Chapter 2

Change and materiality

The very first article I ever published in philosophy was a discussion of change. At the time, I thought I had it figured out, but was a little shaky on accidental change; so I started investigating substance and accident, and very quickly realized I had to discover how we knew accidents in order to know what we were talking about when we referred to them. But to approach this, I had to find a more empirical way of looking at things than the traditional Thomism that I was working out of; and my background in physics led to an early version of the theory of cause that makes up the second section of this book. Then when I started looking at reality, It seemed to me that I had a decent handle on substance and accident now; and I got pretty well through to the point where I began investigating change once again--and when I got there, I realized that change was what I least understood.

Since that time, my idea of the finite has been refined considerably; and now I would be hard-pressed to name what I least understand about things; somehow, the more I go into them, the more incomprehensible they get.

But let us push on, and let me give you my latest ignorance on the subject of change. Maybe you will be able to do something with it.

First of all, is change something that occurs only in bodies, or can God and spirits change too?

I think we can draw the first conclusion immediately:

Conclusion 1: God cannot change at all.

Process philosophers and Theologians notwithstanding, in order for God to be able to change, he would either have to acquire some reality that before the change he lacked (which means that he is finite before the change, and so isn't God), or he has to lack some reality afterwards that he had before.

This would mean that God would become finite; but since the finite is impossible without an infinite existence, God couldn't become finite; because if he did, then there would be no infinite existence to cause any finite existence, and everything would go out of existence, including the finite being that used to be God(1). But we saw that annihilation isn't a change.

Further, nothing outside God could make or induce him to go out of existence (which is what to "become finite" would be in his case), because he cannot be affected by anything, as we saw. So if he were to do this, it would have to be a free choice on his part.

I find it difficult to see that the free choice to cease existing would be impossible for God(2); but it seems to me that it is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely, given the tendency of any being to preserve itself, and given that this tendency becomes more and more marked the higher you go in existence.

Human beings who commit suicide do want to cease existing, it is true; but this is because their situation is so bad that it is impossible for them to do what they want--which is another way of saying that they lack an act which they consider extremely important. Hence, for the suicide, non-existence is the lesser of two evils, not a good that motivates his choice. But since God is infinite activity, this cannot apply to him.

But since humans can choose to cease to exist, I would think that God would also be as free as they are; but I would also think that the exercise of this freedom in such a perverse fashion would be out of the question for God; and in any case, I don't imagine the theoretical possibility should cause anyone sleepless nights.(3)

But if God can't change, then he can't be in any real sense "in process" or "becoming," because this implies some real difference in him. Then how can there be "process philosophers" like Hegel, Whitehead, Hartshorn, and so on? Because they think that existence is process or development; and they seem all to have some version of Hegel's notion that existence (or reality) contains its own opposite within it, so that the infinite is finite as well as infinite, what is is what is not as well as what is, and so on.

What I tried to show in Chapter 6 of Section 3 of the preceding Part 1.3.6 is that this view mistakes reality as finite for reality as such. Granted, all the reality we come into direct contact with is finite and contains its own opposite within it, this containing of the opposite does not make it make sense, but is precisely an unintelligibility that needs explaining--and in the case of the finite as such, needs explaining by something that does not have the same unintelligibility, or by God.

What has happened with process philosophers is that they have accepted the unintelligibility of the finite as "Well, that's the way things are"; and having accepted it, they have adjusted their minds to it, by something like the following syllogism. "What contains its own opposite within itself is what is real; what is real makes sense; therefore, what contains its own opposite within itself makes sense."

This is true, of course; but it needs a distinction. What contains its own opposite within itself is real; what is real makes sense either by itself or by a cause; therefore, what contains its own opposite within itself makes sense either by itself or by a cause.

The fallacy of the first premise is the same as saying "A horse is something that has four legs," and assuming that because this is true, all four-legged things are horses. What is finite is real, but this does not entail that what is finite is what is real, which would imply that what is real is finite. And the fallacy of the second premise, of course, is that it doesn't follow that "what makes sense" has to make sense by itself.

But this kind of fallacy is very common, actually, especially dealing with the first premises in an investigation, or the first principles of a science. Since you have to start somewhere, then you have to start by accepting some facts without question. Of course, if these facts are facts, then they can serve as your "ultimate causes"; but if they are your starting-point, then for you they are to be taken as "immediately evident," and hence as making sense by themselves and things not to be questioned.

Many physicists, for instance, when confronted with the "big bang" notion of the beginning of the universe, refuse to consider the conundrum connected with the whole universe's being unstable at the beginning and exploding, which would imply something before it and beyond it which either got it into an unstable condition or "created it out of nothing." Some quite legitimately say, "That problem (though a real problem) is not one physics is equipped to handle," because it calls into question some of the first principles of physics (like the law of conservation of mass-energy). But there are others who say, "What's the problem? The big bang happened, and if it did, it did. So why do you feel the need to 'explain' it?" What these latter physicists don't realize is that the "need to explain" it is the same need that drives them to "explain" the expansion of the universe as coming from a big bang in the first place. You could just as easily say, "So the universe is expanding. Why do you feel the need to say that it started with an explosion?"

What I am saying here is that process philosophers have fallen into the same trap. Since process happens, then you can take it, if you want, as a first principle in investigating what follows from it. But if you do so, you do not therefore baptize it into making sense by itself. Process still contains within it a contradiction, and that which contradicts itself precisely does not make sense by itself, as your own further investigations (using this fact to make sense out of the otherwise unintelligible facts that depend on it) establishes.

The other thing that spurs on process philosophy is that it is assumed that if you aren't changing, you aren't active. But as was seen as early as Aristotle, though change is the most obvious case of activity, it is by no means what activity means. In fact, every change, as Aristotle also saw, is a defective kind of activity, because it is not really what it is, since it is "headed somewhere."

To show that not every activity is a change, consider what the chair I am sitting on is doing to the floor. It is clearly pushing it downward, because if you move it, you see that it has made a slight dent in the tiles of the floor, and so has compressed them. But once it has reached the point where the force acting to compress the floor is exactly balanced by the elastic restoring force of the floor tile pushing upward, then no further change occurs, though both forces keep acting on each other or (a) the chair would fall through the floor or (b) the floor would push the chair back up. And that the interaction is still going on is seen from the fact that if you do remove the chair, the floor tends to restore itself to something like its original shape. So once the equilibrium is reached, the activity doesn't stop even though the change does. It is this inability to recognize stable activity as activity which makes process philosophers look down their noses at Scholastics as "thinking that being is static," and at the same time of falling into the same trap that Heraclitus fell into, which was shown as irrational by Parmenides and thoroughly analyzed and refuted by Aristotle.

In any case, if process is change, and change involves finiteness, and finiteness must be explained by what is not finite, then God cannot change, even though--or precisely because--he is infinitely active already. He can't "do something else" because he is already doing all there is to do.(4)

But now what about pure finite spirits, if there are any? If they are to change at all, there must be something in them which can establish a continuity between the "before" and the "after" conditions.

But this "something" can't be the existence, because suppose some spirit were annihilated and another one (with no connection to him) created. Each would exist; but the fact that the second one exists obviously does not connect him to the first one, any more than the fact that you exist and I exist makes us the same thing(5). The form is precisely that about one existence which allows us to say that the existence is not the same as another existence in the sense of the fact of their separation into two different beings; and so the "existence" is not something common which establishes that they are "the same thing" and so if one form of existence disappears and then another one begins to exist, the second one is not "the same thing" in any sense as the first.

So one spirit can't "turn into" another one. But a spirit is one act, "reduplicating" itself if there is any plurality at all about it, and is not a system of interconnected parts (as we saw in the last Section). That is, each "part" contains all the others within it and is contained within each of the others, so that there is really only one act. Obviously, then, it follows that any change to any "property" of this pure form of existence would mean a difference of that form of existence, meaning that it is afterwards a different form of existence--which is what we just established is not possible.

That is, there is no meaning in a spirit of a "partial" change, because, not having anything but the form of existence which (as spiritual) exhausts what it means to be that kind of existence, there is no way it could be "somewhat" different. To be "somewhat" different, it would have to be limited so that it could be both different and still itself. But that kind of limitation of form is quantity, and we no longer have a spirit any more.

Hence, the Scholastics were wrong, when they thought that spirits couldn't change "substantially" (into different spirits) but could change "accidentally," thinking now one thought and now another, for instance, as we do. With us, the brain allows this by shutting off consciousness and regulating it; but insofar as things are conscious, they are totally within themselves, and "thinking now one thought and now another" with an angel would be the equivalent of your actually consciously seeing (as opposed to reacting visually) without being aware that you were consciously seeing, or of thinking a thought without thinking that you were thinking it. The Scholastics didn't realize that unconsciousness depends on the body, because they didn't, I suppose, think through the metaphysical implications of "complete reflection" by which we are conscious of being conscious.

So it doesn't seem as if finite but pure spirits can change in any way either; though, of course, they could absolutely come into existence and also absolutely go out of existence if God so willed, because as forms of existence, their existence is in itself a contradiction and depends absolutely on God.

Another way of saying this is that a pure spirit is doing all that that form of activity can do; and since it is limited to being only that form of activity, then it is doing all that it can do, and so can't do anything else.

Hence, let us make this a formal conclusion:

Conclusion 2: A pure spirit or pure form of existence cannot change at all.

This is not, however, to say that he can't "have" something like what we call "properties," though (1) would have all of them throughout the whole of his existence, and (2) each "property" would contain the whole being within it, because in fact it would be identical with the whole being. This, however, would not prevent a pure spirit from having different effects on, say, the world, which would occur at different times. The cause, remember, is not affected in its reality by the fact that it has some effect (though you can't call it a cause unless it has one; but this is a pure name, not indicating a difference in it from what it was before. And, as we will see fairly shortly, time is not something things are in, but a relational property of things: the fact that certain processes are interconnected. Hence, if an angel, say, wanted to have an effect on some historical person, he would simply produce the effect on that person in the circumstances he wanted the person to be affected, one of which is the time this particular thing happens to that person. Thus, he would eternally, so to speak, have an effect that occurs at this particular time(6).

Needless to say, it is all very mysterious; but then, any being is fraught with mystery, including all material beings, which "contain" a limitation that is not themselves as not different from themselves. One must open one's mind to wonder if one wants to explore philosophical issues honestly.



1. Of course, I exclude here the case in which God, in one of his spiritual "reduplications" of himself (since a spirit is many "acts" that are really one and the same) could make one (or perhaps more) of these "reduplications" a finite activity, as I believe happened in the case of Jesus. Just as when we sleep, our spiritual activity no longer exists as such, but the "reduplication" of it as the unifying energy of our body does, and this is, in fact, the spiritual act which later wakes up to consciousness. There is nothing contradictory in God's doing such a thing and becoming a human being while still being God. I am trying to establish by this that Jesus is God; I am simply saying that you can't prove he can't be.

2. Though it might be, as St. Thomas would hold. It may be that God's existence is in fact "necessary," and the one thing "doable" that he is incapable of doing would be to stop existing. Of course, even if he could stop existing, why would he? And you also have the conundrum that, since God is not in time, then his decision to stop existing (which of course is identical with his act of going out of existence is also eternal--in which case, nothing at all, temporal or eternal, exists.

3. Quite possibly, some of the angels thought that his becoming human and dying for his creatures was acting in a pretty "perverse" fashion. I'm pretty sure if I were God, I'd have let mankind rot.

4. He who is God, of course, changed as a human being, if Jesus is God; but these alterations of the humanity of Jesus make no difference to the infinite reality which expresses itself in that way in one of its "duplications" of itself; they are eternally present to the Godhead just as everything else is. If this does not seem to make sense, then insofar as I understand it, it means that eternity is timelessness, not "always." But I will let the Theologians worry about this.

5. As some philosophers, beginning with Parmenides and I suppose ending (so far) with Hegel have thought.

6. I realize that St. Thomas makes a distinction between the "eternity" of God and the "aeviternity" of angels. First of all, he thought that angels began to exist, though their "duration" is outside of time, in some sense, and is, of course, created (i.e. caused) by God. They do not cease to exist once having been created, since in their nature they have nothing that would make them stop existing, and God would not annihilate something he created to not go out of existence. So they have a kind of "semi-eternity." I think, however, that it makes more sense to say that pure finite spirits (if there are any) do not begin to exist, though their existence, of course, is a created one, and a free one, which is "already," so to speak, making the decision to be itself.

That is, the devils (always supposing they exist) freely decided to exist; but they did not make this decision after existing in a different way (which would put them in time), any more than God was sitting there in heaven bored until he decided to create the world. So I think "eternity" is a term that also applies to pure finite spirits.