Dale then goes on to cite various biblical passages in which God is described in personal terms. He also adds some important qualifications:
Thursday, December 26, 2013
A complex god with a god complex
I thank Dale Tuggy for his two-part reply to my most recent remarks about his criticisms of classical theism, and I thank him also for his gracious remarks about my work. In Part 1 of his reply Dale tries to make a biblical case against classical theism, and in Part 2 he criticizes the core classical theist doctrine of divine simplicity. Let’s consider each in turn. Here are what I take to be the key remarks in Part 1 (though do read the whole thing in case I’ve left out something essential). Dale writes:
As best I can tell, most Christians … think, and have always thought of God as a great self…
For them, God is a “He.” They think God loves and hates, does things, hears them, speaks, knows things, and can be anthropomorphically depicted, whether in art, or in Old Testament theophanies. And a good number think that the one God just is Jesus himself – and Jesus is literally a self, and so can’t be Being Itself.
Dale then goes on to cite various biblical passages in which God is described in personal terms. He also adds some important qualifications:
In a number of biblical texts, God is pictured as sitting on a throne. Anthropomorphic? Yes, in the proper sense of the term. This is portraying God as human-like, humanoid, if you like. But this is OK; as we saw in Genesis 1, God made humans in his own image – and similarity is a symmetrical relation. That is, if we’re similar to God, it follows that he’s similar to us. This needn’t be a bodily similarity – but portraying God as a humanoid figure is an easy way to get us to think of him as a self…
God gets mad. Literally? Yes. Does the hair stand up on the back of his neck? Does he get red in the face? Does his heart race? No, no, and no. None of those are required for getting mad. A spirit may get mad. We have no good reason to think that only a bodily being can be a subject of annoyance, wrath, disdain, and so on.
Is this a flat-footed literalism? No. Nothing I’ve said, and nothing I will say, implies that all biblical, or all true descriptions of God must be understood literally. The claim is rather that we can form concepts which are satisfied by both God and his creatures, and of course we have terms which express these concepts, and so those terms too – e.g. being, self, moral agent, thinking being, soul, actor, lover, real entity – apply to both. But are those concepts I just named suited only to physical beings, or to creatures, or to humans? No. We can abstract away elements of a concept, and get a more general one, which applies to more than one sort of being, and even a divine being, a god.
From the biblical passages, Dale concludes:
God takes pity on us. He is compassionate, and sympathizes with our plight. He is supremely loving. He forgives. These actions, emotions, and character trains [sic] logically presuppose that he’s a self, a being capable of consciousness, with intelligence, will, and the ability to intentionally act. An abstract object, a universal, a force, a thought, a property, or a something-somewhat-like-a-universal can’t be thought to (literally) do or have those.
Later he adds:
Are you a long time churchgoer? Ever heard a sermon or homily or liturgical reading or song whose theme was that “God” is “Being Itself”? Have you heard any in which God is extolled as a wonderful, trustworthy, active, mighty, wise, kind, parent-like being? What’s the percentage of the two? For me, it’d be 0% vs. 100%.
There’s a lot more in this vein, but that gives you the general idea. Here are the problems I see with it:
1. Straw-manning and/or begging the question: I’ve noted many times that the classical theist does not deny that God is personal, and indeed typically insists on attributing the key personal attributes of intellect and will to God. Certainly the Christian classical theist does not regard God as “an abstract object, a universal, a force” etc. So to cite biblical passages in which God is described as personal by itself cuts absolutely no ice. Christian classical theists are well aware of those passages and accept them just as much as Dale does. Hence, if Dale means to imply that the classical theist regards God as impersonal, then he is simply attacking a straw man.
More likely, Dale just doesn’t agree that the passages in question are best interpreted the way the classical theist would interpret them. Evidently he supposes that in order to think of God as personal, you have to regard him as “a being” alongside other beings and “a person” alongside other persons, rather than as Being Itself and Intellect Itself. “Jesus is literally a self,” he writes, “and so can’t be Being Itself” (emphasis added). But of course, the classical theist doesn’t think this follows at all. The classical theist thinks his own understanding of what it means to describe God in personal terms is perfectly compatible with the Bible, rightly understood. Dale merely assumes, rather than argues, that this is false. Hence he simply begs the question.
2. Special pleading: Dale does not hold himself to the same standard he applies to the classical theist. When it suits him he cites the “man on the street’s” understanding of a scriptural passage as if it settled the matter. But only when it suits him. Does the plain man think that biblical descriptions of divine anger entail a literal emotional state into which God temporarily passes until his wrath is assuaged? Then this, Dale seems to think, is also how the educated Christian should read these passages. Does the plain man also suppose, on biblical grounds, that God literally sits on a throne? Well, we needn’t agree with him about that! But why not? The classical theist, after all, has given reasons why the former sort of passage should not be taken at face value any more than the latter. Dale, by contrast, offers no explicit criteria for why some passages but not others should be taken at face value. And his implicit criteria do not reflect an adequate understanding of what is at stake. Which brings us to:
3. Missing the point: Dale seems to think that in order to avoid a crude anthropomorphism that is incompatible with God’s being the ultimate explanation of things, it suffices to refrain from attributing corporeal attributes to him. But the classical theist is well aware that theistic personalists don’t think God has a heart, a neck, etc. While their reason for objecting to the attribution to God of emotional states is partly because at least some of them think a correct analysis of such states reveals them to be essentially corporeal, there are other reasons too. For example, even if you regard the feelings with which anger is associated in us as something that might exist in a spirit, it still cannot be the case that God has such feelings. For if (say) he goes from a tranquil state to having such feelings and then calms down again, then he has potentialities that can be actualized. That entails that he can be caused to undergo change, and that he is composite (since there would in this case be both potentiality and actuality within him). And that in turn entails that he is not the ultimate explanation of things, since whatever is composite requires a cause.
To speak of God’s wrath cannot be a matter of attributing to him an ephemeral emotional state, then. It is rather a matter of God timelessly willing the punishment of the unrepentant. Now Dale might disagree with this, as well as with the claims that emotions entail corporeal states -- a claim he glibly dismisses, but without any argument whatsoever -- and that anything that changes (including changing its emotional states) would require a cause of its own. The point, though, is that merely citing biblical passages settles absolutely nothing. Dale himself is happy to read some passages non-literally when a literal reading would conflict with what we know God must be like in order to be the first cause of things. All the classical theist is saying is that the same sorts of considerations should lead to a more nuanced reading of other passages as well. If Dale agrees that not all biblical descriptions of God can be taken at face value given what God is supposed to be, then the key point has already been conceded. Anthropomorphism has been rejected in principle. The rest are details.
4. Confusing analogy and metaphor: Having said that, Dale is rather sloppy in characterizing the classical theist’s treatment of biblical language. It is not merely a matter of taking a passage either literally or non-literally. In particular, when a Thomist says that a certain description of God must be understood analogically, he does not mean that it is merely metaphorical or non-literal. Analogy is not the same thing as metaphor. When I say that this man is good and that that pizza is good, I am using the term “good” analogically. But I am still speaking literally and non-metaphorically in each case. I am not saying that either the man or the pizza is not really good but that describing them that way is just a colorful way of saying something else. I am saying that they are, literally, both good while recognizing that the goodness of food is a very different kind of thing from the goodness of a human being.
Now when the Thomist says that the words we apply to God cannot be understood in the same sense in which we apply them to human beings, he does not mean that such language must always be understood metaphorically or non-literally. Some of it should be, but some of it should be understood in a way that is literal, but analogical rather than univocal. Now, when we speak of God as “getting angry” or “being moved to pity” or the like, that is mere metaphor, because it implies a change in God and God cannot literally change. But when we speak of God’s goodness, love, intellect, power, will, etc. that talk is to be understood not metaphorically but analogically. That means that the description is literal, but just not univocal. We are saying that there literally is goodness, love, etc. in God and that while it is not exactly the same thing as what we call goodness, love, etc. in us (just as the goodness of pizza is not the same thing as the goodness of a man) it is nevertheless analogous to what we call goodness, love, etc. in us.
Dale says that “we can form concepts which are satisfied by both God and his creatures” insofar as “we can abstract away elements of a concept, and get a more general one, which applies to more than one sort of being” -- as if this were something the Thomist would deny. But in fact what Dale is describing is at least part of what the Thomist account of the analogical nature of theological language is itself saying. The Thomist is claiming that the abstraction must be more extensive than Dale realizes, given what God must be like in order to be the ultimate explanation of things. But he certainly does not deny that we can speak literally about God and that we can apply some of the same concepts both to God and to human beings (provided they are understood analogically).
5. Red herring: Like Dale, I haven’t heard any sermons about God as Being Itself. So what? I also haven’t heard any sermons on astronomy, but I assume Dale wouldn’t argue: “Pastors don’t give sermons on astronomy. Therefore we should think the sun literally moves relative to the earth and that the earth does not move at all, since some biblical passages taken literally give that impression.”
Why Dale thinks serious theology should always be sermon-friendly, I have no idea. Sermons, after all, generally have to be accessible to people from all walks of life, and they are essentially pastoral rather than theological in purpose. It is as ludicrous to judge a technical theological assertion by reference to its value to the preacher as it is to judge the preacher’s work by appeal to the standards of the technical theological treatise. Dale is essentially making the same mistake as the New Atheist who insists on interpreting what serious philosophers and theologians say in light of what “the man in the pew” thinks, rather than the other way around. The difference is that whereas the New Atheist attacks the simplistic conception of God that results, Dale embraces it.
So much for Part 1 of Dale’s reply. Part 2 is, I think, much better insofar as it (finally!) addresses the real issue between the classical theist and the theistic personalist. Dale agrees that to be the ultimate explanation of things, God must in some sense lack any parts. But he thinks one can affirm this without going the whole hog for the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity. How? Dale considers two main possible approaches, corresponding to two non-Aristotelian approaches to the problem of universals, viz. Platonist and nominalist. (He also briefly alludes to treating universals as ideas in the divine intellect, but that just is the standard Scholastic view rather than an alternative to it.) It is the second, nominalist view that Dale himself endorses.
The first, Platonist approach goes like this:
Some monotheistic fans of abstracta such as universals will say that aseity only requires that God not depend on any other concrete beings. This will leave God as the Greatest Possible Being. Are abstracta also necessary and a se? They can reply: so what? That doesn’t put them at all in God’s league, as he’s also omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and so on. Abstracta are powerless shadows by comparison.
Must we think that God is the free creator of all else? The present theory rules out that. But arguably, the biblical and traditional requirement is that God alone made the heavens and the earth. As to things which couldn’t possibly be created (abstracta), it’s no deficiency in God if he didn’t create them.
Realists who aren’t Aristotelians about universals will say that it is simply a mistake to think of a thing’s properties as parts or components of it. Parts are parts. But having properties, they think, is bearing a unique relation to some universal. A partless being, they will urge, may bear such a relation to countless universals. God does that, and because he has has [sic] the properties (yes, plural) that he does, he’s the greatest being there could be.
End quote. Now, I disagree with the claim that a thing’s properties aren’t parts of it in the relevant sense (see below), but we can put that issue aside because it is beside the main point -- a point Dale misses. The reason the classical theist denies that God can have parts is that if God did have them, then he could not be the ultimate explanation of things. It is God’s metaphysical and explanatory ultimacy that is crucial, not the lack of parts per se. And even if we allowed that there is a sense in which God lacks parts on this Platonist view Dale is describing, God would not on this view, by Dale’s own admission, be metaphysically and explanatorily ultimate. What would be metaphysically and explanatorily ultimate would be the universals and whatever principle accounts for their instantiation -- including their instantiation in God, which would require an explanation apart from God even if God were the explanation of how universals are instantiated in other things.
Of course, how universals understood in Platonist terms could be causally efficacious is bound to seem mysterious to your average modern philosopher. But that doesn’t make them any less metaphysically and explanatorily ultimate, on the view in question. Moreover, that their causality is mysterious to the modern philosopher will, for the traditional Platonist, say more about modern philosophers than it does about Platonism. For modern philosophers tend to have a highly desiccated conception of causality -- essentially reducing all causality down, not only to efficient causality, but to a post-Humean understanding of efficient causality that is itself desiccated. Exemplar causality as a species of Aristotelian formal causality, or the Neo-Platonist notion of emanation, might be appealed to by a Platonist as a way of making sense of the causality of universals understood as Platonic Forms. In which case universals don’t seem very much like “powerless shadows” after all.
Hence the Platonist view Dale describes is perfectly compatible with saying, as a traditional non-Christian Platonist might, that the highest reality is the realm of the Forms, with the Form of the Good being the highest of the Forms. A Timaeus-like demiurge or craftsman imposes order on the primeval chaos by looking to the Forms as models, but he is less ultimate than they are (since even the demiurge is what he is only by reference to the Forms he instantiates). If Dale would think it acceptable to identity the God of the Bible with such a demiurge, he owes us an explanation of how this would be anything other than a classier riff on what is essentially an Erich von Däniken-style theology or a Prometheus theology (not to mention a Gnostic theology!) Like the worship of space aliens, it would be the worship of something which may in some sense have “created” us but which nevertheless is, like us, itself dependent for its reality on something else. That it is not dependent in exactly the way we are is hardly relevant. Being what you are by virtue of participating in a Form makes you no less dependent on something more fundamental than you are than does being what you are because you have been engineered by a demiurge. Nor does incorporeality or everlastingness suffice to make something metaphysically ultimate, otherwise an angel which had always existed -- think of an Aristotelian immaterial intelligence perpetually moving a planetary sphere in a universe that had no beginning -- would have the kind of divinity Christians attribute to the God of the Bible, and I imagine Dale would agree that that is not the case.
So, Dale’s first proposed alternative to divine simplicity fails. What of his second, nominalist approach -- the approach he actually favors himself? It goes like this:
For my part, I don’t believe in abstracta. For non-theological reasons, I think that positing them introduces at least as many problems as it solves. I do believe things are similar, and I do believe in something like what philosophers now call individual properties – but I don’t grant that they are second-class substances. I think they’re just ways substances are, or modes of them.
God exists, and is wise and powerful. This means, roughly, that he knows a lot about import [sic] matters, and that he can intentionally do a wide range of actions. (Those are vague terms, expressing vague concepts.) There’s no need, in my view, to suppose this means God is essentially related to distinct, eternal “universals” of wisdom and power – be they parts of his, or denizens of the proverbial “Platonic heaven.” What thing(s) make(s) it true that God is wise and powerful? God – that’s all.
But isn’t his wisdom distinct from his power? Yes, those are distinct (and essential) aspects of God. They are ways he is, and ways he must be. Does this mean he has parts? No. But is he then, as Thomists would have it, utterly simple? No – his wisdom is a different intrinsic mode or aspect of him than his power. But he doesn’t have parts – modes aren’t things, but only ways things are, and so are not parts.
On any of these alternate views, including my nominalist view at the end, God will be a being. But he’ll also be necessary and independent of any other (concrete) being.
End quote. Now, the Thomist doesn’t accept nominalism any more than he does Platonism, but this too can be put to one side for present purposes. The key problem with this second approach is this. Dale’s proposal posits in God what Thomists would call a real distinction between substance and accidents. Now substance and accidents are related as potential to actual; for the accidents of a thing actualize it insofar as they determine that it is this way rather than that. But in God there can be no mixture of potentiality and actuality, otherwise he could not be absolutely necessary. Only that which is pure actuality can be that.
(Incidentally, if God were composed of substance and accidents, he would have “parts” in the relevant sense. Dale seems to think of the “parts” the doctrine of divine simplicity denies as being “second-class substances,” but that is not what is meant. In order for something to be a part in the relevant sense it need not be the sort of thing that could exist on its own, after the manner of a substance. To suppose otherwise is to suppose that if A and B are really distinct then A and B must be able to exist separately, as two substances can exist separately. But that a real distinction entails separability is something that the Thomistic theory of distinctions famously denies. Two things A and B -- whether A and B are a substance and its accidents, an essence and an act of existence, or whatever -- could be really distinct even if they could not exist separately. See my forthcoming Scholastic Metaphysics for more on this.)
Of course, Dale characterizes God as “necessary,” but it is no good merely to say that he would be necessary. We need an account of why he would be necessary (and indeed how he could be necessary) if he is not pure actuality. Suppose I said to you: Consider the notion of a bluenana. It’s a banana that’s blue all over, but not just in any old way. It’s the concept of a banana that’s necessarily blue. What makes it true that it’s only ever blue? That it’s a bluenana -- that’s all.
Now, have I even made plausible the notion of a bluenana? Obviously not, for there is simply nothing in the notion of having the usual features of a banana that could tie it together with being necessarily blue. Blueness and the various characteristics of bananas are evidently related only contingently. Just saying “What makes it necessarily blue is that it’s a bluenana, that’s all” does no metaphysical work whatsoever. Now suppose I added to the notion of a bluenana the further characteristic of being the sort of thing that has, essentially, the color that actual ripe bananas usually have. Now my proposed notion of a bluenana is not only implausible but implicitly self-contradictory. For now I’ve implicitly attributed yellowness to bluenanas, as well as explicitly attributed blueness to them. And they can’t be both yellow and blue.
Dale’s concept of God is like that. It’s no good just to say: “God has wisdom, power, and other distinct attributes. Just ‘cause he’s God, that’s all. Oh, and he’s necessary too.” For we need to know why necessary existence goes along with wisdom, power, etc. any more than blueness goes along with the attributes of a banana. By itself what Dale gives us is just a wish list, or a metaphysical Build-A-Bear. (“Dear Santa, here’s what I want in my theistic personalist god!”) And such an exercise is completely undermined when one goes on to say or imply that these various attributes are distinct from the substance that has them (or for that matter that they’re merely distinct from each other -- it wouldn’t change things at all if you dropped substance entirely and went for some kind of bundle theory instead). For you’ve now implicitly attributed potentiality to God, and nothing that has potentiality can be a necessary being, any more than what is yellow all over can at the same time be blue all over.
Dale gives us no reason at all, then, to doubt that a “God” who is composed of substance and accidents, genus and specific difference, essence and existence, or in any other way is less than absolutely simple, is also less than divine. Indeed, his proposals merely reinforce the conclusion that a “God” who is merely “a being” rather than Being Itself or merely “a person” rather than Intellect Itself, is necessarily also only “a god” rather than God. Qua metaphysically complex, such a god can only ever have a god complex -- delusions of true divinity but not the real McCoy. To paraphrase J. B. Phillips, the god of theistic personalism is too small. Or as the Hulk would put it…