On divine simplicity

The classical theist says that because God is simple, all of His properties are identical with each other and with His divinity.

The skeptic replies that this is not possible, because some divine properties, such as omnipotence, are essential, while others, such as being my creator and knowing it, are contingent.

The classical theist replies that only God’s real properties are identical, and His being my creator is only a Cambridge property.

Does this reply work?

Certainly that God is my creator is a Cambridge property; it’s really a fact about me, or about the relationship between the two of us.  But what about God’s willing to create me and knowing that He has done so?  Those seem to be internal properties of God, facts of the world distinct from that of my actual existence as a creature.

I think the debate over divine simplicity becomes clearer if we introduce the concept of a state.  The state of a system is its location in the space of its possible ways of being.  State space has a close connection to classical philosophy’s concept of potency.  Suppose I have a machine that can act on its environment in either of two ways.  How to explain that it is acting in one way rather than the other?  Usually by invoking the internal state of the machine.  It seems we are trying to do the same thing with God.  God could have created either world A or world B.  How to explain that God in fact created world A?  Because He is Himself in state God-A, which we call in plain English “having decided to create world A”.

Classical theists do not agree.  They say that God is pure act, so His state space is a single point.  Does that not destroy His ability to act contingently?  Only if the only way for God to perform a contingent act is to be in a contingent state.  Admittedly, this is the way we usually think about beings behaving in non-necessary ways, but I know of no logical requirement that it must be so.  Would God’s actions then be reduced to bare, unexplainable facts?  Perhaps, but introducing internal states into God doesn’t solve this problem.  Consider, how did God get into state God-A?  Perhaps He just is in that state.  But then we have the a brute fact just like before; we have only relocated it into God rather than into His contingent action.  Shall we say that God is in state God-A because He put Himself there?  That is to say, in a very literal sense, that God “made up His mind”?  But how did God perform this action, itself a contingent action?  If it is because of the contingent state He was in?  But this would be a circular explanation.  But if God can perform one contingent action not in virtue of being in a contingent state–making up His mind–then why not just drop the step of making up His mind and allow Him to create contingently without introducing internal states into the Godhead?

The skeptic might object that this doesn’t work for God’s knowledge of His contingent acts.  To be in a particular mental state of knowing world A exists is simply what it means to know world A exists.  If we eliminate God’s state space, can He still be said to have knowledge of creation at all?  The skeptic will grant that our predication of knowledge in God is analogical and so not identical to knowledge as we experience it, but does this not stretch things too far, so that absent particularized intentional mental states one cannot speak of knowledge at all?  This is certainly true for cases we know in which the object exists independently of the subject.  However, it has often been suggested that God’s relation to His creatures is more closely analogous to our relation to our thoughts.  Our thoughts have no existence outside of us, and indeed there is no meaningful distinction between my knowledge of my thoughts and my thoughts themselves.

To put it another way, if we must find a home for the property of God’s knowing my existence, the classical theist would put it in myself rather than in God.

Some advantages of this formulation.  If God’s knowledge of the world is not distinct from the world, then that God cannot be mistaken is not only a metaphysical truth, but a logical truth.  There are no two things to correspond, so no failure of correspondence possible even in thought.  Similarly, if God’s willing the world to exist is not distinct from its existence, then it is logically impossible, not only metaphysically impossible, for His will to be frustrated.  Thirdly, we can make better sense of the believer’s expectations toward judgement.  The believer knows that in life his spiritual and moral state is objectively ambiguous, yet he anticipates and fears the day God will pronounce judgement on him as a resolution of his spiritual state, the conclusion of his narrative that assigns an overall significance to the whole.  How can God’s judgement serve this role if it is merely an outside opinion?  Indeed, when faced with a true mixture of good and bad, such as we all are, a truly wise and just outside opinion would not resolve the ambiguity but would recognize it.  Suppose instead that God’s judgment is not a property of Him–not a case of His “making up His mind”–but a property of the judged soul.  Then the sense of an intrinsic resolution begins to make sense.

4 Responses

  1. This seems close to pantheism. Just saying.

  2. really good stuff here

  3. Good post. I think this clarifies some of the challenges to divine simplicity nicely.

  4. […] Divine simplicity:  If God is identical with His attributes, how can he have contingent properties such as knowing about His creation?  I clarify the doctrine using the idea of state spaces. […]

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