Separated at Birth?

As I remarked earlier I’m embarking on a somewhat ambitious project of trying to make sense of several linked books. These include Sartre’s Being And Nothingness and Zizioulas’ Communion and Otherness. In observe these short quotes and note the similarity:

  • Gregory Palamas from the Triads, “The essence is not necessarily being, but being is not necessarily essence”.
  • Zizioulas … (argh). I thought I’d found a similar quote from him. But it escapes me now.
  • Sartre (there are more of these, but harder to spot than I recollected): “Consciousness is a being whose existence posits its essence, and inversely it is consciousness of a being, whose essence implies its existence”

Another Zizioulas quote (footnote 62 page 34):

Atheism, in its modern form, is based on the assumption that something can simply be or not be regardless of any consideration of how it is.  The ultimate and decisive question in the case of God, which precludes any further discussion about him, is for atheism a substantialist one.

For Zizioulas these considerations are ontological. The question for the atheist is … why is that wrong?

Another remark, concerning Sartre on “Negation”. I’m not very much into it but it looks like an expression of what is to ontology as compared to what the empty set is to set theory. And judging by what a useful thing the empty set is in sets, it is likely why he turns to explore that next.

Zizioulas begins in his introduction to introduce his problem speaking about Other and differences and divisions in society.

Now if this confusion between difference and division were simply a moral problem, ethics would suffice to solve it. But it is not. St. Maximus the Confessor recognized in this not only universal but even cosmic dimensions. The entire cosmos is divided on account of difference, and it is different in its parts on the basis of its divisions. [ … ] Hell, eternal death, is nothing but isolation from the other, as the desert fathers put it. We cannot solve this problem through ethics. We need new birth. This leads us to ecclesiology. [ed: italics/emphasis mine]

As an aside, noting the “cosmos divided” this harkens back to the ontological message within Genesis 1, noted in an earlier essay derived from Kass’ Beginning of Wisdom, which was derived largely from Casuto’s work.

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31 comments

  1. Atheism, in its modern form, is based on the assumption that something can simply be or not be regardless of any consideration of how it is. The ultimate and decisive question in the case of God, which precludes any further discussion about him, is for atheism a substantialist one.

    For Zizioulas these considerations are ontological. The question for the atheist is ā€¦ why is that wrong?

    I don’t understand what he’s saying.

  2. Mark says:

    JA,
    I think he’s basically saying that questions about God (for Zizioulas) to make an analogy are more of the nature of the properties of numbers than the results of experiments.

    To put it another way, in the categories of Palamas, atheism insists on talking only about the “energies” of God never his “essences”.

  3. But numbers don’t themselves exist, right? Is God a Being or just an idea?

  4. Mark says:

    JA,
    Ok. But why not talk about those numbers? The claim is that in the analogy we (or atheists don’t admit the usefulness of talking about number, just about measurements.

    We use irrational numbers in our discussions, but there is no experimental evidence for the same. That is, we’ve cannot measure anything but rational numbers. Does a continuum or continuous processes exist? or not? I’m pretty sure you believe in a continuum (and continuous processes). That belief arises from talking about numbers as numbers not from measurements.

    Therefore, I’m not sure what you mean by “numbers don’t exist”.

  5. Atheists, as far as I know, don’t on the whole take a position on the usefulness of talking about the concept of God. We certainly don’t refrain from discussing the concept of God ourselves.

    Numbers — even rational numbers — don’t exist. You can point to three apples which exist, but the number three itself is just a concept. It exists the way Sherlock Holmes exists, but not the way the universe does. Nobody can argue that God does not exist in that way as well, since people obviously discuss the concept of God, but everything which has ever been named or even thought of exists in that sense. Thor exists, Care Bears exist, Hannibal Lechter exists. It’s a silly definition of existence if you ask me.

  6. Mark says:

    JA,
    But does the continuum exist in the same way as the Care Bears?

    (btw: you should also read Ilium/Olympos by Dan Simmons) the existence (or not) of fictional realities figures into the plot.)

  7. What is “the continuum?”

  8. Mark says:

    JA,
    Space-time. Is space/time continuous or discrete? You can only measure rational numbers (which are not dense on the line (technically Lesbegue measure 0) hence my use of the term “discrete”), but continuous methods are typically used to describe motion and … well … physics (e.g., calculus and differential manifolds).

    Is your impression that the 4+ dimensional world you inhabit is continuous (differentiable) … or not? Is differentiability a reflection of something “real” or not? How does the reality of the differentiability of space differ from the non-realness of Care Bears?

  9. I’m not a physicist, but I don’t think we yet know if the universe is continuous or discrete. From my very amateur understanding of quantum physics, it seems more likely to be discrete, but who knows what the future holds.

    How does the reality of the differentiability of space differ from the non-realness of Care Bears?

    I guess properties of real things are real, but we have to be careful not to confuse those properties with Platonic ideals. For example, the sun may be approximately spherical, but that doesn’t imply that geometrically perfect spheres are real. Abstract concepts can approximate real things, but they can’t be real things.

  10. Mark says:

    JA,
    I know we “don’t know if the universe is continuous or discrete”, after all any measuring device we use is going to report rational numbers. But that in no way demonstrates whether the underlying space being measured is continuous or not.

    Basically however, you are saying only only physical tangible objects are real, all else is … something else.

    Is your consciousness real?

  11. But that in no way demonstrates whether the underlying space being measured is continuous or not.

    Our measurements don’t demonstrate that directly, but our best theories can give us an idea. Right now, it seems like both energy and matter come in discrete packets. Frankly, I have no idea what “space” even means at that level of granularity. As far as I know, an electron cannot be between two levels, it “jumps” from one to the next, so that too would imply things are discrete.

    Basically however, you are saying only only physical tangible objects are real, all else is ā€¦ something else.

    Well, you can define “real” any way you want, I’m just pointing out that regardless of whether or not you want to think of, say, Superman as “real,” you must admit he’s not “real” in the same sense that my left hand is.

    Is your consciousness real?

    Again, depends on how you define “real.” And “consciousness.”

    Somehow you’re asking me all the question, but I’m still trying to understand what Zizioulas is getting at. Is he simply defending “God” as an abstract concept no more and no less real than pi or the ideal of “horseness?”

  12. Mark says:

    JA,
    Exactly. Your coming round, I think.

    Care Bears (or Superman if you prefer) has a certain sense of existence which is “not real”.

    Quarks, space and its nature, and other constructs which cannot be touched directly but indirectly determined on the basis of confirmation/conforming to some other theory is another level of reality.

    The point is there are real things that exist which are not tangible. Furthermore, the nature of space is similar to an ontological question in that its nature is about what sort of category or “thing” is this space stuff anyhow.

    And that’s the connection to Zizioulas, I think. He’s holding that atheists hold to substantialist questions about God (evidence and things like that) but tend to avoid ontological questions (and those like how for example) about God.

  13. So he’s just saying that atheists don’t bother discussing God’s attributes as they don’t bother with Superman’s?

  14. Mark says:

    JA,
    No he’s saying you don’t talk God’s attributes enough to make the ontological decision of whether He is more like Superman or like the continuity of spacetime.

  15. Either that makes no sense or I’m still not getting it. In what way could God be “like the continuity of spacetime?”

  16. Mark says:

    JA,
    I just had a thought. I’m in the process of reading (and blogging) those two Zizioulas books, which are ontological discussions about God, Communion, Other, and so on. His claim about atheism is that you are interested only (primarily?) in substantive (positivist?) not ontological discussions. If that is true, then his discussions about God in these books will have little overlap with atheist discussions about God, even though God’s properties, effects, and so on (essences and energies) are what is being talked about.

    So in the next few weeks we will find out if his generalization about atheism was right.

  17. Mark says:

    JA,
    Oh, in answer to your question. I meant that in the sense of comparing things which cannot be touched or directly measured. If we consider the sets of intangible things, Superman, Care Bears go in one set. Continuity properties of spacetime go in another. Quarks might go in a third. It is an ontological question about God as to which set he might belong. You are assuming he is in the first without doing much work to put Him there (or at least “showing your work” as to how/why you put Him there).

  18. I’m not assuming he’s in the Superman category; I thought that’s what you were arguing. I think there are two categories of things relevant to this discussion: things that exist independently of our minds, like my left hand, and things which exist only in our thoughts (and language and depictions, etc.) like Care Bears.

    It has been my understanding that theists put God in the first category, giving Him such properties as having created the universe and being able to influence it by choice. In trying to understand Zizioulas’s paragraph, I thought he was putting God in the second category and asking why atheists don’t address that idea of God.

    Now I think maybe you’re trying to say there’s a third category, in which the continuity of spacetime exists. I don’t think I understand what qualifies something to be in that category.

    Am I following you at all?

  19. BTW, can you do something about this textarea going off the side of my page at 800×600? šŸ™‚ I can’t see what I’m typing unless I shrink the text enough to blur my vision.

  20. Mark says:

    JA,
    I think you’re following me. So, would you agree then, that atheist argument largely talks about substantialism or what Palamas would call the energies of God or evidence in the “first” category but doesn’t speak much about meta-topics like these categories and/or things which might not have abstract or fictional character, which however exist but are not tangible (and their properties and features).

    I think consciousness (your awareness of self) goes in this category as well. It not a thing which is tangible or can be measured and “held”, but nevertheless it exists.

  21. I’m not sure I accept your concept of things which exist but are not tangible. “Consciousness” is measurable even if we haven’t completely unraveled it, just as it was possible to measure the approximate heat of the sun without understanding nuclear energy.

    I feel like you and Zizioulas are simply playing word games, obscuring categories enough to rationalize claiming God’s existence when by any reasonable definition of “existence,” it’s clear He doesn’t.

  22. Mark says:

    JA,
    Heat of the sun, much less of anything is not something that would ever go in a category of things which are not tangible but which exist.

    What do you mean by measuring my awareness that I exist?

    Every theory of the world (with very very few exceptions) which we have (in physics) is based on continuous differentiable manifolds. Every measurement we can ever make yields only rational numbers as results. If (as is likely) the underlying reality is continuous, then it is axiomatic that we will not be able to verify that with our devices which supply only rational numbers as results. This is not a word game, it is a hole in your idea that things which are intangible cannot exist.

  23. There are things which are tangible that we can’t measure precisely. In fact, we can’t measure anything beyond a certain degree of precision. That’s the reason all numerical measurements are rational numbers. Although, even then if we measure two sides of a 90 degree isosceles triangle, we’ve in essence measured an irrational number as well.

    I don’t see what any of that has to do with God.

    Consciousness, to the extent we may be sure it exists, may be measured with any number of neurological tests or interviews. We can also measure the lack of consciousness or lack of portions of consciousness as in Oliver Sacks’ books.

  24. Mark says:

    JA,
    If you are unsure that consciousness exists, I’m confused or … to use your words, “you are simply playing word games.” I don’t think Oliver Sacks’ notions of partial consciousness impact Sartre’s existential arguments on being the way you think they do.

    I’m confused by what you mean by “things which are tangible, but which we cannot measure”?

    I’m a little confused as to why you think you’ve “measured” an irrational algebraic number by your rational number result of the side of a 90 triangle. It’s only theoretically irrational. In “reality” it might not be 90 degrees nor irrational at all. What is that side’s length really? Is the length of that side rational or irrational? Is an electron point-like? These are all things which are not measurable axiomatically, yet which we ascribe a reality (i.e., the reality of continuity) different than we do to Superman/Care Bears.

  25. Mark,

    Why is this so hard? I’m just trying to figure out what you’re talking about. Let’s try not to get sidetracked.

    Questions:

    1) Are you arguing that God exists in a category of things which are real but intangible? If not, what category are you putting him in, and what else is in the same category?

    2) Are you further arguing that things like perfect triangles and/or the continuity of the universe exist in the same category?

    3) Is Zizioulas complaining that atheists put God into a different category (real and tangible?) when we claim he doesn’t exist?

  26. Mark says:

    JA,
    šŸ™‚

    “Answers”:

    1. I’m arguing that there are more categories than tangible=real and non-tangible=not real. And that God does not fit well in the simple categories as noted above. My other exmples are to demonstrate that God is not the only thing that has difficulty being placed into a tangible=real/non-tangible=not-real categorization.
    2. Triangles are part of spacetime. This is used as an example of things which lie outside your simple classification include things like continuity and consciousness. I don’t know if they are in the same category of God, but it to demonstrate that more categories are necessary.
    3. Zizioulas, as I read it, complains that atheists by and large put God in one of the “simple” categories but above, but don’t consider ontology (categorization and its implications) instead concentrate on substantialism (tangibility?). Or as he says, “how” God might exist (i.e., in what manner).
  27. Iā€™m arguing that there are more categories than tangible=real and non-tangible=not real. And that God does not fit well in the simple categories as noted above.

    What category does he fit well in? He doesn’t fit in the same category as my left hand, as perfect triangles, or as Care Bears, so where does he fit?

    Is the category “supernatural?” That’s the traditional explanation, of course, but I didn’t get the impression that’s what you’re getting at.

  28. Mark says:

    JA,
    I will have to read on to try to understand more what the Maximus, the Cappadocians, Palamas and Zizioulas (Lossky too?) have to say (in light of Satre, existentialism, and other modern notions), which is the project at hand.

    My guess right now is that God goes in the category that God goes in (i.e., a unique category). My feeling is that he is an category more like spacetime continuity and less like Care Bears or your left hand.

    Before you object to uniqueness, recall the exceptional groups in the enumeration of all finite groups admit some classifications of sets in which there are unique objects of a particular type. Exceptions to a general classification can be unique and not necessarily obvious (e.g., the monster group)

  29. It still sounds to me like you’re trying to invent a clever way to say God exists even though he doesn’t.

  30. Mark says:

    JA,
    Golly, you sound like an atheist.

    I’m actually not trying to invent anything, just understand what a bunch of smart men meant by what they have set down on print.

  31. Mark,

    Golly, you sound like an atheist.

    Shocking, right? šŸ™‚

    Iā€™m actually not trying to invent anything, just understand what a bunch of smart men meant by what they have set down on print.

    I’m trying to understand it too. I think sometimes I’m perhaps too quick to assume that if I don’t understand something, it’s because it makes no sense. I’ve just seen so much bad religious argumentation, it’s hard for me to not be skeptical of theistic writing which is opaque to me.