Window dressing, or: Is the God of Thomistic classical theism as dumb as a rock?


[Courtesy of Unsplash.com & Kitti Incédi]

[Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey]

Dr. Gaven Kerr is a lecturer in philosophy at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Ireland. In a recent online interview with writer and philosopher Pat Flynn on a Youtube video titled, “Philosophy Friday: Classical Theism and Divine Simplicity” (March 23, 2021), Dr. Kerr (who is a Thomist and a stalwart defender of classical theism) made nine incredible metaphysical claims (two about agents in general, and seven about God), as well as six philosophically controversial background assumptions. Below, I shall argue that when taken together, these claims and assumptions add up to a picture of a God Who is literally as dumb as a rock. Basically, He’s a black box. The exalted language which Thomists use to describe God is mere window dressing, obscuring the fact that the God they worship never even thinks about the creatures He has made: they depend on Him, but on the Thomistic view, God creates them without having to think any thoughts about them, like “Let there be light” or “Let us make man in our own image.” All God ever thinks about is Himself, and even His act of “thinking about” Himself consists in nothing more than His being Himself. In other words, God knows Himself (and His creatures) simply by existing. In this post, I shall argue that the Thomistic account of knowledge is downright nonsensical, that Thomists’ reasons for denying that God has any thoughts and feelings about us are based on faulty assumptions, and finally, that if their account of God were correct, it would be irrational of us to love God or to feel grateful to Him for anything. Taken to its logical extreme, Thomistic classical theism makes the hearts of believers grow cold, and it is a lucky thing indeed that most Christians (Catholics included) are blissfully ignorant of what it teaches about God.

For those readers who are interested, here is Pat Flynn’s interview with Dr. Kerr:


[NOTE: This post is primarily intended to be a response to contemporary Thomist philosophers, and to Dr. Kerr in particular. Readers who would like to know what St. Thomas Aquinas himself thought may find this link useful.]

So, what’s the alternative picture of God that I’m proposing? What I’m suggesting is that an omniscient and empathetic God Who fully understands His creatures and knows exactly what they’re doing as well as what they’re going through has to be a God Who is capable of entertaining multiple and complex concepts, of thinking thoughts that are expressible in some kind of language incorporating God’s concepts, of reasoning discursively from premises to a conclusion, and of acting upon Himself and being acted upon by His creatures, to whom He has freely given the power to causally influence Him. Additionally, I hold that God has to perform a trial-and-error computation (possibly involving a simulator) before He can create a world like ours, in order to ascertain that it’s able to generate the complex structures required to support intelligent life: He doesn’t “just know.” (When I say “before,” of course, I mean logically, rather than temporally, as God is beyond space and time.) On the view I am propounding (which is similar to that of Dr. William Lane Craig), to say that God is simple means that He is not composed of parts which are more fundamental than He is, or which can be separated from one another. However, God’s intrinsic properties, including His thoughts and decisions relating to us, are not parts of God. They are of God, but not in Him, because (as I’ll argue below in section D) an entity’s properties are not part of that entity, and neither are its thoughts (as I’ll try to show in section E). Consequently, the thoughts and decisions made by God in creating the universe pose no threat to the Divine simplicity.

I’d also like to point out that the strong Thomistic view of Divine simplicity is not one which is dogmatically affirmed by any branch of Christianity. Aquinas himself was a devout Catholic, but the Catholic Church, in the decrees of its ecumenical councils, merely affirms that God has “one essence, substance, or nature absolutely simple” (Lateran IV, 1215), while Vatican I (1869-1870), in its Chapter on God, the Creator of all things, declares Him to be “one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance.” Neither council said anything about God’s having (or not having) intrinsic properties. So the Thomist position on Divine simplicity is not one which any Christian is obliged to affirm.

NOTE: For the benefit of readers who like to navigate their way around freely while perusing lengthy philosophical articles like this one, I’ve installed a MAIN MENU with 14 main sections, labeled A to N. Perhaps the most interesting ones are section J, where I outline my new view of God, and section L, where I explain the practical differences between Thomistic classical theism and personalistic theism, and explain why I think Thomistic classical theism provides us with no good reason to love God or to be grateful to God for anything. Readers can also view Dr. Kerr’s nine incredible claims as well as his six philosophically controversial background assumptions.

It turns out that the Thomistic view of Divine simplicity is rooted in some questionable metaphysical assumptions about substances, causes and agency, and some equally questionable assumptions about the mind and what it means to know and understand something. In the first part of my post, I spend some time clearing these assumptions away. In section A, I critique the Aristotelian claim (which I’ll call the Externalist Account of Agency) that whenever an agent acts on a patient, the action of the agent isn’t in the agent, but in the patient, and show that it leads to some unacceptable philosophical consequences. In section B, I argue that Elizabeth Anscombe’s attempt to define causality in terms of the patient’s depending on the agent (which I refer to as her Dependency Thesis) is misconceived, as it defines agency in terms of patiency. Taken together, Aristotle’s Externalist Account of Agency and Anscombe’s Dependency Thesis entail that God’s action of maintaining the world in existence consists in nothing more than the world’s existing and depending on God, which means that God can make our world without having to decide anythinga bizarre “no hands” view of Divine action which I discuss in section C, where I argue that the main motivation for holding this odd view is that it is seen as preserving the doctrine of Divine simplicity. This is partly owing to a pervasive but mistaken belief that the accidents of a thing (roughly, its intrinsic properties) are somehow “in” the thing itself, coupled with the notion that the actualizations of a thing are perfections of the thing. These assumptions, if true, would entail that God has no accidents or actualizations, as they would have to be “in” God (compromising His simplicity) and would add to His perfection (which is impossible, as He is absolutely perfect). However, in section D, I argue that both of these assumptions are mistaken. Another reason why Divine decisions are viewed as a threat to God’s simplicity lies in the widespread belief, which I call the Intra-mental Act Thesis, that our thoughts (including our decisions) take place within our minds, which means that if God makes decisions, there are many things going on in His Mind. Since God’s Mind is utterly simple, it seems that we should not impute decisions to God. However, in section E, I question the common view that our thoughts take place within our minds, arguing that it is both meaningless and unfounded.

In sections F and G, I examine the Thomistic account of knowledge, and about Divine knowledge in particular. In section F, I mount several criticisms of the Thomistic view that knowledge is, in the paradigm case, an understanding of the nature of objects, which consists in grasping their forms immaterially – i.e. possessing them without having to instantiate them. My chief objection to this view is that it ignores the pragmatic aspect of knowledge: knowing doesn’t consist in merely having information (e.g. possessing the forms of objects), but in being able to do something with that information – in particular, explain and justify it to others, which requires concepts and a language. I also critique the Thomistic claim that for an immaterial agent, being able to produce objects’ forms (which is tantamount to possessing them eminently) is a sufficient condition for knowing them. I contend that on the contrary, the knower must be able to justify what he claims to know, in order for it to count as genuine knowledge. Mere production is not enough. This leads me to defend the claim that thinking of any sort presupposes a capacity for language (even if some of our thoughts are non-verbal), as thoughts take place within a social context, where they are shared. In section G, I turn my attention to three bizarre claims made by Thomists about God’s knowledge: the claim that God’s knowledge is outside Himself, the claim that God knows and loves us without being really related to us, and the claim that God knows all that can be and all that actually is, simply by knowing Himself. I expose flaws and inconsistencies in the arguments for these claims, and list what I believe to be decisive reasons for rejecting them.

In section H, I train my sights on what I call the Radical Divine Intention-Action Indeterminacy Thesis, which states that it is possible for God to have exactly the same intentions in His Mind and to either create this world or some other one, or no world at all. In other words, God’s intentions do not determine God’s actions. I find Dr. Kerr’s arguments in favor of this thesis unconvincing. In section I, I examine the Thomistic claim that God is intrinsically the same, regardless of whether He chooses to create a world or not, arguing that this claim would make the world’s existence inexplicable: whether there is or isn’t a world, the reason why is simply “Because God.” An explanation which is that elastic explains nothing.

In section J, I take up Dr. Kerr’s challenge to provide my own alternative account of what I think God is like. Since I have already summarized my conclusions above, I will not repeat them here.

Finally, in section K, which is near the end of my post, I explain why I think the classical theism defended by Dr. Kerr (which attempts to prove that reality has to be grounded in something that is Pure Act and Pure Existence, which we call God) fares no better than its theological rival, personalistic theism (which envisages God at the outset in personal terms, as an Ultimate Mind), when it comes to explaining the unity of God, why the classical theistic account of Divine necessity is an incoherent one. In Section M, I try to demonstrate that the “proofs” of classical theism simply don’t stack up, leaving it in a wweaker position than its supporters assume. However, the real “heart” of my objection to Thomistic classical theism can be found in section L, where I argue that it is unable to provide a satisfactory answer to two very simple questions: why should we love God, and why should we thank God? Readers who dislike metaphysics might do well to focus on this section, as it focuses on the “nitty-gritty” in the debate between the two camps and is written in plain, non-philosophical language. My concluding thoughts can be found in section N.

I’d like to make a brief remark on terminology at this point. In the course of his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr frequently disparages a position he refers to as theistic personalism (also known as personalistic theism). In this post, I will be defining this term a little differently from the definition commonly used by classical theists when they discuss this position – namely, the view that God is a person. Recently, Ben Page, in a thought-provoking and highly recommended article titled, Wherein lies the debate? Concerning whether God is a person (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion volume 85, 297–317 (2019)), has proposed a slightly different definition: “God is a person and so [therefore] personal.” (Classical theism, according to Page, is the claim that God is a personal non-person: although He has the attributes of intellect and will, the term “person” doesn’t do Him justice.) Page concludes that most of the reasons suggested by classical theists for rejecting the view that God is a person are unconvincing, and that “the key debate is really over how one understands divine simplicity.” Even here, the boundaries between classical theism and theistic personalism are not as sharp as might be imagined: Thomists such as Eleonore Stump have argued that Aquinas holds God to be a being or individual, while personalists such as Leftow appear happy to concede that “person” is not the name of some metaphysical category, and that God is a person like no other. Be that as it may, I’d like to amend Page’s definition of personalistic theism, and define it as follows: “God is one Mind and therefore personal,” or better yet, “God is an Intelligent, All-Loving Agent and therefore personal.” Many theistic personalists consider themselves to be Trinitarians, who believe that God is three persons, so the conventional definition of their position hardly does them justice. Also, there is considerable controversy among theists as to what a peson is. However, the statement that God is (or has) one Mind is fairly non-controversial among Trinitarian and non-Trinitarian Christians alike, as is the statement that God is one Agent. The real debate between the two camps, or so it seems to me, concerns whether these personalistic terms are epistemically central to our understanding of the term “God,” with classical theists contending that we can apply these terms to God only after we have shown that a metaphysically unique necessary Being exists, and theistic personalists using these terms into their definition of “God” from the outset (e.g. God is an Infinite Mind or an All-Knowing, All-Loving Agent), and then proceeding to inquire whether such a Being actually exists.

Before I continue, I’d like to compliment Dr. Kerr on the lucidity with which he articulated his views during his interview with Pat Flynn, whose familiarity with the philosophical literature on Divine simplicity also impressed me deeply. As someone who works in the education profession, I can see that Dr. Kerr is an excellent teacher. While other Thomistic philosophers have advanced similar claims in the past, few can rival Dr. Kerr when it comes to clarity of exposition. And now, let’s have a look at Dr. Kerr’s nine incredible claims.

Dr. Kerr’s Nine Incredible Claims

(1) The Externalist Account of Agency: Whenever an agent acts on a patient, the action of the agent isn’t in the agent, but in the patient. This claim applies to all agents, including inanimate objects, such as one body acting on another body.
(This is a general metaphysical claim made by Thomist philosophers, and first put forward by Aristotle, in his Physics III, part 3.)

(2) The Dependency Thesis: All that’s required for an agent to be the cause of an effect is that the effect should depend on the agent. In particular, there is no requirement for the cause of an effect to determine that effect; all that matters is that the effect depends for its occurrence on the cause.
(This is a claim originally put forward by the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe, in her highly acclaimed essay, “Causality and Determination”.)

(3) The Externalist Account of Divine Agency: God’s free act of deciding to create this world doesn’t take place within Him, as an actualization of His Mind. Rather, God’s action of maintaining us in existence is one which takes place entirely outside God Himself: it consists in nothing more than us existing and depending on God.
(For those who accept the Judeo-Christian teaching that there is a God Who chooses to create this world and Who maintains everything in existence, this claim automatically follows if (1) and (2) are true.)

(4) The Externalist Account of Divine Knowledge: God’s knowing some effect of His (i.e. something He has made) just is that effect’s existing and being dependent on God. In other words, God’s knowledge of His creatures is external to Himself.

(5) The Divine Non-Relational Knowing and Loving Thesis: It is possible for God to know and love a creature without having a real relationship with that creature.

(6) The Divine Knowledge-from-within Thesis: God, simply by knowing Himself, knows everything there is: not only everything which could exist, but also everything which actually does exist. What’s more, this knowledge is immediate: God doesn’t have to deduce or infer it. This means that God doesn’t need to have any thoughts in His Mind about the things He is able to create or the things He actually creates: for instance, there’s nothing in His Mind specifically corresponding to His knowledge of me. Rather, the only thing that God needs to think about in order to know me is Himself. To be clear: God doesn’t even need to know His own plans in order to know everything about His creatures: all He needs to do is understand Himself – i.e. know what it is to be God. In other words, God’s knowledge of creatures (both actual and possible) is simply the knowledge He has of His own Divine essence.

(7) The Divine Action-without-Intention Thesis: It is possible for God to perform basic actions without having an explicit intention to perform those actions.

(8) The Radical Divine Intention-Action Indeterminacy Thesis: God’s intention to create this world is simply the love that He has for His own Divine essence.
God’s intentions do not determine what actions He performs. Specifically, it is possible for God to have the same intentions and to perform either action A (e.g. create this world) or an alternative action B (e.g. create some other world), and it is possible for God to have the same intentions and to either perform action A or its contrary (e.g. either create this world or not create it). Thus God would have had the same intention in His Mind had He created some other cosmos rather than this one, or had He not created anything at all, since He would still love Himself in exactly the same way. For the same reason, God can still be said to have intended the creation of each and every human being, despite not having any thoughts relating to us in His Mind.

(9) The Divine Transworld Identity Thesis: Since God’s choice to create the world does not modify or actualize His Mind in any way (even timelessly), it follows that even if God hadn’t created anything, the content of His Mind and Will would still be the same in every conceivable way. Whether God creates or not, He is still intrinsically the same.

Tyrannosaurus rex and other animals of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, U.S.A. According to Dr. Kerr’s Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis (described below), God knows everything that ever happened to each and every tyrannosaur that has ever lived, simply by grasping His own essence (i.e. knowing what it is to be God). Image courtesy of Durbed and Wikipedia.

Dr. Kerr’s six background assumptions

In addition to these claims, Dr. Kerr makes six background assumptions: two metaphysical, one psychological, two epistemological and one theological. Not all of these assumptions are explicitly spelt out by Dr. Kerr in his interview with Pat Flynn, but after listening to him speak for almost two hours, I’m fairly sure he would assent to all of them. Before I list these six assumptions, I should also make a brief mention of an assumption made by Dr. Kerr which I won’t be challenging in this post, as it seems to be a very reasonable one: let’s call it the Bound-within-an-Essence Thesis. In a nutshell, it states that if a thing’s essence or substance is composed of parts, that thing requires something more fundamental than itself, to hold its various parts together. Otherwise, it would fall apart. That “something” could simply be either the parts themselves (think of chemical bonds), or an external cause, maintaining that thing in existence. In either case, whether the parts are held together internally or externally, the composite itself requires a deeper explanation, and therefore cannot serve as an Ultimate Explanation. Since God is by definition the Ultimate Explanation of reality, God’s essence cannot be composed of parts.

I should also note that Dr. Kerr rejects what’s known as the Difference Principle, which states that a possible difference in the effect requires a possible difference in the cause. This principle, if true, would imply the truth of determinism. Since I’m a big believer in libertarian freedom, I find myself in agreement with Dr. Kerr on this point, as well.

Now, let us return to Kerr’s six controversial background assumptions. The first assumption Kerr makes is what I will call the Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis. According to this thesis, a thing’s accidents (roughly, its intrinsic properties) are somehow in the thing itself: that is, they are not merely properties of a thing, but inhere in that thing, as parts of a greater whole. This claim, although seldom articulated or defended, appears to be an assumption shared by all Aristotelians.

A corollary of this thesis is that if God is altogether simple, then there can be no accidents within God. That is, God has no intrinsic properties. The reason why Thomists deny that God has accidents is that if He did, He would then be a composite Being, requiring something more fundamental than Him to hold His various parts together, which would mean that He wouldn’t be God.

The second assumption made by Dr. Kerr is what I’ll describe as the Actualization-as-Perfection Thesis, which states that a thing’s actualizations constitute additional perfections of that thing. This thesis also implies that God can have no actualizations of any sort, because if He did, they would add to His perfection, which is impossible, since God is absolutely perfect.

The third assumption of Kerr’s, which I’ll dub the Intra-mental Act Thesis, is the claim that our thoughts (broadly including our beliefs, cogitations, desires, decisions and intentions) all take place within our minds. Now, it certainly seems very natural for us to speak of thoughts as occurring within our minds (although some materialists might prefer to speak of thoughts taking place in people’s heads, instead), and I have yet to encounter anyone who explicitly denies this premise. Once again, when we apply this thesis to God, it follows that God’s thoughts (if He has any) exist within the Mind of God. And since God is His Mind, it follows that if God were to have many (perhaps infinitely many) different thoughts in His Mind, then He would have to be complex and composite, requiring something more fundamental than Him to bind His various thoughts together into a unified whole (in which case, He wouldn’t be God). Hence God, if He is truly simple, must think only of Himself. God has only one thought: His perfect knowledge of Himself. God is identical with this thought.

The fourth assumption Kerr makes (and one which he elaborates on, in his interview with Pat Flynn) is what I’ll refer to as the Knowledge-as-Immaterial-Information Thesis. On this account, to know something is simply to possess its essential form without having to instantiate this form oneself – in other words, to possess its form immaterially. (For example, I can know what a horse is without becoming one: I possess its form within my intellect, as my concept of a horse. By contrast, material objects possess forms only by instantiating them.) It should be noted that on this Aristotelian account of knowledge, the primary objects of knowledge are not propositions, or even states of affairs, but things (i.e. substances). The paradigm of knowledge is therefore knowledge of some entity, rather than knowledge that some proposition is true. The latter is derivative upon the former. God’s knowledge is therefore paradigmatically non-propositional.

Dr. Kerr’s fifth assumption is what I’ll label the Eminent Knowledge Thesis: namely, that it is not necessary to actually possess an object’s form in order to know what it is. Possessing its form eminently, by being able to generate that form (ex nihilo), suffices for understanding it, and being the cause of all of the individual creatures instantiating that form is sufficient for Him to know everything about those creatures. What that means is that God doesn’t need to have multiple concepts of the creatures He has made in His Mind, in order to understand them. All He needs, in order to know them, is to be able to produce them. God knows all of the things He has made, and everything about those things, simply by being their Author. God’s ability to produce the entire suite of forms in existence – everything from dinosaurs to diatoms to down quarks – as well as the matter instantiating those forms, is enough to give God an exhaustive knowledge of His creation, right down to the minutest detail, so that God not only knows every kind of thing He has made, but also every individual, and everything that happens to each individual (i.e. every event in the history of the cosmos). (St. Thomas Aquinas elaborates on this claim in his Summa Theologiae I, q. 14, art. 11.)

The sixth and final assumption made by Dr. Kerr is commonly known as the Divine Aseity Thesis: God does not depend in any way on creatures.

Now, I’m a fallible human being, so perhaps there is something I’m missing here, but it seems to me that there are serious gaps in Dr. Kerr’s arguments for the strong, Thomistic version of Divine simplicity. For my part, I’m happy to let my readers decide who has the better of the argument.

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MAIN MENU

A. PROBLEMS WITH THE EXTERNALIST ACCOUNT OF AGENCY
B. MIS-DEFINING CAUSALITY: THE FLAW IN THE DEPENDENCY THESIS
C. THE EXTERNALIST ACCOUNT OF DIVINE AGENCY AND ITS DENIAL OF DIVINE DECISIONS
D. CAN GOD HAVE ACCIDENTAL PROPERTIES? WHY ACCIDENTAL PROPERTIES ARE NOT REALLY IN THINGS, AND WHY THEY DON’T ALWAYS ADD TO THE PERFECTION OF THINGS
(i) The Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis
(ii) The Actualization-as-Perfection Thesis
E. ARE THOUGHTS IN MINDS? THE INTRA-MENTAL ACT THESIS
F. HOW DOES THE THOMISTIC ACCOUNT OF KNOWLEDGE STACK UP?
(i) The Knowledge-as-Immaterial-Information Thesis
(ii) The Eminent Knowledge Thesis: God as a black-box deity
(iii) Why I believe that genuine knowledge requires not only concepts, but also language
G. THREE MORE BIZARRE CLAIMS MADE BY THOMISTS ABOUT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE
(i) The Externalist Account of Divine Knowledge (God’s knowledge is outside Himself)
(ii) The Divine Non-Relational Knowing and Loving Thesis (God knows and loves us without being really related to us)
(iii) The Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis (God knows all that can be and all that is, simply by knowing Himself) as an implication of the Divine Aseity Thesis
H. WOULD GOD HAVE THE SAME INTENTIONS IF HE’D CREATED A DIFFERENT WORLD, OR NONE AT ALL? EVALUATING THE ARGUMENTS FOR THE RADICAL DIVINE INTENTION-ACTION INDETERMINACY THESIS
I. WOULD GOD BE THE SAME WITHOUT US? THE DIVINE TRANSWORLD IDENTITY THESIS
J. AN OUTLINE OF THE ALTERNATIVE PICTURE OF GOD WHICH I AM PROPOSING
K. CLASSICAL THEISM VS. PERSONALISTIC THEISM: WHICH THEOLOGY IS SUPERIOR?
(i) The Uniqueness of God
(ii) The Necessity of God
L. WHY LOVE GOD? AND WHY THANK GOD? A TALE OF TWO BELIEVERS
M. HOW CONVINCING IS THE CASE FOR CLASSICAL THEISM, ANYWAY?
(i) Spitzer’s and Flynn’s argument for an Unconditioned Reality
(ii) The Aristotelian argument for an Unmoved Mover, or Unactualized Actualizer
(iii) The Argument from Essence and Existence
N. CONCLUSION

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RETURN TO MAIN MENU

A. PROBLEMS WITH THE EXTERNALIST ACCOUNT OF AGENCY

Bust of Aristotle, the philosopher who first propounded the Externalist Account of Agency. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippos from 330 BC; the alabaster mantle is a modern addition. Public domain.

Let’s start with Dr. Kerr’s claim that whenever an agent acts on a patient, the action of the agent isn’t in the agent, but in the patient. This is actually a conflation of two claims: first, the claim (which was widely accepted from Aristotle to Descartes and is now known as the ‘action-passion sameness’ thesis) that the action of the agent is numerically the same as the change brought about in the patient, and second, the claim that this action takes place entirely within the patient.

The first claim (the action-passion sameness thesis) was propounded by Aristotle in Book III, part 3 of his Physics and defended by his medieval disciple, St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on book III of Aristotle’s Physics (see here and scroll down to Lectio 5). It remains the standard Thomistic view to this day, although it was challenged as early as the fourteenth century by the Franciscan philosopher Peter Auriol (1280-1322), who argued that the causal activity which initiates motion in an object at rest must be something other than the object’s motion itself, paving the way towards the modern scientific view, according to which objects are acted upon by forces, rather than being directly acted upon by other objects.

I would like to point out in passing that Aristotle’s grounds for rejecting the now-prevalent view that action takes place in the agent, while the change it brings about occurs in the patient, are not terribly convincing. In his Physics Book III, part 3, he argues that since action is itself a kind of motion, this would imply that there is motion occurring within the agent (or mover), as well as the patient (i.e. the thing moved). As he puts it, “the motion will be in the mover, for the same statement will hold of ‘mover’ and ‘moved’.” But if motion occurs within the agent as well as within the patient, then either every agent initiating movement must itself be moved, or we must say that it is possible for an agent to have motion, without being moved: “Hence either every mover will be moved, or, though having motion, it will not be moved.” And that’s the end of Aristotle’s demonstration. Now, I can certainly see why he rejects the latter alternative (that an agent can have motion without being moved) as unintelligible; but Aristotle provides no reasons in book III of his Physics for rejecting the former option: that every mover is moved. I have to ask: what’s so illogical about that? Taken by itself, the statement appears unexceptionable, as it does not specify the source of the agent’s movement, which could be either the agent itself (self-initiated motion) or some other agent; hence it does not entail an infinite regress of agents. Yet Aristotle seems to have viewed this statement as self-evidently absurd. One wonders why.

However, the main point I want to make here is that Aristotle’s second claim (that the action of the agent takes place entirely within the patient) does not follow from his first (that the action of the agent is the same action as the change wrought in the patient). Aquinas, following his Master, thought that it did: in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics III (Chapter 3, para. 315) he declares that the action of the agent must take place in the patient: “if action and passion are one motion, it follows that the act of the agent is somehow in the patient and thus the act of one thing will be in something else.” But what Aquinas and Aristotle both overlook is the possibility that the action of the agent, while numerically the same as the change brought about in the patient, takes place not within the patient, but at the interface between the agent and the patient. To turn Aristotle’s own example on its head (Physics Book III, part 3), teaching is not (as he incorrectly maintained) an activity which takes place solely within the mind of the person being taught, but rather, in the meeting of minds that occurs between the teacher and the student, when the former instructs the latter. Being taught is what takes place within the mind of the student. [To use a rough analogy: pouring is an activity that takes place in the passage of the liquid from the jug into the glass, but being filled is what takes place within the glass itself.]

Wood burning in a fireplace. Image courtesy of Francisco Bellard and Wikipedia.

Additionally, the Externalist Account of Agency is empirically wrong. The everyday example which Dr. Kerr adduces to support his claim, in his interview with Pat Flynn, fails to do so. According to Dr. Kerr, when fire heats wood, it’s the wood which is the subject (or patient) of the action, not the fire itself. At first sight, the example seems to support the contention that the action of an agent (burning) takes place in the patient, not the agent, but more careful consideration proves otherwise. Actually, there is no such “thing” as fire: in reality, fire is not an agent, but a process. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group, for example, defines fire as “rapid oxidation, usually with the evolution of heat and light; heat fuel, oxygen and interaction of the three.” The real agent in this case is the fuel, not the fire. And the action of burning is definitely going on in the fuel, as well as in the wood that catches fire (say, a new log that’s thrown on top of the fire to keep it stoked). To cite another heat-related case: when a hot stone heats some water, the heating action is not merely in the stone (i.e. the agent) or in the water (i.e. the patient), but in the interface between the two, as heat is transferred from the hotter body to the cooler one. Or to take the homely example of a ball breaking a window: the action of breaking clearly takes place within the agent (the ball) as it hits the window (the patient), which is broken.

The Externalist Account of Agency fares even worse when we examine cases where the agent originating the change does not come into contact with the patient. For instance, if we look at the electromagnetic force, an interaction which occurs between electrically charged particles and which may be either attractive or repulsive, we find that this force is mediated either by ordinary photons (in far-field interactions) or by virtual photons (which are quite real, and not merely a bookkeeping device). Here, the action of the agent (e.g. an electric charge or a magnetic dipole) in generating the field is clearly one which occurs in and around the agent. Likewise, when we examine gravity, which is currently viewed not as a force, but as a distortion or warping of spacetime caused by the presence of matter or energy, we can see that this warping occurs around the body generating the gravitational field. Once again, the action is centered around the agent.

Finally, Dr. Kerr’s claim about the action of an agent taking place entirely in the patient has some clearly unacceptable philosophical consequences:

(a) The ascription problem: in cases where there are two or more agents that could have produced an effect within the patient, Dr. Kerr’s thesis would mean that we could never determine which one was responsible. For the way in which we typically do so is to look for changes in the agent which correlate to changes in the patient. But if there’s no need for anything to happen within an agent when it acts, then the whole enterprise of looking for the agent which brought about the effect is a fruitless one. One might ascribe the effect to the agent that happens to be nearest to the patient, but that begs the question. On the Thomistic account, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that proximate agents would be any more potent in influencing the patient than distant ones. Why should they be, when their action occurs entirely within the patient they act upon?

(b) Occult causal influences across space and time: when Newton first propounded his theory of gravity, one popular objection was that it seemed to require action at a distance, which struck many philosophers as uncongenial, since bodies were supposed to act on other bodies solely by coming into physical contact with them. But if the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of action is correct, then action at a distance is a real possibility: if the action takes place entirely within the patient, then no contact between agent and patient is required. [Interestingly, Aristotle himself held that one body moves another by coming into contact with it (see his Physics Book III, part 2), but his own account of agency clearly entails that no contact is needed, revealing an underlying tension in his thought.] Not only that, but if causation can extend across intervals of space, then why not intervals of time as well? For instance, why couldn’t my actions continue, long after I am dead? However, once we grant that causation can extend across time, then the need for a concurrent conserver of each and every contingent object immediately disappears. The cause of an object’s coming-into-being would then be sufficient to explain its continuation-in-being. This would undercut several key proofs of the existence of God, which are much beloved of Thomists.

(c) Radical skepticism about causes: the Thomistic principle that the action of an agent takes place within the patient entails that there is no causal nexus between the two. Cause and effect are entirely “loose and separate,” as Hume notoriously put it in his “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,” Section VII. But the Thomist is in an even worse epistemological position than Hume. On Hume’s account, we can still speak of event A causing event B if B occurs whenever A occurs: constant conjunction is what defines causality. This account is clearly deficient (since we commonly distinguish between correlation and causation in everyday life) but at least it has the merit of linking cause and effect in some way. On the Thomistic account, there is nothing occurring within the agent when it acts upon the patient. In that case, why ascribe the change within the patient to any agent at all? Why not say that it “just happened” for no reason? In other words, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of agency entails radical skepticism about the existence of causes, undercutting the Principle of Sufficient Reason itself.

I conclude that the Externalist Account of Agency is inadequately supported by logic, at odds with science, and fraught with troubling philosophical implications relating to the identification of causal agents, the possibility of occult causal influences and even the need to postulate causes, in order to explain occurrences.Thomists would do well to jettison such an account.

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B. MIS-DEFINING CAUSALITY: THE FLAW IN THE DEPENDENCY THESIS

Elizabeth Anscombe as a young woman. Image courtesy of Clever hans and Wikipedia.

According to the Dependency Thesis put forward by G. E. M. Anscombe in her essay, “Causality and Determination” (Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981, p. 136), “[C]ausality consists in the derivativeness of an effect from its causes. This is the core, the common feature, of causality in its various
kinds. Effects derive from, arise out of, come of, their causes.” Brian Garrett, in his book, What is this thing called metaphysics? (Routledge, 2nd edition, 2011, p. 85), summarizes Anscombe’s view as follows: “A causes B if and only if B derives from A.” That is, all that’s required for an agent to be the cause of an effect is that the effect should depend on the agent.

Anscombe goes on to argue that not all causes are necessitating causes, and that there is no requirement for the cause of an effect to determine that effect. On this point, I am in complete agreement with her; however, I reject her definition of “cause” as inadequate. As I see it, the trouble with her definition is that it defines an agent’s being a cause in terms of a patient’s depending on the agent. In other words, it defines agency in terms of patiency. This, it seems to me, is metaphysically back-to-front.

Indeed, one could argue that Anscombe’s definition of causality is a “no agency” definition: on her account, it is not clear why an agent would have to do anything, in order to qualify as the cause of the effect that derives from it. In that case, Anscombe’s account is vulnerable to the same philosophical problems that afflicted the Externalist Account of Agency, which I enumerated above.

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C. THE EXTERNALIST ACCOUNT OF DIVINE AGENCY AND ITS DENIAL OF DIVINE DECISIONS

Cycling with no hands. On the Externalist Account of Divine Agency, God’s act of making the world without having to decide anything is the ultimate version of “Look, Ma! No hands!” Image courtesy of Andrew Dressel, Richard Drdul and Wikipedia.

As noted earlier, the Judeo-Christian religious tenet that there is a God Who freely chooses to create this world and Who maintains everything in existence, when combined with the Externalist Account of Agency and the Dependency Thesis, entails that God’s free act of deciding to create this world is not an act that takes place within the Mind of God, actualizing it in a certain way, as the action of a cause is viewed as taking place entirely within the effect (in this case, the world God has made). Thus God’s action of maintaining the world in existence is one which takes place entirely outside God Himself: it consists in nothing more than the world’s existing and depending on God. This is the Externalist Account of Divine Agency.

In plain English, what that means is that God doesn’t make the world by deciding that it should exist; the world just depends on God, and that’s all we can say. There is thus no need for the Fiat lux (“Let there be light”) of Genesis 1:3; God can produce light without even having to think or resolve (let alone declare) that it should exist. This, I have to say, is the ultimate version of “Look, Ma! No hands!” In fact, it might be more accurately described as, “Look, Ma! No decisions!” God, according to Thomists, can make a world without needing to decide anything.

But there is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle still missing, namely, why any religious believer would even want to deny that God makes decisions about what to create, prior to acting. (Let the reader note that I’m using the word “prior” here in the sense of “causally prior” rather than “temporally prior,” as there is no reason in principle why a timeless Being could not make decisions outside time.) The answer to this question, I believe, lies in the background assumptions that we tend to make about things and their properties, and about minds and their thoughts. As we’ll see, these assumptions are deeply embedded in our everyday language.

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D. CAN GOD HAVE ACCIDENTAL PROPERTIES? WHY ACCIDENTAL PROPERTIES ARE NOT REALLY IN THINGS, AND WHY THEY DON’T ALWAYS ADD TO THE PERFECTION OF THINGS


(i) The Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis

A gold nugget from Australia (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois, USA). According to Scholastic philosophers, the yellowness of the gold belongs not to the substance we call gold, but to a composite of the substance of gold and its accidents (including yellowness)! Image courtesy of James St. John and Wikipedia.

In everyday life, we are accustomed to speaking of the accidents of a thing (roughly, its “intrinsic properties,” although Dr. Kerr does not care for that term very much) as being somehow “in” that thing. For instance, we may speak of the color in a piece of fabric, and it is easy for us to fall into the philosophical trap of regarding objects’ colors as literally embedded in them, as parts of them. The other qualities of a thing seem to be amenable to the same analysis: for if they are not in the thing itself, then where on earth are they? The quantitative properties of a thing (e.g. its dimensions) can also be regarded as being “in” the thing they belong to. This way of thinking is neatly encapsulated in what I call the Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis, which states that a thing’s accidents are somehow in the thing or substance itself: that is, they are not merely properties of a thing, but inhere in that thing, as parts of a greater whole. From what I can make out, Dr. Kerr appears to subscribe to this view.

A corollary of this thesis is that if God is altogether simple, then there can be no accidents within God. That is, God has no intrinsic properties. The reason why Thomists deny that God has accidents is that if He did, He would then be a composite Being, requiring something more fundamental than Him to hold His parts together, which would mean that He wouldn’t be God.

So, are there any good arguments for the Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis? The only ones I’ve been able to locate are in Professor Ed Feser’s Scholastic Metaphysics (editiones scholasticae, 2014, pp. 193-195). Taking aim at what he calls the bare substratum theory (which envisages a substance as a bare, featureless substratum, famously described by Locke as a “something, he knows not what” underlying the accidents of a thing) and Hume’s bundle theory (which views a substance as nothing more than a collection of accidents), Feser proposes what he calls “a third alternative”:

The Scholastic view is that it is (contra the bare substratum theorist) the gold itself, rather than a bare substratum, that is the bearer of its accidents; and that (contra the bundle theorist) the accidents presuppose the existence of the gold itself, so that the gold cannot intelligibly be constructed out of its accidents… [W]hat a lump of gold is is what we have before we abstract the accidents of a thing from its substance. (2014, p. 194. Bolding mine – VJT.)

Now, I agree with Feser that neither the bare substratum theory nor the bundle theory will work: the former envisages a substance as altogether featureless (which seems inconceivable), while the latter fails to explain what holds the bundle of accidents together. But the Scholastic alternative he proposes – namely, that a thing’s accidents belong to the thing itself, defined as the substance plus its accidents – is surely nonsensical. If we let S denote a substance, such as a lump of gold, and A denote its accidents, then what the Scholastic theory says is that A belongs to (S + A), which is circular, as it implies that A belongs to A.

What I’d like to propose (and I don’t claim any originality here) is a fourth alternative, which I’ll label the core attribute theory, which distinguishes between attributes and accidents: all accidents are attributes, but not vice versa. On this account, the substance (or more precisely, substantial form) of a thing is simply its core attribute, from which its other identifying attributes, or proper accidents, are derived. (Things may also have non-identifying attributes, or contingent accidents, which don’t follow from its nature or essence.) Thus it is not true to say that substances are altogether featureless: the key feature that they possess is the core attribute of a thing. But this attribute is not an accident, as it does not belong to anything more fundamental than itself. (Purely logical properties, such as “being a bearer of accidents,” do not count as attributes, on the account I am proposing.) To give readers some idea of what I mean by core attributes: we might say that the core attribute of a triangle is having three sides, the core attribute of gold is being composed of atoms with 79 protons, the core attribute of water is being H2O, the core attribute of an animal is being made up of eukaryotic cells surrounded by a characteristic extracellular matrix composed of collagen and elastic glycoproteins, and the core attribute of a human being is being a language-using hominin. (It should be noted that with the exception of chemical substances, I do not equate the nature of a thing with its structure; in living things, for instance, the flow of control, rather than the structure, is what makes an organism alive. Additionally, the essence of entities belonging to a nested hierarchy is necessarily complex, rather than simple: there is no simple concept of a dog, for instance.)

The key advantage of the core attribute theory is that it dispenses with the need to speak of a thing’s accidents as embedded within the “thing itself” (as proposed by the Scholastic theory); instead, we can speak of the accidents as being higher-level attributes of the substance, which is defined by a core attribute. On this account, accidents are not viewed as being “in” a thing anymore; nor are they outside the thing they belong to. Accidents are properties of a thing, but they do not exist within it. Consequently, the accidents of a thing are not parts of that thing.

What does all this have to do with God? Quite a lot, actually. For if God’s accidents are not part of Him, then there is nothing to stop God from having accidents, without compromising the simplicity of His essence. I will say, however, that I have no problem in agreeing with Dr. Kerr that God’s traditional attributes (e.g. His infinitude, omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence) are not accidents of God’s substance, but identical with His substance, being only logically distinct from one another. What I do affirm, though, is that God possesses contingent accidents, as a result of making free and contingent choices. These accidents are not in any way part of His substance.


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(ii) The Actualization-as-Perfection Thesis

The color of a horse is one of its actualizations, but is it a perfection? Image courtesy of Luisa Peter and unsplash.com.

In addition to the Accidents-in-a-Thing Thesis discussed above, Dr. Kerr appears to adhere to the Actualization-as-Perfection Thesis, which states that a thing’s actualizations constitute additional perfections of that thing. This thesis also implies that God can have no actualizations of any sort, because if He did, they would add to His perfection, which is impossible, because God is absolutely perfect. So if being the Creator of the universe actualized God in any way (e.g. by virtue of His making some decision that He wouldn’t have made had He not chosen to create), then that would add to the perfection of God, which is impossible by definition.

There are two replies that can be made to this argument. First, the assertion that every actualization of a being is a perfection of that being is highly questionable. Some actualizations (e.g. high fertility, in an animal) are surely good, and are correctly viewed as perfections. Others (e.g. one’s hair color) seem to be neutral, while still others (e.g. a club foot) can only be described as negative. God has no negative actualizations, but I see no reason why He couldn’t have neutral actualizations, which make Him neither better nor worse as a Being. One could argue that perhaps the mental acts God performs in planning and designing a world are actualizations of this sort: they improve us, but they don’t improve Him.

Second, even if one were to take the view that all of God’s actualizations (including His decision to create this world) are perfections, it does not follow that God, in choosing to make our world, becomes more perfect, any more than it follows that infinity plus one is more than infinity. God is already limitless, even without a world.

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E. ARE THOUGHTS IN MINDS? THE INTRA-MENTAL ACT THESIS

Thought bubbles such as the one pictured above tend to perpetuate the widespread idea that our thoughts are somehow in our minds, despite the fact that no-one is able to explain what the word “in” means in this context. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the previous section, I critiqued the view, which is deeply rooted in our everyday language, that the accidents of a thing exist within that thing. An even more prevalent linguistic habit, and one which is particularly hard to break, is that of regarding our thoughts as taking place within our minds, as the Intra-mental Act Thesis asserts. John Barnden, in his Metaphors of Mind Databank (copyright: John Barnden, 1997), describes the metaphor as follows (Mind as Physical Space; bolding is mine – VJT):

Under this metaphor, a person’s mind is a physical region. Ideas, thoughts, hopes, desires, images, emotions, feelings, etc., or events of thinking, imagining, hoping, desiring, feeling, etc., can lie at various positions in the region, and can move about within it (under their own steam or as a result of being acted upon by other entities).

In many manifestations of the metaphor, particular regions of the region, such as the front, back, sides, top, or depths, can have special significance.

The key point to keep in mind here is this usage is a metaphor: the mind is not a container of anything. After all, how could it be? What on earth could it mean to say that ideas exist within an immaterial intellect (as Aristotelian-Thomists conceive it to be)? For my part, I can make no sense whatsoever of the assertion.

Perhaps it will be argued that the mind must (in some fashion) be a store-house of intellectual concepts, for if it were not, then how could we retain them over the course of time? For instance, I can learn what a gram-positive bacterium is today, and recall that definition in a month’s time. If I manage to recall the definition, surely that means that it was in my mind the whole time? But what if (as so often happens) I fail to recall the definition? How are we going to account for that fact? To be sure, we can spin a story about the forgetting curve (Ebbinghaus, 1885), but the story we spin implicitly assumes that what is stored is in some way material, rendering it vulnerable to the ravages of time. In short: our ability to recall (and forget) the concepts we have learned lends no support whatsoever to the naive view that concepts are stored within the mind. If anything, it tends to support a materialist account of memory. This is by no means fatal for hylomorphism: an Aristotelian-Thomist could readily concede that what is stored in our memories is material, and at the same time deny that our memories store definitions or essences. In all likelihood, what is stored are image schemata which enable us to reconstruct these concepts when we need to draw upon them. It is these schemata that are liable to degenerate over the course of time, if not adequately reinforced by regular review of what is learned.

The Thomist philosopher David Oderberg has put forward a couple of positive arguments for the view that concepts exist within the mind. In an article titled, “Concepts, Dualism and the Human Intellect”, in A. Antonietti, A. Corradini, and E.J. Lowe (eds) Psycho-Physical Dualism Today: An Interdisciplinary Approach (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), Oderberg writes that concepts “must be in the mind since concepts are precisely what the mind acts upon in order to make judgments and inferences” (2008, 223). However, the argument, “A acts upon B, therefore B is in A,” is simply not a valid one: the conclusion does not follow from the premise. In another article, titled, “Hylemorphic Dualism”, in E.F. Paul, F.D. Miller, and J. Paul (eds) Personal Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Oderberg argues that if a person grasps a certain concept, and if that concept is an object, then the person must grasp an object, and then adds: “Since this is a mental act, his mind must take hold of something, and if it takes hold of a thing then that thing must make a kind of contact with it — which means, since there is no other plausible way of understanding it, that the concept must somehow be in its possessor’s mind” (2005, 92). However, it seems to me that Oderberg is justifying one metaphor (concepts are “in” the mind) by appealing to another, equally obscure, spatial metaphor (the mind “grasps” concepts and “takes hold of” them) – a maneuver which strikes me as question-begging.

Readers might be wondering what all this has to do with God. As it turns out, the theological implications of the “Mind as Storehouse of Ideas” metaphor appealed to by the Intra-mental Act Thesis are enormous. For if concepts need to be stored in a mind in order for them to be recalled at will, then we cannot ascribe multiple concepts to God without making Him internally complex (since God is His Mind), which would mean that He was no longer the Ultimate Reality. But it should be obvious that a timeless Being such as God has no need to store anything. Also, if our concepts are not stored within our minds, then we have no grounds for supposing that God’s concepts would have to be stored within His Mind – in which case, there is no reason to fear that God’s entertaining multiple concepts would compromise the absolute simplicity of His essence. The upshot of all this is that there are no good philosophical grounds for denying that God has concepts, and hence no reason to suppose (as Thomists do) that He grasps the essences of things in a non-conceptual manner.

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F. HOW DOES THE THOMISTIC ACCOUNT OF KNOWLEDGE STACK UP?


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(i) The Knowledge-as-Immaterial-Information Thesis

Plato’s forms exist as universals, like the ideal form of an apple. For Aristotle, both matter and form belong to the individual thing (hylomorphism). Image courtesy of Chiswick Chap and Wikipedia.

According to the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge defended by Dr. Kerr in his interview with Pat Flynn [at around 1:30:40], knowledge, in the paradigm case, does not consist in having justified true beliefs (as per the traditional “tripartite” analysis of knowledge), but rather, in grasping the nature of an object, by possessing the essential information that characterizes that object as a certain kind of object, without actually becoming that object – or in Thomist-speak, possessing the substantial form of a thing [i.e. the intelligible species] without having to receive its matter as well – in other words, possessing the form immaterially. (Normally, the knower will actually possess this form as a concept in his/her mind, but it is also possible for the knower to possess this form in an eminent sense, simply by virtue of being able to produce it – a possibility that will be discussed below, in section F(ii).) This account of knowledge strikes me as highly unsatisfactory, for several reasons.

First, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge strikes me as unacceptably vague. What on earth does it mean for the intellect to possess an immaterial form, and where does it keep this form? It appears to me that the term “possess” illicitly invokes the Intra-mental Act Thesis criticized above, which envisages the mind as a storehouse of concepts.

Second, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account defines knowledge in negative terms: to know something is to possess its form, without the matter. However, the account provides no positive reason why a non-material mode of possessing a form should be equated to knowing. At best, what we have here is a suasive definition of knowledge. However, many philosophers would be inclined to dismiss it as a purely stipulative definition. Dr. Kerr’s explanation of Aquinas’ reasoning in his interview with Pat Flynn only reinforces this suspicion:

Given that we can possess the forms of things in this intelligible sense – i.e. without the matter of the thing whose intelligible species it is, that indicates for Thomas that knowing, the act of knowing itself, is an immaterial activity. And St. Thomas reasons then: whatever is immaterial, then, is a knower. [1:31:40]

Clearly, Aquinas’ reasoning here is not deductive: if it were, the logical fallacies would be all too obvious. Presumably, he is endeavoring to construct a workable definition of knowledge, based on the human model with which he is most familiar. But in so doing, Aquinas is basing his entire epistemic project on a sample of one: the species, Homo sapiens. Such a methodology hardly inspires confidence.

Third, despite Aristotle’s frank declaration that all human knowledge begins with what comes to us via our senses, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge is still governed by an essentialist paradigm: namely, that the best and purest form of knowledge is an intellectual understanding of the different kinds of objects in the natural world and their essential properties, which is achieved by grasping their forms immaterially. In other words, knowledge, in the ideal case, is not of individuals, but of universals. What the account overlooks is that knowledge of natural kinds is extremely rare, difficult to come by and continually liable to revision, despite the fact that natural kinds themselves are considered to be fixed. For instance, it is doubtful whether any of the natural kinds that Aristotle would have recognized in his day – the four elements, quintessence (or the aether), and the various species of organisms (including man, the rational animal) – are bona fide instances of natural categories. We now have 118 elements, none of which were on Aristotle’s list of four; nobody believes in the aether anymore; and the doctrine of the fixity of species has been abandoned by biologists since the time of Darwin, rendering it impossible to draw any sharp boundaries between present-day species and their ancestors. Finally, Aristotle’s definition of man is not one that any present-day scientist would subscribe to (for an overview of current thinking, see here). In short: our whole way of “carving Nature at the joints” has radically changed over the past few centuries, and it is likely to do so in the future. To build one’s account of knowledge upon such a fluid epistemic foundation is to build on quicksand.

Fourth, at best, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account is only able to explain how we can know objects and their characteristic properties. It fails to account for how we know propositions. Even with a complete understanding of chlorine gas and its chemical properties, I could never know that it had been used as a terror weapon during World War I. In modern accounts of knowledge, what is known is typically a proposition: an individual knows that P – e.g. that Tom the town drunk has crashed his car into a lamp post for the eleventh time, or that Mars has two moons. What’s more, many of the propositions that we know make no mention of objects’ essences: there is no essence of a car, or of a lamp post, or of a moon, for instance. Consequently, even a complete and exhaustive grasp of the essences of objects belonging to natural kinds will still leave the truth-value of the vast majority of propositions undetermined.

Fifth, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account implicitly assumes that knowledge is distinguished by its object. From a scientific perspective – and remember that the word “science” derives from the Latin word for knowledge (scientia) – it appears that Aquinas is asking the wrong question here. The question he should be asking is not “What do we know?” but “How can we obtain true knowledge?” The scientific method was born of an attempt to answer this question. And while it would be absurd to maintain that science is the only true form of knowledge, one could certainly mount a good case that it is the most reliable.

My final and principal objection to the Aristotelian-Thomistic account is that it is a grossly inadequate account of knowledge, because it overlooks the pragmatic aspect of knowledge: surely knowledge doesn’t consist in merely having information (e.g. possessing the forms of objects), but in being able to do something with that information – i.e. respond to it in an appropriate fashion. (To use an analogy: we don’t call an architect knowledgeable simply because she has the blueprints of the buildings she has designed, but rather, because she is able to check that the builders are correctly following her plans, and answer their questions about the buildings she has designed.) Without the capacity for appropriate response, any entity possessing information (be it immaterial or material in form) is literally as dumb as a rock. And since this capacity requires the ability to use language, in order to explain and justify what one knows to other inquirers (be they actual or hypothetical), we may conclude that there can be no genuine knowledge without language, which in turn requires having concepts – which means that God, too, must have concepts, as well as His own language, in order for Him to know anything. (I’ll discuss this implication below in section F, part (iii).)

What about God?

Since God is an immaterial pure Intellect, His knowledge of the forms of objects might at first sight appear unproblematic. However, there is a significant difference between God’s Mind and our own: on the Thomistic account, God does not entertain multiple concepts, as that would supposedly compromise His simplicity. So, how does God know the various kinds of things that exist in the natural world? The answer put forward by Dr. Kerr and other Thomists, as we’ll see when we examine the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis in section Section G (iii) below, is that God knows the forms of things, simply by understanding Himself. Let us set aside this problem for now, as we shall return to it later.

A more pressing problem with the Aristotelian-Thomistic account of knowledge is that it leaves unanswered the question: how does God know about individuals and their activities, as an immaterial Agent? The answer provided by Aquinas (S. T. I, q. 14, art. 11) is that God knows individuals by virtue of being their cause: as Aquinas puts it, “since God is the cause of things by His knowledge, as stated above (Article 8), His knowledge extends as far as His causality extends.” Hence, “His essence must be the sufficing principle of knowing all things made by Him, not only in the universal, but also in the singular.” However, this explanation is manifestly circular: on the one hand, we are told that God causes things by knowing them, and then we are told that He knows things by causing them! Well, which is it? Furthermore, the analogy invoked by Aquinas, who declares that “the knowledge of God is to all creatures what the knowledge of the artificer is to things made by his art,” actually presupposes that God has concepts (which Thomists deny), for it is precisely by virtue of having such concepts that the artificer is able to create things. (This analogy also renders the classical theistic account of the Mind of God parasitic upon the account provided by theistic personalism, insofar as it assimilates the modus operandi of God’s Mind to that of a personal human agent.)

Additionally, the Aristotelian-Thomistic account fails to explain how God can know the entire range of true propositions. Or maybe He doesn’t know them, after all? How would God fare on the game show Jeopardy, for instance? Would there be some questions that would stump Him? If not, why not? The question of how God knows all true propositions becomes all the more puzzling when we consider that His knowledge is supposed to be immediate: according to classical theists, God does not engage in discursive reasoning, so He does not deduce anything that He knows from other facts. However, to credit God with an immediate knowledge that the 100th digit of pi is 9, or that Russia is the world’s ninth most populous country, is surely ridiculous.

So far, it appears that the Aristotelian-Thomistic account does a poor job of explaining how God can be said to know everything: its explanation of how God knows universals remains speculative, its explanation of how God knows particulars (or individuals) is circular, and it provides no explanation of how God knows all true propositions. This does not look promising. But there’s worse to come.

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(ii) The Eminent Knowledge Thesis: God as a black-box deity

Is the God of the Thomists a black box Deity? Image courtesy of André Kjell and Wikipedia.

If the Knowledge-as-Immaterial-Information Thesis espoused by Thomists is highly problematic, the Eminent Knowledge Thesis which they also uphold is even more so. Briefly, it states that God doesn’t need to actually possess an object’s substantial form (which defines its essence) in order to know what it is; all He needs is to possess it eminently, which in plain English means: to be able to produce it. For an immaterial agent like God, being able to make things’ forms is a sufficient condition for knowing them.

The problems with this account of God’s knowledge should be obvious. First, there is no reason to suppose that the mere ability to produce an object’s form gives the producer a knowledge of that form – even in cases when the producer is an immaterial agent. To be sure, we might be inclined to ascribe knowledge of a form to a being that was capable of producing that form at will, but in God’s case, we have no way of ascertaining that He is able to produce forms at will. How do we know that He is acting intentionally, in producing the forms which are instantiated in our universe? Why couldn’t He be acting mindlessly? The Thomistic response to this question is that for God to produce things intentionally means nothing more than for them to exist and to depend on God. Clearly, that’s a question-begging response.

That brings me to my second point, which is that in order for an item of knowledge to count as genuine knowledge, the knower must be able to justify what he claims to know. Suppose that a construction worker were to claim to have an understanding of the principles of bridge-building, pointing proudly to the bridges that he had helped to build (or produce) in the past, in his local area. Suppose we were to then ask him why these bridges had to be built in the way they were built, and he proved unable to respond to our questions. We would most likely doubt his claim to understand the principles of bridge-building, and we would be right to do so. The Thomistic God, it seems to me, is in an equally unfortunate position – worse, in fact, because we cannot talk to Him at all. In short: a God Who is incapable of explaining what He has done should not be credited with knowing anything.

At this point, a Thomist may reply that while we cannot interrogate God now, at least we will be able to do so in the hereafter. (Dr. Kerr, for instance, reveals in his interview with Pat Flynn that he would like to ask God why He decided to make a world containing him and not the super-cool character Gandalf, from Tolkien’s The Hobbit.) But the Thomist is making a major assumption here: since, on the Thomistic account, God has no real relations with us (as we’ll see in Section G (ii) below), why on earth should God want to have a real conversation with us? And what makes Thomists think that God is able to do such a thing, in any case?

I conclude that the Eminent Knowledge Thesis is nothing more than theological window dressing, and that the God of the Thomists is no different from a black box. In reality, He knows nothing of the world He has made.

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(iii) Why I believe that knowledge requires not only concepts but also language

Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica (1846), by Ary Scheffer. Augustine is credited with being the first thinker to propose the language of thought hypothesis (LOTH), which claims that thinking occurs in a mental language, often referred to as Mentalese. Boethius, Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham elaborated on this hypothesis, which later disappeared from view in the seventeenth century but re-emerged in the 1970s, with publication of Jerry Fodor’s The Language of Thought (1975). Image courtesy of Wikipedia and the National Gallery, London. Public domain.

The thesis I’d like to defend in this section, in opposition to Thomism, is that thinking of any sort – human, alien, angelic or Divine – requires a capacity for language. This is not to say that intelligent agents can only “think in words,” but it does mean that we have no grounds for describing entities lacking the capacity to express themselves in language as intelligent.

Let us begin with concepts, which even on the Thomistic account, God possesses implicitly. A key feature of concepts is that they are inherently normative. To entertain a concept of a certain kind of thing is to follow a rule which defines how we should think about that kind of thing. Thus knowledge of a thing’s nature (expressed in its substantial form) is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive: in the act of defining a thing’s essence, you bind yourself to a certain set of rules for thinking about things of that kind. If you’re going to think about a square, you have to accept as a “given” that it has four sides and not three or five; and if you’re going to think about a shark, you have to accept as a “given” that it is a fish with a cartilaginous skeleton.

None of the commonly used Aristotelian-Thomistic spatial metaphors for intelligence can capture the act of following a rule. Hence we cannot define intelligence in terms of an ability to “receive” abstract, universal forms, or to “contain” these forms, or to be in “immediate contact” with these forms, or to “extract” these forms, or to “grasp” these forms. Receiving, containing, touching, extracting and grasping are not rule-following activities as such. They are spatial metaphors for intelligence, but they do not capture its very essence. For this reason, the act of understanding a concept cannot simply be defined as the “receiving” of a form – even a universal one.

Since rules are only expressible in language, what I am proposing here is that the act of understanding a natural kind of entity (be it a quark or a shark) can only be characterized by the ability to specify the concept of that entity, in language. This specification has to include a complete description of its “whatness” (or substantial form), as well as its built-in “ends” (finality). Not for nothing do we say: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1) and “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6).

I conclude that if God fully understands creatures, then He must have His own concepts, and His own language, whereby He does so.

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G. THREE MORE BIZARRE CLAIMS MADE BY THOMISTS ABOUT GOD’S KNOWLEDGE


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(i) The Externalist Account of Divine Knowledge (God’s knowledge is outside Himself)

Towards the end of his interview with Dr. Kerr, Pat Flynn referred to a model of Divine knowledge (which I shall refer to as the Externalist Account of Divine Knowledge) developed by the classical theistic philosopher, W. Matthews Grant, according to which God’s knowing some effect E just is E’s existing and being dependent on God. Flynn then quoted a passage from Grant’s book, “Free Will and God’s Universal Causality”, where he wrote that if God knows contingent objects in the act of intentionally bringing them about, then if (as the Externalist Account of Divine Agency states) God’s intentionally bringing an entity about does not involve anything intrinsic to God that would not exist were God not bringing that entity about, then it is possible for God know contingent objects without there being any intrinsic accidents within God, corresponding to His knowledge. As far as I could tell from his remarks, Dr. Kerr seemed to endorse Grant’s model of Divine knowledge; however, I should point out that not all Thomists necessarily espouse this particular model.

I’d like to make three points in reply to Grant (and Kerr). First, Grant’s Externalist Account of Divine Knowledge stands or falls with the Externalist Account of Divine Agency, which I critiqued in section C above, pointing out that it depends on Aristotle’s notoriously problematic Externalist Account of Agency, whose shortcomings were exposed in section A.

Second, Grant’s Externalist Account of Divine knowledge is manifestly at odds with the classical theistic claim that God’s knowledge is identical with His essence. (Grant himself writes elsewhere that God knows contingent things by knowing Himself as cause.) For if Grant’s account of Divine knowledge is correct, then God’s knowledge is external to Him, but if the classical theistic claim about God’s knowledge being identical with His essence is correct, then it is internal to Him. Clearly, both assertions cannot be correct.

Third, Grant’s Externalist Account of Divine knowledge has the bizarre consequence that either some of God’s perfections are external to Him (assuming that His knowledge of the creatures He has made is one of His perfections) or that God’s knowledge of the creatures He has made is not one of His perfections. I respectfully submit that neither of these entailments would be acceptable to the vast majority of Christian believers of all times and ages.


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(ii) The Divine Non-Relational Knowing and Loving Thesis (God knows and loves us without being really related to us)

A solitary oak tree in Boswinkelsweg, in the Netherlands. According to Thomistic classical theists, our ability to know what an oak tree is without the tree itself being any different explains how God can know and love us without Himself being any different. Image courtesy of Jürgen Eissink and Wikipedia.

In his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr distinguishes between real relations, which have a real foundation in the thing itself, and logical relations (e.g. self-identity), which do not. Thus you can have two terms, A and B, which are both related to one another logically, or which are both really related to one another, or (in a mixed case) where A has a real relation to B but not B to A. Dr. Kerr contends that our relationship to God is such a mixed case: we have a real relationship with God, but God has no real relationship with us. Instead, His relationship with us is purely logical. God knows us and loves us without being really related to us. (The theological motive for maintaining such a view is that it protects Divine simplicity: if you happen to believe, as Thomists do, that any real relations of God’s would have to be in the Mind of God and not just from the Mind of God, then the threat such relations pose to the doctrine of Divine simplicity is obvious.)

In order to explain how this can be, Dr. Kerr cites the classic example of knowing an object (say, an oak tree). You have the object (i.e. the oak tree) which is the cause of knowledge in the knower. Thus the knower is really related to the object: there’s something in the knower by which it’s related to the object – i.e. the concept or the knowledge of an oak tree, that the knower has. The knower is actually different: there’s some new actuality which is in the knower, which wasn’t there before: namely, her knowledge of the tree. This new actualization is dependent on the object which is known. However, the object (i.e. the tree) is only logically related to the knower, since there is nothing new in the object when it comes to be known by the knower. The object itself doesn’t change. For instance, the knower could just disappear and the tree itself would still stay the same.

Dr. Kerr claims that our ability to know what an oak tree is without the tree itself being any different explains how God can know and love us without Himself being any different. However, there is a terrible flaw in Dr. Kerr’s analogy, and I am astonished that no-one has pointed it out to him. In the example he cites, it is the knower that has a real relationship with the object, while the object has only a logical relationship with the knower: it would still be the same, even if the knower cased to exist. Dr. Kerr wants to use this example to support his claim that God, as knower (and lover) of His creatures, has only a logical relationship with us, while we have a real relationship with God. This is precisely the reverse of the example cited by Dr. Kerr, in which it is the object known which has a logical relationship with the knower, while the knower is really related to what she knows. The example provided by Dr. Kerr therefore does not help his case one little bit.

In any case, there are strong grounds for rejecting the thesis that God can know and love His creatures without having any real relationship with them. For in section F, part (i), it was argued that true knowledge presupposes a capacity to make an appropriate response, on the part of the knower. Later, on section F, part (iii), I argued that since our concepts of various kinds of things are normative, they require specification in terms of a rule, which can only be expressed in the vehicle of language. What this means is that God must have a language for describing the world and the various kinds of things that inhabit it. For God to create a language requires Him to be actualized in some way that He would not be, if He were not to create that language. This point applies even if we conceive of God as being outside of time: by its very nature, the creation of a language is an activity that actualizes the creator. And since God is actualized by creating us, His relationship with us must be a real one, rather than a purely logical one.

I therefore conclude that the Divine Non-Relational Knowing and Loving Thesis is false and without foundation.


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(iii) The Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis (God knows all that can be and all that is, simply by knowing Himself) as an implication of the Divine Aseity Thesis

Four traditional dice showing all six different sides. Image courtesy of Diacritica and Wikipedia.

In his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr insists that God’s knowledge cannot be dependent on any external object. For if it were, then God would be really related to that object, which is distinct from him. Additionally, Dr. Kerr upholds the Divine Aseity Thesis, which states that God does not depend in any way on creatures; hence His knowledge of creatures cannot be derived from those creatures. So how does God know the things He has made? Dr. Kerr’s answer is: by knowing the Divine Essence. The Divine Essence is the intelligible species by which God understands whatever can be understood. In understanding His essence, God understands anything which could be subject to His power. In knowing the things that could be subject to His power, God knows the things that are subject to His power: namely, the things that He has created. He does not know these things by having concepts of them, but simply by understanding the Divine Essence. This is the intelligible species whereby God understands the world. The Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis is the claim that God, simply by knowing Himself, knows everything that can be and hence, everything that is. In other words, God, simply by knowing His own nature, automatically has an exhaustive knowledge of His creation, so that He knows everything that happens to every individual, anywhere and at any time. On the Thomistic view, God does not need to consult any plans for creation in His Mind, in order to possess this knowledge, because He doesn’t need to make any plans when He’s producing something. Rather, God knows everything that happens, simply by understanding God.

My first objection to the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis is that it contains a glaring non sequitur. For it simply does not follow from the fact that God knows the things that could be subject to His power, that He knows the things that are actually subject to His power. One cannot deduce an actuality from a possibility.

My second objection to the thesis is that it is impossible to infer the occurrence of a contingent state of affairs from a necessary state of affairs. Our existence in the actual world that God has created is a contingent state of affairs, which might not have happened; God’s existence, on the other hand, is a necessary state of affairs. The former cannot be known or inferred from a knowledge of the latter.

The example of a die (depicted in the image above) will serve to illustrate my point. It is a necessary fact that if the die is rolled, it will land on one of its six sides, but from our knowledge of that fact alone, we cannot know which side the die will land on, as the outcome of rolling a die is a contingent one.

My third (and related) objection to the above thesis is that it is impossible to know an agent’s choices through knowing its nature. Choices are (by definition) matters over which the agent has control, whereas its nature is something over which it has no control. Since God is an agent, it follows that it is impossible for God to know His own choices simply through knowing Himself.

My fourth criticism of the above thesis reiterates a point I made earlier in section G, part (i): namely, that the claim that God knows contingent things by knowing His essence is clearly at odds with the Externalist Account of Divine knowledge, which locates God’s knowledge of things outside Him, and within creatures themselves. It appears to me that Thomist philosophers need to resolve this inconsistency in their claims about God’s knowledge, before proceeding any further.

My fifth and final criticism of the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis is that it renders unintelligible God’s knowledge of our free choices. Dr. Kerr, who believes in libertarian freedom (as I do), insists that His account of Divine causality leaves our freedom intact: we depend on God, but God does not determine our choices. At the same time, though, he holds that God’s knowing Himself is enough to give Him an exhaustive knowledge of our choices. The problem here, as I see it, is that knowledge of a non-determining cause is an insufficient warrant for knowledge of its effect. For the cause would still be the same, even if the effect were different. Imagine a human agent is faced with a simple choice: A or not-A (think of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not be” soliloquy). Then I maintain that:

(a) anyone who claims to know that an agent chose A must also know that the agent chose A rather than not-A; and

(b) the grounds for such knowledge must be grounds for knowing that the agent chose A rather than not-A.

(I’ll call this claim Torley’s Epistemic Thesis.) Since God’s knowing God is perfectly compatible with a human agent’s choosing A as well as being compatible with the agent’s choosing not-A, it cannot serve as a ground for God’s knowing that the agent chose A, rather than not-A. In short: if (as Dr. Kerr maintains) the Thomistic God doesn’t determine our choices, then He is wholly ignorant of our choices.

I conclude that the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis, according to which God knows all that can be and all that is, simply by knowing Himself, is badly flawed.

The Divine Aseity Thesis: can God be timelessly informed by creatures of what’s going on in the world?

The Christian philosopher, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 477-524). In his work, The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius depicted God as a timeless spectator of events occurring in the cosmos. Image courtesy of www.gutenberg.org and Wikipedia. Public domain.

In response to my objections to the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis, many Thomists might be inclined to reply: “There is no alternative.” For if God does not know what is happening in the world by knowing Himself, then the only remaining possibility is that He gets this knowledge from creatures. However, this proposal is ruled out by the Divine Aseity Thesis (endorsed by Dr. Kerr and by all Thomists, as well as by the vast majority of Catholic theologians), which states that God does not depend in any way on creatures. To do so, it is felt, would be detracting to the dignity of God. I beg to disagree.

It would indeed be absurd to maintain that God relies on creatures for His existence or for any of His essential perfections. However, given that God had no need to create this world (or indeed, any world), His knowledge of what His creatures get up to can hardly count as one of His essential perfections. Consequently, there is nothing demeaning about God choosing to (timelessly) rely on His own creatures for His knowledge of events occurring in the cosmos. God “sees” everything that goes on in the world, and that is how He is informed of what His creatures get up to. The Christian classical philosopher Boethius (c. 477-524, pictured above) expressed this insight well in his famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, speaking through the voice of Lady Philosophy:

“If we may properly compare God’s vision to human vision, He sees all things in an eternal present just as humans see things in a non-eternal present. If you consider divine vision in this light, it follows that divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or the properties of individual things: it simply sees those things as present which we would regard as future. The intellect of God is not confused or changeable: He knows all things intuitively, whether these things happen of necessity or not. Think of it this way: you may happen to see at one and the same time a man walking down the street and the sun shining in the sky; even though you see both of these at one and the same time, you recognize that one action is a voluntary action, the man walking down the street, and the other is necessary, the shining of the sun. In this manner, the divine mind looks down on all things and, without intervening and changing the nature of the things it is viewing, sees things as eternally present but which, in respect to us, belong to the future. Therefore, when God knows that something is going to happen in the future, he may know a thing which will not happen out of necessity, but voluntarily; God’s foreknowledge does not impose necessity on things.” (Book V, Prose 6)

Despite its lack of popularity among contemporary Catholic theologians, no Pope or ecumenical council has ever condemned the Boethian solution as heterodox. It thus remains a viable alternative to the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis espoused by Dr. Kerr. (See here for a discussion of some problems associated with the Boethian solution, and how these might be resolved.)

We have seen that the Divine Knowledge-from-Within Thesis is fraught with philosophical problems, and that it is not the only game in town, as far as God’s knowledge of the cosmos is concerned. But there remains a further question to explore. Does it even make sense to say that God understands various kinds of things through understanding Himself, as Dr. Kerr maintains?

Professor Ed Feser’s attempt to explain how God can know things by knowing Himself

A triangular prism dispersing light. The Thomistic philosopher Edward Feser argues that just as a perfect understanding of white light would also enable us to understand the various colors that can be derived from it, so too, God’s perfect understanding of Himself enables Him to intellectually grasp everything He has made or could make. Image courtesy of D-Kuru and Wikipedia.

The Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, in his book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius Press, 2017), attempts to explain how God can know the finite creatures He has made, simply by knowing Himsself. Feser invokes two analogies – first, the way in which a perfect understanding of white light would enable us to understand the colors that can be derived from it; and second, the way in which a baker’s knowledge of a lump of dough enables him to know the shapes that can be carved from it. In a similar fashion, God knows all of the various kinds of finitely creatures which actually exist or could exist:

A better, though still imperfect, way to understand the nature of God’s knowledge would be to think in terms of analogies like the following. From a beam of white, various beams of colored light can be derived by passing it through a prism. Though the colors are not separated out until the beam reaches the prism, they are still in the white light in a unified way. From a lump of dough, cookies of various shapes can be derived by means of cookie cutters. Though the various cookies with their particular shapes are not separated out until the cutters are applied to the dough, they are still in the uncut dough virtually. Now, God is pure actuality, whereas every kind of created thing represents a different way in which actuality might be limited by potentiality. That is to say, each created thing is comparable to one of the specific colors that might be derived from the white light that contains all of them, or is like one of the many cookie shapes which might be derived from the dough which contains all of them. God’s creation of the world is thus like the passing of white light through a prism or the application of the cutters to the dough. The prism draws out, from the color spectrum which is contained in a unified way in the white light, a particular beam of this color and a particular beam of that color, and the cutters draw out, from the variety of possible cookies contained in a unified way in the lump of dough, a cookie of this particular shape and a cookie of that particular shape. Similarly, creation involves drawing out, from the unlimited actuality that is God, various limited ways of being actual…

Now, just as if you knew the white light perfectly, you would know all the colors which could be derived from it, and if you knew the lump of dough perfectly, you would know all the shapes which might be carved out of it, so too, perfectly to know that which is pure actuality would entail knowing all the various limited ways of being actual which might be derived from it. And that is how God knows all of the various kinds of finitely actual things which exist or might exist – by virtue of perfectly knowing himself as that which is pure or unlimited actuality. (2017, pp. 215-216)

Regarding Feser’s analogies relating to light and cookies I have to say that I find them severely wanting. At the very best, Feser’s analogies only serve to explain how God could know what might happen, in a simple fashion. But in the light illustration, we need to know about the size, shape and positioning of the prism, if we wish to know what color of light can actually be seen. And if we want to know what kinds of cookies are actually made by the chef, we need to know which cutters he is using. Nothing in the nature of light or dough will tell us anything about the colors or cookies that are actually produced. And likewise, nothing in the nature of God as unlimited actuality will tell us (or Him) about what kind of world He actually makes. To know that, God would need to do something more – e.g. make an additional volition. But if an extra volition (i.e. an act of will) is required for God to make the world, then the analogy between God and the white light passing through a prism (or between God and the as-yeat-uncut dough) no longer holds.

A more fundamental flaw with Feser’s analogies is that each of his analogues for God is complex. White light is actually a mixture of various wavelengths, while a baker’s lump of dough is capable of being cut up into smaller pieces. What’s more, in each case, the knowledge of the analogue’s potentialities (i.e. the colors that can be seen from splitting white light, or the shapes that can be cut from the dough) requires an understanding of its complexities. Hence neither analogue sheds any light on how an absolutely simple Being can grasp its multiple potentialities simply through understanding itself.

The whole point of Feser’s light and cookie analogies was to explain how God could know about these events without in any way compromising His simplicity. But it is precisely on this point that the analogies fail.

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H. WOULD GOD HAVE THE SAME INTENTIONS IF HE’D CREATED A DIFFERENT WORLD, OR NONE AT ALL? EVALUATING THE ARGUMENTS FOR THE RADICAL DIVINE INTENTION-ACTION INDETERMINACY THESIS

Author J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at the White House in 2010. According to the Radical Divine Intention-Action Indeterminacy Thesis espoused by Dr. Kerr, it is possible for God to have exactly the same intentions and to either create this world or some other world – or even no world at all. To my mind, this is rather like claiming that an author like J. K. Rowling could have written an entirely different plot for the Harry Potter series of novels, or even no novels at all, without intending anything different. Image courtesy of Daniel Ogren and Wikipedia.

During his interview with Dr. Kerr, Pat Flynn cited the work of classical theist W. Matthews Grant (whose position is very similar to Kerr’s). In his book, “Free Will and God’s Universal Causality”, Grant aims to show that true libertarian freedom is compatible with Divine Universal Causality. He advocates what he calls the extrinsic model of Divine simplicity, and rejects the common view that if God chooses to create, then there has to be something intrinsically different in God (e.g. some intention which He wouldn’t have had, if He hadn’t created us), in virtue of which creation comes about. Grant says this is problematic for libertarian freedom, because now we’ve introduced a new fact (God’s intention) which is both prior to and logically sufficient for the effect (God’s choice), so now, it seems, we’re stuck with determinism.

However, it appears to me that Grant’s argument trades on an ambiguity. The term “choice” may denote an agent’s act of will (e.g. God’s willing the universe into existence), or it may refer to the outcome that the agent chooses to bring about (in God’s case, the world we live in). What libertarians believe is that agents’ acts of will are not determined, not that agents’ acts of will lead to indeterminate results. Moreover, God’s intention to create our world is itself a choice. So long as there is nothing making God formulate this intention, His libertarian freedom in creating the cosmos is unimpaired.

In his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr articulates the outlandish claim that God’s intentions do not determine His actions, which I’ve labeled the Radical Divine Intention-Action Indeterminacy Thesis. To be clear: according to this thesis, it is possible for God to have exactly the same intentions in His Mind and to either create this world or some other one, or no world at all, since in each of these scenarios, God would still love Himself in exactly the same way. Moreover, God can still be said to have intended the creation of each and every human being, despite not having any thoughts relating to us in His Mind.

Bizarre as it may seem, Dr. Kerr mounts a lively and vigorous defense of his thesis. According to Kerr, you can have an intention for an action, where that intention does not change, regardless of whether you act one way or another. For example, you can have an intention to quench your thirst, and that can be manifest in many different ways, and yet still be the same intention for action. Indeed, you could still have the same intention for action and not act at all (either because you are lazy, tired, or unable to obtain what you want, even if you were to act). And if human agents’ intentions do not determine their actions, then why should God’s intentions determine His actions?

Several points need to be made in reply. First, having an intention for action (e.g. to quench your thirst) and yet not acting may occur for three reasons: want of opportunity (e.g. being in a place where no drinks are available), inertia (e.g. being too lazy to get out of bed and get a drink) or weakness of will (e.g. being unable to stop playing one’s favorite video game, even for a short refreshment break). None of these reasons applies to God. These are degenerate cases.

Second, Kerr fails to distinguish between intending the end and intending the means. The reason why intending to quench my thirst is compatible with many different actions is that it is an end, not a means. How I choose to do so depends on the circumstances. Quenching my thirst is not a basic action: it can only be done by performing some other action. Thus in order to argue that God could have had the same intention to act and yet made a different world from this one (or perhaps no world at all), one would need to maintain that God only intends ends (such as His own greater glory) and not means (e.g. creating this particular world, as a way of displaying His glory). This, however, is totally contrary to the traditional Christian picture of God. As St. Augustine put it in his De Civitate Dei (v, 11): “Not only heaven and earth, not only man and angel, even the bowels of the lowest animal, even the wing of the bird, the flower of the plant, the leaf of the tree, hath God endowed with every fitting detail of their nature.” Putting it another way: God is a micro-manager. He is a Being Who intends means as well as ends.

Third, Scripture clearly teaches that God explicitly intended the coming-into-existence of at least some human individuals: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jeremiah 1:5), “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). To say that God could still have exactly the same set of intentions in relation to the cosmos and yet not create us is to defy the witness of Scripture itself.

Kerr also contends that there are certain actions that one can perform, without intending to do them. He gives an example: when you’re writing a thesis, how much do you think about the letters that you’re writing? However, the example he cites has no relevance to God. The reason why we can write or type letters without thinking of what we’re doing is that we have built-in motor habits: we’re partly automatic. God isn’t, because He’s a spirit. A better question to ask would be: does it even make sense for the author of a story to say, “I created the story, but I didn’t intend any part of the plot”, or “I could have written a totally different story, or even no story at all, without there being any difference in my intentions”? The question answers itself.

For these reasons, I have to say that I find Kerr’s arguments that God could have created a different world, or even no world at all, while having the same intentions, utterly unconvincing.

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I. WOULD GOD BE THE SAME WITHOUT US? THE DIVINE TRANSWORLD IDENTITY THESIS

Dr. William Lane Craig rejects the Thomistic view that God is intrinsically the same, regardless of whether He chooses to create a world or not, on the grounds that it provides “no explanation of the existence of creatures, or the differences between possible worlds.” Image courtesy of ReasonableFaith.org and Wikipedia. Official Press Release photo.

In a 2018 Symposium on Divine simplicity hosted by the Claremont Center for Reason, Religion, and Public Affairs, Christian philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig explained his reasons for rejecting the Thomistic view that God is intrinsically the same, regardless of whether He chooses to create a world or not:

The problem with this doctrine is that it makes the existence of creatures inexplicable. Since God is absolutely the same in a possible world in which no creatures exist, as he is in a world chalk full of creatures, the explanation of the difference cannot be found in God. But neither can it be found in creatures, for they come too late in the order of explanation to account for why they exist or not. It follows that on Thomism, there just is no explanation of the existence of creatures, or the differences between possible worlds, which seems absurd.

Although I differ from Dr. Craig in my evaluation of the “modal collapse” argument (as I believe that Joseph Schmid of Purdue University has convincingly demonstrated that Thomists can mount plausible rebuttals to its purported disproof of the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity), I have to say that I think Craig is right regarding the point he makes in the excerpt quoted above. Putting it in a nutshell: let us suppose that there is no world. Why is there no world? The Thomist’s answer is: “Because God.” The term “God” used here simply refers to the Divine essence, because that’s all there is. There are no contingent realities to appeal to, such as God’s decision not to create a world. In the “no-world” scenario, all that exists is God’s necessary Being. Now let’s consider our own world, which (fortunately) exists. Why is there a world? Once again, the Thomist’s answer is: “Because God.” There is nothing intrinsically different about God, whether He makes a world or not.

I’d now like to propose a principle which I’ll call Torley’s Explanatory Thesis. Briefly, the thesis states that it is illegitimate to appeal to one and the same explanation E in order to account for both a state of affairs S and for the non-occurrence of S. (I consider my thesis to be perfectly compatible with libertarian freedom, as an agent who may either bring about S or not do so has a different intention in each case, and this intention is not explained by the mere existence of the agent. Rather, an intention is a self-determining act on the part of the agent, who is in control of the goals she aims for as well as the means she employs to attains them, as Dr. Thomas Pink argues in his excellent book, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004).) The insight behind my thesis is that any explanation which is elastic enough to account for both S’s occurrence and its non-occurrence is not doing the work of an explanation at all.

Returning to Dr. Craig’s objection to Thomistic classical theism: the problem here is that exactly the same explanation (“Because God”) is being used to explain not only why there isn’t a world (on the “no-world” scenario), but also why (in actuality) there is a world. I submit that an explanation which is able to explain both the presence and the absence of a world, explains nothing. If such an explanation were valid, that would mean that God could be used to explain literally anything – which would destroy the explanatory power of the assertion that God exists. Good explanations must rule something out.

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J. AN OUTLINE OF THE ALTERNATIVE PICTURE OF GOD WHICH I AM PROPOSING


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Kelly Miyahara from Jeopardy Clue Crew at the International CES in Winchester, Nevada. Below, I propose what I call the Jeopardy Principle: that any God worthy of the name must be able to answer any Jeopardy question that a clever human contestant could answer. Image courtesy of Joseph Hunkins and Wikipedia.

In his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr issued a challenge to his critics: he declared that it is incumbent on those who reject classical theism to propose a better alternative of their own. I gladly accept Dr. Kerr’s challenge.

So, if Thomistic classical theism is wrong, then what’s the better alternative? What’s God really like? I’m going to attempt to answer that question by first listing a number of foundational claims which I hope my readers will find intellectually convincing, followed by a few additional assumptions which appear pretty plausible, and then deducing what God must be like from these claims and assumptions. A note of caution here: while each of the claims I’m advancing seems pretty reasonable to me, I’m far from certain that all of them are correct. Hence the conclusions I reach about the Mind of God should be regarded as tentative. I could be wrong, and perhaps very wrong. Without further ado, here are my claims.

1. The First-Person Irreducibility Thesis: first-person states (i.e. subjective feelings) can never be entirely explained in terms of third-person states (i.e. the objective properties of things). The philosopher C. D. Broad captured this insight in his highly influential work, The Mind and its Place in Nature (London: Routledge, 1925), in which he argued that even if the science of chemistry turned out to be explicable in purely mechanical terms, there would still be at least one property of ammonia that a hypothetical mathematical archangel endowed with unlimited mathematical skills and “gifted with the further power of perceiving the microscopic structure of atoms” could never predict, namely its distinctive odor:

He [the archangel] would know exactly what the microscopic structure of ammonia must be; but he would be totally unable to predict that a substance with this structure must smell as ammonia does when it gets into the human nose. The utmost that he could predict on this subject would be that certain changes would take place in the mucous membrane, the olfactory nerves and so on. But he could not possibly know that these changes would be accompanied by the appearance of a smell in general or of the peculiar smell of ammonia in particular, unless someone told him so or he had smelled it for himself (1925, 71).

Writing in 1925, Broad expressed confidence that any attempted reduction of a substance’s odor into third-person states was doomed to failure. Nearly one hundred years later, his confidence still appears to be well-grounded.

2. The Strong Causal Account of Knowledge: any claim to know that a contingent state of affairs C is occurring can only be justified by the existence of a causal relationship between C and the knower, in which the knower either determines C or is determined by C. (Note: I am not asserting here that the existence of such a causal relationship is sufficient to justify someone’s claim to know; I am only claiming that it is necessary. The problem of deviant causal chains is well-known to every student of philosophy.) What the Strong Causal Account of Knowledge asserts is that an indeterminate causal relationship between the knower and the known, or vice versa, can never serve as a justification for knowledge, because the action of the cause does not reliably produce its effect: it may or may not do so. (In other words, knowledge has to be grounded in a reliable process.) Thus if I cause a state of affairs C without determining it to be C (rather than D), than I cannot claim to know that C obtains, because I did not ensure that C would occur in a reliable manner. Similarly, I cannot claim to know that C obtains merely on the basis that my knowledge was caused by C; what matters here is that C caused my belief by operating in a reliable fashion, so that it could not have failed to cause me to have that belief, when it did. (Much more needs to be said, of course, but I am not attempting to provide a complete account of knowledge here.)

3. The Concept Thesis: there are some kinds of objects (e.g. natural kinds and mathematical objects) which can only be understood by means of concepts. Note: this thesis does not claim that all knowledge is conceptual; all it claims is that concepts are required to understand certain kinds of things. I argued for this thesis in section F, part (iii) above, on the grounds that to entertain the concept of a certain kind of thing is to follow a rule which defines how we should think about that kind of thing. In other words, concepts are inherently normative. Hence if there are any kinds of things such that there is a right way and a wrong way of thinking about them, understanding these kinds of things will require concepts.

4. Ineluctable Complexity of Concepts Thesis: at least some concepts are ineluctably complex – in other words, there is no way of expressing them simply. In particular, it turns out that most numbers (including most integers) are incompressible and have no shorter encodings: there is no simpler way of representing them. In the natural world, hierarchical concepts are also ineluctably complex, because they contain multiple levels. Thus, the biological concept of a species, such as the domestic cat (Felis catus), is ineluctably complex, because each species (in this case, catus) falls within a genus (Felis), which falls within a family (Felidae), which falls within an order (Carnivora), which falls within a class (Mammalia), which falls within a phylum (Chordata), which falls within a kingdom (Animalia).

5. The Necessity of Inference Thesis: there are certain truths in both mathematics and the external world, which are by their very nature incapable of being known directly, but which must be inferred – e.g. the millionth place in the decimal expansion of pi (which has to be calculated using either an infinite series or an iterative algorithm), or the number of people living in the world today whose names contain a prime number of letters, or the total area of the Earth’s surface which would be flooded if global temperatures were to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

6. The Jeopardy Principle: any God worthy of the name must be able to answer any Jeopardy question that a clever human contestant (or for that matter, a computer) could answer. This principle seems intuitively obvious: the idea that someone could actually beat God at Jeopardy is surely a blasphemous one. Additionally, from a Judeo-Christian perspective, the Jeopardy Principle seems unobjectionable. In the Bible, God actually encourages certain individuals (e.g. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, King Ahaz, the son of Uzziah) to ask him questions and He answers them. Such a God could conceivably agree to allow Himself to be quizzed in a public forum, and even to enter a contest (think of Elijah and the prophets of Baal), provided that there were a good reason to do so (e.g. as a way of demonstrating His awesome power). Under such circumstances, we can be quite certain that God would emerge the winner.

7. The Inside Knowledge Principle: any God worthy of the name must be able to answer any question about human feelings that a human being could answer. As a rule, Jeopardy questions relate to the sort of information that you could look up in a book. But there are perfectly meaningful questions about human feelings which have an answer that cannot be derived from such “third-person” information – e.g. “Which is more painful, kidney stones or childbirth?” (The answer, by the way, is that in most cases, kidney stones are worse, according to a recent survey of women who had experienced both.) What the Inside Knowledge Principle states is that if people can answer these questions about their feelings, then an all-knowing God should be able to, as well. Once again, the idea that humans could answer a question that God cannot sounds frankly blasphemous.

8. Ask Me Anything Principle: any God worthy of the name must be able to answer any meaningful question that has a definite answer, including any hypothetical questions (counterfactuals) with a definite answer. Of course, some questions (e.g. whether there is an infinity between aleph-null and aleph-one, or what the cutoff point for baldness is) have no definite answer; naturally, God is not obliged to respond to these. What the principle expresses is the insight that there are no truths that are not known to God. Again, this seems pretty obvious to people with a theistic worldview.

Four additional assumptions

In addition to the above eight claims, I shall make the following four assumptions:

1. Computational Irreducibility: most complex systems, including our cosmos, are computationally irreducible – that is, it is mathematically impossible to predict what they will do apart from either running or simulating them. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram discusses computational irreducibility in chapter 12 of his groundbreaking text, A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media Inc., 2002), where he explains that practically every system, apart from ones which are obviously simple, is computationally irreducible. [Computational irreducibility is a logical consequence of Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence, which asserts that “almost any system whose behavior is not obviously simple performs computations that are in the end exactly equivalent in their sophistication” (Wolfram, 2002, p. 741).]

2. Divine Prudence: God would not make our universe unless He knew in advance that it was stable and liable to yield complex structures, including life-forms. This is because life, and in particular, intelligent life, requires a certain degree of stability in order for it to survive.

3. The Necessity of Experience: there are some questions that can only be answered on the basis of experience – either one’s own, or somebody else’s.

4. Libertarian freedom: Human choices are not determined. In making this assumption, I am ruling out both physical determinism and theological determinism: neither God nor the cosmos determines our choices.

What can we infer about God?

Big eared Townsend bat (Corynorhinus townsendii). The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously maintained that there must be “something that it is like” to be a bat. Likewise, there must be “something that it is like” to be God. Image courtesy of U.S. National Park Service and Wikipedia. Public domain.

The First-Person Irreducibility Thesis (which declares that subjective, first-person states are inexplicable in terms of objective, third-person states) entails that God has first-person states. Put simply, just as there is “something that it is like” to be a bat (Nagel), so too, there must be “something that it is like” to be God.

The Strong Causal Account of Knowledge entails that God knows contingent states of affairs by either determining them or being determined by them. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange famously expressed it in Volume II of his work, God: His Existence and Nature (St. Louis: Herder, 1934): “God is EITHER DETERMINING OR DETERMINED, there is no alternative … The knowledge of God is the CAUSE of our free determinations, or else it is CAUSED by them.” My additional assumption of Libertarian Freedom (which Dr. Kerr shares, although he disagrees with my Strong Causal Account of Knowledge) entails that creatures (specifically, human beings) are capable of determining God and making Him aware of certain facts. Put simply, God is an observer of what goes on in the universe.

The Concept Thesis (which states that there are certain kinds of objects, such as natural kinds and mathematical objects, which can only be understood by means of concepts), coupled with the Ineluctable Complexity of Concepts Thesis (which states that some concepts cannot be expressed simply) together entail that God has complex concepts (since He understands all kinds of objects).

The Jeopardy Principle (which states that God should be able to answer any Jeopardy question that a clever human contestant could answer) coupled with the Necessity of Inference Thesis (which states that there are certain truths that can only be known by being inferred), together entail that God has discursive knowledge: there are some truths which He can only know via a process of reasoning. (Of course, since God is beyond space and time, His reasoning takes no time at all; hence, if He were to appear on a quiz show, He would be able to instantly answer any question.)

The Inside Knowledge Principle (which states that God should be able to answer any question about human feelings that a human being could answer), coupled with my assumption of the Necessity of Experience (that there are some questions that can only be answered on the basis of one’s own or someone else’s experience) together entail that God must either have the same feelings as we do or be able to access our experiences. (Of course, even if God has our feelings, it does not follow that He experiences them in the way that we do. Protestant theologian Rob Lister, in his work, God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), argues that God experiences emotions, but does not experience sinful emotions, involuntary emotions, or emotions that are in some way unworthy of Him. Lister also contends that most of the Church Fathers actually held a similar view.)

Professor Linda Zagzebski, in a 2009 article, defends an interesting extension of omniscience, which she labels omnisubjectivity. In a nutshell, she offers a more empathetic account of God: God has perfect first-person knowledge as well as third-person knowledge: He knows precisely what it feels like for us to have the experiences we do, as well as knowing all true propositions about our past, present and future choices. As she puts it:

I propose that an omniscient being must have perfect total empathy with you and with all conscious beings. This is the property I call omnisubjectivity. An omnisubjective being would know what it is like to be you, as well as what it is like to be your dog, the bats in the cave, the birds, the fish, the reptiles, and each human being yet to be born. An omnisubjective being would know everything you know or understand from living your life… If God is omnisubjective, God knows you as well as you know yourself. God could not only write your biography, God could write your autobiography.

I must say that on an emotional level, this certainly makes God more approachable: God really does know what we have to go through in this life. The chief objection to Professor Zagzebski’s position is that it seems to entail that God experiences the evil thrill felt by someone making a morally perverse choice (think Hannibal the cannibal), which is inappropriate for a morally perfect Deity. Zagzebski considers and in my opinion successfully rebuts this objection, by arguing that the sinner’s feelings are (inappropriately) directed at objects, whereas the corresponding feelings experienced by God differ from the sinner’s in not being directed at anything; hence they do not detract from God’s moral perfection. I believe that Zagzebski’s article marks an outstanding contribution to theology as well as philosophy: it means God is in a real sense with us, in the midst of our suffering.

Finally, the Ask Me Anything Principle (God should be able to answer any meaningful question with a definite answer, including hypothetical questions), coupled with the assumption of Computational Irreducibility (it is mathematically impossible to predict how most systems, including our cosmos, will behave, apart from either running or simulating them) and the assumption of Divine Prudence (God would not make our universe unless He knew in advance that it was stable), entail that God has to perform a trial-and-error computation (possibly involving a simulator) before He can create a world like ours, in order to ascertain that it’s able to generate the complex structures required to support intelligent life.

In an influential 2013 paper titled, “The Universe as Quantum Computer”, Seth Lloyd of MIT argues that the universe itself is a quantum computer – specifically, a quantum cellular automaton. On Lloyd’s scenario, “quantum fluctuations – e.g., primordial fluctuations in energy density – automatically provide the random bits that are necessary to seed the quantum computer with a random program.” The vast majority of these “programs” are meaningless garbage, but some are mathematically meaningful, causing the universe to generate intricate fractals, for instance. According to Lloyd, “many complex, ordered structures can be produced from short computer programs, albeit after lengthy calculations.” For instance, there is a short program that will instruct the computer to “evaluate the consequences of the standard model of elementary particles, interacting with gravity, starting from the big bang.” Lloyd argues that “the quantum computing universe necessarily generates complex, ordered structures with high probability,” because random programs (i.e. primordial fluctuations in energy density) provide “exactly the right conditions to generate structures of arbitrarily great complexity.”

The key theological implication of Lloyd’s argument is that without performing the calculations, God had no way of knowing exactly which conditions would do the trick and generate the complexity we find in our cosmos. As Lloyd puts it, “the shortest programs to produce these complex structures are necessarily random, for if they were not, “then there would be an even shorter program that could produce the same structure.” In other words, if our universe was designed, then God had to find out by a trial-and-error process exactly which conditions would yield the universe He wanted.

One criticism I would make of Lloyd’s paper, however, is that he fails to distinguish the laws of Nature from the initial conditions of the cosmos. It is not clear from his paper whether he thinks quantum fluctuations generated our universe’s laws or initial conditions, or both.

Update: For my part, while I’m willing to suppose that the values of the constants of physics and the initial conditions of our universe may have been set randomly (e.g. by some quantum fluctuation, as Seth Lloyd envisages), I also find the elegant mathematics underlying the laws of Nature (many of which can be expressed as ordinary differential equations) to be very beautiful, and suggestive of a Mind behind Nature. For that reason, I maintain that God designed the mathematical framework of our cosmos, even if He had to use trial-and-error processes to arrive at a life-permitting set of physical constants and initial conditions.

From a design standpoint, the simplest possibility is that God used quantum fluctuations to generate a variety of random programs, which He ran until He hit on one that generated a stable, life-supporting universe. Another possibility is that God designed our universe using an ultimate computational device outside our cosmos – a kind of infinite computer which the authors of a scintillating online paper titled, “Simulation Argument: Theological Implications” (The Global Architect Institute, January 3, 2021) refer to as “the ultimate and unlimited entity that is the sufficient reason for all other computers” and denote as Hω, where the symbol ω represents the first transfinite ordinal number. Following the proposals made by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, the authors of the paper consider our own universe to be a simulation, “a software process running on some deeper computational substrate,” which may (for all we know) have been designed by aliens, whose universe may have been designed by other aliens; nevertheless, the authors argue on philosophical grounds that but that there must, in the end, be an Ultimate Computer. Indeed, the authors even float the possibility that the computer could be God:

Final Rule: There is an infinitely deep computer that exists. For every finite number n, the universe Un is a software program ultimately run by God. This rule is very similar to Simulation Creationism. For every finite number n, God is to Un as hardware is to software. However, to any deeper universe, God does not function as software. In the finite series, extrapolating from the computers’ features, it follows that God has infinite power, God has endless intelligence, and God is everlasting both into the future and into the past. God usually is responsible for the existence of every finite universe in every moment and is a self-directing and self-conscious intellect. Thus, God is maximally creative, early, intelligent, and powerful. From this point of view, God is functionally equivalent to an infinite and self-programming computer.

It may turn out to be that God is capable of performing computations and simulations upon Himselfnot upon His essence, but upon His energies, or accidents. (The Eastern Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies has never been condemned by the Catholic Church in any of its dogmatic declarations.)

One problem with this latter view, however, is that anything which God could operate and perform a simulation on sounds more like a thing (or substance) than an accident, but we know that God’s substance must be indivisible (otherwise He’d require something more fundamental to hold Him together). At any rate, we should keep an open mind, and consider all possibilities that have not been explicitly ruled out by Christian doctrinal pronouncements.

Problems with the account of God which I am proposing

The conclusions I have reached above imply the existence of a God Who is capable of acting upon Himself and being acted upon by His creatures, to whom He has freely given the power to affect Him. Thomists would contend that this conflicts with the traditional Christian teaching that God is impassible. However, a reading of the New Catholic Encyclopedia‘s article on the Impassibility of God reveals a more nuanced picture. Traditionally, the term “impassibility,” when ascribed to God, was understood to mean that because God as Creator is unchangeably perfect, He is impassible (Irenaeus, Ad. Haer., 2.12.1; 2.17.3, 8), that because God is eternal, and thus outside of time, He does not change or suffer (Tertullian, Ad. Mar., 1.3, 8), and that God does not undergo emotional changes of state, as a human being does (Origen, De Prin., 2.4.4)). Aquinas writes that God possesses neither a body nor sensitive appetites, and “therefore, there is no passion in God” (S.C.G., I.89.2; see also I.89.1–7). Historically, then, the term “impassibility” was defined in such a way as to exclude any imperfections in God: no changes, no suffering and no emotions unworthy of a Deity. When Thomists attempt to invoke this term in order to exclude the possibility of God’s acting upon Himself, they are therefore guilty of placing a full stop where the Church leaves a comma.

Regarding the possibility of God being timelessly acted upon and informed by His creatures, this is known in philosophical circles as the Boethian solution to the problem of Divine foreknowledge and human free will, being named after the Christian philosopher Boethius (480-524), who famously likened God to a watcher on a high hill – an image that was popular in the Middle Ages. Origen (180-253) adopted a similar view. (I have discussed the Boethian view and defended it against some common objections in a short online article here, which I wrote around 2010.) The vast majority of theologians have taken the view that for God to rely on creatures for information about what’s going on in the world would conflict with His aseity; however, God’s aseity has never been dogmatically defined, and neither has its meaning. It is one thing to say that God does not rely on creatures for any of His essential perfections; quite another to say that He does not rely on creatures for anything. I might add that if God voluntarily chooses to make Himself dependent on creatures in this way, who are we to gainsay His decision?

A Thomist might respond that God cannot make Himself dependent on creatures for information about the world, any more than He can make Himself square, or mortal. God is Pure Act, and contains no potentialities. However, I reject the Thomistic view that God is Pure Act, and rebut the arguments for such a Being below, in section M, part (ii). In my view, God is receptive, as well as active. (I might add that on a Trinitarian view of God, God must be capable of receiving messages as well as sending them, if the three Persons of the Trinity are indeed capable of having a genuine dialogue with one another. And if there is no such dialogue, then the existence of the second and third persons seems rather redundant: after all, what is the point of there being three persons who never talk to one another, even timelessly?)

It may also be asked how the views which I am putting forward here can be harmonized with the Church’s teaching on Divine simplicity. On the view I am propounding (which is similar to that of Dr. William Lane Craig), to say that God is simple means that He is not composed of parts which are more fundamental than He is, or which can be separated from one another. However, God’s intrinsic properties, including His thoughts and decisions relating to us, are not parts of God. They are of God, but not in Him, because (as I’ve argued above) an entity’s properties are not part of that entity. Consequently, the thoughts and decisions made by God in creating the universe pose no threat to the Divine simplicity.

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K. CLASSICAL THEISM VS. PERSONALISTIC THEISM: WHICH THEOLOGY IS SUPERIOR?


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(i) The uniqueness of God

One point that was hammered home by both Dr. Kerr and his host, Pat Flynn, during the interview was that personalistic theism (which envisages God at the outset in personal terms, as an Ultimate Mind) is in a much weaker theological position than classical theism (which argues that reality can only be explained by something which is Pure Act and Pure Existence, which we call God). In brief: what Kerr and Flynn claim is that only classical theism can mount a convincing case for the unity of God. While personalistic theism can show that the evidence points to there being one God, only classical theism can demonstrate that there must be only one God.

Personalistic theism doesn’t seem to be able to demonstrate, on principled grounds, that there can only be one God. After all, if we can show that one Ultimate Mind actually exists, then why not two, or three, or an infinite multitude of such minds? Why couldn’t they all be metaphysically ultimate, in the sense of requiring no further explanation for their existence?

Classical theism, on the other hand, seems to be in a much stronger position. For if God is Pure Act, then there cannot be two such entities, as one would need to have an actualization that the other lacked in order to differentiate them, and in that case, the entity lacking the actualization in question would have a potential to receive it, which means that the entity wouldn’t be Pure Act, after all. Also, there cannot be two entities who are Pure Existence. For Pure Existence is totally unbounded, and what could possibly differentiate two totally unbounded entities? Or as Rabbi Aron Moss puts it, in an article over at chabad.org titled, Is There a Logical Proof That There’s Only One G-d?:

G‑d has no borders, so how can there be more than one god? Where would one god end and one begin, if there is no dividing line between them?

The act of creation is the act of making borders and drawing definitions: this is an apple and not a banana, this is land and this is sea. Creation has definitions. The Creator doesn’t have a definition. That’s what makes Him G‑d. And that’s why there can be only one. (Bolding is mine – VJT.)

Must Pure Act be unique?

As readers of my articles on TSZ will know, I have already critiqued, in detail, the flaws in the argument that Pure Act must be unique, in an article that was part of a book review of Professor Ed Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God that I wrote two years ago (see here, here, here, here and here – I haven’t written the concluding section yet). Leaving aside the obvious point that the argument implicitly assumes the Leibnizian principle of the Indiscernibility of Identicals (which many philosophers regard as questionable), the argument also assumes that two entities which were both Pure Act would have to be two of a kind, ignoring the possibility that the two entities might possess two completely different sets of perfections (call them {A1, A2, … Am} and {B1, B2, … Bn}) which they both realize in their entirety, making them both perfect, but in fundamentally different ways. Furthermore, even if we generously suppose that two purely actual beings are two of a kind, the argument ignores the possibility that they may differ in features which are neither perfections nor deficiencies but neutral properties, like the color of a horse.

What about Pure Existence?

The argument that there can only one Being whose essence is Pure Existence itself strikes me as a much more interesting one. Now, I am prepared to grant that if there were such a Being, then its uniqueness would follow. However, I would maintain that the concept of “Pure Existence” is an incoherent one, for reasons I have explained at further length here. Briefly: if (as we would all acknowledge) the statements “Walking walks,” “Thinking thinks” and “Acting acts” are completely nonsensical, then why should the statement, “Existence exists” be any less so? Moreover, if God just is Pure Existence, then it should be possible to substitute “Existence” into statements about God’s nature and God’s actions (as opposed to statements concerning what people believe about God, where inter-substitutability might not hold: someone who believes that God is omnipotent might not believe that Pure Existence is omnipotent, and vice versa). When we make these substitutions, however, the statements we generate sound downright ridiculous: “Existence is three persons,” “Existence became a man,” “Existence created the world,” “Existence loves you,” “Existence talked to Moses” and “Existence wants you to go to church on Sundays.” So, what is wrong with these sentences? The problem here, I submit, is that “Pure Existence” is just Being itself (esse), whereas in order to create the world or respond to the people who pray to Him, God has to be a being (id quod est). So, how can Being be a being? Thomist philosopher Eleonore Stump is refreshingly candid when discussing this problem in her essay, “Simplicity and Aquinas’s Quantum Metaphysics” (in Gerhard Krieger (ed.), Die Metaphysik des Aristoteles im Mittelalter: Rezeption und Transformation, Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter, 191–210):

What kind of thing is it which can be both esse and id quod est? We do not know. The idea of simplicity is that at the ultimate metaphysical foundation of reality is something that has to be understood as esse — but also as id quo est. We do not know what this kind of thing is either. (Stump E., 2016, 202). (Bolding mine – VJT.)

For her part, Stump argues that the contradiction is merely apparent, and that it stems from a “deficiency in our mode of speaking” about God, which is liable to inaccuracy “in anything having to do with the quiddity of God” (Stump 2016, 207). That may be so; but from our limited earthbound perspective, we can only conclude that the concept of God as Pure Existence is doubtfully coherent at best. What is more, it is not a doctrine of the Christian faith. Although it became common among both the Eastern and Western Church Fathers to speak of God as Being itself (Ipsum Esse or Idipsum Esse) from the late fourth century onwards (beginning with St. Gregory Nazianzen in the East and St. Augustine of Hippo in the West), no ecumenical Council has ever defined the doctrine that God is Being itself.

Unbounded Being or Unbounded Mind? Either will do

What if we dropped the “Pure Existence” mumbo jumbo, and instead, simply defined God as an unbounded being, as Rabbi Moss does – that is, a being having absolutely no limits? Then it would seem to follow that there can only be one such being. But the personalistic theist can make essentially the same move, by defining God as a mind having absolutely no limits. Once again, it would seem to follow that there can only be one such mind.

What I think it is fair to conclude is that classical theism does no better than personalistic theism, when it comes to explaining why there can only be one God. On both accounts, though, the unboundedness of God is something that still needs to be argued for. The strength of each account stands or falls on the strength of its case for theism.

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(ii) The necessity of God

In his interview with Pat Flynn, Dr. Kerr also maintained that only Thomistic classical theism can account for the necessity of God in a satisfactory manner. Only a Being which is a Pure Act of Existence, existing in and of itself, can be described as necessary. Any being whose essence is distinct from its existence requires an explanation for its existence, and is therefore contingent. Personalistic theism treats God as a brute metaphysical fact: it fails to explain why God exists at all.

Several points need to be made in reply. First, Dr. Kerr assumes that there is a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, as opposed to a merely logical one. That’s a point on which even Scholastic philosophers disagree. If there is no real distinction, then there is no reason in principle why the God of personalistic theism could not qualify as a necessary Being.

Second, Dr. Kerr’s argument makes an illicit slide from an entity’s being identical with its own act of existence to that entity’s being identical with Pure Existence – a notion which I criticized above as nonsensical.

Third, Dr. Kerr overlooks the fact that necessity, in and of itself, is incapable of accounting for contingency. To be sure, a necessary state of affairs might conceivably generate a contingent effect within an already existing contingent subject, much as the Sun’s constant shining every day might cause the growth of a flower which sprouted by accident. But necessity alone can never generate a purely contingent state of affairs, any more than the proposition 2 + 2 = 4 can cause it to rain in Tokyo tomorrow.

Fourth, Dr. Kerr overlooks the fact that even an entity which is necessary may still require an explanation: its necessity may be derivative, rather like the corollary of a mathematical theorem, which is logically necessary but only in a derivative sense. Hence God’s necessity alone would not be enough to make Him an Ultimate Explanation. (Aquinas understood this point well; that’s basically what his Third Way is all about.)

Fifth, it is doubtful whether the notion of a self-explanatory Being even makes sense. (I realize that this assertion, coming from a person who believes in God, may shock some readers, but please bear with me.) Explanations, by their nature, are logically (and ontologically, when we’re dealing with actual existents) prior to what they explain; this if A explains B, then A is prior to B. However, a thing cannot be logically prior to itself.

Finally, the argument assumes that there are only two options: either a being is self-explanatory, or it is explained by something else. However, there is a third possibility: the being in question may be a yardstick or Ultimate Standard, whose nature defines what it is to be a good explanation. This, I would suggest, is the manner in which God is said to be the Ultimate Explanation, and it is perfectly compatible with personalistic theism. God is a Personal Agent, who constitutes the Ultimate Standard by which explanations are evaluated. Since God defines what it is to be a good explanation, it is therefore meaningless to ask for an explanation of God’s existence.

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L. WHY LOVE GOD? AND WHY THANK GOD? A TALE OF TWO BELIEVERS

Official portrait of Juan and Eva Perón, by Numa Ayrinhac in 1948. When Eva first met her future husband, Juan, she is alleged to have said: “Thank you for existing.” If Thomistic classical theism is correct, we should say the same to God. Image courtesy of Museo Casa Rosada and Wikipedia.

So now we come to the key practical objection to the Thomistic account of Divine simplicity.

1. God doesn’t really love you, on the Thomistic account.

In a recent podcast (June 7, 2021; see here for transcript), Dr. William Lane Craig responded to a critique of his views on Divine simplicity (May 18, 2021) by Adam Tucker and Dr. Brian Huffling of the Southern Evangelical Seminary. In his response, Dr. Craig contended that on the Thomistic account, God does not really love you:

That’s what Thomas Aquinas affirms. You see, he says that God stands in no real relations to the world and therefore he is not related to things really as cause to effect, knower to known, lover to loved. Rather, these relations exist only in creatures. Thomas’ paradoxical doctrine is that while creatures are effects of God, God is not the cause of creatures. While creatures are known by God, God does not know creatures. While creatures are beloved of God, God does not love creatures. These properties or relations exist only in the creatures themselves. I think this is a paradoxical doctrine that is not only unbiblical but incomprehensible. (Bolding mine – VJT.)

At this point, a Thomist might object that Craig is being somewhat unfair here, and that what Aquinas actually held was that God knows and loves His creatures without having a real relationship with them, as expressed in the Divine Non-Relational Knowing and Loving Principle. But what the Thomist cannot deny is that God’s knowledge and love of creatures exists only within creatures and is wholly external to God: for on the Thomistic view, God would still be exactly the same, even if He hadn’t made us.

On a practical level, a God Who’s exactly the same as He would be if He hadn’t made me is much less likely to inspire religious devotion on the part of believers than a Being Who has genuine feelings of love towards me. Ask yourself this: which Being would you die for? The first one or the second?

2. The Thomistic account provides us with no good reason to love God.

Furthermore, if the Thomistic account of God is true, then one might legitimately ask: why should I love a God Who created me without even thinking about me or directing His will at me? Putting it simply: if there’s nothing real in God corresponding to His love of me, then why should I love God back? To be sure, I might still obey Him, in the hope of obtaining a reward for my service in the hereafter, but love Him? Why on earth would I want to do that? It makes no sense for me to waste my spiritual and emotional energy on loving a God Who will be exactly the same in every way, regardless of whether I love Him or not. The only appropriate relationship to have with such a Deity is a hard-nosed, opportunistic one: what benefits can we get out of serving Him?

3. Gratitude to God makes no sense, on the Thomistic account.

At this point, the Thomist might respond, “Well, even if God doesn’t feel anything for you, at least He keeps you in existence, doesn’t He? And if you obey His decrees, you’ll be able to enjoy eternal happiness with Him, in Heaven. Isn’t that a good reason to love Him and feel grateful towards Him?” No, it’s not. Here’s why.

I maintain that it would be irrational to thank God for my existence, unless there’s some gratitude-inspiring activity that God performs for us, such that (a) if God hadn’t performed this activity, I wouldn’t be here, and (b) the activity is motivated by a concern for my well-being. (The second condition is crucial: one might thank the designer of a ship for installing guard rails to prevent passengers from falling overboard, but one would not thank the designer if it turned out that the rails had been originally installed for purely aesthetic reasons, and without any concern for passengers’ safety.) Now, on the Thomistic account, God’s activity of making me is nothing more than (i) my existing and (ii) my depending on God. Hence the gratitude-inspiring activity that God has performed, such that if He hadn’t done it then I wouldn’t be here, has to be either (i) or (ii).

Now, let’s look at condition (a): if God hadn’t performed this activity, I wouldn’t be here. If (i) [i.e. my existing] is the gratitude-inspiring activity, then this translates to: “If I didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t be here,” which is trivially true. What about (ii) [my depending on God]? Condition (a) then translates to the following: “If God didn’t exist, then I wouldn’t be here.” Is God’s existence a good reason to thank God? No, because on the classical theistic account, God cannot help but exist: He’s a necessary Being. God’s existence is beyond even God’s control. So why thank Him for simply being? Also, God’s existence fails condition (b) above: it is not motivated by a concern for my well-being, as God would still exist even if I did not. Hence there is no gratitude-inspiring activity satisfying both conditions (a) and (b), which means that there is no reason to thank God for my existence, if Aquinas is right about the way He relates to us.

Thinking about gratitude towards God, I am reminded of the story that Eva Peron, on the night when she first met her husband Juan in 1944, came out with the now-famous line: “Thank you for existing.” On the Thomistic account, that’s the only reason we’d have to thank God. And I don’t think it’s a good one.

Ned and Ted: A parable of two believers

Let me illustrate what I’m driving at by telling a short parable. Imagine, if you will, two Christians who are both well-educated classical theists, living in Europe during the Middle Ages, at a time when classical theism is at its apogee. Let’s call them Ned and Ted. Because they both live in a medieval Christian kingdom, neither of them questions the truth of the faith they have received, on an intellectual level. Ned loves God with all his heart and soul and mind, and is filled with devotion to his Creator. Ted, on the other hand, sees absolutely no reason to be grateful to a Creator Who doesn’t have him in mind, and Who didn’t do anything different in making the world from what He would have done if He hadn’t made a world. However, Ted is a shrewd opportunist, and decides to act as if he were grateful, and go through all the motions that a devout believer like Ned would, in the hope of obtaining the reward of everlasting life. Accordingly, he models his life on Ned’s, and prays and acts as if he were filled with the love of God, but in his heart, he feels no love at all for his Maker.

Here are three questions for Thomists to ponder.
Question 1: Is Ted smart?
Question 2: On what grounds, if any, can God reproach Ted? (After all, Ted has done everything that God has commanded Him to do.)
Question 3: Should Christians try to be like Ned or Ted?

The superiority of personalistic theism

Dr. Kerr and other Thomists are fond of disparaging personalistic theism as crude and anthropomorphic. I maintain, however, it enables believers to have a relationship with their Maker which is far more satisfying, on a spiritual level, than Thomistic classical theism, as it encourages believers to think of God as a loving Father. The spirituality which I personally draw strength from is beautifully illustrated by the following passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which a dying girl named Helen Burns, who acts as a mentor to the young Jane, reflects on her imminent death and consoles Jane in her distress:

“But where are you going to, Helen? Can you see? Do you know?”

“I believe; I have faith: I am going to God.”

“Where is God? What is God?”

“My Maker and yours, who will never destroy what He created. I rely implicitly on His power, and confide wholly in His goodness: I count the hours till that eventful one arrives which shall restore me to Him, reveal Him to me.”

“You are sure, then, Helen, that there is such a place as heaven, and that our souls can get to it when we die?”

“I am sure there is a future state; I believe God is good; I can resign my immortal part to Him without any misgiving. God is my father; God is my friend: I love Him; I believe He loves me.”

“And shall I see you again, Helen, when I die?”

“You will come to the same region of happiness: be received by the same mighty, universal Parent, no doubt, dear Jane.”

And that’s the God I believe in: my Maker, a father, a friend, and a mighty, universal Parent. One can love a God like that. It is worth contrasting Charlotte Brontë’s spirituality with that of Aristotle, who remarked in his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, part 7: “it is not possible to define exactly up to what point friends can remain friends; for much can be taken away and friendship remain, but when one party is removed to a great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases.” Aristotle held that one cannot be friends with God, but only with someone who is the sort of being that we are – namely, a human being. Aristotle rightly intuited, however, that true friends must wish each other well: as he so aptly expressed it in Book VIII, part 2, “how could one call them friends when they do not know their mutual feelings?” That’s the reason, in a nutshell, why one could never befriend the God of Thomistic classical theism: absence of mutual feelings.

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M. HOW CONVINCING IS THE CASE FOR CLASSICAL THEISM, ANYWAY?

So far, we’ve been discussing the merits of Thomistic classical theism, but we have yet to address the question: how strong is the case for classical theism, anyway? I propose to evaluate it by examining three arguments: first, an argument for an Unconditioned Reality, popularized by Pat Flynn (who interviewed Dr. Kerr) and said to be based on the writings of the Jesuit philosophers Bernard Lonergan and Robert Spitzer; second, the Aristotelian argument for an Unmoved Mover who is Pure Act, which has been recently revamped by Thomist philosopher Ed Feser; and finally, the argument for an entity whose essence is Pure Existence, much loved by Dr. Kerr and based on St. Thomas Aquinas’ De Ente et Essentia.


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(i) Spitzer’s and Flynn’s argument for an Unconditioned Reality

Pat Flynn (who has a master’s degree in philosophy) presents his proof of God in his talk, “A Contemporary Thomistic Argument for the Existence of God”, which readers can view here:

Prelude: Why I don’t think Fr. Bernard Lonergan would have endorsed Flynn’s argument

Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J. at Boston College. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Not one to hog credit for himself, Flynn claims that his argument for the God of classical theism is based on Fr. Bernard Lonergan’s Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (Collected Works vol. 3, ed. Frederick E. Crowe and Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1992); idem, Method in Theology (New York: Seabury, 1972)) and Fr. Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Readers of this friendly review of Spitzer’s book will see that Flynn’s argument owes quite a lot to Fr. Spitzer; however, I am highly doubtful that Bernard Lonergan, who is rightly revered as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, would have espoused the argument, as it stands, since it is logically flawed (as we’ll see below), as well as being at odds with his own approach to God.

Readers who would like to know more about Lonergan’s approach to God will benefit from the immensely helpful five-page synopsis of Chapter 19 of Lonergan’s masterpiece, Insight, prepared by Professor Patrick Byrne, of the Lonergan Institute at Boston College. In a nutshell, Lonergan’s tightly worded comprehensive proof of God’s existence (“If the real is being, the intelligible, God exists; but the real is intelligible, the real is being; therefore God exists”) sought to demonstrate the reality of God from the claim that whatever is, is completely intelligible (i.e. capable of being fully known and understood), which means that if there are any contingent facts, they cannot be “brute facts,” but must be fully explicable. I would also recommend Paul St. Amour’s illuminating article, Bernard Lonergan on Affirmation of the Existence of God (Analecta Hermeneutica, Volume 2, 2010). At any rate, the key point that needs to be grasped here is that Lonergan’s approach to the existence of God is very different from the approach taken by most Thomists. As St. Amour explains, for Lonergan, “the question of the existence of God, which asks whether God is, can legitimately be raised only after explicating a notion of God, only after specifying in some manner, what God is” (2010, p. 6). In chapter 19 of Insight, Lonergan explicitly defines God from the outset as an Unrestricted Act of Understanding, which “leaves nothing to be understood, no further questions to be asked,” because it is “an act of understanding everything about everything” (1992, pp. 666, 667). That’s a definition that a personalistic theist could happily endorse, since it envisages God as an Ultimate Mind. Traditional Thomists, on the other hand, spurn prefabricated notions of God (such as that of an Ultimate Mind) and attempt to infer His attributes, step-by-step, from the general principles of metaphysics and certain general features of empirical reality (e.g. the fact that change occurs, or that things are caused, or that things come to be and pass away). The Thomistic concept of God is thus a constructive one.

The upshot of all this is that any attempt to invoke Lonergan as a philosophical ally in the dispute between classical theism and personalistic theism would be a gross oversimplification: in reality, as a thinker who was heavily influenced by Catholic theologians as diverse as Augustine, Aquinas and Newman, he had a foot in both camps.

St. Amour also explains how Lonergan, in his later years, came to revise his views of the argument for God’s existence which he presented in Insight, chapter 19. While Lonergan never acknowledged any intrinsic logical flaw with the argument, he came to recognize that it was incomplete, as it neglected the vital role played by an individual thinker’s philosophical framework, or intellectual horizon, when they are grappling with the proof of God’s existence set out by Lonergan in Insight, chapter 19. An individual’s mental horizon plays a particularly important part when they are considering the question of whether reality is fully intelligible. For that reason, Lonergan’s proof, while valid, can only be deemed sound by an individual who is intellectually ready to accept this key premise. As St. Amour puts it:

Certainly the proof is presented in a logical form. The logic of the argument (modus ponens) is valid and, as such, is unassailable. Yet existentially the proof nevertheless remains “wide-open.” Whether the argument is to be recognized as sound or not, depends upon one’s judgment of the truth of the premises. That judgment, in turn, will depend upon who one is, i.e., upon one’s attainment, or not, of intellectual conversion. One key issue is whether or not the minor premise of the Insight 19 proof can become for oneself a matter of real assent, for that premise especially strikes at the root of one’s deepest epistemological assumptions. Is the real completely intelligible? Is this a proposition I understand, and to which I can rationally assent? Or are these just words for me, a mere flatus vocis? Or am I perhaps somewhere in the middle, striving toward self-understanding, struggling to differentiate the “two quite different realisms” inherent in my polymorphic self, making perhaps only slow progress in the long and winding process of self-appropriation? The answer, whatever it may be, is well worth knowing. And so the question is well worth asking. That the real is completely intelligible is simply not the kind of assumption to which one can freely help oneself. (Bolding mine – VJT.)

To sum up: it would be a mistake to regard Lonergan’s argument for God as a knockdown proof that will convert any intellectually honest seeker after truth who understands it. Rather, it is an argument which engages the heart as well as the head, and the will as well as the intellect. And its conclusion can only be accepted by those who are mentally prepared for it, through their philosophical formation and lived experience.

Flynn’s argument for an Unconditioned Reality, in a nutshell

Let us return to Flynn’s contemporary argument for God’s existence. The goal of Flynn’s presentation is first, to demonstrate that there must be at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality within the totality of reality, or the Big Collection of everything real; and second, to prove that only a purely actual reality could be an unconditioned reality.

Following Lonergan and Spitzer, Flynn prefers the term “conditioned” to the term “caused.” By “conditioned,” he means any reality which exists because and only because conditions and circumstances extrinsic to it have been fulfilled. Without these conditions, it would fail to exist. You could also call it a caused or dependent reality. By “unconditioned,” Flynn means any reality which does not depend on conditions extrinsic to it in order to exist, and that would of course be an independent or uncaused reality. The reader may be wondering: what kind of extrinsic conditions are we talking about here? Flynn makes it clear that his definition includes both causes of a thing’s becoming (i.e. what brought that thing into existence) and causes of its being (i.e. what keeps it in existence).

Flynn begins by presenting two competing hypotheses:

(C) all of reality is comprised of only conditioned or caused realities (i.e. there are no uncaused realities);

(U) there is at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality.

These hypotheses, maintains Flynn, are mutually exclusive and logically exhaustive. He then argues that we can disprove C, so U must be true. That is, reason can show that there must be at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality.

So, how does Flynn attempt to disprove hypothesis C, that there are no uncaused or unconditioned realities? I’ve taken the trouble of transcribing the relevant part of his talk. The bolding is mine. I wonder if my readers can spot the fallacy, as well as the more general problem with the argument, from a Thomistic point of view:

If there were not at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality in the totality of reality, then the totality of reality would be collectively conditioned in its existence. But if the totality of reality were collectively conditioned in its existence, it would then be awaiting the fulfillment of conditions beyond itself, to exist. However, beyond the totality of reality there is simply and literally nothing. So if the totality of reality were collectively a conditioned reality, then the totality of reality would be awaiting the fulfillment of conditions beyond itself, which are not only unfulfilled, but in principle unfulfillable. But a conditioned reality whose conditions are unfulfilled is identical to nothing. Otherwise it is a contradiction in terms. Therefore if the totality of reality were collectively conditioned in its existence, then nothing would exist. But that’s a contradiction of fact, because something does exist: we’re having this conversation right now. So hypothesis C is false. Therefore hypothesis U must be true, which means there has to be one unconditioned or uncaused reality in the totality of reality – otherwise, nothing would exist. So in simpler terms, not everything requires an extrinsic explanation, because there is simply nothing beyond everything to do the explaining. But if not everything can have an extrinsic explanation, then at least something – possibly only one thing – must find a sufficient explanation of its existence either through or within itself. That doesn’t mean it’s the cause of itself, which would be a contradiction. But it finds its sufficient explanation either through or within itself. And whatever that thing is would be an unconditioned or uncaused reality.

In response to an anticipated objection, Flynn goes on to add that it doesn’t matter if reality is finite or infinite, since an infinite number of conditioned realities would still require an unconditioned reality to explain it. Also, it doesn’t matter if these realities are arranged in a line or a circle, as the fundamental problem is the same.

The logical flaw in Flynn’s argument for God’s existence

A Penrose tiling (P3) using thick and thin rhombi. This domain exhibits five-fold symmetry. A tiled surface beautifully illustrates the fallacy of composition: each tile is dependent on its neighbors to keep it in place, but the surface itself does not require anything to keep it in place. Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Inductiveload.

And what, you may ask, is that fundamental problem? Let’s go back to the very first premise of Flynn’s argument: “If there were not at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality in the totality of reality, then the totality of reality would be collectively conditioned in its existence.” Or in plain English, if there weren’t at least one uncaused thing within the collection of all things, then the whole collection would be caused by something outside it – which is impossible, since by definition, there’s nothing outside everything. The fallacy in this premise should be immediately apparent: shorn of its high-flown terminology, Flynn is basically arguing that because each and every thing has a cause, then there must be a cause of Everything. That’s called the fallacy of composition. The tiling pattern depicted above illustrates this fallacy perfectly. Each individual tile depends on its neighbors in order to remain in place, but the tiled surface as a whole, which could theoretically be infinite in extent, does not require anything to keep it in place.

Now, Flynn is aware of this objection (which goes back at least to Hume), and responds by claiming that his argument does not commit the fallacy of composition, since it begins by assuming the truth of hypothesis C (that every entity is caused, or as he puts it, that there are no unconditioned realities) and then generating a contradiction, leaving hypothesis U (that there is at least one uncaused reality) as the only alternative. That may be so; but in its attempts to generate a contradiction, the argument nonetheless commits a fallacy, as shown above. No two ways about it: the argument doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks.

Flynn also contends that critics of his argument commit what he calls a construction fallacy: it is illicit, he avers, to assume that simply by adding dependent things, you can somehow make an independent whole. In reply: it would indeed be illicit to simply assume that you could make an independent whole in this fashion, but an atheist need not make this assumption. All the atheist needs to do is propose it as a possibility. It is Flynn’s task to show that such a scenario is impossible. This he has not done.

Finally, Flynn could respond that the kind of dependency he had in mind was a hierarchical pattern of dependency (also known as a per se causal series). If that was what he had in mind, then he should have said as much, during his 80-minute presentation. In any case, I shall argue in part (b) below that while hierarchical causal series must come to a halt at some Uncaused Cause, this fact fails to establish the truth of classical theism.

A deeper flaw in the argument: lumping God and creatures together

However, there is a deeper flaw in Flynn’s argument, and I am surprised that he has not noticed this one, and even more surprised that Fr. Spitzer (on whose work Flynn’s argument is based) did not notice it, either. Flynn’s hypothesis C, which he attempts to refute, is that all of reality is comprised of only conditioned or caused realities, and the alternative hypothesis U which he offers in its place is that there is at least one unconditioned or uncaused reality. Both hypotheses share the underlying assumption that realities, whether caused or uncaused, conditioned or unconditioned, can be lumped together in some larger set or collective, named “all of reality.” But what the Thomist insists is that God and creatures do not belong to any common genus; hence any attempt to lump them all together and then argue that some part of the set or group must be uncaused, fails to grasp the depth ontological chasm that separates God from creatures. It is an argument no Thomist could endorse.

Does the argument establish that the Uncaused Cause is Pure Act and Pure Existence?

Next, Flynn endeavors to prove that only that which is a pure act of existence, existing in and through itself, can be an unconditioned reality. Following Norris Clarke, he defines an act of existence as that in a being which makes it to be a real being. He then argues as follows: if the unconditioned reality were not an act of existence existing in and through itself, then there would have to be some part of it which differed from the act of existence. However, if there were such a part, then that part would be caused in its existence, which would entail a contradiction, because then we’d be positing an unconditioned conditioned reality. Flynn completes his proof by arguing that if the unconditioned reality were not actual, then it would need to be activated (by something else). Moreover, if it did not exist in and of itself, then it would depend on something else.

I shall try to keep my response as brief as Flynn’s argument, so as not to bore my readers. First, the arguments for a distinction between a thing’s “whatness” or essence and its act of existence strike me as unconvincing, for reasons I’ve explained at further length here. (I’ll say more about these arguments below, in part (iii).) In any case, I have no trouble accepting the reality of an uncaused being (or unconditioned reality) which is identical to its own act of existence. However, it simply does not follow that such a being is identical to Pure Existence, whatever that is. In addition, the argument that an unconditioned reality must be fully actual, or it would need to be activated by something else, assumes that nothing is capable of activating itself (a doubtful assumption, for reasons I’ll explain in part (ii)). Finally, the assertion that whatever is not self-explanatory has to be explained by something else overlooks a third possibility: that of a Reality which defines what it means to be an explanation, full stop. Such a Reality would just be a metaphysical “given.”

In short: while the argument for the existence of an Unconditioned Reality which is Pure Existence is well-presented by Flynn, it is both logically and metaphysically flawed, and therefore fails to establish the truth of classical theism.

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(ii) The Aristotelian argument for an Unmoved Mover, or Unactualized Actualizer

Let us now examine the Aristotelian argument for an Unmoved Mover, or (in modern parlance) an Unactualized Actualizer, who is Pure Act.

How the argument implicitly assumes a personalistic picture of God

A game of ice hockey: Michigan vs Ohio State, Feb. 22, 2015. In a game of ice hockey, a player has to hit the puck with a stick, in order to score. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and brapai.

A crucial step of the argument for an Unmoved Mover (or Unactualized Actualizer) is the premise that an infinite regress of hierarchical (or per se) causes, where each member is dependent on the previous members of the series in order to move or generate the next member of the series, is impossible. The classic illustration used by Thomists is that of a hand moving a stick, which moves a stone – rather like the way in which a player hits the puck with their stick, in ice hockey. Hierarchical causal series have to terminate in a primary cause. Were there no primary cause, there would be no causal series in question. This is because the power of each member of the series (except the primary cause) is a borrowed power, while it is being exercised. (In a per accidens series, by contrast, a given member doesn’t depend on the concurrent activity of the previous member to move or generate the next member, so there is no need for a first member. Such series can stretch back to infinity. Aquinas’ own example is that of fathers and sons: since a father’s power to sire children is independent of the activity of his own father, who may no longer even be alive, there is no reason, at least in principle, why the human race could not have existed forever: there need not have been an original father of the human race.)

What Thomistic exponents of the argument for an Unactualized Actualizer often overlook, however, is the fact that the only valid examples of hierarchical causal series are drawn from the field of personal agency. Dr. Kerr’s own chosen example (mind moves hand moves stick moves stone) illustrates this point perfectly. What’s more, there are no genuine cases in Nature of physical causes operating in such a fashion, either. The seemingly intuitive example suggested by Pat Flynn (light from the moon, which is mostly reflected sunlight) fails, because the moon does not depend on the sun for its power to reflect light: it has that ability, in virtue of its surface properties (specifically, its albedo). In order to reflect light, all the moon needs is a steady supply of incoming light. And that light could come from a luminous object like the sun, or from another heavenly body A, whose light is reflected from B, whose light is reflected from C, and so on ad infinitum. Counterintuitive as it may seem, there need not be any original source of the moon’s light at all. The example of an Olympic torch relay may help readers grasp this point. The flame, which is lit in Olympia, Greece, is passed from torch to torch, at various locations around the world, in a giant relay, until it reaches the site of the Olympic Games. But one can easily imagine that the torch relay might never have had a beginning: it could have been going on for all eternity.

What all this means is that the argument for an Unmoved Mover, or Unactualized Actualizer, presupposes the concept of a personal agent. Putting it another way, classical theism does not offer us an independent route to God; it is heavily depeendent on personalistic theism, which Thomists are so fond of mocking.

Until Thomists can come up with a clearcut case of a hierarchical physical series, without any mental agents, in which the power of each member is borrowed, while being exercised, their argument for an Unactualized Actualizer will remain forever tied at the apron strings to personalistic theism.

What a modern Thomist thinks of Aquinas’ argument for an Unmoved Mover

Dr. Joseph Magee, who earned his PhD from the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston, Texas, in 1999 and taught philosophy there, and who has produced and maintained the Thomistic Philosophy Page since 1996, has written a highly informative online article, titled, The First Way – The Ultimate Source of Motion, in which he provides a balanced and candid evaluation of Aquinas’ argument for an Unmoved Mover. In his assessment of the First Way, Magee concurs with my contention that in the natural world, we never encounter any hierarchical series of simultaneously acting moving movers:

So, the upshot of all this is that Aquinas is saying in the First Way that there are motions in the world, and that some of them are the per se result of simultaneously prior motions – the motion of the heavenly spheres. Thomas argues, rightly, for what it’s worth, that there could not be an infinitely long series of these moved movers, even though, as it turns out, there are not any spheres or any moving causes of all terrestrial motion (lumped together). In fact, no natural motion or transient alteration, it seems – neither gravity, nor radioactive decay, neither chemical reactions, nor electromagnetic actions, nor the energy stored and released by the strong nuclear force – none are the result of simultaneously acting moving movers.

…As it turns out, … material things can either generate of themselves transient motion (gravity and weak force) or pass on energy in different forms, storing potential energy (electromagnetism and strong force) and releasing it by means of per accidens efficient causes. So, I conclude, the First Way is defeated by contingent facts about the actual material universe that modern science has discovered.

In other words, science has rendered Aquinas’ argument for an Unmoved Mover obsolete. Material things can move themselves. As it turns out, however, Scholastic philosophers were questioning a key premise of the argument as far back as the early 17th century. Even then, they realized that personal agents are self-moved movers.

Francisco Suárez on the possibility of a self-moved mover

It may surprise some readers to learn that leading Scholastic philosophers have rejected the argument for an Unmoved Mover – most notably, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617; pictured above), who was regarded during his lifetime as being the greatest living philosopher and theologian, and who is generally considered to be one of the greatest Scholastic philosophers of all time. Suárez’s views on the argument for an Unmoved Mover are aptly summarized by Dr. Sydney Penner in an article written for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

A key reason for Suárez to worry about this argument is that he not only thinks the status of the Aristotelian principle that whatever is moved is moved by another uncertain, he thinks that we ourselves provide counterexamples via our free actions. Consequently, he thinks the physical cosmological argument (“physical” because motion pertains to physics) relies on a false premise.

There were more fundamental problems with the argument, as Benjamin Hill succinctly notes in a chapter titled, “Franciso Suarez: A ‘New’ Thomistic Realism,” in the collection of essays, Jesuit Philosophy on the Eve of Modernity (Jesuit Studies, Volume 20, 2019; ed. Cristiano Casalini):

Suárez categorically rejects the idea of proving God’s existence on the basis of natural philosophy. Aquinas’ famous argument of the first way as an exemplar of such a proof receives detailed, focused and critical attention from Suárez. It is based on the principle that whatever is moved is moved by something else. As a principle this proposition is false: there are a number of self-moving entities. But most damning, for Suárez, is that there is no contradiction in the concept of self-motion (DM 29.1.7). (2019, 388)

Is change an objective feature of the external world?

An illustration of the block universe concept, showing a man walking his dog. Time progresses through a series of snapshots from the bottom of the page to the top. According to eternalism, these four instants all equally exist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Benjamin Crowell.

Although I don’t agree with them at all, I should point out that there are many physicists today who argue that time is an illusion (though this is by no means a universal view), which would mean that change is an illusion, too. One such physicist is Carlo Rovelli, whose recent work, The Order of Time (Allen Lane, 2018), was favorably reviewed in Nature magazine. In his book, Rovelli argues that reality itself is a complex network of events, onto which observers project their sequences of past, present and future, which arise from their perceptions. “Forward in time,” according to Rovelli, is the direction in which entropy increases, and in which observers gain information.

In recent years, certain theistic philosophers have attempted to refute the claim that time is an illusion by arguing that it is a fact of life that people sometimes change their views about certain issues (e.g. whether there is a God) over the course of time; hence change and time are real. But this response misses the whole point of the argument, which is that physics is concerned with describing reality at an objective level. Nevertheless, Thomist philosopher Ed Feser, in his work, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius Press, 2017, pp. 49-50), maintains that even subjective change is enough to establish the existence of a purely actual Actualizer. As he puts it: “if change exists at least in the mind, then there is at least some actualization of potential, and that is all that is needed for the Aristotelian argument for God’s existence to get off the ground” (bolding mine – VJT). However, it is by no means obvious that when someone changes their mind, they require another entity to change it for them. Without appealing to the metaphysically dubious assumption (challenged by Suárez, above) that whatever changes is changed by another, it appears to me that the Aristotelian argument from motion can never get off the ground, if one is arguing against a philosophical opponent who denies the objective reality of change and who maintains that change is only subjectively real.

An Unactualized Actualizer or a Purely Actual Actualizer?

An Energizer AA battery. Modern presentations of the Aristotelian argument construe it as an argument for an Unactualized Actualizer, who is purely actual. Such a Being is rather like a battery: it energizes (or actualizes) everything else. Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Asim18.

Naturally, I am well aware that contemporary presentations of the Aristotelian argument from motion downplay the premise that “whatever is moved is moved by another.” In his work, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, Thomist philosopher Ed Feser, in his chapter on “The Aristotelian proof” (which is far and away the best exposition of the argument in the modern philosophical literature), replaces it with the uncontroversial premise (#5 in his 50-step version of the argument): “So, any change is caused by something already actual,” which leaves room for the possibility that a thing already possessing an actuality virtually or eminently (by either having the power to acquire it or having the power to confer it) may be able to bestow it upon itself formally, without the need for an external mover.

Another possibility that needs to be considered is that some actualizations of a thing may be spread out over time, which means that they cannot be adequately characterized at a single point in time. Consider the example of a time crystal (which was recently built by Google), that forever cycles between states without consuming energy. As Natalie Wolchover, writing for Quanta magazine (July 30, 2021), describes it: “A time crystal is both stable and ever-changing, with special moments that come at periodic intervals in time.” One could argue that the actualization acquired by the crystal in being made to cycle back and forth in this way is one which is spread out over its entire cycle. Putting it another way, its actualization is to move in a regular cycle.

However, Feser manages to sidestep objections relating to the possibility of self-movement, by focusing on things’ existence, instead. As Feser states in premise 8 of his argument: “So, any substance S has at any moment some actualizer A of its existence.” Where the argument goes wrong, I believe, is in premise 9 (“A’s own existence at the moment it actualizes S itself presupposes either (a) the concurrent actualization of its own potential for existence or (b) A’s being purely actual“), because it poses a false dichotomy: instead of saying that the actualizer A’s own existence presupposes either (a) the concurrent actualization of its own potential for existence or (b) A’s being purely actual, we should say that it presupposes either (a) the concurrent actualization of its own potential for existence or (b) A’s not having a potential for existence that needs to be actualized by another entity. On the second alternative, A would need nothing outside itself to hold it together as a being, and A would not need to be “switched on” (or actualized) by anything else, either in order to exist, or in order to ground the existence of other things. However, A’s not having a potential for existence that needs to be actualized is not the same as A’s being purely actual – a point which undercuts Feser’s later attempts to deduce the attributes of the Uncaused Cause from its being purely actual. For all we know, a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else might turn out to be a material object, and nothing more – for example, a quantum field, or something like that.

Later in the chapter, Feser rebuts a possible criticism, relating to whether his Aristotelian proof for God’s existence actually establishes that the First (or Ultimate) Actualizer is purely actual, or simply a Being which doesn’t need to be actualized from outside, when it actualizes other beings, but which may nonetheless be capable of being actualized (either by itself or by other beings). The point which is at stake here, as Feser realizes, is that unless he can show that the First Actualizer is purely actual, he will be unable to show that it is one, immaterial, eternal, perfect, omnipotent and omniscient. Feser responds as follows:

…[T]he regress of actualizers that we are ultimately concerned with is a regress of the actualizers of the existence of things. The first actualizer in the series is “first”, then, in the sense that it can actualize the existence of other things without its own existence having to be actualized. So, suppose this first actualizer had some potentiality that had to be actualized in order for it to exist. What actualizes that potential? (2017, p. 66)

However, this argument merely shows that the First Actualizer has no potentiality that has to be actualized, in order for it to exist. What Feser fails to show is that this Being doesn’t possess any potentialities whatsoever. It might still have potentialities which it activates when it acts, for instance, without needing anything in order to exist, or in order to ground the existence of other things.

A Thomist might still object that any material thing that actualizes another thing must be undergoing change itself in the course of doing so, and thus must have potentialities that need to be actualized by another entity. Hence the First Actualizer cannot be anything material. In reply: this objection begs the question by assuming that nothing material is capable of changing itself, and that every material entity that changes is changed by something else.

Could the Unactualized Actualizer be something physical, such as a quantum field?

In this Feynman diagram, an electron (e−) and a positron (e+) annihilate, producing a photon (γ, represented by the blue sine wave) that becomes a quark–antiquark pair (quark q, antiquark q̄), after which the antiquark radiates a gluon (g, represented by the green helix). Image courtesy of Joel Holdsworth, SilverStar and Wikipedia. Public domain.

Finally, it could be argued that quantum fields would be a pretty good explanatory terminus for an atheist, in the quest for an Unactualized Actualizer. As astrophysicist Ethan Siegel explains in his highly illuminating online articles, Are Quantum Fields Real?, How do Quantum Fields Create Particles? and When did The Universe Get Its First Quantum Fields?, “a quantum field isn’t only present where you have a source (like a mass or a charge), but rather is omnipresent: everywhere.” Indeed, we can view the entire Universe as “a complicated quantum field that, itself, contains all of physics.” What’s more, “the particles that exist, at the core of their nature, are just excited quantum fields themselves.” As Siegel puts it:

Here’s how it works: the field exists everywhere in space, even when there are no particles present. The field is quantum in nature, which means it has a lowest-energy state that we call the zero-point energy, whose value may or may not be zero. Across different locations in space and time, the value of the field fluctuates, just like all quantum fields do… Each particle corresponds to the fundamental quantum fields of the Universe all excited in a particular way, with explicit couplings to the full suite of fields. This determines their particle properties, like: mass, electric charge, color charge, weak hypercharge, lepton number, baryon number, lepton family number, and spin. (Bolding is mine – VJT.)

Finally, Siegel candidly admits that we do not know whether the quantum fields that govern our universe (e.g. the fields responsible for electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force) were different at earlier times when the universe’s energy was higher, but it appears that they may have arisen from a more fundamental quantum field in which the forces of Nature are unified. What this field is, whether it is time-invariant and whether it exists all across the multiverse or is confined to our universe, are questions that we cannot currently answer and may never be able to answer. However, an atheist could plausibly hypothesize the existence of such an invariant, ubiquitous quantum field, which would arguably satisfy the criteria for an Unactualized Actualizer. And if such a field were beyond space and time, it would arguably be a Purely Actual Actualizer.

To be fair, though, I should point out that it is not clear whether such a field would be simple: although Siegel declares that what we call particles are simply “excitations of quantum fields,” he elsewhere writes that “quantum fields, themselves, are made up of particles.” So the simplicity of quantum fields is a point that the atheist will have to address. And the very notion of a particle is poorly understood by physicists, as Quanta magazine editor Natalie Wolchover frankly acknowledges in her thought-provoking essay, What is a particle? (November 12, 2020).

Finally, some physicists believe that a mathematical object called an amplituhedron may underlie what we call space-time. Such an object is “basically timeless”; change arises from its structure. Interestingly, physicists Nima Arkani-Hamed and Jaroslav Trnka “have also found a ‘master amplituhedron’ with an infinite number of facets, analogous to a circle in 2-D, which has an infinite number of sides,” whose volume represents, in theory, “the total amplitude of all physical processes” (bolding mine – VJT). If the speculations of these physicists turn out to be correct, then this “master amplituhedron” would not only be an Unactualized Actualizer, but also a strong candidate for Aristotle’s Purely Actual Actualizer, since it is beyond space and time, and underlies all change.

Does the Argument for a Purely Actual Actualizer succeed in establishing its uniqueness?

But even if the foregoing objections to the argument for a Purely Actual Actualizer could be successfully answered, does the argument succeed in establishing that there can be only one such Being? Thomist philosopher Ed Feser certainly thinks so. In his discussion of the argument in his book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius Press, 2017), he appeals to the notions of a privation and of maximal perfection, in order to explain why there can only be one purely actual Cause of things:

Could there be more than one such cause? There could not, not even in principle. For there can be two or more of a kind only if there is something to differentiate them, something that one instance has that the others lack… More generally, two or more things of a kind are to be differentiated in terms of some perfection or privation that one has and the other lacks… But as we have seen, what is purely actual is completely devoid of any privation and is maximal in perfection. Hence, there can be no way in principle to differentiate one purely actual cause from another in terms of their respective perfections or privations. But then such a cause possesses the attribute of unity – that is to say, there cannot be, even in principle, more than one purely actual cause. hence it is one and the same unactualized actualizer to which all things owe their existence. (2017, p. 30)

Later, in chapter 6, Feser elaborates his point, by appealing to Aristotle’s account of how two things of a kind can be said to differ:

… God is purely actual, with no potentiality at all. And this entails his unity, because there cannot, even in principle, be more than one thing which is pure actuality. The reason is that for there to be more than one thing of a certain kind, there must be a distinction between the thing and the species of which it is a member, or (if the thing in question is a species) between the species and the genus of which it is a member. And there can be no such distinction without there also being a distinction between the thing’s potentialities and its actualities. (2017, p. 186)

Two gaping holes in Feser’s logic

European wild horse prototypes. Image courtesy of DFoidl and Wikipedia.

We can now see the gaping holes in Feser’s argument for the uniqueness of the Purely Actual Actualizer. First, Feser assumes, without justification, that if there were two purely actual beings, they would be two of a kind. That would make sense only if “being actual” defined some natural kind, like “being a horse.” However, there is no reason to think that it does. There may not be any common term (like horsiness) which can be predicated univocally of two purely actual beings; the resemblance between them may be purely analogical. The two entities might possess two completely different sets of perfections (call them {A1, A2, … Am} and {B1, B2, … Bn}) which they both realize in their entirety, making them both perfect, but in fundamentally different ways. As a simple illustration, consider Alvin Plantinga’s hypothetical example of McEar, who has the essential property of only having the power to scratch his ear, and who has no other capacities. Now, let us suppose that there is another hypothetical entity called McEye, who is capable only of seeing what’s in front of it. Each entity is a perfect specimen of its kind, but there is nothing they have in common: any resemblance between their perfections is purely analogical. Feser should be aware of this possibility: in his book, he carefully distinguishes between terms like “animal,” which are predicated of all species in exactly the same way (univocally), and terms like “being,” which are predicated analogically of different entities (2017, pp. 178-179). Why, then, couldn’t “First Actualizer” be an analogical term that can be applied to beings of many different kinds, rather than a univocal one that can only be applied to beings of one kind?

Second, there is an illicit slide in Feser’s argument, from one meaning of “lack” to another. When Feser writes that there can be two or more of a kind only if there is “something that one instance has that the others lack,” the notion of “lack” he employs is: does not have. Two horses, for instance, may be completely alike in all respects except for their color: one is black, and the other is a chestnut. Blackness is something that the chestnut horse does not have. But it is not something that the chestnut horse should have, so we do not call this lack a defect. Next, Feser appeals to the stronger premise that “two or more things of a kind are to be differentiated in terms of some perfection or privation that one has and the other lacks.” Here, he is assuming that these things can only differ by virtue of some excellence which one possesses and which the other fails to realize. Finally, Feser argues that a purely actual being is free of all imperfections, in order to establish that it is unique.

In short: what Feser overlooks are: (i) the possibility that two purely actual beings might not share a list of common perfections which they are both supposed to possess, but might instead possess two completely different sets of perfections which they both realize in their entirety, making them both perfect in fundamentally different ways (think of McEar and McEye); and (ii) even supposing that two purely actual beings share such a list of perfections, there remains the possibility that they may differ in features which are neither perfections nor deficiencies, like the color of a horse.

I conclude that Feser’s argument for the uniqueness of the Purely Actual Actualizer is a badly flawed one, which trades on ambiguity and contains a number of unexamined premises.

Negative Attributes of the Purely Actual Actualizer: immutability, timelessness (or eternity), immateriality and incorporeality

Feser’s arguments for the Unactualized Actualizer’s possessing the negative attributes of immutability, timelessness (or eternity), immateriality and incorporeality all hinge on the assumption that such a being is not only unactualized, but purely actual, and hence devoid of all potentiality. Lacking any potentials which are capable of being actualized, the Purely Actual Actualizer must be immutable. Lacking the capacity for change, it must also be timeless, or eternal. Since it is unchangeable and timeless, it must be immaterial. Being immaterial, it must also be incorporeal. Feser makes these arguments in steps 19 to 27 of his Aristotelian proof of the existence of God (2017, p. 36). However, since (as we have seen) Feser’s argument that an Unactualized Actualizer must be purely actual is flawed, it follows that Feser’s proofs of this entity’s negative attributes (listed above) are equally flawed.

Feser’s argument also assumes that whatever is material is changeable and time-bound. As we saw in the case of the “master amplituhedron” described above, this assumption would be contested by many physicists today. If there is such a thing as a “master amplituhedron,” it would certainly be immutable and timeless (or eternal), but it would still be material and corporeal.

Positive Attributes of the Purely Actual Actualizer: perfection, complete goodness, omnipotence, intellect, omniscience

Mathematical visualization of an amplituhedron. Some physicists speculate that a “master amplituhedron” may underlie space, time and all processes, making it a candidate for a Purely Actual Actualizer. However, no-one would even think of referring to such an entity as completely good, omnipotent or omniscient. Image courtesy of Jgmoxness and Wikipedia.

Feser then attempts to demonstrate that the Purely Actual Actualizer possesses the three “omni”-attributes that believers normally associate with God: complete goodness (Feser does not use the term “omnibenevolence”), omnipotence and omniscience. He succeeds only by redefining these terms out of all recognition.

First, he argues that the Purely Actual Actualizer has no unactualized potential, it must be perfect. And since it does not fail to actualize any feature proper to it, it has no privations and is therefore fully good (2017, p. 36, steps 28-32).

In reply: Feser has not established here that the Purely Actual Actualizer has any control over its actions (i.e. libertarian free will), or that it cares a fig about morality. Most people would not call a fully actualized being which is free from flaws “completely good,” no matter how impressive it may appear, unless it is also able to control its behavior and make choices that rational beings would recognize as moral. For instance, the “master amplituhedron” described and illustrated above is a strong candidate for a fully actualized being, but no-one would describe such a being as “completely good,” as it is not a personal agent.

Next, Feser argues that all power to actualize potentials derives from the Purely Actual Actualizer, which is enough to make such a Being omnipotent:

36. But to be that from which all power derives is to be omnipotent.

37. So, the purely actual actualizer is omnipotent. (2017, p. 37)

In reply: there is a big difference between being the source of all power and being able to do anything one wants with that power. The latter, not the former, is what ordinary people mean by the term “omnipotent.” A Purely Actual Actualizer that has no wants could never be called omnipotent; nor could we call a being omnipotent if its behavior is entirely beyond its control.

Finally, Feser endeavors to show that the Purely Actual Actualizer is intelligent and omniscient. Feser’s proof of the Purely Actual Actualizer’s intelligence takes as its starting point the fact that since it is “the cause of all things,” “the forms or patterns manifest in all the things it causes must be in some way in the purely actual actualizer” (steps 39-40). Since these forms or patterns are not present in the Purely Actual Actualizer in “the concrete way in which they exist in individual particular things,” they must be present in it in “the abstract way in which they exist in the thoughts of an intellect.” Hence, “the purely actualized actualizer has intellect or intelligence” (steps 41 to 44). Moreover, “[s]ince it is the forms or patterns of all things that are in the thoughts of this intellect, there is nothing outside the range of those thoughts,” which means that “the purely actual actualizer is omniscient” (steps 45 to 47). Having established to his satisfaction that there exists “a purely actual cause of the existence of things, which is one, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, fully good, omnipotent, intelligent, and omniscient,” Feser feels entitled to draw the conclusion that “God exists” (steps 48 to 50).

In reply: Feser is assuming that intelligence consists in nothing more than possessing the form of a thing, in an immaterial manner – an assumption which I refuted above, in my critique of the Knowledge-as-Immaterial-Information Thesis in section F, part (i). Feser also assumes that being able to make things’ forms is a sufficient condition for knowing them – an assumption which I attacked in my evaluation of the Eminent Knowledge Thesis in section F, part (ii). Thinking of any kind, as I argued in section F, part (iii) above, requires the capacity to follow a rule, which can only be expressed in some sort of language containing concepts. Unfortunately, Feser makes no attempt to show that a Purely Actual Actualizer must be capable of following a rule, let alone expressing itself in language.

Verdict on the Aristotelian argument for an Unmoved Mover, or Unactualized Actualizer

Regardless of whether one construes the Aristotelian argument as an argument from motion or an argument from potencies being actualized in Nature, the fact remains that the hierarchy of per se causes which it appeals to is parasitic on cases of personal agency (such as a hand moving a stick that moves a stone). There are no such hierarchies in the natural world. Personal agents are, in any case, self-movers.

The second big flaw in the argument is that it illegimately assumes that a being whose existence does not need to be actualized by anything else is a purely actual being. However, an Unactualized Actualizer does not need to be a Purely Actual Actualizer. An Unactualized Actualizer might still have potentialities which it activates when it acts, without needing to be actualized by anything else in order to exist, or in order to ground the existence of other beings. In any case, physicists already have a strong candidate for a Purely Actual Actualizer: it could well be the ultimate layer of physical reality (say, a fundamental quantum field or a “master amplituhedron”) – in other words, something material, but nonetheless immutable.

Third, the argument for the uniqueness of the Purely Actual Actualizer fails because it assumes without justification that if there were two such beings, they would need to share the same perfections, and that any differences between two such beings would have to be either perfections or deficiencies. It neglects to consider the possibility that there might be two Purely Actual Actualizers with differing sets of perfections, or with some features that are neither perfections nor deficiencies.

Finally, the argument’s attempt to demonstrate that a Purely Actualized Actualizer must be completely good, omnipotent and omniscient, overlooks the fact that we do not apply these terms to a being unless we already know that it is capable of controlling its behavior by using its free will – in other words, a personal agent.

I conclude that the argument for a Purely Actual Actualizer fails as a proof of the existence of God and as a derivation of His attributes.

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(iii) The argument from essence and existence

A phoenix depicted in a book of legendary creatures by F.J. Bertuch (1747–1822). According to Thomists, the fact that I can know what a phoenix without knowing whether it exists or not shows that there must be a real distinction between its essence and its existence. Public domain image from Friedrich Justin Bertuch, Bilderbuch für Kinder (Eigenbesitz), Fabelwesen (1806). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Thomistic philosopher, Edward Feser, in his book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (Ignatius Press, 2017), sets forth what I regard as easily the best (and certainly the most rigorous) formulation of the argument for God’s existence, based on the distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence. I have critiqued this argument in great detail in a review here, to which Feser has not yet replied. Rather than bore the reader with a lengthy discussion, I shall endeavor to briefly summarize what I see as the main flaws of the argument.

A Very Brief Summary of the Argument

Feser’s Thomistic proof, which is based on Aquinas’ argument for God’s existence in his work, On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia), may be likened to a four-layered wedding cake. At the foundation is the “first layer” of the argument, where Feser sets the scene by arguing for a real distinction between a thing’s essence and a thing’s existence, for the everyday things which we can experience. This corresponds to steps 1 to 11 of his Thomistic argument (2017, pp. 128-131).

The second layer is the one in which Feser attempts to establish that there must be some Ultimate Cause (or causes) in which essence and existence coincide, and which imparts existence to ordinary beings like ourselves, whose essence and existence are distinct. Feser’s arguments in support of this conclusion can be found in steps 12 to 23 of his proof.

The third layer of Feser’s proof is where he argues that this Ultimate Cause, whose essence is Pure Existence, must be a unique and necessary Being, Who sustains everything else in existence. This corresponds to steps 24 to 28 of the proof.

The fourth layer, or top tier, of the Thomistic proof (steps 29 to 36) is where Feser argues that the One Necessary Being must be a Purely Actual Being, which, he claims (citing arguments he has already put forward in his Aristotelian argument in chapter one) entails that this Being “must be immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient” (step 33). Such a Being, Feser concludes, can only be called God.

A Very Brief and Informal Presentation of the Argument

Four-tiered wedding cake with strawberries and flowers, from Copenhagen, Denmark. Courtesy of Mads Eneqvist & Unsplash.com.

The first layer of Feser’s argument begins with the claim that the existence of a thing must be distinct from the essence of that thing. This claim is supported by three arguments:

(a) I can know what a certain kind of thing is – say, a lion, pterodactyl, or unicorn – without knowing whether it actually exists. For instance, a person who had never heard of lions, pterodactyls, or unicorns would be unable to say which kind of creature currently exists, which kind used to exist but is now extinct, and which kind has never existed. Feser concludes that “the existence of the creatures that do exist must be really distinct from their essences, otherwise one could know of their existence merely from knowing their essences” (2017, p. 118);

(b) the contingency of a thing indicates that its existence does not belong to it by nature – or as Feser puts it, “if the existence of a contingent thing was not really distinct from its essence, then it would have existence just by virtue of its essence,” (2017, p. 119) which it obviously doesn’t;

(c) for any perfection, if a thing possesses it as part of its essence, then it must possess it to an unlimited degree. Aquinas maintains that things that have some perfection only to various limited degrees must not have that perfection as part of their essence, “for if each one were of itself competent to have it, there would be no reason why one should have it more than another” (QDP 3.5). But existence is a perfection: like unity, truth and goodness, it is a transcendental, or something common to all beings and not restricted to any category or individual. Consequently, anything whose essence is identical to its existence would have to be Pure and Unlimited Existence itself. As Pure and Unlimited Existence is by definition unique, there can only be one such being at most. Since there are obviously many beings in the cosmos, it follows that for the vast majority of such beings (if not all of them), their essence must be distinct from their existence.

The second layer of Feser’s argument (in which he attempts to show that there is a Being which is Pure Existence) proceeds as follows. As we have seen above, ordinary things (such as lions) do not possess their existence by nature. So if a thing does not possess existence by nature, where does it get its existence from? It must receive it from another thing, which is imparting existence to it here and now – otherwise, the thing would “blink out” of existence or be annihilated. But does this other thing depend on yet another thing for its ability to impart existence to the first thing? And does that thing depend on yet another, and so on, ad infinitum? That obviously won’t work, since an infinite regress of derivative explanations would explain nothing. It follows that there has to be an Ultimate Thing, which doesn’t depend on anything else for its ability to impart existence to other things. Its power to impart existence is intrinsic. This Thing cannot have an essence which is distinct from its existence, or it would require an explanation too. So its essence must be identical with its existence. It must simply be Pure Existence.

The third layer of Feser’s argument (in which he seeks to demonstrate that Pure Existence is both unique and necessary) is fairly brief. Anything which simply is Pure and Unlimited Existence must be unique, for if there were two such beings, what would distinguish them? It must also be necessary, if its essence is simply to exist. Obviously, anything which is Existence itself cannot fail to exist, as it does not merely possess existence; it is Existence.

In the fourth and final layer of Feser’s argument, he shows that this Ultimate being must be what we call God. Since the Being which imparts existence to every other being has no potentiality that needs to be actualized by anything else in order for it to act (for its ability to act is intrinsic to it), it must be purely actual. Finally, since it’s purely actual, it must be immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent and omniscient. [At this point, Feser relies on his argument for an Unactualized Actualizer, which he thinks establishes these attributes for the Purely Actual Actualizer.] It must also be infinite, as Pure Existence is, in and of itself, infinite. In short, it must be God.

A Very Brief Summary of the Flaws in the Argument

The first layer of the argument

No philosophical account of “existence” is without its problems: as Associate Professor Michael Nelson (University of California, Riverside) candidly admits in his article on Existence, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “None of the theories surveyed is wholly satisfying and without cost.” However, in exposing the flawed logic of Feser’s argument, I am under no obligation to supply a better theory of “existence,” and I will not be attempting to do so here.

Before I proceed, I should point out that the arguments Feser puts forward for a real distinction between essence and existence in ordinary entities all rely on the highly questionable assumption that actual existence is a first-order predicate of individual objects, like redness.

Additionally, Feser’s attempts to demonstrate a real distinction between essence and existence strike me as methodologically flawed. The only proper way to tell whether two terms X and Y are really distinct is to show that they have incompatible intrinsic properties – e.g. if X is round while Y is square, or if X is abstract while Y is concrete, then X must be really distinct from Y. Thus a good argument for a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence would need to demonstrate that a thing’s essence has an intrinsic property which a thing’s existence lacks – e.g. that a thing’s essence is necessary while its existencce is contingent, or that its essence is timeless while its existence is time-bound. Those would indeed be incompatible intrinsic properties. But “being known to exist” is not an intrinsic property. Consequently it cannot be used to demonstrate that a thing’s essence is distinct from its existence.

In any case, the claim that we cannot know whether something exists by knowing what it is, proves nothing, except that “knowing whether” and “knowing what” are not the same. It doesn’t prove that a thing’s “whetherness” is really distinct from a thing’s “whatness.” Formally, the essence-existence distinction argument fares even worse: I cannot know whether an F is G by knowing what F is, so F and G must be distinct! This is not a valid argument.

The main argument cited by Feser in support of the distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence (namely, that I can know what a certain kind of thing is without knowing whether it actually exists) actually points to a matter-form distinction, instead: merely knowing a thing’s form cannot tell us whether that form is realized in any individual piece of matter or not. The argument only considers the various kinds of things – for instance, dogs, which in Aristotle’s philosophy are characterized by having a specific form. It is indeed true that I cannot know whether dogs exist, simply by knowing what they are. But all that shows is that one cannot infer a thing’s existence merely by knowing its form.

However, an individual essence is composed of form and signate matter – for instance, an actual dog consists of the universal form of a dog, realized in this flesh and these bones – as distinguished from the universal essence of a dog, which consists of “matter in general,” a.k.a. common matter (in a dog’s case, some flesh and bones), plus its universal form. And if I know the essence of a particular dog named Fido, then I know not only his form, but also the particular piece of matter that Fido is currently composed of – and if I know that, then I do indeed know that Fido exists. Hence whatever accounts for the existence of this dog also accounts for its essence, as an individual of that species. Thus the argument for a distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence only establishes that a thing’s form alone is not its essence. For the ordinary things which we are familiar with, essence equals form plus matter. To say (as Thomists do) that a thing is composed of matter plus form plus existence really is rather silly. Informed matter is existent matter.

Feser might argue that he has already provided a counter-example to my claim that knowing an individual‘s “whatness” entails knowing that it exists: namely, the Batman character Bruce Wayne, described in his book, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008, pp. 103-104). But in the case of the fictional character Bruce Wayne, we know who he is, either (a) by way of a general description – e.g. a wealthy American playboy, philanthropist, and owner of Wayne Enterprises, who, after witnessing the murder of his parents as a child, swore vengeance against criminals – which still does not get to the heart of the individual’s true “whatness,” as it only holds true of that individual contingently, or (b) by way of reference to other fictional particulars – e.g. the son of Dr. Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne – whose identity remains undefined. So I think Feser’s fictional example is an unconvincing one. There is no true sense in which I can know an individual’s “whatness” without knowing that he exists.

Of course, knowing an individual’s “whatness” does not tell us whether that that individual exists now. Merely from knowing Fido as an individual, I cannot know whether he is still alive. However, this argument does not prove that “existence” is something which must be added to Fido’s essence; all it proves is that Fido’s essence is composite, beng made up of Fido’s substantial form and the underlying signate matter, which may or may not still be united at this very moment.

Feser’s second argument for a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence (namely, that the contingency of things indicates that their existence does not belong to them by nature) establishes nothing of the sort: all it shows is that whatever causes a thing to have existence also causes the nature or essence of that thing, as a composite of form and matter. Thomist philosopher David Twetten (cited by Feser) rejects this proposal of mine (which actually goes back to Henry of Ghent), on the grounds that it makes a thing’s very identity relative to that of its cause. However, Twetten’s insistence that the identity (or essence) of things can be defined independently of their relation to their Ultimate Cause strikes me as a very odd position for a theist to take. What a theistic philosopher should say is that God decides to “flesh out” a concept, making it complete in every detail, only when He decides to create actually existent things which instantiate that concept.

Likewise, there is no sense in pointing out that a thing’s existence is contingent, unless you wish to argue that a thing’s essence is not contingent – i.e. that it is necessary – which is a rather extraordinary claim to make, especially for a theist.

Feser’s third argument for the essence-existence distinction (namely, that anything whose essence is its existence would have to be Pure Existence itself) illicitly assumes that the term “existence” names a single perfection, which is inherently simple and unlimited. However, in and of itself, the bare concept of “existence” is neither limited nor unlimited, but rather, indefinite. Likewise, existence, per se, is neither simple nor complex: it is inherently undetermined.

Feser also cites Aquinas’ argument that things which possess some perfection only to a limited degree must not have that perfection as part of their essence, “for if each one were of itself competent to have it, there would be no reason why one should have it more than another” (QDP 3.5). However, the flaw in this argument, as I see it, is that it fails to distinguish between the concepts “unlimited” and “complete.” A thing which has some perfection essentially possesses it completely, but that does not mean that it possesses it to an unlimited degree.

The second layer of the argument

The second layer of Feser’s Thomistic argument is marred by an illicit slide from (a) a thing’s essence being identical to its own act of existence to (b) a thing’s essence being identical to Pure Existence itself. In reality, all the argument establishes is the existence of one or more beings, each of which is identical to its own act of existence. (And as we saw above, Feser’s attempts to show that existence is intrinsically unlimited are marred by a failure to distinguish between the terms “unlimited” and “indefinite.”) Thus even if there were a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence, as Feser seeks to prove in the first layer of his argument, the ultimate explanation for the existence of the things we find in Nature wouldn’t have to be something which is Pure Existence. We are still nowhere near establishing the existence of a Being which we would call God.

The third layer of the argument

Something whose essence is identical with its existence need not be unique. There could be two such things, since one thing’s existence is not identical to another thing’s existence. Hence there’s no guarantee that the ultimate explanation for the existence of the things we find in the world around us is unique.

Something whose essence is identical with its existence could still be contingent. The inference from “X’s essence is identical with X’s existence” to “X’s essence is simply to exist” is an illicit one. A thing could be identical with its own individual act of existence, but still depend on another thing in order to exist in the first place. And even the ultimate explanation for the existence of things need not be an entity whose essence is simply to exist; hence it, too, may not be necessary.

The fourth layer of the argument

(a) From Pure Being to Pure Actuality

Feser argues that the Being whose essence is Pure Existence must be a purely actual being, as follows:

29. Whatever is subsistent existence itself need not and could not have had a cause of its own.
30. So, this unique cause which is subsistent existence itself is uncaused.
31. If that which is subsistent existence itself had some potentiality for existence which needed to be actualized, then existence would have to be imparted to it by some cause.
32. So, that which is subsistent existence itself has no potential for existence which needs actualization, but rather exists in a purely actual way. (2017, p. 130)

However, something whose essence is identical with its existence need not be purely actual. Even if there’s a thing which doesn’t need to be actualized by anything else in order for it to act, it doesn’t follow that that thing has no potentialities of any sort. All that Feser has actually shown here is that a Being which is Pure Existence contains no potentialities within its being. This in no way precludes the possibility that such a Being may be capable of realizing potentialities when it acts. Having no potential for existence is not the same as being fully actual in every respect.

(b) From Pure Actuality to Divinity

Having argued that the unique Necessary Being which is Pure Existence and which keeps everything else in existence must be purely actual, Feser then attempts to argue that this Being is “immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient,” which warrants it being called “God.” His argument hinges on the following premise:

33. Whatever is purely actual must be immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, intelligent, and omniscient. (2017, p. 131)

Certainly, something which is purely actual must be immutable and eternal. The immateriality and incorporeality of suuch a Being depend on the critical assumption that everything material is in some way potential – an assumption that in turn hinges on the objective reality of change, which some scientists have questioned (see the discussion in section M, part (ii) above). However, even if we are prepared to grant that a purely actual Being is immaterial and incorporeal, Feser has not shown that such a Being is perfect, omnipotent, fully good, or omniscient. All he has shown is the following:

(i) that a purely actual Being would contain no imperfections (which is quite different from saying that it is perfect – after all, we don’t normally call electrons “perfect” because they are free from flaws);

(ii) that everything else depends on this Being (but not that it is capable of doing absolutely anything, or even that it is capable of doing anything which is consistent with its nature);

(iii) that it is a perfect specimen of its kind, insofar as it has no abnormalities (but not that it contains all possible perfections, let alone that it is it is benevolently disposed towards us, or cares about us individually).

The perfection and complete goodness of a purely actual being simply consists in its being free from deficiencies. But that’s setting the bar for goodness pretty low, as it tells us nothing about whether the being in question knows or even cares about right and wrong. Additionally, there’s no reason why a purely actual being has to be intelligent, let alone omniscient, as the ability to generate other things ex nihilo doesn’t imply an understanding of those things. Nor does it follow that a purely actual being is omnipotent: it could be self-limiting, even if nothing outside. Being limited doesn’t imply having a potential for change or improvement, so a self-limiting purely actual being is perfectly conceivable. Finally, the argument that Pure Existence is in and of itself infinite fails to differentiate between the terms “infinite” and “indefinite.” Existence, in and of itself, is indefinite rather than infinite: from the mere fact that a thing exists, one knows nothing at all about it.

Since Feser needs to establish that a Being which is Pure Existence possesses all of these attributes, in order to qualify as worthy of being called “God,” as Feser declares Him to be in steps 35 and 36 of his argument, I am forced to conclude that the “fourth layer” of Feser’s Thomistic proof of the existence of God fails to live up to its promises.

To sum up: the argument from Essence and Existence proves absolutely nothing, except that there is at least one being whose existence is not derived from another thing.

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N. Conclusion

In this lengthy essay of mine, I have sought to show that the theological claims of Thomistic classical theism don’t hold water, and that an alternative picture of God is needed – one which I sketched in section J. I also argued that the proofs of classical theism don’t hold up by themselves, and that in some cases, they are parasitic upon personalistic theism. Finally, I argued in section L that personalistic theism provides us with a much better reason for loving God and thanking Him for creating us, by whatever process He may have employed. It is for my readers to judge whether my response to the arguments made by Dr. Kerr has been a successful one. And now, over to you.

53 thoughts on “Window dressing, or: Is the God of Thomistic classical theism as dumb as a rock?

  1. If only gods weren’t quite so imaginary, one or maybe several of them could resolve your disputes directly, saving you endless hours of referent-free rotation.

  2. The theological puzzles here might be helpfully illuminated by contrast with Spinoza’s arguments in propositions 1 through 15 of The Ethics.

    Spinoza begins with by more or less accepting the Judaized Aristotelian metaphysics he inherits from Maimonides, then quickly shows that while it is logically correct to say that there must be an infinitely powerful necessarily existing being, this being is nothing at all like what revealed religion tells us about God.

    Spinoza’s God is the Universe: He doesn’t have a plan for us, or care about us, or even notice us in any special way. He doesn’t have intentions, beliefs, cares, etc at all, and there is no reason why anyone would admire Him or desire His affection, since He has none at all.

    The only kind of affective state that makes sense for us towards Him is what Spinoza calls “the intellectual love of God”, which is nothing more (or less) than the intense joy and peace that one feels when contemplating the fundamental, necessary interconnectedness of all things.

  3. Hi Kantian Naturalist,

    Thanks for your response. I have a healthy respect for Spinoza, despite my disagreements with him: he was a very consistent philosopher, and his approach was a highly systematic one. His outlook was bold and original. Given his beliefs about God, his affective state towards Him was entirely logical, and I can well see how living with an attitude of equanimity would have helped him cope with the vicissitudes of life. There was a certain nobility in his struggle against adversity.

  4. Should I thank god for creating me ?
    Maybe I didnt want to be created.
    Did god know in advance I would be grateful ?

  5. Divine Prudence (God would not make our universe unless He knew in advance that it was stable)

    The universe only appears stable to you because of your puny lifespan.

    How old will the universe be before our galaxy appears to be on it’s own with no others visible?

    How old will the universe be when the half of all protons have decayed?

    Rather it seems we’re in an ‘island of stability’ that itself will last an insignificant fraction of infinity. On average the universe will not appear like it does to us.

    And yet you make claims about stability from a deity’s point of view….

  6. Hi OMagain,

    Good point. In reply: the universe only needs to be stable enough to support intelligent life, while it exists in the cosmos. The half-life of the proton is about 10^34 years, give or take. I doubt very much that there will be any civilizations around by then. Cheers.

  7. vjtorley: I doubt very much that there will be any civilizations around by then.

    Given an ever expanding cooling universe it seems that the “goal” is to obtain that state, as it will be like that for the vast majority of the universe’s lifetime. If a different outcome was desired, why do we have this ending? Just this tiny tiny bright spark at the very start is different, the rest will be cold and dark and infinite in depth.

    It’s been proposed that even in a cooling heat death universe an infinite number of unique thoughts can be experienced for infinity. If I remember correctly the time between them increases but all you have is time at that point.

    So I very much suspect that civilizations seeing that heat death coming and which are able to do something about it will do so and may well persist indefinitely.

    Given all this it seems premature to conclude that anything that is happening in the universe is about or concerned with us. This is just a blip.

    vjtorley: the universe only needs to be stable enough to support intelligent life, while it exists in the cosmos.

    That seems remarkably wasteful. An infinite creation that is discarded a tiny % into it’s overall (infinite) lifetime. It’s like throwing away a seed once it has started to grow into a tree. It’s no longer the seed you want but the tree is the end result regardless and the seed is just a means to that end.

    Do you think there are other universes out there then, ones where your creator has created and life has come and gone and now only the cold dark remains?

  8. Hi OMagain,

    A supernatural Creator would be able to bring down the curtains on any intelligent race, at any time He chose. That may sound a bit Deus ex machina, but after all, it is Deus that we’re talking about here. How that would happen I can only guess. Mass teleportation to another universe with a different physics, where the inhabitants can finally enjoy eternal life? Beats me. But it’s not really my problem, is it? The way I figure it, as long as God keeps thinking about each of us, our identity remains secure, no matter which universe we find ourselves in, because our identity is rooted in and defined by our relationship with God.

    Another possibility is that there will come a time when human beings (and other races of intelligent beings) simply decide to stop reproducing. Hey, it’s happening already. In 1950, India’s fertility rate was 5.906. Now, in 2021, it’s 2.179, and by 2032, it will fall below 2. And in most countries (America included), the fertility rate is already below replacement level. The rising cost of education and aged care, the proliferation of AI, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, falling sperm counts, and the absorption of young people in virtual reality games are just some of the reasons why many young couples find the prospect of parenthood daunting and when they finally decide to take the plunge, it(s often too late.

    Or maybe (as you suggest) intelligent life will die out slowly, over the very long-term future, as civilizations adapt to an evolving cosmos, only to be defeated in the end by heat death.

    Re whether the universe is about us: while I’m willing to consider the possibility that the values of the constants of physics and the initial conditions of our universe may have been set randomly (e.g. by some quantum fluctuation, as Seth Lloyd envisages), I also find the mathematics underlying the laws of Nature (many of which can be elegantly expressed as ordinary differential equations) very beautiful, and suggestive of a Mind behind Nature.

    Re wastefulness: your objection regarding time parallels that of those who wonder why the universe is so big, if the number of inhabited planets is so low. In reply: (i) if intelligent life-forms evolve in as little time as a cosmos like ours could possibly produce them, I’d hardly call that wasteful; (ii) in any case, we still don’t know what percentage of the universe’s lifespan will be devoid of intelligent life-forms, and if they die out shortly before heat death, then it may turn out to be quite high; (iii) logarithmically speaking, if the duration of the universe in Planck units turns out to have a log which is about double that of the duration of intelligent life in the universe in the same units, then I wouldn’t call that wasteful, either. Cheers.

  9. Vjt: Climate change will beat everything else.
    Unless your invisible friend flutters down from above to save us.

    Which one, do you think ?

  10. Right, God is dumb as a rock, but he made you and everyone else. What a conundrum of faith that must be for you.

    I can’t imagine anyone having so little confidence in their faith, that they need to listen to someone from a few thousand years ago, to figure out what God is like to them. I wonder how hard it is for such a person to decide what they should eat each day.

  11. Hi graham2,

    Climate change may (in a worst-case scenario) kill hundreds of millions, but it won’t destroy the human race.

    Hi phoodoo,

    I’m not sure if you understood the point of my OP, which was that Thomistic classical theism implies that God is as dumb as a rock, so therefore it must be false.

    I can’t imagine anyone having so little confidence in their faith, that they need to listen to someone from a few thousand years ago, to figure out what God is like to them.

    So, what do you think God is like? Pray tell.

  12. vjtorley,

    There is a reason its called faith, VJ. The belief is internal, not external. If one feels that there is a divine presence, which accompanies one’s daily journey through life, then one shouldn’t deny that belief as false any more then every other belief you experience through your existence. Synchronicities, coincedences, a continuing sense that one should strive to be better, because it is what one is supposed to do-and the efforts that you make to be better are not unnoticed-then one can be justified to believe there is something more than one’s self. If you look to understand that presence better, perhaps you slowly will.

    The doubters all talk about a need for evidence. I think that’s poppycock. The evidence is plentiful if one simply open’s their mind. I scoff at people who think, I know I have this feeling of being a moral, conscious being, but that’s all just purposeless physics-my existence is meaningless (but I shall pretend its not). If knowing yourself is just a silly accident to some, then no amount of evidence could ever be good enough for them.

    God is what he is in your heart.

  13. If one truly didn’t believe in a God that gives them a sense of morality, I don’t know why they would ever, ever feel a sense of guilt about anything they ever do in their life. Why does feeling bad about doing the wrong thing even mean?

  14. And VJ, as far as the bible goes, to me its just another collection of allegory, written by people who have ALSO experienced this same sense of spiritual accompaniment in their lives, the same sense that humans all over the planet have been experiencing since as long as they can experience. Why has this sense endured so long, for nearly(probably not nearly-more likely universally) the entire population that ever existed? Do you think evolution can account for this? Does Swamidass think evolution can explain this?

    The ideas of morality have always existed within the human mind-that is what the bible can show you.

  15. Hi phoodoo,

    I see now where you’re coming from. Let me say up-front that I agree with you that the moral sense we all possess is a very powerful reason for believing in God. It’s not (as some think) that if there were no God, everything would be morally permissible. Rather, the feeling I have is one of being a player (among billions of others) in a great cosmic drama, in which good struggles against evil. We all have our little parts to play, and our commitments define who we are as persons. The ultimate meaning of the drama transcends the here-and-now, and for that reason, so do we. Death takes us out of this world, but I do not believe it takes us out of the drama.

    I’m also skeptical of evolutionary accounts of morality: I think they only take us so far. Perhaps they can account for reciprocity and even (to some extent) altruistic behavior, but they cannot explain why we regard murder as not only bad but as an act of sacrilege against another human being – another self whose life is just as important in the grand scheme of things as our own. I’m not sure what Dr. Swamidass thinks about evolutionary morality, but I’m sure he’d oppose any attempts to reduce our moral sense to the instincts and behaviors that served us well in our evolutionary past.

    Re the Bible: while there is much that is troubling about many passages in Scripture, there are other passages which are truly sublime, and which point to something beyond. Cheers.

  16. vjtorley:

    I’m also skeptical of evolutionary accounts of morality: I think they only take us so far. Perhaps they can account for reciprocity and even (to some extent) altruistic behavior, but they cannot explain why we regard murder as not only bad but as an act of sacrilege against another human being – another self whose life is just as important in the grand scheme of things as our own.

    There is a reason why murder is a legal, rather than a practical, construct. After all, even Christians do not seem to feel killing other people is a moral sacrilege in all circumstances. Legally, we forgive, even encourage, killing others in self defense, and in battles in war, and as retribution, and as a sometimes necessary part of police work.

    So I wonder if your actual point is a reference to specific motivations for killing. Generally speaking, killings to preserve a preferred social order seem just fine for most people. These include killing enemies in wartime, handing down death sentences to those who kill others outside legal procedures, killing in self defense, etc. In each such case, we aren’t morally reprehensible because we are defending the social order – and THAT is what makes it not murder.

    I myself have killed several people, for which I was congratulated rather than punished. It would seem that your morality is highly circumstantial.

  17. phoodoo:
    The doubters all talk about a need for evidence.I think that’s poppycock.The evidence is plentiful if one simply open’s their mind.

    This is ambiguous. If evidence is irrelevant for true faith, then what difference does it make whether evidence is plentiful?

  18. phoodoo: If one truly didn’t believe in a God that gives them a sense of morality, I don’t know why they would ever, ever feel a sense of guilt about anything they ever do in their life.

  19. Flint: If evidence is irrelevant for true faith, then what difference does it make whether evidence is plentiful?

    It’s also very convenient for them.

    Not a believer? You therefore have a closed mind. Not that the evidence is not there, it’s there but you have a closed mind.

    That they all believe different things seems not to matter a jot or give them pause.

  20. vjtorley: Climate change may (in a worst-case scenario) kill hundreds of millions, but it won’t destroy the human race.

    Probably more like a few billion.

    One of the things that really drives my humanistic ethos is the following concern: once we accept anything like “the ultimate meaning of the drama transcends the here-and-now”, it’s hard to see why we should care about how many billions are killed by climate change.

    In other words I think there’s something basically right about Martin Hagglund’s argument in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom: it’s only because life is finite that it has meaning.

    Put otherwise, the challenge is not on the atheist to show that life has meaning without God, but rather, the challenge is on the theist to show that belief in God does not drain this world and this life of its finite, transitory value.

    That said, I will grant that one of the big challenges that I face is fully reconciling humanism and naturalism in an intellectually satisfying way. I think that among all philosophers, John Dewey came closest to getting it right.

  21. phoodoo: If one truly didn’t believe in a God that gives them a sense of morality, I don’t know why they would ever, ever feel a sense of guilt about anything they ever do in their life. Why does feeling bad about doing the wrong thing even mean?

    I am not sure about that sense of morality but I can definitely spot a sense of superiority here.

  22. Kantian Naturalist: Put otherwise, the challenge is not on the atheist to show that life has meaning without God, but rather, the challenge is on the theist to show that belief in God does not drain this world and this life of its finite, transitory value.

    Ah, about that: https://www.salon.com/2021/08/29/belief-in-immortality-is-reason-mississippi-isnt-afraid-of-covid-governor-says_partner/

    “When you believe that living on this earth is but a blip … then you don’t have to be so scared of things”

  23. OMagain: “When you believe that living on this earth is but a blip … then you don’t have to be so scared of things”

    Sometimes I hate being right.

  24. phoodoo:
    If one truly didn’t believe in a God that gives them a sense of morality, I don’t know why they would ever, ever feel a sense of guilt about anything they ever do in their life.Why does feeling bad about doing the wrong thing even mean?

    Yes! That’s what this site needs! Another debate about objective morality …

  25. Hi Flint,

    I myself have killed several people, for which I was congratulated rather than punished. It would seem that your morality is highly circumstantial.

    I assume you’re a soldier or a former soldier, in which case I salute your bravery. As you well know, however, soldiers are taught to follow certain conventions regarding killing, such as the Geneva Conventions, in which Common Article 3 states that “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria,” which means that “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” is prohibited.

    There are, regrettably, situations in which it is necessary to kill, such as the preservation of the social order, as you correctly point out. But the necessity of killing does not make it any the less horrible. Something can be horrible without being intrinsically evil in all circumstances. The reason why we need laws on killing is in order to maintain our horror of the act of killing while recognizing that there are tightly defined circumstances where it is necessary and just.

  26. vjtorley: The reason why we need laws on killing is in order to maintain our horror of the act of killing while recognizing that there are tightly defined circumstances where it is necessary and just.

    Unless, of course, it’s the god of the bible doing the killing. Then, by definition a global flood is necessary and just.

  27. vjtorley: I’m not sure what Dr. Swamidass thinks about evolutionary morality, but I’m sure he’d oppose any attempts to reduce our moral sense to the instincts and behaviors that served us well in our evolutionary past.

    I don’t know about that. I have seen some of his debates, I wouldn’t put a lot of faith in his reasoning skills.

  28. Hi OMagain,

    Unless, of course, it’s the god of the bible doing the killing. Then, by definition a global flood is necessary and just.

    There are fundamentalists who think like that. I don’t. First and foremost, God is a God of love.

  29. vjtorley: First and foremost, God is a God of love.

    I don’t imagine the children seeing the world wide flood bearing down on them were thinking that.

    https://www.vocativ.com/news/309748/all-the-people-god-kills-in-the-bible/index.html

    An analysis of every slaughter in the good book reveals that, despite authoring the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” God caused the untimely deaths of at least 2.8 million people, a slaughter of truly biblical proportions, in which he uses walls, plagues, bears, floods and other people to execute huge numbers in inventive and vengeful ways. GoT’s onscreen death count is a paltry 704.

    There are 160 separate killing sprees in the Bible for which God is demonstrably to blame. That number includes every slaughter in the Old and New testaments, and also in Aprocrypha, the contested books which are included in the Roman Catholic Bible but disregarded from the Hebrew version. A total of 2,821,364 deaths are specifically enumerated in scripture as either directly orchestrated by God, or carried out with his assistance or approval. Satan, on the other hand, notches up only 10 kills.

    And that’s only the cases where the Bible provides a hard and fast figure. For 53 of those 160 kills, among which we have genocides, famines, and other massacres, readers simply aren’t told how many people lost their lives.

  30. OMagain: There are 160 separate killing sprees in the Bible for which God is demonstrably to blame.

    As Republicans are making as crystal clear as possible, most people don’t mind if rules are broken or principles are violated, provided they benefit from this. The core principle in everyday morality derives from “What’s in it for me?” I marvel at the number of devout married pro-life Christian men who quietly arrange for abortions for their mistresses! A couple of rules to live by, here in NASCAR country, are “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” and “if it’s worth having, it’s worth stealing.”

    Most lectures on morality are pure bloviation. The bible’s authors are at least more honest than some in admitting flat out that killing is morally just dandy, if you get the spoils when you win.

  31. Flint,

    The cynicism and nihilism amongst conservative Christians is certainly nauseating, but of course it doesn’t follow that therefore there isn’t such a thing as objective morality.

    I find it striking (and worrisome) that the dominant tenor of these conversations is that Nietzsche won and Marx lost. Everyone assumes that Nietzsche was right when he argued that a Godless universe has no rational basis for objective morality. The idea that there’s objective morality in a Godless universe seems to have been left behind in the 19th century.

  32. Kantian Naturalist: The idea that there’s objective morality in a Godless universe seems to have been left behind in the 19th century.

    Perhaps there’s some difficulty in defining what an objective morality might be. At the very least, I would expect it to be species-specific. The closest I can come is to extend the golden rule, into “do unto others, as you would have everyone do unto everyone else.” But as any lawyer could tell you, the details of the fact situation matter, and desiring a behavior that everyone would follow in any given circumstance then becomes a matter of deciding which of the many many variables involved in any situation are relevant. At the limit, no two circumstances are exactly alike, interpretations vary, and you can never step into the same river twice. Everyone should be honest, everyone should be kind, and often you cannot be both. Tradeoffs seem inherent in moral decisions, and I can see no objective way to pretend they aren’t.

  33. “God creates them without having to think any thoughts about them”

    IMO, I believe that precisely because God IS Creator, that His ideas can without doubt be manifested instantly. Why do I say this? Since we are made in His image, I believe we have a similar capability in ourselves to conceive of something instantly and I am sure many of us can attest to ideas popping up in our heads without any deliberation. It just happens.

    Yeah, you could say that information is brewing in our brains all the time and that is the cause of an idea popping up. Which would be true. But it is also true of God. God, as the eternal possessor of information also has (infinite) information brewing in His Mind. The difference between us and Him is that we have to go through a cumbersome process of bringing our ideas into material reality. He Doesnt.

    So yeah, God doesnt ‘think’ things into being. Because He is not bound by time and space He bypasses the processes we use and brings things into being instantly, without thinking about them, designing and creating them in the manner that we do.

    I believe this is what Thomists are getting at.

  34. Steve: So yeah, God doesnt ‘think’ things into being. Because He is not bound by time and space He bypasses the processes we use and brings things into being instantly, without thinking about them,

    Yet we don’t observe things popping into existence instantly.

  35. Steve,

    I think that’s almost right. I might wonder, though, about the account of time here. It’s not only that God’s existence is outside of space and time, but also that His actions cannot be described in spatio-temporal terms.

    The Creation may appear to us as a temporal event, because we are unable to think in non-temporal terms — but Creation is the creation of time and therefore not an episode in time.

    Does that affect the metaphysics of what counts as an “instant”? I don’t know. Maybe?

  36. Flint,

    I wonder what work you think “objective” is doing here. We don’t say that the objectivity of physics means that there’s universal agreement about physical truths, so why expect that from the idea of objective morality?

  37. Hi Steve,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking feedback. Just to be clear: Thomists aren’t just saying that God creates in no time at all, and without having to go through any intermediate steps or use any raw materials. That would be fairly uncontroversial. Nor are they saying that ideas just “pop into” God’s Mind, unbidden – for if they did that, then they would actualize God, which Thomists insist is impossible. Rather, what Thomists are saying is that God can make things without having to have any ideas of the things He is making. The only thing God ever thinks about is Himself. All other things (including you and me) He knows only implicitly, as ways in which His infinite nature can be participated in by finite creatures. I hope that helps.

  38. vjtorley,

    I do have a question about this. I know that Aristotle describes the Unmoved Mover as “thought thinking itself”, and his argument there is that thought thinking itself is the highest conceivable form of activity, blah blah blah.

    But how much of that does Thomism take on board? Does Thomism retain the Aristotelian idea that God’s activity is purely intellectual and that the only content of divine thought is the divine nature?

    I would have thought that Aquinas and everyone else following in his footsteps would have seen that this is incompatible with the basic tenets of Christian teaching!

  39. Hi OMagain,

    The Bible is a pretty bloody book, I’ll grant you that.

    What’s interesting, though, is that Judaism gradually turned its back on violence. Here’s a short excerpt from the Wikipedia article on Judaism and violence:

    While the Bible and the Talmud specify many violent punishments, including death by stoning, decapitation, burning, and strangulation for some crimes,[34 these punishments were substantially modified during the rabbinic era, primarily by adding additional requirements for conviction.[35] The Mishnah states that a sanhedrin that executes one person in seven years – or seventy years, according to Eleazar ben Azariah – is considered bloodthirsty.[36][37] During the Late Antiquity, the tendency of not applying the death penalty at all became predominant in Jewish courts.[38] According to Talmudic law, the competence to apply capital punishment ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple.[39] In practice, where medieval Jewish courts had the power to pass and execute death sentences, they continued to do so for particularly grave offenses, although not necessarily the ones defined by the law.[39] Although it was recognized that the use of capital punishment in the post-Second Temple era went beyond the biblical warrant, the Rabbis who supported it believed that it could be justified by other considerations of Jewish law.[40][41] Whether Jewish communities ever practiced capital punishment according to rabbinical law and whether the Rabbis of the Talmudic era ever supported its use even in theory has been a subject of historical and ideological debate.[42] The 12th-century Jewish legal scholar Maimonides stated that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death.”[35]

    See also the Wikipedia entry on Amalek.

    The question I’m interested in is: why did Judaism largely turn its back on religious and judicial violence by the end of the first century A.D.? And how did it manage to do so?

  40. vjtorley: The question I’m interested in is: why did Judaism largely turn its back on religious and judicial violence by the end of the first century A.D.? And how did it manage to do so?

    I would have thought that was pretty obvious: because there was no longer a centralized authority for administering legitimate violence. The re-interpretation of Torah and Talmud followed as a post hoc rationalization once the capacity to administer legitimate violence had been destroyed.

  41. Hi Kantian Naturalist,

    Aquinas ascribes the operations of knowledge and will to God, but at the same time maintains that these operations are identical to the Divine essence. According to Aquinas, “God is His own intellectual act.” Hence “in God, intellect, and the object understood, and the intelligible species, and His act of understanding are entirely one and the same.”

    Whereas Aristotle’s characterization of God as “thought thinking itself” in his Metaphysics XII Part 9 led him to deny that the Unmoved Mover has any thoughts about mutable creatures (for then, Aristotle reasoned, it too would be mutable), Aquinas, on the other hand, held that God knows and loves creatures: He believed that God has immediate providence over everything. However, since he believed in the doctrine of Divine simplicity, Aquinas held that God knows other things by virtue of knowing Himself, rather than directly: He “sees other things not in themselves, but in Himself; inasmuch as His essence contains the similitude of things other than Himself.” God knows “all the ways in which His own perfection can be shared by others.” I critiqued this view above in section G, part 3 (see especially the final part on Professor Ed Feser’s attempt to explain how God can know things by knowing Himself), where I argued that by knowing Himself, God could, at best, know only possibilities and not actualities (let alone our choices); also, God’s knowledge of His simple nature would not allow Him to grasp things which are inherently complex.

    Surprisingly, although Aquinas insists on Divine simplicity, he is willing to credit God with multiple ideas. But that does not mean that God has multiple thoughts or concepts in His Mind (one for each and every kind of creature). Rather, God knows other creatures by knowing Himself as their model: “So far, therefore, as God knows His essence as capable of such imitation by any creature, He knows it as the particular type and idea of that creature; and in like manner as regards other creatures. So it is clear that God understands many particular types of things and these are many ideas.”

    Aquinas is quite emphatic also that God has no real relations to His creatures, but only logical relations: “to say that God is the principle of creatures does not import any real relation, but only a logical one.”

    Contemporary Thomists, it seems to me, go even further than Aquinas himself. Some modern Thomists locate God’s knowledge of creatures outside God Himself – notably W. Matthews Grant (whose views I discussed in section G, part 1, of whom Dr. Kerr is a fan.

    I hope that helps.

  42. Hi Kantian Naturalist,

    The re-interpretation of Torah and Talmud followed as a post hoc rationalization once the capacity to administer legitimate violence had been destroyed.

    Good point. That strikes me as a very powerful argument for keeping Church and State separate. It seems that the Romans unwittingly did Judaism a great favor by robbing it of the authority to administer the death penalty.

  43. Kantian Naturalist:
    Flint,

    I wonder what work you think “objective” is doing here. We don’t say that the objectivity of physics means that there’s universal agreement about physical truths, so why expect that from the idea of objective morality?

    I was thinking of “objective” as being qualitatively distinct from rationalized self-interest.
    (And as a footnote, I believe there is one and only one reality, regardless of agreements based on limited perceptions and misinterpretations.)

  44. I must say, I find the whole notion of ‘existence outside space and time’ to be fundamentally incoherent. I think people saying it are not really grasping it as a concept either, they are saying something that parses as an English statement, and pleases them in some way such that they feel it answers a conundrum, but it is meaningless. Like negative length. You might think you’re conceptualising an extra-temporal entity, but I bet you aren’t.

  45. Hi Alan,

    I’m just curious. Why do you believe that anything that exists has to do so within a spatiotemporal matrix? Also, what about the multiverse? Cheers.

  46. I suppose one can believe nothing exists outside time and space, or one can believe there “is” a domain outside time and space into which one can project otherwise imaginary entities. I personally find it easier to presume as a defult that something not in evidence, especially not even in principle, doesn’t exist. I find it hard to sustain a belief in anything not only lacking all evidence, but lacking the potential for evidence to exist at all.

    That said, I can understand the motivation to confect something that satisfies a need that really cannot.

  47. vjtorley:
    Hi Alan,

    I’m just curious. Why do you believe that anything that exists has to do so within a spatiotemporal matrix?

    Existence, within our conception, necessarily involves some kind of extension in time and space; cause and effect; preceding and succeeding. And all conceptions of Creation have an implicit “and then…” quality. And what of God’s assumed ‘Plan’? Perhaps it’s a limitation of my own thought processes that I can’t conceptualise this ‘outside’ state that others reckon they can. But I tend to think people who think they can are wrong! I think people are drawing a mental circle round an area then imagining that, outside its bounds, there is no such thing as geometry!

    Also, what about the multiverse? Cheers.

    I don’t really buy the multiverse, but it is still a set of universes each with a clear temporal succession. If the photon ‘really’ goes through slit A in universe A, but slit B in universe B, there is no violation of the concept of temporal succession in each.

    I also think some conceptions of the multiverse are shaky. Even if true, an infinity of universes does not mean an infinity of possible states. Each state has to be accessible from a prior state. To take an example, a universe identical to this one with the sole exception that I have a tiger on my lap is simply not accessible, even though there is nothing specifically impossible about that state in isolation (ie without the constraints of history).

  48. Allan Miller,

    I’m mostly with you about the concept of existence, but I worry about mathematics. I’m OK with nominalism about concepts in natural languages, but a fully worked-out nominalism for mathematics has not yet been worked out.

    That’s not to say that I accept Platonic realism about mathematics, either — just that it’s all very complicated and way above my pay-grade. But it gives me plenty of reasons for thinking that nominalistic process metaphysics is not fully intellectually satisfying.

  49. Kantian Naturalist: I’m OK with nominalism about concepts in natural languages, but a fully worked-out nominalism for mathematics has not yet been worked out.

    What’s to be worked out?

    But it gives me plenty of reasons for thinking that nominalistic process metaphysics is not fully intellectually satisfying.

    Mathematics is just a behavior. Why would it need any special metaphysics?

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