Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)


The conservative Sunni Islamic theologian and Sufi al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111 CE) wrote a famous denunciation of philosophers in Islam, called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. (In Latin, “incoherence” was rendered as “destruction”.) This was a classic statement of the occasionalist doctrine that everything that happens is directly caused by the will of God, and all other explanations are illusory. This is a kind of consequence of strong theological voluntarism. Spurred by the voluntarism of Descartes, many 17th century Cartesians later adopted occasionalist views. Related voluntarist views were earlier strongly voiced by Philo of Alexandria, and later in the Latin West by Franciscan theologians such as Duns Scotus and William of Occam.

The great Aristotelian commentator Ibn Rushd or Averroes responded to Ghazali on behalf of the philosophers, in a work entitled Incoherence of the Incoherence. An Islamic jurist as well as a philosopher, he argued in another work never translated to Latin that the Koran effectively tells those who are capable of rational understanding to study philosophy. In his response to Ghazali, Averroes pointed out that Ghazali’s argument made inferences from the empirical to the divine. Ghazali had said that everything that happens is deliberated and knowingly chosen by God. This actually Aristotelian terminology of deliberation and choice applies to empirical agents, insofar as they want and lack something. Averroes responded that God lacks nothing, and therefore does not choose or deliberate like a human would.

This small piece of a much larger argument is illustrative of a typical contrast. Broadly Aristotelian and neoplatonic views both emphasized the eternity of the divine as part of its perfection. They also took “secondary” causes very seriously, because they took something like Hegelian mediation seriously. Conversely, if God were directly responsible (causally or morally) for everything that happens, this would abolish all causal or moral responsibility of all other beings, and indeed all distinction whatsoever. (See also Strong Omnipotence.)

Strong Omnipotence

The Greek-speaking Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE to 1st CE) was perhaps the original antiphilosopher. That is to say, he used some philosophical ideas with learning and sophistication, but was unequivocally hostile to the autonomy of reason, which was something of a commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

For Philo, any equivalent of ethical virtue seems to come exclusively from faith in the revelation of the Greek Old Testament, taken as the literal word of God. To me, this sounds like an unfortunate precursor to today’s fundamentalisms, which ignore all sounder theology, and preclude the very possibility of genuine ethics. Where there is no allowance for virtue independent of one-sided authority, it may become all too permissible to hate whomever is called an unbeliever or heretic. Many other theologians have been far less one-sided, allowing for at least a relative autonomy of reason, and a possibility of genuine virtue independent of sheer obedience to presumed dictates of revelation. With them, a moral philosopher can find common ground.

Philo may have originated the suggestion that Platonic ideas exist in the mind of an omnipotent God. An emphatic supernaturalist, he defended creation from nothing, grounded in an ultra-strong version of divine omnipotence. On this view, God has absolute liberty, and thus can do absolutely any absolutely arbitrary thing at any time, as with the later Islamic occasionalists. Philo explicitly contrasted this view with those of all the Greek philosophers and those influenced by them, who at the very least would expect God to act in ways that are genuinely reasonable and good, and thus put reason and goodness before any will. Unlike the God of Aquinas, for instance, the God of Philo is even supposed to be able to do logically impossible things if he so wills. This is extreme theological voluntarism.

Philonic strong omnipotence is precisely the kind of thing Leibniz later said would make of God an arbitrary tyrant, with disastrous ethical and social consequences. Notions of divine will tacitly assumed to be known with certainty by human authority, and not subject to any inquiry go against the whole better tradition of faith seeking understanding, and make it all too easy to mask hate in the name of supposed holiness.

In all three of the major monotheistic traditions, this dangerous kind of voluntarism has been applied by some to God. Some have gone on to attribute similar supernatural free will to humans as well, on the ground that they are made in the image of a God that has that kind of completely unconstrained freedom. This is using bad theology to justify bad anthropology. As anthropology, it is what Hegel called the illusion of Mastery. Some bad philosophers have simply postulated a similar completely unconstrained “negative” freedom or “freedom of indifference” for humans, without even a pretended explanation of how this could be. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

My main source for statements about Philo here is the actually sympathetic essay by Harry Austryn Wolfson, in his book Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961). I always thought of Wolfson as a Spinoza scholar, but Wikipedia says he is actually best known for another, larger work on Philo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of current Philo scholarship. (See also Fragility of the Good; Theology.)