November 18, 2019

Moderate Divine Simplicity

According to the weak doctrine of divine simplicity—endorsed by nearly all theists—God has no proper parts. That is, there is no literal composition in God.

According to the strong doctrine of divine simplicity—rooted in Neoplatonism and given classical expression by philosophers such as ibn Sina, Maimonides, and Aquinas—there is in God no metaphysically real complexity of any kind. For instance, in a human judge mercy and justice are two different traits of character that could come into conflict, but God's mercy just is God's justice which just is God. Further, according to the strong doctrine, God's essence just is God's existence. The essence of humanity (what it is to be human) is one thing, and the existence of a human is another, but in God's case no such distinction can be drawn. Similarly, God's creative activity is nothing other than Godself.

These identity claims don't seem to respect Leibniz's Law. That is, it does not follow that we can affirm of God's mercy whatever we can affirm of God's justice, or that we can affirm of God's essence whatever we can affirm of God. Indeed, the latter had better not be true, or else it would belong to God's essence to speak to Moses, which would make the fact that God speaks to Moses necessary. Nevertheless, according to the strong doctrine, whatever distinctions exist among God's attributes, existence, and essence are all artifacts of our thought and language. None reflects any metaphysically real complexity in God.

There are reasons for questioning the coherence of the strong doctrine. For instance, it makes an individual (God) identical with a property (the essence of God). (People who endorse the doctrine often say that God isn't really an individual—a being among beings—but they still want to talk about God the way we talk about individuals.) Further, one worries that if God's creative activity is identical with Godself then God's creative activity is necessary and not contingent, and so the creation of this particular world is necessary and not contingent.

I say these are reasons for questioning the coherence of the doctrine. A lot of complicated philosophical moves have been made by philosophers attempting to solve these and other problems facing the doctrine. I don't think I understand these moves well enough to have any confidence about whether or not they succeed. So I would say I have doubts about the coherence of the strong doctrine of simplicity, but I am not (at present) prepared to reject the doctrine outright.

There is room for a moderate doctrine of simplicity—stronger than the weak doctrine but weaker than the strong doctrine—that I have not seen discussed in the literature. This doctrine would replace the instances of 'just is' in my description of the strong doctrine with 'is nothing over and above', like (in the analytic philosopher's standard example) the statue and the clay. Thus, we might claim that God's existence and each of God's attributes are grounded in or constituted by God's essence. If you are a contingentist about grounding, you could also say that God's creative activity is grounded in God, or in God's nature, without making God's creative activity necessary.

It seems to me that this view achieves many of the advantages of the strong doctrine, while admitting fewer doubts about its coherence.

A certain theory about grounding might also allow for a medium-strong version of the doctrine. Grounded entities are supposed to be metaphysically real, but in many of the standard examples they depend on human practices, intentions, and ways of thinking and speaking. I've argued that there is no contradiction here and we should embrace this idea. If we were to say the same thing about the various distinctions in God, then we would say that these distinctions exist partly in virtue of how God is related to us. This would provide a sense in which none of these distinctions are part of how God is in Godself, so the medium-strong doctrine might actually count as a version of the strong doctrine.

I worry that the medium-strong doctrine might have the consequence that God wouldn't be powerful, wise, just, merciful, etc. if God hadn't created humans, but this worry might affect some traditional versions of the strong doctrine too.

On reflection, then I think I'm willing to sign up to at least the moderate doctrine, but I'm not sure whether to go any farther.

Posted by Kenny at November 18, 2019 11:44 AM
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