Torturous distinctions…

September 13, 2006 § 1 Comment

Yesterday the distinction between five sheep in a field and five fingers on a hand came up in conversation with Dr. White, in reference to his lecture on St. Augustine last Friday. There seems to be a difference between the two “fives”. The five sheep in the field are random; there might as well be seven or two sheep. On the other hand, five fingers in a hand are necessary, and for a person to have two or seven fingers on one hand is considered a mutation and monstrous. Also, the former would seem to have no common thread or single entity, whereas the fingers on a human hand do share a single entity, namely, a human nature. Hmmmmm…

That is what I have been thinking about during my free time the past few days.

Then, this morning in philosophy class, another distinction came to mind. What is the distinction between coming into and going out of being in an absolute sense (i.e. in Genesis God creates the world ex nihilo) and coming into and going out of being in a chemical reaction, where there is a simple reshuffling of components?

For example, the simple chemical reaction HCl + NaOH –> NaCl + H2O. When the reaction is complete, the reactants have “reshuffled” to create the products. No longer does HCl and NaOH exist in the mixture (they have gone out of existence); in their place (having come into existence) are the products NaCl and H2O, which have wholly difference physical and chemical properties. Perhaps this is a matter of a change in substantial forms…but if so, how?


§ One Response to Torturous distinctions…

  • Father Joe says:

    Here are a few thoughts for you and possibly for sharing:

    The comments about DNA that came up during the question session were illustrative of the point made here. Five digits on a hand (actually only four fingers and a thumb) are constitutive of human nature. The loss of a digit is considered a handicap; the addition of one is regarded a mutation. There was once a whole village in Europe where almost the entire population had six working digits on each hand. If they were regarded as normative humanity, then we would represent the aberation. There was even a world famous pianist some years back who had six working digits (nothing vestigial) on both hands. He played and wrote musical pieces that only he could perform.

    Turning to the second half of your post, you ask the question, “What is the distinction between coming into and going out of being in an absolute sense?”

    First, the question breaches scientific conjecture because of the intelligent design debate. What existed, if anything, prior to the big bang? Making the problem even more complicated, given that there might be an infinite regression and progression (something I find nonsensical), what stands outside the temporal-corporeal-spacial matrix that sustains and gives it order?

    Second, you accept as a dictim of faith, aided by reason (irrespective of fundamentalist Protestantism and creationism) and not opposed to reason (despite objections from atheistic materialists), that God created everything from nothing. The distance between being and non-being is infinite. It requires an agent who is infinite in himself and who can muster limitless power and knowledge. This you accept as a good Catholic.

    Third, it has to be wondered if the second half of your question actually reflects anything that has ever happened or which could occur. Even the mutual destruction that happens when matter bumps into anti-matter creates energy and a residue of photons. Creation of the world “ex nihilo” is consistent with the notion of an almighty Creator. However, to uncreate something so that it is reduced to nothing is more problematical. You bring up a chemical equation and note that when one thing is changed or destroyed the “reactants are reshuffled”. This is true, and the basic stuff of creation is being utilized; however, the scientist and the processes of nature intervene to make things from previous made materials. Actually, this is true on the level of chemistry and even more basically, on the level of physics. Evidence of such change is readily apparent, just split an atom and see what happens. Of course, Church examples would be much more simple. A woodsman chops down a tree. The tree is sliced and sawed into lumber. The carpenter takes the lumber and builds a chair. Father Joe sits in the chair and it breaks. The chair is thrown into the fire. Warmth and light are given off as well as a lot of smoke and blackened carbon. As you assuredly know, the Church makes a distinction between true creation and human fashioning. We use pre-existing materials to make things and build. God creates, in the proper and exclusive sense, from absolutely nothing. We can change and destroy things, however, there is always something left– even if just smoke or heat or dust. Are there any examples of God utterly uncreating something, reducing it to nothingness? I cannot think of any.

    Such a reduction of a created thing to nothingness would be understood by Christian Thomists and certain other philosophers as annihilation. It strikes me as a logical absurdity. It would seem to imply that an omniscient and omnipotent God could somehow change his mind or make mistakes; why otherwise, would one want to uncreate something created? The notion of annihilation violates the divine economy.

    Let me spell out what this annihilation means because it is far more complicated than simple destruction or refashioning. It denotes the utter removal of something from being and positing it in absolute non-being. Thus, if God were to annihilate you, Genna, not only would you cease to exist, but you would never have been conceived. You would disappear entirely from the timeline. No one would have ever known you and so no one would miss you. Even language fumbles in explaining it because we think temporally. You never would have existed. But, here is the mind-numbing contradiction, if you would never have existed then how could you have been annihilated? There would be no “you” to even discuss.

    Even the substantial transformation in the Eucharist involves bread and wine which becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ, although the accidents remain the same.

    Science fiction sometimes breeches this theme, even the movie, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. In actuality, it makes no sense. Ours is not a capricious God. Otherwise, people and things might come in and go out of existence all the time and no one would know. This is also related to the paradox with backward time travel. Like Pontius Pilate, almighty God can say, “What I have written, I have written!” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    Finally, you ask about the association of “substantial” change and how it relates to a chemical process. Usually discussions about substantial forms and their changes regard the larger and visible world, not those things that require a microscope to see. Burning the wood of a chair is a chemical process, but we tend to speak of the substantial form of “chairness” being altered to ashes and smoke. However, no matter if we discuss the micro- or the macro-world, the basic principles should be the same. If you alter the basic nature of what a thing is, there is a substantial change.


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