Thursday, July 27, 2006

Divine Simplicity

I still do a bit of philosophical work. A few months ago, I came across this piece. Its authors are Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey Brower. Among its topics is divine simplicity. Much in the paper is good, but the discussion of divine simplicity is deeply flawed. I explain why here.

What is the doctrine of divine simplicity? It is that God is simple in all ways that a being can be simple. It is that within his being, God displays absolutely no multiplicity of any kind. On this doctrine, God has no temporal parts and he has no spatial parts. On this doctrine, he exemplifies no property, for if a thing exemplifies a property, we find within it both that property and the relation of exemplification.

The doctrine of divine simplicity has many defenders. Among them are Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. As one might expect given that men of such philosophical acumen are among its defenders, its allure is undeniable. For if God in some way divides his being up into parts, it seems that those parts are more basic than is he. If God divides his being up into parts, he must depend upon those parts for his existence, for in general a thing, if composite, depends for its existence upon the existence of its parts.

But we simply cannot say such things of God. Nothing is more basic than is he. He depends upon nothing for his existence. Thus God has no parts of any kind. He has no temporal parts. He has no spatial parts. He exemplifies no property.

I'll leave you with a set of objections to the doctrine of divine simplicity. Though I do feel its allure, I do not know what to say in response to them.

1. The Christian God is triune. He unites with his being three persons. But even if this does not imply a multiplicity of distinct Gods, does it not imply a multiplicity of distinct persons? Does it then not imply that there is a kind of plurality within God's being?

2. God is omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent. But does this not mean that he exemplifies three distinct properties? Thus does it not mean that God's being evinces plurality? Even if we could somehow prove that we have here not three properties but one property with three names, do we not have to say that God is distinct from this property and thus that his being evinces plurality? For a property is something abstract, something that can be exemplified. But God is not abstract. Rather he is perfectly concrete, and like all things that are concrete, he cannot be exemplified. (If he could be exemplified, it would make sense to say some such thing as this: x exemplifies Godness. But this is nonsense. Thus God is not at all like, say, color. It makes perfect sense to say that a thing exemplifies redness.)


C Grace said...


I don't know how coherent this is, but I thought it worth a try.

In this post Bill Valicella argues that God creates out of nothing distinct from Himself.

I wonder if taking this view we should say not that God is all-powerful but that God is all power, not that God is exemplifies good but that God is in Himself the goodness from which all other goodness derives. God contains all these things within His being as the all in all from which all these things come.

It seems to me that when we predicate things of God we are not really predicating them of His being which is one, but of the visible results of His working. God's working is one, but the objects, results etc. of His working are many and thus in them we identify many properties. In God's work of sustaining creation we see power, in the orderliness of creation wisdom is exemplified, etc.

Thus God in Himself is not the proper subject of any predication, (as the mystics would say God must be known without words) only God as distinquished in the results of His working.

In summary, God contains all things in Himself, and within Him all things are one, ie He is simple, yet we do not know them as one because we do not know God in Himself, but in the results of His work. Thus when we say 'God' in any sentence 'God is ____' we do not speak of Him as He is in Himself, but we refer to a property of the results of His work in creation.

Franklin Mason said...

Well said, Grace. (I'm not sure what to call you, but I like the name 'Grace'. Is it a last name?)

Am I right to say that, on your view, we know not God himself but only the result of his activity in the world? This seems to follow, for if all assertions about God concern only the result of his activity, all knowledge of him too concerns only the result of his activity.

I have a question: if we cannot know God but only the results of his work, by what right do we say that this or that is in accordance with his will? If we know nothing of God in himself, it seems that we cannot know what things are an expression of his will. What do we say of murder? How can we say that God does not murder if we know nothing of God in himself? Ignorance of God's nature seems to require that we admit the possibility that God is a murderer.

C Grace said...


Grace is my middle name. The first name is Celinda (hence the C) I like the word play in the pseudonym. You've probably seen my comments over at Maverick Philosopher under my first and last name.

Not knowing God in Himself is not the same as being ignorant of His nature. Let me use this analogy. I can read books about George Washington that will tell me many things about him. I don't need to meet and observe Washington first hand in order to know something of his character. It is the same with God. We can learn about Him second hand. We don't need to see Him as He is in Himself - we don't need the vision of the mystics- in order to understand something about Him.

I would say that we know God's nature most clearly through Scripture and through Jesus Christ. Heb 1:3 says Christ is "the exact representation of His nature."

We can also know God's nature (though less clearly because of sin)by observing ourselves and listening to our conscience for we are made in the image of God.

Finally we can know God's nature through His working in Creation.

I would say that for anyone to recognize God in these things it takes an act of God's grace combined with a purity of intention. Without these we are spiritually blind.

Bonaventure in Journey of the Mind Toward God says this

"Now the First Principle is wholly spiritual and eternal, and is entirely above us. In order to achieve some understanding of Him, we must first follow the traces which are material, temporal, and external. ... Then, we must penetrate our own mind, which is an image of God, everlasting, spiritual, and internal. ... We must finally pass over to the eternal, the wholly spiritual, which is above us, by looking up to the First Principle."

(by the last statement Bonaventure is referring to contemplation in which the spiritual man apprehends God as He is in Himself, beyond words, images or feeling.)

C Grace said...

"Am I right to say that, on your view, we know not God himself but only the result of his activity in the world?"

You've probably picked up on this, but I will make it explicit. I believe there are people that have known God in Himself but that what they have known is not fully expressable in words. Many mystics testify to having apprehended the mystery of the trinity and just as many admit that words cannot communicate it.

Anonymous said...

Your are Excellent. And so is your site! Keep up the good work. Bookmarked.

Anonymous said...

Interesting website with a lot of resources and detailed explanations.

Pick 3 Turbo Player said...

Nice blog!

If you get a chance, check out my site: Pick 3 Turbo Player