Friday, March 28, 2014

Stăniloae on the rationality of the universe

Yesterday I was reading from the first volume of Dumitru Stăniloae's The Experience of God: Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1994) and came across this intriguing passage early on:

We consider that the rationality of the cosmos attests to the fact that the cosmos is the product of a rational being, since rationality, as an aspect of reality which is destined to be known, has no explanation apart from a conscious Reason which knows it from the time it creates it or even before that time, and knows it continually as long as the same Reason preserves its being. . . . In our faith, the rationality of the cosmos has a meaning only if it is known in the thought of an intelligent creative being before its creation and in the whole time of its continuing in being (p. 2).

This is a fascinating argument, but here it is really only asserted and not defended in any great detail. I will try to make the argument plausible by appeal to a line of thinking more familiar to me, namely that of my friend Bill Vallicella's A Paradigm Theory of Existence (Kluwer, 2002).

The world is rational, says Stăniloae, by which he means it is constructed in such a way that we can know it and understand it; it is not totally impenetrable to the intellect, but rather intelligible. Bill would add this is because individual existent things exhibit a proposition-like structure. What does that mean?

A simple attributive proposition roughly has the following logical structure: Fa, where F denotes some characteristic or attribute or property, and a denotes some individual thing. Thus the propositions snow is white, tigers are fierce, philosophy is long, etc., all exhibit that same structure: Fa. Now Bill would say that we can understand things and affirm propositions about them because the things themselves exhibit a proposition-like structure: they are themselves a composite of (if we may phrase things this way) a principle of intelligibility, that by which a thing is intelligible and has some reality (F), and a principle of individuation, that by which a thing is this particular individual (a).

Now Bill will insist that things are only intelligible, and we may only make true propositional affirmations about things, insofar as they have structure. If they did not have this structure, then how could we understand them through this structure? There would be a critical disanalogy in what we understand and the thing itself. But why do they have this structure? Why should they be intelligible in this way? Considered abstractly and free from prejudice, there is no obvious reason why the world should rational and intelligible in this way. It's certainly true that if it weren't rational or intelligible, we could not have meaningful experience of it, nor could we speak about it, but the fact that its rationality is a precondition of our discourse doesn't answer the question of why it should rational, and why we should be able to hold a discourse on it, in the first place. Importantly, too, there's nothing in the propositional structure of a thing that can explain its unity as such a structure: considered abstractly and generally, there's nothing about an a that requires that it be F, since a is possibly ~F, and G, and so on.

Now in the case of propositions, what gives them their unity is our mind in thinking them. I have a lot of words in my vocabulary, but when I form the thought snow is white, I unite a few of them in the critical way necessary for them to form a proposition. I, who stand outside of the composite proposition so to speak, confer unity upon it through an act of the will.

Therefore we may understand Bill and Stăniloae as affirming that the proposition-like structure of things likewise originates in a mind which gives them their fundamental unity. This what Stăniloae means: the world is rational, intelligible, capable of being thought, because in a critical way it is the thought of a being whose thoughts can bring things into existence. This is what Bill means: things have a proposition-like structure because they are so composed by a mind of sorts which brings them into existence.

There are two possible objections to make here, the latter of them more compelling than the former.

The former objection may go like this: things exhibit a proposition-like structure because our minds form the world in this way, so that it is intelligible; but this is a structure imposed upon things by the human mind, not one that is in the things themselves. The problem with this Kantian view is that it cannot escape positing a proposition-like structure in things themselves, because it speaks objectively of the interaction of minds with the noumenal world. We cannot even affirm that our minds impose a proposition-like structure upon things in experience without affirming a proposition-like structure in pre-mental reality, namely individuated minds with principles of both intelligibility and individuation. It is only because my individual mind as a certain power or capacity to interpret reality that it can impose any structure upon reality whatsoever, and so structure is already previous to mental activity. The first objection to the argument therefore fails.

The second objection is that it is not clear that the use of mental language to describe that which gives things their unified, proposition-like structure is appropriate. For to speak of a mind which unifies the various composites of reality is to speak of something with a proposition-like structure; it is to make an affirmation of the sort Fa. But if this mind unifies everything else, then it cannot itself be in need of something to unify it, it cannot itself exhibit a proposition-like structure. I think Stăniloae and Bill would here respond that the language of mentality in reference to this ultimate cause of the rationality of the universe is at best analogical: insofar as the universe is rational, its rationality must proceed from something in some sense rational; but it is a kind of rationality or rational being that is very, very different from the kind of rationality we exhibit.

To conclude, Stăniloae affirmed that there could be no other explanation for the intelligibility or rationality of the universe apart from some intelligence outside of the familiar realm of existence which in some way thinks it into being. This seems to me to be true enough. It's no answer to suppose that the world just is rational and that's all there is to it, because as I've noted, that is not the whole story. The world is rational in virtue of a fundamental unity of two principles in each thing, a principle of intelligibility and a principle of individuation. Now these two principles cannot explain this unity of themselves, since in general it is not necessary for any individual thing to be in any particular way or other: the material from which my body is made, for instance, need not have been structured in such a way as to compose a human body, as is evidenced by the fact that one day it will no longer do so, and previous to my birth it did not do so. But then there is an ontological "gap" which needs filling: there is unity, but within the composite thing itself there is no explanation for the unity. Therefore there must be something outside of every composite of this sort, something which is not in this way composite, which confers unity on the rest of them. To refuse to posit such a thing is to fail to account for a critical element of the problem we've set out to solve -- viz., the intelligibility of the universe -- and in some cases may even be a refusal to philosophize with integrity and seriousness, since the conclusion may not be palatable.

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