Infinite Regress

Every time I say this, someone says I’m missing the point, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Christian tradition is morbidly afraid of infinite regress, which in my mind includes mutual determination as a subspecies.

For instance, why is it that the West can say that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (based on the biblical text), but not that the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit (which seems to be supported by the biblical account of Christ’s conception)? Did they just not want to trouble the waters further? Judging by their vociferous defense of the Filioque, that’s not a very likely explanation. Rather, it seems to me that they didn’t take that equally obvious route because that would mean that the Son and the Spirit were mutually determinative, introducing a kind of infinite regress (or vicious circle).

Similarly, every proof of the existence of God presupposes that infinite regress is an impossible outcome — hence the uncaused cause, that than which no greater can be thought, etc., etc., etc.

What is the significance of this? Only time will tell!

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17 Responses to “Infinite Regress”

  1. Daniel Says:

    I would’ve thought that “the Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit” didn’t get approved because “the Son proceeds from the Father” is by itself already irregular; it’s not the phrasing that gets used. The Son is begotten of the Father, he doesn’t proceed from the Father. Gregory Nazianzen uses the two manners of procession (begetting and proceeding) to distinguish the Son and the Spirit, and I recall this being followed elsewhere. One hypostasis is neither begotten nor proceeds, one proceeds but is not begotten, one is begotten but does not proceed. And this is all that distinguishes the three whose ousia is one. The distinction (at least for Nazianzen) is not that one has two manners of procession, one has one manner of procession, and one has zero manners of procession, or that one is “grounded” in two, one is “grounded” in one, and one is “grounded” in Himself.

    “The Son is begotten of the Father and of the Spirit” doesn’t look attractive to me at all, just on its face. “Begetting” plays off the Father/Son:father/son analogy, and the latter doesn’t doesn’t allow for multiple “fathers”, and so not for multiple “begettings”. And there was no pressure to add “and the Spirit” to combat pneumatomachians (since they were not a big deal in the Western Church); there was a felt need to add “and the Son” to combat Arians. I don’t see why anything deeper than this would need to be considered to explain how the West develops the creed.

    It also strikes me that having the Son and Spirit be mutually determinative, while the Father is just “neither begotten nor proceeds”, holds the three hypostases too far apart. All three being mutually determinative, or none of the three being mutually determined, seems fine; having two be mutually determined while the third isn’t seems undesirable. That all three are in a sense “mutually determinative” actually strikes me as orthodox; not the One without the Three, and not the Three without the One, and all that.

    (I think everything that’s been said previously about the OA not being a regress argument still stands, but there’s no reason to say it all again. At the least, there are plenty of “Ontological Arguments” that have nothing to do with regressions, even if Anselm’s did.)

  2. Adam Says:

    Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God all have to do with infinite regress, as I recall.

    Obviously to do mutual determination rigorously, you’d have to include the Father, too — along the lines of Boff’s development of Trinitarian doctrine. I was just saying that the West has something that heads in that direction, but doesn’t take the next step. Sure, fine, there were historical reasons that it took the shape it initially did, but once a doctrine is established, it takes on a life of its own and can develop in ways not strictly determined by its historical origin — that much is obvious, right?

    The whole phenomenon of contemporary attention to the doctrine of the Trinity is a great example — theologians today are not really worrying about the same questions that worried the fathers (and in fact, the categories in which they felt constrained to work are foreign to us), but they take the Trinity as an established doctrine and apply it to new problems (community, multiplicity, difference, etc.).

  3. Adam Says:

    Also, it’s hypostaseis.

  4. Adam Says:

    Shit, I’m making myself look like a moron here — obviously the “intelligent design” argument (#5) is not an infinite regress argument.

  5. Daniel Says:

    You’re right about hypostaseis. “Hypostases” is English. The plural wasn’t taken from the Greek. I’ll never learn how to speak English. ;__;

    I suppose I’m overly squeamish about the development of doctrines; I like to pretend that nothing has changed regarding Trinitarianism etc. since the seventh ecumenical council — if there had really been more dogmatic action going on, there should have been more councils. (This is probably just a recoil from the fact that so many of my evangelical brethren flat-out botch what the traditional dogmas are. Plenty of well-meaning Sunday School teachers drill modalism into their kids, just because they aren’t aware that this isn’t the way the Trinity has been understood in the Church.) You are of course correct that doctrines can take on a life of their own, and that the recent enthusiasm for Trinitarian what-have-you everywhere is a fine example of this.

    On the topic of difficulties with infinite regression/mutual determination, I suspect that the Christian version is just part of a larger trend. Aristotle had his own unmoved mover, after all, and the desire to get down to independent definitions for our terms has hardly been limited to theological circles. That sucker’s been around since Socrates was heckling passers-by about what justice was, and it’s still alive and well going into the 20th century. There is a very real “phobia” in the tradition here, but I don’t see that it has a great deal to do with arguments for the existence of God.

  6. Adam Says:

    Right, Christianity definitely inherits the phobia from the previous philosophical tradition.

  7. Adam Says:

    And I don’t see how you can say it doesn’t have much to do with proofs for the existence of God — a lot of the most famous and influential proofs are arguments against infinite regress! 4 out of 5 of Aquinas’s, plus Anselm’s. Descartes’s is not as explicit, but that’s because of his self-imposed constraint of arguing only from the cogito — you can’t tell me that Anselm and Aquinas’s proofs weren’t in the back of his mind.

  8. Daniel Says:

    I suppose I tend to think of arguments for the existence of God along Kant’s lines, not Thomas’s. Of Kant’s three classifications, only the cosmological proof plays with regresses. The physicotheological proof doesn’t deal with them, and neither does the ontological argument (in the form Kant considers it). Anything like a cosmological argument will be playing with regress worries, we can agree; I’m just not inclined to see those arguments as being particularly interesting, even if Thomas was a big fan, again for basically Kantian reasons. Something like the OA (Kant’s version, not Anselm’s) is going to be required to do the heavy lifting in any effort to prove the existence of God, so the uncaused cause stuff is of merely secondary interest. And since Kant, most of the attempts to get an argument for the existence of God running again try to revitalize some version of the OA, again without saying anything about infinite regress.

    What I think of as “Anselm’s ontological argument” doesn’t make any reference to regressions or mutual definition, but I’m willing to believe that I’ve been dealing with a potted Anselm; I’ve only encountered the Monologion/Proslogion in excerpt form in various history-books. For all I know, he goes on for volumes about how bad infinite regressions are, and WT Jones just omitted all of it.

  9. Dominic Says:

    The point about the ontological illegality of Badiou’s event is, interestingly, that it involves an infinitely-descending epsilon chain (because the event belongs to itself).

    Only well-founded sets (those where the epsilon chain, or chain of belonging, stops somewhere) are ontologically stable. The event’s non-well-foundedness – the fact that it introduces an infinite regress, obviating the ability of the count-of-the-count to enumerate its parts – is crucial to its ability to escape identification by the encyclopedia of the situation.

  10. Adam Says:

    Why on earth would I say Anselm referred to infinite regress if he didn’t?!

  11. Adam Says:

    Daniel, I’ve got to say I’m disappointed. In my first post about this topic, I explicitly said that I was centering this idea in Anselm’s Monologion — if you haven’t read the text, then why did you see fit to argue against me, especially at such great length? That’s one area where I never faulted you as a commenter — you never seemed to be talking out of your ass.

  12. JD Says:

    I’ve always thought that when Augustine shifted to conceiving the hypostaseis as “substantial relations,” and reconceived the trinity on the analogy of memory, understanding, and will, he really evaded this problem in trinitarian terms, at least. It has always seemed to me that, for all their prattling on about hypostasis meaning “persons” and how Augustine always starts with the unity rather than the differentiations, it is the East who shows they can’t deal with real difference every time they insist on the monarchia of the Father. Isn’t that just a…wink, wink, nudge, nudge – “We all know that its the Father that’s really “God?”

  13. Adam Says:

    That’s especially clear in Zizioulas — he attacks the “modern” notion of a monadic subject, but over the course of his argument the Father ends up being precisely that kind of subject.

  14. Daniel Says:

    Not talk out of my ass? It’s a blog comment, where else am I going to talk from?

    More seriously: I’ve read the bits of Anselm that are generally cited when “Anselm’s ontological argument” is mentioned. (Though looking at my copy of WT Jones’ “The Medieval Mind” again, it looks like the passage I’m most familiar with is from the Proslogion.) I wrote a paper on the argument for my (undergrad) Ancient & Medieval Philosophy course. A friend of mine did his senior thesis on the OA (and Kant/Hegel’s criticisms of it), and we discussed the topic at some length on a number of occasions. If Anselm actually has an OA that’s radically different from what I think he has, then this will come as a shock to me. (If Anselm has two radically different arguments going on in his works, and you’d only meant to discuss the one I have no acquaintance with, then, well, that’s egg on my face.)

    The argument I generally see discussed has nothing to do with infinite regression; “That than which nothing greater can be thought” is just said to be understood by the fool (the fool agrees that TTWNGCBT exists at least in the understanding), and then it’s shown that the fool must also understand TTWNGCBT to exist in reality also since “TTWNGCBT lacks the greatness of existence” is contradictory.

    This isn’t the way cosmological arguments work — there, you have a great mass of contingencies, or moved movers, or caused causes, and it’s said that these cannot be all that there is, ergo a necessary being/unmoved mover/uncaused cause must exist. Anselm’s argument (the page-long version I know) doesn’t need to follow anything like this form. There’s no starting from finite things (than which greater things can be thought), or anything like that. The fool is just said to understand “TTWNGCBT” immediately.

    Is this not the argument you’ve had in mind, when “Anselm’s OA” has come up?

    (I don’t recall “arguing with you at length” about this. I recall I’ve posted a handful of comments in your previous threads about this, but I doubt I’ve spent more than a few hours on doing so. And half the time I comment on a blog, it’s for my own education as much as to actually argue with whoever. So, sorry to disappoint you.)

  15. Daniel Says:

    Looking at the previous thread (singular, not sure why I thought there was a third), you started by mentioning Kant’s reason for rejecting the OA (that existence is not a predicate), and my concern with the post seems to mainly hang out there, with what Kant has to do with the OA. (I have read Kant’s stuff on the OA, both in the first Critique and elsewhere. He sharply distinguishes between the cosmological and ontological proofs, just as I have been doing. Here I am not speaking out of my ass. If Kant got the OA’s form radically wrong, well, again, that’d be a shock to me.)

  16. ben wolfson Says:

    Schopenhauer has a pretty good assessement of proofs that seek to avoid an infinite regress by positing an uncaused cause, to wit that they proceed by first assuming that there’s an absolutely fundamental principle (every event has a cause!!!) and then dismissing it, as if it were cab, when it comes time for the conclusion (except for the uncaused cause, it’s special). (I only know this at second hand from an essay alluding to it which is mostly about Wittgenstein.)

    I just read a book (AW Moore’s Points of View) which concludes with something like a proof of something like the existence of god, with the proviso that “god exists” is claimed to be nonsense.

  17. Hierarchy and infinite regress « An und für sich Says:

    […] November 12, 2008 I’ve written before on the Christian tradition’s fear of infinite regress. Now for various reasons, I’m thinking about the ontological hierarchy so prized by our […]


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