The divine intellect

A reader asks:

[I] was curious, given your work in philosophy of mind, what you would say is the most plausible notion we have of God's mental content… [T]he popular theories (functionalism, phenomenology, holism, etc) all seem to violate the doctrine of divine simplicity… I have a hard time conceiving of any conception of minds on which the mind is not, in some sense of the word, modular, or complex.  Minds have got to have thoughts at the very least on the most basic, primitivist conceptions, and that seems to require that minds have parts.

A fair question.  Suppose we said (as a contemporary functionalist philosopher of mind might) that a mind is a system of states -- beliefs, desires, perceptual experiences, sensations, etc. -- constituted by their causal relations to each other and to inputs to and outputs from the system.  Such a system (so the idea goes) might be embodied in the neural structure of the brain, or in the circuitry of a computer, or in the eccentric physiology of an extraterrestrial.  Or (the functionalist continues) it might in principle even be instantiated in the states of an immaterial substance, even though (the functionalist will go on to insist) the supposition that there are such substances violates Ockham’s razor.  (To be sure, this is inept, because it assumes that when Cartesians and others speak of “immaterial substances” they mean objects that are like material objects in having myriad parts, only parts that are immaterial rather than material.  But in fact it is central to the notion of an immaterial substance that it is simple in the sense of non-composite, and doesn’t have any “parts” that might “causally interact.”  Anyway, that is how functionalists -- who don’t always have an accurate understanding of what non-materialists actually think -- sometimes argue that their position is compatible with the view that minds are immaterial.)

Now, if we took this sort of view, then it might naturally seem that to attribute mind to God is to assert that He has “mental states” causally interrelated in something like the ways functionalists describe -- that He is a kind of “eternal brain,” only made out of a gigantic blob of ectoplasm (I guess) rather than neurons, silicon chips, or the like.  Naturally, it is hard to see how this could be squared with the classical theist’s core doctrine of divine simplicity.  But of course, for a classical theist -- and certainly for an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) philosopher -- this whole way of characterizing mind in general and the divine mind in particular is completely wrongheaded.  There are a number of points to be made in explaining why.

First, when the classical theist attributes mind to God, he is not attributing to God everythingthat contemporary philosophers of mind place under the “mental” category and seek to explain in terms of theories like the ones to which the reader alludes (functionalism, etc.).  In particular, the classical theist is not attributing to God qualia (such as the color qualia we have when we see red and green objects, the qualia associated with feeling hot or cold objects, etc.), or mental images, or the like.  These are (certainly according to Thomists and other Aristotelians) all of a corporeal or bodily nature, and God is incorporeal.  What the classical theist does attribute to God is intellectand the knowledge that goes along with intellect, as well as will.  

Second, at least for Thomists, when attributing intellect, knowledge, etc. both to God and to us, we have to understand the relevant terms analogously rather than univocally.  It’s not that God has knowledge in just the sense we do, only more of it.  It’s rather that there is in God something analogous to what we call knowledge in us, even if (since He is absolutely simple, eternal, etc.) it cannot be the same thing we have.  

Third, for these reasons we have to be especially careful not to fall into the trap of trying to imagine God’s attributes – in this case, to try to imagine “what it’s like” to be God.  There’s nothing it’s “like” to be God ifwe mean by that a certain kind of stream of thoughts and conscious experiences, like ours but (say) more vivid and encompassing a perceptual awareness of every part of the world at once.  That’s a completely wrongheaded way of conceptualizing the divine, because it at least implicitly involves attributing changeability to God (such as the transition from one thought or experience to another).  Here as elsewhere we cannot properly understand metaphysical ideas unless we stop trying to visualize the realities to which they refer.  To grasp the divine intellect (to the extent that we can grasp it) we have to use our intellects, not our senses or our imaginations.

Fourth, while one might be tempted to conclude from these first three points that God’s intellect and knowledge must be decidedly sub-personal compared to ours, that is precisely the reverse of the truth.  To see how, compare the example of divine power.  When the classical theist says that God has power, what is meant is not that God has what a mere creature has or might be imagined to have – large muscles, political influence, rhetorical skill, or even telekinesis – only more of it.  What is meant is rather that there is in God something analogous to what we call power in us, though it cannot be the same thing since God is immaterial, incorporeal, absolutely simple, etc. 

Now this does not entail that God is less than powerful in the sense of “power” we have in mind when we speak of human power.  Rather it entails that He is unimaginably more than powerful in that sense.  For instance, what has “power” in the ordinary sense has the capacity merely to alterpreexisting materials in various ways – to mold clay, or lift a heavy box, or cause an earthquake, or split an atom, or what have you.  But divine power is not limited to altering things.  In causing the world, for instance, God does not alter or modify preexisting materials after the fashion of a human artisan; rather, He creates it ex nihilo.  He does not make an X by taking some existing matter and imparting a new form to it, but rather makes it the case that the whole thing -- the matter and form of X together -- exists at all.  God is not like a human watchmaker, only cleverer and more skillful -- not because His causality is less than the sort represented by watchmaking, but because it is more than that.  Watchmaking is simply too trivial a sort of thing to model worldmaking on.  

Similarly, to say that it is a mistake to try to grasp the divine intellect by modeling it on our thought processes does not entail that God is less than“personal” in the sense that we are personal (as contrasted with impersonal objects and forces like stones and gravity).  Rather, God is more thanpersonal, in that everyday sense of “personal.” His intellect is not inferior to our conscious thought processes (as a stone, gravity, or even the unconscious informational states of a computer are to that extent inferior to our conscious states) but on the contrary beyond and higher than them, just as divine power is beyond and higher than the relatively trivial capacities in created things that we characterize as “powers.”  “My thoughts are not your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).

Fifth, we need to understand what intellect isin the first place, and at least for the A-T tradition, it is, even in the case of human beings, not the sort of thing contemporary philosophers of mind typically have in mind when they talk about “beliefs” and other “representational states.”  Modern philosophers often conceptualize the mind in a kind of doubly bastardized Cartesian way.  In effect they start with Descartes’ notion of the mind as a kind of substance in its own right rather than a power of a complete substance (that’s their first mistake).  Then they rework Descartes’ conception in a Humean direction by supposing that this purported substance is really a kind of accidental collection comprised of a number of distinct “representations” modeled on images, or sentences, or symbols of some other sort (second mistake).  Finally, they suppose that these “representations” are as inherently devoid of content as material symbols in general are, and must therefore somehow derive whatever content they have from their relations (whether causal relations, relations of resemblance, or what have you) to something else (third mistake).

Now this is in my view just one more chapter in the long history of compounded errors that constitutes modern, post-Cartesian philosophy, and which I have discussed in detail in The Last Superstition.  But whether you agree with that assessment or not, the conception of mind in question is one that the A-T philosopher rejects.  

Aquinas’s account of what it is to have intellect is summarized in a passage in which he explains why we must attribute knowledge to God:
In God there exists the most perfect knowledge.  To prove this, we must note that intelligent beings are distinguished from non-intelligent beings in that the latter possess only their own form; whereas the intelligent being is naturally adapted to have also the form of some other thing; for the idea of the thing known is in the knower.  Hence it is manifest that the nature of a non-intelligent being is more contracted and limited; whereas the nature of intelligent beings has a greater amplitude and extension; therefore the Philosopher says (De Anima iii) that “the soul is in a sense all things.”  Now the contraction of the form comes from the matter.  Hence, as we have said above (Question 7, Article 1) forms according as they are the more immaterial, approach more nearly to a kind of infinity.  Therefore it is clear that the immateriality of a thing is the reason why it is cognitive; and according to the mode of immateriality is the mode of knowledge.  Hence it is said in De Anima ii that plants do not know, because they are wholly material.  But sense is cognitive because it can receive images free from matter, and the intellect is still further cognitive, because it is more separated from matter and unmixed, as said in De Anima iii.  Since therefore God is in the highest degree of immateriality as stated above (Question 7, Article 1), it follows that He occupies the highest place in knowledge. (Summa Theologiae I.14.1)

For Aquinas, then, what makes you intelligent and a stone non-intelligent is that you can have both your own form and the stone’s form -- as you do when you grasp what a stone is -- whereas the stone can have only its own form.  You possess the form of a stone “intentionally” -- in the intellect -- rather than “entitatively” -- that is to say, without being a stone.  In a looser sense, though, the soul “is” all things precisely insofar as it can have the forms of all things at least “intentionally” or in the intellect.  This is one reason why intellect cannot be material.  Material things can possess only one substantial form at a time.  Hence for a parcel of matter to posses the substantial form of a tree (for example) is just for it to be a tree, and for that same parcel to come to possess the substantial form of ashes is just for it to lose the substantial form of a tree and become ashes.  But the intellect can possess multiple substantial forms -- “intentionally” -- at the same time, and without ceasing to be an intellect.  (This sense of “intentionally” is the source of the modern technical philosophical term “intentionality.”)  

Indeed, as the passage quoted indicates, for Aquinas the further from matter a thing is the more intelligent it is, so that God -- as pure actuality and thus maximally devoid of the potentiality that is characteristic of matter -- is supreme in intellect.  Consider also the Scholastic principle of proportionate causality(which I have discussed and defended in Aquinas), according to which whatever is in an effect must in some way be in its total cause (whether “formally,” “virtually,” or “eminently”).  Now God is the sustaining cause of the world, that which keeps all things in existence from moment to moment.  The forms of all things -- that which makes them what they are -- must therefore exist in Him, not in an “entitative” way (since He is not a material thing nor in any other way limited) but rather in something analogous to the way in which forms exist “intentionally” in our intellects.  (Cf. ST I.15.1)

To be sure, given divine simplicity, they cannot exist in Him in exactly the way forms exist in our intellects.  But how, then, are we to understand the ideas in the divine intellect?  For A-T, anything other than God that exists or might exist is an imitation of God.  In creation, that which is unlimited and perfect in God comes to exist in a limited and imperfect way in the natural order.  (Recall the doctrine of divine simplicity, as Thomists understand it: Attributes that are distinct in us are analogous to what in God is one.)  The divine ideas according to which God creates are therefore to be understood as the divine intellect’s grasp of the diverse ways in which the divine essence -- which is one, unlimited, and perfect -- might be imitated in a limited and imperfect fashion by created things.  Aquinas writes:

Now, it is not repugnant to the simplicity of the divine mind that it understand many things; though it would be repugnant to its simplicity were His understanding to be formed by a plurality of images.  Hence many ideas exist in the divine mind, as things understood by it; as can be proved thus.  Inasmuch as He knows His own essence perfectly, He knows it according to every mode in which it can be known.  Now it can be known not only as it is in itself, but as it can be participated in by creatures according to some degree of likeness.  But every creature has its own proper species, according to which it participates in some degree in likeness to the divine essence.  So far, therefore, as God knows His essence as capable of such imitation by any creature, He knows it as the particular type and idea of that creature; and in like manner as regards other creatures.  So it is clear that God understands many particular types of things and these are many ideas. (STI.15.2)

Again, the conception of the divine intellect that the doctrine of divine simplicity entails does not imply that what we call “intellect” in God is inferior to our intellects (as dogs, plants, and stones are each inferior to us cognitively speaking) but rather that it is superior.  What exists in a metaphysically simple or non-composite way in God is not sub-intellectual; on the contrary, it is “Intelligence Itself,” in which our puny intellects merely participate.  (I have discussed the manner in which ideas exist in the divine intellect in an earlier post.)

Naturally, someone who is unsympathetic to the A-T approach to these issues is bound to reject many or all of the metaphysical assumptions underlying these various points.  Obviously a blog post isn’t the place to settle all that.  But we see, here as elsewhere, that you have not understood classical and Scholastic philosophy in general and A-T in particular until you see how radically they differ from modern philosophy across the board.  The errors of the moderns (as we philosophical reactionaries see things) are not just errors in philosophy of religion and metaphysics, but in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and pretty much everything else, and the errors are all deeply interrelated.
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