I am reviewing Hugh J. McCann's Creation and the Sovereignty of God (Indiana University Press, 2012) for American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. What follows is an attempt to come to grips with Chapter Ten, "Creation and the Conceptual Order." I will set out the problem as I see it, sketch McCann's solution, and then offer some criticisms of his solution.
I. The Problem
How does God stand to what has been called the Platonic menagerie? All classical theists will agree that divine creative activity is responsible for the existence of concreta. But what about abstracta: properties, propositions, mathematical sets, and such? These are entities insulated from the flux and shove of the real order of space, time, and causation. They belong to an order apart. McCann calls it the conceptual order. Does God create the denizens of the conceptual order? Or are the inhabitants of this order independent of God, forming a framework of entities and truths that he must accept as given, a framework that predelineates both the possibilities of, and the constraints upon, God's creative activity? For example, it is a necessary truth that the area of a circle is equal to pi times its radius squared (my example). Is God constrained by this truth so that he logically cannot create a circle not satisfying it? This question obviously bears upon the sovereignty issue. If God is absolutely sovereign, then neither his will nor his intellect can be constrained by anything at all, and certainly not by a bunch of causally inert abstracta and the necessary truths associated with them. (My slangy way of putting it, not McCann's.)
II. Three Types of Approach to the Problem
As I see it, there are three main positions. But first a preliminary observation. Most abstracta are necessary beings: their nonexistence is broadly logically impossible. Not all: Socrates' singleton, though an abstract object, is as contingent as he is. But I will ignore contingent abstracta since they are not relevant to our problem. By 'abstracta' in this post I mean 'necessary abstracta.'
A. The first view is that God must simply accept abstracta as I must. They form a logically and theologically antecedent framework that predelineates his and my possibilities while constraining his and my actions. He does not create abstracta in any sense. They do not depend on God for either their existence or their nature. Their existence and nature are independent of all minds, including God's. McCann and I both reject this view.
B. The second view is that abstracta depend on God for their existence but not for their essence. The property felinity, for example, though a necessary being, depends for its existence on God in this sense: if, per impossibile, God did not exist, then felinity would not exist. (I see no difficulty with a necessary being depending for its existence on another necessary being. See here and here.) I incline to a view like this. Abstracta are divine thought-accusatives, merely intentional objects of the divine intellect. They have an extramental existence relative to us but not relative to God. They cannot not exist, but their exstence is (identically) their being-objects of the divine intellect. This places a constraint on God's creative activity: he cannot create a cat that is not a mammal, for example, or a triangle that is not three-sided. But this constraint on the divine will does not come from 'outside' God as on (A). For it does not come from a being whose existence is independent of God's existence.
On the second view, God is the ultimate explanation of why the universal felinity exists and why it is exemplified. Felinity exists because it is a merely intentional object of the divine intellect. You could say that God excogitates it. Felinity is exemplified because God willed that there be cats. On the second view, however, God is not the explanation of why this nature has the essence or content it has. The essence necessarily has the content it has independently of the divine will, and it can exist unexemplified independently of the divine will. Thus on (B) the divine will is constrained by the truth that cats are mammals such that God could not create a cat that was not a mammal. The proposition and its constitutive essences (*felinity,* *mammality*) depend for their existence on the divine intellect, but they limit God's power. You could say that the objects of the divine intellect limit the divine will. Accordingly, God is not sovereign over the natures of things or over the conceptual truths grounded in these natures, let alone over the necessary truths of logic and mathematics. Triangularity, for example, necessarily has the content it has and God is 'stuck' with it. Moreover, the being (existence ) of triangularity is not exhausted by its being exemplified -- which implies that God has no power over the nature in itself. He controls only whether the nature is or is not exemplified.
C. McCann takes a step beyond (B). On his radical view God is absolutely sovereign. God creates all abstracta and all associated conceptual truths, including all logical and mathematical truths. But it is not as if he first creates the abstracta and then the contingent beings according to the constraints and opportunities the abstracta provide. Creation is not a "two-stage process." (201) God does not plan, then produce. Creation is a single timeless act in which natures and associated necessary truths are "created in their exemplifications." (201) Creating cats, God creates felinity by the same stroke. The creation of cats is not the causing of a previously existing unexemplified nature, felinity, to become exemplified. It is the creation in one and the same act of both the abstractum and the concreta that exemplify it. Another way God can create felinity and triangularity is by creating cat-thoughts and triangle-thoughts. Although my thinking about a triangle is not triangular, my thinking and its object share a common nature, triangularity. This common nature exists in my thinking in a different way than it does in the triangle. More on this in a moment. But for now, the main point is that God does not create according to specifications pre-inscribed in Plato's heaven, specifications that God must take heed of: there are no pre-existing unexemplified essences or unactualized possibilities upon which God operates when he creates. God does not create out of pre-existing possibilities, nor is his creation an actualization of anything pre-existent. The essences themselves are created either by being made to exist in nature or in minds.
III. Some Questions About McCann's Approach and His Use of Thomistic Common Natures
I now turn to critique.
It would seem to follow from McCann's position that before there were cats, there was no felinity, and in catless possible worlds there is no felinity either. It would also seem to follow that before cats existed there was no such proposition as *Cats are mammals* and no such truth as that cats are mammals. (A truth is a true proposition, so without propositions there are no truths.) Or consider triangles. It is true at all times and in all worlds that triangles are three-sided. How then can the essence triangle and the geometrical truths about triangles depend on the contingent existence of triangular things or triangle-thoughts? Surely it was true before there were any triangles in nature and any triangle-thoughts that right triangles are such that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the remaining sides.
McCann attempts to deal with these fairly obvious objections by reverting to the old Thomistic doctrine of common natures. McCann does not use the phrase 'common nature,' nor does he mention Aquinas in precisely this connection; but what he says is very close to the Thomistic doctrine.
It is surely counterintuitive to say that felinity began to exist with the first cats, lasts as long as there are cats, and ceases to exist when -- horribile dictu -- cats become extinct. To avoid being committed to such an absurdity, McCann takes the line that felinity in itself has no being or existence at all. It has being only in its instantiations (203) whether in a mind, as when I think about or want or fear a cat, or in extramental reality in actual cats. "Felinity is in itself is not a being but an essence, and to think of it as such is to set aside all that pertains either to actual or to mental existence." (204) Actual existence is what Thomists call esse naturale or esse reale. Mental existence is what they call esse intentionale. Felinity in itself, however, has no esse at all. Now if felinity in itself has no mode of being or existence, then it cannot be said to begin to exist, to continue to exist, to cease to exist, or to exist only at those times at which cats exist. Nor can felinity be said to exist at all times. It is eternal, not sempiternal (everlasting, omnitemporal), says McCann. Substantial universals such as felinity and accidental universals such as whiteness are "timelessly eternal." (203) The eternal is that which is "excluded from the category of the particular." (204)
The objection was this: If God creates felinity by creating cats, then felinity comes into existence with the first cats. But it is absurd that felinity should come into existence or pass out of existence. Ergo, it is not the case that God creates felinity by creating cats.
McCann's response to the objection, in effect, is to deny the major by invoking the Thomistic doctrine of common natures. Felinity in itself neither comes into existence nor passes out of existence nor always exists. So the major is false and the objection fails.
The trouble with this response to the objection is that the doctrine of common natures is exceedingly murky, so murky in fact, that it causes McCann to fall into self-contradiction. I just quoted McCann to the effect that felinity in itself has no being. Now felinity, according to McCann, is a universal. (204). It follows that universals have no being.
But McCann, fearing nominalism, fails to draw this conclusion when he says that "universals do have being . . . ." (204) Now which is it? Do universals have being or not? If they have being then the above objection goes through. But if they do not have being, then they are nothing, which is just as bad. McCann fudges the question by saying that universals have being in their instantiations. This is a fudge because when felinity is instantiated in the real order in cats, felinity is particular, not universal.
Fudging the matter in this way, McCann fails to see that he is contradicting himself. To avoid nominalism, he must say that universals have being or existence. To avoid the above objection, he must say that they lack being or existence. He thinks he can avoid contradiction by saying that felinity has being in its instances. But felinity in its material instances is not universal, but particular, not one, but many. The Thomistic doctrine, derived from Avicenna, is more consistent: common natures such as felinity are, in themselves, neither universal nor particular, neither one nor many. McCann would have done better to take the classical Thomistic tack which accords to common natures a status much like Meinong's Aussersein. McCann does not go this route because he thinks that if universals have no type of being whatsoever, then ". . . we would grasp nothing in thinking of uninstantiated natures like unicornality." (204)
Trouble Even If 'Common Natures' Doctrine is Tenable: Collapse of Modal Distinctions?
I don't believe that the 'common natures' doctrine is tenable, either in McCann's version or in the strict Thomistic version. Suppose I am wrong. The doctrine -- which is needed to evade the above objection -- still presents problems for absolute divine sovereignty. Even if common natures have no being whatsoever, they nevertheless have or rather are definite natures. Felinity is necessarily felinity and logically could not be, say, caninity. So God is constrained after all: not by an existing nature but by a nonexisting one. He is constrained by the nature of this nature. He has no control over its being what it is. It is, in itself, necessarily what it is, and God is 'stuck' with the fact.
So a further step must be taken to uphold divine sovereignty in its absoluteness. It must be maintained that there are no broadly logical possibilities, impossibilities and necessities that are ontologically prior to divine creation. Prior to God's creation of triangles, there is no triangularity as an existing unexemplified essence or as a nonexisting unexemplified essence, and no possibilities regarding it such as the possibility that it have a different nature than it has, or the necessity that it have the nature it has, or the possibility that it be exemplified or the possiblity that it not be exemplified. (211). The idea is that triangularity and the like are not only beyond being but also beyond modality: it is neither the case that triangularity is necessarily what it is nor that it is not necessarily what it is. The modal framework pertaining to common natures is not ontologically prior to them or to God's will: it is created when they are created, and they are created when things having those natures are created. As McCann puts it, " . . . It is only in what God does as creator that the very possibilities themselves find their reality." (212)
In this way, God is made out to be absolutely sovereign: there is nothing at all that is not freely created and thus subject to the divine will. My worry is that this scheme entails the collapse of modal distinctions. Notionally, of course, there remain distinctions among the senses of 'possible, 'actual,' necessary,' and other modal terms. But if in reality nothing is possible except what is actual, i.e., what God creates, then the three terms mentioned have the same extension: the possible = the actual = the necessary.
The violates our normal understanding of modality according to which the possible 'outruns' the actual, and the actual 'outruns' the necessary. We normally think that there are in reality, and not just epistemically, possbilities that are not actual, and actualities thatare not necessary. We suppose, for example, that there are merely possible state of affairs (including those maximal states of affairs called 'worlds') that God could have actualized, and actual states of affairs that he might have refrained from actualizing. On this sort of scheme, creation is actualization. But on McCann's it is clearly not.
So I am wondering whether McCann's absolute sovereignty scheme entails the collapse of modal distinctions. Might God not have created cats (or a world in which cats evolve)? No. He created what he created and that is all we can say. We can of course conceive of a world other than the world God created, but on McCann's scheme it is not really possible. It is not really possible because there is no modal framework that predelineates what God can and cannot do. Such a framework is inconsistent with absolute sovereignty. God does what he does and that is all we can say. Real modal distinctions collapse. God's creation of the world is neither necessary nor contingent.
I think this collapse of modal distinctions causes trouble for McCann's project. For the project begins in his first chapter with a cosmological argument for a self-existent creator. Such an argument, however, requires as one its premises the proposition that the world of our experience be contingent in reality. (If it is not contingent, then its existence does not require explanation.) I don't see how this proposition is logically consistent with the last sentence of Chapter Ten: "'Could have' has nothing to do with what goes on in creation." (212)
The problem in a nutshell is this: McCann argues a contingentia mundi to a creator whose absolutely sovereign nature is such as to rule out the reality of the very modal framework needed to get the argument to this creator off the ground in the first place. To put it another way, if McCann's God exists, then the world of our experience is not really contingent, and his cosmological argument proceeds from a false premise.
Perhaps Professor McCann can straighten me out on this point.