In contemporary debates about the existence of God it is common to hear reference to ‘the traditional divine attributes.’ These include properties like omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, immateriality, eternality, and personality. It is supposed that if God exists he ‘exemplifies all of these great-making properties’. This is the ‘orthodox’ conception of God in contemporary philosophy of religion and philosophical theology as heard from Craig, Plantinga, Swinburne, and most others.
Unfortunately, right from the get-go, there is a perfectly good sense in which this conception of God is unorthodox. According to the Fourth Lateran and First Vatican Councils of the Catholic Church, the doctrine that God is a perfectly simple being–one without any composition–is defined as infallible, binding dogma, denial of which amounts to heresy. Hence, the doctrine has some degree of pedigree in that it has been held by billions of Christians to be a very important doctrine. But even aside from this I would argue that the contemporary view–what I will call ‘neo-theism’–is directly contrary to the truly ’classical theistic’ view of God’s nature. Classical theism has been the majority opinion for thousands of years. It is the view of the great pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plotinus, the Christian Saints Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and Bl. Duns Scotus, as well as other monotheistic thinkers like Maimonides, Averroes, and Avicenna. Such classical theists would deny that God is ‘personal’ or ‘perfectly good’ or ‘eternal’ in the sense that neo-theists take God to be. Distinctively classical theistic doctrines which are unpopular among the neo-theists of today include divine immutability, timelessness, and simplicity. I will focus on this last doctrine as an example of a fundamental difference between the two views, and argue that the classical theist view maintains God’s perfection in a way which the neo-theist view does not.
The way that God’s attributes are defined in contemporary philosophy of religion as above implicitly contradicts divine simplicity from the start. According to the contemporary view, when we predicate perfect moral goodness of God as in the sentence ‘God is good’, the referent of the term ‘God’s goodness’ is the property of goodness. Likewise, if we say ‘God is omniscient’, the referent of the term ‘God’s omniscience’ is the property of omniscience, and similarly for omnipotence, immateriality, and so on. However divine simplicity says that the referents of all intrinsic predications about God are identical, for to say otherwise would be to introduce metaphysical complexity into God. Hence, it is common to hear classical theists saying that God’s goodness IS his omniscience, which IS his omnipotence, and so on. But it would seem to follow that omnipotence and goodness are the same property, which is clearly false; indeed, it would follow that God is himself a property!
Obviously the classical theist doesn’t want to commit himself to such seemingly absurd claims, and it would be stupid to suppose 2,000 years of great thinkers were simply willing to accept a manifest falsehood. The more reasonable inference is that contemporary and classical thinkers are working with very different metaphysical presuppositions, and this is correct.
One neo-theist assumption is the Platonist, relational ontology within which Plantinga phrases the objection presented above. For Plantinga and other contemporary detractors reality consists of concrete individuals, platonic properties, and relations of exemplification. The platonic properties are abstract objects, which means they lack efficient causal power, while the causally efficacious concrete individuals exemplify these properties. Clearly God is an individual, since as creator of the universe he possesses causal power, in which case it follows he could not be an abstract object; hence he could not be identical to any of his properties, and thus divine simplicity is false. But certainly none of the classical presenters of simplicity accepted this ontological framework. Rather, following Aristotle, they would take a thing’s features to be ontological constituents of a subject. This is the picture found in Aristotle’s Categories for instance, where accidents such as color or size are said to be ‘present in’ a subject. Among contemporary philosophers D.M. Armstrong’s theory of universals seems to be an example of a constituent ontology as well. Within such a framework it’s not obviously incoherent to suppose that God is identical with his constituents so long as we can admit the idea of an improper constituent (analogous to an improper part or improper subset), since it doesn’t follow from the very meaning of the term ‘ontological constituent’ that the constituent in question is a property; ‘ontological constituent’ is a category-neutral term, and doesn’t necessarily imply Plantinga’s relational ontology.
More generally though we can make sense of divine simplicity in terms of truthmakers. The neo-theist assumes that the referents of abstract singular terms like ‘Alfredo’s audacity’, or in our case ‘God’s goodness’, are platonic properties. This is what makes it impossible for God’s to be identical with his goodness, for this to be identical to his omniscience, and so on. However, those who embrace divine simplicity can deny this account of predication. Rather, a classical theist will accept a truthmaker account, where an intrinsic predication of the form “a is F” is true, then a’s F-ness exists, where this entity is to be understood as the truthmaker for “a is F” and state that God is identical with the truthmakers for each of his predications. This makes sense because a truthmaker is an entity in the world in virtue of which a proposition is true. Clearly by this understanding truthmakers need not be properties (they can sometimes be). They can also be substances, as is the case with God–to deny this would at least have to be argued for and such a denial is on the face of it implausible. Hence, it is perfectly coherent to say God is his omniscience, which is his omnipotence, and so on. All this is saying is that God is identical to that in virtue of which he is omnipotent, that he is identical to that in virtue of which he is omniscient, and so on; and moreover, by the transitivity of identity, these things are each identical to each other. This picture shows that divine simplicity is not obviously contradictory and deserves much more than the charges of ‘unintelligibility’ and ‘incoherence’ ignorantly thrown at it today.
With these charges of absurdity put to one side we can see that divine simplicity is at least prima facie coherent. Certainly we will need to be given better arguments than Plantinga’s cavalier dismissal of 2000 years of philosophy based on the presupposition of his own anachronistic ontology. But to argue something is logically coherent isn’t to argue that it’s true. In another post I will provide an argument to the effect that only a simple God can truly be said to exist of himself and thus be perfect.