The Fullness of Being and A Most Unlikely God

By Barry Miller, 2002 and 1996, respectively

If you’re going to do analytic philosophy of religion, this is how you do it.  These two books form part of a trilogy in which Dr. Miller provides a powerful, modern restatement of the claims of classical theistic metaphysics.  (I haven’t yet been able to get access to the other book, From Existence to God.)  In most cases, his arguments vindicate the positions of Ibn Sina and Thomas Aquinas, but to me at least, Miller’s reasoning seems clearer and more precise.  To sum up Miller’s main points,

1)      He argues that existence is a real property of individuals.  In this, he dissents from the popular view, going back to Frege, which regards existence as a second-order property, i.e. a property about properties, namely, how many times they are instantiated.  On the contrary, Miller argues, we certainly do refer to the existence or nonexistence of individuals, not just the instantiation of properties.  The alleged paradoxes attending this view are shown to be only apparent.

2)      Existence is unlike all other properties, though.  Other properties inhere in a subject, i.e. they add something to a subject which is logically prior to them.  Existence can’t be like that, since there is no subject until it exists.  In fact, Miller argues that one cannot even speak of an individual (as opposed to a bundle of properties) until he exists.  Therefore, the subject is logically posterior to its existence, so the metaphor of “inherence” is inappropriate.  In its place, Miller proposes the metaphor of a bound:  the subject (e.g. Socrates) bounds or limits his existence.  His existence gives the subject its actuality; the subject gives its existence individuality.

3)      Existence is the source of all actuality:  there is not one act of existence—the same for all beings—and then other acts on top of it.  Socrates’ existence is that by which he exists, that by which he is a man, that by which he is wise, etc.

4)      One can meaningfully consider the limit case of unbounded existence, an existence that doesn’t need a bound to be individuated.  Miller claims this is equivalent to the limit case of a bound with its own actuality.  This limit-case being is, of course, God, the only subject who is identical with His existence.

5)      Miller emphasizes the difference between a limit simpliciter and a limit case.  In the former case, the limit of a series is the member of the series; in the latter case it is not.  As an example of the latter, the limit case of a series of circles of diminishing radius is a point, an entity which is not itself a circle.  God is a limit case of existence, and so he is not just greater, but radically different from other existents.  This distinction between types of limits allows Miller to explain some otherwise perplexing aspects of Divine Simplicity.  This doctrine asserts that God is Subsistent Existence, Subsistent Goodness, Subsistent Power, etc, and furthermore that all of these properties are identical in Him.  How can this be, since existence, goodness, and power are obviously different things?  They are indeed different, but that doesn’t mean that their limit cases have to be.  For example, a point is the limit case of shrinking circles, but it’s also the limit case of shrinking rectangles, even though circles and rectangles are different for any finite size.

6)      I quite like the discussion of God’s power.  According to Miller, greater power means being to create from less reliance on previously finished material, and its limit case is creation ex nihilo.  Here we see a clear case where the limit is radically different from the members of the series leading up to it.  God should not be said to act on things, as if things had existence and propensities prior to his creative action.  Instead of “God causes x to do y”, one should say “God causes (x does y)”.  Formulated this way, it is easier to see how God can be the primary cause of all actions without compromising the existence of secondary causes, even those that are free acts.

7)      One of the big challenges to Divine Simplicity comes from the fact that God has knowledge about contingent things, i.e. the universe that He freely created.  God necessarily knows about Himself and contingently knows about the universe.  As the challenge goes, since the former act of knowledge is necessary and the latter is contingent, they must be separate acts of knowledge.  Therefore, God has multiple acts and is not simple.  One can make a similar argument based on God’s necessary will of His own God and His contingent will to create the universe.  Miller, on the contrary, sticks by the assertion that God has one act of knowledge that includes both Himself and all of His creative acts, and similarly one act of will that wills both Himself and the universe.  Thus, if the possible universes are A, B, C, etc, then the possibilities for God’s knowledge and will are (Himself and A), (Himself and B), (Himself and C), etc.  While it is a contingent truth that God wills to create our universe, we can’t infer from this that He wills our universe in a contingent way, as if He has an unrealized ability to will something else instead.  Unrealized abilities imply potentiality, and Miller will admit none of this in God.  Instead, he is willing to say that God does not have abilities, strictly speaking.  He has free will, but not choice.  It is impossible that we could change His mind.

I myself remain undecided on the strong version of Divine Simplicity embraced by the scholastics.  I’m not entirely convinced that it is necessary.  On the other hand, these books have convinced me that the doctrine does not lead to the paradoxes and contradictions that might seem to follow from it.  I also liked, and largely agree with, the analysis of existence put forth.  My disagreements are on fairly minor points.  I disagree with the assertion in The Fullness of Being that matter can come into existence with no cause whatsoever; I will argue elsewhere that this is a philosophical misinterpretation of quantum mechanics.  Also, in A Most Unlikely God, after demonstrating that God causes free actions, Miller tries to excuse Him for responsibility for evil actions by saying that it is the intention, rather than the act itself, that causes the evil.  However, this doesn’t help at all, since a wrongdoer’s intention is also an act, albeit a mental one, and hence also an effect of God’s creation.  God is ultimately responsible for evil actions; let’s just deal with it.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you for your review on this book. I have not had a chance to read the book yet and was looking to learn more about it. Given your brief introduction I feel that I have gotten a good sense of the trajectory it is taking. I read some Aquinas at the beginning of the summer that gave me a different way to understand the nature of being human and consequently how to relate to God. I have never considered being or existence in and of itself as a property in any sense of the word and although I translate it into a Christian context, I lean more toward the Buddhist concept of “emptiness of static being” as the reality of the human experience. In other words I read this idea into Christian scripture. I conceived of this prior to confronting the Buddhist teachings. They simply gave me a vocabulary which gives me a sense of validity to my viewpoint. Your comments have given me more to consider. I trust what Paul said about all things created knowing the invisible attributes of God–even His eternal Godhead. So I live my journey with the belief that I have no excuse for not removing the scales from my eyes and trying to see what truly is. Thanks for sharing part of your perspective.

  2. Hello therooflesschurch,

    Thank you for your appreciation. I don’t like calling existence a property, because one easily imagines that we have other things on top of and independent of it. Miller’s formulation of the existential property avoids this problem, though. I still prefer the Thomist way of talking about existence in terms of act.

  3. Barry Miller’s work is worthy of serious consideration

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