A Defense of Metaphysics: “To Be or Not To Be?” or “To E-Prime or Not?”

Some use E-Prime to eliminate the passive voice but, in so doing, will then write even more passive sentences.

Some nominalists might prescribe the exclusive use of E-prime in an attempt to do away with metaphysics, but that strategy sacrifices – not only common sense, but – probabilistic approaches like, ahem, natural science!

For example, when discussing modal realities, forms of the verb “to be” might better (sometimes even indispensably) express degrees of vagueness & convey meanings about various states of an entity & its dynamical causes (even apart from predication or identity), i.e. continuous & progressive aspects.

For modal realities, then, in both physics & metaphysics, successful references remain indispensable even when successful descriptions elude us. For example, effects as remain proper to no known causes (variously over/under-determined) can refer to putative entities.

Some essentialists might thus proscribe E-Prime.

Not so fast!

Those same indispensable aspects, which they aspire to preserve (continuous, progressive & vague) in their Aristotelian sense, can implicate some forms, entities & identities that are – not just static, but – dynamical, emergent & nonstrict.

If, as moderate realists, we properly evade the tensions as present between nominalism & essentialism, we can discover some deep resonances between Platonic, Aristotelian, Thomist, Scotist, Palamitic & Peircean approaches, particularly in the subtle distinctions they apply to formal realities.

For starters, they all recognize & affirm the formal as real ( even if variously). At a deeper level, they emphasize the centrality of becoming, whether metaphysically or theologically. Those stances, when taken together, will inevitably lead to other salient convergences, which I’ve addressed elsewhere.

This consideration of the rhetorical virtues & vices of E-Prime is not wholly unrelated to the old Kantian saw that one can’t take existence as a predicate of being. Of course we can, only it’s tautological. That doesn’t mean our proposition is necessarily untrue, only that we haven’t added new information to our system.

Tautologies, however, can have tremendous heuristic value, especially when associated with a host of other epistemic virtues, thereby enhancing our modeling power of reality.

This is to say, too, that not all tautologies are equally taut. When further associated with axiological virtues, even when not providing new information, they can foster deeper meanings.

When we thus prescind from the necessary to the probable in our phenomenology, bracketing the root metaphors of competing metaphysics, we resist a prioristic rushes to closure regarding reality’s indeterminacies.

Specifically, we refrain from a priori categorizing in/determinacies as necessarily derived from either a methodologically in/determinable reality, epistemologically, or a metaphysically in/determined reality, ontologically.

Also, in a plain vanilla emergentism, we eschew the distinctions between weak & strong emergence, strong & weak supervenience, because, on one extreme, they’re question begging, on the other, trivial.

So, rather than prove too much, say way more than we could possibly know, tell untellable stories, yet without ignoring ontological implications, we traffic in – not the metaphysically decisive, but – the ontologically suggestive.

One take-away is that any deontologies should be at least as modest as our ontologies are tentative.

The “Trans-Formal Distinction” between the Divine Essence & Energies

Let’s first consider some Analogies of Phenomenological Distinctions:

essential or real:

  • creature: nonstrict, contingent esse naturale
  • Creator: strict, self-subsisting esse naturale

modal temporality:

  • creature: asymmetric
  • Creator: atemporal

modal adequacy:

  • creature: finite
  • Creator: infinite

modal ontology:

  • creature: possibilities, actualities & probabilities (in/determinacies)
  • Creator: ens necessarium

modal epistemology:

  • creature: reality variously in/determinable, epistemically distanced
  • Creator: reality absolutely determinable, omniscient

formal or real metaphysical:

  • creature: mutability presents from each genus/species/haecceity, which remains variously constrained by end-stated (mortal), end-purposed (adequately determined) & end-intended (intentional agency) teloi due to the boltzman, shannon & darwin entropies of an aesthetic teleology, which is variously realized (adequate freedom)
  • Creator: with an immutable aesthetic intensity (absolute freedom) indwells creation via a passible esse intentionale, which, per the sovereign divine will (consistent with – logically conceivable but evidentially indeterminable – essential, metaphysical and/or kenotic constraints) amplifies aesthetic diversity via divine energies, which manifest in the glorious multiplicity of creaturely participations

Speculative Take-aways:

Creaturely formal distinctions, noninherent but inseparable for each entity, refer to the nature of each entity’s journey toward its maximum aesthetic realization. Each journey might, more or less, be distinguished by its degree of substantial contingency (mutability), temporality, modal adequacy (finitude), in/determinedness (teleonomicity), epistemic distancing and volitional freedom (aesthetic teleological realization).

The formal distinctions made between divine attributes refer to no substantial or modal realities of the divine esse naturale (there simply are none), which remains immutable, atemporal, infinite, sovereign, omniscient and absolutely free in the unsurpassable aesthetic interrelationality of the divine essence and hypostases of the Ens Necessarium, Simplicity, itself. They refer, rather, to the otherwise noninherent but inseparable relational passibilities of the divine esse intentionale and to the ineluctably unobtrusive yet utterly efficacious responses that are freely gifted by the divine energies to creatures. These divine activities are then manifested in the effects that ensue from creaturely participations in this sacramental economy, in which evil and suffering enjoy no currency whatsoever, the donative nature of which remains profoundly incarnational (cf. Scotus) and profusely pneumatological (sans filioque).

Our distinctions, whether essential, formal or modal (Scotists), whether physically real, metaphysically real, virtual or logical (Thomists), cannot be univocally applied to both Creator and creatures due to the transcendent nature of divine realities. In the same way that it would be a category error to presuppose epistemological and/or ontological reduction between the different layers of complexity of cosmic realities, which require the analogical — not univocal — predication of the various emergent teloi, similarly, transcendent divine causalities simply (pun intended) will not reduce to epistemic or ontic categories of their subvenient cosmos. Our causal analogies, divine vs cosmic, remain vague, hopefully successful, references but in no way can be presupposed as successful descriptions.

Our vague phenomenology remains an exploratory heuristic, out of which a plurality of legitimate theologoumena might flourish, not a robustly explanatory metaphysic, logically coercing or axiologically compelling one valid opinion over another. Once we properly disambiguate the various distinctions analogically predicated of Creator and creatures, then, whatever it is that suitably distinguishes between the divine essence and energies, it cannot properly be called Scotus’ formal distinction or even the real or virtual distinction of Aquinas, for those refer to contingent realities with modal properties.

Arguably, the distinction between the divine essence and energies is the one most analogous to Scotus’ formal distinction. I like to refer to it, then, as the trans-formal distinction, both to emphasize its analogical character and to evoke the trans-formative Telos that inheres in the energies, coaxing our participation in a perichoretic-like dance with the divine. Likewise, the divine esse intentionale would, analogously, be supremely passible, transcending our conceptions of creaturely passibility.

Of course, questions are left begging regarding how the Divine Telos causally interacts with our subvenient cosmic teloi. Our abductive inference to the best explanation can only suggest that, while otherwise ineluctably unobtrusive, a supervening (aesthetic) Telos can be, analogously, just as utterly efficacious as that cosmic telos, which is located in human personal intentionality, which, for its part, however tacitly, causally interacts with other layers of complexity. In such interactions between these somewhat dis/continuous ontological layers, while human telic intentionality clearly transcends them, we similarly lack (as with putative divine causal joints) explanatory adequacy for the apparent causal closures, among and between them. While we certainly methodologically presuppose such closures, for all practical purposes, still, we cannot metaphysically describe them to our speculative satisfaction (except, perhaps, for Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, who seem rather easy targets for a facile neuromythology).

Practical Upshots:

We best emphasize, then, de fide, kerygma and mystagogy, synergeia and theoria, sophiology and theosis, in an orthocommunal, orthopathic and orthopraxic authentication of true glory, ortho-doxically. We best deemphasize any so-called logical coercions of philosophical theology and should positively (pun intended, again) eschew evidential theodicies, otherwise epistemically warranting our leaps of faith abductively (as in Peirce’s Neglected Argument for the Reality of God), while, at the same time, normatively and performatively justifying such existential orientations by their formative and transformative progressions toward the transcendental imperatives

  • of truth, as preserved in our creeds;
  • of unity, as enjoyed in our communities and fellowships;
  • of beauty, as celebrated in our devotional and liturgical cult-ivations;
  • of goodness, as preserved in our canons and codes; and
  • of freedom, as realized in our trustful abandonment to providence, faithful surrender to the divine will and in our ongoing attunement to the siren song of that divine suitor/seductress, neither threatened by Her virtual irresistability nor fearful of His delightful ravishing, precisely because, while we’re merely adequately determined, monergistically, we enjoy a most robust intentionality, synergistically.

This musing was evoked by:

Reflecting the Mystery: Analogy Beyond Negation and Affirmation By Robert F. Fortuin

Additional notes:

Simplicity for Scotus wouldn’t entail a simple being having no distinctions, whatsoever, only its having no “really” distinct parts?
We might be tempted to suggest that a Scotistic formal distinction, e.g. esse intentionale, wouldn’t entail God’s nature, e.g. esse naturale, having parts (limitations)? Or, in Thomist terms, to refer to that as a “metaphysically” real distinction?
But would that distinction between the divine will & essence really work with a sufficiently robust notion of divine freedom? We might say yes, if it’s combined w/the Damascene approach to divine infinity?
But I’m not really comfortable w/all that b/c, while I find the formal distinction very useful in parsing in/determinate realities, where act-potency obtains regarding formal-final teloi, to be truly consistent w/the Damascene approach, it seems we’d need to conceive a “trans”-formal distinction?
That is, we need more than the classical formal distinction, which works fine for creaturely in/determinacies, to distinguish God’s indeterminate ousia & hypostases from God’s energeia, as God’s determinate work?
Further, taking energeia as freely chosen determinate manifestations (any divine determinacy “taken on”) doesn’t mean they must necessarily deliver us descriptive likenesses of the divine essence, even as they will clearly reveal something truly meaningful about God’s nature? Like the generation of the Son & procession of the Spirit, neither of which must be either willed or necessitated, the energeia would originate from God’s very nature?
We might then suggest that something analogous to Scotus’ formal distinction, a trans-formal distinction, re: divine energeia, wouldn’t entail God’s nature having parts (limitations).
Perhaps the trans-formally distinct divine energeia neither originate by necessity nor esse intentionale but by esse naturale (as Athanasius suggested re the begotten Son)? And the esse intentionale, too, is trans-formally distinct from the esse naturale?

To me, univocity just means our concepts are sufficient to convey something meaningful about the putative cause of various effects as remain proper to no known causes.
How meaningful?
A successful reference.
So, univocity’s only semantical, not ontological. Beyond a God-concept or quark-concept serving as a mere placeholder for a given putative cause, is there nothing else that can be said?
Well, re a God-concept, can’t we also talk, univocally, about the divine essence in terms of an all positive conception of divine infinity? Sure & it will also qualify as univocal. But it’s still not onto-talk, since creatures aren’t infinite?
In that regard, Scotus (& Bonaventure) fall into the Damascene school.
Such analogies & metaphors can be very meaningful, i.e. existentially actionable & soulfully dispositional, even in our syllogisms, but, because we yet remain in search of a root metaphor (a metaphysic), we mustn’t imagine we’ve speculatively proved very much, i.e. QED.