Saturday, August 24, 2019
Scotus on divine simplicity and creation
In on the doctrine of divine simplicity, I noted that one of the problems with his critique of the doctrine is that he pays insufficient attention to the history of the debate about it. Hence he overlooks what should be obvious possible responses to his criticisms, such as Aquinas’s appeal to the distinction between real relations and logical relations. He also makes sweeping attributions of certain views to all defenders of divine simplicity, overlooking crucial differences between proponents of the doctrine. Other critics of divine simplicity also often make these mistakes. A consideration of the views of John Duns Scotus further illustrates the range of issues with which any serious general critique of divine simplicity must deal.
Scotus, like other classical theists, affirms divine simplicity. But he famously differs with Aquinas and other fellow classical theists over some important matters of background metaphysics. Let’s consider some views of Scotus that are relevant to the debate over divine simplicity. Some of these involve disagreement with other proponents of the doctrine, though some of them are merely important contributions of Scotus’s own with which other proponents could agree.
Scotus does not agree with the Thomist position that theological language is analogical. He takes such language to be univocal. Hence when we speak of God’s goodness or wisdom, say, we are using “goodness” and “wisdom” in the same sense as when we speak of human goodness or wisdom. Now, as applied to human beings, “goodness” and “wisdom” are to be defined differently, and so they are also to be defined differently when applied to God. But that entails, for Scotus, that there is a formal distinction between God’s goodness and God’s wisdom.
A Scotistic formal distinction is not the same as a real distinction, but neither is it the same as a merely conceptual distinction. It’s supposed to be a kind of middle ground between them. There is, for Scotus, no real distinction between God’s goodness and wisdom insofar as they are not separable. The one could not exist without the other. However, the distinction between them is not merely a distinction in thought. There is something in extra-mental reality that makes wisdom and goodness different. The Scotist way of putting this is that there is a difference in formalities between wisdom and goodness – and thus, again, a formal distinction between them. So, for the Scotist, while there is no real distinction between the divine attributes, it is not correct to say that they are identical full stop. Not only is the concept of wisdom different from the concept of goodness, but wisdom and goodness themselves are not formally identical.
Where the analysis of action is concerned, Scotus distinguishes between an act of will, the object of the act, and the effect of the act. In created agents, there can be a plurality of each of these. I exhibit multiple acts of will over time, each with its distinct object and each with its distinct effects. For example, the other day I willed to have a steak for dinner, the outcome of the act being a feeling of fullness in the stomach. Today I willed to type this blog post, the outcome of which was the appearance of certain words on my computer screen. And so forth. In God, who is outside time, there can in Scotus’s view be only one act of will, but there can still be a multiplicity of objects and effects of that one act.
The will’s being free, in Scotus’s view, entails several key features. First, the will is of itself neutral or indifferent toward the outcomes it might produce. Second, even when the will chooses some action A, it retains at the moment of choice the ability to choose non-A (even if it can’t actually choose both at the same time). Third, there is no further explanation to be sought for the will’s choice of A other than that the will chose it. The point of these features is to emphasize the will’s radical indeterminacy with respect to its objects.
Now, Scotus holds that natural reason can demonstrate that contingent things must have a First Cause and that this First Cause is simple or non-composite and exists of necessity. But he also argues that the creative act of this necessarily existing First Cause cannot itself have been necessary, or its effects would have been necessary too rather than contingent. Hence creation must have been the result of a free act. The demonstration of a First Cause, in other words, gets us precisely to something that is both necessary (in its existence) and free (in its activity).
But why does the First Cause will as it does, given that it could have willed otherwise? Given Scotus’s analysis of the will’s freedom, this is a bad question, like asking of a certain stone why it is a stone. Given that a thing is in fact a stone, there’s nothing more to be said about why it is. That’s just its nature, and it couldn’t be any other way and still be a stone. Similarly, for Scotus, given that a certain choice was free, there’s nothing more to be said about why it occurred. It occurred because it was free, and it couldn’t have been any other way and still be free. Again, for Scotus, looking for some explanation of the will’s free choice that is deeper than its being free is a category mistake. Once you’ve identified it as free, you’ve given it all the explanation you could have or could need.
All the same, it is possible in Scotus’s view for a thing to be necessarily willed and freely willed at the same time. In particular, he holds that though God does not necessarily will to create the world, God does necessarily will himself. But even here he wills freely. In a famous illustration, Scotus asks us to consider a man who has voluntarily flung himself off a precipice, and who, as he falls to his doom, continues to will his fall. He both falls of necessity insofar as gravity ensures that he will not stop until he hits bottom, and also freely wills his falling. In a similar way, God both cannot not will himself, but also freely wills himself.
So, how might a Scotist respond to Mullins and other critics of divine simplicity who take the doctrine to be incompatible with divine freedom? As we’ve seen, Mullins is critical of the Thomistic account of the analogical use of theological terms, and insists that key terms must be understood univocally. But Scotists don’t accept the doctrine of analogy either, yet they nevertheless insist on divine simplicity. So they could happily accept Mullins’ criticisms of analogy while taking them to be irrelevant to the larger issue.
Scotists would also no doubt object that certain steps in Mullins’ main argument are expressed in too sloppy a manner. For example, in steps (8) – (11) of his argument, Mullins speaks of God’s actions being “identical” to one another and to God’s existence. But the Scotist will ask whether what is meant here is real identity or formal identity. Mullins’ argument also assumes that necessity and free choice are incompatible, but Scotus’s example of the man flinging himself off the precipice indicates that that assumption needs to be made more precise.
Perhaps the heart of Mullins’ argument could be salvaged by tightening it up to get around these particular objections, but others will be harder to deal with. For example, step (10) of Mullins’ argument states that “God’s act to give grace is identical to God’s one divine act.” But the Scotist could object that this conflates the object and/or effect of the divine act with the act itself. “God’s act to give grace” is identical to God’s one divine act qua act, but not identical to it qua act to give grace, specifically. Other steps of the argument, such as step (4), also seem to conflate divine acts with their objects and effects. Naturally, without these steps, Mullins’ critique collapses.
Again, Scotus claims to have demonstrated that a First Cause must be at the same time simple, necessary, and free, and that given the radical indeterminacy of the will, it is metaphysically impossible for the First Cause’s effects – such as creation and the giving of grace – to have been necessary. Hence any argument that supposes that divine simplicity and divine necessity entail that God’s choices are themselves necessary begs the question against Scotus. The Scotist could insist that we have independent reason to judge that such a claim must be wrong, so that any interpretation of simplicity, necessity, and will that would entail that God could not have refrained from creating the world, giving grace, etc. must be mistaken.
Into the bargain, Scotus also agrees with Aquinas’s point that the world’s relation to God is a real relation, but God’s relation to the world is merely a logical relation (where this distinction corresponds to what in my initial reply to Mullins I referred to as the distinction between real properties and Cambridge properties).
As this last remark indicates, there are aspects of Scotus’s position that Thomists and other classical theists could happily agree with, though there are other aspects that the Thomist would reject. For example, Thomists would reject Scotus’s view that theological language is univocal, his notion of a formal distinction, and his voluntarist account of the will. But Mullins and other critics of the doctrine of divine simplicity claim to have refuted the doctrine full stop, not merely the Thomist’s way of spelling out the doctrine. So in order to make their case, they would not only have to reply to what Thomists have said – which, as I have already noted, they often fail to do – but also to what Scotus and other non-Thomists have said.