Saturday, December 02, 2006

Absolute Divine Simplicity

I dedicate this essay to Fr. Alvin Kimel on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church on 3 December 2006. I hope that the essay's many shortcomings do not reflect poorly on the spirit of admiration and respect with which it is offered.
A few weeks back I posted an entry on Doctrine and the Deposit of Faith in which I mentioned, among too many other digressions, St. Anselm's logical approach to the relations of the Persons of the Trinity. His goal was to show that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son by demonstrating the logical necessity of these relations. If I may be permitted the conceit of quoting from my own post:
Theologically the argument deploys a Platonic essentialism that ought to have appealed to the Greeks if for no other reason than its manifest origin in Greek metaphysics but that apparently fell rather flat. The Godhead contains, as a matter of its essence, the asymmetrical relational property pair “from/not from”, and it is this fundamental relational property that defines the relations between the three Persons. Just as the Father begets the Son, the Son is begotten—that is, a non-begetter, establishing the Father as the “from” and the Son as the “not from” elements of the relation when they are brought into comparison. Just as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, the Father is a non-proceeder, establishing the Father again as the “from” element and this time the Holy Spirit as the “not from” element in the relation. Since it is possible for the Son and the Holy Spirit to be considered as a pair, the full essence of the unified Godhead must still be present, otherwise it is not really a unified substance shared by all three Persons. If the “from/not from” asymmetrical relational property is an essential element of that substance, and if that substance is truly a unified singular, then it is necessary that the property will be present in any pairing of Persons, including the pairing of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Since the Son is evidently “not from” the Holy Spirit, we can infer that the Holy Spirit is “from” the Son, and not merely through the Son as by an instrument, per Filium, as the Greeks insisted, but from the Son as source, proceeding from him just as he proceeds from the Father, since the relational property must apply in the same way to every pairing.
My interest in this aspect of St. Anselm's thought was motivated principally by a close reading of his treatise De processione Spiritus Sancti, On the Procession of the Holy Spirit, a treatise that he wrote shortly after the Council of Bari in order to present the arguments he made there in defense of the Filioque to a wider audience. I turned to St. Anselm's treatise because I had been intrigued by a paper by Richard Cartwright called "On the Logical Problem of the Trinity." According to Cartwright, it is not possible to make logical sense of the doctrine of the Trinity--we must either confound the Persons or divide the Substance, and both options are heretical. St. Anselm is able to give a counter-argument to Cartwright's by appealing to specialized relations of identity and sameness.

I mention all of this because the doctrine of the Trinity is not the only Christian dogma that gives rise to logical puzzles. Similarly problematic is the doctrine of Divine Simplicity and, as I hope to show, the solution to the puzzles raised by the doctrine is also similar: we must carefully construe our logical relations and our metaphysics of essence if we are to make any sense out of this doctrine. As in the case of the doctrine of the Trinity, certain kinds of puzzles will still remain: it may be that it is simply impossible for us to fully comprehend God's essence prior to beholding him in the Beatific Vision. But I think that what some folks have adduced as insurmountable problems with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity will turn out to be tempests in a teapot upon closer examination.

According to Divine Simplicity, God is absolutely simple, that is, he has no parts, he is not a mixture or compound of substance and accidents or matter and form or any other kinds of things, and he is absolutely one in all respects. This idea has some immediate entailments that are thought to be rather troublesome. For example, if we are to preserve this sort of simplicity, it seems we must say that God is identical to whatever is truly predicated of him, otherwise it begins to look as though he is some sort of compound (substance and accidents, subject and properties, etc.). In some ways this is not particularly worrisome, since we do not have any difficulty saying of God that he is love or that he is goodness or that he is mercy. But Divine Simplicity also entails that these predicates of God also be identical to each other, and with this we are not so comfortable. What does it mean to say that love is mercy, for example, or that goodness is justice? If Divine Simplicity is to hold, the meaning of these terms appears to break down.

For example, if we look at mercy in a particular individual, say St. Francis of Assisi, we identify it as mercy by the sorts of merciful things he does. Looking at a different individual, then, say, St. Thomas More, and say that he is courageous, his courage will be evident from the courageous things that she did and those things will, evidently, be different things from the merciful things that St. Francis did and, in general, we would say that St. Thomas More's courage is not identical to St. Francis' mercy. But to say that mercy and courage, as instantiated in particular individuals, are not identical, does not entail that God's properties are not, in some sense, identical.

Does it make any sense, though, to say that mercy and courage, or love and goodness, or indeed any two such terms, are identical, when the words evidently mean different things? It is important to note, first of all, that the meanings of these words are determined by the way we use them, and our use of these terms is almost exclusively with reference to matters of human experience. Since none of us has ever experienced God directly it is simply not possible for us to root the meanings of these terms in him, though clearly they are related, in some attenuated way, with the meager experience of him that we do enjoy as Christians. In addition to this, however, we may add that the possibility that, in some ontologically more important domain, such things as love, goodness, mercy, and courage, are all identical to one another is not a new idea. It goes back at least as far as Plato, perhaps even to Parmenides. For Plato, at least, all of the virtues were in some sense One Thing, and this so-called "Unity of the Virtues" is the subject matter of much of his early writings. Modern scholars differ amongst themselves on the manner in which it is best to describe this unity of the virtues, but all agree that, at least for Plato, every virtue is in some sense reducible to a certain kind of knowledge, and the various kinds of knowledge are reducible to a single thing, that is, the Platonic Form of Knowledge Itself. So it is not metaphysically outré to suggest that the attributes of God could, in some ontological sense outside of our ordinary human experience, be identical to one another. To argue that such a thing is strictly impossible is to commit oneself to an a priori metaphysical principle that is not rationally warranted and that begs the question against the Platonist.

This does leave us with a logical problem, however. If God's love and God's mercy are identical to each other, how can it make sense to say both that God is loving and that God is merciful--isn't this some sort of tautology according to Divine Simplicity, when in fact we think we mean two different things when we utter these sentences about God. The solution to this logical puzzle lies in the sort of disjunctive property that St. Anselm appeals to in his De processione Spiritus Sancti. Remember that, in that treatise, he attributes to God the property of being "either God or God from God", and holds that this property must be true of every Person of the Trinity, as in fact it is. Every Person of the Trinity is exactly alike in having this property, and yet the Persons can be distinguished from one another by virtue of the structure of the relations existing between the Persons in virtue of this same property. Disjunctive properties are not out of the ordinary at all. Every human being has the property of being "either male or female" (or whatever other intermediate sex(es) you may want to specify--there is no particular reason to limit the number of disjuncts involved). Someone may be tempted to object that this is ad hoc, since every property can be re-described as a disjunctive property. For example, the property of being, say, black, can be re-described as the property of being "either black or a horse or two thirds of a meter in length or the key of c-sharp major or...", and this is clearly a silly sort of predicate. But the property of being "either male of female" is a necessary property of the human species and is not at all ad hoc. In any event, since the objection is principally a logical one, it does not matter that our example may not be actual, it only needs to be possible.

So we may imagine two entities, say, a green box and a blue ball, and we may imagine two disjunctive properties, the property of being "either cubical or spherical" and the property of being "either green or spherical". Let the property of being "either cubical or spherical" be called property X, and let the property of being "either green or spherical" be called property Y. The two entities, the green box and the blue ball, both have both of the properties X and Y. The green box is X by virtue of being a cube and it is Y by virtue of being green; the blue ball is X by virtue of being a sphere and Y by virtue of being a sphere. Note in particular that the blue ball is X in precisely the same respect in which it is Y--by virtue of being a sphere, while the green box is not X in precisely the same respect in which it is Y. So we may say that it is possible for one thing to be both X and Y in the same respect, and for another thing to be both X and Y in different respects, and yet X and Y are not identical properties. Hence it is possible for God to be merciful and loving in precisely the same respect, while it is not the case that any human being is both merciful and loving in precisely the same respect, nor is it the case that merciful and loving are the same property.

A relationship that I have posted about before (see, for example, here, here, and here), that between the created, contingent world, which is finite and temporal, and God, who is uncreated, necessary, infinite, and atemporal, gives rise to further puzzles. For example, may we imagine possible worlds different from our own, given God's Divine Simplicity? That is, given that the world we actually inhabit contains, for example, some dolphins but no unicorns, is it possible that God could have created a world in which there are no dolphins at all but in which there are unicorns? According to Divine Simplicity this seems impossible, since it implies that there could be differences in God's essential properties. God's will is efficacious, that is, whatever God wills is actually the case, necessarily. This is actually doubly troubling, since not only does Divine Simplicity appear to entail that God could not have willed other than he did, but if he could not have willed other than he did our temporal world becomes a necessary world, and that is not consistent with our intuition that everything about the created order is contingent.

As I noted in my earlier posts on the temporal and atemporal, however, whenever you throw a being like God into the mix, all of your intuitions, which are necessarily grounded in human experience which is fundamentally of the contingent, go out the window. Just as we cannot cognitively grasp a physical space structured in more than three dimensions, we cannot cognitively grasp--at least not fully--the precise nature of the relationship between the temporal and the atemporal, or between ourselves, who are contingent beings, and God, who is a necessary being. The fact that God has willed X when he might have willed not-X must be examined in light of the fact that, for God, there is no such thing as a temporal ordering of events. This is important because, to say that God willed X when he might have willed not-X is just to say that there is a point in time, call it t, at which God had not willed either X or not-X, and at that time and at all other times prior to time t it was open to God to choose either X or not-X. For God, however, there is no time at all, hence there is no time t for schematizing this problem, which is fundamentally a problem of free will. We must simply accept the fact that God's will is free and atemporal. This will be a problem whether or not one accepts Divine Simplicity, and assuming Divine Simplicity does not make this problem any more or less difficult. Since it is not a problem that is unique to the assumption of Divine Simplicity, the burden of explanation is not on the defender of Divine Simplicity.

Divine Simplicity is an important doctrine, because without it God is divisible. There are only two alternatives: either God is absolutely simple, or he is not. If he is not, then we are committed either to polytheism or to a bizarre brand of metaphysics in which God is somehow constituted of parts and yet he was never constituted, since he is eternal. Although Divine Simplicity gives rise to metaphysical puzzles of its own, the alternatives are unacceptable: we may not embrace polytheism, and the alternative metaphysics are incoherent. The metaphysics required for embracing Divine Simplicity are, in broad outline, Platonic (or, perhaps, Neoplatonic) and, while Platonic metaphysics do not delight everybody, they at least have a venerable lineage that makes them more acceptable (at least provisionally, until we can come up with something better) than the incoherent patchwork metaphysics that would be required if we were to abandon Divine Simplicity.


Fred said...


Thank you for this post. It was very helpful to me.


Mike L said...

Not bad at all, Scott.

I've taken a cue from you and dedicated my latest and longest filioque article to Al Kimel. Also, since that article contains a reference to DDS, I shall post on my blog a reference to your post.

I look forward to working more closely together.


Maureen said...

It seems to me that this sort of thing is congruent for theology to the point when physics starts looking at the beginning of the universe, and weird things start to emerge.

But if people can imagine a time when all the forces were really one force, and that in a way they still are, it shouldn't be too hard to imagine that all the virtues in their pure state and in eternity, are just one virtue.

Writing the equations for such a Grand Unified Theory is a considerably more difficult matter than just a vague imagining, though! I'm glad that's not my job. :)

CrimsonCatholic said...

One rather clever way used by the Schoolmen to distinguish God's freedom from this sort of "picking and choosing among possible worlds" concept was to resort to exactly what distinguishes God from creation in all respects, namely, his lack of finitude. God's freedom, therefore, is expressed in terms of a lack of limits, so that even though we can have no concept of how God is free (His mode of existence being incomprehensible), we can affirm that He is free, simply because creation is not capable of imposing any limit or necessity on Him. In effect, it connects up the idea of not being able to comprehend God's eternity (despite being able to affirm it) with not being able to comprehend God's freedom (despite being able to affirm it). A rather neat and consistent conceptual approach! It also helps to illuminate how the concept of divine simplicity functioned in Western thought; it was effectively a dividing line for identifying these classes of questions where we would be unable to speak (or even conceptualize) properly.

bedwere said...

Very interesting blog. I don't agree with this:

it may be that it is simply impossible for us to fully comprehend God's essence prior to beholding him in the Beatific Vision

Actually not even the blessed can comprehend the infinite God. Not even the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Scott Carson said...


I agree with you. But note three things:

(1) What you say is consistent with what I wrote ("we cannot comprehend it prior to..." does not entail that we can comprehend it after).

(2) The opinions of St. Thomas, while worthy of careful consideration, are not binding in and of themselves.

(3) I forget what the third thing was. Anyway, thanks for your comment.