Tuesday, June 11, 2013

"You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is"

In the most recent post by Faber, a number of interesting suggestions were made for possible discussion. One of them was by "Johannes":

It would be interesting to see a post on how Scotism can accomodate the message of a well-known private revelation which was even quoted by JP_II in his catechesis of August 7, 1985.

In his Life of Catherine of Siena, Bl Raymond of Capua records what St Catherine (1347-1380) had often told him Christ taught her when He first began appearing to her:

"Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fulness of grace, and truth, and light." (Life, no. 92. Original: "Tu sei colei che non è; Io sono Colui che è.")

In my view, "You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is." fits much better with the thomist philosophical framework than with the scotist. Because it shows unequivocally that "being" in us and in God must be understood analogically, not univocally.

From another angle, the key difference between us and God is that we are something of which "to be" is not part, i.e. "to be" is not part of our essence. But clearly we have an essence, therefore existence and essence are really distinct. In contrast, God's essence is "to be", therefore God's essence is his own (unreceived, unlimited and eternal) act of being.

I responded in the comments with what I meant to be a quick note, but which turned long enough for a post of its own, so I reproduce it here:

First, of course, Scotism doesn't really need to accommodate a private revelation as such, even an approved one, but the data of faith. That being said, the notion Johannes brings up ("You are that who is not; I Am He Who Is.") is a very common one and isn't at all in conflict with Scotus' thought.

It's important not to look at a theological or philosophical difference with Thomism and conclude that, since the Thomistic distinctions are not deployed, there's no way to accomplish what they accomplish. You have to look at Scotus' thought itself and see whether it conflicts with the datum explanandum.

Much of the "work" that Thomas accomplishes with the real distinction between being and essence is accomplished by Scotus through the deployment of the concept of intrinsic modes. God is being, and has being under the aspects of all the coextensive transcendentals; after that his most salient property is radical infinity. Everything but God is finite; in his infinity God is utterly, radically, supereminently other than every other being. Moreover there is no commensurability between the finite and the intensively actual infinite; by comparison with infinite being every finite being is, so to speak, equally infinitely deficient. We could say that the incommensurability is so great that next to infinite being every finite being is nil - I think Scotus would say, however, that this is true only metaphorically.

So we can see that the same "work" is performed; the radical otherness and distance between Creator and creature is preserved; but not using the same distinctions, because for Scotus the Thomist ones are ultimately incoherent. Whether he's right about that or not, however, has little bearing on whether his own system of thought achieves the same result.

From another angle, the key difference between us and God is that we are something of which "to be" is not part, i.e. "to be" is not part of our essence. But clearly we have an essence, therefore existence and essence are really distinct.

Again, Scotus accomplishes the same end but by using a different set of conceptual tools. For him as for the Franciscan tradition commonly, the real distinction between essence and existence contains an incoherence, because a real distinction implies that one or both of the distincta can exist without the other; but the essence can't exist without having existence, and the existence of an essence can't exist without existing under that essence. So neither essence nor existence has real being without the other; so they are not really distinct.

However, the difference between Creator and creature is preserved in another (hopefully more coherent) form, by adverting to the radical contingency of the creature on the one hand and the radical necessity of the Creator on the other. Contingent being by definition is utterly dependent on another and is open to both being and non-being, receiving being only thanks to the intellect and will of some being which is utterly non-contingent. It's just that the act of creation isn't conceived of as taking some vessel of essence and filling it up or infusing it with an act of existence. The becoming of the essence into real being is just its becoming existent.

Another way to say this is to agree with the Thomist that ""to be" is not part of our essence", but on the other hand to deny that "to be" is part of the divine essence, because a) the divine essence has no parts, and b) "to be" is not the sort of thing that can be the content of a quidditative ratio. What we would say instead is that the divine essence is such that it can only exist under the modes of infinity and necessity, while every finite essence is such that it can only exist under the modes of finitude and contingency.


Johannes said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response, which was exactly of the kind I was asking for.

Re approved private revelations, this one was particularly interesting because it is a divinely provided exegesis of Ex 3:14, and specifically a divine confirmation that the Septuagint translation of "I Am Who I Am" into "I Am He Who Is" conveyed the correct sense.

Re your response, there is a specific concept that I want to discuss: "the essence can't exist without having existence".

Let's discuss it on a specific case: the woolly mammoth. Clearly they don't have existence any more, but they do have an essence: we know their aspect and, what's more, we have sequenced their DNA, so we might even be able to produce them by replacing the DNA of a fertilized elephant's egg cell with mammoth's DNA (I am not saying that doing that would be wise, although Mammothic Park could be a hit;-)

Someone might argue that mammothes do exist, only in a dead form. Which can be refuted by noting that, once we have sequenced their DNA, we can now burn to ashes all mammoth's corpses and even skeletons, and we could still produce them again from just their DNA code.

Someone might still do some hand waving by arguing that the existence of the mammoth's essence is due to the fact that mammothes themselves actually existed in the past. Which can be refuted with the case of the unicorn, noting that in a few years we might be able to actually produce one by identifying the DNA code that must be added to horse DNA to generate a tusk. In equation form:

narwhal DNA - beluga whale DNA = tusk DNA

horse DNA + tusk DNA = unicorn DNA

Which shows that, while unicorns have never had existence, the essence of a unicorn exists, to the point that in the next decade it could even be expressed as DNA code so that unicorns could be brought into existence (which of course would be really unwise).

Michael Sullivan said...


Thanks for your entertaining comment. I think Mammothic Park is a great idea! A place for men to get out of their cubicles and impress their wives by bringing down a mighty beast and feasting on its raw flesh!

I don't have a real complaint about the content of the private revelation; the exegesis of Ex 3:14 is traditional in latin theology at least as far back as Augustine and as you say is implied by the Septuagint. No problem. I just wanted to clarify the principle that theologians aren't obliged to square their thought with the content of private revelation if that content isn't already present in public tradition.

Anyway, on to the meat. First off, I'm no geneticist, but I'm not sure you can actually do such a thing as subtract the tusk DNA from the narwhal and add it to horse DNA to produce a unicorn. This way of looking at things implies that a substantial essence is nothing other than an aggregate of essential parts, which I think any Aristotelian would deny. The part springs forth from the whole because the part is imminently contained in the essence of the whole, not the other way around. I think it's a big mistake to take the DNA for the essence. The DNA is a chemical the body of the organism uses to express the essence - it's not identical with the essence itself. Sticking a bit of DNA into another bit to produce a hybrid doesn't automatically create a new substantial form. If you made a freak horse with a horn it would be a horse with an odd deformity: it wouldn't be attracted to virgins, it wouldn't grant wishes. Even if the deformity was heritable it would still be that you have simply produced a new variety of horse, not invented a new species. Or am I all wrong about this?

But on the broader point of "the essence can't exist without having existence", we need to get clear what we mean by existence, because this is crucial to resolving our dispute. You say: "while unicorns have never had existence, the essence of a unicorn exists"; I say the opposite. I don't deny that there "is" such a thing as the essence of unicorns and dragons, but I say that those essences don't exist, because for an essence to exist is for the thing to exist. "Humanity exists" means that there is at least one man, one substance whose essence is humanity. "Draconity exists" means that there is at least one dragon, one substance with the dragon-nature.

Now of course I admit along with you that we can identify and articulate non-existent essences such as draconity - I simply deny that this grants them existence. They have other, diminished, sorts of being: intentional being, intelligible being, possible being. But not real being, and existence is by definition real being.

So I say that 1) "the essence of a unicorn exists" is false but possibly true; 2) "the essence of a unicorn is a real (i.e. genuine) essence" is necessarily true; 3) "the essence of a unicorn has some sort of being" is also necessarily true; 4) "the essence of a unicorn has real, actual being" is again false but possibly true and is equivalent to both 1) and to the proposition "some unicorn exists"; while 1a) "the essence of a square circle exists" is necessarily false; 2a) "the essence of a square circle is a real essence" is also necessarily false; 3a) "the essence of a square circle has some sort of being" is true, but not in the sense that 3) is true, since a square circle has intentional being (I can think of it and formulate it) but not possible being (it can never exist because it contains a radical incoherence); 4a) "the essence of a square circle has real, actual being" is, once more, necessarily false.

Does this clear things up any?

Johannes said...

Before dealing with the topic under discussion, I'd like to mention that the ontological exegesis of Ex 3:14 is not exclusive of Latin theology.

St Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329 – 389 or 390). Fourth Theological Oration [1]:

"As far then as we can reach, He Who Is, and God, are the special names of His Essence; and of these especially He Who Is, not only because when He spake to Moses in the mount, and Moses asked what His Name was, this was what He called Himself, bidding him say to the people “I Am has sent me”, but also because we find that this Name is the more strictly appropriate. For the Name theos (God), ... would still be one of the Relative Names, and not an Absolute one; ... But we are enquiring into a Nature Whose Being is absolute and not into Being bound up with something else. But Being is in its proper sense peculiar to God, and belongs to Him entirely,"

Back to topic, I see that the unicorn was a very unhappy example. I should have stayed with the mammoth, which of course is a viable animal, and not only a different species than the elephant but also a different genus. Actually, as you can read in wikipedia, "in 2011, Japanese scientists announced plans to clone mammoths within six years" [2] and "as the woolly mammoth genome has been mapped, a complete strand of DNA may be synthesised in the future."

Anyway, the example could be even simpler: a deadly avian flu wipes out all ducks on Earth, but we have already sequenced their DNA. For an interval of a few years all that remains of ducks is memories, visual representations in photos and statues, and the binary representation of their DNA in computer disks. Let's call that interval ND (No Ducks). Once we develop an antidote for the flu, we synthesize ducks' DNA, take fertilized egg cells of geese, replace their DNA with ducks', and voila ducks are back. (Please don't ask why geese were not affected by the flu.)

Having now an unproblematic scenario (except for ducks), we can focus on the different meaning that the concept of "the existence of an essence" has for thomists and scotists, which as you said is the crucial point.

For a scotist, during ND (copying from your previous comment and replacing unicorn by duck):

1) "the essence of a duck exists" is false but possibly true;

2) "the essence of a duck is a real (i.e. genuine) essence" is necessarily true;

3) "the essence of a duck has some sort of being" is also necessarily true; (maybe "potential", "virtual", "representational" being?)

4) "the essence of a duck has real, actual being" is again false but possibly true and is equivalent to both 1) and to the proposition "some duck exists";

Thus, for a scotist an essence exists when some entity with that essence exists, where in both cases "to exist" means "to have actual being" as opposed to be only in minds, books, etc.

I'll leave stating the thomistic position on the issue to professional, card-carrying thomists, as I'm just a dilettante. I'd only like to point out that I differ regarding statement 3a on the square circle. IMV its essence has no kind of being at all, since the very concept is a logical self-contradiction and therefore you are not really thinking of it. In contrast, a flying pig is a physical impossibility but not a logical self-contradiction.

[1] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf207.iii.xvi.html

[2] When the Fukushima nuclear accident happened within two months of the announcement, I immediately related the two events and interpreted the second as a hint from Heaven of the utter senselessness of trying to play God. But I doubt that the people involved got the message.

Michael Sullivan said...

IMV its essence has no kind of being at all, since the very concept is a logical self-contradiction and therefore you are not really thinking of it.

Is there a difference between a) a square circle and b) a spherical cube? Of course there is: one has two dimensions and one has three. When I think of a) I'm thinking of something other than b), and vice versa. In neither case am I simply thinking of nothing. It isn't true that I'm verbalizing without corresponding conceptual content. a) and b) are both radically incoherent and thus are not real essences; but we can still articulate them. They each contain a contradiction; but not every incoherence is identical with regard to its formal content.

To take a scholastic example: St Thomas believes that an infinite past, while not actual, is possible. St Bonaventure and others believe that not only is an infinite past not actual, but that the very notion contains a deep incoherence (I've discussed his arguments in an earlier post). Who is right? For our purposes here it doesn't matter. Let's say St Bonaventure is right and St Thomas defends a position which contains a deep but hidden contradiction. Nevertheless it's not true that in so doing he is thinking of and defending nothing, because thinking of and defending the possibility of an infinite past is quite another thing than thinking of and defending the possibility of a square circle.

"I'm thinking of a plane figure the points of which are all equidistant from the center and which has equal sides and four right angles."

What am I thinking of? Is the correct answer "nothing"? Well, the correct answer is nothing either actual or possible, but not nothing strictly speaking, because I'm not thinking of non-being per se, and I'm not thinking of democratic monarchy. There is a correct answer, and you and I can think it and together, and you can infer it from my definition: the correct answer is "a square circle". So, while what I'm thinking of has neither actual nor possible nor, strictly speaking, intelligible being, it does have intentional being and a certain (deeply incoherent) quidditative content.

Michael Sullivan said...

A final example. Perhaps a majority of philosophers alive today are deeply committed to the proposition that minds are wholly material. I, and most likely you, think that this contains a radical incoherence, implying, among other things, that universals are particular, which is a contradiction. But it's simply not the case that in defending materialism philosophers are defending "nothing" or that in thinking about minds, which they regard as material, they are thinking about nothing. Defending materialism is not defending astrology, an equally incoherent but very different position.

Johannes said...

Yes, in that statement "thinking" needed qualification by an appropriate adverb, which was not "really".

Re your last example, there are different kinds of incoherence. One kind is when the concept that you are articulating is incoherent in itself, without taking into account anything else, such as a square circle or a 4-sided triangle. Another kind is when the concept is incoherent only when taking into account other facts, such as a mind emergent from matter when taking into account abstract concepts like universals.

In my statement in question I was referring only to the first kind.

Johannes said...

Back to the original subject, I've just thought that it would be useful to provide a brief statement of the core tenet of philosophical theism for each school, so that they can be easily compared. So, in case you already have one such statement, or are in the mood of writing one, I provide below one such statement from Thomism that I already had. Needless to say, any professional Thomist may provide a better one.

To note, I am definitely not proposing to start a discussion comparing or criticizing the tenets, just to have them stated side by side.


Anything in the universe, and the universe itself, is a contingent being, a compound of essence and act of being (“esse” aka existence), so that its act of being is:
- received,
- limited by its essence, and
- changeable over time, as previously unrealized potencies are realized into act.

God is not “a” being, however great, perfect or supreme, but the Subsistent Act of Being Itself (“Ipsum Esse Subsistens”), so that his Act of Being is:
- unreceived, i.e. from Itself,
- not limited by an essence, and thus infinite, because God’s Essence is his own Subsistent Act of Being, and
- eternal, which is not the same as everlasting, as there can be no change in God since there are no unrealized potencies in Him.

Here I (mostly) follow the convention to capitalize the verb “to be” when it is meant in a subsistent way, to signify that Being in a subsistent way is essentially different than being in a contingent way.

Therefore, while for any creature X, which is a contingent being:

X = X’s essence + X’s (contingent) act of being

for the Creator, Who is the Subsistent Act of Being Itself:

God = God’s Essence = God’s (Subsistent) Act of Being = Subsistent Act of Being Itself

Therefore the very essence of God, and only of God, is Being (as a verb) in a subsistent, i.e. unreceived, unlimited and unchanging way. Therefore God could be defined, to the extent that we can conceive Him, as “He Who Is” or “the One Who Is”.

So far it was purely philosophical reasoning. Moving on to divine Revelation, we read in Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM “; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

whence the ineffable Tetragrammaton, meaning “He Who Is”. Thus we see a convergence of the philosophy of being, i.e. ontology, and divine Revelation.