Chapter 9

Existence as activity

There are some loose ends we have to tie together before we go on.

First of all, we said that there were three modes of consciousness as finite: the single stream of consciousness, the delimited period of consciousness, and the form of consciousness. Since these are similar as effect, then their causes must be analogous.

And as we can see now from the argument for the existence of God, what the cause of these other types of finiteness must be is some sort of existence (analogously, of course, because each effect is a case of limited consciousness, though not of it as formed, so the effects are similar); and, of course, since they are types of finiteness of consciousness, then in all probability, their causes will be different sorts of finite existence.

That is, the cause restricting my consciousness to "lasting" only for a day or so before it "shuts down" and I sleep must be in some sense existence as finite; and in all probability what this is is the fact that my brain as "producer" of the acts of consciousness has a finite ability to do so continuously; it's neurons get "filled up" with the information coming into them, and can't clear themselves out while more information is coming in; so periodically the whole brain must "shut down" and "erase itself," so to speak, "resetting the nerves to zero," so that they can take in new information.

That seems to be the most reasonable explanation based on what we know of the physiology of the brain; but in any case, it is because the mind can't unify the whole of my consciousness into one single stream that it breaks it up into periods.

Thus, the existence of the mind accounts for the (unified) "stream" of consciousness, and the finiteness of the mind accounts for the finiteness of a given stream, and the fact that it breaks up into a set of periods.

Similarly, the fact that my stream of consciousness is only mine is accounted for by the fact that my mind is only my mind, and is incapable of encompassing all of consciousness. In physiological terms, my stream of consciousness is what is produced by the activity of my brain, which is only one brain among many; and the fact that it is not any more than just this one cuts off my consciousness from anyone else's.

And, of course, since I recognize my consciousness as only mine and not anyone else's, then the cause of this awareness (the particular form of consciousness whose contents is, "I have only my own consciousness") is the existence of my mind, which forces me to recognize that my experience is not all there is to consciousness. Again, the form of consciousness which is the recognition of the particular period of my consciousness has as its cause the other mode of finiteness of the existence of my mind, its subjectivity to fatigue (as when I feel I "need sleep"). Finally, I recognize the act of consciousness in the very act, because I recognize the act as this finite existence in addition to the existence it "talks about" if it is a perception. So when I imagine the unicorn, I recognize the existence of the act of imagining, but not the existence of the unicorn.

Now then, I want to make a move which is basically just terminological. Since perception recognizes itself as not alone and therefore as caused by some existence, while imagining recognizes itself as spontaneous and not needing (now) any existence, it is here that the most basic notion of "acting" and "being acted on" comes. Any other form of "acting" or "being acted on" would be something recognized as similar to this. That is, imagining and perception are both recognized as "doing" something; but perception is recognized as "doing something in response to something else" or reacting-to.

To put this another way, the "prime analogate" of "doing" or "acting" is our own experience of our own consciousness (i.e. our own reaction to our own consciousness, our awareness-of-our-awareness), which is, of course, identical with the consciousness which is experienced. All other "doings" are bound (as far as consciousness is concerned) to be seen as similar somehow to "doing" in this sense in which the "doing" is directly and totally conscious of itself; or the other senses of "doing" are going to be analogous to the "doing" which directly experiences itself.

Hence, when we react and recognize the "doing" as "talking about" something else, we are aware that this "something else" is analogous to consciousness, because we are also reacting to the consciousness as it reacts to this outside existence. So the outside existence is "doing" something to our consciousness in a way analogous to what our consciousness is "doing" to itself.

And of course, what we are reacting to when we react to our consciousness is our consciousness as existence. Hence, the "doing" of our consciousness is its existence. And similarly, that analogous "doing" we are reacting to in perception is the (finite) existence which caused it.

We can therefore say the following:

Conclusion 24: Existence is activity. To be is to do.

This is "activity" taken in the broadest possible sense, since the reaction of consciousness to external existence is also recognized as existence (it is an activity-in-response-to).

Note that "activity" does not imply "acting on" something, because the spontaneous activity of consciousness is not acting on itself in any real sense; it is itself; it is just "being active" as opposed to "doing nothing."

Acting on is another name for causality; and it is what existence does to something when it accounts somehow for it. That is, "acting on," like "reacting to," deals with a relationship between two existences, and these are obviously the relationships of causality and being-affected respectively. But activity is the name for the cause whose causality is "acting on."

We can perform a little "thought experiment" to test whether "existence" and "activity" mean the same thing by supposing the opposite: that there is something that exists but is totally inactive, neither doing anything at all nor reacting to anything, but just existing. Would there be any meaning to the word "existing" in this case, or would it be identical in practice with its opposite?

Well, if we take a theoretically perfect knower, one who could react to any activity at all (who had all the instruments to detect any activity whatsoever), and we ask whether this knower could distinguish this "existence" from the nothingness that is beside it, we can see that he couldn't. None of his instruments could detect it, so that as far as that goes, there would be nothing there. If he sent out a probe into the nothingness and into the "existence," then the probe would, of course, not affect the nothingness in any way; and since the "existence" doesn't (by the supposition) react to anything, then it would not be affected by the probe either in any way. So there is no way, either by reacting to this "existence" or by acting on it, that a perfect knower could know that it existed. For the perfect knower, it is the same as nothing at all.

And of course, if we say, "Well, God created it and as creator he knows it (because he knows his creative act of causing it) even though he can't be acted on by it." But if he created it and there is no difference at all (which of course would be some act) after it was created from before it was created, then this means that he has created something which is no different from not creating anything at all; in which case, what sense does it make to say that he "created" anything?

So a totally inactive being--one that doesn't even resist action on it--is not a being at all; there isn't anything like this. And therefore, being is what is active, and existence is activity.

But this brings up the question of acting on something; and since the cause is no different whether or not it happens to be having an effect, we can say the following:

Conclusion 25: Existence need not be acting on a mind in order to be active or to be existence.

That is, esse is not percipi, as Bishop Berkeley held. Percipi (perceiving) depends on esse (existing, existence), but on the other hand, whether the sense organs or the receiving instrument is or is not in the way to be acted on, the activity itself is no different.

And you know that your mother doesn't go out of existence as soon as she gets out of the way of your being able to perceive her; and even if she's in a room without windows or mirror and is asleep (so that she's not even perceiving herself), she doesn't stop existing; she's still active in all sorts of ways even if there is no one to perceive her.

"Ah," the good Bishop would say, "but God is perceiving her." No, he's not. He can't be acted on by her, and so be the effect of her finite existence.(1) God can't be acted on in any way at all; he is totally self-sufficient, as we saw. So God does not "perceive" your mother. Now it's true that your mother can't be active in the finite way she is active if God is not making the act this finite act; but that has nothing to do with whether anyone is perceiving her(2).

At any rate, we can see from this that there may very well be many existences that we know nothing about, and which we could perceive if we happened to be in the right place at the right time, but which for us are just "possible beings," because we have no evidence one way or the other (i.e. they aren't in fact acting on anything that is acting on us, though there is no contradiction in supposing that some acts that haven't done so so far could act on us directly or indirectly).

There may also be existences (acts) that we have no senses to perceive, and which we have devised no instruments as yet to perceive. No one knew about the acts called "radio waves" until instruments that could receive them were built; and if those instruments had never been built, we would never have known that there were such acts. But the sun has been emitting radio radiation for millions of years, and it was doing so long before any human being or anything else was aware of its doing so. And who is to say that there aren't a host of other acts that we don't have any way of reacting to because we don't have a reacting instrument, and which will be forever unknown because the proper instruments for detecting them will never happen to be devised? We can't exclude this possibility.

Hence, we know that existence goes beyond just the world of our immediate experience, and even the world of our direct and indirect experience of the moment; and there is no reason for saying that there are not "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Existence in all probability is wider than (a), the cause of my perception; (b), (a) + all the conditions for my perceptions; (c), (a) + (b) + the causes and conditions for all my past, present, and future perceptions.

Now if we look at these similar cases of finite consciousness and their cause as finite existence, recognizing that existence is the cause of the finiteness of the consciousness in each case, and existence is the cause of finite existence, we find that "finite existence" is actually just the most general way to formulate the problem of finiteness; since any case of finiteness must be a special version of finite existence. That is, finite consciousness is the case of the finiteness of the existence called "consciousness"; finite heat (temperature) would be a case of the finiteness of the existence called heat, and so on. As "special," these cases of finite existence can have as their causes other finite existences; but as finite existences, only God can be their cause.

This allows us to say several things about God. First of all,

Conclusion 26: God is pure activity.

Say "doing" in the broadest possible sense, and without any qualification whatever (i.e. in no sense "doing this," but just plain "doing") and you have said what God is.

So Thomas Aquinas was right when he called God "pure act." And I think he meant "activity" in this broad sense of "doing," not some kind of inert sense of "perfection," because I think he interpreted Aristotle's notion of "activity" (energeia) correctly; and if you want to know why I think Aristotle's notion was "activity" and not "actuality," see my book on the subject. I won't bore you with it here. ("Perfection" was a [bad] translation of Aristotle's entelecheia.)

Conclusion 27: God is not the only cause of any finite existence.

The reason for saying this is, of course, that different effects have different causes, and God is only the cause of the fact that a given existence is less than what it is to exist. The fact, for instance, that the form of consciousness you are having now (which is a finite existence) is that of seeing this page and not listening to a concerto is a different problem from the problem of finite existence as such; and its cause is the finite existence (the essence) which is the page; the fact that you began to exist when you did is a different problem from the fact that the act of beginning was a finite act; and the "beginning as such" was caused by the sexual activity of your parents, not God; the beginning as a finite act was caused by God, as was the sexual activity as a finite act, but the sexual activity as sexual activity was caused by the love and desire and choice of each partner--by their combined mental state and physical condition.

Remember, we argued to the existence called God on the basis of the fact that, because of the general way we were defining finite existence, every finite existence was identical with every other and so could replace every other without changing the effect. It is only this fact about the finiteness of anything that needs God as its cause, and every other fact about it that is unintelligible by itself needs a different cause. Effects are abstractions, in other words, and since there are different ways of focusing on an activity or set of activities such that something is left out of their intelligibility, the facts left out (as we have said so often) will be different in each case. And this is true even though the next conclusion is also true.

Conclusion 28: God is one of the causes in absolutely everything that is real or happens.

The reason for this, of course, is that everything but God is a finite existence, among other things; and as finite existence, it needs God for its intelligibility. Hence, God is the cause of everything (except himself, of course); but God is not the only cause of anything.

This means, of course, that God could prevent any act from occurring simply by withholding his causality from it; in which case, not having the conditions without which it is impossible, the act can't happen. To take a perhaps poor analogy, I can prevent my hand from moving by not choosing to move it. (The reason the analogy is poor is that if there is some external energy acting on it, it might move by that cause in spite of my choice; but supposing that it can't move by itself and there is nothing else but my choice at the moment to move it, and I don't make the choice, then of course it can't move.) So with God; it is not that God would "keep" something from acting if he withheld his causality from it; it's just that, not being able to act "by itself," it simply wouldn't act without God's causality.

And this leads to the following:

Conclusion 29: No finite act can act without God's actively causing it to do so.

That is--and this is an important conclusion from our argument for God's existence--God does not simply "permit" things to happen, as if they could happen "by themselves" without his doing something to make them active in this finite way. This is complete nonsense. If a finite act could act "by itself" and all God could do to prevent it would be to "do something to block it," then there is no God. Why? Because that means a finite act can act without God, which means that as finite existence (activity) it is possible without God, which means that it can make sense without God, which means there is no evidence that there is such a thing as a God.

No, ladies and gentlemen, there is no such thing as the "permissive will of God," where he "allows" things to happen that he'd really rather see not happen, but he simply chooses (presumably for some "greater good") not to block them. Nothing can happen without God's actively causing it to happen as the finite act which it is; and hence, he must positively will it; and of course, it happens exactly as he wills it to happen, since nothing finite has the ability to affect God's act in any way, and how could any finite act in any sense "thwart his will"?

So the God we are talking about doesn't look like the God you were perhaps brought up to believe in. But if you believe that God would "rather not" have certain things happen but just "doesn't do anything about it," then you believe in a finite God--and you are wrong.

My, my, I have said "You are wrong." How bigoted of me! You find me evidence that the God you believe in actually exists, and I will listen to you; I don't care if the God that "wills good and only permits evil" is the one you "feel comfortable with." That God is a contradiction in terms, unless you can disprove my argument by something else than not agreeing with the conclusion.

You see, when you do philosophy, you are bound by your evidence. Philosophy is not a game by which you find reasons to bolster the position you "feel comfortable with"; philosophy is an adventure precisely into the unknown, and you must follow where the path leads. If the truth were known before you tried to find it, what would be the point of the search?

So God causes me to sin. Yes. My sin, as a finite existence, can't be caused by me, and must be caused by God's act--actively caused by him to be the finite act which it is. But this will be partially explained by the next conclusion, and a rather more full treatment will be given in the next section in the chapter dealing with goodness and badness.

I might remark that I think that what I have just said is compatible with Christianity--obviously, since I am a Christian; it is just not compatible with what I consider certain naive interpretations of Christianity. I might also say that I think my view is implicit in what many Christian Theologians--St. Thomas among them--have held about God as being totally self-sufficient and immutable; though I think that they have drawn the wrong conclusion from the facts if they talk about God's "permissive will" as if it implied that we've made a mess of what he "wanted" for the world he created.

At any rate, the following also must be true:

Conclusion 30: God causes finite existences to exist as they actually exist, including their existence as effects of finite causes.

A finite existence is what it is; and it is what it is in part because of the finite causes which made it to be what it is. Finite causes specify the particular essence which is the limitation (in this case) of the existence; and of course, the particular essence is the essence, which in turn is nothing but the existence as less than what it otherwise would be. But "essence as less than what it otherwise would be" is precisely what is caused by God; and if God is going to cause an "essenced existence," he obviously has to cause this one.

In other words, even though existence as finite is an abstraction, the reality referred to by those terms is the concrete existence as less in a definite way than what it means to exist. Hence, an abstract way of looking at any definite existence is the fact that it is finite (and in that respect analogous to all other finite existences); but it itself, of course, is the concrete essence ("finitized existence," if you will) which it is; and this is what God is the cause of--but not insofar as it is this particular one, but insofar as, as finite, it is the same as all others.

Put this another way: In any finite being (any essence) there is nothing "there" but existence; the limitation of the existence is not "something else" in any sense, but merely the fact that this existence leaves some existence outside itself. God accounts for how it can do this; but other causes enter into just what it is doing.

Hence, God causes the existence to be finite in the way in which it is actually finite; and it is actually finite as really being the effect of its finite causes. If God's causality usurped the causality of the finite causes, then what exists-as-dependent-on-finite-things would in fact be independent of finite things, and this would be a contradiction in terms.

Leibniz, in recognizing God's universal causality, fell into this trap, and assumed that God "created" everything, but that everything was really only dependent on God, and totally independent of everything else. But that forced Leibniz to posit his "preestablished harmony," which made things act (coincidentally) together as if they were actually acting on each other, so that the page is actually radiating out light and you are perceiving at the same time, just as if the light were actually making you perceive what was on the page--while all the time you and it are totally independent of each other.

But if that is the case, of course, we have no reason for saying that there is a God at all, since we only got to God by knowing first that there were finite causes of our consciousness, which as causes were impossible unless there was the infinite existence. Now if we say that the infinite existence makes these finite causes not actually do anything, then the source of our evidence for saying that there is a God in the first place is a falsification, and the argument for his existence falls apart. Hence, there have to be finite causes.

Needless, perhaps, to say, one of the other traps Leibniz fell into with his "preestablished harmony" was that in having God pick out the "compossible monads," he had to assume that there were, somehow "possible beings," among which God could choose; and if I am right, this is just nonsense. Suffice it that I think that Leibniz's theory just doesn't work.

As to God's causing my sin, then (a) God causes my sin as a finite act; (b) my choice as self-determining specifies what that finite act is; but since what the finite act is is identical with the finite act, then God causes my sin to be this act as dependent on the self-determination of my choice, and hence I am responsible for it; and God wills it to be what it is, with me responsible for what it is. It happens to be a self-frustrating act (and is recognized as such, as we will see, or it is not a sin but a mistake), and God actively wills that my choices be what I want them to be when I make them.

There is no question of "permitting the sin"; he actively wills it to be this act if this is the act I will; and so if I knowingly choose to frustrate myself, then God wills that I do so, and it doesn't bother him if that's what I want.(3) He lets me know (by his law) that that's what I am doing; but if I want to do it, this is what he wants me to do--and causes me to do in such a way that I am the cause of the specification of the act.

If, then, you want to interpret God's "permissive will" as being a "hypothetical will" with respect to human choices, I could go along with it: God wills, actively the act which I actively will; and so he wills me not to frustrate myself if I will not to do so(4).

In other words, what this means is that if God wills that there be a self-determining act, then it would be contradictory for him to will this act to be other than what it determined itself to be; or in other words, if he wills a self-determining act, he cannot have any "stake" in the outcome: whatever act is self-determined has to be "all right" with him. He doesn't allow us to frustrate ourselves or bring suffering on ourselves; he helps us do so if that is what we want to do with ourselves, because our becoming what we choose to be is what it means for us to be ourselves as self-determining; and God wills us to be what we are--and to "will" or "prefer" anything else for us (like our "happiness" even if we didn't want it) would be to want self-determining beings to be other than what they determined themselves to be--which is a contradiction.

This whole issue is clouded over by the sentimental notion we have of God as "sorrowing" over our sin and suffering because of it. It prevents us from seeing that the "sorrowing" God would actually be a God who regrets that we are free to do with ourselves what we want, and only reluctantly lets us set goals for ourselves.(5)

But as I say, more of this later, when we discuss goodness and badness. To resume,

Conclusion 31: God cannot delegate his causality to any other being.

The reason for this is that any other finite existence, whether it is "being caused" or not, cannot be the cause of the fact that any other existence is finite, because if that were the case, as we saw so often, it would be identical with the effect it was causing, and would be a case of finite existence which at the moment made sense by itself. But no finite existence makes sense by itself, and so it doesn't have, and can't have, "what it takes" to make sense out of the fact that any other finite existence is a finite existence. Nor can it be given this, because after it had been given it either (a) it would be infinite and no longer finite, or (b) it would be a finite existence which made sense by itself.(6)

Thus, the motion of my arm, which is a finite act, is caused as this motion now, by my choice to move my arm; but it's not caused as a finite act by my choice or by anything else about me, because my choice and everything else about me is also a finite act. So the movement of my arm, as a finite act, needs God to be acting on it, making it an existence-which-is-less-than-existence; even though it also needs my choice in order to be occurring now and in this particular way in which it is a finite act. So God's existence and my existence together explain the finite act of moving my arm; it wouldn't be what it is if either God or I didn't do what we did(7).

--I told you we could resurrect medieval metaphysics (not that it was my intention to do so) from the tomb it was sealed in by Descartes' mistake of taking "truth" as "matching the perception with what is 'out there.'" The rock has been rolled away; but be careful: the resurrected body is not going to look the same as it did before it was killed--I think I had better drop this metaphor before it gets too ridiculous.

At any rate, what I want to look at in the next chapter is precisely what all of this implies with respect to subjectivity, objectivity, and truth.



1. This sort of thing is what is apt to happen if you start with the "perception" and aren't very, very careful. We know that we "perceive" the perception, and so it's apt to be taken to be the object of our consciousness, rather than the form under which we are conscious (generally, of something else). True, we are conscious of our perceptions or imaginings, because the act is self-transparent; but in perceptions, the form of consciousness is simply the way in which we perceive the external being, not a something which we perceive, arguing to the being as its cause or "object." True, I did construct an argument proving that there had to be an existence "out there," but that is not the way we actually do it ourselves; we simply see the object, and see it in this way.

Put it this way: we know by the analysis above that we have to be seeing some existence, because the percept itself is unintelligible without it; but the percept recognizes itself as a reaction, and so obviously immediately "talks about" the existence which caused it.

The point here, however, is that if you take the perception as the object, then you have poisoned the well, and you get into silly positions such as Bishop Berkeley's, where the existence not only depends on but is identical with the perception itself. But then what do you do with imaginary "images." They would have to "exist" in the same sense that the page you are looking at exists.

2. If God can be said to "know" (and, as we will see later, he can), then this has to be only his knowledge of his own activity as cause (of whatever effect), and it can't be by being affected in any way by the existence which he knows. Hence, if God knows in any way at all, it is not analogous in any way to "perceiving," which is passive.

3. I will get into the implications of this later, in the next section when I discuss goodness and badness.

4. Of course, much of this would depend on what you mean by God's "will"; but clearly if he is simple, his "will" is absolutely identical with his act of causing what he "wills." All his "will" would mean is that he doesn't have to cause this particular finite act--which must be true or he would be dependent on the finite act, and this would make him an effect of his own effect, which is absurd.

5. There is actually more to it than this for a believer, who (from revelation) is aware that God is good. As we will see, "goodness" is relative to a person's subjectively set standards, and so has meaning only from the human point of view; and if God is good, this means that every human being will ultimately come to recognize that God is good; that is, that any harm the person has received is exactly what he asked for, and isn't "God's fault."

6. On the supposition that God, in His "self-duplication-without-multiplication" implied in consciousness "duplicated" Himself in a finite way (e.g. as human), then that human (Jesus) would exist with the Infinite Existence, and would in fact be God, just as your "formed consciousness" is as it were a finite "duplication" of the "consciousness of the consciousness" which in a sense is beyond it (as it must be since it recognizes itself as greater than just this act, as we saw). In that sense, a "finite" being (which is one of the "duplications" of the infinite being) could cause the finiteness of other things. This is alternative a).

7. Note that, since my choice as conscious contains itself within itself, it is self-determining--it "chooses itself," as we will see later; and as self-determining it is self-explanatory and "uncaused"; but as a finite (self-determining) act, it is caused by God. So God's causality over my act does not "take away" its freedom; God causes it to be free because he causes it to be what it is: self-determining. But we will discuss this more at length much later.