That univocity of being argument

One argument for God and creatures having being in common is

If there is nothing common to God and creation, we cannot know God by knowing creation.

But we can know God by knowing creation, therefore, etc.

The “we” in this argument is too vague: if the “we” were the persons of the trinity then then God can be known through creation as “what we caused ourselves”. So we have to give a more precise account of the knower as one who knows by abstraction. This gives us:

If being is not common to God and creation, then  those who know by abstraction cannot know God.

We humans know God by abstraction, therefore, etc.

But this gives rise to a few objections:

1.) Being cannot be known by abstraction, since abstraction requires leaving something behind as not abstracted but our idea of being does not do this. Minimally, abstraction requires understanding one thing without the other, but being cannot be known in this way. What is common and peculiar do not differ as beings. This is why later Scholastics fell into talking about our idea of being as arising from an “imperfect abstraction”, though none of them knew quite what this was. And so it is far from clear that knowers-by-abstraction know being by abstraction at all, much less that they understand some feature in it common to God and creatures. This is not quibbling – it opens the possibility that there is some sort of at least implicit pre-abstractive knowledge, and many such accounts make some sort of reference to divine activity.

2.) If God is known by way of causal inference, then the argument requires that causes in themselves have something in common with their effects. But this is not the case with causes as such. If every causal account is explanatory, and no explanation presupposes what it tries to explain, then causes as such do not and cannot share some common feature with their effects. This is not a denial of the axiom nihil dat quod non habet, but only specifies that any common feature held between the cause and effect, if said of causes as such, is present only virtually or precisely as able-to-be-caused. This in no way requires some common field of action in the world. And so in order to understand God as the cause of the world, we must deny that there is something common to him and the world, not affirm it.



  1. JSPflug said,

    February 2, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    And yet there are places (such as ST I, 44, 1) that Aquinas speaks of God as “possessing being,” just that He does so “most perfectly.” Could we say, then, that God and creatures are common in that both “possess” being, except that only God does not “most perfectly”?
    Or would you say Aquinas is just speaking loosely here?

    • February 2, 2015 at 6:30 pm

      No, he’s speaking as precisely as he needs to, it’s just that both Latin an English use the same sound or word for both primary and secondary instances of things, and so we say things like “Tibbets is responsible for leveling Hiroshima” and “Truman is responsible for leveling Hiroshima” even though the first is a secondary cause and the second is a primary one; or “fire engines are red” and “EM wavelengths of about 650 nm are red” though the form red is likewise secondary and primary. We can do this with actions, qualities, states, and even substances. If English used a different verb mood or affix for primary and secondary causes and realities the equivocation would be clear. As it stands, we just have to notice the equivocation.

      It was to distinguish just this sort of primary and secondary existence that Plato used the Greek reflexive ‘auto’, which gets clumsily turned into a supposed “theory of forms”. It would be better to just put some affix on primary instances, so that we say wavelengths of 650 nm are not just red but redauto; and Truman is not just responsible but responsilauto, and the definition of the suffic would be that it is placed on the explanans of all the other terms. Circling back to your comment, God would possessauto being while we possess it; he would beauto while creatures would be.

  2. JSPflug said,

    February 2, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    I like your distinction between “possessauto” vs. possess and “beauto” vs. be. It just seems that these neologisms could be elaborated in more detail, if only in a divine, revelatory manner. In a similar way that only I could authentically explain how in haste I wrote ” . . .God does not ‘most perfectly’?” above when I actually intended to write” . . . God does so ‘most perfectly’?”, so God could–in principle–reveal how it is that we meaningfully participate in His auto-possession in a true (read: Trinitarian) way that is understandable to us (minus any faults of haste of course).
    Why limit the extent of God’s ability to communicate with us in a positive manner about His auto-being? Do you believe that an apophatic stance in our knowledge of God is all that we can hope for in this life?

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