Anthony Flood has done metaphysicians a service by making available John N. Deck’s excellent, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Language of Total Dependence. This is an essay that Anthony Kenny, no slouch of a philosopher, saw fit to include in his anthology, Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays (University of Notre Dame Press, 1976).
Mr. Flood finds Deck’s argument to be "unanswerable" to such an extent that it broke the hold of Thomism on him. Although I am not a Thomist, I believe I can show that Deck’s argument is not compelling.
This essay divides into two parts. In the first, I state what I take to be Deck’s argument; in the second, I show how it can be answered from the position worked out in my A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated (Kluwer Philosophical Studies Series #89, 2002).
Deck’s Argument Entdeckt
On classical theism, divine creation is creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Of course, this does not mean that God creates out of some stuff called ‘nothing’; it means that it is not the case that there is something distinct from God out of which God creates. Thus divine creation, classically understood, is not the forming of a pre-given matter, or any sort of operating upon something whose existence is independent of God. Creation out of nothing thus implies that created entities (creatures) are totally dependent on God. By comparison, when I make a sandwich, the product is only partially dependent on me: I merely assemble pre-given ingredients. Human 'creations' are out of something distinct from their 'creators.' Divine creations are out of nothing distinct from their Creator.
Deck’s thesis is that this total dependence of contingent beings on God is logically incompatible with the essence/existence composition that Aquinas and others see in contingent beings. Essence/existence composition refers to the real distinction (distinctio realis) between what a thing is and its existence. Essence here is equivalent to whatness, or quiddity. Essence in this broad sense comprises all of a thing’s quidditaive properties, whether essential in the narrow sense or accidental.
Thus essence in the broad sense includes those properties without which a thing cannot exist, and those properties without which it can exist. For instance, I cannot exist without being human, but I can exist without being a blogger. Being human is an essential property of me, while being a blogger is an accidental property of me.
Existence, however, is not a property, or at least it is not a property that could add anything to a thing’s whatness. It is rather that which distinguishes a merely possible thing (even a completely determined merely possible thing) from the same thing actually existing.
There is a lot that could be said in defense of this real distinction between essence and existence, but this is not the place. I should add, however, that to call the distinction real is to imply that it is not one that we excogitate, but one that reflects a distinction in contingent beings apart from our mental and linguistic activities. Of course, if two items are really distinct it does not follow that each can exist without the other. Essence and existence in a contingent being are really distinct but not in the way my glasses are really distinct from my head. My head can exist without my glasses and vice versa, and that's a good thing, especially for my head; but the existence of Socrates cannot exist without Socrates or the essence of Socrates, and neither Socrates nor the essence of Socrates can exist without the existence of Socrates.
Now consider some contingent being C. On the Thomistic theory, C has two ontological factors, essence (ES) and existence (EX). They are distinct, but related. How are ES and EX related? It is natural to think of them as related as potency to act. An essence is a merely possible being until it is actuated by existence. Since the existence of a contingent being is no part of its essence, existence must come from without. Accordingly, on the Thomistic scheme that Deck is criticizing, the essence of C is that which receives existence in the act of divine creation.
An essence receives existence. It receives existence from God as existence-bestower or actualizer. But now it appears that God, in creating, is after all operating upon something distinct from himself. God may not be forming a pre-existent matter, but he arguably is bestowing existence on something that in some sense must be pre-given if it is to make sense to say that essence receives existence and might not have received existence. But then how can C be totally dependent on God?
The problem, in a nutshell, is that total dependence entails that there is nothing apart from God that God operates upon in the act of creation, while essence/existence composition entails that there is something that has or receives existence and which, therefore, is something upon which God must operate in order to create. This lands us in a contradiction.
To put it another way, Deck sees an inconsistent dyad lurking with the Thomistic scheme:
1. Total dependence of X upon G entails that there is no Y such that G operates upon Y to produce X.
2. Essence/Existence composition entails that there is a Y such that G operates upon Y to produce X.
Since (1) and (2) cannot both be true, Deck concludes that no totally dependent entity can be ontologically dual: if an entity is totally dependent, it must be "one in respect to that upon which it depends."
How to Avoid Deck’s Conclusion
Professor Deck would have us conclude that contingent beings are ontologically simple: they are unitary rather than dual and harbor no essence/existence composition. Thus in effect he argues from (1) above to the denial of (2). Deck’s proposal is tantamount to the suggestion (refuted in PTE, Ch. 3) that a thing and its existence are one and the same, that, for any x, the existence of x = x. But I maintain that one can uphold essence/existence composition while avoiding the contradiction codified in the inconsistent dyad above. What we must do is reject two assumptions that Deck tacitly makes but does not defend, namely:
Assumption 1: The only way to conceptualize essence/existence composition is by thinking of an essence as a pre-given receptacle which receives existence or to which existence is added.
Assumption 2: Creatio ex nihilo excludes creatio ex Deo.
To show that Assumption 1 is false, I will sketch some of the doctrine presented in Paradigm Theory of Existence. As I argue in PTE, existence cannot be identified with one of a thing’s ontological constituents; it is rather the togetherness of all its constituents, among the latter, the thing’s properties. This is intuitively obvious since the existence of a thing pertains to the whole of it, and cannot be located in one part of it. If it were, the other parts would precisely not exist. So think of C as a whole whose ontological parts include a, b, c, . . . . The idea is that the existence of C is not a further part, but the contingent unity or togetherness of a, b, c, . . . .
On this scheme, there is a real distinction between essence and existence in C: it is the distinction between the constituents and their unity or togetherness. If we now bring God into the picture, we can say that divine creating is the unifying of C’s constituents. God is the unifier responsible for the contingent unity of a thing’s ontological parts. God does not bestow existence upon a pre-given receptacle, for prior to the unifying of C’s constituents, there is no C or essence of C. It is not as if there is an individual C that then (logically speaking) receives existence: divine creation is not the bestowal of existence on a mere possible that already has an identity; it is rather a bestowal of both existence and identity.
To put it another way, on my scheme, divine creation confers both existence and individuality by the same stroke: it does not confer existence on a merely possible individual whose unity is independent of its existence. Creation is not the actualization of, or bestowal of existence upon, pre-given mere possibles.
But we are not out of the woods yet. Suppose the ontological constituents of C are properties construed as universals. If divine creation is the unification of these universals –- their bundling so as to form an individual –- then God operates on universals to form individuals. Do we not then face a problem similar to Deck's problem, namely, the problem that these universals are a pre-given ‘matter’ vis-a-vis the divine creative activity, with the consequence that the creature cannot be totally dependent on the creator?
I say there is no problem. One may construe universals as divine concepts. As such, they do not exist apart from God. It follows that in creating, God does not operate upon anything independent of himself. God creates ex nihilo in this precise sense: God creates, but not out of something distinct from himself. God creates out of himself. Thus the second assumption falls, the assumption that creatio ex nihilo excludes creatio ex Deo.
What I have said does not of course constitute a defense of Aquinas against Deck’s criticism, but it does show that Deck is mistaken in the claim he makes in the last sentence of his article, to wit, "If there is any total dependence anywhere, either of creature upon God or of anything upon anything else, the dependent must be a one in respect to that upon which it depends." For what I have shown is that creatures can be totally dependent on God, dependent both in essence and existence, while also evincing essence/existence composition.
In sum, (1) and (2) are logically consistent if we construe (1) as
1*. Total dependence of X upon G entails that there is no Y distinct from G such that G operates upon Y to produce X.