The Unintelligible Remainder

Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle? How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness? A look into the philosophical issues of being and knowing with John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Joseph Ratzinger, and David Bentley Hart.

“Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle? How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”

This is a question posed by David Bentley Hart in his recent book You Are Gods: On Nature and Supernature. I think it’s an interesting question and it touches on some of the most foundational issues in philosophy.

I’ll call that which could never be either perceived or thought of the “intelligible remainder”. It’s that which is left unperceived and unknown in all our perception and knowledge of things because it is intrinsically imperceptible, unknowable, and unintelligible to intelligent beings. To frame this idea it’s helpful to refer to the philosophy of John Locke and Immanuel Kant. The concepts of subject and object are important to both. Philosophically, a subject is a being who has a unique consciousness and unique personal experiences. An object is something that the subject observes, perceives, or relates to in some way. Both Locke and Kant concerned themselves with how thinking subjects relate to the objects of their experience, and in particular the limitations, or unintelligible remainder, of the subject’s grasp of the object.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke introduced what he called the primary and secondary qualities of things. As an example, for a light wave or a sound wave one primary quality would be its wavelength. Those are things that are in the objects themselves, independent of our perceptions of them. A secondary quality, by contrast, would be like the color of light or the pitch of a sound. These secondary qualities are not in the objects themselves but are products of our modes of perception. Secondary qualities are our own quirky human ways of perceiving things.

Immanuel Kant had some similar ideas. Instead of primary and secondary qualities, in his Critique of Pure Reason he used the terms noumena and phenomena. The noumenon is the thing-in-itself, the object as it really is, independent of our perception. The phenomenon is what we perceive of it. Kant stressed that we cannot know the noumena, the things themselves as they really are. We can only know the phenomena. Our knowledge of the world outside our heads is necessarily filtered or mediated.

Sometimes you might hear this in the form of the claim that we never actually see things themselves. What’s really happening is our brains are responding to a series of physical processes and biochemical reactions, as photons impinge on our retina and induce phototransduction in photoreceptor cells, resulting in a cascade of signals carried via the optic nerve to the visual cortex, and so on. In effect we are several layers of mediation removed from the world outside our heads. And a lot is left out in the process of translation.

What I call the unintelligible remainder is a feature of this kind of philosophy in which there is a gulf between things in themselves and our perceptions of them. There’s always something inaccessible to us. A remainder that is inaccessible or unintelligible. To put it in the form of a conceptual equation.

Things In Themselves – Our Perceptions of the Them = The Unintelligible Remainder

The unintelligible remainder is what’s left over; the aspect of things that remains inaccessible and unintelligible to us. What would that unintelligible remainder be? Well, it’s impossible to say because it’s intrinsically inaccessible and unintelligible to us. But then there’s another question. Why should we think that there is such an intelligible remainder? Why should we think that any such remainder exists if it’s something we can never really know anything about?

Let’s break such remainders down into two different types:

1. Things that we don’t know about but could know about
2. Things that we don’t know about and never could know about

How different are these? Maybe the difference is slight. Or maybe it’s huge, even ontological. 

We can reason inductively that there are a lot of things that we don’t know about but that we could know about because in the past there have been things that we didn’t know about at one point but later came to know about.

For example, even though we’ve always been able to see light and color we weren’t always aware of the quantifiable spectrum of wavelengths, and that it extended into wavelengths that we can’t see with our eyes, like with infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. But we can quantify and detect those wavelengths now. The fields of optics and quantum mechanics have further increased our understanding of light.

We can reason that we will continue to come to know about more things that we don’t currently know about. For example, we’ll certainly continue to learn more about the nature of light. Such things are obviously knowable and intelligible because we have come to know about them.

But we can’t reason inductively in the same way about things that we could never know about. Trivially, we’ve never come to know about something that is unknowable. Obviously. Why should we think that such unknowable things exist as an unintelligible remainder?

I think the reasoning about these two kinds of remainders is quite different so I want to dwell on this difference for a bit.

In the case of things that we don’t know about but could know about, we can reason that such things exist through inductive reasoning. We know this is how things have worked in the past. There have been aspects of things that we didn’t know about before that we’ve come to know about later. For any particular thing we can’t conclude deductively that there’s nothing left about it that we don’t know. But we kind of expect that there’s more there because that’s how it’s always been before.

But this kind of inductive reasoning doesn’t work for things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Why is that? Because we’ve never come to know about something that we could never know about. So it’s completely different.

But we kind of want to say still that things exist that we could never know about. Or that there are aspects of things that we could never know about. Why is that? Part of it may be a spill-over effect of our inductive reasoning about things that we didn’t know about but later came to know about. It seems like if there’s all this unknown stuff there should be stuff that we could never know about. And maybe there is a lot of stuff that we never will know about. But that’s different from stuff that we never could know about. Maybe another reason is humility, recognition of our own finitude and limited capacities. Humility is certainly admirable. But I’m not sure it’s enough to make that kind of positive claim. The only way I can see that we could really conclude that there do exist such unknowables would be some kind of indirect argument of impossibility, similar to the halting problem or Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. I don’t know of any such argument of impossibility for unintelligible remainders but it’s an intriguing possibility.

What about the alternative possibility that there is no unintelligible remainder? That everything that exists is intrinsically intelligible and could be perceived and thought of? Are there reasons to think that could be the case?

We can call the foregoing picture with Locke and Kant one of the “Cartesian subject”, which owes its name to the philosopher Rene Descartes. The basic model is of me here “inside” my head as a thinking subject, receiving sense data from objects “outside” in the world. So there’s this stark division between subject and object. This model of the Cartesian subject is quite powerful and intuitive. And it fits with the idea that there is an unintelligible remainder to the objects in the outside world, albeit inconclusively as previously discussed. But there are alternatives. I’ll talk about two: the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the classical philosophy of Logos.

Martin Heidegger was working out of the field of phenomenology, which is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness. But his primary focus was ontology, the philosophy of being. His work was an effort to explain the meaning of being, what it means for a thing to be. In Being and Time he first approached this question through the being of human beings, what he called “Dasein”, a German neologism for “there being”. He discarded the concept of the Cartesian subject, a subject separated from the world of objects, with its split between subject and object. Instead, for Heidegger we are “being in the world”.

The philosophy of Being and Time and Heidegger’s later philosophy is extremely vast so I’m only sticking to a few key points related to my topic. One way he describes being is as disclosure, as things being revealed. Many of his circumlocutions have the effect of keeping the active role away from any kind of Cartesian subject. Instead of us as subjects perceiving objects there is disclosure and being revealing things. Another interesting concept of his is the “clearing”, like a clearing in the woods. In the dense forest it is dark and obscure but in the clearing there is space to see things. I am like a clearing in the woods, a site of disclosure and revealing, where things are revealed around me. It’s a very unusual way of speaking but these circumlocutions have the aim of directing our thinking away from the subject-object split. 

Another important Heideggerian idea is that the disclosure of being to us comes in terms of our projects and interests. Things like tools are disclosed to us in the first place as tools rather than as atomic facts that we then deduce to be tools in a secondary way. Heidegger’s example is a hammer. In the Kantian view we’d receive raw sense data, percepts, that our minds would use “categories”, sort of like mental modules, to process into concepts. We’d see the raw sense data first and then our minds would process that it is a hammer. But Heidegger rejects that idea. For Heidegger we’re not isolated in our own minds looking out at the world, receiving raw sense impressions. We’re already in the world. We’re already in the workshop, smelling the sawdust, engaged in the activity of building something. The hammer is a tool for hammering as part of our project. We may not even “see” it when we’re using it if we’re really in the zone. It’s just part of a seamless flow of activity. This is a very different way of thinking.

One of the fascinating things about this is that it has very tangible implications in the field of artificial intelligence. If you think about the different approaches I’ve described here you can imagine that it will make a really big difference whether you approach AI in a Lockean, Kantian way versus a Heideggerian way. And I think this is actually one of the best ways to approach Heidegger’s thought. One of the major players in 20th century artificial intelligence was the Heideggerian philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. Here’s his account:

“In 1963 I was invited by the RAND Corporation to evaluate the pioneering work of Alan Newell and Herbert Simon in a new field called Cognitive Simulation (CS). Newell and Simon claimed that both digital computers and the human mind could be understood as physical symbol systems, using strings of bits or streams of neuron pulses as symbols representing the external world. Intelligence, they claimed, merely required making the appropriate inferences from these internal representations… As I studied the RAND papers and memos, I found to my surprise that, far from replacing philosophy, the pioneers in CS had learned a lot, directly and indirectly from the philosophers. They had taken over Hobbes’ claim that reasoning was calculating, Descartes’ mental representations, Leibniz’s idea of a ‘universal characteristic’ – a set of primitives in which all knowledge could be expressed, – Kant’s claim that concepts were rules, Frege’s formalization of such rules, and Russell’s postulation of logical atoms as the building blocks of reality. In short, without realizing it, AI researchers were hard at work turning rationalist philosophy into a research program.”

“…I began to suspect that the critical insights formulated in existentialist armchairs, especially Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s, were bad news for those working in AI laboratories – that, by combining rationalism, representationalism, conceptualism, formalism, and logical atomism into a research program, AI researchers had condemned their enterprise to reenact a failure.”

“…To say a hammer has the function of being for hammering leaves out the defining relation of hammers to nails and other equipment, to the point of building things, and to the skills required when actually using the hammer – all of which reveal the way of being of the hammer which Heidegger called readiness-to-hand.”

“…It seemed to me, however, that the deep problem wasn’t storing millions of facts; it was knowing which facts were relevant in any given situation. One version of this relevance problem was called ‘the frame problem.’ If the computer is running a representation of the current state of the world and something in the world changes, how does the program determine which of its represented facts can be assumed to have stayed the same, and which would have to be updated?”

I think that’s quite fascinating and one of the best examples I’m aware of where we can see that the opaque writing of a Continental philosopher is not just meaningless gibberish or gratuitous navel gazing without any actual implications. If we ever end up creating artificial intelligence with true self-consciousness – and I think we will – I suspect that one of these approaches will work and the other will not. And in the process that will tell us a lot about the generalized nature of self-consciousness as such, including the nature of our own self-consciousness. It may also tell us about the nature of being itself, what it means for things to be.

How does this relate to the question of the unintelligible remainder? I don’t think Heideggerian ontology addresses that as much as the approach I’ll be talking about next but I think there are some interesting things here to think about. What I see with Heidegger isn’t as much the elimination of a remainder as much as the presence of certain indispensables. And these are indispensables that in other frameworks seem less real or fundamental to the being of things; in other words, quite dispensable. We might think that what a hammer “really” is is a meaningless collocation of atoms. But in Heidegger’s ontology this is not how the being of the hammer is revealed to us. Far from it. That may not seem like a big deal. Why should the way we see things be so important or say anything about the way things really are? But here I’d go back to AI. For a self-conscious AI certain things are going to be indispensable for it to make its way around in the world. AI without the indispensables won’t work. And I’d say that’s because it won’t approach the world correctly. A self-conscious AI will have to see the world in terms of projects, activities, and interests, populated with things in terms of these interests. Those are the indispensables that make up the reality of our world. So in a reverse sort of way it may be that the Lockean-Kantian approach does have a remainder that the Heiderggerian approach is able to account for. 

The second alternative to the Cartesian subject I’d like to talk about is the classical philosophy of Logos. I talked about this in some detail in a previous episode, “Logos: The Intellectual Structure of Being”. Logos has its roots in Greek philosophy but has since been most developed in Christian philosophy. The two philosopher-theologians I’ll refer to here are Joseph Ratzinger and David Bentley Hart.

Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, gave an excellent overview of Logos in his book Introduction to Christianity, in which he calls Logos the “intellectual structure of being”. He says, “All being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought.” What implication does this have for the way we perceive and understand things? Ratzinger says: “There is also expressed the perception that even matter is not simply non-sense that eludes understanding, that it too bears in itself truth and comprehensibility that makes intellectual comprehension possible.” That’s the key. With the Logos all of reality is intellectual or, in other words, thought. There can be no unintelligible remainder to things when all of reality is itself thought in its innermost structure.

The process of perceiving the world in this view is not one of processing mere matter with our mental faculties. It’s a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself. As Ratzinger says: “All our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand.” As we conceive of the world through thought we are retracing the thought that comprises its essence. “The intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative pre-meditation, to which they owe their existence.”

Does this kind of intellectual structure to all of reality entail the existence of God? Ultimately it may. But I think there are a couple other ways to think about it. Consider three possibilities:

1. The rationality of reality is a conditional property, conditional on there being intelligent beings in reality.
2. The rationality of reality is independent of any intelligent beings.
3. The rationality of reality is the rationality of a mind that grounds reality.

Only the third requires God.

In the first option the rationality of reality is a conditional feature, a feature that reality would have if certain conditions were met, even if they are not otherwise actualized. Something of the form:

1. IF there are intelligent beings in reality.
2. AND IF any existing intelligent beings obtain some degree of accurate understanding of reality.
3. THEN such intelligent beings will find reality to be intelligible and rational.

This is probably the option that seems most immediately plausible and straightforward.

The second option moves away from a subjective understanding of rationality to an objective understanding. We can think of this just as consistency. For intelligent beings instrumental rationality is consistency between actions and intentions. But apart from intelligent beings we could think of consistency between states of affairs. At a most basic level, noncontradiction. For some state of affairs, S, it won’t be the case that both S and not-S.

Ratzinger calls this kind of objective consistency “objective mind”. There is at least an “as-if” quality to the intelligibility of reality. It is structured “as if” rationally constructed. I think it’s possible to work within that framework. But ultimately I follow Ratzinger in his view that “objective mind is the product of subjective mind and can only exist at all as the declension of it, that, in other words, being-thought (as we find it present in the structure of the world) is not possible without thinking.”

Let’s turn now to David Bentley Hart and his discussion of this in his book You Are Gods. He says:

“We are accustomed, here in modernity’s evening twilight, to conceive of our knowledge of the world principally as a regime of representation, according to which sensory intuitions are transformed into symbolic images by some kind of neurological and perceptual metabolism, and then subjected to whatever formal conceptual determinations our transcendental apperception and apparatus of perception might permit.”

This is a restatement of the fundamental problem at hand. As a thinking subject, I’m stuck inside my head, separated from the world out there, receiving and processing raw sense data, and trying to come up with a picture of the objects out in the world as best I can. But that picture is always incomplete and eludes intelligibility. As Hart says:

“Being in itself possesses an occult adversity or resistance to being known. All that we experience in experiencing the world, then, is an obscure, logically inexplicable, but unremitting correspondence between mind and world, one whose ontological basis is not a presumed primordial identity between them, but rather something like a pre-established harmony or purely fortuitous synchrony—or inexplicably coherent illusion.”

Some opaque language here but I’ll explain. What Hart calls the “occult adversity or resistance to being known” is what I’m calling the unintelligible remainder. As I sit isolated inside my head looking out into the world putting a picture of it together, the picture that I see has order and regularity. But why? Ratzinger says it’s because the world is intrinsically rational. If that were not the case the order and regularity would be remarkable indeed. This is what Hart means when he says it would be “purely fortuitous synchrony–or inexplicably coherent illusion.” But Hart rejects that idea and, like Ratzinger, sees reality as intrinsically rational. Like Ratzinger he understands our perception and knowledge of things to be a process that is parallel to the structure of reality itself.

“Mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”

“Being and knowing must, then, coincide in some principle of form.”

Being and knowing are fundamentally linked in such a way that ontology, the philosophy of being, and epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge, “coincide as a single event of manifestation, of Being’s disclosure, which is to say also, of the full existence of what is made manifest.” There are some interesting similarities here with Heidegger in Hart’s idea of the “disclosure” of Being. In Hart’s view, being and knowing are ultimately one and the same. He’s very skeptical of the idea that the way things “really” are is something intrinsically unintelligible that we could never access or perceive.

“Under the regime of representation, the intelligible is a veil drawn before the abyss of the unintelligible, and the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.”

This is the view he is going to criticize. That the unintelligible is more real than the intelligible.

“But what would it really mean to say that something exists that is, of its nature, alien to intelligibility? Can Being and knowing be wholly severed from one another without creating an intolerable contradiction? Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?”

“In principle” is a modifier that should not be overused but I think it’s appropriate here. The issue is not whether something currently is or can be perceived and thought of by finite human beings. As I said before, there’s been a lot of stuff that we haven’t been able to perceive or know about in the past that we’ve since gained the ability to perceive or know about by extending the reach of our innate capacities. Our innate capacities are the same as those of our ancestors 10,000 years ago. The things that are, in fact, perceivable and knowable to us were, in principle, perceivable and knowable to them. By analogy, there are things that are, in principle, perceivable and knowable to us that are not currently perceivable and knowable to us, in fact. With that in mind, Hart is asking if, with this most expansive possible understanding of the perceptive and intellectual capacities of intelligent beings, could anything exist that eludes them? That would be the unintelligible reminder. And he asks:

“How would such a reality be distinct from absolute nothingness?”

I’ll bring up again my distinction between things that we don’t know about but could know about and things that we don’t know about and never could know about. Certainly the first of these is distinct from absolute nothingness. We can reasonably conclude by inductive reasoning that lots of things exist that we don’t know about. But we cannot conclude with that same kind of inductive logic that there are things that exist that we never could know about. We might want to say that there are such unknowables out of humility. Or maybe we can reason toward their existence through some kind of argument of impossibility. But Hart thinks that: “The more rational assumption is… that in fact mind and world must belong to one another from the first, as flowing from and continuously participating in a single source.”

“It certainly seems reasonable to assume that Being must also be manifestation, that real subsistence must also be real disclosure, that to exist is to be perceptible, conceivable, knowable, and that to exist fully is to be manifest to consciousness.”

Why is that the more rational assumption? Hart doesn’t really explain that but I don’t disagree. Everything we do know about the world indicates that it is rationally structured and we have no knowledge of anything that isn’t. That’s not an absolutely conclusive reason but I think it’s a compelling reason to think that everything that exists is rationally structured, perceivable, and intelligible.

“So long as any absolute qualitative disproportion remains between Being and knowing, then, Being cannot become manifest, and so is not. Being must be intelligible, or even intelligibility itself. The perfectly unintelligible is a logical and ontological contradiction.”

There are some interesting ideas here that I think could use some further development. If the perfectly unintelligible, what I’ve been calling the unintelligible remainder, really is a logical and ontological contradiction that would be a compelling refutation of the existence of the unintelligible remainder. It looks like that argument for such logical and ontological contradiction would involve a demonstration of the necessary connection between being and manifestation, or being and disclosure as Heidegger put it. That what it means for something to be is a process of unconcealment and disclosure.

So going back to the opening question. “Could anything truly exist in such a fashion that it could never be either perceived or thought of, even if only in principle?” Is there an ineliminable, unintelligible remainder to all our knowledge and perception? I don’t think there is. I suspect that a great deal falls into the class of things that we don’t know about. Probably the vast majority of the things that make up reality. Nevertheless, I think they are all things that we don’t know about but could know about because all of reality is rationally structured and mind and world, thought and being, flow in parallel from the same source.

Classical Theism

A brief introduction to classical theism. Classical theism is a systematic understanding of God shared among many Christian, Jewish, Pagan, Muslim, and Hindu thinkers throughout history. It is primarily philosophical rather than scriptural in origin, but it also opens up an intellectual space for understanding theism as a plausible and reasonable way to see reality. And so it makes for a useful point of entry into the world of scripture and religious experience.

With this episode I would like to do some systematic theology and focus on the most foundational subject of theology: God. Systematic theology is theology that pursues an orderly, rational, and coherent method. There are benefits to the systematic, orderly approach, which I want to take advantage of here. But it is admittedly not characteristic of the texts of scripture, which are often disorderly, uncanny, and occasionally contradictory. The systematic approach is a convenient way to understand and analyze theological concepts, but it’s usually not the way we actually encounter these things in religious experience. I’m reminded here of Blaise Pascal’s statement: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers.” There’s much to be said for that sentiment. Nevertheless the systematic approach still has significant utility for comprehension and analysis. In talking about God in this systematic way the understanding of God I will take is that of classical theism.

In what follows I just want to lay out what classical theism is. I won’t get too much into arguments or proofs for God or for classical theism. That’s another topic. But I hope that just presenting what classical theism is will show it to be a very plausible and reasonable thing to believe. Even before taking any steps to argue for it or prove it.

First some definitions. Theism is the belief in the existence of God or gods. Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. Classical theism is the belief that God is the source of all things. In more technical terms classical theism is the belief that God is metaphysically absolute. Classical theism is a form of monotheism but it’s more theoretically developed. It takes the belief that there is only one God and analyzes what that means, the way in which there is only one God, what this one God must be like. This is what makes it systematic, theological, and philosophical.

What does it mean for God to be metaphysically absolute, the source of all things? There are two major ways for there to be only one God. They are quite different and imply very different things about God’s nature. One way is for there to be a pre-existing reality in which God exists, a reality that is independent of God and prior to God. There’s a universe that happens to have a God in it and there’s only one God. The other way, the way of classical theism, is for God to be prior to everything. There is nothing without God. All reality depends on God for its existence. We could think of these loosely as God being inside all reality versus God being outside or beyond all reality.

In classical theism all of reality derives from God and depends on God. It’s even possible for God to be the only thing that exists. But it’s actually not possible for God not to exist. This is to say that God is absolutely necessary. Nothing else is necessary in this way. Everything else is contingent. It is possible for everything else not to exist. But it is not possible for God not to exist.

Classical theism tends to be philosophical, trans-religious, and trans-scriptural, meaning that it spans many religions and the texts of many religious traditions. Throughout history classical theists have been Christian, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu. Obviously classical theists in each of these traditions disagree on a lot. But they tend to agree in their classical theism and in their understanding of God’s primary attributes, even if they disagree on the specific things they believe God to have done in human history. Pagan classical theists include Plotinus and Proclus. Jewish classical theists include Philo of Alexandria and Maimonides. Christian classical theists include Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas. Muslim classical theists include Ibn Sina, and Ibd Rushd. I also think that many of the ideas of Hindu thinkers like Shankara and Ramanuja have much in common with classical theism.

What’s interesting about classical theism is that it basically starts from the premise of God’s metaphysically absolute nature and derives God’s attributes from there. These attributes often coincide with scripture, albeit not always perfectly, which is an important theological issue. But that’s also a topic for another time. The attributes of God in classical theism include the following:

Aseity
Necessity
Simplicity
Eternity
Immutability
Immateriality
Omnipotence
Omniscience
Perfect Goodness

Aseity is not a well-known term but it’s very important to the topic. The word comes from Latin “a se” meaning “from self”. Aseity is the property by which a being exists of and from itself, and not from anything else. God’s aseity means that God does not depend on anything else for his existence; not on the universe, not on anything it all.

Necessity is when something cannot fail to be the case. For example, logical truths are generally considered to be necessarily true. An example would be the proposition “If p and q, then p”. This would seem to be necessarily true. It couldn’t be otherwise. Philosophers might still debate that but it should at least be clear what we’re talking about with necessity. God’s necessity means that God cannot not exist. Understanding why that is and arguing for it is a bigger topic. But understanding the claim that God is necessary is key to understanding what classical theism is.

Simplicity means not having any parts. According to classical theism God is simple in this way. God is not composed of parts. Put another way, God is not composite. Composite is the opposite of simple. Many philosophers consider divine simplicity to be the most important concept of classical theism and hold that all of classical theism derives from it and is ultimately equivalent to it. To understand some of the motivation behind this, anything that is composite, made up of parts, has to be put together in the way that it is put together. But composition of this kind makes it dependent on whatever it is that puts it together. So it wouldn’t be the first or source of all things.

Eternity refers to what exists outside of time. Eternity, as understood in classical philosophy, is different from how the word is commonly understood. There is the notion of things being everlasting, existing within time but lasting forever, for an infinite duration. But this is different from the kind of eternity in classical theism. God’s eternity is his existence outside of time itself. Time, in fact, would be one of the things created by God. We can imagine God looking at the passage of time as we look at the passage of time for characters in a book. For the characters in a story, if they were real, they would experience time sequentially. But for us as readers we can look at the story as a whole, all at once, because we are outside of the time of that story. Like the characters in that story, we experience our time sequentially. The past is behind us. The future is ahead of us. Only the present is before us. But for God it is all present and equally before him.

Immutability is the impossibility of changing. There’s definitely a relation here to eternity. God could hardly change across time since he exists outside of time itself. This brings up an interesting question about whether God, being immutable, will seem the same to us at all times. Not necessarily. Even if God doesn’t change, we do. For example, God is perfectly good and that doesn’t change. But our morality varies significantly. The way we perceive God will vary significantly depending on whether our conduct is mostly moral versus mostly immoral.

Immateriality, as the term suggests, is the quality of not being material. Even without a technical definition I think we all have a good intuition what materiality is. In fact, it’s more difficult to think of anything that isn’t material. It’s the material that makes up our immediate experience. Matter is the stuff that, when you kick it, it kicks back. Material things exist in time and space. If we refer to more modern chemistry and physics, matter is composed of particles, waves, and fields. Particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons have mass, particles like photons do not. But they’re all material. Material things interact with each other. They exchange momentum; they attract or repel each other through electric change. Photons induce chemical reactions. But God, being immaterial is not like any of these things.

How could any thing be immaterial? This was a question that Augustine had. He was finally able to conceptualize immaterial entities by way of Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, which have a lot to say about immaterial forms. Today we most commonly come across immateriality in the form of abstract, mathematical, and logical objects. The philosopher Phillip Cary uses the example of the Pythagorean theorem. The Pythagorean theorem is not something that exists in space and time. It’s eternal, necessary, and omnipresent. It didn’t ever start being true and it will never stop being true. It cannot not be true. And it’s true everywhere. It’s not made up of particles, waves, or fields. It’s not something you handle or that kicks back. That gives an idea of what an immaterial thing can be like.

God is not an abstract, mathematical, or logical object. But he is immaterial in classical theism. He’s more like an abstract, mathematical, or logical object than he is like an electron, proton, or magnetic field.

Omnipotence is the quality of having unlimited power. This is very related to God’s nature as metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. All things come from God and are the way they are because of God. There is no other source for all that is and no other power in serious competition with God. God is able to do anything that it is possible to do. What kind of constraints does that condition impose? What would be impossible for God? Contradiction certainly. Even God cannot make something to be the case and not be the case. You’ve probably heard the question, often asked in jest, “Could God make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it?” Well, no. That would be a contradiction. Other constraints imposed by consistency may be more subtle. Like, why does God permit human history to proceed in certain ways, especially ways that we would much prefer that they didn’t? Here again, self-consistency probably plays an important role. Human free will is an important constraint. And there are likely other, unknown constraints, resulting from God’s unrevealed purposes.

Omniscience is the quality of knowing everything. This is also very related to being metaphysically absolute, the source of all things. As the cause of all things God also has knowledge of all things. If we imagine all things that can be known as a book God knows all things in that book, not only because he has read it, but also because he wrote it. He is the author of all that is. Many of the foregoing points about omnipotence apply here as well. There’s a classic concern about the conflict between divine omniscience and human free will. If God knows everything, including everything that we will ever do, can we really be said to freely choose to do those things? That’s a complicated problem and a whole topic in itself. Without actually resolving that question I’ll just make an observation using the analogy of the author. There is a sense in which the author of a story is constrained by the story itself. Authors can arbitrarily impose nonsensical decisions on their characters. But good authors don’t. Good authors follow their stories where they naturally lead. Their characters, even though they’re fictional, have a kind of free will of their own. That’s just an analogy but I think something similar applies to God’s authorship of all things and his knowledge of them. On the one hand he is the author and cause of all things. But this authorship and resulting knowledge is not just arbitrary. The evolution of all things, especially of human history, make sense and have a narrative coherence to them.

Finally, God is perfectly good. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates actually placed “the form of the Good” at the highest point on his spectrum of entities, the Divided Line. Goodness is not incidental to God’s nature but is absolutely intrinsic to who he is. One of the oldest problems in moral philosophy is whether God decrees what is good because it is good or whether it is good because he decrees it. This is a form of the Euthyphro Dilemma, based on another of Plato’s dialogues. Put another way, the question is whether God is prior to goodness or goodness prior to God. But in classical theism this is a false dilemma. God and the Good are not distinct at all. God is the Good.

Apart from classical theism the great worry with the Euthyphro Dilemma is that if goodness is merely whatever God decrees it to be then God could decree horrendous evils to be good. And they would have to be good. But under classical theism this is not possible. God is the Good. Neither God nor the Good are arbitrary. Horrendous evil cannot be made good and God cannot and will not decree them so. To do so would be to contradict his own nature.

All of the foregoing is principally philosophical rather than scriptural or based on revelatory religious experience. Though it has been most developed by Christians the foundations come largely from Platonist and Neo-Platonist philosophy, for example from Plotinus’s Enneads and Proclus’s Elements of Theology. Whether that is a weakness or a strength is a matter of perspective. I think it’s a strength but it also means that for Christian theology classical theism is a starting point rather than an end point. But I also consider it a great strength to see that classical theism spans so many traditions and schools of thought.

One of the best modern books on classical theism is David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God. In that book he makes the following point:

“Certainly the definition of God I offer below is one that, allowing for a number of largely accidental variations, can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, various late antique paganisms, and so forth (it even applies in many respects to various Mahayana formulations of, say, the Buddha Consciousness or the Buddha Nature, or even to the earliest Buddhist conception of the Unconditioned, or to certain aspects of the Tao…” (p. 4)

I find the Hindu convergences especially fascinating. Shankara (circa 700 – 750) was an interpreter of Vedantic Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta to be specific. A central concept in that tradition is Brahman, the highest universal principle, the ultimate reality, the cause of all that exists. In Advaita Vedanta this is identical to the substance of Atman, the Self or self-existent essence of individuals. Ramanuja (1017 – 1137) had a different interpretation called “qualified non-dualism” which makes greater distinction between Atman and Brahman. But Brahman, the ultimate reality behind all that exists, is central to the thought of both.

There are four modern authors on classical theism that I really like. These are David Bentley Hart, Edward Feser, James Dolezal, and Matthew Barrett.

I already mentioned David Bentley Hart’s book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Hart is an Orthodox Christian and also has an interesting affinity for Hinduism. In fact, the subtitle to his book – “Being, Consciousness, Bliss” – is a nod to the Hindu concept of Satcitananda, a Sanskrit term for the subjective experience of Brahman, the ultimate unchanging reality. Satcitananda is a compound word consisting of “sat”, “chit”, and “ananda”: being, consciousness, and bliss. These three are considered inseparable from Brahman.

Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs for the Existence of God goes through five proofs that he reworks from the ideas of five individuals: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz. Each of the five proofs is classically theistic in nature. Later chapters in the book also go over the classical theist understanding of God’s nature in great detail.

James Dolezal’s major book on this subject is All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Dolezal pushes back on what he perceives as some drift away from classical theism in Evangelical theology. I mentioned earlier that some theologians place simplicity foremost among God’s attributes. Dolezal is one of these. Simplicity is central to his thought.

Matthew Barrett is a delightful theologian to read. He is editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. One of his common themes on Twitter is the need for Protestants and especially Evangelicals to take seriously the thought of Aquinas, the Church Fathers, and classical theism. His major book on the subject is None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God.

Why talk about classical theism? To lay all my cards on the table, I desire for all to believe in God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I am enthusiastically Christian and desire for all to be so as well, because I believe it is true. One of the first steps in this direction is belief in God. But in modernity belief in God is hardly a given. It might even seem implausible. How is believing in God any different from believing in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Well, it’s actually extremely different. And I think that to really understand classical theism is to understand this difference.

God is not just an invisible being that we have to believe in, just because. Blind faith. Classical theism is much more philosophically reflective than that. To think about God is to think about and have some interest and curiosity about everything that exists, why it exists, and why it is as it is. It is maximally inquisitive and critically so. I believe that classical theism is very plausible and reasonable. That’s not actually why I believe in God or in Christianity. I attribute my belief to revelation from the Spirit. But intellectual openness and receptivity preceded that Spiritual revelation. Seeing classical theism to be a plausible and reasonable way to understand reality broke down intellectual and cultural barriers to spiritual receptivity. And that’s why I think it’s a topic worth talking about.

Star Trek: Rapture

Rick and Todd discuss the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Rapture” in which Captain Sisko, Emissary to the Bajoran Prophets, receives a series of dramatic visions. We discuss the interpretive frameworks of spiritual and secular worldviews, the high costs of prophecy, the reliability or trustworthiness of powerful entities, the interaction of spiritual experiences and the brain, and the importance of the visions in the Deep Space Nine narrative arc.

Christ and the Uncanny

When Jesus taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood many of his disciples walked with him no more. Many of his teachings and actions were strange and unsettling. In a word, uncanny. Rudolf Otto similarly described the Holy as a numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Something radically other. Flannery O’Connor evoked dramatic responses to the uncanny in her fiction through narratives of shocking violence. As much as it unsettles and disturbs, the uncanny also has remarkable power to provoke new ways of thinking and conversion.

Image from the PBS documentary “Flannery” (2021) by Kathleen Judge.

There are a lot of reasons people rejected Jesus. People disagreed with his teachings, his claim to divine sonship. They worried he would upset the religious and social order. But one of the reasons for rejecting him that I find especially interesting is that some of his teachings were just strange. And disturbingly so. I think the best example of this is in John chapter 6. 

“’I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:51-66)

This is one of Jesus’ teachings that I’d put in the category of the uncanny. The uncanny is something that is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Part of the problem was that Jesus was making great claims about himself:

“The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’” (John 6:41-42)

Who does this man think he is? That was a common criticism. But it was the other part that made even his disciples start to turn away. ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doubled down: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life’. What a strange saying! They called it a ‘hard saying’, difficult to understand. I find this particular rejection fascinating because it’s not like Jesus hadn’t demanded difficult things before or taught things that were difficult to understand. He taught in parables and had required disciples to leave their families for his sake. But it was in this case especially that ‘many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’.

There are other examples of the uncanny: strange and disturbing things in Jesus’ ministry. A couple that come to mind are Jesus casting the legion of demons into the herd of swine where the people ‘asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.’ (Luke 8:37) Also when Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In all these cases it’s possible to give a rational explanation but the rational aspects are not immediately apparent and they certainly weren’t apparent to the people experiencing them in the moment. These episodes seemed quite strange and unsettling.

The uncanny side of Jesus reminds me of the ideas of two religious writers: Rudolf Otto and Flannery O’Connor. I think these two have a lot in common actually. Both are fascinated by the uncanny.

Rudolf Otto lays out his theory in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains the holy as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a great mystery that both fascinates and terrifies. Another term for it is the ‘numinous’, something mysterious or awe-inspiring. One way I like to think about this is that the holy is radically other.

This is one primary meaning of the Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh) in the Hebrew Bible. The Lord God stands separate and apart. This radical otherness is a useful way to understand the often alien-sounding Holiness Code of the Torah. There’s a strangeness to God that Israel is made to remember through ritual.

In the apocalyptic visions of both the Old and New Testaments we see prophets confronting the strangeness and otherness of God as they struggle to describe their uncanny visions. For example in Ezekiel:

“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21)

What a fascinating and strange vision! My response to this is that it is intentionally and quite effectively mind-bending. Whatever Ezekiel experienced it was something very different and it should challenge our assumptions about the way things are and expand our imagination of what is possible.

And this same divine otherness carries over into the New Testament. A crucial feature of Christian theology, one that’s easy to forget, is that Jesus is the same God as in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the same God who the Israelites had to approach so carefully in their holiness code. And even though Jesus reveals God in bodily form in a more accessible way. With the veil taken away, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:12-18), sometimes some of that otherness and strangeness still comes through in ways that upset and disturb his disciples.

In my opinion Flannery O’Connor captures this uncanny otherness of God perfectly in her fiction. Her ‘gospel’, so to speak, is well stated in the title to her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which is taken from Matthew 11:12 – ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ For O’Connor acts of God and of the Holy Ghost are shocking, dramatic, and overpowering. She provokes this response in her fiction through violence. Reading an O’Connor story can be quite emotionally taxing. In fact, my wife recently read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and it gave her nightmares. Literally. These stories are meant to be impactful, revelatory, and theophanous.

The O’Connor story that I think best demonstrates her use of the strange and uncanny is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. This story is classic O’Connor and I really encourage everyone to read it. It’s hilarious and has her classic clash between social classes and between urban and rural. For present purposes I’ll just focus on one part of the story. In the story the main character, a young girl, goes to a county fair with her older cousins. Her cousins attend a ‘freak show’ that she’s not allowed to go to, but that her cousins tell her about afterwards.

“It had been a freak with a particular name but they couldn’t remember the name. The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.’ The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. ‘God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.’ Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.”

“The child felt every muscle strained as if she were hearing the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself. ‘You mean it had two heads?’ she said.”

“’No,’ Susan said, ‘it was a man and woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us. It had on a blue dress.’”

“The child wanted to ask how it could be a man and woman both without two heads but she did not. She wanted to get back into her own bed and think it out and she began to climb down off the footboard…”

“She lay in bed trying to picture the tent with the freak walking from side to side but she was too sleepy to figure it out. She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching, the men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite, with painted-looking eyes, standing as if they were waiting for the first note of the piano to begin the hymn. She could hear the freak saying, ‘God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,’ and the people saying, ‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’God done this to me and I praise Him.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’He could strike you thisaway.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’But he has not.’”

“’Amen.’”

“’Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple,

don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’

‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’”

“’I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’”

“’Amen.’”

“The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a

regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep…”

Notice how O’Connor portrays this spectacle as a kind of reverent religious experience. “The men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite.” The carnival atmosphere is transmuted into something holy. Later, when the girl attends the Catholic Mass, the process is reversed and the holy is transmuted into the carnival. Or at least the two are merged to highlight their similarities.

“The chapel smelled of incense. It was light green and gold, a series of springing arches that ended with the one over the altar where the priest was kneeling in front of the monstrance, bowed low. A small boy in a surplice was standing behind him, swinging the censer. The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the ‘Tantum Ergo’ before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”

In both settings – at the fair and at Mass – spectators are witnesses to something strange and uncanny. And at the Mass we see enacted the very thing that Jesus said that so disturbed his disciples: the preparation of his flesh and blood, to be consumed by the faithful. In both settings the usual categories and boundaries that we use to understand the world break down. Categories and boundaries like male and female, bread and flesh, wine and blood, God and human. It’s not that these categories and boundaries aren’t real. But with these uncanny incidents  we’re forced to see things in a new and jarring way that shakes us up. This is what the Holy Ghost does in O’Connor’s theology.

Sometimes revelation from God is shocking and strange. For some, Jesus was too strange. “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others among his disciples persisted.

“Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (John 6:67-69)

It’s interesting that in other passages of scripture Jesus says that this understanding – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God – did not come from flesh and blood but rather from the Father (Matthew 16:17). What Peter and the Apostle came to know and testify was not something that was continuous with normal experience and expectations. It was discontinuous and came from outside the normal frame of events.

I suspect that this may be the value of the strange and uncanny features of the religion. There are things that break up the normal flow of things and force us to stop and think more carefully and to think in fundamentally new ways. That seems to me like the only way something like a real conversion could ever be possible. We’re usually carried along a habitual stream from one moment to the next with each action following predictably from our prior actions, according to our ingrained behavior. How then would conversion even be possible? Something has got to interrupt the flow, knock us into a different plane, and get us to see things differently. And what better way to do this than something truly unpredictable, strange, and uncanny? Some will recoil at the revelation and say, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others will convert and say, “We have come to believe.” There is real transformative value and opportunity in Christ’s uncanny teachings. So when we see them we should pay attention.