Thursday, November 30, 2017

God without parts

As Dolezal explains, the church has always understood that anything composed of parts depends on those parts for its being. The parts of a composite entity are ontologically prior to that which is composed of those parts. The bricks and mortar are prior to the wall...The doctrine of divine simplicity denied that God is composed of parts because there is nothing that is ontologically prior to God.

i) I should say at the outset that I haven't read Dolezal's books. I've read lots of sympathetic expositions of classical theism generally, as well as Thomistic simplicity in particular. To judge by sympathetic reviews, I don't get the impression that Dolezal has anything original or ingenious to contribute to the traditional position. So I don't see any duty to read his books. 

ii) Although I think God is timeless and spaceless, I don't regard God as fundamentally simple. Rather, I regard God as fundamentally symmetrical. The Trinity is the archetypal mirror symmetry. And symmetries are far more interesting than an undifferentiated unity. 

iii) I'd add that symmetries are indivisible. Symmetries don't come in parts. Symmetries are irreducibly complex. 

iv) An acute irony in this debate is that the very people who champion Thomistic simplicity are typically the same people who champion eternal generation and procession. They regard the Father as the fons deitas. But that makes the Father "ontologically prior" to the Son and Spirit. The Son and Spirit are ontologically dependent on the Father for their existence. It's an asymmetrical dynamic. 

Of course, they don't call that composition, because tradition forbids it, but that's what their position amounts to. They just camouflage it with different language.

v) His classic argument for Thomistic simplicity shows how easily some people are bewitched by the power of a seductive illustration. Now there's nothing wrong with using examples to illustrate a principle. But we have to be wary of master metaphors, because that can myopically fixate on one all-controlling illustration while overlooking different metaphors. If you began with a different kind of metaphor, you might wind up with a different conclusion. I'll get to that in a moment.

vi) One basic problem with this comparison is that it gives the reader an argument from analogy minus the supporting argument. The comparison just assumes (or posits or stipulates) that concrete complexity is analogous in that regard to abstract complexity. Now maybe in his books, Dolezal provides a supporting argument. But as it stands, all we have here is the assertion that if God has distinct attributes, then that's like a bigger, more complicated thing that's made of smaller parts.

But if God is timeless and spaceless, then the question is whether the analogy breaks down at the critical point of comparison. Consider complex abstract objects like possible worlds, the number Pi, Euler's number, or the Mandelbrot set. Those are conceptually complex, but they're not "put together" like something made of legos. We can isolate a particular sequence in the decimal expansion of Pi, but that's inseparable from the whole. And it's not as if the whole is physically bigger than constitutive elements. Abstract objects like Pi, Euler's number, and the Mandelbrot set are complex yet indivisible. 

vii) In addition, the illustration is one-sided. Even with respect to physical objects, while there's a sense in which the whole is dependent on the constituent parts that compose it, there's another sense in which parts can be dependent on the whole. Take classical car buffs. Car parts wear out, and it's increasingly difficult to find vintage, original replacement parts. Eventually you must resort to new duplicate parts.

Suppose, over the course of time, you must replace every part of a classic Mustang or Jaguar, Packard or Duesenberg (take your pick). Is it the same car? It's the same car, not in the sense of having the same parts, but having the same pattern. The parts change, but the whole remains the same. 

In that respect, the whole can be ontologically prior to the parts. The whole is an abstract pattern that's multiply-instantiable. Different parts can replicate the same arrangement. 

A more dramatic example is the human body. As a living organism, the body is composed of parts. At one level, body organs are dependent on smaller "parts" that compose them.

However, the human body is factory that makes replacement parts. Stem cells create cells. New blood cells replace old blood cells. Or take the endocrine system, where glands secrete hormones. The brain produces chemicals. Or the production of seminal fluid.  

So there's top-down dependence as well as bottom-up dependence. Some parts depend on the whole. 

Or take a piece of music. You could say it's composed of notes. But the arrangement is unique, and that's recreated overtime there's a live musical performance. The score is an abstract structure that's indefinitely exemplifiable. A music score is complex, but more "ultimate" than any particular, temporary performance. Different players with different instruments who recreate the pattern. A violinist might use a Stradivarius or Guarneri.  

That's a problem with simplistic analogies, where a proponent is captivated by a particular illustration, which blinds him to alternate conceptions. Philosophical theologians need to have a wide variety of models and metaphors at their disposal, to avoid becoming entranced by one narrow comparison. If that's Dolezal's primary argument, then it's terribly simple-minded. 

I'm not saying that's how we should conceive the relation between God and his attributes. I'm just demonstrating the severe limitations of a particular nearsighted illustration. 

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