Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre delivers controversial keynote address at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s Fall Conference
Eminent Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre spoke to a large crowd gathered in the Morris Inn about human creativity, divine knowledge, and the unpredictability of “singularities.” The Rev. John A. O’Brien Senior Research Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame presented a paper—titled The Apparent Oddness of the Universe: How to Account for It?—at the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture’s Fall Conference on Friday, November 11.
MacIntyre was introduced by David Solomon, professor emeritus of philosophy at Notre Dame and the Founding Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. Solomon noted that MacIntyre, who has delivered a keynote address at every Fall Conference since the event’s inception in 2000, holds a place of high esteem in modern philosophy: “As far as I can determine, he’s the only philosopher who has given all three of the most distinguished lectures in 20th century philosophy: the Gifford Lectures, the Carlyle Lectures, and the Carus Lectures.”
According to Solomon, Alasdair MacIntyre’s work has shaped the field of contemporary philosophy: “He introduced many of us to that remarkable and revolutionary tapestry of philosophical history, Aristotelian and Thomistic insight, social-scientific analysis, literary imagination, and cultural critique that were to be fully displayed later in the last two decades of the 20th century” in his most influential works, among them After Virtue.
To begin this year’s address, Alasdair MacIntyre told his audience: “I’ll be primarily concerned with the nature of the universe and, above all, with its apparent oddity, an oddity that poses problems both for biblical theists and for modern atheists.”
One answer to the question of oddity in the universe comes from “non-reductive physicalists” who, according to MacIntyre, hold that “whatever exists is a law-governed physical object, or is composed of such law-governed physical objects … The universe, on their view, neither is nor appears odd.” For these deterministic physicalists, human agents are incapable of creating anything radically new, and thus “any theistic story about God’s creation of such agents has to be false.”
MacIntyre contrasted this popular view with the distinctive teachings of the ancient Jewish scriptural authors: “Their conceptions of themselves, of God, and of creation are not to be found in any other ancient culture. How are we to understand them?,” MacIntyre asked.
A particular understanding of God’s omniscience was central to MacIntyre’s consideration of creator, creation, and creatures’ creative power: “To say that God is omniscient is to say that he knows everything that there is to be known, but it is important that there are some things that occur that are not there to be known until they have in fact occurred.”
These occurrences, which MacIntyre termed “singularities,” represent “something genuinely new, something not to be expected or predicted,” such as a sonnet of Shakespeare or an equation of Einstein. In fact, any such prediction would destroy the singularity it foretells: “No one could predict their formulation in advance unless she or he was already able to formulate them—a Newton before Newton; an Einstein before Einstein.”
For MacIntyre, this applies not just to humans, but also to God: “Even if an omniscient God does exist, there have been and will be numerous occasions on which he cannot be said to know what will be done or happen until it is done or happens.” The capacity of humans to create singularities, utterly new things, is a mark of the genuine creativity given to them by God as a reflection of his own creativity.
Such singularities need not always be morally good. MacIntyre considered the Fall to be the “second creative human act,” a singularity which God could not have predicted: “The choice to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, the choice to quarrel with God, [was] something that God would not have known was going to happen.”
The notion of singularities influences not just MacIntyre’s theology, but also his conception of modern science and his anthropology: “What is, however, genuinely striking about the universe is that it begins with atomic nuclei, electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, and neutrinos, and results in beings who argue about whether or not they’re emergent. Their emergence requires a kind of explanation that the natural sciences cannot provide.”
MacIntyre foresaw that his address would be criticized: “There will be denials of my claims about the limits of God’s knowledge; God’s powers, it will be argued, have no bounds. And to think otherwise is to misconceive God.” But later, he clarified: “It’s not an imperfection in God that he doesn’t know these things; it’s an impossibility to say this intelligibly. And at this point we are, I think, doing harm to our theology by paying meaningless compliments to God.”
Urban Hannon, a licentiate student in theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, watched the lecture via livestream and responded to MacIntyre’s arguments, writing: “The stakes here could not be higher. For if MacIntyre were right, and God really were still waiting on us to discover what will happen next, he would not be God at all.”
Hannon explained to the Rover, “God is simple, perfect, good … ‘pure act.’ One of the corollaries of this fundamental insight is that none of our doctrines about God is disposable. We can’t separate off any one of them, because all of God’s attributes are identical in reality. To attack one truth about God is going to end up obscuring all of them. In the case of omniscience, it is necessary that God be fully actual according to his intellect. If not—if, as MacIntyre suggested, God does not know what I am going to do tomorrow and will find that out only as I do it—then God’s actuality and simplicity are destroyed.”
Hannon also worried that MacIntyre’s contention threatened Catholic doctrines on providence, predestination, prophecy, and scriptural inspiration. He concluded, “Whatever MacIntyre is describing, therefore, it is not God, and it is certainly not the God who has revealed himself to us. I see no way around the conclusion that, if MacIntyre’s view were true, the Christian religion would have to be false.”
Others expressed appreciation for MacIntyre’s insights. In an interview with the Rover, Ben Nash, a senior majoring in theology and philosophy and a Sorin Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Culture, considered MacIntyre’s argument in Christological terms: “God is so powerful, so transcendent that he can render himself dependent on the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph to grow in wisdom and stature. In a way, that’s a higher account of the divine power—in becoming man, the omniscient God was yet powerful enough in some sense to learn.”
This led Nash to postulate, “What if God’s knowledge is so great that there can exist these singularities that you can really sign your name to, that you are the genuine author of, and that God, in some sense, didn’t see coming?”
Debates over MacIntyre’s paper have already begun in earnest (see one example on Twitter). If the patterns of years past are any indication, the philosopher’s controversial remarks will stoke conversation and argument until he takes the podium once more for his planned address at the 2023 Fall Conference.
Paul Howard is a junior majoring in medieval studies and classics. If you or a loved one develops knowledge of a future singularity, please contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: dCEC Twitter