Monday, October 26, 2009

Everywhere At Once: The Problem of Omnipresence

"God is the soul of the world--and the world is therefore His body...."

One of the traditional attributes of God is His omnipresence: God is “everywhere.” But this idea is immediately problematic. The world is filled with physical bodies separated by small, large, and vast gaps of empty space; if God is neither a physical body (as traditional theism says He is not) nor empty space, then where exactly is He? And if God is “simple” in the sense of not being composed of any parts (as traditional theism also says He is), then how could He be present both here and there, for such divided presence would seem precisely to divide Him into parts? Indeed what could it mean to say that God is present even in any one location, much less in every?

The American philosopher Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) borrows some ancient wisdom to make some sense of divine omnipresence.

The first point to recognize is that anything we say about God must rely on analogies and metaphors. Theists tend to invoke interpersonal relations: God’s relationship to his creatures is like that of a parent to a child, a ruler to subjects, or a teacher to students. But the great ancient philosopher Plato invoked a quite different, intrapersonal analogy: God’s relationship to the world is like that which a mind or soul bears to its own physical body.

Think about our relationship to our bodies. We conscious souls are a single “simple” indivisible reality while our body is a diverse society of realities, composed of smaller bodies composed of still smaller bodies. In a sense we “rule over” our organs and cells; our thoughts and decisions move large numbers of them, for example when we choose to eat dinner and our entire body heads towards the kitchen. In so doing we preside over the coming to be of our cells, over their constitution and organization. We are quasi-deities in our own bodily system.

Yet at the same time we are also constituted by our bodies, our cells, our molecules.

And that is how we should think about God: not as entirely removed from the world but as embedded or embodied within it. Not as some remote eternal being ruling from afar but as one governing from within, just as we govern our own bodies.

Now how can this illuminate the idea of omnipresence?

Consider: some things we know vividly and directly, such as our own thoughts and significant changes occurring in our bodies. Other things, such as what is going on elsewhere or with others, are known only indirectly, by inference. Similarly, some things we have direct power over (such as our own volitions and bodily movements) while other things we can control only indirectly, through intermediaries. Since direct knowledge and power are superior to indirect knowledge and power, God must have direct knowledge of, and direct power over, the world as a whole.

And that is what His omnipresence is: God is “present” in or to the world precisely insofar as His direct knowledge and power extend to every location in the world, just as we ourselves have direct knowledge of and power over our own bodies. In that sense we too are present in and to our own bodies, even to the “gaps” within and between our cells and molecules--which answers the first problem above. So too the “simple,” undivided being which we are may now be said to be wholly present everywhere our body is present--which answers the second problem.

What makes this particular region of matter and not some other region our body, in fact, is just this knowledge and power we have concerning them.

Which makes the world, therefore, God’s body.

(1) Charles Hartshorne, Man’s Vision of God and the Logic of Theism (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1941).
(2) Charles Hartshorne, Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1984).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And behold, it still IS pretty good

“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)

It might have been easy to agree with this verdict after Day Six of Creation, when God renders it. But now? A quick look around reveals much that does not seem very good at all: everything suffers, decays, and dies. If the perfectly good and all-powerful God is responsible for the existence of everything, then how could there be so much imperfection and evil in the world?

It’s a hard question, and which continues to vex philosophers to this day, but the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides (1135-1204) thinks it can be answered.

Consider, to begin, the difference between light and darkness. Light has genuine being or existence, and wherever it does exist something actively produces it, some source of light. But darkness has neither genuine being nor must be actively produced: it’s what you get when there is nothing to produce light. Similarly creatures who can see have a genuine property: seeing is something we do and sight is an ability we possess. But a creature who is blind does not possess some other ability for blindness; not seeing is not something it does. Rather, blindness is what results in the absence of sight.

The natural evils of the world, then, are like darkness and blindness, with no real existence of their own. Terrible things like poverty, illness, and death are really nothing but the absence of wealth, health and life. Once we recognize this then we see that God does not create evils after all, for these evils are not “actively produced.” Everything God creates is in itself good. But goodness is a matter of degree, and when He produces things with less goodness than we might like, we call it an “evil.” But in itself it is just a lesser degree of that healthy goodness we desire.

And indeed we often show great ignorance in our judgments about what is evil! We naturally think of our own illnesses and deaths as great evils and wish they could be avoided. But that doesn’t really make much sense. We are physical beings made of matter and it’s the nature of matter to decay; to wish that we didn’t become ill or die would be like wishing we material beings were not material beings. But that is not to wish that we were healthier; it’s to wish that we didn’t exist at all, since a non-material being wouldn’t be us! And nobody wishes that.

Our judgments about evil can also be remarkably self-centered. If something happens against our personal desires or interests we immediately condemn it as evil, as if everything were all about us personally. But individual people, and even all humanity, are but the tiniest components in this immensely vast world--a world which is not made worse because some beings enjoy less goodness than others but rather more beautiful by the tremendous variety of beings it contains. We may not like it but the world just might be better off overall, as whole, if we personally happen to be enjoying less goodness than we might. Who are we to declare that the world as a whole is only good if things go well for us in particular?

So everything God does is good, to various degrees, then and now, Maimonides concludes--and we shouldn’t be so quick to judge as an evil our own rank in the relative distribution of goods.

Source: Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chs. X-XII. Transl. M. Friedländer, 2nd edition (New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1904/1956).