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.