Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The great chain of being and the glory of God

There are things with power but no knowledge or moral will: e.g., trees. There are things with power and knowledge but no moral will: e.g., horses. There are things with all three: e.g., human beings.

These fundamental attributes mark radical qualitative differences. I suspect there are infinitely many further possible fundamental attributes besides power, knowledge and moral will. A being that had one more of these attributes would be qualitatively as far above us as we are above horses or as far as horses are above trees. But just as a horse cannot conceive of moral will, and a tree cannot conceive of anything, we cannot conceive of what these further attributes would be. All we can do is speculate that then chain power, knowledge and moral will can be continued indefinitely.

God actually has all three of power, knowledge and moral will, and has each to its maximal perfection. If my suspicion about the chain continuing ad infinitum, then all the further attributes in the chain God also has to an infinite degree. (While remaining simple.) But we have no idea what they are.


Philip Rand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heath White said...

What reason is there to think this chain is infinitely long? (What reason could there possibly be?) This is inconceivability as a guide to possibility!

Philip Rand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexander R Pruss said...


Some version of perfect being theology? God is greater if there is such a chain than if there isn't?

Philip Rand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wesley C said...

1) I wonder how this lines up with traditional Trinitarian theology that describes the Son as God's Wisdom?

If there are attributes higher than rationality, just as rationality is higher than mere sensation, couldn't someone object to the above by saying that the Son should be greater than mere wisdom?

Or if there are infinitely many such attributes, that the Son can't be related in any way to any specific attribute since there is no highest one?

2) I also wonder how this relates to the Beatific Vision - we as humans are made uniquely happy by directly seeing the essence of God. Does this mean we'll also be able to grasp and see attributes higher than our own rationality then?

Or if not, would this mean the Beatific Vision makes us happy by making us see aspects of God which our nature can in principle still see, not the ones we by nature can't?

Alexander R Pruss said...

The Trinitarian point worries me. A quick answer is that all the attributes are one in the simple God. Thus, while creaturely reason is higher than creaturely life, divine reason = divine life. So there is no higher or lower in the attributes.

Still, I do not know how to connect my speculation with the idea that the processions of the Son and Holy Spirit are associated with knowledge and love, respectively. It could be that while knowledge and love give rise to the distinctions between Persons, the infinitely many other attributes we cannot grasp give rise to... we know not what (but not to further distinctions between Persons).

Wesley C said...

I think a possible explanation could be that, depending on how one construes those higher abilities, analogy can cover them quite well.

Since "moral will" is rooted more fundamentally in moral knowledge, and the way you phrased the differences among the powers as being related to conceiving, this would mean any higher attributes would just be conceptions & knowledge of higher realities. "Knowledge" can therefore be applied to the higher rungs of the chain of being, as much as the lower parts, if we keep in mind it's used analogically, but still truly.

Animal knowledge of particulars or just even sense experience can be truly described as a form of knowledge, even while our own rational knowledge of universals & morality is categorically beyond it - knowledge is analogical.

In fact, rationality may be uniquely different from the lower attributes insofar as rational beings can conceive of the fact that there may even BE higher attributes they can't conceive of - it can get a hint, or even a glimpse, of the higher, even though it's inconceivable to it.

This may suggest rationality plays a unique role among the attributes, insofar as it can "touch" the higher, while the lower ones can't - and the higher attributes likely include rationality within their essential definition, even while transcending it. Kinda like rationality can know sense objects and particulars, even if it's in a different mode. Or more fittingly, if one accepts unicity of substantial form, how our own rational form also has sensory & vegetative powers in one soul.

Another thing to notice is that the chain of being follows a certain pattern when you go up - power, life, and various types of knowledge are all more perfect forms of UNITY and IMMANCENCE. Plant life has basic immanence insofar as it does things for its own fluorishing, animal knowledge insofar as it has consciousness & awareness, and human rationality insofar as it has a more perfect self-awareness, can have meta-knowledge, and knows universals & the unifying principles of being.

Both self-awareness and knowledge are related to immanence and self-consistency - so the chain of being follows this trajectory specifically, and on that basis we can say that any higher attributes will just be more perfect forms of immanence & self-unity / self-consistency. And those higher attributes can also be called types of knowledge, because they must have self-awareness of some sort, even if they go beyond what we conceive of as self-awareness - the overall trajectory ACROSS THE CHAIN OF BEING is one of ever-increasing immanence & self-unity.

This doesn't seem to undermine saying the Son is God's Wisdom - Wisdom for God is unlike wisdom for us humans, and it's analogically correct to say that ALL of the higher attributes can be bundled together as Wisdom, since it's MORE perfect to have self-awareness of ALL of the higher attributes than not to.

Wesley C said...

The only potential problem though could be that the higher attributes imply a form of self-awareness that's not conceivable by us, and so very much unlike us - and so saying the Son is God's Wisdom is incorrect because the self-immanence is DEEPER than mere self-aware wisdom in us.

So according to this objection, it'd be incorrect to associate the Son with God's Wisdom because the predication of Wisdom limits God to a lower level of self-immanence, while in reality His self-immanence is infinitely above what we could even ANALOGICALLY call wisdom.

A problem stemming from excessive greatness - but I think this just falls into the standard theological issue of how we can predicate anything of God if He is radically unlike us. And I think there are ways to handle that - such as pointing out our usage of concepts must be univocal so that we can speak of God at all, even while admitting that in reality God is beyond any genus and so His reality is such that we can only have univocity of language, never univocity of reality / ontology.

Wesley C said...

Another response that could be made to this that I saw someone make recently is that it's impossible for there to be any faculty or power higher than intellect because intellection, in general, is directed to being in general. Intelligible being, but also other principles such as existence & accidents, etc.

To say there could be a higher faculty then intellect is to say there could be formal objects of that faculty different from being, or outside of being, meaning they either don't exist or are nothing.

What do you think of that?

I myself intuited something similar insofar as I asked myself if perhaps our intellects could be made to understand the essence of any higher faculty (perhaps God infuses it into us), even if not some of the higher things the faculty itself uniquely knows that aren't conceivable to us.