Archive for the ‘Brian Davies’ Category


Objections To Simplicity 2 – Brian Davies

July 18, 2013
Many of the dissenters here deny that God is simple in the sense that Aquinas thinks that he is. Why so? Could it he that they are mesmerized by the formula "God is a person"? I suspect that many of them are, and that by God is a person they mean that God is an invisible being (like Descartes's "I"), very like a human one, though lacking a body. If that is what they do mean, however, they are seriously out of step with what might be called the traditional Jewish/Islamic/Christian concept of God. If that is what they mean, perhaps we might also ask them if there is any reason at all to believe that God exists? You and I, corporeal things, things the essence of which does not guarantee our existence, things able to change in various ways as time goes on, things with attributes that come and go, are all, surely, things which raise the question, "And how come they exist at all?" The doctrine of divine simplicity is part of a complicated answer to this question.

Many of the dissenters here deny that God is simple in the sense that Aquinas thinks that he is. Why so? Could it he that they are mesmerized by the formula “God is a person”? I suspect that many of them are, and that by God is a person they mean that God is an invisible being (like Descartes’s “I”), very like a human one, though lacking a body. If that is what they do mean, however, they are seriously out of step with what might be called the traditional Jewish/Islamic/Christian concept of God. If that is what they mean, perhaps we might also ask them if there is any reason at all to believe that God exists? You and I, corporeal things, things the essence of which does not guarantee our existence, things able to change in various ways as time goes on, things with attributes that come and go, are all, surely, things which raise the question, “And how come they exist at all?” The doctrine of divine simplicity is part of a complicated answer to this question.

Some philosophers reject the conclusion that God is simple. Why so? Here are a few notable lines of argument and some comments on them from Davies – a continuation from the previous post (where you can find A and B). The original post on Simplicity is the one before yesterdays.


(C) God Cannot Be Existence

As we have seen, Aquinas’s teaching on God’s simplicity includes the claim that there is no distinction in God of essence (essentia) and existence (esse), a point he sometimes makes by saying that God is ipsum esse subsistens (subsisting existence itself). [Cf. Summa Theologiae, Ia, 11,4] Yet is such a suggestion even coherent? Many would say that it is not since it displays deep confusion when it comes to the meaning of the word “exists.”

Take, for example, the late C. J. F. Williams. According to him, to say, for example, “Readers of Aquinas exist” is not to tell us anything about any particular reader of Aquinas. It is to tell us that “_ is a reader of Aquinas” is truly affirmable of something or other. Or, in Williams’s language (which echoes what we find in the writings of Immanuel Kant), “existence” or “being” is not a property of individuals. [Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, A592-602.] According to Williams, to say of some individual or thing that it exists is unintelligible.

With this thought in mind, he savages Aquinas on simplicity. Williams argues that what Aquinas writes on this topic wrongly presupposes that existing is a property of individuals, and then, ludicrously, identifies this property with God in an attempt to tell us what God is. [C. J. F. Williams, "Being," in A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).] The idea here is that Aquinas has no business saying that God creates by bringing it about that various individuals exist, and that he has no business identifying God with a property of existence had by these individuals.

One of Williams’s main arguments for the view that it is nonsense to ascribe existence to an individual holds that if existence were attributable to individuals, then we could never (as we surely can) consistently say things like “Readers of Aquinas do not exist.” Why not? Because, says Williams, if existence were intelligibly attributable to individuals, to say, for example, that readers of Aquinas do not exist would be to say that they lack a certain property, and to say this is implicitly to assert that they exist. In other words, according to Williams, if existence is a property of individuals, then statements such as “Readers of Aquinas do not exist” is true only if it is false.

This argument, however, wrongly assumes that negative existential assertions (such as “Readers of Aquinas do not exist”) have to be taken as presupposing the existence of their subjects and to be denying something of them. To say that readers of Aquinas do not exist is not to suppose that existing readers of Aquinas lack a property of some kind. It is to deny that anything can be truly said to be a reader of Aquinas.

Williams also argues for his position by claiming that sentences ascribing existence to individuals are ones for which we have no use “outside philosophy.” [C. J. F. Williams, What Is Existence? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 198,), 79 ff.] He means that we just do not normally say things such as “I exist” or “New York exists.” This also seems to be a poor line of argument. People would, doubtless, be puzzled were I to accost them and assert “I exist.” They would probably be equally puzzled if, out of the blue, I announce “New York exists.” But would anyone seriously take me to be talking nonsense were I to say, for example, “The great pyramid at Giza exists, but the Colossus of Rhodes does not,” or “You and I exist, but we won’t if a giant meteorite hits the earth”?

Contrary to what Williams suggests, “exists,” as affirmed of individuals, is hardly some esoteric piece of philosophical baggage. To be sure (and this is something of which Aquinas was acutely aware)) what it is for one thing to exist might he different from what it is for something else to exist. For Smokey to exist is for him to be a cat. For me to exist is for me to be a human being. For a cabbage to exist is for it to be (what else?)) a cabbage. Cats, humans, and cabbages are obviously things of different kinds, but individual examples of these kinds can surely, and as individuals, be sensibly thought of as existing.

Williams, I presume, would reply that it still makes no sense to say, in reply to the question “What is God?” that God is existence (or something like that). However, to repeat what is obviously my mantra in this chapter, Aquinas’s account of divine simplicity is not offered as an account of what God is. It is offered as an account of what God cannot be.

When saying that there is no distinction in God of essence and existence, Aquinas is asserting that, whatever God is, he cannot be something the existence of which is derived. And why does he say this? Because he thinks that there are things the existence of which does not derive from what they are (their essence), things which, therefore, have to be caused by what is distinct from them when it comes to essence and existence. Drawing on the biblical and patristic tradition, and thinking that nothing we take to be part of the universe exists by nature, Aquinas concludes that “God” is the obvious word to use so as to name what accounts for anything other than “it” existing. And why should he not?

(D) A Simple God Cannot Be Free

Let us suppose (as many have denied) that people have freedom of choice (at least sometimes). In that case, presumably, when they do such and such freely they are also freely not doing something or other. Suppose that I am free to brush my teeth before going to bed. Then, it would seem, I am also free not to brush my teeth. Freedom of choice seems bound up with the notion of different courses of action.

Not only that; it seems bound up with different ways in which an agent can be described. If I choose to go to bed without brushing my teeth, then I would be different from what I would be had I chosen to brush my teeth. For one thing, I would be someone who had made a decision not to brush his teeth, and someone who chose to brush his teeth would not be that.

With this line of thinking in mind, it has been suggested that the doctrine of divine simplicity should be rejected since God is free to create or not to create, and that he is free to create worlds of many different kinds. The argument goes like this:

(a) God has freedom to create or not to create;

(b) God is free to create different kinds of worlds;

(c) if (a) and (b) are true, then God could be different from what he is;

(d) but if God could be different from what he is, then he cannot he simple, for to say that God is simple is to say that he and his nature are changelessly one and the same, which is to say that God cannot be different from what he changelessly is.

This argument is sometimes advanced using the notion of a “contingent property.” When Smokey has had a good meal, he is not hungry. When I forget to feed him, he becomes hungry. We might put this by saying that being full or being hungry are contingent properties of Smokey. And we might add that many of Smokey’s properties are not contingent since they are properties he has to have in order to exist at all. Since he is a cat, he is a mammal and, so some philosophers would say, being a mammal is a necessary property of Smokey.

Now, so it is sometimes said, according to the doctrine of divine simplicity God has no contingent properties. Yet God must have contingent properties if he is free to create or not to create, and if he is free to create worlds of different kinds. Why? Because, without ceasing to be God, he is different from how he could be. If he had not chosen to create, he would have been different from what he is given that he chose to create. If he had chosen to create a world without cats, he would be different from what he is given that he has created cats. And so on.

The merit of this argument lies, I think, in the fact that freedom and difference (or freedom and contingent properties) do come together when we are thinking of people. I (and my teeth) would have come to be different from what I was last night had I chosen not to brush my teeth. In addition, my ending up with brushed teeth last night would have left me being what I did not have to be considered as what I am by nature (that is, human).

The problem with the argument, however, lies in the fact that if God is, in Aquinas’s sense, the Creator of the universe, then he cannot he thought of as something able to be different from what he is, and he cannot be thought of as having contingent properties. When Aquinas speaks of the created order he is thinking about everything involved in a world of being and becoming.

So he resists the suggestion that God is to be thought of as a being who comes (or could come) to be different in some way as time goes by. For him, such a being would simply be part of the spatio-temporal universe, not that which accounts for anything having esse.

Aquinas certainly wants to assert that

(a) God is free to create or not create, and

(b) God does not have to create a world just like ours.

By (a), however, he means that God’s nature does not compel him to create, that he is not forced into creating given what he essentially is. He also means that there could be nothing distinct from God which, so to speak, pushes him into creating. Given what we are by nature (human) we cannot but sometimes urinate, or breathe. According to Aquinas, however, divinity has no need of creatures and does not come with an in-built compulsion to create (if it did, thinks Aquinas, then it would, contrary to fact, make no sense to say of any creature that it might not exist). As for (b), Aquinas’s meaning here is just that, logically speaking, lots of things that do not exist could exist, and that they would exist only if God made them to be.

I live in the USA. Could I live in Russia? There seems to be no logical impossibility in the suggestion that I might be living in Russia. So, thinks Aquinas, the world could be different in that I could live in Russia rather than in the USA. But he takes this point to mean no more than that there is no logical impossibility when it comes to my living in Russia.

Applying all of this to the objection to divine simplicity now in question, it seems fair to observe that, for Aquinas, to say that God is free to create or not create, or that he is free to create a world different from what we find ourselves in, is not to suggest that God might be different from what he essentially is, or that he might acquire “contingent properties.”

Aquinas’s “God is free to create” is a comment on what God is not. God is not something whose nature forces him to create. It is also a comment on what exists in the world and on what can be thought to exist without logical contradiction. An objector to Aquinas on simplicity might reply, “But if God had not created Smokey, he would be different from what he is now.” But why suppose that God creating or not creating Smokey makes for any difference in God? To suppose that it might would be to think of God as a spatio-temporal individual who is modified as he lives his life and makes these choices rather than those choices.

If Aquinas’s approach to the notion of creation is right, however, to think of God in that way is just not to think of God. For, so Aquinas would say (and here note the following negations), God is not part of space and time, is not (in a serious sense) an individual, and does not live a life consisting of many changes.

Given arguments of Aquinas that I have noted above, it seems to me that Aquinas would be right to say all this, and that it suffices as a response to the claim that God’s freedom to create, and his freedom to create what does not actually exist, entails that God cannot he said to be what he changelessly is (as the doctrine of divine simplicity says that he can). If we had lived our lives differently, then we would be different from what we are now. But why suppose that the Creator of the universe is something with a life history which could have taken a different course?

Overall Conclusion To Simplicity Posts

In David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Demea says to Cleanthes that he would rather he a “mystic” than an “anthropomorphite.” Cleanthes insists on thinking of God as very much like a human being. Demea resists this approach and, at one point, takes it to be incompatible with “that perfect immutability and simplicity, which all true theists ascribe to the Deity.” [David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1947), 159]

It seems obvious to me that in this debate Aquinas would have sided with Demea against Cleanthes, for (like other classical defenders of the doctrine of divine simplicity) Aquinas thinks that, if there is a God who creates, if there is one who makes to be all that exists (apart from itself), one who exists by nature, then there have to be radical differences between God and creatures, some of which Aquinas tries to document when teaching that God is simple. Aquinas reasons that we cannot think of God as being something material and changeable. We cannot think of him as being one of a kind of which there could he others. And we cannot think of him as owing his existence to anything.

One might resist these conclusions (which, I repeat, do not amount to a “description” of God) by appealing to what the Bible says. After all, it sometimes speaks of God as though he were a material individual belonging to some kind (a father, a husband who has been cheated on, a woman in labor, a judge, and so on). Medieval theologians always take such ways of speaking to be exercises in metaphor. Many contemporary theologians would agree with them, though many of them do not. Many of them (the dissenters here) deny that God is simple in the sense that Aquinas thinks that he is. Why so?

Could it he that they are mesmerized by the formula “God is a person”? I suspect that many of them are, and that by God is a person they mean that God is an invisible being (like Descartes’s “I”), very like a human one, though lacking a body. If that is what they do mean, however, they are seriously out of step with what might be called the traditional Jewish/Islamic/Christian concept of God.

If that is what they mean, perhaps we might also ask them if there is any reason at all to believe that God exists? You and I, corporeal things, things the essence of which does not guarantee our existence, things able to change in various ways as time goes on, things with attributes that come and go, are all, surely, things which raise the question, “And how come they exist at all?” The doctrine of divine simplicity is part of a complicated answer to this question.


Simplicity — Brian Davies

July 16, 2013
Aquinas denies that God and his nature can be thought of as distinct. It is very important to bear all of this in mind if one's aim is to understand Aquinas on simplicity, for what his teaching amounts to is what might he called an exercise in negative theology. It is not concerned to paint a portrait of God. Its aim is to put up "No Entry" signs in front of certain roads into which we might turn when trying to think about God.

Aquinas denies that God and his nature can be thought of as distinct. It is very important to bear all of this in mind if one’s aim is to understand Aquinas on simplicity, for what his teaching amounts to is what might he called an exercise in negative theology. It is not concerned to paint a portrait of God. Its aim is to put up “No Entry” signs in front of certain roads into which we might turn when trying to think about God.

That God is entirely simple is a teaching that has been reiterated by generations of Christians. It is found in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas. It was formally ratified by the Fourth Lateran Council and the First Vatican Council. [For the conciliar texts, see Norman P. Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (London and Georgetown, VA: Georgetown University Press, 1990), I: 230 and II:805.]

No historian of Christianity can plausibly deny that it has featured significantly in Christian discourse. Yet, recently, some Christian (and some non-Christian) analytic philosophers who have turned to the claim that God is simple have rejected it. Are they right to do so? I shall shortly suggest that they are not.

To start with, however, I need to explain what the doctrine of divine simplicity amounts to, and I shall do so by focusing on the way it is presented in the work of its most systematic defender – Thomas Aquinas. [For an account of Maimonides and Avicenna on divine simplicity, see David B. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986) and David B. Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993). For Augustine on divine simplicity, see The City of God, XI, 10; Confessions I, vi, to and XIII, iii, 4. For Anselm on divine simplicity, see Monologion, 17 and Proslogion, 18.]

Aquinas On Simplicity
Preliminaries –
When it comes to divine simplicity, thinks Aquinas, everything hinges on the notion of God as Creator. What should we mean by saying that there is a God who creates? Some would reply that we should only take ourselves to be saying that something or other got the universe started. Though he believes that the universe had a beginning brought about by God, however, Aquinas also thinks that for God to create is to make something exist for as long as it exists.

In his language, God is the cause of the esse (existence/being) of things. For Aquinas, to speak of God as Creator is to speak of him as causally responsible for the sheer existence of anything other than himself. As he puts it in one place: “Among all effects, the most universal is being itself. Hence, it must be the proper effect of the first and most universal cause, which is God.” [Brian Davies and Brian Leftow, eds., Summa Theologiae (henceforth ST) Questions on God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, zoo6), ia,45,5.]

Why does Aquinas think this? Because he finds it hard to believe that

(a) something which does not exist by nature has to exist, and
(b) it is in the nature of anything in the universe to exist.

For him, the fundamental reason for supposing that there is a God lies in what he calls the distinction in creatures of essence (essentia) and existence (esse).

Here one needs to be careful to distinguish Aquinas’s position from the familiar (and perfectly plausible) suggestion that one can understand what a noun means without knowing that there is anything that can be truly named by it. I can understand, say, what “wizard” means without it following that there are any wizards. Dictionaries tell us that a wizard is someone skilled in magic. But we cannot define wizards into existence on the basis of dictionary definitions. Aquinas would not deny this. He would, however, go on to suggest that knowing what something real is does not come with a knowledge that the thing has to exist.

My cat Smokey is not a definition. He is an actual cat, a thing of a certain kind, a thing with a distinct nature or essence (a nature or essence different from that of any dog or fish or strawberry). But does a knowledge of what Smokey is by nature or essence come with a knowledge that he exists? Aquinas thinks not. His line is that what the greatest experts on cats know about what it is to he feline does not allow them to conclude that Smokey exists.

So he would say that Smokey does not exist by nature, or that his existing (his having esse) does not follow from what he is by nature (if it did, then Smokey would have always existed). And he would say the same of anything that is part of the universe. If Smokey’s existing as a cat does not follow from what he is, to say that he might not exist (that is, might not be existing, might not be continuing to exist) is to say that he continually stands over and against the possibility of not existing. In that case, however, what accounts for him being something? And what accounts for there being anything, any universe, rather than nothing?

Obviously, it makes no sense to suppose that there is a mode of being called “being nothing” that something could possess. Yet if everything in the universe is such that its essence or nature does not guarantee its existence, then there might have been/might he no universe at all. Or so Aquinas thinks. For him, it makes sense to suppose that there might be or have been nothing that we could recognize as a world.

According to Aquinas, we ought to raise causal questions until it no longer makes sense to do so. So, he holds, we ought to ask (the sensible question) how come there is any universe at all. This, he argues, is where God comes in. According to Aquinas, God, as Creator, is the cause of the existence of everything that does not exist by essence or nature.

In that case, however, what account can we give of God’s nature? We can give an account of what Smokey is by nature since we can single him out as part of the universe and note how he resembles and differs from other things in it. In other words, we can give a scientific account of what Smokey is. But how can there be a science when it comes to what accounts for the sheer existence of the universe? It would seem that there can be no such thing. A scientific account of what something is would place it squarely within the universe.

Aquinas is very much aware of this fact, so, having argued that God must exist as the cause of the esse of creatures, Aquinas regularly goes on to say that we cannot know what God is. “Having recognized that something exists,” he writes, “we still have to investigate the way in which it exists. But we cannot know what God is, only what he is not. We must therefore consider the ways in which God does not exist rather than the ways in which he does.” [ST, 1a, introduction to Question 3. I quote from Brian Davies and Brian Leftow, eds., Summa Theologiae Questions on God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2oo6), 28. Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, I,14.]

Aquinas does not mean that we can make no true propositions concerning God. He actually thinks that there are a number of propositions about God which we can know to be true (that, for example, God is perfect, good, infinite, omnipotent, eternal, and causally efficacious).

In saying that we cannot know what God is, he means that we cannot have a scientific knowledge of what God is, that we cannot single him out as a member of the universe and then go on to document what he is as a thing of some kind rather than another. We can, thinks Aquinas, know what Smokey is. Not so, however, when it comes to God. With this thought in mind, Aquinas’s development of the doctrine of divine simplicity leaves the runway and begins to take off.

Details – To start with, says Aquinas, if God accounts for the being of the universe, then he cannot be something bodily. Why not? One answer Aquinas gives is: (a) anything bodily can undergo change (if only by being broken up somehow); (b) change derives from something causing it, while God is the cause of the being of everything other than himself (and, therefore, of all change or coming to bed.. [Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, 3,1. For a more developed defense of the claim that God cannot be a body, see Sumrna Contra Gentiles, I,20.]

For Aquinas, God cannot be something now in such and such a state but able to be in a different state later. Again, argues Aquinas, God cannot be a physical object since no such object can intelligibly be thought of as causing the being and goodness of everything other than itself (as Aquinas takes God to do when accounting for things existing or having esse). [Cf. Summa Theologiae, 1a, 3,1]

If God is not part of the material world, however, then there is something else that he cannot be, Aquinas says. For, not being material, God cannot, thinks Aquinas, be thought of as being an individual belonging to a class of which there could be many different members.

Smokey is such an individual, and he would be so even if he were the last cat alive. But what is it about Smokey that allows us to think of him in this way? What makes him the particular cat he is rather than some other particular cat? What, if you like, accounts for the fact that when another cat meets Smokey there are two cats as opposed to one cat?

Let’s call the other cat Felix. When Smokey and Felix get together, we have two cats, two individuals of a particular kind (two felines). Now, in seeking to explain why we have two cats here, not one cat, we obviously cannot note what they are by nature (by, as Aquinas would say, noting what they are essentially). For they are identical on that score. Smokey is a cat, and so is Felix. Their feline nature is something they share or have in common, so it cannot distinguish them from each other.

One might be tempted to say that Smokey and Felix are different from each other since they differ in appearance or location or something like that (differ, Aquinas would say, accidentally rather than substantially). So one might suggest that Smokey and Felix are distinct since, for example, Smokey is gray whereas Felix is black and white, or since Smokey is sitting on a chair while Felix is sitting on a rug. This suggestion, however, simply presupposes that Smokey and Felix are different from each other (that we are dealing with two cats rather than one). Smokey and Felix cannot differ in the respects now in question unless they are already distinct to begin with.

With these thoughts in mind, Aquinas argues that the numerical difference between Smokey and Felix cannot be put into words. It is, he thinks, a matter of material (as opposed to formal) difference — of Smokey being this material object and of Felix being that one.

Yet if God is not a body, Aquinas goes on to argue, we cannot get a purchase on the notion of him being one of a kind; we cannot take God to be something distinct from what he is by nature. God, says Aquinas, is what his nature is; God and whatever his nature is cannot be thought of as distinct; there is in God no distinction between suppositum and natura.[ By suppositum Aquinas means what, I suppose, we would call "individuality" when saying, for example, that the individuality of Socrates is unique to Socrates, that Socrates is one individually existing thing and not another.]

The individuality of things not composed of matter and form,” Aquinas reasons, “cannot derive from this or that individual matter. So, the forms of such things must be intrinsically individual and themselves subsist as things. Such things are therefore identical with their natures.” [SummaTheologiae, 1a, 3,3 (Davies and Leftow, p. 34). "Form" is the word Aquinas typically uses when thinking of what something can be said to be. He distinguishes between substantial forms and accidental forms.

To say what something's substantial form is would, he thinks, be to say what it is by nature (e.g., a cat). To say what something's accidental forms are, he thinks, would be to say what something is without having to be like this given what the thing is by nature. My being a human being does not mean that I have to weigh 140 lbs or be sitting at a desk. My weighing 140 lbs or sitting at a desk would, in Aquinas's language, be accidental forms that I possess.]

As it happens, Aquinas does not believe that God is the only nonmaterial thing (the only “spiritual substance,” as he sometimes says). As well as believing that God exists, Aquinas believes in angels. So he concludes that angels, also, are not to be thought of as different from what they are by nature. For Aquinas, on the individual/nature front, angels are just like God. On another front, however, they differ dramatically, or so Aquinas thinks. For, and this is the final element in his doctrine of divine simplicity, in God (and in nothing else) there is no distinction of essence (essentia) and existence (esse). God, says Aquinas, “is not only his own essence, but also his own existence.” [Summa Theologiae, Ia,3,4.]

The basic point Aquinas is making here is that God’s existing is not an effect, not something brought about by something else; that God’s existing is uncaused, that it is not something created. As we saw earlier, Aquinas wants to ask why anything exists at all, and his answer appeals to what causes everything else to exist without itself being caused to exist.

Now can we think of such a cause as acquiring existence in some way? Hardly. So how should we think of it? Aquinas’s answer is that we should think of it as something existing by nature, as something the nature of which is to exist, as something with respect to which there is no distinction of nature and existence (as there is, say, with Smokey).

Summary – In short, Aquinas’s development of the claim that God is simple amounts to three positions:

(1) God is not something changeable;
(2) God, in one sense, is not an individual;
(3 God is not created or made to exist.

This, of course, means that Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity is not offered as a description of God, or as an attempt to suggest that God has an attribute or property of simplicity. It is not a description since (in keeping with Aquinas’s promise to note ways in which God does not exist) it consists entirely of negations, of attempts to say what God cannot be. It also is not ascribing simplicity to God as an attribute or property since it explicitly denies that, in a serious sense, God has any attributes or properties. Normally, attributes or properties can be distinguished from the things that possess them.

Yet, as we have seen, Aquinas denies that God and his nature can be thought of as distinct. It is very important to bear all of this in mind if one’s aim is to understand Aquinas on simplicity, for what his teaching amounts to is what might he called an exercise in negative theology. It is not concerned to paint a portrait of God. Its aim is to put up “No Entry” signs in front of certain roads into which we might turn when trying to think about God.

It has been said that error in philosophy largely consists in exploring in minute detail aspects of a path one should never have turned into in the first place. Aquinas, we might say, is concerned to warn theologians away from comparable explorations. Whatever we ask, think, or say about God, he believes, we should never start from the supposition that God is something material and changeable, an instance of a kind, or something that owes its existence to anything.


Aquinas Proves Atheists Are Closer To God Than They Think

February 14, 2011

A Rublev Icon

I was zipping about the web recently and came across this little piece written back in 2007 by Brian Davies. I’ve been reading a lot of his stuff recently and preparing several pieces for posting on Paying Attention to the Sky. This is pithy and gives the atheists something to think about, which, God only knows, the poor souls need.

Brian Davies is an English Dominican. He is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, New York.


Atheists make a great fuss about how God does not exist. This claim, they think, is at odds with what those who believe in God hold. But is it? What kind of God do the atheists have in mind? And can someone who believes in God not actually feel happy to say that God does not exist?

Ordinarily, of course, we think that something either exists or does not exist. So we say that the Eiffel Tower exists while the Colossus of Rhodes does not. And if, like some, we presume that belief in God is a scientific hypothesis, or that God is a top, invisible person, a celestial consciousness (with or without a beard) living alongside the Universe in time while learning about it from on high, then, presumably, He, too, either exists or does not exist, just like you and I. But there are other, and more traditional, ways of thinking about God.

Take, for example, what we find in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. He never thought of God as an entity seriously comparable to what we find in the Universe. He took God to be the cause of everything real and imaginable to us, the cause of all natural kinds and their members, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. Aquinas, of course, realized that when we talk of God we are forced to make use of words we have come up with to name and describe what we find in the world in which we live.

And since he took people to be higher forms of being than anything else around us, he naturally ascribed to God what we most value in ourselves — such as intelligence. But Aquinas was equally keen to emphasize that God is not a creature, not a member of the world, not a being among beings, not, in this sense, an existing thing. God, he says, “is to be thought of as existing outside the realm of existents, as a cause from which pours forth everything that exists in all its variant forms”. For Aquinas, there is a serious sense in which it is true to assert that God does not exist. He would readily have agreed with Kierkegaard’s statement: “God does not exist, he is eternal.”

Or we can put it another way. There is a sense in which Aquinas holds that only God really exists. Creatures are there, right enough, but, for Aquinas, their being is derived or dependent. All that they are and do is God’s work in them. They have no reality from themselves. Creatures are temporal, finite, and caused to exist, while God is none of these things. Aquinas puts all this by saying that God’s existing does not differ from his substance, that God, and only God, exists by nature, that God is “subsistent being” while everything else “has” being — has it as given to it. You can find a similar line of thinking coming from St Anselm of Canterbury. God, he declares, is “the being who exists in a strict and absolute sense” since with Him there is nothing temporal and nothing received.

Traditionally speaking, therefore, it makes sense to say both that God does not exist and that only God exists, which means we should be careful when it comes to what we mean when we declare ourselves atheists or not. And there is surely a further sense in which all Jews, Muslims, and Christians can be thought of as atheists. For they do not believe there are any gods. They believe there is a Creator of all things visible and invisible, not that there is a class of gods to which the Creator belongs.

The first of the Ten Commandments tells us to have no gods. It effectively tells us to be atheists, to stop being interested in extremely powerful creatures and to focus instead on the unfathomable mystery behind and within the world that we can, to some extent, fathom. God the maker of all things cannot be a part of what He brings forth. He belongs to no category. He is not a god. There are no gods.

Seems you folks were right all along. My apologies;-)


Aquinas on Being Human – Dr. Brian Davies, O.P.

February 11, 2011

The window above from the former Dominican priory chapel at Hawkesyard depicts the link between the Annunciation, the Cross and the Trinitarian life.

Brian Davies says in his book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas that writing about Aquinas always puts you in between two things because of his marvelous consistency, what he is saying about something affects what he is saying about something else – so the author is constantly using phrases as “We shall see…” or “As we have seen…”

We catch Dr. Davies in this midswim before he reflects on Aquinas notions of the human being. I could have cut it but it struck me as a good example of what the student of Aquinas is dealing with when he approaches him piecemeal (which we can’t help but do, I guess).

Studying Aquinas is a life-long pursuit. I’m happy I came to him on my own volition because the groans I’ve heard from students who haven’t more than demonstrate the dangers of the forced feeding that seems to go on in our Catholic seminaries and schools. Davies book is excellent BTW and I’m going to make the library copy I’m using now into a purchase at Amazon. And, no, I’m not going to buy if for $47 or whatever. Something nutty happens on Amazon when the publisher is running out of copies. I saw the hardcover for an Ed Feser book selling for $95 once. Look for the paperback or the used editions.

IN THE LAST CHAPTER I was trying to indicate what Aquinas says about the Trinity considered in itself. In the jargon of modern theology, I was concerned with his teaching on the `immanent Trinity’. But Aquinas also believes that the `immanent Trinity’ is the `economic trinity’. This thesis that `the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity’ is something of a commonplace in modern discussions of the Trinity. [See John J. O'Donnell, SJ, The Mystery of the Triune God London, 1988, 36 f.] The God we experience in creation is fully God as God is outside of creation. “God for Us” = “God in Godself” This can be contrasted with Eastern Christianity where the God we experience in creation is not fully God as God is outside of Creation. There is more to God than what we experience in creation. “God in Godself” is more than “God for Us”

As readers of Aquinas will discover, it is not a new thesis. For he thinks that God both acts in the world and is present in it. Aquinas also believes in the Incarnation and the sending of the Spirit. So he says that we can speak, not just of processions in God, but also of sending or missions. The Son and the Spirit are sent. We are dealing here, says Aquinas, `with a new way of being present somewhere’ (Ia.43.1). The Son comes to be present in a new way by virtue of the Incarnation. The Spirit comes to be present by virtue of the life of Christ and its consequences. These missions are entirely temporal – they have to do with what has happened in the history of the world. That is why he holds that the Trinity matters to us. He does not see the doctrine of the Trinity as a complicated exercise in speculative celestial physics. He thinks of it as a wonderful truth which is full of implications for people. For he believes that the ‘Trinity is `economic’ in and for humanity, and that its significance lies in the fact that we may come to share in its life.

Before we can appreciate why Aquinas thinks this, however, we will need to look further at his understanding of people. We have already seen something of what that amounts to, but the picture that has so far emerged still needs to be added to. Aquinas maintains that we share in the life of the Trinity as human beings, and to grasp the implications of that notion we must first know what he thinks human beings are.

Me and My Body
Aquinas obviously thinks of people as created, and as part of a world held in existence by God. Because he thinks of them as having intellect and will, he also thinks of them as being in the image of God, to whom intellect and will can also be ascribed. But properly to grasp what Aquinas thinks people are, as well as to give his understanding a context, it will help if we bear in mind two major views representing opposite ends of the spectrum of opinion concerning the nature of people. The first is Dualism. The second is Physicalism.’

By `Dualism’ I mean the very influential theory classically expounded by Descartes in texts such as his Meditations on First Philosophy and still advocated by some philosophers. According to Descartes, people are composed of two distinct kinds of stuff: mental stuff and physical stuff, mind and body. These are connected and able to influence each other, but mind is radically distinct from body, and persons are identical with their minds, not their bodies. The real me is not my body; it is my mind, or, as Descartes sometimes says, my `soul’.

My essence consists solely in the fact that I am a thinking thing. It is true that I may have (or, to anticipate, that I certainly have) a body that is very closely joined to me. But nevertheless, on the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing; and on the other I have a clear and distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body and can exist without it.
The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. John. Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, 1985), ii. 54.

Physicalism is really just the opposite of Descartes’ position. It holds that people are made up of one kind of stuff — matter of body — and that this includes all that we might call `mind’ or `mental states and processes’. A version of Physicalism is the so-called `Identity Theory’, which holds that mind and body are identical in that mental events or states are nothing but brain processes under another name. According to the Identity Theory, persons are identical with a set of physical states or events just as lightning is identical with electrical discharge, or just as the Morning Star is identical with the Evening Star.’

With these theories in mind, as good a way as any of describing Aquinas’s position on what people amount to is to say that he adopts a position midway between the extremes of Dualism and Physicalism. He denies that people are essentially incorporeal. So he is not a Dualist. But neither does he think that people are nothing but collections of physical processes. So he is not a Physicalist either. For him, people are composite individuals.

Aquinas’s teaching on the nature of the human person is close to that of Aristotle’s De anima. Aristotle thought that people are not two things, mind and body, but complex unities both mental and physical. Those who think of people as made up of two things often speak of them as being composed of body plus soul. Aristotle, however, rejects this way of talking. For him, people are ensouled bodies. `We can’, he says, `wholly dismiss as unnecessary the question whether the body and soul are one: it is as meaningless as to ask whether the wax and the shape given to it by the stamp are one.

And such is Aquinas’s position. He agrees that we can speak about people by means of the words `soul’ and `body’. But he does not think of people as bodies plus souls. He holds that we are mental/physical units, where ‘mental’ and `physical’ are not simply reducible to each other. He says that a human being is `a compound whose substance is both spiritual and corporeal’. He thinks that to speak of us having souls is dust to assert that we are substances of that kind.

In the Latin of Aquinas, the word translated as `soul’ is anima, which means `that which animates’ or `that which gives life’. When he speaks of `soul’, therefore, Aquinas means something like `principle of life’. `Inquiry into the nature of the soul’, he writes, `presupposes an understanding of the soul as the root principle of life in living things within our experience. According to him, anything alive has a soul. And his view is that people are bodies of a certain kind, bodies with a certain kind of life (soul). Commenting on Aristotle, therefore, he explains:

There had been much uncertainty about the way the soul and body are conjoined. Some had supposed a sort of medium connecting the two together by a sort of bond. But the difficulty can be set aside now that it has been shown that the soul is the form of the body. As Aristotle says, there is no more reason to ask whether soul and body make one thing than to ask the same about the wax and the impression sealed on it, or about any other matter and its form. For, as is shown in the Metaphysics, Book VIII, form is directly related to matter as the actuality of matter; once matter actually is it is informed … Therefore, just as the body gets its being from the soul, as from its form, so too it makes a unity with this soul to which it is immediately related.
In Aristotelis librum De anima commentarium 2.I.234

The key words here are `the soul is the form of the body’. By `form’, Aquinas means `substantial form’. In the passage just quoted, therefore, he is saying that in the case of living things (in the case of things with souls) the principle of life (the soul) is what we get as we get the things with all their essential features or characteristics. The soul, for him, is the form of the body in the sense that living bodies of certain kinds have a principle of life.

So people, for Aquinas, are living things of a certain kind. But what kind of things are they? They are, says Aquinas, animals — living creatures of flesh and blood, things more like dogs and cats than sticks and stones. This means that much that is true of non-human animals is also true of people. They are, for instance, capable of physical movement. And they have biological characteristics. They have the capacity to grow and reproduce. They have the need and capacity to eat. These characteristics are not, for Aquinas, optional extras which people can take up and discard. They are essential elements in the make-up of a human being. And they are very much bound up with what is physical or material.

This line of thinking, of course, immediately sets Aquinas apart from writers like Descartes. Descartes maintains that I am my mind and that my body is something I have or something to which I am connected. For Aquinas, however, my body is not to be distinguished from me in this way.

For as it belongs to the very conception of `this human being’ that there should be this soul, flesh and bone, so it belongs to the very conception of `human being’ that there be soul, flesh and bone. For the substance of a species has to contain whatever belongs in general to every one of the individuals comprising that species.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.4

At several points in his writings Aquinas directly refers to the thesis that people are essentially substances different from bodies on which they act (a view which he ascribes to Plato). But he rejects it quite strongly.

Plato and his followers asserted that the intellectual soul is not united to the body as form to matter, but only as mover to movable, for Plato said that the soul is in the body `as a sailor in a ship’. Thus the union of soul and body would only be by contact of power. . . But this doctrine seems not to fit the facts.
Summa contra gentiles, 2.57

In Aquinas’ view, if our souls moved our bodies as sailors move ships, our souls and our bodies would be distinct things and could not make up one thing distinct in its own right. We would be an amalgam or a collection of things rather than a unity. He adds that if we are souls using bodies, then we are essentially immaterial, which is not the case. We are `sensible and natural realities’ and cannot, therefore, be essentially immaterial.

So Aquinas is clearly not a dualist. But nor is he what I have called a `physicalist’. For, according to him, people (unlike other animals) have intellect (or understanding) and will, which means that they are rational animals able to comprehend, think, love, and choose. From what we have just seen, it will be evident that Aquinas takes the human body to be an essential element in human life. He thinks that being a human person is being a bodily animal. But he also holds that understanding and willing are not physical processes. And this leads him, without espousing Descartes’ position, to speak of people as having both soul and body. It also leads him to hold that the soul can survive the death of the body.

Soul and Body
I say that Aquinas speaks of people as having both soul and body, and this might seem puzzling since I have also said that he does not believe that people are two distinct things: soul and body. But, though he denies that they are two distinct things, he still feels obliged to distinguish between what is true of people and what is true of bodies. That is because he holds that the human soul cannot he something corporeal, though it must be something subsisting.

In arguing for the non-corporeal nature of the human soul, Aquinas begins by reminding us what anima means — i.e. `that which makes living things live’. And, with that understanding in mind, he contends that soul cannot be something bodily. There must, he says, be some principle of life which distinguishes living things from non-living things, and this cannot be a body. Why not? Because, Aquinas continues, if it were a body it would follow that any material thing would be living, which is simply not the case. A body, therefore, is alive not just because it is a body. It is alive because of a principle of life which is not a body.

It is obvious that not every principle of vital activity is a soul. Otherwise the eye would he a soul, since it is a principle of sight; and so with the other organs of the soul. What we call the soul is the root principle of life. Now though something corporeal can be some sort of principle of life, as the heart is for animals, nevertheless a body cannot be the root principle of life. For it is obvious that to be the principle of life, or that which is alive, does not belong to any bodily thing from the mere fact of its being a body; otherwise every bodily thing would be alive or a life-source. Consequently any particular body that is alive, or even indeed a source of life, is so from being a body of such-and-such a kind. Now whatever is actually such, as distinct from not-such, has this from some principle which we call its actuating principle. Therefore a soul, as the primary principle of life, is not a body but that which actuates a body.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.1

In other words, the difference between, say, me and my pen is that I am not just a body. I am a living body. And that which makes me this cannot itself be a body since, if bodily things are alive just by being bodies, then all bodies would be alive, including my pen.

But why say that the human soul is something subsisting? The main point made by Aquinas in reply to this question is that the human animal has powers or functions which are not simply bodily, even though they depend on bodily ones. Aquinas maintains that knowledge comes about as the forms of things are received immaterially. When Fred has knowledge, there is more to Fred than what can be seen, touched, weighed, and so on. As Aquinas puts it, there is intellect or intellectual life, and it is by virtue of this that Fred is the kind of thing he is (a rational animal). Aquinas calls this `that by virtue of which Fred is the kind of thing he is’ Fred’s `soul’. So he can say that Fred is bodily but also that Fred is (or has) both body and soul. The two cannot be torn apart in any way that would leave Fred intact. But they can be distinguished from each other, and the soul of Fred can therefore be thought of as something subsisting immaterially.

The principle of the act of understanding, which is called the human soul, must of necessity be some kind of incorporeal and subsistent principle. For it is obvious that the understanding of people enables them to know the natures of all bodily things. But what can in this way take in things must have nothing of their nature in its own, for the form that was in it by nature would obstruct knowledge of anything else. For example, we observe how the tongue of someone sick with fever and bitter infection cannot perceive anything sweet, for everything tastes sour. Accordingly, if the intellectual principle had in it the physical nature of any bodily thing, it would be unable to know all bodies. Each of them has its own determinate nature. Impossible, therefore, that the principle of understanding be something bodily. And in the same way it is impossible for it to understand through and in a bodily organ, for the determinate nature of that bodily organ would prevent knowledge of all bodies. Thus if you had a color filter over the eye, and had a glass vessel of the same color, it would not matter what you poured into the glass, it would always appear the same color. The principle of understanding, therefore, which is called mind or intellect, has its own activity in which body takes no intrinsic part. But nothing can act of itself unless it subsists in its own right. For only what actually exists acts, and its manner of acting follows its manner of being. So it is that we do not say that heat heats, but that something hot heats. Consequently the human soul, which is called an intellect or mind, is something incorporeal and subsisting.
Summa theologiae Ia 75.2

Aquinas does not mean that the human soul is a distinct thing in its own right. His notion that it subsists does not entail that it is a complete and self-contained entity, as, for example, Descartes thought the soul to be. For Aquinas, my human soul subsists because I have an intellectual life which cannot be reduced to what is simply bodily. It does not subsist as something with its own life apart from me, any more than my left hand does, or my right eye. Both of these can be spoken of as things, but they are really parts of me. We do not say `My left hand feels’ or `My right eve sees'; rather we say `I feel with my left hand’ and `I see with my right eye’. And Aquinas thinks that something similar should be said about my soul. I have intellect and will by my soul. But it is not my soul which understands and wills. I do.

We might add that there is a further significant aspect of Aquinas’ thinking which distinguishes him from Descartes and the kind of dualism represented by him. According to Descartes (and to many of his philosophical successors) there is a problem when it comes to knowing the material world, but none when it comes to knowing the self. On his account, I know myself better than anything else. And I know myself as something non-bodily, as mind distinct from body, as a spiritual, non-material substance. This I do by introspection. The Cartesian view of persons typically lays stress on the importance of self-consciousness. According to Aquinas, however, there is no such thing as direct human self-knowledge, where the object known is something incorporeal. His view is that we come to knowledge of things as we encounter material objects and receive forms intentionally. And one of the things he takes this to mean is that we come to self-knowledge as (so to speak) we live a bodily life.

Since it is connatural for our intellect in the present life to look to material, sensible things, as said before, it follows that our intellect understands itself according as it is made actual by species abstracted from sensible realities by the light of the agent intellect.
Summa theologiae Ia 87.1

We come to know ourselves as we come to know about other things — by abstracting from sense experience. Or, in Aquinas’s words: `While the soul is joined to the body it understands by turning to sense images; it cannot even understand itself except in that it comes to be actually understanding through a species abstracted from sense images. (Summa theologiae Ia 98.2)

This, of course, entails that there will be considerable room for error when it comes to understanding what a person is. On Descartes’ model, persons are directly present to themselves and there is no room for error concerning what they arc. Just as I can look at a red patch and describe it accurately by gazing on it and describing what I see, so I can gaze on my (incorporeal) self and state what I see. For Aquinas, however, knowing what people are is the fruit of research. We have to learn what we are.

`Mere presence,’ he writes, ‘is not sufficient, and a diligent, subtle inquiry is needed. Many, for this reason, are simply ignorant of the soul’s nature and many are positively mistaken about it’
Summa theologiae Ia 87.1


Talking About God – Brian Davies

February 3, 2011

Professor Brian Davies

In our last post Professor Davies was discussing verification and falsification as it pertained to God. After disposing of a few arguments he asked, well, if we are to speak of God, HOW do we speak of God. He continues on:

‘I love you’, says the lady. ‘Do you really mean that?’, asks her boy friend. ‘No’, the lady replies. The boy friend is speechless, and not without reason. The lady seems to be saying nothing significant. What she gives with one hand she takes back with the other.

Some people have felt that those who believe in God are rather like the lady just referred to, and, in their view, this means that belief in God raises an insurmountable problem for anyone who supposes that one can reasonably be asked to look at any defense of the view that there actually is a God.

This problem derives from two facts. The first is that God is typically spoken of as if He could be compared with various things with which we are already familiar. The second is that God is typically said to be very different from anything that comes within the range of our experience. On the one hand, God is said to be, for example, good or wise. On the other, He is said to be unique in a very strong sense and our talk of Him, so it is said, fails to do Him justice. God is good, but not in the way that anything else is. God is wise, but not in the way that Solomon was wise.

Here, then, is the problem. If one says that God is very different from anything else, can one really talk significantly about Him at all? How can one say that God is good or wise but not in the sense that ordinary good and wise things are? Is there not a real dilemma here for those who believe in God? Are they not caught between the stools of meaninglessness and misrepresentation?

Negation And Analogy
Defenders of belief in God have not been unaware of the force of such questions and they have consequently tried to say how one can talk significantly about God without also misrepresenting Him. In particular they have frequently appealed to the importance of negation and analogy.

The appeal to negation is easy to understand and is best thought of as an attempt to prevent people from misrepresenting God. It emphasizes the unknowability of God and argues that though one can talk significantly about God one can only do so by saying what God is not. A notable advocate of negation is Maimonides (1135-1204), who writes as follows:

There is no necessity at all for you to use positive attributes of God with the view of magnifying Him in your thoughts … I will give you … some illustrations, in order that you may better understand the propriety of forming as many negative attributes as possible, and the impropriety of ascribing to God any positive attributes. A person may know for certain that a `ship’ is in existence, but he may not know to what object that name is applied, whether to a substance or to an accident; a second person then learns that a ship is not an accident; a third, that it is not a mineral; a fourth, that it is not a plant growing in the earth; a fifth, that it is not a body whose parts are joined together by nature; a sixth, that it is not a flat object like boards or doors; a seventh, that it is not a sphere; an eighth, that it is not pointed; a ninth, that it is not round shaped; nor equilateral; a tenth, that it is not solid. It is clear that this tenth person has almost arrived at the correct notion of a `ship’ by the foregoing negative attributes…. In the same manner you will come nearer to the knowledge and comprehension of God by the negative attributes… I do not merely declare that he who affirms attributes of God has not sufficient knowledge concerning the Creator … but I say that he unconsciously loses his belief in God.’

So much, then, for the notion of talking about God by means of negation. Historically speaking, however, it is analogy that has most interested those who agree that even a unique God can be spoken about significantly. In this connection it is even possible to speak about `the theory of analogy’. In order to say what that is, it will help if I go back to the problem with which we started and introduce some new terminology.

It seems that words applied to God cannot bear exactly the same senses when they are applied to God and to creatures. But must there not be something similar said when, for example, it is said both that some man is good and that God is good? To put it another way, can one only apply a word to God and to other things either univocally or equivocally? To apply a word univocally to two things is to say that they are exactly the same in some respect, that the word means the same in both its applications. Thus I might say that Paris and Rome are both cities, and here I would be using the word `city’ univocally. To apply words equivocally, however, is to use the same words in completely different senses. We would be using the word `bat’ equivocally if we used it to refer both to the little furry mammals and to the things used by cricketers.

Now according to the theory of analogy, there is a third way of applying the same word to different things, and this fact is important when we are thinking about the way in which one may talk about God. The idea is that one can use words analogically. The analogical use of words is supposed to lie somewhere between the univocal and the equivocal.

We can see the theory of analogy classically applied to God in the work until Thomas Aquinas (1224/5 – 1274) who explicitly raises the question, `Are words used univocally or equivocally of God and creatures?’ His answer runs as follows.

The same term cannot be applied to God and creatures univocally. When, for example, we call creatures ‘wise’ we are saying that they possess a certain attribute. And when we say this we have to allow that the attribute in question is distinct from other attributes and even from the fact of there being anything to possess it. In the case of God, however, we cannot distinguish his attributes from each other; nor can we distinguish them from his very existence (in Aquinas’s language, from his esse). So we have to agree that when an attribute is ascribed to God, when it is said, for example, ‘God is wise’, what the attribute word ‘signifies in God is not confined to the meaning of our word but goes beyond it. Hence it is clear that the word “wise” is not used in the same sense of God and man, and the same is true of all other words, so they cannot be used univocally of God and creatures.

On the other hand, words applied to God cannot always be used equivocally. As Aquinas puts it, if we always used words equivocally when talking about God, ‘we could never argue from statements about creatures to statements about God.’

Aquinas thus concludes that ‘words are used of God and creatures in an analogical way.’ Here Aquinas distinguishes two kinds of analogical language. On the one hand, we can apply a word, W, to two things, A and B, because of some relationship in which A and B stand to some other thing to which we can also apply W. Thus we can call a diet and a complexion ‘healthy’, and we can call a man ‘healthy’. The diet is healthy because it causes a man to be healthy; the complexion is healthy because it is a symptom of health. We can also apply the same word to two things because they have some relation to each other. Thus we can call a diet and a man ‘healthy’ because the diet causes the man to be healthy. In the case of God, Aquinas concludes, terms are applied analogically because of some relation between God and creatures. And the relation which Aquinas has in mind is causal. Perfections that creatures have can be said to exist in God in that He is the cause of creatures.

In this way some words are used neither univocally nor purely equivocally  of God and creatures, but analogically, for we cannot speak of God at all except in the language we use of creatures, and so whatever is said both of God and creatures is said in virtue of the order that creatures have to God as to their source and cause in which all perfections of things pre-exist transcendently.

Negation, Analogy And God
What, then, shall we say of all this? Does the appeal to negation and analogy serve to allay the doubt that reasons for belief in God are just not worth looking at? Given the way that people talk of God, is the question of His existence a real non-starter? Are writers like Maimonides and Aquinas simply wasting our time?

In fairness to Maimonides and to those who agree with him it ought at least to be said that talking of God by means of negation has some justification once one reflects on the way in which God has been understood within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. God has regularly been thought of as the Creator, as the source of all things. As Aquinas puts it, `The word “God” signifies the divine nature: it is used to mean something that is above all that is, and that is the source of all things and is distinct from them all. This is how those that use it mean it to be used.’
To talk of God can readily be regarded as to talk about whatever it is that all particular beings depend on in so far as they exist, in so far as they are there rather than not there, in so far, indeed, as there is anywhere for them to be. And this point, which is certainly obscure, also seems important. For once we agree that God is the source of all things, it seems plausible to conclude that he cannot himself be a thing and that saying that God is not this and not that is the only alternative open to us if we are not to talk out-and-out nonsense about God. We cannot literally mean that the Creator is a this or a that.

But the position that one can talk significantly about God only by means of negations is still difficult to defend. Here there are at least two points to note:

The first concerns the claim that it is possible to approach some understanding of God simply by saying what God is not. Maimonides evidently thinks that this claim is true; but the reverse is the case. For only saying what something is not gives no indication of what it actually is, and if one can only say what God is not, one cannot understand Him at all. Suppose I say that there is something in my room, and suppose I reject every suggestion you make as to what is actually there. In that case, you will get no idea at all about what is in my room. Going back to the quotation from Maimonides above, it is simply unreasonable to say that someone who has all the negations mentioned in it `has almost arrived at the correct notion of a “ship”. He could equally well be thinking of a wardrobe.

The second point is that people who talk about God do not normally want to talk about Him only in negations. They usually want to say that some things are definitely true of him. It has been suggested that one can understand talk of God in such a way that it should always be construed as talk of something else. In this way it has been urged that what look like positive statements about God are really nothing of the kind. But this suggestion does not seem to square with a great deal that is said about God. When, for example, people who believe in God say that he is good, they normally mean that God really is good and not that something is true of some being other than God.

If a rigid reliance on negation is not without its drawbacks, the theory of analogy is more promising. For there is a lot to be said for the view that the same word can be applied to different things neither univocally nor equivocally. This point can be illustrated by quoting a useful passage at the beginning of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic Games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called “games” ‘ — but look and see whether there is anything common to them all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! — Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience…. And we can go through the Horny, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

What Wittgenstein brings out very clearly is that at least one word can significantly be used in different but related senses. And, following the clue offered by his example, we can quickly come to see that many words can significantly be used in this way. Take, for instance, ‘good’. You can have good food and good books, not to mention good people, good wine, and a good night’s sleep. Or again, there is Aquinas’s illustration, the word ‘healthy’. As Aquinas says, a man can be healthy, and so can a complexion or a diet. In saying that a man, a complexion, and a diet are healthy one is not saying that they are exactly alike in some respect. But nor is one saying that they are different as mammalian bats are different from wooden ones.

It seems wrong, then, to hold that the same words must always bear exactly the same meaning or be used on some occasions in ways that are non-significant and therefore that nobody can talk significantly about God since words applied to him do not mean exactly what they do when applied to other things. To put it another way, the problem raised at the beginning of this chapter is not obviously insurmountable; just because people do not apply words to God and to creatures either univocally or equivocally it does not follow that they cannot talk about God in any significant way. That is what the theory of analogy is basically saying, and in this it is surely right.

But we are still left with a difficulty. Even if we grant that the univocal/ equivocal distinction can be supplemented, we can still ask why particular words are used in talking about God and whether they are capable of being used significantly. We may accept that the word `game’ can be used to describe things which do not have a common feature, but we would also agree that not just anything can be called a game. Rescuing a drowning child is not a game; nor is performing a surgical operation. So there is still a general problem for talk about God. Some reason must be given for choosing the terms which are actually applied to God. This point is nicely put by Patrick Sherry who suggests that:

It is not just a matter of saying that there must be some grounds for ascribing perfections to God. We must also insist that if we ascribe the same terms to God and creatures, then there must be a connection between the relevant criteria of evidence and truth. Thus the grounds for ascribing terms like `love’, `father’, `exist’ and `life’ must bear some relationship to the grounds used for our normal everyday application of these terms. Similarly, even if `God created the world’ expresses a unique relationship, its truth conditions must bear some resemblance to our familiar uses of terms like `make’ or `depends on’ (which is not to say that we must expect to be able to verify the doctrine of Creation empirically here and now).

So the terms used in talking about God must be justified in some way if they are not to appear arbitrary and empty of meaning. But the question is, can they be? Aquinas, for example, thought that they can. He held that one can come to a knowledge of God and one can significantly apply to God words which apply to creatures because there is some positive reason for doing so. But is Aquinas right in adopting this position? Could anybody be right in adopting it?

At this stage in the discussion it is difficult to say, for we have not yet touched on any particular reasons for believing in God and affirming anything of him. For the moment, however, this does not matter. In this chapter we have been asking whether reasons for belief in God are even worth looking at in view of some things that are said of him. For all we have seen so far, the answer is Yes.

Even from what we have seen already, it should be clear enough that people who believe in God seem committed to thinking of Him as something decidedly out of the ordinary. Some would say that he is essentially mysterious. But does this mean that he could not exist? And does it mean that there could never be reasons for belief in God?

Affirmative answers have been offered to both these questions. It has been suggested that if God is really mysterious, then we cannot understand exactly what is being said when he is talked about, in which case it is nonsense to affirm his existence. It has also been said that if God is really mysterious, then it is pointless to try and find reasons for holding that he exists.

But these views are not very plausible. One does not have to know exactly what a word means in order to have some understanding of it or in order to use it significantly. I may not know what a volcano is exactly, but I can still talk sensibly about volcanoes. And I can reasonably say that Jones has malaria without being clear as to what exactly I am saying. In other words, I can wield words significantly without being able to define them. As Peter Geach puts it, `I certainly could not define either “oak-tree” or “elephant”; but this does not destroy my right to assert that no oak-tree is an elephant. This point does nothing to show that there is a God, but it does suggest that in order to speak meaningfully about God it is not necessary that one should understand exactly the import of one’s statements about him. It may not be possible to define God; one may not be able fully to comprehend him. But this does not mean that one cannot significantly talk about him; nor does it prevent one from asking whether he is there in the first place.


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