Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Pruss on divine simplicity

Alexander Pruss is the smartest Catholic philosopher of his generation, so if anyone can successfully defend divine simplicity, he can: 

The Fourth Lateran Council teaches that God is a “substantia seu natura simplex omnino”—an “altogether simple substance or nature”—and the First Vatican Council reiterated the teaching.  The doctrine of divine simplicity is at the center of Thomas’s  natural theology, since it is essentially involved in his attempt to show that the First Cause that he has proved to exist in the Five Ways has the appropriate divine attributes.

From a Catholic standpoint, the doctrine is partly grounded in ecclesiastical authority and partly grounded in natural reason. 

The doctrine claims that there is no ontological composition in God of any sort, whether of matter and form, or of essence and accident, or of this attribute and that attribute considered as ontologically distinct.  The doctrine is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism, though I understand that Islam may have ultimately rejected it.

So that's what he's defending.

Divine simplicity, like the complementary doctrine of the Trinity, leads to intellectual difficulties. 

The comparison makes sense from a Catholic standpoint, but less so from an evangelical standpoint. While the Trinity enjoys much direct evidence in Scripture, divine simplicity is more elliptical. It also depends on the model of divine simplicity. If God is immaterial, then he's not composite in the way material objects or processes have physical and and temporal parts. If God is timeless, then he has no temporal parts or subdivisions. That, however, is different from the claim that his attributes are interchangeable or that his will to make the world has no element of contingency or potentiality. 

I will not solve the three problems in the sense of showing how it is that it is possible for God to be merciful and just, able to do different things and able to believe different things while being simple.  I think the full solution would require a vision of God’s essence.  But I will sketch some reflections that puncture the notion that these problems show an evident contradiction between divine simplicity and divine attributes.

That's a legitimate distinction in principle, and it conveniently lowers the burden of proof. Since, from an evangelical standpoint, we reject the ecclesiastical authority that promulgates the dogma (Lateran IV; Vatican I), it turns on the fortunes of natural theology. And that raises questions about the suitable burden of proof. If there's strong epistemic warrant for believing it, then showing that the doctrine isn't demonstrably contradictory may suffice. If, however, there's only weak warrant or no good evidence for the claim, then it's not entitled to a lenient burden of proof. 

Take "skeptics" who think the lunar landings were staged. Should we set the bar low: so long as they can show that their explanation is not impossible? Or should we set the bar high: they must show that their explanation is possible? If the evidence for their skepticism is weak or dubious, then there's no presumption to overcome. Their position is not entitled to a protective burden of proof. (Indeed, their position is so outlandish that it requires overwhelming evidence to be taken seriously.) 

The doctrine of divine simplicity had better not say that mercy and justice, in general, are one and the same property.  For that would make meaningless a claim that a friend of ours had exhibited more mercy than justice in some situation.  Rather, the claim is that God’s mercy and God’s justice are the same ontologically...The claim that God’s being merciful and God’s being just are identical is, I take it, the claim that the ontological basis of God’s being merciful is identical with the ontological basis of God’s being just.

A criterion of adequacy for our understanding what it means to say that God is merciful and just even though God’s being merciful is identical with God’s being just is, then, that there be something relevantly alike between God’s being merciful, say, and Mother Theresa’s being merciful.  Moreover, there must be something relevantly similar between God’s justice and Mother Theresa’s justice.  Yet, if language is not to break down, there Mother Theresa’s mercy and Mother Theresa’s justice cannot be relevantly similar.

It's hard to evaluate his argument because he seems to be saying opposite things. If the doctrine of divine simplicity doesn't claim that mercy and and justice are one and the same property, then that removes a standard objection to simplicity. Likewise, if it just means that both attributes inhere in the same God, then that's not a problem–assuming that's what he means by sharing the same ontological basis. Yet that seems too weak since that's consistent with a "composite" God. 

Yet in the next paragraph, he posits a criterion ("there be something relevantly alike between God’s being merciful and Mother Theresa’s being merciful"), but then says the doctrine fails the criterion ("Yet, if language is not to break down, there Mother Theresa’s mercy and Mother Theresa’s justice cannot be relevantly similar"). If they're not relevantly similar, they can hardly be identical. Yet according to the definition he's defending, they can't be ontologically distinct attributes. But maybe this just goes back to his statement that they are identical in reference to their common ontological basis. His position would benefit from greater explication. I'm not sure what his claim even amounts to. 

When we use terms like “hears”, “feels” or “ear” across very different kinds of creatures, we are speaking analogically.  We are saying that there is something in that creature relevantly similar to hearing, feeling or an ear.  Now, sometimes the relevant difference between cases is sufficiently great that an understanding of what it is to say that members of one group are F would not tell us what it is to say that members of another group are F.  Thomas Aquinas calls such cases “equivocal predication.”...But there are other cases where the predication is not equivocal but properly analogous, and where we do in fact understand what is being said, though our understanding is limited.  Thus, even if we do not know anything about a Daphnia, not even that it is a crustacean, the claim that a Daphnia eats seems to have content.  One has an understanding of what is said by analogy to familiar cases.

Those are legitimate distinctions. The question, though, is whether the proponent of divine simplicity can avail himself of those distinctions. 

But this seems to severely undercut the objection to divine simplicity based on the contingency of what God chooses.  For we now see that one and the same person in one the same state could be in a position to initiate either of two incompatible causal chains…Thus, if libertarianism, at least in the first version on which at the decision time t the branching has not yet happened, is coherent, there is no obvious intrinsic contingency implied in God by the fact that he could have acted otherwise.

I don't see how that undercuts the objection. For that ascribes potentiality to God's will. Perhaps, though, Pruss isn't defending Thomistic simplicity with all the stops and whistles. 

None of the three attempts is wholly satisfactory.  But I think at least the last one should shake any conviction that difference in content implies an intrinsic difference.  And anyway, short of the beatific vision, perhaps we cannot do more to show the coherence of divine simplicity with other theological beliefs than to shake off some objections.

Provided that divine simplicity merits such indulgent treatment. If, however, these are just makeshift harmonizations to save appearances, when there's no good reason to believe it in the first place, then that's textbook special pleading. 

1 comment:

  1. --The doctrine is a traditional part of Christianity and Judaism, though I understand that Islam may have ultimately rejected it.--

    Did Islam reject it though?

    Before I encountered Divine Simplicity, I heard about Tawhid and how it collapses every aspect and name and attribtute of Allah into One.

    Reading about Divine Simplicity later on reminded me of Tawhid more than anything.