The Absence and Presence of God in Buchler’s Metaphysics of Natural Complexes




One topic arising out of Justus Buchler’s metaphysics is whether God has a place within it as a natural complex. The question is really whether it is the same complex—the same God—of the neoclassical theologians, which seems unlikely given that no one natural complex can be more or less real than any other and must be limited. These conditions strip God of traits the neoclassical God requires, suggesting that Buchler’s God is a different complex than the neoclassical God. However, this paper argues that the doctrine of the Trinity provides an alternative approach. God the Father must be infinite and ultimate reality, but it is not necessary that God the Son have those traits. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity states that the latter and the former are the same. Thus God can fit into Buchler’s philosophy as the Son, but, admittedly, cannot as the Father.



Justus Buchler’s assertions in Metaphysics of Natural Complexes that the totality of all we speak of exists in a continuum and that nothing is more or less real than anything else create obvious problems when applied to the concept of God. Neoclassical Christian theologians, working out of the Platonic philosophical framework, maintain that God dwells in a realm separate from the world around us—in other words, is transcendent—and is ultimate reality. That Buchler rejects both ideas outright inevitably leads to the question of whether God fits into his metaphysics at all. Presuming that God does have a place, as argue several commentators on Buchler and even the philosopher himself, we must wonder if it is, in the end, the same God that neoclassical theologians refer to or an entirely different one, irreconcilable with the God of the Scholastics. If the latter—which, as we shall see, seems so given Buchler’s thoughts on possibility—is there any room for this different God within Christian theology’s traditional conception of the Divine? To our surprise, the answer may lie in one of the oldest beliefs of Christianity.

            Buchler argues that anything we can discriminate or speak of is a natural complex. “Natural” means that it is not in a discontinuous realm of being because there are no such realms—all complexes exist in a continuum. “Complex” means that it is not simple, but made up of numerous traits. Every natural complex functions in an order—a network of relations. There are “strong” and “weak” relations, strong having to do with the “integrity” of the order, weak having to do with the “scope.” “Integrity” refers to what the complex is as it is, while “scope” refers to the breadth or “prevalence” of the complex. Any one natural complex shows up in many orders and has an integrity in each. All those integrities taken together are the “contour” of the complex, its gross integrity. Every complex stands in relation to other complexes and is located in a larger order or orders. When a complex delimits others in an order—when its standing excludes or prevents other complexes in an order—it “prevails” in that order. These points hold, Buchler insists, even for God. We should not ask whether God “exists,” for such a question is irrelevant to Buchler. We should inquire instead as to the order in which God prevails. God, like anything else, has a place in Buchler’s metaphysics as a natural complex, bounded and in relation to other complexes. “The critical question,” the philosopher proposes, “must be in what way a natural complex thus discriminated is to be understood, analyzed, and experientially encompassed; or, in what way it is to be further discriminated and found related.”[i]

            This last statement is crucial. Buchler rejects all forms of dualism, which holds, in one way or another, that there is a transcendent realm separate from and/or more real than the physical. In doing so, he also rejects neoclassical Christian theology, which maintains that God is ultimate reality and defies any limitations. Yet these rejections do not inherently mean God is absent from Buchler’s schema. He insists God has a place in his system as a natural complex and challenges us to analyze and understand it. Indeed, as John Hare argues, there is abundant room for a theology in this metaphysics. He points out that God is not absent from Buchler’s principles, but may, in fact, be their chief exemplifier.[ii] Robert Corrington goes further, suggesting that God is not only a natural complex among other complexes, but one that is relevant to every complex, having sufficient scope to sustain the sheer prevalence of the traits of those complexes. God “abides as the still availability of the providential grace which never forsakes complexes.”[iii] In discussing the idea of “nature” Buchler himself speaks of it not as a mere individual complex among others, but as the source or collection of all complexes, the everlasting conceivability of more inclusive complexes. By “nature” and “God,” he means “[i]nnumerable natural complexes […] which distributively include any given complex and which have no collective integrity”—the provision of complexes, in other words.[iv] Indeed, he admits to Corrington in conversation that he likes the idea of the constant expansion of a natural complex over others, to the point where we could possibly equate the process of expansion with a concept of God.[v]

            Though God is obviously a part of this metaphysics, we are still faced with a problem: Buchler does not believe in a being that is not a natural complex, i.e., a being not found in an order in relation to other complexes that limit it and are different. He would disagree with Corrington’s assertion that there is something called the “Encompassing.” Corrington claims that the Encompassing is beyond all complexes—including God—and relates to God, allowing God to grow. “God is a natural complex,” he argues, “while the Encompassing is not.”[vi] Buchler refutes this notion entirely, for it implies that there is an underlying foundation or transcendent boundary of what is—a notion he strives mightily to expunge in his philosophy. “I think part of the difficulty in various questions about the definition of God and the world and nature has to do with the finality of a certain notion,” he tells Corrington. “The assumption seems to be there ought to be completeness in a result. I don’t see that that follows at all; I don’t see that that’s necessary at all.”[vii] He does not believe in a being that is not a natural complex or is the totality of all complexes, a being that would be a final limit to existence. There is no order of all orders. Furthermore, he does not think one complex can be more real than another, the “essence” of reality. God can only be a part of Buchler’s metaphysics as a natural complex and as such is no more or less real than any other.

            As John Ryder illustrates, this stubbornness must lead to the rejection of many descriptions neoclassical Christian theology gives to God. God as creator ex nihilo is out; God has to relate to some other complex as a natural complex, so God could never have prevailed as the sole, solitary complex. There is the thought that God could exist in relation to nothingness (i.e., something which is called “nothing”). Yet this idea is flimsy because it already assumes a limit to God’s being: there is God and then something that is not God called “nothing.” Our dilemma is more difficult: whether the idea of a God that is a complete, limitless, sole being is compatible with Buchler’s metaphysics. The answer must be in the negative. Traditionally, Christianity purports that God as creator ex nihilo is infinite, an idea Buchler, as we have seen, discards. Neoclassical theologians also assert that God is true reality, somehow more real than ourselves and anything we encounter. Buchler, however, does not deal in degrees of reality. A rock in the physical world is as real and true as a character in a work of fiction or a mathematical formula. Proclaiming God to be ultimate reality would violate this principle.

            We thus see that God as a natural complex cannot have the characteristics and persistent traits of the neoclassical God. God can prevail in the realm of literature, mythology, historical influence, etc., but not in the realm of creator ex nihilo or ultimate reality. Here Ryder takes an important step and asks whether this God of Buchler can serve the function of the neoclassical God. If God cannot be what we traditionally think, we must wonder whether we are still talking about the same God—or the same natural complex we call God. Ryder thinks we are. He insists it is still the same God because we do not identify any complex with just one of its traits; its identity comes from its contour of integrities. If we are to discuss the traits of God, we need to include those “that obtain for the complex in terms of a number of ordinal locations.” We cannot identify God exclusively with traditional traits (e.g., judge, creator, protector, etc.) but must include traits found in other ordinal locations. God really does prevail as a force in literature, history, mythology, and more. Thus, Ryder believes, we can eliminate some of these traits and still have the same complex. That is, we can lose certain integrities of the complex God (neoclassical theological ones) and still have essentially the same contour of the complex God—one that is in relation to the physical world (i.e., creation).[viii]

            While Ryder’s argument may be right, it glosses over an important idea in Buchler’s philosophy: a natural complex cannot lose certain necessary traits and remain the same complex. In other words, the integrities of the contour of a natural complex must be compatible with each other. While we can imagine the possibility of many other traits being added to a complex’s contour, some of those could be too different from the integrity of the complex for it to remain the same complex. Some integrities are necessary for the complex to be what it is in a given order. If we took them away, the complex would be other than the one with which we started. Buchler himself argues, for example, that while we can imagine a possible religion without sacraments, we cannot imagine a possible Catholicism without sacraments. If we did, we would not be dealing with Catholicism anymore, but with a different complex. The same if we conceived of a possible game of baseball in which players struck balls into outer space. “If Catholicism without sacraments and the batting of a ball into astronomic orbit were genuinely possibilities,” he explains, “they would be possibilities within orders quite different from the orders known as Catholicism and baseball.” We might still name the complexes “Catholicism” and “baseball” and they would retain superficially identifying traits, but we would really have abandoned the actual orders of Catholicism and baseball for different ones. While on the surface the complexes look to be Catholicism and baseball, in actuality they are dissimilar complexes to which we have given the names “Catholicism” and “baseball.”[ix]

            These qualifications offer a challenge to Ryder, for, if we obey them, we cannot eliminate the necessary traits of the complex God and have the same complex—the same God—afterward. But what are God’s necessary traits? If those of neoclassical theology, then in expunging them in Buchler’s metaphysics have we shifted to an entirely different natural complex? It seems so. Most Christians believe that God necessarily is ultimate reality and eternal. These attributes, they insist, are indispensable to the God of neoclassical theology—any complex left over after we dismissed them would not be the actual complex God, even if we called it “God.” To do away with these tenets, as Buchler requires, seems less a case of differing ordinal traits of one complex than a different complex. The neoclassical God, it seems, is not the same as the natural complex called God found in Buchler’s philosophy.

            The problem of possibilities in Buchler warrants further discussion. Phil Weiss examines three theories of possibility, including Buchler’s. While an admirer of Buchler’s philosophy on the whole, Weiss challenges his refusal to permit the admittance of traits into a complex that seem wildly out of place. The great example is that of talking insects. Buchler insists that it is not possible for the complex insects to admit the trait of speech, even in the realm of fiction, imagination, or cartoon. When we imagine insects talking, we are in fact imagining a different complex talking, one that appears to be the complex insects but is really not. Weiss argues to the contrary, insisting that the imagined talking insects are indeed the complex insects, but in a different ordinal location than that of the physical world: that of imagination. “Every complex enters into different orders, and its possibilities and actualities differ with respect to the order in which it is considered,” he explains. “We have come to recognize that complexes obtain peculiar traits of both personality and actuality when they enter into various orders of imagination and supposition.”[x] In fact, at points Buchler seems to agree with this very idea. “The pink elephants thought, the images entertained, the discriminanda, are complexes, and they prevail in the way that they prevail,” he explains. “The integrity of an image is not less or more of an integrity than that of an animal spatio-temporally located in Africa.”[xi]

            In response, Kathleen Wallace utilizes another piece of Buchler’s philosophy: the idea of prefinition. Prefinition refers to the limits an actual complex places on its future development. The contour of integrities for a complex creates parameters within which changes—which we refer to as “possibilities”—can occur. “The traits of a natural complex provide and remove conditions for other traits,” Buchler writes. “Prefinition embraces both extension or continuation and rooted conditions of that which is to constitute the extension.”[xii] It is not true, that is, that “anything goes;” the possibilities for a complex are not infinite because the complex has traits that minimize possibilities. “Complexes have their own determinateness and limits,” Wallace observes, “which may constrain our ability to manipulate them, imaginatively or otherwise.” She wants to protect the autonomy of complexes, so to speak, and reign in the temptation to add or detract traits from complexes indiscriminately. More precisely, Wallace wants to make sure we take care to acknowledge when we have switched to a new complex through our manipulation of another. Though we wish the imagined talking insects are the same complex as biological insects, we must admit otherwise. Biological insects have certain integral traits that prevent the possibility of their talking. If we imagine insects talking, we have merely “abstracted and transposed some traits of the insect (and suspended many others) into the order of imagination and constructed a new complex which is similar in some respects to the originally inspiring insect.”[xiii]

            It seems, here, that Wallace and Weiss each have Buchler on her/his respective side. Indeed, each can claim his support because of his own ambiguous stance on the question that is really at the heart of the debate over possibilities: what are the necessary traits or integrities of a given complex? Generally speaking, the fewer necessary traits a complex has, the greater its possibilities for manipulation. The more necessary traits, the less we can change and adapt it. The problem is determining what traits are necessary; it seems open to individual interpretation.

This ambiguity returns us to the question of God in Buchler’s metaphysics. Earlier we concluded that the traits of creator ex nihilo and ultimate reality are necessary to the complex God, thereby eliminating the neoclassical God from Buchler’s philosophy because of the conditions for natural complexes he sets up. This position would be consistent with one Wallace might take, who would argue that even if we imagine God without those traits, it is a complex wholly different than the actual neoclassical God.  Weiss’s view implies the contrary: that the complex God minus the aforementioned traits is the same complex as the neoclassical God, but located in the order of imagination. Arguing against this idea from Wallace’s position is difficult since, unlike insects, God is not a spatio-temporal object. God does not prevail in the order of public space as a physical specimen whose traits are clearly identifiable and obviously inviolate. After all, this is God we are talking about. If we could let our imaginations run wild about anything, surely it can be with God. Let us just imagine God in relation to us and not much different from us and be done with it, we might say. We would indeed abandon the traits of the neoclassical God, but no matter. Operating in the realm of imagination, we can excise them and still have the same complex—the same God—on our hands, but merely in a different order.

            However, we must remember that for neoclassical theologians the traits of God to which they reasoned were as obvious and intractable as those of spatio-temporal creatures. Thus imagining a God without the traits of the neoclassical God and claiming it as the same God but in a different order does not sufficiently solve the problem, just as it fails to resolve Weiss’s and Wallace’s positions in the case of insects. We can redefine our task thus: to seek a way, without appealing to an order of imagination, to keep the complex God in Buchler’s metaphysics while stripping it of the traits of creator ex nihilo and ultimate reality. Ironically, we find a solution in another central belief of neoclassical Christianity: that of the Trinity. If any integrity is essential to the neoclassical complex God, this is one. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that there are three distinct persons at once the same Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Neoclassical theologians, especially Aquinas, focus primarily on God the Father. This emphasis makes sense given that they are working out of Platonic and Aristotelian traditions ripe for a theology of a transcendent essence of existence. It is futile to make a place for God the Father in Buchler’s metaphysics—to do so would mean eliminating its essential traits, thus nullifying the whole endeavor.

            Yet if we focus on God the Son, the situation changes entirely. The doctrine of the Incarnation states that God became immanent in the world, thus limited in many ways. It is easier to conceive of Christ as a natural complex since he does not need to be beyond all complexes to be Christ. He prevails in a historical order, religious order, literary order, personal faith order, etc. He is not transcendent or creator ex nihilo as Jesus. The necessary integrity of Christ is that he is God with us, in relation to and delimited by other complexes. In fact it is necessary that Christ have another complex to relate to—it is an essential integrity of his complex. The Son cannot be the Son without the Father—the former needs the relationship with the latter to be what he is.

We are thus left with the trait of ultimate reality and the question of its application to Christ.  When we say that some entity or essence is “ultimate reality” we tend think it is made of some special kind of stuff—that its substance is different from ours and ordinary reality around us. If we really wish to connect this idea with the term, we must confess that Christ is not ultimate reality. We must remember that Christ, theologically, is fully human and, as such, cannot have an other-worldly essence or substance to him that makes him “more real” than other human beings. Christ is not some divine alien shot into the world from outer space or a ghostly Superman. Contemporary Christology, through theologians like Piet Schoonenberg and Edward Schillebeeckx, has made great strides in correcting views to the contrary, views that over-emphasize the divinity of Christ and diminish his humanity. And here is the crux of the argument: because of the doctrine of the Trinity, when we refer to Christ—to God without the traits of creator ex nihilo and ultimate reality—we are still dealing with the same God as when we refer to the Father. They are two distinct persons, but one and the same God.         

            Bearing these points in mind, we can suggest that the neoclassical theology of God is really a theology of God the Father. This person of the Trinity requires the traits of creator ex nihilo and ultimate reality to be what it is and thus has no place in Buchler’s metaphysics. Yet if we focus on God the Son, we can speak of God as a natural complex. As God incarnate, Christ does not bear the essential traits of God the Father and can function as a any other natural complex. Because of the Trinity, though, the complex Christ is still the same God of the Scholastics. In the end, God is at once a natural complex and at the same time not a natural complex. That is, entirely within Buchler’s metaphysics as the Son and entirely beyond it as the Father. This paradox is a relief, because it means no human idea—whether that of the natural complex or of a transcendent God—can offer a full account of what is. Buchler and Aquinas would both surely agree on this point. “In view of the fact that so much of what has surrounded men has been found out by them in distant retrospect or through the provocations of accident,” the former observes, “it is hard to avoid the conviction that, notwithstanding the power known as method, innumerable complexes of nature elude the range of finite creatures.”[xiv] Mystery always confronts us when we examine existence.





[i] Justus Buchler, Metaphysics of Natural Complexes, ed, Kathleen Wallace, Armen Marsoobian, and Robert S. Corrington (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990) 1-33.


[ii] Peter H. Hare and John Ryder, “Buchler’s Ordinal Metaphysics and Process Theology,” Process Studies 10. 3-4 (1980): 7.


[iii] Robert Corrington, “Theism,” International Philosophical Quarterly 27. 4 (1987): 406.


[iv] Buchler 251.


[v] Robert S. Corrington and Justus Buchler, “Conversation between Justus Buchler and Robert S. Corrington,” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 3. 4 (1989): 263.


[vi] Corrington 407.


[vii] Corrington and Buchler 264.


[viii] Hare and Ryder 4-6.


[ix] Buchler 139.


[x] Phil Weiss, “Possibility: Three Recent Ontologies,” Nature’s Perspectives: Prospects for Ordinal Metaphysics ed. Armen Marsoobian, Kathleen Wallace, Robert S. Corrington (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991) 165-167.


[xi] Buchler 159.


[xii] Buchler 146, 165.


[xiii] Kathleen Wallace, “Skeptical Openness,” Nature’s Perspectives: Prospects for Ordinal Metaphysics ed. Armen Marsoobian, Kathleen Wallace, Robert S. Corrington (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991) 195-197.


[xiv] Buchler 2.