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Thick Being, Thin Being, and God

“Tu es verum esse; tu es totum esse” --Duns Scotus


There is an old tradition which associates God with being or existence. Duns Scotus says of God, “You are complete existence.” Here I’d like to lay bare some of the reasons why people like Scotus say things like this.


As a start, consider the traditional theological view about creation: in some sense of before, God exists before anything else exists. If something exists and is not God, it is due to God. Moreover, the way in which things are due to God is more like the way a painting is due to an artist than the way the street is wet due to rain. If something exists and is not God, it exists on purpose and that purpose is God’s.


It is easy for the believer to think of God as a truly creative creator: creating things that he creatively made up. Creatively making up suggests making things in the mind before making things outside the mind. Sometimes my wife, who is an artist, tells me about an idea she has for a painting. The idea of the painting comes before the painting. Theists think of God having an idea like this, a big idea of the whole world, which includes little ideas of all the things in the world.


Some philosophical theists think that a lot of what is available to God to think about comes from a Platonic Realm. There are various abstract objects, non-identical with God, not due to God, which are the raw intelligible materials for God’s creative mental activity.


More commonly, however, philosophical theists have denied there is such a Realm with which God is cognitively in touch, and on which God cognitively depends for his creativity.


The more common view holds that God’s ideas of things he might create come from God’s idea of himself. God doesn’t reach outside himself to think about things he might make. He searches within himself and finds there everything he might make. On this view, creation can’t help but having similarity relations to the creator, since God’s guiding idea in making the world was an idea of himself.


One of the mystifying features of this sort of view is that there’s just not much to say about God which would somehow illuminate why things like toads and pencils are similar to God. The things theists say about God may give us some resources to see similarity between created persons and God. For example, God is thought of as being personal, so this would explain the similarity between created persons and God. Also, things theists say about God may give us resources to see similarity between very general features of the world and God. For example, God is powerful, so powerful things in the world—waves, fires, minds—are similar to God insofar as they are powerful. Or, God is a substance, so substances in the world are similar to God insofar as they are substances. But these sorts of features of creatures seem to underdetermine, in a really dramatic way, the actual variety of the features of things in the world. Toads have a bit of power, let’s say, and pursue some goodness in their actions. So in these general respects toads are Godly. But what about the croaking and warts and green, the webbed feet and so on, the distinctively toadish features of toads? It’s hard to see how things like these are similar to God.


But we seem committed to toads being similar to God even with respect to their distinctively toadish features. At least, we are committed to this if we hold: God has ideas of what he makes and God’s ideas of things he could make are ideas of himself. Holding these, everything there is to being a toad is something of what it is to be God, and more generally all the ways that creatures can be are ways God already is.


This goes some way to helping us see why someone like Duns Scotus would call God complete existence. All the ways that creatures can be are ways God already is. All the different kinds of beings have their paradigm in God. In God these are all unified in some way and in creation they’re multiplied. The more this picture comes into focus, the more it makes sense to use “Existence” as a handy, all-encompassing sort of name to apply to God. It gets onto God in a way that leaves nothing out, even if we have little notion of the infinite somethings it keeps in.


Still, I think there’s more to say by way of explaining what people like Scotus mean when they call God, Existence. Think of God’s ideas of creatures as organized hierarchically in God’s mind in a non-arbitrary way, where being higher up on the hierarchy is to be relatively more general (or less specific), and being lower down on the hierarchy is to be relatively more specific (or less general). T.S. Eliot, for example, is a human being, human being is a kind of animal, animal is a kind of material object, material object is a kind of being. Being is highest in the hierarchy of this example, and in descending order there follows material object, animal, human being, and T.S. Eliot.


Here there is a question about the conceptual difference between one an idea at one node of the hierarchy and the idea immediately below it. We can think of this in two different ways, two ways which represent one of the more dramatic, if neglected, divisions in the history of philosophy. The first way is to think that descent from the general to the specific adds content. The second is to think that descent from the general to the specific subtracts content.


For example, if you think that, to form the concept of human being from the concept of animal, you need to add the difference, rational (or whatever else is the distinguishing feature of human being), then you subscribe to the first way, the way of Descending Addition.


By contrast, you subscribe to the second way, the way of Descending Subtraction, if you hold that to form human from animal you need to subtract from animal the distinguishing features of all kinds of animals other than human.


The way of Descending Addition is committed to the view that the added differences are not conceptually part of the general concept they divide. Rational is not included in animal. Rational is alien to animal, but somehow conjoinable with it. The trick then is to come up with a non ad hoc of explaining why rational is conjoinable to animal.


The way of Descending Subtraction holds that the added differences are conceptual parts of the general concept they divide. Rational is included in animal. The trick then is to come up with some non ad hoc way of describing the inclusion of rational in animal which doesn’t entail that all animals are rational.


Now if we were trying to tell a story of the structure of our own concepts, surely we should subscribe to the way of Descending Addition or, which is the same thing, Ascending Subtraction. Start with particulars, abstract a general concept, abstract a general concept from general concepts, up and up, until all we’re left with is the barest concept of being.


But if we’re trying to tell a story of the structure of God’s concepts, thinking of God as a creator who knows things before they exist and who gets his ideas of possible creatures by knowing himself, I don’t think we can travel this way. Instead, I think we should try to make sense of Descending Subtraction.


Here’s why. God thinks himself primarily and creatures secondarily. He thinks himself primarily because he’s the best thing and God is a perfect lover. If ideas of creatures can be got from his idea of himself, he would get them this way. Either it’s possible to get them another way or not. If it is, God would know that way as an alternative way, but it would not be his way. Also, his way, would explain why the lowest species are out there in logical space, in a fairly simple way: all low species have one and the same origin—Thick Being—in contrast with the much more complicated view that one and the same highest but vacuous concept of Thin Being has infinite low species as its origin.