Divine Simplicity (3) Simplicity and free will

The Scholastic-Patristic idea of simplicity is the type (3) predication of positive predicates not said relative to creatures. Because predicates count as “properties” and type (3) predicates express identity, it is possible to understand divine simplicity as Analytic Philosophers do. viz that God is identical to his properties. But because predicates that involve relation to creatures are set aside, it is impossible to set up a conflict between divine simplicity and the free choice to create, to redeem, etc.

But chances are that the Analytic philosophers that insist on a contradiction between simplicity and free choice will not be content in what appears to be my mere defining it out of existence. For all that, I want to show that their arguments are not formally against divine simplicity but logically require a prior denial of the existence of God.

Bill Vallicella, commenting on a response to an argument by Robert Mullins, puts the conflict like this:

There is a tension between divine simplicity and divine freedom.

1) If God is simple, then he is pure act (actus purus) and thus devoid of unexercised powers and unrealized potentials. He is, from all eternity, all that he can be.  Given that God is simple, there can be no real distinction in him between potency and act. This is necessarily true  because God exists of metaphysical necessity and is essentially pure act.

2) As it is, God freely created our universe from nothing; but he might have created a  different universe, or no universe at all. Had he created no universe, then his power to create would have gone unexercised.  In that case he would not be pure act: he would harbor an unactualized potential.

My response requires a paragraph of set-up. Consider the following premise:

G = What changes another need not change itself.

You might become convinced of G because your mind wandered off to considering knowledge, which involves objects actualizing a cognitive power without themselves changing or coming to be. Or maybe you wandered off to considering things loved, which can cause love in others without having to become something else. Or maybe you thought about relations, which allow for Socrates to be shorter than Plato not because Socrates changed by shrinking but because Plato changed by growing. Or maybe you were considering what Aristotle takes to be the paradigm case of efficient causality – giving advice – the whole idea of which is that the one who gets it should change while the one who gives it doesn’t need to.

Now consider the second sentence in Vallicella’s (2)

Had [God] created no universe, then his power to create would have gone unexercised.

Presumably, Vallicella thought this was just axiomatic or obvious, though this is logically equivalent to taking G as self-evidently false, and that’s just a mistake. More to the point, the proof by which one establishes the existence of purus actus (not its simplicity, but its existence) requires that there be something that causes change in another without changing itself. This is precisely what “purus actus” means. “Pure” is the opposite of “mixed” and a mixed act is an actualizer that is itself actualized or a changer that is itself changed.

Put another way, the supposed dilemma between simplicity and freedom is not on objection to divine simplicity, but an assertion that God’s existence is self-evidently false, at least as this existence is understood by the defenders of divine simplicity. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense that if you affirm “God is not simple” you also affirm “no simple God exists”, but rather in the sense that the objection against divine simplicity is downstream from an unexamined assumption that a purus actus or unmoved mover or uncreated creator is impossible.  That unexamined assumption is devastating to theism, and though we might be willing to throw Scholasticism under the bus, patristic thought would go with it, along with any idea of a biblical theology or Christology of the one through whom all things which were made, were made. I suppose a Mormon god or the Olympians might remain, which is exactly where the logic of denying divine simplicity tends.








Divine simplicity (2), Translating Analytic Philosophy into Scholasticism

(What follows is an application of the logical divisions of perseity mentioned in the previous post)

Analytic philosophy translates the idea of divine simplicity into claims like God is identical to his properties. There is no consistent account of what a property or an identity is in Analytic thought, but I want to explain what this claim would mean in the Scholastic-Patristic tradition, where by “Scholastic” I mean not just Thomism but the whole tradition from Aristotle and by “Patristic” I mean the Platonic tradition of the early church (Augustine is quoted below).

The “properties”* that Scholastics are interested in when talking about simplicity are positive predicates not said relative to creatures. By “positive predicate” we mean any “God is ______” as opposed to “God is not _______”, and by “not said relative to creatures” we set aside predicates like “creator” or “Lord” or “the goal of human life” that all assume the existence of things other than God.** Predicates like “the highest good” or “supremely wise” are ambiguous. If the “height” in question is seen as relative to creatures it is set aside, but if it is seen as highest possible in the sense of maximal perseity, then this is exactly what the Scholastics were looking for.

The way in which God is “identical to his properties” is because they are said of him per se and first, i.e. in a type (3) way mentioned in the last post. Goodness is said of creatures either in a type (1) or type (2) sense, but is said only of God in a type (3) sense. Now type (3) claims are bona fide identities, and so we have a genuine sense of God being identical to his properties. This is why Christ could say that “None is good but God alone” without contradicting the clear Scriptural belief that creatures are good. God alone is good like only surfaces that reflect all wavelengths of light are white.

Because (3)’s are convertible, we seem to hit a snag. If God alone is good, then whatever is good is God. But ice cream and puppies and birthdays are good. So how does divine simplicity avoid concluding that birthdays are God?

The solution is clear from the nature of the division just made since (3)’s are the sole possessors of their predicates in the sense of being that in virtue of which (2)’s and (1)’s have the predicate whenever they do. This allows for a sense in which the predicate can be had even necessarily and by the nature of the thing without it being had in a type (3) way. Just as snow is essentially white without being what white is, creation is essentially good without being what goodness is, or, as Christ would put it, creation is essentially and by nature good without being “what is good alone”.

For all that safe distinction drawing there is still a radical sense in which the very goodness in creatures, if we could somehow distill it out and see it in itself, would be God. Augustine says this flat out in De trinitate VIII. 3

This thing is good and that good, but take away this and that, and regard good itself if you can, so will you see God, not good by a good that is other than Himself, but the good of all good. For in all these good things, whether those which I have mentioned, or any else that are to be discerned or thought, we could not say that one was better than another, when we judge truly, unless a conception of the good itself had been impressed upon us, such that according to it we might both approve some things as good, and prefer one good to another. So God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself. For the good that must be sought for the soul is not one above which it is to fly by judging, but to which it is to cleave by loving; and what can this be except God? Not a good mind, or a good angel, or the good heaven, but the good good.

The Platonism here (“good itself”, “the good good”) can be caricatured and straw-manned, but if we stick to the way in which “the X itself’ means “an X predicate said per se and first” then the account is an application of a principle that is central to any systematic inquiry.

This is true of God’s existence too: God exists and esse est Deus.*** This could only lead to pantheism if we forget that all positive predicates said of God are transcendental and not categorical, i.e. they are all either modes of being or things like intelligence and love that relate to being or existence as such. While it is true that the type (3) predicates in the examples we gave are in the same category as type (2), and are even properties of them, this does not follow from their being type (3) predicates. God being the reason all things are good does not place him in the same category as created goods because goodness as such is not limited to a category. Ditto for existence, intelligence, wisdom, etc.

*Sometimes Analytic philosophers treat the word “parts” as the same as “properties”. Obviously, if by “a part” you mean “positive predicate said of God not relative to creatures” then the Scholastic is denying parts to God in this sense. That said, the word “parts” is ambiguous. If by “parts” you mean physical parts then this will be one aspect of divine simplicity, but not the one that tends to be controversial, and not the one that gets into trouble by implying some kind of property.

**Notice that all relation to creatures has been set aside, so there can be no question of how divine simplicity is compatible with God’s free choice to create. All predicates of this sort are set aside from the beginning.

***Meister Eckhart would later argue in a straight derivation from Thomistic principles concerning the doctrine of simplicity.

Perseity: principle of systematic investigation

Following Plato, Aristotle clarified the idea of perseity, which is a crucial idea in the logic of sciences. To use examples for the many-ith time:

1.) The carpet is white

2.) Snow is white

3.) A surface reflecting all wavelengths of light is white.


1.) Insects fly

2.) Airplanes fly

3.) An airfoil that pushes air down and so is pushed up in accord with Newton’s Third Law flies.

Instance (1) is a predicate said contingently, i.e. it is possible but not necessary for the subject to be the predicate.

Instance (2) is necessary and per se, since one can’t have the subject under its normal and naturally occurring conditions without also having the predicate.*

Instance (3) is necessary, per se, and first. In some translations of Aristotle the “first” gets translated “commensurately universal”, the idea being that whatever is the predicate is also the subject and vice-versa. This is fine so far as it goes, so long as one specifies that if one has more than one such predicate, (3) is whichever one is first.** For example:

(a) circles are plane figures with all points equidistant from a center.

(b) circles are figures with triangles inscribed on their diameters that always have a right angle.

Both of these are “commensurately universal” since they are universal statements where one can flip the subject and predicate and still have a universal statement, but one uses (a) in the proof of (b) and not vice versa, so (a) is first. That said, the main reason why (3) type predicates are first is because they are the reason why (2) type predicates are true, even when the (2) type is necessarily true. Whenever one has snow one has something white and necessarily so, but this is still caused by the (3) type truth. A fortiori, the (3) type is the reason the (1) type is true, whenever it is.

Much of science is trying to figure out (3) type predicates, since this a main concern of any systematic investigation. Detectives and investigators look for (3) type agents of single events, specifically the (3a) description which consists in the concrete identity of the agent who acted, and not just derivative truths that can be known about his identity (say, that he acted out of passion or with a handgun.) Historians and journalists ideally try to do the same thing, this being exactly what one looks for in seeking root causes (“root” meaning “first and per se” in Aristotle’s sense.)

*Perseity in this sense is of two types:

Barbie is blonde

Hair is blonde.

In the first, whatever is a Barbie is also blonde, in the second whatever is blonde is hair. In type 2 predicates the arrow of necessity might go subject to predicate or vice versa, but in one such sentence it cannot go both ways. Some blondes aren’t Barbie, some hair is not blonde.

**The first means “ontologically first” and not first in understanding. The example from math can obscure this since it is a rare time when one can be first in both ways. Obviously, the (3) type predicates given at the head of the post weren’t the first ways we understood “white” or “flight”, and one of the main reasons for science or investigation is that raw experience will initially only get articulated in 1 and 2 type predicates. Examples of predicates tend to be 1 or 2 type predicates, and when Socrates goads his interlocutors to move past examples (cf. Meno, Euthyphro) he is pushing them toward a (3) type predicate, which is often a very difficult thing to see.


A common, unexamined postulate:  All intelligences stare upon the totality of unintelligent stuff (TUS). Angels look at the same trees, rivers, stars, superclusters, internal organs, etc that sentient beings look at, and the divine intelligence looks down at the mass of angels and sentient beings that inhabit the universe = TUS.

TUS is impressively large and we unavoidably fall into seeing angels and God as smaller, but to say this is to see through it. Intelligences and the TUS are wholly incommensurate and putting them in or over the world in a spacio-temporal sense is like trying to measure the distance from London bridge to Christmas Day.

It’s peculiar to human intelligence to know by interacting with its object through an unintelligent medium. Though we can distinguish this medium into the intelligence’s own body and the TUS, these two are inextricably co-implicated by the act of sensation. This is why a totality of an sensed environment is, say, cold or green or large or or threatening when in fact any of these states is a mix of the animal’s body and its environment. To the extent that knowledge is constrained by this sort of attaining of the object it is impossible to distinguish what is subjective from what is objective (even as categories without content). Both are given as an indistinguishable mix.

Intelligence as such does not interact with objects though an unintelligible medium and therefore has more the character of knowledge in virtue of its complete objectivity. The objects of such knowledge are more clearly and perfectly known in their distinction from the supposit that knows them, and are by definition known in what can be described as a wholly intelligible environment. The perfect objectivity of bodiless intelligence thus consists in drawing forth ideas from out of its own intelligible substance as opposed to drawing them forth from the TUS.

In our present state we can’t avoid visualization, but we visualize the angel more clearly if we drop the idea of some gaseous subject on our shoulder and replace it with an objective universe knowing itself. For the lowest angelic being, this separate universe is only itself and the TUS as one part, but the next highest angel is an immeasurably larger universe that contains all of the angelic universe below it in addition to the TUS.

My hypothesis is that these nested intelligible angelic universes are actually infinite, each one containing all the perfections below it in an immeasurably higher way. The TUS is not the whole environment of all intelligences but the proper environment of the lowest intelligence, i.e. it is what the lowest intelligence looks like if it had to instantiate its content in an unintelligent medium. The TUS is thus the bride or the interiority of the lowest possible intelligence. All angels know it, and know it with immeasurably more objectivity than we do, but as a part of their universe of intelligible objects, and not as a whole.


The divinity of an unmoved mover

Why call an unmoved mover God?

1.) The historical reason. When Thomas wrote the First Way he could appeal to the massive authority of Aristotle and his Arab commentators. If Aristotle thought that an unmoved mover was God, this is all one had to say. We have no single authority with Aristotle’s authority and so this point is harder to understand, but chances are if you had an argument nowadays that even hinted at the existence of an “Intelligent designer” almost everyone would assume that you were talking about God.

2.) The historical state of physics. The physics of Thomas’s time was a bit clearer that physics studied mobile things as such, and so if you found some mover that wasn’t mobile it was ipso facto supernatural. While there are supernatural movers other than God, angels are defined as created intelligences; and it’s pretty clear that the human soul can’t account for the procession of the equinoxes or the phases of the Moon.

Thomas’s physics also had a much clearer, if inaccurate, account of how the universe was universing in a set of nested diurnal movements. Obviously anyone that could point to the first mover of a univsersing universe and call it God. As late as the 1930’s this view of the universe was still plausible, but physics and cosmology since then has either been fascinated by Pascal’s dizzying terror of infinite spaces or playing with models that aren’t fleshed out or determinate enough to apply metaphysics to. Still, all accounts I’ve read of cosmic inflation make it comprised of movers in motion, and if this is right then it too would reduce to the causality of an unmoved mover. Whatever physics ends up saying about the origin of the universe will inevitably make it an object of the First Way since all conserved quantities are movers in motion, and physical explanations bottom out in the causality of a conserved quantity

3.) The hierarchy of energia. While we no longer have a universe with the spatially-arranged hierarchies of the Thirteenth Century (Earth within Sun within planets within celestial sphere) we still have Thomas’s hierarchy of actualities, the highest of which is, as all Thomists say daily on rosary beads, the actus essendi or esse. Since the first way understands motion precisely as the conferal of actualities, this takes place within a metaphysical hierarchy where the highest such is creation. And a creator is still what all call God.

The darker way that Christianity gave us science

I’ll call the lighter narrative of how Christianity gave rise to science this:

1.) Christianity was the source of the belief, whether explicit or not, that the universe is good and arises from logos

2.) Science is an extension of the belief that the universe is good and from logos.

While one can get hints at this narrative in the lit it doesn’t seem to play a dominant role. A better candidate for how Christianity gave rise to science is this:

1.) The two fundamental facts are

(a)The Christian God, especially as understood in the Middle Ages, was understood to be omnipotent, and

(b) The science by which one determined this was demonstratively Aristotelian,* which sought to resolve all questions back to an account of the essence of things. Aristotle knew that this was a very high bar to meet.

2.) Essences were understood as invariant, i.e. if A was essentially B then it was logically impossible to have A without B or a non-B that was A.

3.) Omnipotence was seen as ranging over whatever was logically possible, i.e. if X were logically possible, God could do X, and vice versa. In the later Middle Ages, to ask if God could do X was the same as to raise the question whether X was logically possible or not.

4.) So the foundations of Aristotelian demonstrative science had to be based on what could not be otherwise, even by divine power.

5.) But this is an extremely high bar for any truth to meet, placed on top of an already very high bar to meet, especially if one is pious and eager to extend divine power as far as imagination can run. As a consequence, most of what counted as “scientific” was seen as being no longer so. Sure, most of what Aristotle says in, say, the first few books of the Physics is axiomatic, but perhaps not to pious Christians who are asked to drop it in the acid bath of divine omnipotence. In everyday life I would say it’s impossible to go from one place to another without going through intermediate space, but I doubt that I would say it was impossible for God to so move something. Normally I’d say it was impossible for irrational beings to reason, but Scripture reveals the story of Baalam’s ass.

6.) Descartes fought mightily for truths that could survive this standard of doubt, barely saving math and the inter-subjective states of one’s own consciousness. Still, we all know what happens when you narrowly save things from being eaten by the monster without killing it. It will come for them in a sequel.

7.) As Descartes himself knew, once omnipotence gives you this idea of the possible you don’t need a God to keep it going. You can do it all better with a malicious deceiver, or, like Hume, you can put it in terms of a problem of induction, i.e. if some logical possibilities are future states, how in the world can you know them? How could an Aristotelian demonstrative science ever get off the ground?

8.) If we know no essences we are left to hypothesize what they are and to gather together incomplete instances of a supposed universal and categorize them. Again, since an essence is unattainable, we are left to see how well it conforms to an “essence” we have set up ourselves as a replacement for it, often defined operationally or algebraically.  Violà, science.

Those who want more than this tentative, empirical stance are left with two options: math (maybe) or the analysis of their own interior conscious states. As the latter are the only real beings, the temptation is to make our only sure connection to reality an exploration of interior, individualistic conscious awareness.

But the monster that stalks the sequels is still out there, and the only way to definitively resolve the issue is to have him consume the essence or reality of consciousness.

*I mean it is the sort of science Aristotle describes in the books of Analytics, though he wrote much more extensively on another form of science in Topics. 

Rock paradoxes

If God created a rock touching the highest point of the universe he could not lift it, since to lift requires moving something into a higher place.

Ditto if God created a rock as large as the of the universe, no matter what size that is.

Or if the universe were a single rock of any size.

Or if he decided to make some space like one of those ’80’s videogames where leaving the top of the screen made you pop out at the bottom, and then made a rock the same size as that space.

All these are unliftable for extrinsic reasons, but it’s interesting to ask if something could be intrinsically unliftable. If we follow the line of thought just developed, this problem is the same as asking whether we can know enough about rocks to know whether something could count as one while still being such that lifting it would involve contradiction. Who’s to say that we won’t find a rock like that out there somewhere?

This is the problem that led to Nominalism. Take an analogous case: can God make the irrational rational? The question is not whether he can take some non-rational stuff and make it such (which happens in human embryogenesis all the time), but whether a being that is formally irrational can, by divine power, start to reason. This seems to involve contradiction, but it’s easy enough to visualize – almost all of Narnia is populated with such creatures. For Christians the problem becomes perhaps more acute in the story of Baalam’s Ass.

Taken in this last sense, the question is not about divine power so much as the extent to which humans can have adequate knowledge of natures to know what is possible or contradictory.


Freedom, taken formally

We don’t normally treat freedom as the ability to do otherwise, there are times when it can’t be, and there are simpler accounts of the term that are closer to our experience.

Even if one conclusion we can draw from the flight attendant’s statement “You’re free to move about the cabin” is “Everyone can do otherwise than moving about the cabin!”, this would be a pretty odd inference to make. All we normally take the statement to mean is that a previous impediment to standing up and walking around has disappeared. In fact, statements of this kind don’t require the ability to do otherwise: when the jury acquits you and the judge says “you’re free to go” he is not saying that you can do otherwise and remain in the holding cell if you want. The defendant is free to go for the same reason that he can no longer be on trial.

So freedom is formally the absence of impediments to doing something we want. This is first of all closer to experience and usage, but it is also the common note to both “freedom from” and “freedom to”, and it explains how freedom can be a transcendental perfection that is had more perfectly in the divine will than in our own, and in the blessed or virtuous more than  those in via, the damned, or the wicked.

The idea that freedom is the ability to do otherwise traces back to Aristotle’s distinction between natural and rational potencies, where nature is determinata ad unum whereas reason is open to contraries. It’s not a formal account of freedom but a characteristic difference in sorts of power.

A better account is that Aristotle’s distinction needs to be read relative to his teaching on nature and art in Physics II, where we find that nature is always non-deliberative while reason is only sometimes so. I stress the “sometimes” for the same reason Aristotle does:

It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Art does not deliberate. If the ship-building art were in the wood, it would produce the same results by nature. If, therefore, purpose is present in art, it is present also in nature. The best illustration is a doctor doctoring himself: nature is like that.

Art does not deliberate. So even if rational and natural powers can be distinguished by the former being “open to doing otherwise” this is not a feature of all that is rational. Reason is open to contraries qua deliberative, i.e. so far as it is mulling over diverse means to a necessarily loved goal. While every action that has the perfection of being otherwise is done by a free agent, the converse is not true. Reason is also artistic and, more importantly, necessarily in love with its ultimate good.


Evolutionary explanations of goods (3)

The idea that evolution is indifferent to goods arises in one sense because we are confusing effects that arise in fact out of natural selection with effects that arise from selection as such, but even after this is clear one needs to explain why an effect that arises per se deserves to be called a good, which takes us to the perennial dispute between what I’ll call the Socratic and anti-Socratic postulates about the relation between action and goodness.

Science consists largely in explanations of the precise determinations of natural actions. We’re comfortable speaking of what actions or substances are determined to and dismissive of speaking about the substances acting for goals, but this is largely a preference for one synonym over another.

Largely, but not entirely. Speaking of goals connotes accomplishments or goods or fulfillments while determination doesn’t have this quasi-moral note. A thing can be blindly determined in a way that it cannot blindly seek goals, and so it seems better to describe most of nature as determined.

At issue is whether any action, whether in the rational or irrational world, is for a real and not merely apparent good. Socrates was the first to insist that it was, and the claim seemed just as bizarre to his contemporaries as it seems to most of us. It’s just blindingly obvious that lots of actions are for the sake of evils or, more charitably, for merely apparent goods. The moth eagerly flits toward the fire, the bird flies for the the world on the far side of the window, etc. All this is before a catalogue of human moral evils or the sometimes groaningly bad accounts of what people used to think the goods of natural processes were, all of which conspire to make a primitive goodness postulate that is contrary to Socrates’s, sc. Action as such is indifferent to good or evil. Applied to human actions, the postulate becomes either human action is for something that appears good, but in fact might be good or evil or human action is free by being indifferent to good or evil. 

While it seems like we are rejecting anthropomorphism when call nature determined or blind we are in fact only appealing to an account of the good that we apply both to irrational and rational action. We “humanize” natural action just as much by calling it blind as by calling it goal-seeking, or, better yet, neither humanizes anything but merely works from an account of goodness that belongs to action as such. The modern idea of the determination of nature and the equally modern idea of the indifference of the free will are downstream conclusions from an earlier commitment to the anti-Socratic goodness postulate.


Divine simplicity: General argument and the lowest form of simplicity

The main argument:

The multiplication of what is one or many in number is logically possible.

The multiplication of God is not logically possible.

God is not one or many in number.

The major: Things are able to be numbered so far as they are or were able to be numerous.

Minor: If God were multiplicable, a created creator would be possible, but “created creator” is self contradictory.

Now everything that exists is like God in the measure that it is not logically possible to multiply it. If I consider myself precisely as self – a center of consciousness with a unique history etc – my multiplication is logically impossible.  “I” in this sense is a subject, and so to talk about God’s inability to be multiplied I will talk about his subject. Nevertheless, just as there are things that are intrinsic, essential and necessary to my own subjectivity that are impossible for inorganic beings or lower forms of animal life, there are things essential to my life that are not found in divinity.

Divine simplicity is the totality of ways in which created beings are multiplicable while the creator is not. It involves an analogous use of the term “subject” which is formed by negating various kinds of multiplicity that are intrinsic to finite subjects.

The human subject is first essentially multiplicable as material since I exist by assimilating some parts (food, oxygen, vitamins in sunlight) and sloughing off others. Qua a being that feeds and grows, is generated and wastes away, I am multiplied and divided into parts, and so whatever self was not multiplicable in any way has no such parts.

If we imagine a being composed of non-generatable stuff that neither needs to be nourished nor can waste away, cannot be harmed or stabbed or chopped up, etc. then we get our first and lowest view of divinity.* Notice that even at this lowest level divinity is known by simplicity as here defined. The Olympians or Christ’s resurrected body** are all divine in virtue of a sort of simplicity that is denied to beings in the created cosmos.

In sum:

Though every subject is in some sense non-multiplicable, all cosmic subjects exist by bringing in some parts, sloughing off others, having parts break off and form new organisms and lines of descent, etc.

A creating divinity is not multiplicable in any way.

The first way in which a divinity exists is in virtue of a simplicity that makes it immortal, ungenerated, not needing to feed, unable to be sick or infirm, etc.

*I’m switching to “divinity” because a capital-G “God” is understood to have a simplicity that goes beyond this lowest level. Still, at this lowest level of simplicity we have a bona fide divinity.

**Christ is also divine in another sense, and this is not the Nicean reason for calling him “God”, but it is a bona fide sense of divinity all the same.


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