Is an immaterial God intelligible?

This is partly in response to a post of Bruce Nielson’s here, and a more recent one here, in which he asks whether immaterial things, and in particular God himself, if he is taken to be immaterial, are “explainable” or comprehensible, as material things are. I take him to be asking, more or less, is the immaterial explainable in terms of the material, or in other words, the laws of physics? If not, can the immaterial be said to be explainable or comprehensible at all?

Indeed, it may be argued that on the contrary, material things are explainable only in terms of the immaterial. From one of the most quotable philosophers ever, Edward Feser (if I quoted him as often as I would like, my blog would be nothing but a series of links to his):

[I]f [the supernatural] is not governed by the laws that govern the natural order, that is not because it is less intelligible than the natural order, but because it is more intelligible, and indeed the source of the intelligibility of the natural order. The natural order is contingent; its divine, supernatural ground is necessary. The causal processes in terms of which we explain everyday happenings within the natural order are secondary, having only a derived efficacy; the divine, supernatural first cause is that which has its causal power inherently, in an absolutely underived way. (See again the post on essentially ordered or instrumental causes linked to above.) And so forth.

Again, even if this whole picture were rejected as outdated metaphysics, that does not entail that it is “magical.”…

Nor will it do to insist that only scientific or naturalistic explanations could even in principle be non-magical. For one thing, such a claim would presuppose something like a verificationist theory of meaning, insofar as it implies that non-naturalistic or non-scientific explanations are not even intelligible; and semantic verificationism is self-defeating. For another thing, scientism and naturalism are themselves self-defeating (unless they are merely trivially true), and tend to rest on non sequiturs — that is, when they are actually being argued for at all, as opposed to being merely asserted. (I’ve discussed these problems here, here, here and here.)

Indeed, if any view is plausibly accused of being “magical” in the sense in question, it is atheism [and thus materialism] itself. The reason is that it is very likely that an atheist [materialist] has to hold that the operation of at least the fundamental laws that govern the universe is an “unintelligible brute fact”; as I have noted before, that was precisely the view taken by J. L. Mackie and Bertrand Russell. The reason an atheist (arguably) has to hold this is that to allow that the world is not ultimately a brute fact — that it is intelligible through and through — seems to entail that there is some level of reality which is radically non-contingent or necessary in an absolute sense. And that would in turn be to allow (so the traditional metaphysician will argue) that there is something which, as the Thomist would put it, is pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens or “subsistent being itself” — and thus something which has the divine attributes which inexorably flow from being pure actuality and ipsum esse subsistens. Hence it would be to give up atheism.

But to operate in a way that is ultimately unintelligible in principle — as the atheist arguably has to say the fundamental laws of nature do, insofar as he has to say that they are “just there” as a brute fact, something that could have been otherwise but happens to exist anyway, with no explanation — just is to be “magical” in the objectionable sense. In fact it is only on a theistic view of the world that the laws of nature are not “magical”; and the Mackie/Russell position is (as I argue in the post linked to above) ultimately incoherent for the same sorts of reason that magical thinking in general is incoherent. As is so often the case, the loudmouth New Atheist [not that I’m applying this label to Bruce] turns out to be exactly what he claims to despise — in this case, a believer in “magical powers.”

Edward Feser, Magic Versus Metaphysics.


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