Something as the possibility of nothing.

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 3 

Consistent, then, with the Student’s overall possibilism, while God causes the non-being of things in the same way as he causes them to exist, the possibility of a thing’s non-being, of its being nothing, is itself a given for God. God’s creative power may be responsible for a thing being nothing, but he is not on that account God over its nothingness, its primitive, a-theological ability to be nothing. The possibility of a thing’s non-being is as much a brute fact of God’s existence and experience as is its possibility to exist. In contrast with this is the very different theology of nothing represented in the Teacher’s denial that God makes or causes things to not exist. He corrects his pupil’s starting premise by explaining that, although we do sometimes speak of someone “causing” a thing not to be when he has only not exercised his power to cause it to be, in such cases causality is improperly rather than properly attributed to the agent in question. Here we can see Anselm sowing the seeds of the much more developed semantics and logic of modal agency he would begin to formulate in his later, unfinished Philosophical Fragments, a work we will consider in a subsequent chapter but which has been identified by scholars as the earliest explict examination in the history of philosophy of a theory of modal agency.[1] For the present, it is enough for us to observe the specifically theological occasion and context in which the question of modal agency first occurs in Anselm’s writings. As the Teacher summarizes his position, “In this [improper] mode God is said to cause many things which He does not cause.”[3] He goes on to explain that even when God destroys a thing, its annihilation is not a case of God causing it to no longer be, but rather of his ceasing to cause it to be: “when He ceases to conserve what He has created, then that thing which existed returns to not-being, not because He causes it not to be but because He ceases to cause it to be.”[4] For the Teacher, bringing it about that a thing does not exist is a different kind of activity than bringing about its existence, and therefore, we may be led to infer, a different kind of possibility. The existence and non-existence of a thing are not two opposite but otherwise comparable outcomes that stand in an equivalent relationship to God in the lottery of the divine will. The (non-)event of a thing ceasing to be is obviously privative, and the reality it is privative of is the original initiative God undertook to bring the thing into existence in the first place. A thing’s non-existence, accordingly, is not an absolute possibility that stands in the same potential causal relationship to God as the possibility of its existence does, but is a possibility that is relative to and conditioned upon the thing actually existing in the first place. It is the possibility of a thing actually existing, in other words, that is the prior possibility of it then being able not to exist. It is only in and through causing a thing to exist that God also makes it possible for his ceasing to cause that thing to exist. Such a cessation, then, does not involve an additional action, but the interruption of his otherwise ongoing action of preserving the thing in its existence. In the place of the Student’s possibilism, accordingly—which nihilistically collapsed this analogical distinction between divine action and inaction into a univocal equivalence between causing being and causing non-being—the Teacher substitutes a theistic actualism according to which it is only what God does that in turns makes possible and intelligible what God is then “able” not to do. The non-being of what now exists, therefore, is not an absolute possibility with which God must eternally reckon, a fourth member of a divine Quadrinity, as it were. Before creation, in other words, there was not God and nothing, the one who is Being on the one hand and his supposed opposite of non-being on the other. There was only God, and that was all. The possibility of a thing not existing, consequently, does not pre-exist that thing at all, for the very possibility of non-existence is itself post-existence. A thing’s non-being is not its alien “other,” for the possibility of non-being is only con-created in and through the creation of those things that God has made real. Here we get our first instance of a theme that will be explored much more fully in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, namely the respect in which what God has already done or accomplished with respect to creation determines the parameters and meaning and hence possibility for any “subsequent” (from both a temporal and a logical point of view) divine action.


[1] Belnap, Perloff, and Xu, for example, attribute to Anselm (whom they anachronistically identify as a Dominican) the “earliest modal logic of agency of which we have learned.” Facing the Future: Agents and Choices in Our Indeterminist World, 18. See also Knuuttila, “Anselm on Modality,” 125, and articles by D. Walton, Eileen Serene, and Sarah Uckelman.

[3]De casu 1. “Hoc modo Deus dicitur multa facere quae non facit…”

[4] “Cum ipse desinit servare quod fecit; non ideo id, quod erat, redit in non esse, quia ipse facit non esse; sed quia cessat facere esse.”

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