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Thursday, January 17, 2013


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It is natural to read Craig’s remark that the one substance “supports” the three persons “just as our individual beings each support one person” as congenial to part/whole monism about substance. But it is not necessary. As far as I know, Craig and Moreland do not rely on the severed hand and heart-sans-body examples (which are Moreland’s) to illustrate anything about their model of the Trinity. In other contexts, I know Craig safely distances himself from Moreland’s examples (he’ll say or write things like “My colleague J. P. Moreland believes…”.

Dr. Vallicella,

By way of background, Moreland is using “substance” in an idiosyncratic way. He distinguishes substances from what he calls “property-things.” Paradigm cases of the former are living organisms; of the latter, artifacts. I’ve reproduced his comparison chart:


So Moreland would deny that a book is a substance, identifying it as a property-thing. Moreover, as you can see on the chart, Moreland maintains that parts are metaphysically prior to the whole with respect to property-things. The situation is reversed with for substances. As he says, a substance’s parts get their identity from the whole. So me may say handle the heart transplant case as follows. The human heart qua human heart does not get its identity from being some particular human’s heart (e.g., Tom’s heart), but by being the heart of some human or other. The heart is human while in Tom, ceases to be human in transition from Tom to Jerry (at this stage it is still a heart, only merely a heart) and becomes human again once successfully planted in Jerry.

(Note: I’m not endorsing Moreland’s ontology. Just explaining it. I’ll reserve riffing on Moreland’s views for my blog).

But a more interesting case would be successful cross-species organ transplant (which have in fact been attempted, though not with much success). Suppose Jerry receives a successful transplant from a chimpanzee named Lucy. This seems to create real problems for Moreland’s view (as I explain on my blog).

By citing an organ or appendage being posterior to the organism as an example of the priority of the whole, Kevin is in good company. Aristotle gave the example of a man and his finger, as well as the right angle and the acute angle. An acute angle, for example, is what is is in virtue of the the triangle of which it is part.

Or consider a circle partitioned into two semi-circles. Intuitively, the circle as a whole is prior to the partitions; indeed, the semi-circles are what they are only by virtue of the whole of which they are parts. Or consider a mountain and its peak. Surely the peak is part of the mountain, yet just as surely the peak is not prior to the mountain, but rather the mountain is prior to the peak.

What I take to be anathema to aseity is an asymmetric ontological dependence relation, where x ‘asymmetrically ontologically depends on’ y just in case, necessarily, x exists only if y exists but not vice versa. So it seems to me that the most plausible solution to the dependency problem that results from the mereological model of the Trinity is denying that the dependence relation is an asymmetric ontological one. This doesn’t seem ad hoc. For consider:

1. Necessarily, if God exists, then the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist.
2. Necessarily, if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist, then God exists.

From (2) it follows, of course, that

3. It's not possible that the Persons exist and God does not exist.

So we have here a mutual, or symmetric dependence relation.

Do we have a non-theological example? We always have Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gate to Hades. Suppose Cerberus is essentially three-headed, and each head bears its own proper name, Bowser, Rover, and Spike. If Hercules decapitates Bowser, Cerberus goes to dog Heaven, leaving the beastly body behind. The dependence relation between Cerberus and Bowser, Rover, and Spike is symmetrical. Further, Bowser depends on Rover and Spike, and Rover depends on Bowser and Spike, etc. Thus, necessarily, Cerberus exists iff Bowser, Rover, and Spike do; and necessarily, no one of the three can exist without the other two. This seems clearly possible.

Or how about magnets? Magnets are composite objects with north and south poles as proper parts. Neither pole is identical or prior to the other, nor to the magnet as a whole. So we seem to have here a symmetrical ontological dependence relation between the poles and the magnet.


I don't get it. If the heart gets its identity from the whole, then it cannot exist apart from that whole and so cannot be transplanted .

>>Or consider a circle partitioned into two semi-circles. Intuitively, the circle as a whole is prior to the partitions; indeed, the semi-circles are what they are only by virtue of the whole of which they are parts.<<

But in an example like this, we introduce the partitioning. In the case of the Trinity, however, we do not introduce the distinctions between the Persons.

More tomorrow. Time for dinner, the shout shows, and the exciting albeit stupid gun debate!

I do appreciate your comments!

Dr. Vallicella,

I don’t know if I totally get it either. But maybe here’s the idea. Take the distinction between a kind-essence and an individual essence.

A kind-essence is whatever properties a thing must have to belong to a certain kind. E.g., all closed plane figures whose interior angles add up to 180deg belongs to the kind-essence ‘triangle’. An individual essence is whatever properties a thing has that makes it that very thing and not some other thing. So we could compare a scalene and a right triangle, each of which have different individual-essences but the same kind-essence.

Now consider a heart. The individual essence of a heart will be made up of its functional or organic properties like “pumps blood” or “has valves.” But to belong to the kind-essence ‘human heart,’ the heart must possess the property of belonging to some human. So maybe the idea is that a heart can lose its kind-essence upon being removed form a human, but retain its individual essence. What exists apart from the whole is a property-thing with the individual essence ‘heart’. Once it gets put back into a human, it reacquires a kind-essence.

So what is might be meant by “gets its identity from the whole” is something like “acquires a natural-kind essence from the whole.” Perhaps.

Hi Bill,

I am not sure the transplant case should undermine the Aristotelian claim that parts of the whole (at least living organisms) are identity-dependent on the whole to which it belongs. You assume in your case that being a heart is being a part of the *same* particular whole, namely Tom. But why assume this? The Aristotelian need not claim that a part’s identity is dependent on being a part of the same particular whole. If this were the case, it seems your objection would stick. But the Aristotelian only needs the following weaker claim: parts are identity-dependent on the whole to which it belongs (where “the whole” is not meant to signify the same particular whole, just the one the parts are currently parts of). So whether or not the heart is a part of either Jerry or Tom makes no difference; it just needs to be a part of one of these wholes to be a heart. If it is a part of either Tom or Jerry, it will remain a human heart.

And if they are identity-dependent in this way, why can’t the Aristotelian then claim that because of this the whole is metaphysically prior to its parts?

Dr. Vallicella:

I am sorry for not being clearer. So the first objection I offer is not my own. I do not endorse Moreland's Aristotelian substance ontology for the same intuitions that you have. It would seem strange if Adam and Bob were in the same operating room and the surgeon removed Adam's heart, walked 10 seconds over to Bob, and placed the heart into Bob's chest and somehow that heart is not a heart for the 10 seconds while being transported. It was a heart, ceases to be a heart, and then becomes a heart once again when in proper contact and relationship with the (another) whole. I don't know that I share Moreland's intuition here, having offered this counterexample in his class and finding that we have a disagreement of intuitions. However, I offered it as an example of some philosophers disagreeing that the whole is dependent upon the parts. If this ontology could be made to fit our intuitions, I think we can demonstrate that, for some objects at least, the parts are dependent upon the whole.

I offered the second objection as a response despite the success or failure of the first one. So even if we could reject Moreland's Aristotelian ontology, we have some theological motivations to be not be worried about God (proper) being somehow dependent upon the members of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit). If it is the case that the "only begottenness" relation of the Son to the Father means that the Son is somehow dependent upon the Father for his divinity, substance, and identity (some Christians have postulated that the Father is the fons divinitatis), and yet the Son remains fully God, why is it the case that God (proper) could not remain fully divine even if dependent upon the Three?

>>An individual essence is whatever properties a thing has that makes it that very thing and not some other thing.<<

It follows that an individual essence of x individuates x in the actual world and across all possible worlds. The individual essence of Socrates, forexample, call it Socrateity, is a conjunctive property that only Socrates has in the actual world and that nothing distinct from Socrates has in any possible world.

Why do you think a particular heart has an individual essence? Try specifying it. And how could it fail to involve the individual whose individual essence it is?

If I make a long list of only the organic and functional properties of a heart I won't get close to its individual essence -- if it has one.

A heart removed from a chest cavity is no longer functioning as a heart, but that is not to say that it no longer instantiates the kind-essence *heart.*

Craig writes: >>You assume in your case that being a heart is being a part of the *same* particular whole, namely Tom. But why assume this?<<

I am afraid I don't understand what you mean.

Here is a guy, Tom. He has a human heart, call it Throb. If Throb is dependent for its identity and its existence on Tom, then it cannot be removed from Tom and transplanted into Jerry. But it can be so transplanted. Therefore, Throb is not indentity-depmndent on Tom. We can now generalize: no human heart is identity-dependent on the animal whose heart it is.

I may have misunderstood what Craig is saying above. The suggestion seems to be that Tom's heart is not identity-dependent on Tom, but on some animal or other. But I don't think this is right.

The heart can exist apart from any animal, at least for a short time, as it must if transplants are to be possible. So its identity cannot depend on being the heart of some animal or other. Admittedly, it won't be functioning as a pump during the transitonal period. But this is not relevant. For it will have all the same causal powers it had when it was functioning as a pump.

The situation is no different from that of the water pump in my car. Whether or not it is pumping water, it is what it is and has the casual powers it has. I do grant, however, that it cannot function as a water pump unless it is properly installed in some car or other.

Looking at the recent posts on this topic, they all look at the Persons of the Trinity as being parts of God in some way. This doesn't seem like the right way to look at it, especially if one holds that God is absolutely simple and without cause.

Thomas Aquinas' treatment of the Trinity begins by looking at the possibility of relation existing in God, and later identifies the relations as Persons. If a real relation exists in God in a higher way (as Wisdom exists in God, not as a habit, but as the same with his essence), then that relation will also be the same with his essence. Yet if it is a real relation, then there must be some real distinction between the terms of the relation. Everything in God subsists, and so these relations too subsist. And these we call these Persons on account of a likeness to our understanding of human persons. Obviously one wouldn't think to consider relation as something present in God otherwise, but Thomas and Augustine see this as the only way of conceiving the distinction of Persons in God. Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, questions 27 through 30 is where Thomas is most concise about this. He never refers to the Persons as parts. He explicitly addresses that briefly in Q.30, A.1.

That's a pretty brief sketch, but it seems like any rational account of the God being a Trinity won't come from considering the Persons as parts. A parted thing depends on its parts, but God is not dependent.


Please explain why you don't accept Nightingale's approach directly above.

Dear. Dr. Vallicella and M. Nightengale:

I do not endorse a constitutive model of the Trinity (in fact, at present, I advocate no model of the Trinity, as I don't know what to think about the Trinity other than I think it is true). I only responded on behalf of the advocate of the constitutive model.

So one worry about a very strong view of divine simplicity is that it does not properly account for the distinct members of the Trinity. I don't know what to make of how relations can exist without distinct relata. Should one of the relatum cease to exist, the relation itself would cease to exist as well. So my blue Camelbak water bottle has the "next to" relation with my black coffee mug (I tend to drink a lot of liquids) on my desk and suppose there is nothing else on my desk. But should Gandalf the Grey burst into my office and zap my coffee mug into oblivion, my Camelbak can no longer instantiate the relation "next to". If I noted to my wife, "My Camelbak is next to..." My wife would naturally respond, "Next to what?" It seems that the relata are metaphysically prior to the relation.

So it is hard for me to understand how a relation can be a person. A person does not seem to be a thing that is instantiated between two (or more) things in the same way my Camelbak and my coffee mug have a relation. So the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, but it is hard for me to understand how either of them can be the love had between two persons. Further, for these relations to exist within God is to presuppose that there is a distinction within God already. There must be (at least) two somethings within God for those somethings to have a relation.

Further, could you explain what "subsistence" means in distinction from existence? If it is not identity, what is it? For something to "subsist in" God sounds like a relation to me, and already that imports a distinction into the one being of God.


I’d love to.

First, I do not accept that God is absolutly simple, which Thomas’ view presupposes.

Second, I don’t think a relation can be a person.

Third, I don’t accept the non-univocity of being, which undergirds the distinction between existence and subsistence.

Fourth, I have never found a satisfactory account of the distinctness of the Persons on Thomas’ view, given his myopic if not janus-faced use of the terms ‘distinction’ and ‘relation’. Anything that’s not a real distinction is a distinction without a real difference. There cannot be real relation without a real distinction. By saying the relations are “the same with his essence,” one excludes the possibility of real relations by excluding real distinction.

Fifth, saying “any rational account of the God being a Trinity won't come from considering the Persons as parts” rings the sound of a hollow victory to those who do not adhere to the doctrine of Sola Thomistica. What is meant by “rational” here, and what about it excludes ex hypothesi mereological accounts of the Trinity from being rational?

Sixth, the principle “A parted thing depends on its parts, but God is not dependent” is at worst false, at best underspecified. I don’t want to filibuster this comment thread. Any reader interested in my defense of this can email me, and I’ll send them a paper in which I canvass at least five ways to resist the principle.

To Wong:
The distinction between "subsist" and "exist" is that the prior adds to the notion of existence completeness or a kind of independence from others. Length, color, and frogs exist. Of those three, only frogs subsist, whereas length and color depend on something else subsisting for their existence.

As for the points about relation and relata, Aquinas considers procession before considering relation (referring to Scripture which says that the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father). With any procession there is that which proceed and that from which it proceeds. Both of these are God, as said in the Nicen "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God". (I'm catching up on the discussion of earlier posts, and saw that Chad accepts the authority of the earliest councils to some extent, so I hope it's alright to cite the Nicene Creed.) So if "from" says something real about God, then "that from which" and "what comes from" are distinct on account of that relation. These are the Father and the Son, who share and are alike in all but that relation.

Aquinas takes up and qualifies Boethius' definition of person, "individual substance of a rational nature", and then shows that the relations in God fit that account. Relations don't usually subsist, but the relations in God are not other than his essence which subsists most of all.

To Chad:
Thank you for filling me in on where you stand on those points. As above, the relations are real on account of the real processions (which are revealed in Scripture). Like Wong said, relations are to something, and so even a relation existing in God to God means there is some distinctness on account of that, and perhaps only on account of that. Aquinas and Augustine seem to think that any further distinction between the persons would do damage to the sameness in essence, and therefore to the unity of God.

I had said the idea of a Trinity being parts is irrational because I was indeed presupposing God's simplicity, such that a parted God would simply not be God. That would certainly be irrational, but as you mean something else by "God", it doesn't follow that your attempt is irrational.

Thanks for the response, Nightingale.

There is no doubting that there needs to be "some distinctness" in God on account of the real relations affirmed. My trouble (but maybe it is just my trouble) is that I don't see how Thomas' view can make room for such. Thomas's arguments (actually, they are the Aristotle's arguments with the anti-trinitarian twist of Muslim and Jewish scholastics; see Robert Burns's “The Divine Simplicity in St Thomas") for God as actus purus overreach.

I see that we are on the same page: whereas you would argue that a parted God would not be God, I would in turn argue that a simple God would not be God because simplicity does damage to the Trinity, and the only God that exists is the Triune God. As it is said, one man’s modus ponens in another man’s modus tollens.

My fellow Thomists think absolute simplicity and Trinitarianism are consistent. I do not. I think God’s having parts is consistent with God’s being absolutely perfect. My fellow Thomists do not. As interesting as these disputes are, I have resolved to agree to disagree with my fellow Thomists on these matters, because the cleavages seem too deep to breach.

I agree with Bill in his "Survey of Responses" post about the benefits of locating a phenomenon in nature that exhibits a trinitarian structure. I also think that it helps to use personal analogies that model the relationships between the Persons of the Trinity. I agree with M. Nightengale that the doctrine of the Trinity is relational, and that it helps to consider how the relations are revealed in Scripture.

To understand how a relation could be considered a person, and how a ‘person’ differs from a ‘being’, it would help to suggest a working definition of personhood. Perhaps we could say that a person is, or has the nature of being, a unit of consciousness with self-awareness, a personal identity, mind, will, rights, responsibilities, and the like.

With relations between persons in mind, the relational unity of mental and volitional progeny could unite persons according to one mind, will, purpose and essence. In this way, three persons could be one being, one indivisible unit, yet remain three persons.

If this makes sense, consider the following.

Imagine a man, Mr. A, who authors a novel and writes himself into the story. To be consistent, let’s say the story is a tragedy and the author puts himself into the story for at least five reasons: to reveal himself to the characters, all of whom he loves; so that the characters can properly relate to him; to deliver a special message to the characters; to right the wrongs of the tragedy; and to make a good ending for the story. The author knows he will write himself into the story before beginning to write. The author mentally and volitionally begets his character-self before he begins to write, hence his character self exists outside the space and time limits of the story, although he does not actually write himself into the story until midway through the book.

Mr. A-as-author and Mr. A-as-character have an intimate relationship in the creative writing process. Mr. A-as-character is involved in the creative writing. Mr. A-as-character has two natures: Mr. A nature and character nature. He has the mind and will and sense of self-awareness of Mr. A and he has a mind and will and sense of awareness as Mr. A-the-character. His character self undergoes experiences in the story that he has not undergone in his life outside the story. Hence, Mr. A-as-character has the potential for mental and volitional disagreement with Mr. A-as-author, as well as the potential for a different sense of responsibilities and rights, and perhaps even a status as a different person. As a character, Mr. A remains true to himself, so to speak. The character is Mr. A, but in another sense Mr. A-the-character is different from Mr. A-the-author, although their unity of mind and will is perfect.

Let’s also imagine that the relationship between Mr. A-the-author and Mr. A-the-character is rich, loving and indivisible. The relationship itself is integral to the creative writing so that it almost qualifies as a third person. The love that proceeds from the relationship itself has a mind, will, etc. though perfectly united with author and character. Author, character, and relationship are each truly Mr. A.

If this analogy can be seen as a model for the Trinity, then consider the following:

1. There is only one Mr. A.

2. The author is Mr. A. (the author is identical to Mr. A)

3. The character is Mr. A. (the character is the only mental/volitional progeny of Mr. A as he is in the story, though the character is begotten outside the space-time boundaries of the story; the character is Mr. A from Mr. A, the essence of Mr. A.)

4. The intimate relationship between author and character is Mr. A. (the relationship is a separate mental/volitional progeny of Mr. A; the relationship itself takes on a quasi-personal nature as it proceeds from Mr. A the author and Mr. A the character outside the space-time boundaries of the story; the relationship has the essence of Mr. A.)

5. The author is not the character. (the author is identical to Mr. A; the character is the only mental/volitional progeny of Mr. A as he is in the story)

6. The character is not the relationship. (the character is the only mental/volitional progeny of Mr. A as he is in the story; the relationship is a separate mental/volitional progeny from Mr. A)

7. The relationship is not the author. (the relationship is a separate mental/volitional progeny of Mr. A; the author is identical to Mr. A)

Mr. A is an imperfect model of the Trinity. As a human being, Mr. A is one being and three quasi-persons (not three modes of Mr. A, so to avoid Sabelliansim or Modalism). But God is the perfect Trinity. God is the one perfect and divine being and three perfect persons, each of whom is fully God.

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