God as the possibility of non-existence

Anselm’s On the Fall of the Devil, part 8 

As previous posts have argued, there is a sense for Anselm in which things do not have the possibility for not existing prior to their existence, since there is no existing subject in which such a possibility might reside. More than this, there are good reasons for doubting that, even after a thing has been brought into being, it possesses of itself the possibility for non-existence. One of the problems with the Student’s Avicennian hypostatization of non-existing possibilities, after all, was the way that it made possibility neutral with respect to existence by making it equally “towards nothing.” To say, however, that existing things have the possibility for not existing is to elevate the prospect of non-existence to the same modal status as its prospects for continuing existence. Once again we have a form of modal nihilism, the idea that a thing could have the possibility for being nothing. Thus, even the admission of existing things as having both the possibility for existing and for not existing essentially reinstates, albeit at a creaturely level, the Student’s divine dilemma of God having the option of either causing a thing to exist or causing it not to exist. The reality, however, is that the “possibility” (such as it is) that an existing thing has for not existing is not a possibility that the thing itself has at all, but is rather a possibility that God has only after he has made it. (And here we remind ourselves that a thing’s non-existence is a “possibility” that God achieves, not through an active causal agency, but through ceasing to realize the prior possibility that God has for making that thing to exist, a point I will return to momentarily.) (St. Thomas Aquinas makes precisely this point in his own discussion of God’s “power” of annihilation in, for example, his Disputed Question on the Power of God (De potentia dei).) Yet while Anselm’s Teacher fails to make this point in so clear a fashion, at the same time it may be appreciated as a more consistent application of his own teaching that, on the one hand, prior to a thing existing, its possibility for existence is not a possibility that it has at all, but is rather a possibility that belongs to God, and on the other hand, a thing’s non-existence is not something God causes but is brought about by God’s ceasing to cause it. The Teacher’s own testimony, therefore, stands against him: when a thing is annihilated, it is not re-realizing its own original and authentic potential for being nothing, but rather involves God ceasing to do that which he was able to and had been doing for himself. It is God’s creative act, in short, that is the prior possibility for both a thing’s existence and its non-existence, as the thing itself actually has the possibility for neither.

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One thought on “God as the possibility of non-existence

  1. Dr McIntosh, I have only just recently discovered your remarkable blog.

    I was wondering if you have ever read either St Athanasius or Met John Zizioulas. Both speak of the fragility of the created order and its vulnerability to nothingness (e.g., see http://goo.gl/yAetr). Reading your article here, am I right in surmising that St Anselm would probably disagree with Athanasius? Thank you!

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