Perfect Being Theology

By Katherin Rogers, 2000

Professor Rogers provides an accessible introduction to and defense of perfect being theology.  This is the program, initiated by St. Anselm, of defining God as the most perfect conceivable being and then seeing what consequences for God’s nature logically follow from this definition.  Among contemporary analytic philosophers, it’s become popular to chuck many of the qualities that have traditionally been associated with a perfect divinity:  simplicity, necessity, eternity, immutability, omniscience, etc.  Rogers defends most of the claims of classical perfect being theology regarding the divine attributes.  She reminds readers of the reasons for these claims and answers most of the criticisms directed against them.

Perhaps the most bizarre claim made by Anselm, Aquinas, and the rest is that God is utterly “simple”.  This means that, not only are all of God’s qualities (power, wisdom, justice, etc) mutually consistent, they are actually identical in Him.  Also, not only does God possess these qualities essentially (i.e. by His very nature), they are each identical with His very being.  This sounds weird.  If goodness is a property, and God=goodness, it would seem that God is a property, rather than an actual being.  Rogers says that this criticism misunderstands what the doctrine of divine simplicity is saying.  Classically, the divine attributes were not seen as static properties, but as acts.  For example, His wisdom is the act of knowing everything, His omnipresence is His act of being everywhere, etc.  Divine simplicity claims that these are all ways of describing one single act, an act which is also identical with God’s act of existing.  Stated this way, the doctrine isn’t obviously crazy, but there’s another problem.  It seems that some of God’s acts/qualities are necessary (e.g. His existing) while some are contingent (e.g. His creating me and knowing that He has created me).  By creating me, it seems that God has altered His knowledge (by adding the fact that I exist), but if God’s knowledge=God’s nature, it would seem that God has altered His very nature.  Rogers is willing to accept this conclusion.  I’m not sure.  I wonder if one could assert a weaker version of divine simplicity (e.g. God has a unitary essence that includes all of His perfections) that would still rule out God being a composite or being dependent on external standards (this being the motivation for asserting simplicity) without all the baggage of strong divine simplicity.  Sometimes it seems like even Rogers doesn’t hold to the doctrine, such as when she insists that the moral law proceeds from God’s nature rather than His will.  I agree with her and think this is an important point, but can we make such distinctions in a simple God?  Perhaps it’s just we must think of morality coming from God’s nature, because nature and will are distinct to our limited minds.

Rogers does an excellent job defending the doctrine of God’s eternity—that He doesn’t just live forever, but that He is outside of time.  All times are always equally present to Him, and He is entirely present at each times.  This doctrine is frequently attacked, but the attacks all fail.  For example, it’s sometimes said that if all times are present to God, they must all be present to each other, in which case time would be an illusion.  As Rogers points out, one could make the same argument about God’s omnipresence in space.  Each point in space is present to God (meaning that He is present at each point), but this doesn’t mean that every point in space is physically touching.  Rogers acknowledges that God’s eternity only makes sense if one accepts the B (eternalist) theory of time, i.e. that the past and future have real existence but just aren’t present to us right now.  She finds this acceptable, as do I.  She points out that only such a conception can reconcile divine foreknowledge with free will understood in a non-compatibilist way.  If the future doesn’t exist for God to just see, than the only way He could know what I’m going to do would be if my actions are predetermined.  If the future is there to be seen, no such conclusion need follow.  Rogers is committed to a libertarian understanding of free will, i.e. that free choices are not causally predetermined, because it helps her get around theodicy problems.  Surprisingly, she feels less need to defend this sort of freedom for God Himself.  She more or less agrees with Avicenna and Leibnitz that God is constrained by His own goodness to create a best-possible world.  I myself am more inclined to grant libertarian freedom to God and not to His creatures.

Another useful part of the book concerns the relationship of God to creation.  She begins with an analogy.  The best way to understand the relationship between God and His creatures is to imagine the relationship between me and my thoughts.  My thoughts are distinct from me, but totally depend on me for their continued existence.  I can imagine a story where, say, character A kills character B.  Who caused B’s death?  From the point of view intrinsic to the story, it’s A.  However, from the wider perspective, I wrote the story where B does this, so I’m the ultimate cause.  This is a good way of understanding primary and secondary causation.  Rogers decides to take this idea even farther, and asserts that the things in the universe really are just God’s thoughts.  I really don’t think anything is gained by this move from analogy to univocality, but fortunately it doesn’t make much difference for the points she’s making.

As I said, this is a nice short introduction to the classical theory of God’s attributes.  It’s not a book about God’s existence, which it takes for granted.  It’s also not a book about how these attributes square with the God revealed in the Bible, although she mentions ways that they can be understood to be compatible.

18 Responses

  1. […] Perfect Being Theology by Katherin Rogers […]

  2. […] interested in why divine simplicity doesn’t mean that God is a property, see my review of Perfect Being Theology, by Katherin Rogers.)  The claim that Muslims worship a different God, a God that doesn’t […]

  3. You write: “It seems that some of God’s acts/qualities are necessary (e.g. His existing) while some are contingent (e.g. His creating me and knowing that He has created me). By creating me, it seems that God has altered His knowledge (by adding the fact that I exist), but if God’s knowledge=God’s nature, it would seem that God has altered His very nature.”

    But we must remember that as a single simple act, God does not have two stages or phases of becoming – i.e., first his necessary bits, and then afterwards his contingent bits. In God – that is to say, in reality as God understands it , and as therefore it is most properly conceived – there is no such thing as before or after, and so, there was no Divine nature or knowledge to alter “before” the contingent bits came along. The necessary bits and the contingent bits of God come along as it were contemporaneously, as a unit.

    This also means, of course, that all the contingent objects of God’s contingent knowledge – whatever their spatio-temporal locus – came along as it were contemporaneously with his necessary bits, everything together in one fell swoop. There was no “period of time” “before” God created the worlds, in which God was the only existent. And this means that neither the A-series doctrine of time, nor the B-series doctrine, are quite adequate. The A-series doctrine asserts that the future doesn’t yet exist, when in reality, because there is no such thing as after, so likewise there is no such thing as “yetness.” The B-series doctrine asserts that the future does in some sense already exist, when in reality, because there is no such thing as before, so likewise there is no such thing as “alreadyness.”

  4. You write, “… it’s sometimes said that if all times are present to God, they must all be present to each other, in which case time would be an illusion. As Rogers points out, one could make the same argument about God’s omnipresence in space. Each point in space is present to God (meaning that He is present at each point), but this doesn’t mean that every point in space is physically touching.”

    If all times are present to God, then all we may infer is that God is present to all times. Whether times are or are not present to God says nothing about whether times are or are not present to each other. Temporality is, not illusory, but rather the true perspective upon things of a non-omniscient being. Analogously, inertiality is the true perspective upon things of a being that is not ubiquitous, but is, rather, located in some inertial frame (tace for the moment on the relation between location and inertial frame). We don’t say of a man standing in a field that his feeling he is not falling is illusory, on account of the fact that in reality he is accelerating toward the center of the earth as that center moves.

  5. You write, “If the future doesn’t exist for God to just see, than the only way He could know what I’m going to do would be if my actions are predetermined. If the future is there to be seen, no such conclusion need follow.”

    If the future is there to be seen, so is the entirety of its past, including the present moment of your decision; for, no history could possibly eventuate in that future except the one in which you do that thing, and only that thing, that comports perfectly with every detail of that history. So, if the future is there “before” you act, then your action is wholly determined: not pre-determined, but post-determined. There is no more determination of your action left over for you to determine yourself.

    This is one clue that indicates that the future is not there “before” your present moment. It doesn’t “already” exist.

    We must remember also that God doesn’t see the way we do. I.e., for God it is not the case, as it is for us, that an object first exists and then influences us, so that we know it. For God, the knowing and the creation of the known are the same act. He knows what we will do as we do it, and we do what we do by the power he creates in us, and as us, but this does not mean that there was a time “before” he knew what we would do, or that there was for him a time “before” we did what we did.

  6. God’s knowledge was the subject of great debates between the Molinists (especially the Jesuits) and the New Thomists (mostly Dominicans)

    The New Thomists say that God’s knowledge is, in fact, the knowledge of his will, since he eternally decrees, not only the things that come to pass, but the causes of them and the order in which those causes operate. Hence, they denied God’s knowledge of counter-factual hypotheticals, e.g what someone’s life would have been, had he not died in childhood.

    The Molinists argued that God’s “scientia media” included all such possible alternatives (a sort of multiverse theory)

    Miss Anscombe, having come across the Molinist theory as a teenager, from an old manual of theology she had bought, rejected it out of hand, on the grounds that there is nothing for such knowledge to be about – no object to which it corresponds and so nothing to make it true. When she took instruction, fortunately, she did so with a Dominican at Blackfriars, Oxford, who was able to assure her (with a straight face) that the Molinist doctrine was certainly not an article of faith. It was only years later that she discovered the controversy.

  7. But middle knowledge would seem to be needful if God is to have real freedom in his creative act – such freedom is possible only if there are real options, real alternative histories, available to God. Middle knowledge can be true even if it is of counterfactuals. It can, e.g., be absolutely true that if I had died five minutes ago, then I would now be dead. The knowledge of a counterfactual of creaturely freedom is not a knowledge that the counterfactual is factual, but that it is counterfactual.

    Analogously, for temporal beings, knowledge of a potential course of action is not knowledge of an actuality, but of a potentiality. If the potentiality were not really compossible with things as they now stand,then it could not even be known as a potentiality (although it could be known as an incompossibility).

  8. Of course God knows the potency or potential of things, for they are part of their present reality – When I am sitting, I can stand up, these grapes can be turned into wine &c.

    The example I chose, of what someone’s life story would have been, had he not died in infancy, is really non-existent.

    God’s freedom is absolute, in that he is not constrained by necessity, nor can his will encounter any obstacle, for everything outside himself is a product of his will

  9. You write:

    … what someone’s life story would have been, had he not died in infancy, is really non-existent.

    But not so fast. That unactualized life story is not actual, but it is not altogether without existence. It exists now as a potentiality that was once actually present in the past of this world, but that – since the infant’s death – is now present in the world only as something that might once truly have come to pass. The way this present moment might have been if things had turned out differently in its past is an actual, existent property of this present moment.

    The thing is that the actuality of a past moment is the concrete actualization of all its properties, including its property of having the potential to eventuate in a number of different subsequent states of affairs. At any later moment in the world’s career, most of those potentialities will have been rendered incompossible by the course of subsequent events. But those potentialities, while extinct, are nevertheless concrete factors of the present moment, present in its past as salient concrete aspects of that past moment.

    We see this quite immediately in some of our feelings about our present experiences. Those feelings – and thus the character of the present moment of the world’s history – are colored by our recollection of what things might now look like, had we done things differently. As in, e.g., the frustration we feel at having locked ourselves out of the house. Our frustration is not just about being locked out; it is compounded by our knowledge that through our own oversight we have locked ourselves out, when we might have remembered to unlock the door. And the compounded frustration of having locked ourselves out is different in character from the compounded frustration of finding that someone else has locked us out. Thus the fact that we might then have unlocked the door is a concrete aspect of the actual character of this present moment of frustration. And that is why we say, “it [now] *is* a *fact* that I might [then] have unlocked the door.”

    So much is this the case, that it is hard to see what particular meaning the actualized past could have for us – for any present moment of a world – except insofar as it implicitly carried information in its concrete character about the unactualized pasts that might have been. If it were not for the presence in the facts of our past of the unactualized alternatives thereto, *as* unactualized alternatives, then all the past would appear to us as mere brute fact, and not intelligible or analyzable, because not contextualized. And, also, in that case, it is hard to see what we might mean by “contingency.” It is likewise hard to see how, in that case, we could have the feeling that we do about our moments of life, that they are invested with consequentiality, import, causal *weight.* For, if counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are simply and utterly nonexistent, then *there is no way this present moment could have been anything other than what it is.* And this would be equally true of all moments.

  10. If counterfactuals simply don’t exist, then we can’t make true statements about them, or therefore likewise know about them. But we *can* make such statements, and know such truths, as, “I might have gone to town today.” We can be right or wrong in making such statements. So counterfactuals must exist somehow.

  11. I also have a more positive impression of the idea of middle knowledge. What a person would do in a hypothetical situation is a statement about that person’s actual personality. I can see how someone might object to the idea of such knowledge–assuming (as Molina does) that it is certain and not just probabilistic–on libertarian free will grounds, but that’s the only objection I can think of.

  12. Take the proposition, “If Jack had not died in infancy, he would have married Jill in his twenties.”

    What would it mean for that proposition to be true (or false) What is the object to which this proposition corresponds.

    Surely, the most we can say is that he could have done so; that it can be known as a bare possibility, I do not deny.

  13. Probably, the best exposition is that of Bañez, the leading opponent of Molina.

    From the idea that God is the primal cause (causa prima) and the prime mover (motor primus), it follows that every act and every movement of the thoroughly contingent secondary causes (causae secundae) or creatures must emanate from the first cause, and that by the application of their potentiality to the act. But God, respecting the nature of things, moves necessary agents to necessary, and free agents to free, activity — including sin, except that God is the originator only of its physical entity, not of its formal malice.

    Inasmuch as the Divine influence precedes all acts of the creature, not in the order of time, but in that of causality, the motion emanating from God and seconded by free intelligent agents takes on the character of a physical premotion (proemotio physica) of the free acts, which may also be called a physical predetermination (proedeterminatio physica), because the free determination of the will is accomplished only by virtue of the divine predetermination.

    In this premotion or predetermination we find the medium of the Divine knowledge, by which God’s omniscience foresees infallibly all the future acts, whether absolute or conditional, of intelligent creatures… For just as certainly as God in His predetermined decrees knows His own will, He knows, with equal certainty, all the necessarily included determinations of the free will of creatures, be they of absolute or conditional futurity.

    This leaves no room for “middle knowledge,” for it has no object.

  14. Michael: you write, “Surely, the most we can say is that he could have done so; that it can be known as a bare possibility, I do not deny.” Exactly! Jack’s survival of infancy does not *entail* his eventual marriage to Jill, it is just that such an eventual marriage is one potentiality among many of infant Jack, and that potentiality is thus a real property of infant Jack, and is thus also a real property of the antecedent career of any possible future path that Jack might take as he proceeds forward from his infancy. So that, no matter what actually happens to Jack, it will always be true of him that when he was an infant he might have died, or might have married Jill. And these extinct potentialities do make a positive contribution to the character of his future career, whatever it is.

    E.g.: That Jack might have married Jill colors his entire monastic career; that Jack might have taken holy orders colors his entire marriage to Jill. If Jack had never known Jill, his monastic career would have felt different, than if he had. No matter what he chooses, as between Jill and holy orders, Jack’s knowledge of what he sacrificed in choosing may sweeten his choice thenceforth – or embitter it.

    Put it another way: opportunity cost is a real ontological cost; it is, therefore, a real factor of ontological production, aka becoming. The road not taken, still visible over there on the other side of the valley through the naked trees, is an aspect of the experience of traversing this road we have taken.

    Middle knowledge is just knowledge of all the possible sequences of lawful moves in all games that are compossible with the present configuration of men on the chessboard. It is not knowledge of what *would* have happened if Jack had moved differently early in the game, but [the much larger set of] what *could* have happened if Jack had moved differently early in the game.

    So, when “God’s omniscience foresees infallibly all the future acts, whether absolute or conditional, of intelligent creatures… ” it sees also all counterfactuals of those future acts. That God does not will such counterfactuals, and that creatures do not therefore effect them, does not alter their real counterfactuality – their status as real potentialities. If it did, then there would be no such thing as counterfactuals, nor therefore of freedom, whether Divine or creaturely; for, in that case, there being no such thing as real alternatives, no beings of any sort would ever have any decisions to make. But, that would be to say just that no beings would ever act, or move; so that nothing would ever happen. In which case, there would be no world.

    Again, I prefer “sees” to “foresees” – there being no “before” in eternity. And, again, seeing is a poor analogy, for in seeing we see what is past, whereas for God there is no past. He knows what happens as it happens, and all at once, and concurrently with his Will; and that knowledge is prior to time, which supervenes upon factuality, being no more than an order thereof; so that His knowledge is before all worlds in the order of causality.

  15. My impression was that middle knowledge is the knowledge of how Jack would have responded in a particular circumstance. It’s similar to how we can know how a charged particle would move if it were placed in a given magnetic field with a given initial velocity. I think the difference is that in the charged particle example, the motion depends only on general aspects of the natures of such objects, whereas how a person would respond in a hypothetical situation is supposed to depend on something more specific about that person, rather than the general features of human nature. It seems to me that middle knowledge implies some kind of determinism, since how I would respond to situation X is a knowable fact.

  16. That doesn’t particularly bother me though, since I have less problem with determinism than most of the theistic philosophers I’ve read.

  17. @ Bonald: You write, “My impression was that middle knowledge is the knowledge of how Jack would have responded in a particular circumstance. … It seems to me that middle knowledge implies some kind of determinism, since how I would respond to situation X is a knowable fact.” Right, so far as it goes. But again, we must remember that God doesn’t know what Jack will do, or would do, before Jack does it, because there is no before in eternity. Jack’s act and God’s knowledge of Jack’s act are concurrent; in eternity, they have the same temporal locus, the same “address.”

    As time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once and space is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening in the same spot, so for God, because there is no place or time to which he is not present, everything is happening in the same spot at the same time.

    So then: because God doesn’t know what Jack will do, or would do in situation x, before Jack actually does it, and yet because God also knows everything that Jack might conceivably do in any causally coherent worldline, so everything that God knows about what Jack would do in situation x or y collapses down into what God knows about what Jack could conceivably coherently do, and about what Jack actually does do.

    This means that, so far as God is concerned, and so far as the way things really truly are – i.e., the way they are from God’s point of view – the category of what Jack would do in situation x is empty. As Michael Paterson-Seymour has been saying, given the way God knows, there is nothing in that category for God to know. All that remains really, and all that remains for God to know, is what Jack might conceivably do, and what Jack actually does (the entirety of the former being implicit in each instance of the latter)(the fact of this implicate presence of what Jack might conceivably do in everything Jack actually does is what we mean to indicate by saying that Jack has an individual nature, an essence).

    And this preserves both to Jack and to God their freedom of motion. God doesn’t foreknow what Jack will do – although to a temporal creature, that is how it must seem. He just knows. That he knows, determines what he knows. But he doesn’t know what he knows about what happens before it happens, or after it happens; he knows it as it happens.

    How can God know of a moment of creaturely experience in the very moment it is happening – i.e., as it is still en route to becoming a completed fact? How does he know something that is not yet fully existent, so as to be knowable as we understand knowledge? It is because, as Being itself, God is the matrix and means of every instance of becoming. He’s the Receptacle. What is happening to us is supervenient to what is happening to him, as we are supervenient to him.

  18. That is why I wrote “Inasmuch as the Divine influence precedes all acts of the creature, not in the order of time, but in that of causality..”

    Precisely because God predetermines the free acts of His creatures, His knowledge of them is His knowledge of His own will. He does not merely see the act, but produces it.

    This historical necessity (necessitas consequentiae), involved in every act of freedom and distinguishable from the compelling necessity (necessitas consequentis), does not destroy the freedom of the act.
    For although it be true that a man who is freely sitting cannot at the same time be standing (sensus compositus), nevertheless his freedom in sitting is maintained by the fact that he might be standing instead of sitting (sensus divisus).

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