Sunday, July 15, 2007

On Omnipresence

The fact that I am an atheist who has an interest in theology isn't, in and of itself, surprising. In my entirely anecdotal experience, atheists, as a whole, tend to be more theologically away than the majority of theists. I suspect that this is explained by nothing so complex as basic philosophical self-defense: when you're constantly asked to justify your beliefs, it makes sense to understand the beliefs of your opponents.

Most atheists, however, tend to focus on the subject of theodicy, which pertains to arguments that attempt to establish the existence of God (and let's be clear about something here; the vast bulk of theology, as a school of thought, focuses on the Abrahamic religions). While I have engaged in that sort of debate and even gained a fair amount of enjoyment from it, I find that my interest in it has waned over the years. The truth of the matter is that there are only about a dozen interesting arguments, one way or the other, which maybe a half-dozen interesting permutations each. Once you've covered the ground, there's really not much more of interest to be found. Likewise, if you haven't been convinced (again, one way or the other) after having gone over them, then very little is likely to change your mind. My suspicion is that less than 1% of the people who study theodicy are ever compelled to change their initial position and that the bulk of theodicy, in practice, is an elaborate game of mental self-reinforcement by means of elaborate rationalization.

So, if I'm no longer interested in theology, you may well ask, then what remaining interest do I have in theology? The answer is that, for me, theology is an interesting mental exercise. Let us postulate that there exists a Perfect Being. Having postulated said being, what characteristics would such a being necessarily have (or necessarily not have)? The actual existence or non-existence of the being is as irrelevant to me as the existence or non-existence of ideal circles is to a geometer.

In traditional theology, there are four particular traits which are reserved exclusively to the Perfect Being: omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipresence. Of the two, omnipotence and omniscience garner the bulk of the attention with omnibenevolence trailing a distant third and nearly no attention, what so ever, being granted to omnipresence. This isn't especially surprising because, as human beings, we tend to be attracted to those things that we would most like to possess. If you were granted one unconstrained wish I think that most people would opt for ultimate power (even if it did come with the caveat that you couldn't then use it to get any of the other omni-traits), that a smaller number of people would be tempted by ultimate knowledge (indeed, that's what I'd want); some small number of people (bless their hearts!) might choose to be perfectly benevolent, but who in the world would wish for the ability to be everywhere at once!? Be that as it may, of the four omnis, omnipresence may well be the most interesting.

Consider this: what exactly does it mean to be omnipresent? The encyclopedic definition is to be present at evey point in space and time (which, by the by, also implies that our Perfect Being is eternal). Putting aside for a moment that the Abrahamic god is usually considered to be immaterial, this would imply that the Perfect Being can not coexist with anything else. Indeed, the existence of other things would seem to contradict the presumption that a Perfect Being exists (thus leading us straight back to theodicy). Let us consider a couple of possible alternatives.

The first is what I call the Jell-O model of deity which is what I suspect most people imagine when (and if they think about omnipresence. In this scenario, the Perfect Being fits into all the empty parts of existence. The fact that you and I are also in the universe doesn't contradict its existence because it it adjacent to every occupied point. Indeed, the Perfect Being doesn't simply surround us, it permeats us. All the spaces btween the protons, electrons and neutrons that make up our body are part of its Body and if it's not everywhere, it's close enough not to matter. Not a swallow falls that It does not feel (indeed, omnipresence, in a strange sort of way, may well account for the Beings omnipotence and omniscience).

Aquinas favored a model of omnipresence that saw God as being omnipresent only in as much as God had knowledge of all things, the ability to act upon all things, and who was the source of all things. In the Aquinan view, God is the basis of all realty and has no limits with respect to that reality, thus, even though God is an Other with respect to the elements of the universe, His relationship to the universe justifies a claim of effective omnipresence.

I believe that this model has a basic flaw: we can imagine a universe occupied by a similar being to the one that occupies our own with a single difference: in this possible world, there exists one less electron. The being that occupies this infinitesimally distinct universe would have one more loci that the being that occupies our own. As such, this being would have an even greater degree of omnipresence than our own. Since perfection is an absolute (there are no degrees of Perfection), it would follow that the being that is in our universe could not, in fact, be a Perfect Being, QED. By a process of reductio ad absurdiam we quickly find ourselves back to the starting point: the only perfect being is one that excludes all other beings from existence.

A less naïve model might be something I call the Organic model of deity. In this model, the Perfect Being is, indeed, unitary. All things that exist are part of the Perfect Being in the same way that your heart, lungs and liver are all part of you even though they can also be considered discretely. A popular variant of this idea is that all things exist as part of the Mind of God and that everything we feel and experience are simply the thoughts of the Divine Awareness. Charles Hartshorn goes this one better by suggesting that the relationship of the deity to the universe is one of a mind to its body, which is to suggest that there is simultaneously a duality and a unity between the divine and the mundane.

Whether we treat existence as the Perfect Being's body or mind, however (or some combination thereof), we are face the difficulty of the fact that the elements of existence are imperfect. We are faced, as one example, with the problem of evil. If all things are part of the Perfect Being, and evil exists in the universe, then the implication is that part of the Perfect Being is evil and, thus, imperfect.

It is possible to get around this apparent paradox by proposing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By this proposal, individual aspects of the Perfect Being can seem imperfect when viewed in isolation while, never the less, contributing to a perfect entity when viewed in the aggregate, much as a circle is composed of arc segments that, by themselves, lack the geometric perfection of the circle to which they are a part.

While this formulation does have a certain intellectual elegance, it is morally problematic. If the apparent imperfections that we find in existence are an illusion created by an insufficient perspective then so too is the apparent evil in the universe. If we embrace this view we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to deny, for instance, that the rape of a ten year old girl is, in any sense of the word, wrong. I suspect that few people would be willing to believe that we live in such a Panglossian reality. Never the less, the position does seem to be logically tenable.

The final option is to make an appeal to Mystery which is to say that we simply declare that even though the omnipresence of the Perfect Being is a fact, our ability to understand that fact is limited by our capacity to comprehend the nature of that fact. The question is "answered" by declaring it unanswerable.

Again, this is a logically tenable position and there is precedence in theology to declare that certain things presumed to be factual are, never the less, imponderable (the Christian doctrine of the Trinity being the classic example). While such an answer might provide an anodyne to religious belief, I don't find this sort of solution to be intellectually satisfying. Remember, for me theology is an abstract intellectual exercise. As such, I don't gain much pleasure by proposing a problem and then by "solving" the problem by declaring it insoluble by fiat.

Of course, we might well ask whether or not omnipresence is a necessary characteristic of a Perfect Being. One could make an Anselmian argument that a being that is less than absolutely present is less perfect than a being that is fully present, however, such an argument carries within it a circular presumption that degrees of presence have anything more to do with perfection then texture or color (must we presume that the Perfect Being is absolutely chromatic – whatever that might mean?). Be that as it may, it's hard to shake the feeling that a being that is otherwise absolute in every other aspect, but which is limited in space and/or time, is, indeed, less than a perfect being.

Alternatively, since we can argue that the existence of a Perfect being necessary excludes anything else but itself from existence, we can arrive at an anti-theodic conclusion that the existence of other things is a demonstration that the Perfect Being does not exist.

My own suspicion is that our definition of Perfection may, indeed, be faulty. I think that perfection my imply Totality, which is to say that a Perfect Being would be a kind of superset (a class?) that necessarily included within itself all possible things. I think that such a being would not, and could not, have a personality or, indeed, any sort of unified sentience since awareness, itself, would only be a subset of the whole and that no thought or set of thoughts could be privileged above any other set of thoughts. Such a being would be all possible thoughts, all possible peoples, all possible places, and all possible events. Such a being would neither be good nor evil but fully contain both. Such a being would, in short, be nothing less than Existence: impersonal and absolute.

No comments:

what is this?

Tell me when this blog is updated. . .