a hot topic right, and will, in all likelihood, continue to be a hot topic for some time.  Chung-Hyun Baik gives us with this volume a solid lay-of-the-land of the contemporary scene with the goal of providing a constructive ay to move past current impasses. Seven positions are examined by way of eleven contemporary theologians: Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Jenson, Leonardo Boff, William Norman Pittenger, Joseph A. Bracken, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki,Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Jung Young Lee.

The book is broken up into six chapters, the first of which is centered on ontology, epistemology and mystery in the contemporary debate. Here a brief look is given at these three topics within the contexts of biblical theology, philosophical theology, systematic theology and historical theology. Some well-known names such as Barth, Rahner, Kant, Grenz, Lossky, Jungel all make appearances here as well as Baik fleshes out the extent to which Trinitarian theology has become the focal point of theological reflection and engagement.

The second chapter focuses on historical and theological contexts, giving an overview of epistemology and ontology in the western tradition. Beginning with presocratics and moving through Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Husserl and tackling Heidegger, Levinas, Foucalt and Derrida in one swoop, Baik gives us a genealogy of movement of ontology to epistemology to post/anti-metaphysical ideas.

The following section (within the same chapter) follows the development of the ideas of the immanent/expressed Logos, processions/missions, dispensation, economy, energy and immanent/economic. Baik takes us through the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertrullian and Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine) as well as Aquinas as he traces the development and use of the various terms through the thought of the above mentioned figures.

The third chapter is where Baik focuses on the meat of the book: the immanent/economic distinction. This chapter focuses on Barth’s’ mutual correspondence’, Rahner’s ‘identity’, Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson’s ‘eschatalogical unity’, and the positions of each regarding the immanent/economic distinction is clearly, concisely and accessibly laid out. No new ground is broken here – this is just exposition, and the critical analysis comes later – and readers familiar with the various theologies under discussion won’t find much new here.

The fourth chapter follows the same pattern as the third, giving a clear and concise layout of the positions of Boff and Pittenger’s ‘much more than’, Bracken’s ‘immersing’, Suchocki and LaCugna’s ‘absorbing’ and Lee’s ‘mutual inclusiveness’. For me, at any rate, there was a lot here I wasn’t familiar with – actually, most of these names I was familiar with in passing only, so I personally learned a great deal from this section. Baik is admirably clear in his writing, and for someone not well-versed in much of the content as well as the form of the theologians in this chapter, this was an enjoyable learning experience.

Chapter five is comprised of critical discussions of each of the seven positions, focusing on the use each position makes of ontology, epistemology, and mystery. The main critique that Baik levels at each (you’ll have to read the book for the juicy details) is that each positions places ontology and epistemology in the foreground, while invoking mystery only when a tension arises between ontology/epistemology.

This criticism forms the basis for the sixth and final chapter, where Baik develops a more constructive use for the category of mystery in Trinitarian theology. Baik sees contemporary uses of mystery as being restricted only or primarily to God the Father, and seeks via biblical exegesis to build a concept of mystery centered on Jesus Christ, placing mystery in the foreground of our theological reflection on the immanent/economic as opposed to placing ontology and epistemology in the foreground.

Here I’ll identify three issues that I had with this volume. The first problem is that the historical excurses are far too brief – the presocratics, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, Husserl and all the others each get on average half a paragraph, and while they are accurate half-paragraphs, can justice really be done in such a small space? Given that, after they are mentioned, they are never brought up or interacted with again, I would have preferred Baik to eliminate these excurses entirely and expand on the historical/theological excurses instead, which is some of the strongest writing in the volume.

The second issue I see is that while the expositions, as I said, are clear, concise and tight, the critical analysis is somewhat weaker, and, at times, feels a little bit unbalanced. Barth, for example, is subjected to multiple pages of what seems to me to be fairly hair-splitting criticism (Baik argues that for Barth, an ontological dualism arises between the immanent/economic, when Baik’s own exposition of Barth makes it clear that the immanent has a logical and epistemic priority over the economic, not an ontological), whereas Moltmann and Lee are more or less simply affirmed or exposited again with little substantial critical analysis. It’s not made exactly clear in these cases just what tension Baik sees in Moltmann and Lee, though he asserts that there are.

My third and final criticism has to do with Baik’s own constructive proposals. His entire proposal take up a bare ten pages, and despite some interesting exegesis (which itself is just shy of one page), does very little to let us know what the actual proposal is in any concrete or specific terms. We are told, for example, that a concept of mystery needs to be determinative of our ontology and epistemology – but that’s all we are told. Even with Baik’s exegetical move of locating mystery within Christ as opposed to the Father (which seems to me to be a case of overcorrection – surely God the Father can retain some mystery), he never really says what his proposal would look like in action. Baik maintains that we have to uphold the distinction and unity within and between the immanent and economic, but all Baik has done is present critiques of various other ways of holding these tensions together without showing exactly how we should be holding them together.

Overall, this is a solid overview of the contemporary debate over the immanent and economic Trinity. Baik is superb on the development of theological ideas in the early fathers and Aquinas, and gives clear, concise and fair readings of the major theologians and their positions. Despite the three shortcomings I identified, this is worthy volume for anyone looking to learn the ins and outs of one of the more heated debates in modern theology.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

Emergentism and the Problem of Psychological States

Emergence in the philosophy of mind is one of the more popular positions on the contemporary philosophical scene, and I myself have strong sympathies towards it. I’ve considered it to be one of the very rare philosophical doctrines that gives appropriate weight to both philosophical as well as scientific ideas – an example being John Searle’s commitment to seeing consciousness and the mind in general as biological phenomenon (I’m not a naturalist myself but I do think his heart is in the right place.

In his outstanding book ‘Mind, Matter and Nature: A Thomistic Proposal for the Philosophy of Mind‘, James D. Madden identifies a serious problem for emergentism (drawing primarily on Searle as a general example of emergentism – there are plenty of different varieties, but Searle is helpful as a catch-all here)): the emergence of simple, subjective psychological states (he actually doesn’t see this as the main problem for emergentism – he takes the universal structure of thought to be the main problem – but I actually think this is a devastating objection).

Here’s the background. Madden identifies two ways in which we can give an account of something ’emerging’: either structurally or quantitatively:

‘First, consider a simple box composed of five sheets of plywood and some wood screws. Suppose that once constructed this box is used as a storage container for a basketball. Neither the sheets of plywood nor the screws have the power of containing a basketball independently of their composing a box, so the power of containment is an emergent feature…consider the example of a choir of small children. Each child sings quite softly, but the choir they compose is quite loud. This too might be a case of emergence, but it isn’t a result of the structural relation among the children or their voices…the properties of being loud is contained to a lesser degree in each of the parts of the system.’ (pp. 183-184)

Psychological states emerge in one of these two ways: either (1) structurally or (2) quantitatively. Psychological states are metaphysically simple (they can’t be broken down into smaller or more fundamental parts, and, following Searle, conscious states are irreducibly subjective and have a first-person ontology. So, then, here’s the first problem that Madden sees (and it should be noted that Madden sees this as the least serious problem – on his account, an emergentist could grant this objection and not suffer any serious loss): psychological states cannot emerge structurally because of their simplicity:

‘…one simply cannot derive metaphysical simplicity from complexity. At least as a matter of common sense, nobody doubts that a complex thing can come to be through the combination of distinct parts, but the issue here is whether something utterly simple could come to by combination. It seems that the various parts would have to make distinct contributions to the emergent entity, so there would be some division or distinction within such a thing; that is, the aspect or part of the simple entity to which constituent x contributes would be distinguishable from the aspect or part to which constituent y contributes.’ (p.186)

The second, and to my mind more serious, problem, is that given the definition of psychological states as irreducibly subjective – and for Searle, this is an almost absolute, qualitative distinction between conscious states and everything else – it’s almost impossible to see just how such states could emerge. Madden, drawing on Galen Strawson, points out that every analogy for emergence that’s typically used is a homogeneous analogy – water from H20 particles, magnetic fields, teams from players, etc. What is key here is that each of these emergentees/emergent properties is a quantitative emergence. Each of these things has, as it were, a potential for the emergent relation because the emergent entity/property isn’t qualitatively different from the emergent base. Madden points out the difficulty here:

‘…by Searle’s own admission such states (psychological states) have a property, that is, first-person perspective, that is utterly foreign to all of our concepts of ordinary physical objects; consciousness and ordinary physical objects certainly seem to be the most heterogeneous types of phenomena possible (they are fundamentally different kinds of phenomena): “The experiential/non-experiential [conscious/unconscious] divide, assuming that it exists at all, is the most fundamental divide in nature,” so to say that psychological states can emerge from neurophysiological states based on analogies proposed by Searle is rather strained. In none of the supposed cases of emergence are we dealing with radically heterogeneous phenomena, but that is exactly what we find in the consciousness/nonconsciousness case.’ (p.188)

The dilemma here is this: if (1) is the case, that is, if emergence is just a structural feature, then we can’t account for the simplicity of psychological states. Supposing we grant (1): if (2) is the case, we cannot account for the qualitative difference between consciousness and nonconsciousness. If we bite the bullet for (2) we are forced into pansychism – where everything has the potential for consciousness – or brute emergence, and if we opt for brute emergence, then (a) anything could be said to be emergent from anything if they were closely enough related and (b) brute facts would become a kind of deus ex machina or magic bullet. Taken on their own, (1) and (2) aren’t necessarily decisive, but taken together with the definition of psychological states (which seems to be a solid enough definition) there are serious problems here for an emergent account of psychological states.