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Wednesday, March 03, 2010


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Dear Bill,

Hi. Long time no chat. I trust all's well with you.

Anyway, nice post. I like your honesty about both the pros and cons of divine simplicity (DS).

For my part, I'm more impressed by the cons. The case for DS seems less compelling to me. I suspect the entailment from "God is that than which no greater can be conceived" to "God is an absolute reality" or "God exists wholly a se". To make those derivations work one has to make substantive assumptions about maximal greatness.

Furthermore, it seems plausible to me that one can affirm that God is "a se" in virtue of not owing his existence to anything else and "simple" in virtue of having no proper parts, without having to endorse anything so radical as the Thomistic version of DS.

Maybe the question to ask is what a "real" distinction between "existence and essence, ... act and potency, individual and attribute, attribute and attribute" would amount to. In light of the contingency of creation and creaturely freedom, I'm inclined to say that there must be a distinction of some sort, not merely notional, between God's essence and existence, God and God's properties, etc. Perhaps there's something in between a full-blooded "real" distinction and a mere "notional" one.

Hi Alan,

Very good to hear from you. All is well on this end and I can see from your list of forthcoming papers that you have been using your time well at ND. Saw you on YouTube a while back.

A real distinction as I understand it need not be a distinction between one res and another. X and y can be really distinct even if neither can exist without the other. Thus essence and existence in me are really distinct even though my essence is nothing without existence, and my existence is nothing without essence. This real distinction in me is the ground of my contingency, and the lack of this real distinction between essence and existence in God is the ground of the divine necessity.

But I admit that DDS is murky and tapers off into the mystical. I sympathize with your sense that there has to be some distinctions in God that are not merely 'notional' as you put it, but somehow grounded in extramental reality.

The whole problem in a nutshell is that we cannot help but think of God as a being among beings who has properties in the way everything else has properties, but we also must realize that God, to be God (to be a se, transcendent, etc.) cannot be a being among beings but must be Being itself. All the mystics understand this, and there is a mystical strand in Aquinas that comes from Plato, Plotinus, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

When it comes to God we must grope and fumble and gesture at the boundary of the Sayable and the limit of the Intelligible. DDS is an expression of this predicament we are in. Thus it can appear as "hogwash" (C. B. Martin) but also as deep truth.

The cons need to be tightened up a bit. As far as I can tell, Thomist27 argues

1.) What is simple, has no accidents.
2.) What is free and intelligent has accidents.
3.) God is free and intelligent.

His last argument doesn't speak of simplicity at all.

I don't see how he is establishing 2.) I don't know that it would be that hard to do (who can imagine a mind without accidents?), but I also don't see how it would be any different than just saying that freedom or intelligence must be an accident. I have no experience of a mind without an accident- nor can I imagine one- but I have no experience of freedom as anything other than an accident in a free being- nor can I imagine it.


We've gone around on this before, but I'd deny at least that the move from "absolute being" to "a se" involves any substantive assumptions. It seems analytic to me. Absolute means "non-relative", and so not pointing to another, but "a se" (as opposed to ab alio). Or are you saying that something can be ab alio, but not relative to it? Relating to another, but not relative?

Hi James,

I wasn't questioning the inference from "exists absolutely" to "exists a se", but rather the inference from "is that than which a greater cannot be conceived" to either "exists absolutely" or "exists a se". Now, if all you mean by the latter expressions is that God does not owe his existence to anything else, then I agree. But I take the proponent of DS to mean something stronger by "exists absolutely" or "exists a se".

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