I reviewed A Most Unlikely God in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review (vol. XXXVIII, no. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 614-617). Prof. N.M.L Nathan expressed an interest in reading it, so here it is.
A Most Unlikely God: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Nature of God. By Barry Miller. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996, viii + 175 pp. $27.00.
This is the sequel to Professor Miller's From Existence to God: A Contemporary Philosophical Argument (Routledge, 1992). (See my review in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. LXVII, no. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 390-394.) In that book he presents a version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God that does not rely on the principle of sufficient reason in any of its forms. A central upshot of that argument is that God as uncaused cause of the universe must be Subsistent Existence, i.e., a being not distinct from its existence. The notion that anything whatever could be non-distinct from its existence is of course an exasperatingly difficult one, and is rejected as incoherent by many, along with the doctrine of divine simplicity of which it is an integral part. An ontologically simple God is a most unlikely God since he is one in whom there is no real distinction between form and matter, act and potency, essence and existence, or individual and attribute. Since Miller's theistic argument terminates in the affirmation of a simple God, it is essential to his overall project to show the coherence of the very idea of a simple God and to rebut the numerous objections that have been brought against it. That is the task of the book under review.
Chapter 1 contrasts Miller's approach with the 'perfect-being theology' of the Anselmians. For the latter, God's perfection is construed as his possession of a maximally consistent set of great-making properties or perfections. Omnipotence is an example of a great-making property, and is taken by Anselmians as the logical maximum of a property that can be had by creatures. Thus Socrates is powerful, but God is maximally powerful. Miller rejects this approach to divine perfection in that it implies that such terms as 'powerful,' 'knowing,' 'loving,' etc., can be used univocally of God and creatures. (p. 2) On the Anselmian approach, the gulf between God and creatures is not an absolute divide, and thus God on this approach fails to be absolutely transcendent. The God of the Anselmians is thus "discomfitingly anthropomorphic." (p. 3)
Miller's alternative is to think of the greatest F not as a maximum or limit simpliciter in an ordered series of Fs, but as the limit case of such a series. (p. 4) Whereas the limit simpliciter of an F is an F, the limit case of an F is not an F. Consider, for example, the series: 3-place predicable, 2-place predicable, 1-place predicable. Since a predicable (e.g.,'___is wise') must have at least one place if it is to be a predicable, a 1-place predicable is a limit simpliciter of the ordered series of predicables. Although talk of zero-place predicables comes naturally, as when we speak of a proposition as a zero-place predicable, a zero-place predicable is no more a predicable than negative growth is growth. 'Zero-place' is thus an alienans adjective like 'negative' in 'negative growth' and 'decoy' in 'decoy duck.' Zero-place predicable is thus not a limit simpliciter of the series in question, but a limit case of this series: it is not a member of the series of which it is the limit case. It nevertheless stands in some relation to the members of the series inasmuch as they and the way they are ordered point to this limit case. (p. 8)
The idea, then, is that God's power is not the maximum or limit simpliciter of an ordered series of instances of power, but the limit case instance of power. This implies that God's power is not an instance of power any more than a zero-place predicable is a predicable. No doubt this will shock the Anselmians, but in mitigation it can be said that God's power, though not an instance of power, is that to which the ordered series of power-instances points, and is therefore something to which the members of that series stand in a definite relation.
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 engage the problem of how it could be that God is his existence. If sense can be made of this identity, the problem of how God can be identical with his non- existential properties should present no special difficulty. The story begins with Socrates who is spectacularly distinct from his existence. Of course, Socrates can be distinct from his existence only if there is some sense in which existence is a property of him. Since Frege, Russell and their epigones deny this, holding instead that existence is always a property of concepts or propositional functions, Miller devotes Chapter 2 to showing that there are first-level uses of '___exists' and thus that existence is a first-level property of contingent individuals. Miller makes a strong, and to this reviewer's mind convincing, case for this view.
But given that existence is a first-level property, it does not follow straightaway that it is a real (non-Cambridge) property. One is tempted to wonder what existence could 'add' to Socrates, and tempted to conclude that it could 'add' nothing and thus that existence is a Cambridge property. But so to conclude would be to labor under a false assumption as to how an individual is related to its existence. Chapter 3 argues that Socrates is not related to his existence in the way he is related to his wisdom. His wisdom inheres in him as subject; but it makes no sense to think of his existence as inhering in him as subject: "Socrates' existence could not inhere in him unless there was a sense in which he himself was real logically prior to his existence." (p. 30) And there is no such sense, as Miller goes on to argue. Plantinga's haecceities come in for a drubbing (pp. 31-32), and in general it is plausibly argued that individuals are inconceivable before they exist. That is, before Socrates came to exist, there were no de re possibilities involving him.
So although Socrates individuates his existence, i.e., makes his instance of existence distinct from every other such instance, Socrates cannot actualize his existence in the way he actualizes his wisdom: Socrates is logically posterior to his existence in respect of actuality. (p. 33) This seems right: Socrates' existence is what 'makes' him exist. But how can Socrates be logically posterior to his existence in respect of actuality and also logically prior to his existence in respect of individuation?
This question has an answer if Socrates is related to his existence, not as subject to what inheres in it, but as bound to what it bounds. A bound is logically posterior to what it bounds in respect of actuality, but logically prior in respect of individuation. Consider two blocks of ice cut from the same larger block. The two blocks are individuated by their bounding surfaces, which are logically posterior in respect of actuality to the blocks they bound. Bounds are parasitic on what they bound. But the bounding surfaces are logically prior in respect of individuation to the blocks they bound. This is a creative, if not wholly unproblematic, solution to what I am convinced is a genuine problem, namely, the problem of how existence can belong to an individual without being related to it as to a subject.
We are now in a position to understand the notion of Subsistent Existence as an identity of limit cases (Ch 4). Having seen that Socrates is the bound rather than the subject of his instance of existence, we form the notions of the limit case instance of existence and of the limit case bound of existence. "The notion of Subsistent Existence, then, is the notion of the entity which is jointly and identically the limit case instance of existence and the limit case bound of existence." (67) But doesn't this amount to the self-contradictory claim that some bound of existence is identical with the instance of existence which it bounds? No, because 'limit case' is an alienans adjective; a limit case bound of existence is not a bound at all, nor is a limit case instance of existence an instance of existence.
The rest of the book is an elaboration of this basic idea. Chapter 5 shows how God can be identical with his non-existential properties. Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the bearing of the simplicity doctrine on divine cognition, willing, and causation. Chapter 8 addresses the possibility of literal talk about a simple God. Miller attempts to show that on the limit case account of God's simplicity, "...absolute transcendence does not entail total ineffability..." (p. 154) Chapter 9 concludes the work.
There are some minor errors in the book, one of which should be mentioned. On p. 1, n. 1, Miller ascribes to Alvin Plantinga the view that God has no nature. This is a mistake, as Miller readily conceded when I pointed it out to him in correspondence. Plantinga of course holds that God has a nature; what he denies is that God is identical with his nature.
Minor errors aside, this work is the best defense of the divine simplicity to date. Anyone who thinks that this doctrine is obviously incoherent or easily dismissed should read this book -- and think again.