The Nihilism of Theistic Possibilism

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 2

Although Anselm did not have any knowledge of Avicenna, the similarities between the Student’s statement that God causes the non-being of non-existing things on the one hand and the implications of the Avicennian doctrine of creaturely essences on the other, reveal the extent of Anselm’s intuitive grasp of the extremes to which such theistic possibilism can tend. Consistent with his opening thesis in On Freedom of Choice that the latter power involves the ability to sin and not to sin, the above passage has the Student characterizing God’s own freedom in terms of an ability both to cause things to be and to cause things not to be. Such a scheme encourages us to picture God as being perpetually presented with an exhaustive array of infinite possibilities, each one of which incessantly demands the attention of a divine “yea” or “nay,” of metaphysical election or reprobation. Flattening and democritizing the difference between divine action and inaction relative to a given possibility, accordingly, is the operation of an even more primitive and universal phenomenon of God’s will casting a univocal vote up or down on every bill of possibility brought to the floor of divine contemplation. Ironically, far from this theological voluntarism displacing the necessitarianism of the Neoplatonic emanationist scheme, it actually recapitulates it: instead of the One who is “beyond being” processing through all the lower orders of reality, we have a divine Chooser who, beyond being and non-being, ineluctably emanates all possibilities from himself, albeit with the (now largely insignificant) difference that he decides which handful of possibilities he will make real and which ones he will make unreal. Yet a further consequence of this modal and metaphysical “double-predestination” is that the very basis for privileging one divine response to a given possibility as “action” and demoting its opposite response to the state of “inaction,” is essentially eliminated or rendered arbitrary. If every possibility, after all, requires not only a positive act of divine choice, but of divine causality, to make it either to exist or not to exist, then there is a very real sense in which every possibility in fact receives actualization one way or another. Possibility, in other words, is no longer exclusively possibility towards existence, but is equally (in Cunningham’s phrase) “towards nothing,” as the possibility for being is now superseded by a prior, meta-possibility things have for either existing or not existing, a meta-modality that is entirely ambivalent towards existence. The result is a kind of modal nihilism according to which the world that actually exists really has no special ontological status whatsoever, being the mere photo-negative of the much more abundant realm of everything else that God causes not to exist. As has been suggested, however, privileging one modality by calling it “existence” and its opposite as “non-existence” is hereby exposed as entirely arbitrary and prejudicial: from the vantage point of those things divinely elected to the land of non-being, it is presumably this world that lacks existence. At the beginning of On Freedom of Choice, the Student had characterized free will as operating between two alternatives construed in the negative terms of sinning and not sinning. In much the same way, the Student’s possibilism-cum-nihilism here permits us to similarly revalue God’s choices as taking place between a positive, active causing things to not exist, and a comparatively negative, passive causing them to fail to not exist (in Christ, everything is “Nay and Amen.”). While God consigns some possibilities to the perturbations and anguish of being, we might as well say, others he blesses with the beatific repose and sabbath of non-being.

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