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Thursday, December 18, A.D. 2008

My super-genius friend Andrew and I rarely disagree about matters of import, but we do part ways in our understanding of imperfection as evil. For Andrew, all imperfection is the same in kind, and imperfection is evil. Thus, for Andrew, God’s act of creation necessitates the introduction of evil into the world. For anything that God brings into existence must be imperfect; it cannot be God, and as other from God, it lacks perfection. Therefore, evil enters the world as the world is made; it may be parasitic upon creation, but it is a co-existent parasite.

My objection to Andrew’s theory is that it makes God responsible for evil as such, and I find such an idea abhorrent and blasphemous. One might object to my objection as one not rooted in philosophical principle but in emotion or in doctrinal loyalties. I disagree. If God is the Good or its source, and if evil is nothing but the disorder of a being that causes it to diminish and to flee from its source, then God would be the source of being and anti-being. I contend that the opposition between good and evil—of being and anti-being—is not the same as other oppositions which God transcends and which find their mutual source in God. For all of these oppositions are aspects of being, but evil is opposed to being as such. God’s act of creating would be a contradiction if good and evil had their source in God.

A cantankerous metaphysician might claim, following old Parmenides, that the world is really a confused mixture of being and non-being. Things asserted to be are not just as they are. If you make any positive statements about anything formal or particular, you simultaneously and implicitly assert that they are not many other things. The even is not odd, and the pear is not an apple. Each being is not everything else. Hence, reality demands both being and non-being. From the Eleatic to Plato’s Sophist to today, we can see how such a statement makes sense.

Yet, I claim that non-being in the sense of negation within the matrix of reality is not the same as nothingness—evil or anti-being—which is the negation of being as such. God is the source of being and non-being, but we ought not to claim that God is the source of nothingness. That would indicate that God’s act of creation is paralleled, Hindu-style, with God’s act of destruction—and not creative destruction, by the way. Such a cosmic view makes good and evil equal forces from their transcendent source beyond good and evil, the dualism of which annihilates all of our ethical views where we privilege being over nothingness.

One with a taste for destruction might cheer for such a transvaluation of all values, delighted to see the human prejudice in favor of being, permanence, intelligibility, and goodness overthrown as a relic of superstition. Myself, I cannot accept that human pre-philosophical and philosophical thinking has been completely wrong since the dawn of time. If accepted, the consequence of such a radical change in values would render the world and our experience of it unintelligible. Consider what it would mean if you equally asserted the opposite to every practical decision following a judgment of whether something were good or bad.

Now, one could argue that we men must keep to our system of values wherein we favor the good. For it could just be the lot of men to strive for the good rather than evil . . . a matter of cosmic arbitrariness. We have been so constituted to desire and to pursue being and to flee annihilation, but from that, we should not anthropomorphically claim that God and the universe value as we value. Such a view is ethical chauvinism.

Yet, this answer still renders the universe unintelligible. According to such a view, we cannot transcend our preference for the good, though such a preference would be somewhat accidental to the nature of reality as a whole. It is the nature of reason to transcend provincial perspectives when it becomes aware of them. Such a view, then, does violence to reason and consigns it to perpetual moral near-sightedness.

In contrast, I hold that our minds are capable of understanding the order of being and that human reason is an image of the divine reason. We may be ignorant and limited, but our most precious instrument does not betray us in such a fundamental way. In the defense of my assertion, I merely offer the consequence of the alternative. If we are fundamentally unable to determine the order of being—if we are unable to understand what is true and what we ought to do—then any theory issuing from human minds is bunk.

This is the argument of ultimate retortion. One might argue that the philosopher makes a leap of faith in believing that human reason is capable of knowing the truth. Yet, one who starts with any other assumption refutes anything that follows from his lips. If you hold that we are not able to know the truth, then why should anyone listen to you, as what you claim is surely not true—including your claim that we are not able to know the truth? Thus, it is a necessary assumption to make when one affirms the ability of human reason to understand the truth of things. Perhaps, I am obtuse here, but I cannot see how any dismissal of our general understanding of goodness—something fundamental to human thought and life—would not result in a self-refuting nihilism.

If I am correct, then God cannot be the source of both goodness and evil. Rather, good alone exists, and evil is the unintelligible disorder that diminishes a being from being what it ought to be. Non-being, then, is not the same as evil, since non-being is necessary for any limited thing; anything besides God necessarily lacks the perfections of everything that it is not. To be something means not being something else. Evil, by contrast, is the state when a thing falls short of being what it truly is.

Here, then, is my main disagreement with Andrew. I hold that there are three types of imperfection, whereas he holds that all imperfection is of the same kind—namely, limitation and not being God. First, there is the imperfection inherent in limitation, where being and non-being are said of a being. All created beings are not God, and they likewise are not other created beings. They thus lack many perfections—those which are not properly their own—and in this sense they are imperfect. Second, there is the imperfection of potentiality. Perhaps, I am committing a transgression of Aristotle here in bringing up potentiality, but it seems to me that particular things that come to be often have natural stages of imperfection proper to them. An acorn is an imperfect oak tree, as a baby is an imperfect man. The seedling and the embryo are potentially perfect in what they are by nature, but, at such young stages, they are imperfect. Third, there is the imperfection of evil, where a particular thing, unintelligibly, falls short of being what it is. I call this sin—the missing the mark of being and of doing what we ought to be and to do. This third kind of imperfection is evil.

If we accept these distinctions, we can see that the first two are necessary parts of reality. The first is a necessary imperfection in a creation other than the limitless, transcendent, and all-perfect God. The second imperfection is necessary in a world of becoming, where particular things in time come to be and pass away. God, in his act of creating, is the author of such types of imperfection. The last kind of imperfection, however, ought not to exist. Indeed, we say that it does not exist, though we are aware of its metaphysical corruption. Evil has a bastardly parasitic presence in the world, but it ought not to be. The first two imperfections are not blameworthy, though the third, when it involves men and their actions, incurs blame. It is sin. The first two types of imperfection are intelligible and orderly, whereas the last mars the cosmos.

Perhaps, I have Christianized Platonic metaphysics with these distinctions; though, with Origen, Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas, and others, I think that the Gospel perfects the best of pagan wisdom.

Posted by Joseph on Thursday, December 18, Anno Domini 2008
Philosophy | MetaphysicsComments
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