Divine simplicity and freedom

I’ve known more than one Analytic philosopher who was concerned that divine simplicity is incompatible with divine freedom. Simplicity is complete absence of potency to be one thing or another, that is, total determination to one mode of being and operation, but freedom is incompatible with total determination to one operation. So what then?

If we consider the indetermination of the freedom so far as it does not possess some determinate good, then freedom is not a perfection or a good. The lack of good is not a good. So far as we take freedom in this way, we don’t call God free; and so far as freedom is taken as a perfection, and therefore said of God, we throw out the idea of indetermination-in-the-sense-of lacking-good and keep only the more central perfection (say, self- possession, or being the Lord of ones action.) We might even keep the idea of indetermination so far as we mean that God’s action is not forced by another, or so far as he is responsible for it.

Again, the divine freedom, so far as there is a thing, cannot be defined without bringing in the notion of creation. The Son, for example, does not proceed from the Father’s will, but if this is the case, the divine freedom cannot be defined without relation to the imperfection of creation, and divine freedom is not taken as an absolute perfection, as though the possibility of freedom would remain if the imperfect (that is, creation) were not possible.



  1. February 5, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    “Simplicity is complete absence of potency to be one thing or another, that is, total determination to one mode of being and operation, but freedom is incompatible with total determination to one operation.”

    Is that your position, or are you just reporting the position of the analytical philosophers you’ve just described?

    • February 5, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      That’s my position, and I think it’s a decent way of putting the problem. I don’t know that I would insist on the exact phrasing, but I stand by the sense.

      • February 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

        I think the definition you’ve proferred defines pure actuality better than simplicity. Admittedly, the two properties are logically equivalent to each other, but I should have though ‘simplicity’ means ‘not composed in any fashion’, which is what we hear at ST PP Q3 A7.

      • Brandon said,

        February 5, 2012 at 5:41 pm

        Michael, that’s right, but Aquinas is very clear that composition itself is to be explained in terms of potency of one thing to another.

    • February 5, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Read your critique, but I still disagree. Freedom is like sensation or reasoning: it is better to have than not have, but it is not an absolute perfection, even though there are elements in it that, if isolated, can be taken as absolute perfections and thus even said of God. Anselm argues along these lines in chapter VI of the Proslogion: God has “sense” if we take it as an intuition of particulars, not if we take it as having corporeal organs. In other words, God has sensation only if we abstract from an element essential to sensation. It’s the same with freedom: God does not have freedom unless we abstract from an element necessary for freedom (indetermination to a good in the sense of not possessing) but he does have many things essential to freedom (self-possession, being a dominus being responsible, acting from intellect). Freedom is a mixed perfection, even in its res significanda (I don’t know that I’d bet the farm on that last claim, but I’m pretty confident about it. This is significant because it affects what we say about freedom as an analogous term. Mixed perfections cannot, for example, be used as points of departure for the fourth way. God is not “absolute freedom”).

  2. February 5, 2012 at 6:46 pm


    It’s true that Aquinas “explains” simplicity as you say, but only in the sense that degree of simplicity varies inversely with degree of potentiality. For that reason, the extension of the concept of absolute simplicity is the same as the extension of the concept of pure actuality. But simplicity and actuality are just not the same concepts, intensionally speaking.

    • Brandon said,

      February 5, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      They’re not the same concepts because simplicity is derivative. I don’t think Aquinas’s arguments for simplicity work unless we take the explanation of one in term of the other as more than “explains” with quotation marks and certainly as more than mere correlation. Composition is wholly definable in terms of actuality and potentiality as prior concepts; simplicity is wholly definable as the negation of composition.

      • February 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm

        “Composition is wholly definable in terms of actuality and potentiality as prior concepts…”

        I surmise that you mean the relation of composition is wholly definable in such terms without reference to the kinds of relata that can be composed. Is that right?

      • Brandon said,

        February 6, 2012 at 8:19 am

        I don’t really know what you mean by that; I don’t know of any place in which Aquinas treats of composition as a relation, and treating it as a relation leads to infinite regresses in creatures, who are (among other things) composites of subjects and relations.

  3. February 5, 2012 at 6:53 pm


    I’d agree that freedom does not qualify as a perfection if one prescinds from what the free agent can and ought to do with it. Rather, I see freedom as a proprium of the perfections of intellect and will. But I find it curious that you don’t directly address my most important criticism.

    If (a) God is love, (b) love is a kind of perfection, and (c) libertarian freedom is necessary for love, then freedom is a necessary feature, a proprium of the divine nature, while prescinding from the question whether he creates or not.

    • February 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm

      I thought I did address that, but I can do so again. I deny c. so far as freedom essentially involves the lack of some good or indetermination to some good. It’s the main point of the post.

      A parallel argument to yours in the intellectual order would be a.) God is subsistent knowledge b.) Knowledge is a kind of perfection and c.) reasoning is necessary for knowledge. I can’t imagine an intellect that is not a reasoner any more than I can imagine a will that does not have libertarian freedom, that is, the freedom of choice between given alternatives. But I can still see the need, when speaking of God, to negate reasoning as a motion in the same way that I must negate choice as a confrontation with alternatives in the face of which the will must determine its (essentially undetermined) self to some good.

      To throw something out there which I might follow up on later, God’s freedom is said of him ex tempore, like the names creator or Lord. It’s a feature imputed to the will so far as the will stands to imperfect being (and, yes, I say this fully congnizant that God’s relation to imperfect being is not “real”, though in STA this should be taken not in the sense that the relation is fictitious or a pure construction of the mind but in the sense that the existence of God does not depend on the existence of creation.)

  4. February 5, 2012 at 9:36 pm

    Your middle paragraph draws a comparison I’d question. We presumably agree that God’s love is no more a temporal process of loving than God’s “reasoning” is a temporal process of ratiocination or deliberation, Nothing in God takes time, Therefore, if his love is free, that freedom cannot depend on deliberating between alternatives, the way ours typically does. But it doesn’t follow that I must “negate choice” when speaking of God’s love. What I must negate is choice’s taking time.This suggests, among other things,that the choice is one of spontaneity rather than deliberation. There’s more than possible alternative way to love that is logically prior to God’s eternal action of loving, but he just does one of them, unalterably.

  5. RP said,

    February 21, 2012 at 7:12 am

    There seems to be a problem with “God does not will the Son”.

    In SCG I, 53 it says, “In this way, therefore, through one intelligible species, which is the divine essence, and through one understood intention, which is the divine Word”

    And in DV 22, 13 Aquinas says, “Intention is an act of the will.”

    I don’t see how this agrees with the sense of ST I, 41, 2 wherein the Son can be said to be willed, nor why it is not contrary to the sense wherein it cannot be said the Son is willed.

    Will you explain, please?

    • February 21, 2012 at 9:42 am

      The will is a nature. As a nature it is determined to one, as a will it is not. And so to attribute something to will does not resolve the question of its determination to some good.

      In relation to creation, the divine will has an absolute freedom so far as its act is absolutely undetermined. Creation has absolutely no being apart from the act of creation, and in this way the act of creation evinces a freedom than which none greater can be thought. But this freedom has an essential component the indifference of being and non-being in creation.

      The processions within God lack this component essential to the absolute freedom with respect to creation. Ans so the external processions from God (by which he is named from time) exemplify the absolute limit of freedom and the internal processions are distinguished from these.

      • RP said,

        February 22, 2012 at 4:35 am

        I wasn’t clear about what I wanted you to explain. The “intention understood” in God is the Word, but in us is variously called the concept, the interior word, what we understand when we know, the meaning of the spoken word. If “intention is an act of the will”, what part does it play in our forming of the concept?

        And since Aquinas says we are most like God in forming the concept (exposition of the Apostles Creed), what part does it play in the conceiving of the Word (whether from will as nature or as will)? It may be even more interesting to ask what part it plays in the procession of the Holy Ghost.

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