Dionysian Ponderings: Divine Knowledge, Creation, and Modal Collapse

How does the infinite Creator know the contingent realities he has brought into existence without compromising his metaphysical simpleness? Or as St Dionysius the Areopagite asks:

How is God to comprehend something among the intelligibles since he does not have intellectual activities? How does God, who is established beyond every sensation, know what is sensible? Yet as the writings say, God knows all and nothing escapes the divine knowledge. (The Divine Names VII.2)

If God were a being, he would apprehend beings other than himself through a complex cognitional act appropriate to his nature. Beings know each other by their mutual availability, as determinate “thises” rather than “thats.” Differentiation is intrinsic to intelligibility. To be is to be delimited and thus knowable. Beings relate to each other as subjects and objects. When I perceive one of the trees in my backyard, I grasp it as external to me, yet in that very act it becomes part of me and I am changed. The tree becomes the content of my thought. In the words of Neoplatonic scholar Eric Perl:

Intellect, or intellection, is thus genuinely analogous to vision, as a bringing together of subject and object. In sense vision, the subject “reaches out,” extends its gaze toward the object, and the object is taken into the subject’s awareness. Sense perception, as a mode of consciousness, is a partial overcoming of the separation between subject and object, self and reality. In intellectual vision or intuition (noesis), this is perfected, for there is no externality or “distance” between the self and reality, and so they are one. [As Plotinus writes:] “For there is no longer one thing outside and another outside which is looking at it, but the keen sighted has what is seen within … But one must transport what one sees into oneself, and look at it as one and look at it as oneself” ([Ennead] V.8.10.33-42). And again, “If he sees it as something different, he is not yet in beauty [i.e. being, as form], but he is in it most perfectly when he becomes it. If therefore sight is of something external we must not have sight, or only that which is identical with its object” (V.8.11.20-23). (Theophany, p. 85; also see Perl’s chapter on Plotinus in Thinking Being)

If my intellect did not assimilate the tree to itself, if I did not become one with its substantial form, I would not know the tree itself but only its sensible qualities. Consciousness, in other words, intends “the communion or ‘togetherness’ of subject and object” (p. 85). As Denys puts it: “knowledge unifies those who comprehend with what is comprehended” (DN VII.4).

Yet by Dionysian understanding, God stands neither over against nor next to beings. He is not an inhabitant of the universe of beings. He is, rather, its transcendent cause and enabling condition. Hence the divine knowing must be incomparably different from the way beings know beings. How so? Denys proposes the following explanation:

The divine intellect contains all in a knowledge which is apart from all. For as cause of all, it has anticipated the knowledge of all in itself before the angels came to be knowing; it brings forth the angels, knows all others from within and from out of the source itself (if one may speak thus), and leads all of these into being. I believe that the writing teaches this when it says “He knows all before the genesis of all” [Dan 13.42]. For the divine intellect does not know by learning about beings in terms of beings; rather, from itself and in itself it has and comprehends beforehand the understanding, knowledge, and being of all beings according to cause. God does not consider individuals according to kind but knows and contains the all according to the one compass of its causality. In a similar way the light causally anticipates the vision of darkness in itself; it does not see the darkness from another than the light.

In knowing itself the divine wisdom knows all: [it knows] what is material, immaterially; what is divisible, indivisibly; the many, singly. It knows and produces all by its unity. If God imparts being to all beings by one causality, it knows all in this single causality as be-ing from out of itself and as in itself before having subsisted. God does not receive a knowledge of beings from beings but will be the provider others have of others. Therefore, God does not have an individual knowledge of itself and another knowledge of all beings in common. For knowing itself will the cause of all in any way be ignorant of those which are from it and of which it is the cause? Hence God knows beings by a knowledge of God, and not by a knowledge of beings. (DN VII.2; emphasis mine)

God knows contingent beings in his self-knowing, for in knowing himself he knows himself as their metaphysical causing. He knows not by observing beings from the outside, as it were, but from the inside, by upholding them in existence. God knows what God does; or as Marcilio Ficino comments, “He knows as he effects” (On Dionysius the Areopagite, II:227). Perhaps we might even say that in knowing himself as the cause of beings he knows beings into existence. Perl elaborates:

God knows himself, not apart from all things—for apart from all things there is neither being nor knowledge—but only as cause, which is to say as all things in all things. There is thus no distinction between God’s knowing himself, his knowing all things, and his making all things to be … God’s knowing all things in himself, then, is his producing all things. God ‘knows all things into being,’ making all things in knowing them by knowing himself in them. And since it is as all things in all things that God is their cause, God’s knowing himself is not only the causing but the content of all reality, all things in all things. God’s knowing himself, and in himself all things, is the procession into all things which is the making of all things and which is all things in all things. As in Plotinus being and consciousness are identical as the manifestation and apprehension of the One, so in Dionysius all reality is the knowledge of God, in both the subjective and the objective sense of the genitive. (p. 99)

At this point we may be tempted to infer that creation is necessary to God’s self-knowledge, that he needs his created images in order to comprehend himself; but the inference obtains only if we continue thinking of God as a delimited entity and supreme being. God exists beyond being, beyond limitation, beyond unity and difference. Beings are other to God as his finite manifestations; God is other to beings as their transcendent source and encompass­ment—yet note the critical difference: the otherness lies solely on the side of creatures who depend upon him for their existence. Creatures participate God, but God does not partici­pate creatures. For the Deity to be genuinely other to things, he would need to be a determi­nate, and thus dependent, entity and not the unconditioned, impassible, immutable Creator that he is. “The being of all beings,” writes Dionysius, “is the divinity beyond being” (Celestial Hierarchy V.1.20; see Eric Perl, “Hierarchy and Participation“). God is all things in all things yet not any thing. God plus the world does not equal two.

In recent years analytic philosophers have begun to object to classical construals of divine simplicity as leading to necessary creation, what they call modal collapse (see, e.g., R. T. Mullins, “Simply Impossible“). William Vallicella summarizes the argument:

1) If God is simple, then he is purely actual (actus purus) and thus devoid of unexercised powers and unrealized potentials. He is, from all eternity, all that he can be. This is true in every possible world because God exists in every possible world and is pure act in every possible world.

2) As it is, God freely created our universe from nothing; but he might have created a different universe, or no universe at all. Had he created no universe, then his power to create would have gone unexercised. In those possible worlds in which God freely refrains from creating, God has unexercised powers.

Vallicella believes that both statements are true and suggests that defenders of divine simplicity may have no choice but to concede that we are here confronted with “a genuine aporia, a conceptual impasse, a puzzle that we cannot solve. God must be simple to be God; the modal distinctions are based in reality; we cannot see how both limbs of the dyad can be true and so must see them as contradictory.”

But are we faced with a conceptual impasse? I don’t know. In my earlier article “Transcending Freedom and Necessity,” I suggested that the divine transcendence, when properly understood in its apophatic radicality, subverts or renders impossible the dualistic opposition between freedom and necessity. The same suggestion applies here. The giveaway is the phrase “all possible worlds”: God is truly free if and only if God does not create the universe in one or more possible worlds—so the modal logic goes. Analytic philosophers assume that it is appropriate to think about the absolute source of reality in this way, but is it? An unstated univocity seems to be at work. The Deity confessed by Dionysius exists beyond existence and therefore beyond modal logic—beyond not in the sense that we may now speak nonsense about God but in the sense that we do not occupy a position from which to see how our logic applies to beyond-beingly being. Our situation is analogous to what happens to scientific measurement as cosmologists trace the history of the universe to the beginning. Eventually they reach a singularity, a point of infinite density in which the known laws of physics have broken down—hence the impossibility of measuring anything “before” the beginning. “Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences,” Stephen Hawking observes, “one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there’s no way one could measure what happened at them.”

Something like this, I propose, happens to metaphysical reflection when God is apprehended in his hyperousian reality. In a fundamental sense God is the end of metaphysics, for in him all finite distinctions are transcendently united in undifferentiated simplicity. Deity cannot just be plugged into our syllogisms, as if he were an enumerable entity with enumerable properties. The hyperousios breaks the continuum of univocity and introduces an infinite interval of difference between being and beyond-beingly being. The best we can do is analogy—similarity encompassed in ever greater dissimilarity. Thus David Bentley Hart:

So transcendent is God, one might say, that even being—that barest, most basic, most primordial of attributions—is only analogous between him and his creation. And this is an absolute impoverishment for any traditional metaphysics that would hope to lay hold of God within human concepts, for there is no discrete being called God, within the fold of “being as such,” whose nature we can conceive per analogiam essentiarum.

Nevertheless … the being of the creature must indeed be analogous to God’s pure act of being; otherwise all talk of God would be confined within an arid dialectical theology of the “Wholly Other” so extreme as to posit—even if only tacitly—a logically absurd equivocity of being. Absolute otherness is not transcendence, but merely a kind of “negative immanence”; for true transcendence must be beyond all negation. If creation were somehow something simply “outside of” or “other than” God, like one object outside another, then logically one would have to say that there is something more than—something in addition to—God; God, thus conceived, would be a kind of thing, less than the whole of things, a being embraced within whatever wider abstract category is capacious enough to contain both him and his creatures under its canopy, without confusing their several essences (and inevitably that category will be called “being”, in the barren univocal sense) … If being is not susceptible of the interval of the analogy (even though it is an interval of ever greater unlikeness), then God and creation exist in a reciprocal real relation to one another, which means an extrinsic relation between two mutually delimiting objects; not only is this a degrading concept of God, but inevitably it must presuppose the mediations of some tertium quid, some broader context of “reality” that somehow exceeds the difference between God and creatures. (“The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics,” The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 99–100)

In his article “Is God Beyond All Being?” Vallicella distinguishes between three views of Deity: “(A) God is a being among beings. (B) God is not a being among beings, but self-subsistent Being itself. (C) God is neither a being among beings, nor self-subsistent Being itself, but beyond every being”—represented respectively by analytic philosopher Dale Tuggy, St Thomas Aquinas, and Pseudo-Dionysius. The first view is well understood by Eclectic Orthodoxy readers, but wherein lies the substantive difference between the second (God as self-subsistent Being) and the third (God as beyond being)?

How does (B) differ from (C)? On (B) God is (identical to) Being but also is. God is not a being, but the being that is identical to Being itself. (C) is a more radical view. It is the view that God is so radically transcendent of creatures that he is not! This is exactly what pseudo-Dionysius says in The Divine Names (Complete Works, p. 98) It is the view that God is other than every being. But if God is other than every being, then God in no way is.

This can also be explained in terms of univocity, analogicity, and equivocity. For Tuggy & Co. ‘exists’ in ‘God exists’ and ‘Socrates exists’ has exactly the same sense. The predicate is univocal across these two occurrences. For Aquinas, the predicate is being used analogously, which implies that while God and Socrates both are, they are in different ways or modes. But for Pseudo-Dionysius the predicate is equivocal.

I hope to return to Thomas Aquinas over the coming months, with attention to the analogy of being. But a brief comment: I believe that Vallicella exaggerates the differences between Thomas and Denys. In recent decades scholars of Thomas have rediscovered the Neoplatonism that grounds his apprehension of deity. Thomas’s assertion of divine unknowability needs to be taken with full seriousness. Just one example from a multitude of similar statements:

God is greater than all we can say, greater than all that we can know; and not merely does he transcend our language and our knowledge, but he is beyond the comprehension of every mind whatsoever, even of angelic minds, and beyond the being of every substance. (De Div. Nom. I.3.77; quoted in Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, p. 49; see my “St Thomas Aquinas, Divine Simplicity, and Knowing the Unknowable God” and David Burrell and Isabel Moulin, “Albert, Aquinas, and Dionysius“)

Is Thomas’s Ipsum Esse Subsistens less apophatic, more positive than the Dionysian vision of divinity? I think not, though I know scholars disagree. In his chapter on Aquinas in Thinking Being, Perl, for example, identifies the striking similarities between the metaphysics of Aquinas and Plotinus (see esp. pp. 158–177; also “Esse Tantum and the One“). As we saw in my previous article on the divine names, Dionysius in fact holds a robust understanding of the via affirmativa. It simply is not the case that he espouses the equivocity of theological language. The intelligible names specify truly the metaphysical principles that structure created reality. Because they preexist in God in ineffable simplicity, they ultimately but analogously refer to divinity, thus making it possible for us to praise God in our liturgical prayer and think reflectively about him. Because of the radical difference between Creator and creature, the divine names (of which being is one) must themselves be negated, yet as the Areopagite explains in his Mystical Theology (chap. 5), the negations must in turn be negated! Only thus is divine transcendence properly recognized and appreciated. Or as Timothy Knepper puts it: “Dionysian negation removes the ordinary (being) senses of properties in order to reveal their extraordinary (hyper-being) meanings, both as the divine names themselves and as their pre-contained hyper-unified effects” (Negating Negation, p. 68; also “Techniques and Rules of Ineffability in the Dionysian Corpus“; cf. Nathan Cornwell, “Thomas Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius on the Divine Names“).

Given that God is absolutely free in his eternal self-determination, and given that God has by grace created this world, is the counterfactual of noncreation even a possibility that we can speculatively entertain? Invoking suppositional necessity, may we not posit that because God has freely created this world, he has freely chosen to create a world in all possible worlds? We cannot, after all, step outside the Creator/creature relationship to attain some neutral vantage point. We cannot pretend that we, and all of creation, are not finite manifestations of the Trinity. All we know of God is who he is for creatures in his self-communication. Beyond that the Mystery is apprehended only in the cloud of unknowing.

Modal collapse? Not in the Dionysian vision of divinity and cosmos.

Blessed Dionysius, pray for us.

(Return to first article)

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7 Responses to Dionysian Ponderings: Divine Knowledge, Creation, and Modal Collapse

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Thank you for this!


  2. brian says:

    Well stated, Father. In my view, even to invoke the possible worlds hypothesis is to subtly import a univocal notion of being and freedom. Human artists are not creative in the way God is uniquely creative. Just as for us, the possible seems larger than the actual, while for God, the actual is an aseity of infinite plenitude, so for us, creativity involves deliberation and choice among possibles, while for God, creation is simply God making the cosmos without the need to rule out alternatives in order to do so.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Robert Fortuin says:

      I started to write this last night, but didn’t post it: to speak of possibility and possible worlds is to misconstrue divine simplicity as simplicity denotes perfection and thus precludes a distinction between potency and act. Herein we find a most fundamental distinction between subsistent and contingent being. But I am preaching to the choir now.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Which is also to say that I agree with Fr Kimel’s assessment that univocity is slipping in.


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


  4. Tom says:

    Besides the ‘Reblog’ and ‘Like’ buttons I wish there was a ‘Haven’t the Foggiest’ option to click. 😛


  5. In the Transcending Freedom and Necessity post, I think that Bonnette’s quote is quite helpful in dealing with the question of modal collapse:

    “What is de facto metaphysically impossible renders the alternative ‘logical possibilities’ not logically possible at all, except as contrary-to-reality mental imaginings. That is, they are not actually real possibilities at all.”

    I don’t think that the analytic school is accurate in their language of possibility, because they are, strictly speaking not dealing with the realm of possibility, because (I believe) that if a thing or being is possible it is or will be actualized. Moreover, in the relation between God and creation, such possibilities are already actual in God irrespective of their actualization in time. I think that all the analytic philosophers are positing are hypothetical worlds which have no bearing on what is truly possible and may in fact be impossible and therefore not truly apprehensible in any rational fashion outside of the logical abstractions, and in Dionysian terms might wind up being unthinkable. Of course, my general distaste for modal logic might be coloring my view here – that and the fact that I generally don’t like math in the first place and most modal logic winds up being a rather disappointing form of math.

    As for modal collapse, I think that there is a general misunderstanding of freedom (and necessity) in general. Dionysus, especially as Perl reads him doesn’t deal in terms of volition in any normal sense, and I don’t think that he ever ties volition to freedom. Perhaps volition is an expression of freedom, but in terms of ontology freedom is bound together with necessity inasmuch as to be free is necessarily to be whether analogically in creatures or transcendentally in God who is simply and necessarily himself and cannot be bound to any necessary conditions outside of himself.

    I realize that other Fathers framed freedom and necessity differently than Dionysus, but I don’t think any of those who wished to posit that God’s freedom is such that he could have not created (possibly in an effort to preserve other points of orthodoxy) have presented something a coherent and sweeping as Denys has. Given the rise of possible worlds semantics in the analytic school, I think that Dionysus is as relevant as ever.


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