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  • A Response to Robert C. Neville’s Metaphysics of Goodness: On How to Read the “Ontological Creative Act” As Personal
  • Tyler Tritten

i would like to begin by heaping some well-merited laud upon Robert Cummings Neville, henceforth to be referred to simply as Bob. His architectonics, in this book and almost all his others, are perhaps only rivaled by Kant and Whitehead, and the profundity of his thinking is only surpassed by the breadth of his learning. Specifically, I am convinced that his knowledge of non-Western thought is unsurpassed by his peers. I, however, will refer to but a fraction of what he has to teach us about non-Western thought, as I must admit that this is generally above my pay grade.

The Statement of Issue

In a recent issue of American Journal of Theology & Philosophy (Neville, “Cosmological and Ontological Contingency” 54–61), Bob has a small article that defends a reciprocal correlation of cosmological and ontological contingency. He closes this piece by announcing that he would be “honoured by any counterarguments” (“Cosmological and Ontological Contingency” 61). The response I would offer Bob to that piece will work just as well here, as the same claims concerning both cosmological and ontological contingency are made in Metaphysics of Goodness. My question, not entirely non-polemical in tone, is the following: Is the “ontological creative act” personal, and, by extension, is the term “God” an appropriate name for it? Bob answers in the negative. I will try to show, however, how one might answer in the affirmative, yet by means of Bob’s own definitions of terms and by means of his own ontological commitments.

I should also note, by the way, that Bob is probably a bit disappointed that I have chosen this as my topic because, although he is very humble and thus very willing, even eager, to receive constructive criticism, I think he takes [End Page 38] the debate I am raising to have been decided. So I harbor no intentions of convincing Bob . . . but maybe I can persuade a few of you.

The Argument: Definitions and Axioms

The “ontological creative act,” an invention and cornerstone of Bob’s own system, is defined as “sheerly productive, creating totally novel determinate things; the act has no determinate character of its own save for what it creates. The act has no possibilities, potentialities, or nature prior to the creating” (Metaphysics 33–34; emphasis added). I will explicate the entailments of this definition throughout, but I wish to wager that, as productive of novelty more original than any pre-given possibility, this act can be called “free” in a meaningful sense. And, if free—which, as will be argued, does not necessarily entail consciousness, sentience, intentionality, reflection, or deliberation—rather than simply chanceful, then the term “God,” understood as something like a proper name, also becomes appropriate. This is the wager.

Proper names are the typical means of addressing persons or, better and more minimally, that which is personal. To speak of “person” is likely too substantivalist. Bob defines a person or the personal without explicitly distinguishing between the two yet while repeatedly rejecting substance ontology, in the following ways:

To be a person, I shall suggest, is to be under obligation to be true, moral, right, and virtuous.

(Metaphysics xiv)

Among the things essential to personhood, I shall argue, is how persons relate to the world in ways in which they are under obligation. . . . In the honorific sense, persons are what they are by virtue of what they do with what they are given.

(Metaphysics 173)

To extrapolate, to be a person is not to be a thing or a substance, but a relation. To be personal, then, is to be relational in a certain way, namely, a relation of obligation. A person is thus not a thing that first exists and then subsequently may or may not enter into a moral relationship with another, but a person is nothing but its moral obligatedness. Insofar as I know—although I am likely wrong about this—Bob has never read Emmanuel Levinas, but he may want to take a peek. Given the definition of personhood as a relation of...


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