Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Indeterminate, overdeterminate?

In my Louvain philosophy days, I had the pleasure of taking a class, "Philosophy of God", by William Desmond, an unabashedly Catholic philosopher finely attuned to postmodern sensibilities and whose books bespeak an Irish poet's heart as much as they do a mind full of breadth and depth rivaling the Greeks. That might sound like a lot of blustering, but Desmond is something else. I'm not always certain that even he is always aware of the landscape of his own thoughts; he is not what one would call an analytic philosopher. But by golly, if an analytic philosopher had a problem with Desmond, it would be more like that he simply didn't understand, rather than that he would ever catch William in an actual contradiction. Sometimes I wonder whether Desmond has this in common with John Paul II--whether his writings contain the purest of truth like ore in a mine, too coarse and heavy for practical consumption, but if processed into convenient coins (such as Christopher West has done with "Theology of the Body", God bless him) would lose its more subtle value.

One of the distinctions Desmond made in the class, and that he makes in his books, is between speaking of God as "indeterminate" and as "overdeterminate". The error of speaking of God as "indeterminate" is the implication that the question of God languishes because of a hung jury and a certain poverty of evidence. One may easily--and positivists often do--speak of God as "indeterminate" in exactly the same voice with which they speak of aliens, the loch ness monster, big foot, and the living Elvis Presley. In fact, such indeterminacy is exactly the core of Richard Dawkins' atheism.
A friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew who observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity, describes himself as a Tooth Fairy Agnostic. He will not call himself an atheist because it is in principle impossible to prove a negative. But "agnostic" on its own might suggest that he though God's existence or non-existence equally likely. In fact, though strictly agnostic about god, he considers God's existence no more probable than the Tooth Fairy's.

Bertrand Russell used a hypothetical teapot in orbit about Mars for the same didactic purpose. You have to be agnostic about the teapot, but that doesn't mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as being on all fours with its non-existence.

The list of things about which we strictly have to be agnostic doesn't stop at tooth fairies and celestial teapots. It is infinite. If you want to believe in a particular one of them -- teapots, unicorns, or tooth fairies, Thor or Yahweh -- the onus is on you to say why you believe in it. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why we do not. We who are atheists are also a-fairyists, a-teapotists, and a-unicornists, but we don't' have to bother saying so. *
Desmond grants, as any Christian grants, there is no determining of the question of God. Indeed, the very thought is a contradiction; de-termining, to have reached the end, the limit, the boundary; and having done so, speaking from that position. No doubt the word is very authoritative sounding. But to call something incidentally indeterminate is no great scandal. Science can't even determine whether redheads feel more pain or less pain than other people; it shouldn't arrogate to write a textbook on the Almighty.

Yet secularists of an evangelical strain see that the question of God is, as AJ Ayer would put it, nonsense in the most literal, and thus also the fuller meaning of that word. Theists, incidentally, agree. They just don't see why such niggling facts should stop them.

Anyway, the term "overdeterminate", as best as I understand, grants that God is nonsense, but takes a thoughtful stab as to why. It is not the "not-enoughness" of God, but the "too-muchness" of God. The intellect, like a man stranded on an island, dies equally from thirst as from a Tsunami. And it is precisely that God explodes so over-completely above and beyond and over, not only what we know, but what and why we are, that determinations are impossible, de jure.

To translate this analytically, the notion is really quite simple. Every science (in the broad sense of the word) is grounded by principles that lie outside of its purvue. Each science cannot question its own principle; it can only presuppose it. The historian cannot use the tools of history, no matter how vast they be, to examine whether history is true.

Well, extending this notion by analogy, the principle of everything is of its very nature outside of anything's ability to speak of it. Once we have gotten this far, there is nothing left in speakable nature to appeal to; nothing left available to pry the unspeakable loose from its awful necessity.

One might accuse me of saying too much about the thing I'm calling unspeakable, and to a certain extent they're right--I know as well as any theologian who takes the Thomistic oath that our words are offensive nonsense compared to God. But the thing about the unspeakable is that, for small systems as well as the System, the Universe as a whole, that the unspeakable is, is beyond question.
By conceiving God, who always exceeds our reach, as the horizon presupposed in the movement of knowing, freedom and love, Rahner provided a way for talking and thinking about God as "mysterious," that is to say, as a reality who is known, but only reflexively and indirectly—and perhaps not even consciously—as the ever receding horizon of the human spirit. *
So, Desmond's point is that God is as much the "ever advancing" horizon of the human spirit, as the "ever receding"; a horizon not so much as a line in the distance as the ground underneath our feet or the whatever beyond being and non-being. That is the over-determinacy of God.


Yet what a friend of mine is mentally wrestling with right now is not so much the language of indeterminacy vs. overdeterminacy, as the business of the "hyper-real" of John Caputo.

For by allowing this name [of God] to fluctuate in all its undecidability and provocativeness, by releasing it from its servitude to being in order to free it as a promise, we free it from its service as the name of a res, even the most real of all real beings, but we do not deny thereby that it has any reference to reality at all. Rather, we enlist it in the service of a certain 'hyper-reality,' reality of the beyond, the reality of the hyper- or ueber. Accordingly, weak theology takes the form neither of theological realism nor of anti-realism, but of a magnifying hyper-realism of the event, one whose passion and existential intensity are correspondingly magnified by this very undecidability. By this hyper-realism I mean the excess of the promise, of the call, of the endless provocation of an event that calls us beyond ourselves, down unplotted paths and into unexplored lands, calling us to go where we cannot go, extending us beyond our reach. Hyper-reality reaches beyond the real to the not-yet-real, what eye has not yet seen nor ear yet heard, in the open-endedness of an uncontainable, unconstrictable, undeconstructible event. - "The Weakness of God, 11-12" Emphases mine.

My stomach needs to settle a little bit before I continue...


If Caputo were making the relatively banal point that God is, in a certain sense, nothing; i.e., no-thing, (and is thereby released from "servitude to being"), this would be a nice intro to a 10th grade theology textbook. But for Caputo it is a crass superstition to suggest that God might ever reach beneath the beyond; even all of his works must be "freed" from the messy and mucky business of historically conditioned "being" (yuck!) He has a Buddhist reverence for the sheer Otherness of the Other, the "uncontainable, unconstrictable, undeconstructible event". And so, I suggest, Caputo makes himself even more pious than God; for it was always God, and never Caputo, who thought that being was worthwhile enough for divinity to inhabit.

What is not assumed is not redeemed; if God and God's works are quarantined by the "hyper-real", then the merely real has none of the hope that Caputo promises.

Thus today we stand somewhat baffled before this Christian "revelation" and wonder, especially when we compare it with the religiosity of Asia, whether it would not have been much simpler to believe in the Mysterious Eternal, entrusting ourself to it in longing [Caputoian?] thought; whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance; whether it would not really be easier to ascend out of the world and hear the eternally unfathomable secret in quiet contemplation than to give oneself up to the positivism of belief in one single figure and to set the salvation of man and of the world on the pinpoint, so to speak, of this one chance moment in history. - Ratzinger, "Introduction to Christianity" 55

Whether overdeterminate or indeterminate, the question Caputo refuses to ask or answer is whether the determinate - that is, us, our history, our particularity, our ordinariness - has a value of its own that God, the overdeterminate, has himself glorified in Jesus Christ. So far as this goes I believe it is not helpful to draw a sharp distinction between the Resurrection and the other miracles of Christ, as between the "important thing" and the "not so important things". All, together, are bound up in a singular mystery that the Infinite being not only permitted finite being to exist; Infinite being breaks into finite being. It does so in ways that certainly do not rob infinite being of its infinity (its hyper-reality), yet which do not leave finite beings unchanged or unsaved.

Believing in miracles is of one piece with believing in salvation. God bless the determinate.


Br. Thomas said...

Well done, Jeff.

I'm reading Marion's Idol and Distance and he's talking about Heidegger's description of the 'onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics.' This was a central part of my Leuven studies and I think I am now beginning to understand it.

The problem with metaphysics is not that it thinks of Being and beings and their relationship to each other as ground and grounding. The problem, at least for Marion, comes when one makes a simple equation between the Being of metaphysics with 'what everyone calls God.' It's not true, not everyone calls God the Prime Mover or Causa Sui or Ens Realissimum.

These metaphysical concepts are good and grand, but are they God? I think we too easily (everyone, by virtue of our language, as Heidegger laments) equate Being with God. A God who is Being, hence metaphysical, is no longer a God before whom one may dance and sing and bend the knee, as Heidegger, again, laments. Marion calls these conceptions of God idols and not icons because they reduce the distance between the divine and the human.

Indeed, there is no access to Being without beings. Likewise, there is no access to God without the sacramentality of nature and history. Rahner is right, there is no knowledge of anything, let alone God, without reference to determinate beings. Yet, all good metaphysicians know that God is other than these determinate beings, that God only 'shines through' them for a while.

I think the over-determinacy of God is more like a person who is mystery and other, rather than a really big being, the complexity and grandeur of which we can only know by analogy.

You are right that atheists will use this in/over-determinacy as an excuse for ignorance of God. Caputo does not mean by event, though, some reality transcending our nature which we must only strain after like constipated Buddhists who forgot their anti-desire discipline.

An event is not removed from day-to-day reality, but that is exactly where events happen. Whenever I meet someone, there is an event, whenever I pray or receive a sacrament, there is an event, whenever I read a book or dream or fall in love, there is an event.

I think I'm going beyond Caputo now, but the event is not 'real' only because the 'real' sciences cannot fully explain or describe it. There is more going on in our conversation than what psychology and philosophy and theology and chemistry and politics and history can delineate. The event is the most-real thing because it's the only thing we haven't constructed, and hence is not deconstructible.

The event of God, for Caputo, is the call to justice that we feel when we are compassionate; or it's the call to forgiveness, the call to hospitality. These things do not happen in a vacuum, nor in the metaphysician's imagination, but in the quotidian reality of our lives.

God is an event because I am an event, you are an event. God is not a principle, just as you are not a principle or a concept or an idea. You are a person, and there is more going on in you than we can determine. Concepts are the only determinate things we have, and even they can get slippery.

Anything real is over-determinate, and no mathematics can govern it, no metaphysics contain it. Our discourses, which are constructed and hence deconstructible, only approximate the reality of the event. But we make the mistake of confusing the discourse for the reality. So, if we want to talk about the Event and not about it's description, then we need to talk about hyper-reality.

I'm just rambling now. You gave me good thing to think about.

Matt of CG said...

Behold, J-Pax! The master of amelioration! (The artist formerly known as Jeff.)

Jeff said...

I'm with you all the way, Brother Thomas; I just need to clarify some remarks of my own in light of your comment. You raised points I was not considering before, although I'm running across similar points in Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity". Part of the difficulty lies in philosophy's resistance to standardization of its own language. Although such a standard would gravely risk truncating reason, without it we must content to struggle find the identities and differences between the words and referents of different authors.

I don't actually think that there is an inherent idolatry in calling God Being. Von Balthasar does so with aplomb, and he was hardly an onto-theo-logian. As much as he admired the Fathers, he was also among their harshest critics for their sometimes sloppy incorporation of God into a too-Platonic construct of Being.

The trap is more subtle than calling God "Being". Certainly the 'gods' of Plato and Aristotle failed to separate God from Being; God remains a component of the Whole. God is Being within a system of Being; the top of the hierarchy, with whom the coexistence of other beings is not really a mystery. In fact, such gods often create by necessity.

It is as impossible to dance and sing before such gods as it is to do so before quarks and strings, and in truth the poverty of both positivism and onto-theology is the same. Only equivocally does onto-theology reduce the distance between the divine and the human; in actuality it draws a coarse artificial veil that magnifies the distance into oblivion.

Attempts to give us something to "sing and dance" to, like process theology or neo-paganism, see in reason the temptation to onto-theo-logize and thus reject reason as a legitimate starting point. They choose instead "experience" and so attach themselves to dancing shadows as doing more justice to a god that is "mysterious" and "other than being". Thus we appear locked in a binary struggle to prefer being, or else becoming, each at the expense of the other.

Against the Being-idolators, we say: no, God is Other even to this. Reason's firm purpose in this regard is to point ever-otherward; other even to itself.

Yet against the Becoming-idolators, we say: no, our starting point cannot yet be *less* than rational, for only reason and not experience is capable of pointing otherward at all. Choosing little idols instead of the big Idol does not make one less an idolater, but more.

Since you're applying "over-determinacy" to anything that is real, and not just to God, I can follow you there, too. However, we need to keep our distinction between the finite and the divine intact.

Balthasar speaks of "singularities" and names three kinds of "relative singularities" - art, love, and death - as being mysteries par excellence within nature. God, and God in Christ, is "absolute singularity".

I won't get into why vB singles out those three things as relative singularities. But analagously I thought we might speak of "relative mystery" and "absolute mystery"; or "relative overdeterminacy" and "absolute overdeterminacy".

God would not be "absolutely overdeterminate" if God were not "person". In fact the "god of the philosophers", if at all less than personal, is not even "relatively overdeterminate"; it is not overdeterminate at all. It is the solution to a problem.

Ratzinger distinguishes between calculation vs. meaning in the first chapter of his "Introduction to Christianity", which is again analagous to the distinction between thing and person, problem and meaning, nonsingular and the singular. Meaning, mystery, personhood, singularity, paradox, parabola; these things are necessary elements even of having faith, which are prima facie excluded from the positivistic framework. But they, too, fall short of God by themselves.

Only otherness, only negative theology, when it is applied so thoroughly as to also negate itself, I believe ultimately leaves room for a personhood of God which will not subsequently become perverted into process theology or neopaganism. Thought must be purged before it can be filled, just like the Passion.

And God is not an event because I am an event; I am an event because God is an event. :)

My use of analogy was intended only to single out the otherness of God; not the "bigness" of God. I suppose my description of God as horizon could be construed Spinozistically, but you know me better than that. :)