I’m told there has been some discussion of my recent pantheism post on Michael Sudduth’s Facebook page. Since I ditched my Facebook account a couple of years ago, and Michael’s page isn’t publicly accessible, I can’t interact directly with that discussion. However, a mutual friend was thoughtful enough to send me a copy of his own critical comments, which I reproduce here:
I think James’ note is too quick. For what sort of ontological containment is at play here? Clearly many sorts of containment, such that A contains B, don’t support the inference that P(A) if P(B) for just any property P. Consider mereological containment, where A contains B just if B is a part (or perhaps proper part) of A. A very large clock tower — Big Ben, say — has many proper parts less than 1′ tall. But it doesn’t begin to follow that the same goes for Big Ben; it doesn’t follow that Big Ben, too, is less than 1′ tall.
Much the same goes for spatial containment, which James’ himself seems to dismiss as a relevent sort of ontological containment. My carton of non-fat milk and the refrigerator in which it’s contained have, among other things, very different dimensions and construction. Further, the milk can have soured and yet it still be false that the same goes for the refrigerator.
Perhaps, then, the relevant notion of ontological containment is that displayed by sets and their members. But this, too, won’t do, for of course while 7 is prime, then same can’t properly be said of (e.g.) the set of natural numbers of which 7 is a member.
Of course there’s much more to be said here. No doubt there are other notions of ontological containment which will support the general inference above, as well as (otherwise) faithfully capturing what the panentheist means to assert. Or perhaps we need to look more closely into relevant types of property; perhaps there are properties of some type, such that any property of that type does apply to the container if they apply to the contained item.
These are useful comments that raise some important issues. Here are some thoughts in response:
1. I agree, of course, that “if A contains B, and P(B), then P(A)” isn’t true for just any kind of containment and any property P. But consider the specifics of the argument: if God contains the world, and the world is a mixture of good and evil, then God is a mixture of good and evil (and thus, as I went on to argue, God cannot serve as the ultimate standard of goodness). This specific inference strikes me as a quite reasonable, and I doubt I’m alone. In fact, one might view it as an argument from the transitivity of containment. If A contains B, and B contains C, then A contains C. I cannot think of any kind of containment that violates this principle. So unless I’m missing something obvious, the inference appears cogent.
2. This raises the important question: What kind of containment is in view here? And the short answer is: Whatever kind of containment is typically had in mind by panentheists when they claim that the universe is ‘in’ or ‘within’ God. In my original post I characterized it as ontological containment. Here’s an attempt to define the notion a little more precisely: X ontologically contains Y if the being of Y can be considered (to some extent, in some non-trivial sense) the being of X. This is most obviously the case when Y is a part or a constituent of X.
So, for example, Harry ontologically contains his body insofar as his body is a part of him; his body’s being is also his being. Thus, to strike Harry’s body is no less than to strike him. Similarly, if Harry’s body is infected with the ebola virus then he is infected. These examples are particularly apt in the present context, because panentheists frequently analogize the relationship between God and the world to the relationship between humans and their bodies.
To take another example, consider Bertrand Russell’s “bundle theory”: objects are nothing more than ‘bundles’ of compresent properties. On this view, the red apple ontologically contains the property of redness (sharing it with myriad other red things, but that’s beside the point here). It may not be formally correct to say that the property is a part of the apple, but it is at least a constituent of it. The being of the apple includes the being of the property of redness. (Other than the being of its properties, what being does the apple have, according to this theory?)
3. Given this understanding of ontological containment, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that if God ontologically contains the world, and the world ontologically contains evil, then God ontologically contains evil. God would be a mixture of good and evil, ontologically speaking, rather than absolutely good. And that gives rise to the normativity problem I detailed in my earlier post.
4. Why did I take this notion of ontological containment to apply to panentheism? Several reasons. First, it seems to follow from the etymology and standard definition of panentheism (“all-in-God-ism”) given that panentheism is a claim about the ontological relationship between God and the universe. Second, I take it to be a fair generalization from the various forms of panentheism I’ve encountered in my reading over the years. Third, it’s suggested by the very words Michael Sudduth used to describe his own panentheism:
Consequently, I now accept a panentheistic metaphysics in which the universe and human souls are, to put it roughly, in the being of God.
5. A panentheist, as one commentator suggested, might be tempted to appeal to the privation theory of evil to explain how God need not be polluted by the evil of the world. I don’t think this move will work, for the simple reason that the privation theory must apply to God in the same way that it applies to the world. If a privation of good in the world entails that the world is (partly) evil, by the same token a privation of good in God (by virtue of his containing the world) entails that God is (partly) evil. And presumably the same goes for any other theory of evil. It’s hard to conceive of a containment relation that would serve the panentheist’s purposes but isn’t transitive with respect to evil. (And it’s his burden, not mine, to identify that relation.)
6. So where do we go from here? As I see it, the panentheist has basically two options. Option A would be to accept my characterization of panentheism in terms of ontological containment, but argue that my argument against panentheism (so construed) is fallacious. Option B would be to reject my characterization of panentheism. In that case, however, I think the panentheist owes us an alternative characterization. What does he mean when he says that everything is “in God” or “in the being of God”?
In sum, what we’re looking for here is some substantive notion of containment or participation that (1) is intelligible enough for us to evaluate claims that appeal to it, (2) usefully differentiates panentheism from theism, and (3) offers the sort of philosophical or theological benefits that panentheists think can’t be delivered by a theistic metaphysics.