Discussing Aquinas

written by Dr. Richard G. Howe

I recently had a thoughtful young man ask me a question about God’s simplicity (the doctrine that says that God is not composed of any parts—metaphysical or otherwise), particularly in regard to God being able to freely create or freely not create. This entry, mutatis mutandis, is the heart of my admittedly too brief and undeveloped response to him.

I recently participated in a panel discussion on Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s joint session with the American Academy of Religion in Denver, CO with Brian Huffling, Stephen Davis and William Lane Craig. You can watch the video on my YouTube channel here.  My paper is available here. (My overbearing “Not for Distribution” watermark on the paper is there merely to alert the reader that the paper is not finished. It still lacks some entries in the appendices.)

With things like the panel discussion, my friend’s question to me, and other philosophical encounters, more and more I’ve come to appreciate that many of the discussions surrounding things like Aquinas’s doctrine of divine simplicity come down to the truth or falsity of the metaphysics of Aristotle and Aquinas. Aquinas’s doctrine of simplicity arises out of an explicit metaphysics. As such, many discussions about the truth or falsity of simplicity (and other issues) really collapses into a discussion of the truth or falsity of the metaphysics that underlie it.

I would submit that it is almost an impossible task to try to shoehorn Aquinas’s metaphysics into the categories and methods of contemporary analytic philosophy, though some might suggest that Eleonore Stump has pulled it off. In my experience, too many pose questions and challenges to issues like Aquinas’s doctrine of Divine simplicity, where these questions and challenges have background metaphysical assumptions for which they give no argument or that overlook different metaphysical assumptions that undergird particular philosophical doctrines.

Understandably such people might not think that these assumptions (if they are even aware of them) need themselves to be defended since it’s likely that most others with whom they discuss philosophy share the same background assumptions. It’s regrettable, however, when they try to philosophically examine issues arising from Aristotelian or Thomistic metaphysics (they differ in some key points), that it never occurs to them that they might not be giving an issue its due diligence. They expect these issues to be entirely explicable along the lines of their own contemporary analytic assumptions, and when they don’t, they react as if that somehow exposes the issue as being problematic if not outright false. This is why, it seems to me, some people find it “hard … to make sense” (as my friend put it) of some of these doctrines. As I said, this is quite understandable.

A few examples might help. For Aristotle and Aquinas, a thing could lack a property (or, as they would say, an “accident”) that arises from the essence of that thing (what the contemporary analytic philosopher would classify as “necessary” for that thing), and still be the thing that it is. Second, for Aristotle and Aquinas, a thing could be “necessary” and still be a created thing. Third, Aquinas would say that we cannot “know” God while at the same time elaborate extensively on seemingly countless truths that he says we can know about God. Such talk would almost certainly not make any sense in the mindset of contemporary analytic philosophy. Let’s briefly explore each one.

A contemporary analytic philosopher might ask: “if x is necessary for y by virtue of y being y, then how could y lack x and still be y?” He might ask this because, as I suggested above, he would regard any “property” that arises from the essence of a thing to be a “necessary” property of that thing. But more to the point, he would ask this because in philosophical discussions, he would most often collapse the Aristotelian metaphysical distinctions between genus, specific difference, species, accidents and proper accidents (treating them univocally as “properties”). Thus, in considering a human, they might say that it has the “property” of being an animal (genus), the “property” of being rational (specific difference), the “property” of being human (species), the “property” of having five fingers on a hand (proper accident), and the “property” of having blonde hair (accident) and, thus, fail to understand how they relate to one another in the human.

Regarding specifically, in the thinking of the analytic philosopher, how x could be necessary for y by virtue of y being y (if, in his thinking x arises from the essence of y), and yet y still be y if it lacks x, his is failing to understand the distinction between “accidents” and “proper accidents” of a substance. The accidents of a thing are attributes of the thing—like having blonde hair or black hair (an accident of a human). Metaphysically, whether a human has blonde hair or black hair (or, for that matter no hair!) is trivial. Proper accidents of a thing are attributes of the thing that, while not constituting the definition of the thing (its definition arising from its genus together with its specific difference), nevertheless arise because of it essence (unlike the color of ones hair) and are always (or nearly always) found in the thing. When they are missing, it constitutes a serious lack in the perfection of the thing—like the difference in a human between having five fingers on a hand (a proper accident of a human) or having only three fingers on a hand. A helpful article to read is Henry Veatch’s “St. Thomas on the Question, ‘How Are Synthetic Judgments A Priori Possible?’” (Modern Schoolman 42 (March 1965): 239-263), available on my website here.

A contemporary analytic philosopher might ask: “if x is necessary, then how could it stand in need of being created? Doesn’t being created mean, by definition that x is contingent?” His confusion arises from failing to appreciate in Aquinas (and other medieval philosophers) the difference between a thing being “necessary in itself” and “necessary through another.” For Aquinas, a contingent thing has the metaphysical constituents that make it possible for the thing to “decompose” (or “corrupt”) at the metaphysical level which allows for the possibility that the thing can cease to exist. These constituents are Form and Matter. This composition is known as hylomorphic composition (from the Greek words for ‘matter’ and ‘form’). In Aristotle and Aquinas, all sensible objects (objects knowable by means of the senses) are contingent. Any thing that is not contingent is necessary. Thus, because an angel is only Form, it is incapable of decomposing (which would make it no longer be that thing). But at the same time, for Aquinas, an angel is distinct from its act of existence and, thus, can only exist by being created by God. The upshot is that a tree can decompose (its Form and Matter can separate) and cease being a tree (with the Form and Matter each ceasing to be since the Form and Matter of a hylomorphic being cannot exist apart). An angel cannot decompose and cease being an angel since it is purely Form. But neither the tree nor the angel is self-existent. Thus, both the tree and the angel have to be created by God in order to exist. The tree is contingent. The angel is necessary through another. God is necessary in itself. (By the way, this touches on the issue of the differences between how existence relates to an essence vs. how an accident or property relates to an essence. Failure to appreciate this difference gives rise to people making too much out of Kant’s observation that existence is not a predicate. Kant is right. Existence is not a predicate. But for many from Kant onward, having observed that existence is not a predicate, existence as a philosophical doctrine drops entirely off their philosophical radar screens.)

A contemporary analytic philosopher might ask how Aquinas can say that we know truths about God if God is not knowable? He might ask this because he fails to factor in that, in the Aristotelian/Thomistic model, what it means for the human to “know” a thing is that, on the occasion of the human encountering a sensible object, his intellect abstracts the Form of a sensible object such that, formally speaking, his intellect “becomes” the thing that he knows. The human is “informed.” But since, for Aquinas, God does not have a Form that is conjoined with its act of existence but, instead, just IS His own act of existing (which is to say, God is substantial existence itself) then, by definition and metaphysically speaking, God cannot be known. In Aquinas, this does not at all mean that one cannot know truths about God.

Another issue is the viability of the use of possible world semantics. So many philosophers today are quite comfortable with this way of talking as if it is entirely free of any metaphysical commitments; as if it is merely a convenient way of talking about how or whether some hypothetical state of affairs is possible, necessary, impossible, or what have you. But I would assert (again, without any argument here) that one cannot adequately deal philosophically with such questions without, to some extent, “pulling the trigger” on at least some issues in metaphysics. But once certain metaphysical bridges are burned (to change the metaphor), there is no way for that person to get from where he philosophically is to a place where he can philosophically understand (much less agree with) some position that Aquinas holds.

Finally, an all-to-over-simplified point to mention that is more directly related to the discussion about simplicity is the issue of univocal, equivocal, and analogical language when trying to explore truths about God, His attributes and His actions vis-à-vis the creation, its attributes, and its actions. This is especially relevant when one asks questions like “how did God choose to create as opposed to refraining from creating?” While the question is admittedly trying to get at an important metaphysical truth, without considering the role of analogy, it will falsely univocate the actions of God and the actions of humans in such a way that it will do violence to the metaphysics that underlie the very doctrine that brought up the question in the first place.

For some perhaps, what I’ve shown here amounts to little more than saying that, given Aquinas’s metaphysics, Thomism seems fairly intact. But it is no small thing to help a contemporary analytic philosopher see that, what might appear at first sight to be an incoherent notion, is entirely coherent within a certain philosophical context. It is no small thing to move from thinking that simplicity is incoherent to thinking that, given the metaphysics of act/potency, form/matter, substance/accidents, and essence/existence, Divine simplicity and most other doctrines of Thomism are not only not incoherent, they are inevitable.

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