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The simplicity of God

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I have been invited to give a talk at the ANU philosophy department at the „Faculties”, as we refer to it around here (because it’s distinct from the philosophy program at RSSS) on some topic in philosophical theology. I will talk about the Medieval doctrine of divine simplicity.

Philosophers like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. Bonaventure, endorsed the doctrine, by saying, basically, three things:

1. God is partless.
2. God is His Goodness, which is His Justice, which is His Power, etc…
3. God’s esse is His essence.

Point 1. is relatively OK. It is part of the dogma that God is immaterial, and if immaterial things are partless, then no worries at all. However, only God is supposed to be „absolutely simple”, and that is why Bonaventure thought that angels should be conceived as made of angelic or spiritual matter. Aquinas, however, clarified that angels are immaterial, and so pure form, and that their being so is in no conflict with their not being simple in the sense in which God is: God is pure actuality, while angels are immaterial but nevertheless actuality and potentiality. In other words, Aquinas pointed out that the actuality/potentiality distinction is not the same as the form/matter distinction.

In any case, the problematic bits are supposed to be 2. and 3. Regarding 2., God comes out prima facie as being a property, an abstract object. The dogma says that God is a concrete individual who is maximally good, just, powerful, etc. Loci classici of the God-as-a-property problem are Daniel Bennett, „The divine simplicity”, 1969, The Journal of Philosophy 19, and Alvin Plantinga, 1980, Does God have a Nature?, Milwaukee, Marquette U.P.

What contemporary philosophers have done so far in order to make sense of divine simplicity was either to offer an alternative interpretation for attributes like God’s Wisdom, etc., one according to which these are not properties (but rather tropes, or states of affairs, or truth makers of intrinsic abdtract divine predications), or to offer an alternative understanding of the way properties and concreta are related (for instance, Wolterstorff’s appeal to the constituent interpretation of an individual instantiating a property).

There is a nice summary of these issues in Jeffrey Brower‘s paper „Making sense of divine simplicity„. Jeff’s paper is forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy, and he argues for the truthmaker interpretation.

However, it strikes me that people who work on and solve problem 2. don’t really have much to say about 3. The problem with 3. is that God’s esse, i.e. His history, whatever he actually does, e.g punishing someone, comes out as necessary, while it is pretty intuitive that it should be contingent. Jeff, for instance, has only a cuple of sentences to say, namely, that such predications are contingent because they are not intrinsic predications about God.

In my talk I propose a third way, distinct from the two strategies mentioned above in connection with 2., namely, I reinterpret the „is” in „God is His Justice, etc.” I will argue that the „is” there is not identity but a biconditional. We have a bunch of bicinditionals like:

God His Power
God His Justice

and so

His Power His Justice His Power etc.

What this interpretation accommodates is that all these properties are in fact distinct, but nevertheless the predicates that denote them are part of the concept of God, and so they entail one another. „God” in the fomulas above is intepreted as „God exists”. So what these formulas say is that God’s existence entails his attributes (which we knew before since these attributes are essential), and more importantly that the instantiation of any of therse attributes entails the existance of one God.

Problem 3. I solve by pointing out that

God’s essence God’s esse

is compatible with God’s esse being contingent; all that happens is that unlike „God’s essence”, which is just a set of properties which is invariant across worlds, „God’s esse” is nonrigid: it picks out at a world W whatver God does at W. Nevertheless, God’s esse at W is a manifestation of his essence, whatver God does, hence the biconditional. This idea should be quite familiar and acceptable for someone like Aquinas, and also later for Calvinists: they insisted that God’s choice is arbitrary in the sense of not being constrained by anything outside God’s attributes. So, for istance, I might be rewarded with Heaven even though I’m pretty evil (I’m not, of course, but let’s suppose for the sake of this post:)). I know that in Calvinism, which is my religion, it’s related to the ideas of limited atonement (Christ died for only certain, chosen ones, not for all people) and total depravity (men and women are evil by their very nature. Given these two principles, whether you are saved or punished is completely God’s choice and has nothing to do with what you actually do. This goes well I think with my understanding of 3., namely, that whatever God’s choice, it follows from His perfection.

I don’t remember how this doctrine is called in the Medieval thought. I also had a discussion about all this with Marilyn and Bob Adams a few months ago, and I know I can fid the term in Marilyn Adams’ book, William Ockham, 1987, vol.2, University of Notre Dame Press, but the library here at ANU is pretty bad: the book is supposed to be available, yet it’s vanished. If anyone can help, I’d grateful. It’s some „anti-…-ism”, where the dots stand for the name of some Medieval guy’s name.

Needless to say, I think my interpretation is well supported by some texts, but I have no time right now to prove it, and this post is already too long (I hate long posts!). I will focus, in the talk, on Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles I.16- I.18.


Written by István Aranyosi

martie 6, 2007 la 1:28 am

Publicat în EN, Religion/Theology

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