When God Puts Himself in a Box

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 18

The vindication of the temporality of time resulting from this picture is indicated in Anselm’s further statement that, although there is a sense in which God does not exist in the ephemeral past, present, and future of our experience, “yet they can in some sense be said of him, since he is present to all circumscribed and changeable things just as if he were circumscribed by the same places and changed by the same times.” Indeed, Anselm could just as well say that God is more present to time than his creatures, inasmuch as his presence has proven to be the very possibility of time. For Anselm, accordingly, God’s eternality is not the acid bath in which the inherent temporality of time is flatened or dissolved, but (properly understood) brings into even deeper relief and sharper focus the texture and angularities of a real creaturely, temporal difference.[1] If anything, time is more rather than less real for God than it is for his creatures. In this way, Anselm arguably achieves a more dialectically uniform and stable doctrine of divine eternity, one that was presaged in such formative predecessors as Augustine, Boethius, and Damian, and yet arguably not worked out in quite the considered and consistent degree as that achieved by Anselm.

[1] Leftow is again helpful here: “For Anselm, God is simultaneously present at discrete, non-simultaneous times, without wiping out their temporal distinction… God, temporal things and times are literally at the same location, and so simultaneous, but are not at the same temporal lcoation, so that times remain temporally discrete.” Leftow, “Anselm: Eternity and Dimensionality,” 183-4.

Eternity as Time’s Possibility

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 17

This inclusive, both/and dialectic of Anselm’s doctrine of divine presence within time invites comparison with I believe to be the more either/or, zero-sum approach of his near contemporary, St. Peter Damian. For Damian, God’s transcendence over time arguably came at the expense of his immanence within time and, as a consequence, at the virtual expense of the reality of time. Because every moment of time is eternally present—and hence permanently and atemporally possible—for God, the passing of time and its “tensedness” is ultimately illusory, a perception limited to our creaturely finitude. Anselm’s doctrine of God’s presence in or with time, by comparison, is appreciable for its opposite tendency, inasmuch as his “penetration” into and effective habitation within a given moment may be seen to fix rather than evacuate it of its inherent temporality. For Anselm, a given moment of time is no banal, temporal possibility which is simply “there” with its content to be either observed or determined (or even re-determined, à la the conventional Damian) by God, for it is only God’s intentional creative presence at and for a given moment that makes that moment to exist in the first place.[1] Put in terms of my thesis on possibility, the temporal order is not an otherwise empty logical or metaphysical space or container that makes God’s presence possible, but it is God’s active, creative presence that brings into being the creaturely possibility that is time.[2] Briefer still, God’s creative presence makes time possible, and not vice versa.


[1] As Leftow puts it, “if God does not exist at some time, there can be no time there at all. So if there are times at all, Anselm concludes, God is there…. Without the present of God’s power, no time could exist… as He is simple, God = God’s power. Hence God is Himself present with His effects.” Leftow, Time and Eternity, 185.

[2] Leftow offers this image: “Anselm’s doctrine of temporal omnipresence would say that God is present where and when His creatures are, in something like the way a field of force is present in an area in which the effets of that field are perceptible…. God is temporally omnipresent because we know that He is the sustaining cause of all time…” Leftow, Time and Eternity, 187.

Both Omnipresent and Omniabsent

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 16

Another discussion in the Monologion meriting some consideration in light of the question of divine possibility is Anselm’s understanding of time’s relation to God’s eternity. A concern I’ve had with Boethius and Peter Damian is their tendency in places to represent God’s relationship to time in terms of a divine surveillance-at-a-distance, as though all of created history were extended before God such that every moment in time was never really past (Damian) or future (Boethius) for God, but always and only “present” to him in his eternity. I would characterize this view as broadly “possibilist” in its treatment of every moment of time as an abstract possibility whose content was for all times observable (Boethius) and even alterable (Damian, as conventionally interpreted) by God. Fortunately, there are significant and ultimately decisive elements in Boethius and Damian’s thought that push toward an understanding of God as more than the mere observer or even implementer of allegedly available, temporal possibilities, but as the designer and providential executor of those possibilities.

As with his doctrine of the divine utterance, what we find in Anselm’s treatment of divine eternity, I submit, are these earlier tensions and ambivalences once again finding themselves dialectically overcome and resolved within a more homogenous understanding of time’s relationship to and presence before God. From his starting principle that God alone exists through himself and all things else exist through him, Anselm plausibly concludes in chapter 14 that

Where he does not exist, nothing exists. Therefore, he exists everywhere, both through all things and in all things. Now no created thing can in any way pass beyond the immensity of the Creator and Sustainer, but it would be absurd to claim that in the same way the Creator and Sustainer cannot in any way go beyond the totality of the things he made. It is therefore clear that he undergirds and transcends, that he encompasses and penetrates all other things.[1]

From God’s necessary metaphysical presence to all things and places, Anselm goes on to infer his equally necessary immanence within all times. As the source of existence, God must exist at every time and place for which there is existence.[2] On the other hand, Anselm acknowledges an equally valid sense in which God, because he can exist at no time and place either in whole or in part, and because God in his eternity has no past, present, or future, cannot therefore exist at any time or any place.[3] God, in short, is both “omnipresent and omniabsent at once.”[4] “How, then,” Anselm asks, “will these two conclusions, which are presented as so contrary but proved as so necessary, be reconciled?”[5] His answer is that, although God is indeed wholly present at a given time and place, this does not prevent him from being equally present at any other time and place. Anselm recognizes that when we speak of God “existing in a place or a time,” we are speaking analogously:

even though the very same expression is used both of him and of localized or temporal natures because of our customary way of speaking, there is a different meaning because of the dissimilarity of the things themselves. When it comes to localized or temporal natures, this one expression signifies two things: that they are present at the times and places in which they are said to exist, and that they are contained by those times and places. But in the case of the supreme essence, only one of these meanings applies, namely, that he is present, not that he is contained by them.

Because of this ambiguity in language, Anselm says his preference would be to say that God

exists with a time or place rather than in a time or place. For saying that something exists in another thing implies more strongly that it is contained than does saying that it exists with that thing. And so he is properly said to exist in no place or time, since he is in no way contained by any other thing. And yet he can be said in his own way to exist in every place or time, since whatever else exists is sustained by his presence so that it does not fall into nothingness.

[1] Monologion ch. 14.

[2] Monologion ch. 20.

[3] Monologion ch. 21.

[4] Leftow, “Anselm: Eternity and Dimensionality,” 185.

[5] Monologion ch. 22.

Skepticism as Dogmatism, Possibilism

In an article on music, of all topics (“Musical Standards as Function of Musical Accompaniment,” in Krausz, ed., The Interpretation of Music: Philosophical Essays, Clarendon Press), James Ross brilliantly exposes the possibilism, and hence self-refuting dogmatism, at the heart of epistemological skepticism:

Sceptical challenges are typically based on ‘but what if … not’ suppositions, proposed counter-possibilities, like ‘Maybe you were asleep’, ‘Maybe you miscounted’, ‘Maybe you forgot’. One can reply, ‘Maybe; but that’s not what happened. Besides, logical consistency is a poor guide to real possibility, and imaginability is worse; so your hypotheses as to what might have happened have to be based on some additional knowledge. Therefore, a general sceptical attack fails. For you can only know what might have happened if you know to a considerable extent what does happen.’
   The sceptics’ trick is to get you to admit that, given how things seem to you, they might still have been otherwise, and get you to attempt to show that what might have happened instead did not happen at all, but without your using your knowledge of what did happen as part of your reasoning. Thus, the game is fixed.
  So, take the questioner on a tour of his twisted thinking. How does he know such a thing, or anything else, might have happened? It is possible because it is imaginable? It is possible because it is semantically consistent? Or it is possible because I know it sometimes happens? Imaginability does not assure possibility; neither does consistency. The third option defeats the global attack because it grants that we sometimes know what is the case. So it is  with our musical knowledge. Because possibility with content is not prior to what is, but is consequent on it, scepticism, by counter-possibilities, is cognitively parasitic on knowledge of what is, and is, thus, self-refuting. (100-1) 

Anselm on whether God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 15

The Proslogion’s most direct remarks on divine power and possibility appear in his well-known discussion of God’s omnipotence in chapter seven. Anselm introduces the subject of omnipotence in the preceding chapter when, from his premise that God is id quo maior cogitari non potest (“that than which nothing greater can be thought”), he infers that “it is better to be percipient, omnipotent, merciful, and impassible than not.”[1] The first thing we might observe in Anselm’s treatment of God’s omnipotence, accordingly, is his view that such power follows from God’s status as “that than which nothing greater can be thought,” a point I shall return to later. The fact of God’s omnipotence thus established, Anselm’s entire discussion of omnipotence in chapter seven is devoted to reconciling this truth with the paradoxical reality that there are many things we say that God cannot do. In his own version of the infamous question as to whether God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift, Anselm inquires: “But how are you omnipotent if you cannot do everything? And how can you do everything if you cannot be corrupted, or lie, or cause what is true to be false (as, for example, to cause what has been done not to have been done), or many other such things?”[2] In a passage redolent of Lady Philosophy’s argument for the utter impotence of evil in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Anselm replies:

Or is the ability to do these things not power but weakness? For someone who can do these things can do what is not beneficial to himself and what he ought not to do. And the more he can do these things, the more power misfortune and wickedness have over him, and the less he has over them. So whoever can do these things can do them, not in virtue of his power but in virtue of his weakness. So when we say that he “can” do these things, it is not because he has the power to do them, but because his weakness gives something else power over him… In the same way, then, when someone is said to have the “power” to do or suffer something that is not beneficial to himself or that he ought not to do, by “power” we really mean “weakness.” For the more he has this “power,” the more power misfortune and wickedness have over him, and the less he has over them.[3]

For Anselm as for Boethius before him, whatever function they may serve grammatically in our language, privations such as evil deeds, falsehoods, and corruption represent not a true power on the part of those who do or suffer them, but a form of weakness or impotence. They are not positive possibilities open to acting beings, but certain “un-possibilities,” refusals or deprivations of those real possibilities that belong to things as a consequence of their created actuality. Similar to his near contemporary Peter Damian, Anselm further applies the Boethian (non-)modality of evil to God in a way that allows him to reasonably conclude that, far from God’s omnipotence being somehow threatened or called into question by his “inability” to do these things, divine omnipotence consists precisely in his freedom from such liabilities: “Therefore, Lord God, you are all the more truly omnipotent because you can do nothing through weakness, and nothing has power over you.”[4]

[1] “Verum cum melius sit te esse sensibilem, omnipotentem, misericordem, impassibilem, quam non esse…” Proslogion 6.

[2] “Sed et omnipotens quomodo es, si non omnia potes? Aut si non potes corrumpi, nec mentiri, nec facere verum esse falsum: ut, quod factum est, non esse factum, et plura similiter: quomodo potes omnia?” Proslogion 7.

[3] Proslogion 7.

[4] On the similarities between Anselm and Boethius here, see D.P. Henry, The Logic of Saint Anselm, 150-4, cited in Whitman, “The Other Side of Omnipotence,” 133n9.