Davies on divine simplicity and freedom

Brian Davies’ article “Simplicity” (as in divine simplicity, the subject of an earlier post) appears in the new Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister. Davies is one of the most important contemporary philosophers of religion writing from a Thomistic point of view, or any point of view for that matter. For my money, the current (third) edition of his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion is the best introduction to the field on the market. His most recent book, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil is probably the best book on the problem of evil now in print. His 1992 book The Thought of Thomas Aquinas is probably the best single volume in print for anyone looking for an overview of the whole range of Aquinas’s philosophical and theological thinking that is accessible but still sophisticated and informed by contemporary philosophy. (Not to knock my own book, of course! But its approach is to pursue a few topics in some depth, and strictly philosophical ones at that; whereas the strength of Davies’ book is its breadth, and it treats matters of sacred theology that I say nothing about in my book.)

More than most other contemporary philosophers of religion, Davies is sensitive to the radical differences between classical theism and the modern approach to philosophical theology he calls “theistic personalism” and others have called “neo-theism.” ( I have addressed this theme several times on this blog, e.g. here.) This theme has increasingly informed his work, and the centrality to classical theism of the doctrine of divine simplicity is something he has written about on several occasions (including the works cited above – the Introduction provides a particularly useful overview of the dispute between classical theism and theistic personalism and the disagreement over simplicity that it hinges on).

One of the objections often raised against the doctrine of divine simplicity (and hence against classical theism) is that it seems incompatible with the notion that God acted freely in creating the world. In a recent post on divine simplicity, Bill Vallicella summarizes the objection this way:

On classical theism, God is libertarianly free: although he exists in every metaphysically possible world, he does not create in every such world, and he creates different things in the different worlds in which he does create. Thus the following are accidental properties of God: the property of creating something-or-other, and the property of creating human beings. But surely God cannot be identical to these properties as the simplicity doctrine seems to require. It cannot be inscribed into the very nature of God that he create Socrates given that he freely creates Socrates. Some writers have attempted to solve this problem, but I don't know of a good solution.

Davies’ response to this sort of objection in the Cambridge Companion article is to suggest that it rests on a misunderstanding of the claim that God is free, at least as that claim is understood by a thinker like Aquinas. When we say of a human being that he is, for example, free to read or to refrain from reading the rest of this blog post, we are making a claim that entails that his history as a spatio-temporal individual could take one of at least two alternative courses. But that cannot be what it means to say that God is free, because (for Aquinas and the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition in general, anyway) God is changeless and eternal, existing entirely outside the spatio-temporal order. Nor does it mean that God may or may not acquire some contingent property. For Davies, the claim that God creates freely ought instead to be understood as a statement of negative theology, a claim about what God is not rather than a claim about what He is. In particular, to say that God is free either to create or not create Socrates is to say, first, that God is not compelled either by His own nature or by anything external to Him either to create or not create Socrates, and second, that neither the notion of Socrates’ existing nor that of Socrates’ not existing entails any sort of contradiction or inherent impossibility. And that’s it. The suggestion that divine simplicity is incompatible with divine freedom thus rests on a tendency to attribute to God anthropomorphic qualities that are precisely what the doctrine of divine simplicity denies of Him.

It seems to me that Davies’ point about negative theology here is correct as far as it goes, though incomplete. (In general, it seems to me that Davies’ work perhaps overemphasizes negative theology a bit – as I argue in Aquinas, I think this is true, for example, of his reading of Aquinas’s doctrine that God’s essence and existence are identical.) More could be said in response to the claim that divine simplicity and freedom and incompatible. For example, as I explained in the earlier post on divine simplicity, God’s creating the universe (or just Socrates for that matter) is what Barry Miller (following the lead of Peter Geach) calls a “Cambridge property” of God, and the doctrine of divine simplicity does not rule out God’s having accidental Cambridge properties. (In fairness to Davies, though, he does make similar points in his other writings on this subject.)

There is also to be considered the Scholastic distinction between that which is necessary absolutely and that which is necessary only by supposition. For example, it is not absolutely necessary that I write this blog post – I could have decided to do something else instead – but on the supposition that I am in fact writing it, it is necessary that I am. Similarly, it is not absolutely necessary that God wills to create just the world He has in fact created, but on the supposition that He has willed to create it, it is necessary that He does. There is this crucial difference between my will and God’s, though: Whereas I, being changeable, might in the course of writing this post change my mind and will to do something else instead, God is immutable, and thus cannot change what He has willed from all eternity to create. In short, since by supposition He has willed to create this world, being immutable He cannot do otherwise; but since absolutely He could have willed to create another world or no world at all, He is nevertheless free.

We might also emphasize a point that, while somewhat tangential to the aspect of divine freedom Bill Vallicella is concerned with, is still crucial to understanding that freedom and very much in the spirit of Davies’ approach. Modern writers, largely under the massive but largely unrecognized influence of Ockham’s voluntarism and nominalism (about which I plan to devote a post in the near future) tend to think of a free will as one that is inherently indifferent to the ends it might choose. But for Thomists, the will of its nature is oriented to the good; even when we do evil, it is always because we mistakenly regard it as at least in some sense good. (I say more about this in chapter 5 of Aquinas.) It is true that in human beings, freely choosing a life of virtue typically involves change, but that is because we have weaknesses to overcome and ignorance about what is truly good that needs to be remedied. And these are not marks of freedom, but rather of its relative absence. God, in whom there is no weakness or ignorance, cannot possibly do evil; and this makes Him, not less free than we are, but more free. Again, this does not speak directly to the issue Bill raises, but it does illustrate how, as Davies emphasizes, properly to understand divine freedom we have to avoid anthropomorphism.
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