Friday, March 01, 2013

Divine simplicity: the good, the bad, and the ugly

This will be my fourth and final response to Nate Shannon’s critique of the Welty/Anderson article on the theistic foundations of logic.

One thing that struck me about Shannon’s critique is the way he deployed the theory of divine simplicity against Welty and Anderson’s position. He acts as if that’s axiomatically true.

This, in turn, raises the question of how we unpack divine simplicity. Although the theory has its roots in Neoplatonism, Thomism is the standard formulation in Western theology. From what I’ve read, divine simplicity involves a bundle of claims. Whether all these claims are actually generated by a single underlying principle, or whether divine simplicity is an omnibus category, is itself an interesting question. Is this a package deal, where we must accept or reject the whole package? Or are some of these separable claims, with varying degrees of merit?

From my reading, these are the claims normally associated with divine simplicity. 

1. God is timeless. God is temporally incomposite. God is not composed of temporal parts or phases. God has no intrinsic temporal properties.

2. God is spaceless. God is spatially incomposite. God is not composed of spatial units. God has no spatial properties.

3. God is a se. Inderivative. God doesn’t derive from something more ultimate, the way a whole is dependent on its constituent parts. There is no part/whole relation in God.

4. God is not a property-instance of a kind. God doesn’t exemplify a generic nature, over and above himself.

5. God possesses his attributes necessarily rather than contingently. His attributes are not a contingent set. He can’t add or lose an attribute.

6. God’s attributes are coextensive.

7. God’s existence is identical with his essence.

8. There is no contingency or unrealized potential in God.

9. God is an undifferentiated unity. There is no metaphysical complexity in God. His attributes are reducibly equivalent. We only distinguish them for convenience or ease of reference. The distinctions exist in the human mind, not in God.

Speaking for myself, I agree with 1-5. In that respect, I think God is simple.

Concerning #6, although its true that his attributes are coextensive (i.e. inseparable), this does not entail their mutual identity or reducibility. 

#7 is ambiguous. It could merely mean that existence is an essential property of God. God cannot not exist. In that sense, I agree with #6.

However, #7 is sometimes taken to entail 8-9. At that point I demure.

#8 is somewhat ambiguous. #8 is true in the sense that God is not a work in progress. God is not evolving (pace process theology). God is not on a learning curve (pace open theism). God cannot be affected by the world. If #8 is synonymous with aseity or impassibility, then I agree with #8.

However, #8 is sometimes taken in the more metaphysically austere sense that God has no contingent extrinsic relations. But if God willing the actual world is an essential divine property, then the actual world is necessary. God was not at liberty to will a different world or will to create nothing at all.

God can’t be the same God across different possible worlds if God’s creative will or creative fiat for different worlds is the same as God’s nature. That’s incoherent. Different willings or fiats can’t be identical with one another. 

There are some Christian philosophers and theologians who’d be prepared to bite the bullet and accept this restriction on divine freedom. But I don’t see how divine simplicity outranks divine freedom in this respect. I don’t see that divine simplicity is more important than divine freedom, and I don’t see that the argument for divine simplicity is stronger than the argument for divine freedom. Indeed, in case of conflict, I think the opposite is the case.

#9 seems to be straightforwardly antithetical to the Trinity. For there to be three distinct persons of the Godhead, each person must have at least one unique property that individuates that person and differentiates that person from the other two. But if all God’s properties are reducible and interchangeable, then there’s no differential property distinguishing one person from another.

More generally, if nature, person, and relation are strictly identical in the Godhead, then God is one person rather than three.  

1 comment:

  1. I think many modern Calvinists take this position to distance themselves from Barth's view of God.