Mullins’ reply can be found in the first part of the post (titled “Mullins Strikes Back”). The second part is a reply by Schmid. Because my article was directed at Mullins rather than Schmid, and because Mullins’ reply (and this rejoinder of mine) are already quite long as it is, I am in the present post going to confine my attention to Mullins’ remarks. I intend no disrespect to Schmid. But I have been meaning anyway to write up a reply to his recent article on my Neo-Platonic argument for God’s existence (to which he refers in this latest piece). So I will put off commenting on Schmid until I am able to get to that.
The neo-classical tradition
Regrettably, Mullins is needlessly aggressive right out of the gate, and begins with a gross mischaracterization of an earlier exchange between us. Rather than take the bait, I will simply direct the interested reader to to the false accusations that he repeats in this latest piece.
Mullins starts his reply to my Philosophy Compass article with a section devoted to arguing that the neo-classical position is more prevalent in the theistic tradition than its critics acknowledge – though “arguing” is a generous way of putting it. In fact, the section is little more than a long string of tendentious and undefended assertions about what the Old Testament and various Islamic thinkers allegedly say about issues like divine timelessness and divine simplicity.
For example, Mullins claims that elements of classical theism like its commitment to divine simplicity are “anti-biblical,” and cites several scholars who make similar assertions. This is meant to establish that the neo-classical position is as old as the Pentateuch. But of course, classical theists would not agree that their position is anti-biblical, and can also cite scholars in support. Moreover, Mullins doesn’t offer even a single example of a purported contradiction between classical theism and the Bible. (The closest he comes is to refer to Exodus 3:14 as a text that he thinks is incompatible with simplicity and immutability, but he doesn’t explain how it is.) Nor does he refer to, much less answer, the arguments from scripture that have been given in defense of classical theism.
I am not blaming Mullins for not getting into the minutiae of biblical scholarship in a blog post mostly devoted to philosophical issues. One can’t do everything in one article – I understand that. The problem is that he says so little that his remarks amount to nothing more than question-begging assertion. Moreover, they are not really relevant in the first place to my article, which explicitly confines itself to philosophical issues and, for its limited purposes, puts the biblical considerations (however obviously important) to one side.
Only slightly less weak is Mullins’ appeal to the Islamic tradition. He lists several thinkers who he says rejected notions like divine timelessness and simplicity (though he acknowledges that there are, of course, also Islamic thinkers who embrace them). Mullins makes the remark: “Feser says that if you notice this obvious problem you are engaged in question begging. How dare these people notice obvious problems!”
I don’t object to sarcastic quips when they are merited, or at the every least intelligible, but this one is neither. I honestly have no idea what Mullins is referring to here. In my Philosophy Compass article, I say nothing at all about the Islamic tradition apart from a passing reference to Avicenna. And while there are a couple of places where I accuse Mullins of begging the question (namely, in his formulations of the Creation and Modal Collapse objections), I do not do so in connection with the topic at issue here. So, again, I simply don’t know what he is talking about.
The substantive question is whether the particular Islamic thinkers Mullins cites really have the views he attributes to them. Some of them do, but in any event here too Mullins simply makes assertions rather than offering any specific texts in support. And judging from Mullins’ habit of misrepresenting the views of other thinkers (examples of which I gave in my Philosophy Compass article), it would be foolish not to take his assertions here with a grain of salt. But I will leave the question of whether he gets this or that particular Islamic thinker right to those who know their work better than I do. (Those following this debate on Twitter will have noted that has criticized Mullins’ claims about the views of Razi and Juwayni, as well as his appeal to Karramism.)
Anyway, if what Mullins intends to establish is simply that views that are now characterized as marks of a “neo-classical” approach can be found in some thinkers well before contemporary philosophy of religion, then I am happy to concede that point, though I never denied it. (Indeed, I have often cited William Paley as an example of an earlier thinker who departed from classical theism.) When, in my article, I said that “neo-classical theism in the current usage of that term is a recent arrival,” what I meant is that it is recent as a self-conscious movement or school of thought, going by that particular name, and distinguishing itself from earlier schools critical of classical theism such as process theism, panentheism, and open theism. I did not mean to deny that neo-classical theists could plausibly find some precursors of their distinctive position earlier in the tradition, and I wish I had made that clearer.
All of this is, in any event, tangential to my main disagreement with Mullins, which is not about the history or prevalence of neo-classical views, but rather about the core neo-classical objections to classical theism. Indeed, my article has a much more specific focus even than that, emphasizing that the objections raised by Mullins and others fail when directed at the Thomistic version of classical theism, specifically. And part of the problem, as I show in the article, is that Mullins badly misunderstands key aspects of the Thomistic position. Here is how Mullins begins his response:
You are probably familiar with a particular trope by now. Internet classical theists will respond to all objections by saying, “You have misunderstood Aquinas.” This is something that we joke about often. We have made so many memes making fun of this incredibly tired response to any and all objections.
End quote. Now, I like memes and other hijinks as much as the next guy, as is evident from my use of comic book panels, Photoshopped images, and the like here at the blog. But there is a time and a place for that sort of thing, and these remarks strike me as a sophomoric way to begin a response to a straightforward, non-vituperative academic article that treats Mullins and his views with respect, even if critically. They are especially rich given that Mullins starts out his post with the claim that I had misrepresented him in our earlier exchange (which I had not, but that he’s still upset about the matter makes his complaint about alleged Thomist oversensitivity to misrepresentation ring hollow). Moreover, Mullins goes on to acknowledge: “To be clear, there can be cases of misunderstanding the classical tradition, and it is a good thing to point those out when they arise.” But then the thing to do, surely, is just to address head-on the claims that he has misrepresented Thomists, and put the trash talk to one side.
Perhaps the reason Mullins does not do so is that the claims are in fact unanswerable. Consider this passage from my article:
In a series of writings, Mullins has claimed that the doctrine of divine simplicity holds: that God has no properties at all (2013, p. 189; 2020, p. 17; 2021, pp. 88 and 93); that this entails that he does not have even extrinsic or relational properties, sometimes known as Cambridge properties (2013, p. 183; 2021, pp. 87–88 and 93); that we cannot make even conceptual distinctions between parts or aspects of God (2013, p. 185; 2021, p. 90); that God therefore cannot even be said to be Lord or Creator (2013, p. 200; 2020, p. 27); and that when God is said to be “pure act” without potentiality, what this means is that God is an act or action, in the sense of something a person does (2013, p. 201)…
But the trouble with such objections, from the point of view of Thomistic classical theists, is that the claims Mullins makes about the doctrine of divine simplicity are false, or at best extremely misleading. The doctrine seems incoherent only because he is mischaracterizing it. (Emphasis added)
End quote. Please note carefully that what I say here is that Mullins’ characterization of classical theism does not correspond to what Thomistic classical theists, specifically, would say. I also repeatedly emphasize in the article that Mullins relies too heavily for his understanding of classical theism on the work of Katherin Rogers, who is a non-Thomist classical theist. But here is how Mullins responds to my criticism:
I do not claim these things, I report them. I directly quote a bunch of classical theists saying all of this in my publications. I’m not pulling these notions out of thin air…
[A]ll of my explicit quotes from classical theists are completely ignored by Feser, and now he is saying that I am making false claims. That is curious to say the least…
According to Feser, I claim that classical theism says that God does not have properties. Feser says that this is not an accurate portrayal of classical theism (p. 3). I find this really wild since I have repeatedly quoted Katherin Rogers explicitly saying that God does not have properties.
End quote. I trust the reader will have noticed the sleight of hand. What is in question is whether Mullins gets Thomist classical theists right. But what he says in his defense is that he has provided supporting quotes from non-Thomistic classical theists, such as Rogers. And he claims that I ignore this purported evidence in his favor. The problem, needless to say, is that quotes from non-Thomists are not evidence for what Thomists think. But all the same, I did not ignore his citations of non-Thomist classical theists, but indeed called attention to them myself. For example, I explicitly cite his reliance on Rogers no fewer than five times (in the main text of the article at page 2, and in the endnotes in notes 5, 16, 23, and 27).
Of his dependence on Rogers, Mullins says:
I will admit that I have relied quite heavily on one of the greatest living classical theists for my own understanding of classical theism. Rogers is widely regarded as an excellent medieval scholar, and relying on her work is what responsible scholarship demands.
End quote. Now, I intend no offense at all to Prof. Rogers, who is indeed a fine scholar from whose work I have also profited. But she is just one scholar, and her views are hardly representative of the classical theist tradition in general. Moreover, Rogers is an Anselm specialist, but as she herself acknowledges (as I note in my article) it is Aquinas rather than Anselm who has given the clearest expression of the central classical theist doctrine of divine simplicity. Nor, needless to say, is Rogers infallible. Mullins himself writes:
I do have various disagreements with her understanding of various topics. For example, Rogers thinks that Anselm affirms an eternalist ontology of time. I disagree. In The End of the Timeless God, I offer an extended exegesis of the classical Christian tradition to argue that thinkers like Anselm affirmed a presentist ontology of time.
End quote. Here, as it happens, I agree with Mullins rather than Rogers about how to interpret Anselm. Now, if Rogers can, by Mullins’ own admission, get even Anselm wrong (despite being a specialist on Anselm), then surely it is possible for her to get Aquinas wrong. Yet Mullins depends on Rogers, in part, for his understanding of Aquinas. Take, for example, the claim that when Aquinas characterizes God as “pure act,” what he means is that God is an action in the sense of an act a person carries out. I think it fair to say that any Thomist would regard this as a howler, about as bad a misreading of Aquinas as can be imagined (for reasons I explain in my article). So, where did Mullins get this misreading? From Rogers, as I also note in the article.
Mullins makes the ad hominem suggestion that the reason I and other Thomists are less keen than he is on Rogers’ views might be that we think she concedes too much to the Modal Collapse Objection. Well, I certainly think she concedes too much to it, but what matters for present purposes is that she just gets Aquinas wrong. In any case, Mullins does not see that the ad hominem can be flung right back at him. For I would propose that the reason Mullins overemphasizes Rogers’ work is precisely that portraying her views as representative of classical theism in general gives his objections (including the Modal Collapse Objection) greater rhetorical force than they otherwise would have.
Mullins goes on throughout his reply to cite a number of other non-Thomist classical theists whose views he claims correspond to his characterization of classical theism. Indeed, this makes up the bulk of his reply. In some cases I would dispute his interpretation of their views, but in any event all of this is irrelevant to the argument of my paper, which, again, focuses on the point that Mullins misrepresents Thomistic classical theism in particular.
Now, Mullins does also make at least a cursory attempt to support his position by citing Thomists. For example, in defense of his claim that classical theism takes God to lack any properties at all, he writes: “Even on page 4 of Feser’s article he quotes Brian Davies saying that God lacks properties and attributes.” But here’s what I actually wrote, and what Davies actually says:
Davies refers to “attributes or properties of God” (2021, p. 10). To be sure, he also says in the same place that God “lacks attributes or properties distinguishable from himself and from each other” and that “God does not, strictly speaking, have distinct attributes or properties” but “is identical with them” (emphasis added). But again, to say that God and his properties are all identical is very different from saying that he has no properties at all.
End quote. Note that Mullins conveniently omits the crucial qualifying phrases “distinguishable from himself and from each other” and “distinct,” which dramatically change the meaning of the assertion he attributes to Davies. Davies, again, does not say that God has no properties, full stop; he says that God has no properties that are distinct, or that are distinguishable from himself and from each other.
In response to my claim that Thomists allow that God has Cambridge properties, Mullins says:
Aquinas in SCG Book II.12-14… is worried about God changing relationally. There Aquinas says that the relations “are not really in Him, and yet are predicated of Him, it remains that they are ascribed to Him according only to our way of understanding.” In this section, Aquinas is clear that the relations cannot be accidents in God because God does not have any accidents. In light of this, it makes no sense for Feser to say that classical theists believe that God has accidental relational properties.
End quote. What Mullins conveniently omits is what Aquinas :
And so it is evident, also, that such relations are not said of God in the same way as other things predicated of Him. For all other things, such as wisdom and will, express His essence; the aforesaid relations by no means do so really, but only as regards our way of understanding. Nevertheless, our understanding is not fallacious. For, from the very fact that our intellect understands that the relations of the divine effects are terminated in God Himself, it predicates certain things of Him relatively; so also do we understand and express the knowable relatively, from the fact that knowledge is referred to it.
End quote. Yes, as Mullins points out, Aquinas would not say that the relations between created things and God are “accidents in God.” But nobody is claiming otherwise. The claim of those Thomists who maintain that we can predicate Cambridge properties of God is rather that we can truly “predicate certain things of him relatively,” as Aquinas puts it here.
In any event, Mullins goes on to acknowledge after all that some Thomist classical theists do in fact attribute Cambridge properties to God. He writes:
Here is the thing. I know that Feser, Stump, and Miller love to play the magical card called “Cambridge properties” to solve all of their problems. Following the lead of Brian Leftow, I just don’t understand how this magical card solves anything.
End quote. Here we have a bait and switch. The specific question I was addressing was whether Mullins is correct to hold that classical theists maintain that God has no properties at all, not even Cambridge properties. I showed that this is not true of all classical theists, and in particular not true of Thomist classical theists. In his reply, Mullins at first gives his readers the impression that I am wrong and that I have ignored the evidence showing that I am wrong. But here he concedes that I am right, yet then tries to change the subject.
To be sure, whether the appeal to Cambridge properties really can, at the end of the day, do the work the Thomist claims it does is a fair enough question. But again, it is not the question that was at issue. Furthermore, Mullins does little to show that the appeal fails, despite sarcastic remarks like the one just quoted. Moreover, the Thomist who has developed the appeal to Cambridge properties in the greatest detail is Barry Miller. And Mullins admits that Miller is someone whose work he has not much engaged with. But no one who has failed to engage with Miller can seriously claim to have shown that the appeal to Cambridge properties does not do the work Thomists claim it does.
One substantive argument Mullins does give in this connection is the following:
[C]lassical theists like… [Paul] Helm understand something that Feser does not. They understand that only temporal beings with temporal location are capable of undergoing Cambridge changes. This is because Cambridge changes demarcate a before and after in the life of the thing undergoing a mere relational change. A timeless God cannot have a before and after.
End quote. But once again Mullins has failed to read my paper carefully, because I not only explicitly address Helm’s point (in endnote 19) but agree with it! In particular, I agree with him that God does not have Cambridge properties of a temporal or spatial sort. But I also note there that Mullins wrongly attributes to Helm the stronger claim that God lacks Cambridge properties of any sort at all, which does not follow and is not what Helm actually says in the passages Mullins cites.
Mullins says that for Aquinas, “God’s act of creation is intrinsic to God, and identical to God. In which case, that is the exact opposite of a Cambridge property which is an extrinsic relation that is outside of God,” and he offers quotes from Aquinas to back up the claim. But here he simply ignores the point that Christopher Tomaszewski makes about this sort of argument (and which I refer to in my article), which is that it fails to distinguish God’s creative act (a) considered qua act and (b) considered qua act of creation. Considered simply qua act, God’s act of creation is intrinsic to him; but considered qua act of creation it is a Cambridge property.
As Mullins’ article progresses, the sarcasm level increases and it finally degenerates into a rant. We get passages like this:
I have never been particularly interested in critiquing Thomism like Feser wants me to. Why? Because Aquinas’s disciples have created a million different schools of Thomism, and I have never been fussed about trying to sort through them all. This is mainly because these disciples start with an assumption that I cannot accept, and then interpret Aquinas accordingly. This is how disciples of Aquinas work. First, they start with the assumption that Aquinas cannot possibly be wrong about anything, and that he is never inconsistent with himself. Second, from this assumption, they will engage in all sorts of wild interpretative strategies to make Aquinas infallible. I just don’t have enough faith to be a fellow disciple.
End quote. But no one is asking Mullins to regard Aquinas as infallible or even to agree with him at all, nor does anyone expect him to become an expert on all things Thomist. What I was urging in my article was something much more modest, indeed so modest that no reasonable person could object to it (which, I suspect, is why Mullins prefers to attack this strawman). It was just this: If you are going to make bold and sweeping assertions about classical theism in general, as Mullins routinely does, then what you say ought correctly to describe the views of a major classical theist like Aquinas and those who follow him.
Aquinas is, after all, regarded even by many non-Thomists as the greatest of medieval philosophers, and in Catholic theology his stature is second to none. In contemporary philosophy and theology, Thomists are at least as prominent among defenders of classical theism as anyone else, if not more prominent. Rogers herself – on whom, again, Mullins has by his own admission “relied quite heavily” for his understanding of classical theism – says that it is Aquinas, rather than her own favorite classical theist Anselm, who has given the “clearest expression” of the central classical theist doctrine of divine simplicity. Agree with him or not, and agree with classical theism or not, understanding the views of Aquinas and other Thomists is crucial to understanding what classical theism actually says, and what could be said in favor of it, even if one nevertheless ends up rejecting it all.
Hence, it is simply ludicrous for Mullins confidently to claim to have refuted classical theism in general while at the same time getting Aquinas’s views badly wrong and largely ignoring the work of contemporary Thomists, then glibly dismissing the complaints of those who call him out for this. It is like boldly claiming to have refuted dualism while misrepresenting the views of Descartes and ignoring contemporary thinkers like Swinburne and Hasker, or claiming to have refuted liberalism while saying little about Rawlsianism. I would urge Mullins to devote less time to “ma[king] so many memes making fun” of his opponents, and more time to carefully reading and trying to understand what they actually say.