Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Simplicity of God

This post is written in honour of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose memorial we celebrate today.

The most beautiful and fascinating part of classical theology I have always found to be God’s simplicity. ‘Simplicity’ is derived from simplex, the opposite of complex, so it means that God is not in any way a composite being.

Some atheists, well-versed in the natural sciences but not so much in philosophy, say that ‘God created the world’ is a rather arbitrary way to prevent an infinite regress. They say it naturally raises the question ‘Who created God?’, under the assumption that a complex design could only have been made by an even more complex designer.

It is not arbitrary, however. The whole point that e.g. St. Thomas makes in his Summa theologiae, First Part, Question 2, is that something must be at the end of the regress, and this something is what men call God. Now, because everything composite is based on something more fundamental, this something (called God in some languages) must be entirely simple. This is covered in Question 3. Anything less cannot be the something (called God). It should be clarified that ‘God’ here does not specifically refer to the Christian God, but to the X that Feser calls ‘an ultimate self-explanatory principle’.

I don’t know much about the natural sciences, but I find the speculations intriguing that the universe started with a ‘singularity’, a point at which matter had ‘infinite density and zero volume’. I am not suggesting that the singularity is God, but there is a comparison to be made. While the singularity, on this hypothesis, contained all the astounding multiplicity of the universe in potency, a potency that could only be realized by the division or expansion of the singularity (what word to use?) – the whole process by which all beings come, have come, and will come to be arises out of a single unchanging point of infinite wisdom. Not a vast store of collected information, like a digital library, but a divisionless concentration in which the known is even identical with the knower, and the knowledge with the single act of creation.

I believe this to be true and in principle demonstrable – but dazzling nonetheless.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Canon and Communion

What do you read when there are too many books? What do you follow when there are too many media?

One answer is: nothing in particular. You cannot visit cities without mapping them first. So if you are interested in books that have been written, it would be too haphazard a method to simply pick something old off the shelf. No, you take everything you can carry, throw it into a linguistic corpus database, and start your SPSS program to figure out the constants. It’s called ‘distant reading’.

I have nothing against the practice per se. After all, our understanding of ancient texts has been enriched by philological research that has little to do with the texts in themselves, and on occasion has done violence to them (‘We murder to dissect’: see Tolkien’s Allegory of the Tower). But ‘distant reading’ cannot replace, or even half replace, the close reading we all know and love.

Another answer: we read whatever tickles our fancy. This is much more widely practised. It is appealing and has much to offer, even though we risk missing out on important voices that our ear must first grow accustomed to.

The problem with it is a social-cultural one. Reading (and this can be taken in a broad sense to include any absorption of artistic work) not only forms people, but the text itself is assimilated, becomes a reference, a saying that seems to speak for itself (either positively or negatively: cf. ‘Turn the other cheek’ and ‘Wir haben es nicht gewusst’), something to play with, hint at, pun on. One does not simply read without getting drawn into a cultural web that connects not only books but people, lending the potency of play to speech, with all its surprises and calls for alertness, its flexible rules and enabling constraints. Speech is so much more than passing on information on ‘alles, was der Fall ist’.

The social-cultural problem with whimsical reading habits is that fancies are rather divergent, especially through time. This leads to the formation of dozens of subcultures of reading, from the Star Wars cult to the Twilight fanclub, and a drastic reduction of the half-life of cultural radiation. In thirty years, who will understand one percent of our current viral memes?

I am not arguing to prohibit the formation of Star Wars and Twilight groups (well, give me time to think about the latter). I am merely arguing that if we want to remain on speaking terms with each other, some common core of shared absorptions is necessary. No objective observer guarantees that this core represents the best and noblest of what has been thought and said. It is worth asking why certain human works have been enduringly appreciated, but it is more necessary to transmit the appreciation as well as possible.

A canon emerges out of a communion, holds it together, almost seems to have founded it. This is not only true in religious communities, but also in academic and cultural (e.g. national) communities. Any member can be skeptical about canonical values or even the value of the canon, but as long as he knows and transmits it, the communion holds.