Hart and Hartshorne

In our conversation on Wednesday about Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, I indicated some uneasiness with his metaphysics.  We all wondered if indeed he wasn’t setting up his own straw men, despite his criticism of the New Atheist’s own illicit use of straw men (is there a licit use of straw men?). 
Then, last night, I picked up where I’d left off when I lent the book out and I knew he was, in fact, setting up straw men, or at the very least, simply not as informed about the options regarding the argument at hand, namely, Anselm’s ontological argument (see pages 114 – 122).  Hart is correct when he asserts that Anselm’s argument is remarkable and “not quite as lacking in subtlety as some of its detractors imagine, and it has certainly yielded a remarkably rich array of philosophical meditations over the centuries.”  But he is absolutely incorrect in his assertion that it was Alvin Plantinga, a “distinguished American philosopher” who was Anselm’s “most ingenious proponent.”  That honor belongs to Charles Hartshorne, as Plantinga himself would acknowledge — even though he differs from Hartshorne by remaining an essentially classical metaphysician.  I don’t know enough about Plantinga’s specific proposals to critique Hart’s analysis.  I suspect he’s correct in it.

What I mean by classical and neoclassical metaphysics is important.  Hart is a classical metaphysician which means that he uses the classical (Greek) notion of perfection as it relates to God.  God is perfect; what is perfect cannot admit of any need for change; God is changeless.  A neoclassical metaphysics argues that this idea does not square with our actual experience of God as love for love to be love cannot be otiose.  So, based on the philosophical insights of Alfred North Whitehead, Hartshorne, and other neoclassical metaphysicians, have showed that it makes more sense to divorce ourselves from the Greek notion of perfection, and, based on the requirements, both of God as God, and of the internal and external relations required by the idea of love, they have proposed a dipolar divinity.  God is not merely abstract, but also concrete.  In the words of neoclassical metaphysics, God has both properties of necessity and contingency.  God is not “simple” for these theologians. God is, as befitting the higher ideas, “complex.”

Here is Hartshorne addressing a common concern of attributing complexity to God.

Philosophy can scarcely refuse to deal with the idea of God.  For (in spite of some psychoanalysts) no other idea more obviously transcends the scope of the empirical sciences.  Yet “God” properly stands for the object of worship.  Can a worshipful deity be the object of rational analysis or demonstration?  Must not what we analyze be an it, rather than a thou?  We encounter God, it is said, as we do friends and enemies; we do not define or prove Him or them.  I believe that this objection rather inconsistently presupposes a rationalistic theory of the nature of deity, a theory which I which to challenge.  This is the theory that God is a single something, an entity so essentially “simple” that there can be no distinction between His reality as a whole and  any definable positive characteristic by which we could conceptually identify Him, in contrast to other beings.  My own rationalistic theory implies that while no essence, to be captured in a human concept, could possibly be the entire actual God whom we confront in worship, yet such an essence could very well qualify God and no one else.  It would be an it, though God is not.  But the Thou could include the it, and indeed the personal includes the impersonal, not vice versa.  — Charles Hartshorne, The Logic of Perfection, p. 5

It seems to me that Hartshorne pins down the squeamishness that someone like David Bentley Hart has in going in all the way with his project:  He cannot, or has not yet seen, that philosophy and the philosophy of religion require each other.  Or to put it Hartshorne’s words, conceptions of God and of creatures are correlative.  They are not the same; mistakes in one tend to produce mistakes in the other.

A perfect example of this I tried to express Wednesday with regard to Hart’s concept of creation as purely contingent.  My thinking, which I did not express very clearly, is that the world and God both have properties of contingency and necessity, not in the same magnitude or order, but logically they require each other.  God, cannot be purely necessary and create a contingent world.  The creation of a contingent world (or worlds) implies creativity on God’s part, as some world or worlds could be created instead of this one or these. This kind of creativity, no matter how you slice it, is part of what we mean in the idea of contingency.  For God, however, it cannot be that God cannot create, for creation is of more value than its negation.  God’s contingency is of a piece of God’s necessity.

His discussion of the world, of creation, is equally one-sided.  The world is contingent.  Period.  There may be other worlds, and they do, as he asserts depend on God as the creator of those worlds, but the worlds are in no way necessary — that’s God’s domain.  But in what way could a creation (any creation — this world or another) not in some respect be necessary as the necessary product of God’s necessary creating?

All of this Hart absolutely denies.  He writes, “God alone, by contrast, has necessity in and of himself” (p. 116). He goes on to say in the remainder of that paragraph to describe what that necessity looks like, and here he’s absolutely correct.  God’s necessity is more than indestructibility — God’s existence is analytic.   Or this: “all physical reality is contingent upon some cause of being as such, since existence is not an intrinsic physical property, an since no physical reality is logically necessary.” (p. 145).  Of course all physical reality is contingent.  But to deny that it is in no way necessary is not to take very seriously God’s role as Creator.

Hart properly notes that it was St. Anselm of Canterbury who most famously attempted to prove, from this basic axiom God’s existence.  And he notes that Anselm has had a great many critics, both in praise of his attempt and scornful of it.  Most famously Emmanuel Kant is said to have demonstrated the impossibility of an ontological argument (as this is called) for the existence of God by dismembering Anselm’s argument.  I took pen to paper today because, while Kant is widely assumed not only to have definitively poked holes in Anselm’s Argument, in the aftermath he is said to have once and for all put an end to metaphysics.  The only theologians or philosophers of religion I have ever read who have successfully pointed out the problems with Kant’s popular analysis are Charles Hartshorne and his intellectual descendants, Schubert Ogden, Philip Devenish, Pamela Dickey Young, Franklin Gamwell, to name four of the best — and so very little of the current theological literature addresses their ideas.

It is one thing to dismiss these writers’ ideas because they are shown to be illogical or self-contradictory.  It is another to assume the modern western stance that nothing can be done about Kant and to proceed doing theology as if it does not matter.  It absolutely does.  Why bother, as Hart himself acknowledges, if atheism’s arguments are water-tight?  On the other hand, why bother defending theism against the new atheists, if the best of what modern theological thinking has to say against the logic of Kant’s anti-metaphysics is that it is unassailable? Any thing else is just building a castle on sinking sand.

I have not finished reading The Experience of God.  I may be ultimately wrong about his project.  But his chapter on being does not leave me sanguine about his prospects.

I conclude with his concluding passage to the chapter on being that saddens me:

This has been a long chapter, as could scarcely be avoided, given the centrality of the metaphysics of being to the traditional understanding of God.  I may have said too much; but, then again, I may have said far too little.  I have paused before a few philosophical thickets that I would rather have summarily circumvented, had I seen a clear path; but I have not made the sort of effort it would require to clear any of them entirely away.  In my defense, I can plead both the narrow particularity of my avowed purpose in this book and a healthy abhorrence of redundancy: these arguments are millennia old, and the literature upon them so compendious that I cannot imagine what I could add to it apart from yet another very partial distillation of certain of their elements.  Presuming permission, therefore, I shall once again, simply wave a limp, lethargic hand in the direction of my postscript (p.149).

Oh, that’s helpful.


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