Recently, “The Laborious Game,” a philosophy blog here on WordPress, shared some interesting thoughts on naturalism, Spinoza, and theism. In this post I want to offer a reply to some (but not all) of the ideas at play in that post. While the aforementioned post motions towards the differences between classical theism and neotheism, I would like to flesh out those differences a little more fully. Having no formal training in philosophy, however, I must state up front that I am very thankful to all who offered me their ideas.
Arguments are only as good as their presuppositions. Aristotle used the term proton psuedos to describe how an original error could render even the most complex and meticulous philosophical system null and void (even if the conclusions follow from the premises). 
When modern “neotheists” or “theistic personalists” (to use a term coined by the Dominican philosopher Brian Davies) talk about God, they do so using a conception of God which is entirely out of sync with the bulk of the great faith traditions, East and West. I will refer to this older general milieu as classical theism. The Laborious Game is to be commended, however, for mentioning both forms of theism. But I hope in this post to throw into starker relief the differences between classical theism and the neotheism of thinkers like Richard Swinburne.
A Definition of God
Let’s begin with a definition of the classical theist conception of God. Please indulge me in sharing a lengthy quote from the continental philosopher David Bentley Hart. As a Catholic, I cannot say I agree with all aspects of Hart’s theology (I don’t even find him all that original a thinker), yet when it comes to giving definitions of barebones classical theism, he is hard to beat. He writes:
“God is not “the supreme being” or any kind of being among other beings; God is Being itself. God doesn’t “exist” as you and I exist: rather, he is existence itself. He isn’t composite and is therefore indissoluble; he is infinite and unconditioned and therefore not dependent on anything else; he is eternal and so does not come into being; he is the source of his own being and hence in him there is no division between what he is and that he is.
These affirmations arrive chiefly as a sort of deductive negation from all the obvious conditions of finitude. One can see what it is about, for instance, a tree that makes it contingent. And thusone can see how these same features must be absent from the uncaused cause onwhich things like trees depend. […]
The very idea that there could be such a thing as ‘necessary being’ seems a difficult one for many modern Anglophone philosophers who, fettered as they are to certain analytic presuppositions, think of necessity as only a logical property of certain propositions, such as mathematical axioms. And, frankly, many theistic analytic philosophers who feel they have to justify the idea in terms amenable to those presuppositions often create the greatest confusions of all. I should step back before completing that thought, however. And point out that philosophers often distinguish between the claim that something is ‘metaphysically necessary’ and the claim that something is ‘logically necessary’. The former would describe something that, if it happens to exist at all, also possesses the quite wondrous attribute of being eternal and incapable of dissolution. Aristotle, for instance, considered the cosmos to be necessary in this sense, since he believed it to be without an origin and incapable of coming to an end. Necessity of this sort is a kind of property inhering in a certain kind of substance, but is in no way an explanation of the existence of that substance. To say that something is metaphysically necessary is to say only that it is physically unoriginated and indestructible. But this still tells us nothing of why that thing exists at all. In the case of God, therefore, it would clearly not be enough to say that he possesses only metaphysical necessity. As the formidable atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie observed, any being that just happens to be necessary in this sense would be just there.
Quite inexplicably endowed with the strange but enviable, or for that matter unenviable, state of being incapable of not existing. Its just-thereness would be no less magical, no less purely happenstantial, so to speak, than that of the absolute contingent universe in which the naturalist believes. So, a God conceived as necessary in only this sense would not provide any ultimate solution to the question of existence, but would himself be just another existential mystery added to all the others. The regress of ontological causes would still not have reached back to its first term. […]
The great theistic philosophers have always understood this. Thomas Aquinas and Ibn Sina, for instance, were willing to use the term necessity in its Aristotelian acceptation and so to ascribe metaphysical necessity to a number of created things, but they also quite clearly stipulated that such necessity was only of a derivative kind- a necessity by way of another. God alone, by contrast, has necessity in and of himself. That is, if the word “God” has any meaning at all it must refer to a reality which is not just metaphysically indestructible but “necessary” in the fullest and most proper sense. It must refer to a reality that is logically necessary, and that therefore provides the ultimate explanation of all other realities without need of being explained in turn. Logical necessity is nothing less than the analytic, that is, the a priori impossibility of something either not existing otherwise than it is. It is, in a sense, perfectly convertible with the essence of what it defines, in the way that the necessity of a mathematical equation is convertible with the correct definition of all the parts of that equation. […]
To put the matter very simply, the great traditions would not speak of God merely as some being who might exist in some possible world, if only because that seems to make God’s reality conditional on some set of prior logical possibilities, which would appear to exclude real logical necessity from his nature at the outset, as well as to contradict the essential claim that He, and He alone is the source of all reality. Rather, they proceed in just the opposite fashion, and seek to show that the logical possibility of any world at all is conditional on the prior logical necessity of God. That is to say, God is not “a being” who “might” and therefore “must” exist, but is absolute being as such, apart from whom nothing else could exist, either as a possibility or as an actuality. In God, logical possibility does not translate into logical necessity. It is instead God’s necessity as the unconditioned source of all things that makes any world possible in the first place. In the simplest terms, no contingent reality could exist at all if there were not a necessary dimension of reality sustaining its existence. And that is the dimension to which the word “God” properly points. […] That than which it is impossible to conceive anything greater is not a being among other beings, not even the “greatest possible of beings”, but is instead the fullness of being itself. The absolute plenitude of reality upon which all else depends. And manifestly, it would be meaningless to say that “being lacks being” or that “reality is not real.” [Ed. Yet, compare Kant on this below.]
What then, at last, does it really mean to say that “God is being” or “reality” or “the source and ground of all reality.” What does it mean to think of Him as Sufism’s al-Haqq, or Jewish mysticism’s Great Reality, or ‘Root of all Roots,’ or Thomas’s actus essendi subsistens (subsistent act of being), or Eckhart’s Istigkeit (‘Is-ness’), or so on? Can it mean anything at all? Or have all the intellectual traditions of the great faiths throughout their long histories – and despite the enormous number of very impressive minds that have contributed to them- been mired in sheer nonsense on this matter? Some contemporary philosophers- theist, atheist, and agnostic alike, think that they have been. They are quite mistaken, in fact, but theirs is at least an instructive mistake.
The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart
Now, Hart goes on to argue why this talk of God as being as such is not mystical obscurantism. But, my focus here is not to defend that matter at great length, but merely to highlight the difference in the basic concepts, for which the foregoing quote will suffice. At any rate, this essay is long enough as it is.
Now, having explored this notion of God not being a “being among beings” but rather “being as such,” let us finally get to one of the objections to theism which The Laborious Game mentions, this one citing Kant’s dictum that Being cannot be a property of anything:
“Consider, in addition to his claim that being cannot be a property of anything, this point made by Kant:”
There has been much written in response to Kant’s claim here (and it would seem Thomists can partially agree with him), so I won’t belabor the point, but please see the footnotes for further reading . Moving on:
“If the supreme being stood in this chain of conditions, then it would itself be a member of the series of these conditions; and thus it would–like the lower members to which it is superior–still require further investigation considering its own, still higher basis. On the other hand, if one wants to separate the supreme being from this chain and keep it–as a merely intelligible being–from also being included in the series of natural causes, then just what bridge can reason build so as to reach this being? For all laws of the transition from effects to causes–indeed, all synthesis and expansion of our cognition as such–pertain to nothing but possible experience; hence they pertain merely to objects of the world of sense and can have signification only in regard to them.”
Critique of Pure Reason, A621/B649
I bolded certain terms in the above quote because I want to draw out just how different Kant’s notion of God is from that of the classical theist. In both “horns” of this dilemma, clearly, the notion of pure being as such, pure actuality, in whom we live, and move, and have our being, is not really on his radar here. God is a discrete entity inhabiting the universe, apparently. Of course, for the classical theist, such an entity would not and could not be called “God” at all. Kant makes his “ontological point” (to use the phrase of The Laborious Game) by completely bypassing the classical conception of God in both horns of his dilemma. For, as we have seen in the foregoing, God is not “a being,” not even “the supreme being,” but “pure being as such.” This Kantian objection passes by the classical theist notion of God in the same manner as two ships passing in the night. But, that’s not much of a response, so I will offer a few more.
②Even taken on Kant’s own terms (and arguing as a neotheist), could one not just say that God is a necessary being (a being that has to exist), and that only contingent beings need a cause? Why, exactly, is there a problem “connecting” a necessary being with the world of contingency? At least based on what has been provided, it remains unclear. (Credit to Alexander Pruss at Baylor for pointing this out to me).
③Of course, I do not wish to argue as a neotheist, and it is quite clear from the classical theistic definition of God which I provided above that the first “horn” of the dilemma has been set aside. What about the second horn? Kant’s dilemma here is a false one for the classical theist, as it has “bracketed out” two tools in our arsenal for deriving knowledge: 1) the via negativa and 2) the analogia entis. Kant, it would seem, needs both of these to be invalid in order for the dilemma to work.
＜The Via Negativa＞
For Kant (and Hume) a priori knowledge based on experience is invalid. Hume says there is only sensation, and Kant says a priori is innate without connection to unconditioned being. They create, based on these presuppositions, (internally) logically consistent systems of thought, to be sure, but why would the classical theist want to accept those presuppositions? The classical theist traditions also offer internally logically consistent systems of thought, and though it goes beyond the scope of this post, I would argue that whichever “knowledge loop” (that is, set of presuppositions followed through to their consistent conclusions) offers the greater explanatory power for the mystery of being should be preferred to those which offer less explanatory power. But back to the Via Negativa.
Listen to Aquinas,
“Now, the mode of supereminence in which the abovementioned perfections are found in God can be signified by names used by us only through negation, as when we say that God is eternal or infinite, or also through a relation of God to other things, as when He is called the first cause or the highest good. For we cannot grasp what God is, but only what He is not and how other things are related to Him, as is clear from what we said above.”
Summa Contra Gentiles (book 1 ch. 30 article 4)
Or, as Hart puts it more simply above,
“One can see what it is about, for instance, a tree that makes it contingent. And thus one can see how these same features must be absent from the uncaused cause on which things like trees depend.”
Anyone with knowledge of being can, through negation, arrive at knowledge of not-being. Any anyone with knowledge of contingent being can arrive, through negation, at what non-contingent being is like. This has been the hallmark of the thinkers of great theistic traditions from Ramanuja to Ibn Sina to Eckhart to Aquinas. Would Kant deny that we have knowledge of contingent being? Can we not negate what it is about a tree that makes it contingent? Perhaps the reason he says this is that in the Kantian system we cannot have knowledgeof reality at all- only perceptions and thoughts about those perceptions. We would prefer to speak in terms of “knowledge” as opposed to “thought” and “reality” as opposed to “perception.” As Etienne Gilson points out, a form of the “problem of the bridge” affects all Idealist systems. For all Idealist systems (and that includes Kant’s), once one starts with a percipi, the only place one is going to end up in the end is with a percipi. Yet the Realist (and that includes everyone I have mentioned in the classical theist tradition, from Ramanuja to Aquinas) does not start with a percipi. And thus, from different presuppositions and starting points flows this fundamental divergence.
＜The Analogia Entis＞
The second tool in our arsenal for deriving knowledge which Kant says that we cannot derive is that of the “Analogy of Being” or the Analogia Entis. Now, this is a controversial matter, even among classical theists. For the sake of brevity, I shall not delve into the debate here, but merely remark that in a moderate realist schema such as the one utilized by Aquinas, it seems to me perfectly valid to, abstracting by degrees, rise via proportionality to an analogous knowledge of pure being as such. Thus one commentator writes “Thomas’s thought culminates not in a via negativa but in a via eminentia. […]Thomas intends to express through proportionality, which sets no limit to transcendence yet retains the analogical connection founded in the act of the creature which is of course bestowed by God[…]”
④Finally, and an aside, according to all the major classical theistic traditions, God is metaphysically simple and so does not have any accidental properties. Here, it would seem that Kant is treating existence as an accidental property which admits of greatness, while God, as perfectly simple, cannot admit of more greatness.
Spinoza and Naturalism
“The scholastics start from things; Descartes starts from thought; I start from God.”
Baruch Spinoza (as quoted in ‘Methodical Realism’ by Etienne Gilson)
The one above is a tantalizing proposition, and I must confess that somewhere, my sympathies are with Spinoza. His desire for divine immanence is one reflected in all major theistic traditions.
Consider St. Augustine,
“God is at once both nearer to what is inmost to me and beyond what is highest in me.”
Yet, as the Kantian pole leaves us with an utterly transcendent God which we can have no knowledge of, the Spinozist pole takes us to the opposite extreme- a completely immanentized deity. Only in classical theism is the delicate tightrope walk pulled off, both of these extremes avoided, and we arrive at Pure Being as Such, the God who is at once immanent and transcendent.
I do not wish to write some sort of “refutation” of Spinoza (even if such a thing were possible, it’s certainly beyond the scope of my meager abilities, and at any rate, such decisive victories are quite rare in philosophy). Rather, I merely would like to offer some thoughts on why his position, from any Aristotelian perspective, does not get off the ground.
As the Existential Thomist philosopher Etienne Gilson points out, there are some critical issues with Spinoza’s idea of “starting from God” from the outset, which we can refer to as the problem of “metaphysical fissure,” which runs between necessary and contingent being, and between uncreated and created being. The relationship here is an asymmetrical one. The latter cannot be deduced from the former, while the former can be deduced from the latter.
“Not only can one not deduce the existence of the [contingent] world from the existence of God, but equally, because we are ourselves part of the world, our knowledge comes up against the same metaphysical breach as our being. The human mind cannot have God as its natural and proper object. As a creature, it is directly proportioned only to created being, so much so that instead of being able to deduce the existence of things from God, it must, on the contrary, of necessity rest on things in order to ascend to God.”
Etienne Gilson, Methodical Realism pp. 52-53
I should point out that, from an Aristotelian-Thomist perspective, God’s essence just is his existence. Only in God are these two unified. Contingent beings (creatures like us, for example), participate in God’s pure existence. This, coupled with what I outlined above, overcomes the fissure between creator and creation. But we have to start with our natural object.
The Laborious Game also gives us this tentative definition of naturalism,
“Thus, one might define naturalism in terms of the following conditions:
- All beings are governed by the same principles.
- All beings are logically contingent.”
Notice here how the question of being as such is not so much answered, but avoided (or so it seems). We are led once again, by the contingency of all things to look with wonder (which Plato and Aristotle tell us is the beginning of all true philosophy ) to that great mystery, the wellspring and ground of being, in whom we live, and move, and have our being (via participation, of course).
I should stop here, though, and say that while I do believe Spinozism is completely incompatible with classical theism (at least in the forms I am familiar with), it does indeed seem that it is Spinozism which is causing The Laborious Game to, at certain points in his post, cast an eye toward certain concepts associated with classical theism. And if it’s Spinozism that gets people to thinking about some classical theist ideas, well, I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much.
A Note on Swinburne
The Laborious Game shares the following thought-provoking passage from Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God.
I do not believe that there can be any absolute explanations of logically contingent phenomena. For surely never does anything explain itself.[…] For a full explanation is, as we have seen, such that the explanandum (that is, the phenomenon requiring explanation) is deducible from it. But you cannot deduce anything logically contingent from anything logically necessary. The Existence of God, Chapter 4
Having no formal philosophical training of my own, I must say that I am not in a position to tango with Swinburne on this. I did, however, reach out to Dr. Alexander Pruss at Baylor University, who had this to say on the matter:
The view that if p explains q, then q logically follows from p has been rejected by more and more philosophers of science starting with the 1960s, and I doubt any major figure holds it now. See Salmon’s Four Decades book. Scientific explanation almost never satisfies the entailment condition. I discuss this in my book on the PSR. What about full explanation instead of just explanation? I am dubious. In any case, the PSR concerns explanation.
I shall simply leave this note hanging here for reflection at a later date.
Concluding Remarks on Ideas Going out of Fashion
Over the course of this essay I cited some ideas which are far from what is considered mainstream these days. Furthermore, the philosophers I cited are far from household names (inasmuch as philosophers become household names, at least). One might even be forgiven for thinking that I trotted out a “coterie of cranks”  for my responses. And as The Laborious Game points out, by way of a question, aren’t most philosophers atheists? Out of fashion as they are, doesn’t the very fact that these thinkers and their ideas occupy some realm of academic obscurity tell us something about their truthfulness? Surely it is wiser to remain in the warm, comfortable light of “philosophical consensus,” right? I ask to be indulged one last time as I defer to Hart for an answer to these questions.
“If philosophy had the power to establish incontrovertible truths, immune to doubt, and if philosophers were as a rule wholly disinterested practitioners of their art, then it might be possible to speak of progress in philosophy. In fact, however, the philosophical tendencies and presuppositions of any age are, to a very great degree, determined by the prevailing cultural mood or by the ideological premises generally approved of by the educated classes. As often as not, the history of philosophy has been a history of prejudices masquerading as principles, and so merely a history of fashion. It is as possible today to be an intellectually scrupulous Platonist as it was more than two thousand years ago; it is simply not in vogue. Over the last century, Anglo-American philosophy has for the most part adopted and refined the methods of “analytic” reasoning, often guided by the assumption that this is a form of thinking more easily purged of unexamined inherited presuppositions than is the “continental” tradition. This is an illusion. Analytic method is dependent upon a number of tacit assumptions that cannot be verified in their turn by analysis: regarding the relation between language and reality, or the relation between language and thought, or the relation between thought and reality’s disclosure of itself, or the nature of probability and possibility, or the sorts of claims that can be certified as “meaningful,” and so on. In the end, analytic philosophy is no purer and no more rigorous than any other style of philosophizing. At times, in fact, it functions as an excellent vehicle for avoiding thinking intelligently at all; and certainly no philosophical method is more apt to hide its own most arbitrary metaphysical dogmas, most egregious crudities, and most obvious flaws from itself, and no other is so likely to mistake a descent into oversimplification for an advance in clarity. As always, the rules determine the game, and the game determines the rules. More to the point, inasmuch as the educated class is usually, at any given phase in history, also the most thoroughly indoctrinated, and therefore the most intellectually pliable and quiescent, professional philosophers are as likely as their colleagues in the sciences and humanities (and far more likely than the average person) to accept a reigning consensus uncritically, even credulously, and to adjust their thinking about everything accordingly. Happily, their philosophical training often aids them in doing so with a degree of ingenuity that protects them from the sharper pangs of conscience. […]
All I mean to urge here is that one should never be too naive regarding the quality of the current philosophical culture, or imagine that the most recent thinking is in any meaningful sense more advanced or more authoritative than that of a century or a millennium or two millennia ago. There are certain perennial problems to which all interesting philosophy returns again and again; but there are no such things as logical discoveries that consign any of the older answers to obsolescence. Certain classical answers to those problems endure and recur, sometimes because they remain far more powerful than the answers (or evasions) produced by later schools of thought. And, conversely, weaker answers often enjoy greater favor than their rivals simply because they are in keeping with the prejudices of the age.”
David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God
Aristotle, Prior Analyticus (the Organon), (1895b, p. 352, n. 1)
Joseph Owens, ‘Existence as Predicated’, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, https://www.pdcnet.org/collection/show?id=newscholas_1979_0053_0004_0480_0485&file_type=pdf
Gyula Klima, ‘The Semantic Principles Underlying Aquinas’s Philosophy of Being,’ https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/56624
(consider also: Gyula Klima, ‘On Kenny on Aquinas on Being: A Critical Review of Aquinas on Being’ https://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/FILES/Kenny.pdf )
Martin Heidegger, ‘The Basic Problems of Phenomenology’, page 91, “Existere is something other than essence; it has its being on the basis of being caused by another. ‘Omne quod est directe inpraedicamento substantiae, compositum est saltem ex esse et quod est’ (De veritate, q.27); each ens, therefore as ens creatum is a compositum “ex esse et quod“, of existing and of whatness. This compositum is what it is, compositio realis; that is to say, correspondingly: the distinctio between essentia and existentia is a distinctio realis. Esse, or existere, is conceived of also, in distinction from quod est or esse quod, as essequo or ens quo. The actuality of an actual being is something else of such a sort that it itself amounts to a res on its own account. If we compare it with the Kantian thesis, the Thomistic thesis says — indeed, in agreement with Kant — that existence, there-being, actuality, is not a real predicate; it does not belong to the res of a thing but is nevertheless a res that is added on to the essentia. By means of his interpretation, on the other hand, Kant wishes to avoid conceiving of actuality, existence, itself as a res; he does this by interpreting existence as relation to the cognitive faculty, hence treating perception as position.”
 Christopher J. Malloy, University of Dallas, reviewing Erich Przywara, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics: Original Structure and Universal Rhythm https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/analogia-entis-metaphysics-original-structure-and-universal-rhythm/
 Plato, ‘Theaetetus’ 155d, “[W]onder is the only beginning of philosophy…”
Aristotle, ‘Metaphysics’ 982b, “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophise…”
 Wesley C. Salmon, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation, 2006
 Alexander Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy) 2010
I should note that while the majority of philosophers in the Anglophone world are atheists (by one study, 62%), only a minority of philosophers specialize in the field known as Philosophy of Religion. Within this specialized field, however, a 2009 survey done by PhilPapers revealed that 72.3% were either theists or leaning towards theism.
While the Richard Swinburnes and Alvin Plantingas of the Anglophone world certainly seem to have won the day in terms of “philosophical celebrity” as theists, I would like to point out that there are a number of currently active classical theist philosophers who, though working mostly in obscurity, have published solid work on the subject. This list is by no means exhaustive:
・Brian Davies, Fordham University・Stephen R. L. Clarke, Univeristy of Liverpool・John Haldane, Baylor University/Royal Institute of Philosophy・Brian Leftow, Rutgers University・David Oderberg, University of Reading・Gyula Klima, Fordham University・Christopher Martin, University of Auckland・Eleonore Stump, University of St. Louis・Ed Feser, Pasadena City Community College・David Bentley Hart, Notre Dame・Rob Koons, University of Texas・Alexander Pruss, Baylor University・Thomas Weinandy, Dominican House of Studies・Robert Pasnau, University of Colorado, Boulder (Theist?)・Michael A. Augros, Thomas Aquinas College・Daniel Vecchio, Victor Valley College・John Knasas, University of St. Thomas, Houston・John P. Hittinger, University of St. Thomas, Houston・Bryan Cross, Mount Mercy University・Simon Oliver, University of Durham・James Dolezal, Cairn University・Gaven Kerr, Mary Immaculate College・Christopher F. J. Martin, University of St. Thomas・Thomas Joseph White, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas・John F. Wippel, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas・Anselm Ramelow, DSPT (Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology)