Saturday, August 10, 2019

On Mullins on Simplicity

Tap asked for my thoughts on Ryan Mullins's criticism of the doctrine of divine simplicity. I have been having conversations about this subject for over twenty years now, and it's very much as if some recent critics of divine simplicity, like Mullins, are trapped in amber; none of the arguments are in any way new or unanswered, nor do any of them show any signs of serious research on the question. Mullins does get one very crucial thing correct that critics often don't -- that 'simplicity' in this context just means 'not composite' -- but then immediately we get this little jab:

What doctrine is this that elicits such strong rhetoric? Perhaps you think the answer has something to do with Jesus Christ, or a major biblical teaching. Surprisingly, the answer has nothing to do with either.

Anyone who does not know that proponents of divine simplicity take it to be directly connected with both the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of the unity of God, both of which are very obviously major biblical teachings, and have consistently done so on both the Jewish and the Christian sides for well over a thousand years now, does not know enough about the doctrine to be talking about it. (The "strong rhetoric" to which Mullins refers is the claim that denial of divine simplicity leads to idolatry or atheism if consistent. He makes it sound as if this were just some arbitrary thing people said. Did it never occur to him to consider why anyone would say that?) And what is very, very noticeable that nowhere in his essay does Mullins at any point do what should be the first step for any serious criticism of a major position: he never looks at why the doctrine is held in the first place. The closest he comes is trying to tie it, very vaguely and noncommittally, to perfect being theology -- which is not at all a standard reason for it. The doctrine of simplicity did not become a major position because people said that God is a perfect being and then said, "And I guess one model you could have of a perfect being is that it's not composed out of anything more fundamental." Indeed, talk of God as "perfect being" is a very, very late development that originally presupposed the doctrine of simplicity; there is no word in Greek or Latin that is the direct correlate of our word "perfect", although there are circumlocutions for things that we might classify with that word. "Perfectus" in Latin means 'complete', or more strictly, 'completed'; this was also one of the original meanings of the word "perfect" in English (technically still is, although mostly confined to certain kinds of longstanding expressions). When Aquinas in the thirteenth century asked whether it was appropriate to call God perfect, he had to draw a very careful distinction about the different things you could mean if you said God was complete, and a key step to ruling it admissible was that it could not be taken to mean (as it would usually be taken to mean in applying the term to creatures) that God could also be incomplete in the sense of partial, because that violated the doctrine of simplicity. We call God 'perfect' because there was a sense of the word consistent with the doctrine of divine simplicity, not vice versa.

So Mullins is starting entirely the wrong way around. He should instead start with the doctrine of creation. God is the uncreated Creator of other things. It is this that serves as the foundation for the theological doctrine of simplicity, and the basic line of thought is that given by the great Saadia Gaon: when we look at creatures and ask what in them indicates that they were created, shows their status as creatures, we do find such indicators. These are things like mutability, dependence, and composition. So God, who is uncreated, must lack these telltale markers of things that are made, and thus must be noncomposite -- simple. In addition, the term 'simple' is historically a relative term, in the sense of admitting of more and less; you can find any number of people arguing that the soul is more simple than the body, for instance, or that the saints by divine grace are made more simple, all in this sense of noncompositeness; the idea is that the soul is more unified than the body, less divisible into parts and therefore more properly called 'one'. And since God has none of the divisibility into parts, none of the composition that indicates createdness, He is least composite and therefore most simple.

That is it. That is the essential idea of divine simplicity. Mullins makes a very big show of how complicated and difficult the doctrine is to understand; this is obvious nonsense, as you can find laymen in practically any large Presbyterian or Catholic church who can fully and completely understand the point that God, being unmade and unmakeable, is not in any way made out of anything. Complications only arise when you are no longer asking what the doctrine of simplicity itself means and start asking how this or that already complicated topic relates to it. It's not an accident that Mullins runs to talk of properties: there is no generally accepted theory of properties, literally none at all, so any discussion of properties is necessarily complicated in order to pin down what you are talking about; therefore any discussion of simplicity and properties is necessarily complicated. But the doctrine of divine simplicity is not in any way downstream from any account of divine 'properties', in whatever of the many, many senses of that term you are using it. It's likewise not surprising that he builds another criticism out of the application of simplicity to freedom and necessity; these are very complicated topics. There's nothing wrong with seeing what a simple position implies about a complicated topic; but it is very, very absurd to complain that applying a simple position to a complicated topic gets complicated.

Another example of complicating the basic position by applying it to something complicated is his reliance on the notion of identity. Identity is a notoriously difficult subject in analytic philosophy; of all equivalence relations, identity is the one we least understand. It is also a concept that is fairly new. Mullins says:

On the classical understanding of God, theologians will say that all of God’s essential properties are identical to each other, and identical to the divine nature, which is identical to God’s existence. The identity claim here is very strong, and can be easily missed. This is because we use the word “identity” in rather loose ways in contemporary English.

This is not "the classical understanding of God"; this is a translation, a reconstruction, of the classical understanding within a specific vocabulary, that of analytic philosophy. And the problem is that it seems to be based on an assumption that the Latin word "identitas" means "identity" in the analytic sense. This is a very false assumption, because "identitas" is a looser and weaker word, not a stronger and stricter word, than the word "identity" in colloquial sense. It just means 'sameness', in most of the senses we would give the word 'same'. The primary application of the word is in saying that things are the same kind of thing, but it can also cover other kinds of sameness. When people did theology in Greek and Latin they had no word at all for the "very strong" sense of identity to which Mullins is pointed. They could talk about it, but it required some complicated circumlocutions. And it was not the sense in which 'sameness' was used when talking about divine simplicity, in saying, for instance, that in God wisdom and power are the same. (Aquinas, for instance, pretty clearly denies that the "very strong" sense of sameness is the right one in this context.) One of the most influential texts in the Latin West on discussions of the doctrine is Augustine's De Trinitate; in his brief comments on the point, Augustine's analogy for divine simplicity is the unity of the virtues. In a fully virtuous person, even though "prudence" and "justice" and "fortitude" and the like are not synonymous words, justice will be prudent, courageous, etc.; this way in which all the virtue-terms applied to a fully virtuous person in some sense include all the others is the closest we come to something like divine simplicity, the main difference is that we can't be prudent, etc., except by acquiring these bit by bit, whereas for God, to be God is already to be wise, good, etc. Try to translate the unity of virtues analogy into standard analytic identity-talk and you get gibberish. That is a warning sign that the new terms are bringing baggage with them that the original terms might not carry.

In any case, Mullins's divine freedom argument against simplicity depends entirely on the "very strong" sense; Premise 8, for instance, requires strict transitivity, despite the fact that, historically, theologians and philosophers have denied that strict transitivity applies to the kind of sameness talked about in divine simplicity. Mullins does suggest that certain common arguments require it, but I think a closer examination of those arguments than Mullins gives would show that (1) he is confusing general implications of simplicity itself with transitivity of specific properties; (2) he is dropping, as he does all the way through, the notion of compositeness as a sign of createdness; and (3) the arguments generally have perfectly acceptable analogues in Augustine's virtue analogy despite the latter clearly requiring the rejection of strict transitivity. To put it in fashionable theological terminology, all one requires for a doctrine of divine simplicity is 'perichoresis'; but perichoresis does not imply that one thing can always be directly substituted for another in every context.


While not my main point, it's perhaps worth noting that even assuming the application of identity, the argument is not as straightforward as he suggests, since it is known that even the strong form of identity, even in ordinary cases, only allows intersubstitution within the same modal context; if we are talking about things that are described in different modal contexts, things get immensely more complicated, and you can't assume that something like Premise 8 would apply. And as it would be obviously false to say that terms like divine necessity and Creator have no modalities, and very implausible to say that they share exactly the same modalities, you would need to establish that claims about them could be formulated in the same modal context before you could use a premise like Premise 8. Otherwise it would be exactly like claiming that, because the real temperature measured by a Celsius scale and the real temperature measured by a Fahrenheit scale are exactly the same real temperature, therefore Celsius scales are Fahrenheit scales. 'Real temperature measured by a Fahrenheit scale' and 'real temperature measured by a Celsius scale' are modally different descriptions. Mullins completely muddles this in his discussion of what he calls the "Modal Mystery strategy", assuming rather than establishing a unitary modal context that makes it so that the modal term 'necessity' is not shifting meanings in the different uses.

Mullins also obscures the matter by ambiguous use of terms. The puzzle about freedom that he tries to develop can't arise if we are using 'freedom' in an intransitive way: 'God is free'. There is no problem whatsoever with claiming that this is necessarily true or that God is necessarily free. The puzzle only arises if we are talking about freedom transitively so that it is taking a non-necessary object. But while it is obviously the case that God-freely-doing-this-non-necessary-thing is not necessary, this is obviously because 'God-freely-doing-this-non-necessary-thing' is a mixed description that depends on something that's not God. 'God being free' and 'God freely doing X' do not share exactly the same modal context; the one is entirely about God Himself, but the latter is about God only relative to X. "1+1=2" is necessary, but "this apple I am picking up and this other apple I am picking up are two apples" is, strictly speaking, not, because it is neither necessary that there be apples nor that I pick them up; it is a mixed description that partly depends on something that's neither a 1 nor a 2 nor a mathematical operation. It would be absurd to claim that talking about necessary numbers in terms using contingent apples makes numbers contingent or apples necessary. And equally obviously, a description that includes a creature is not intersubstitutable with a description that does not.

These are different versions of points that are also made by both Lenow and Feser in their contributions.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Edith Stein

Today was the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, also known as Edith Stein, martyr. We don't know exactly when she died; we know that she was sent to Auschwitz on August 7, 1942, and probably died in the gas chambers with her sister Rosa a couple of days later.

As were the hearts of the first human beings, so down through the ages again and again human hearts have been struck by the divine ray. Hidden from the whole world, it illuminated and irradiated them, let the hard, encrusted, misshapen matter of these hearts soften, and then with the tender hand of an artist formed them anew into the image of God. Seen by no human eye, this is how living building blocks were and are formed and brought together into a Church first of all invisible. However, the visible Church grows out of this invisible one in ever new, divine deeds and revelations which shed their light in ever new epiphanies. The silent working of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the soul made the patriarchs into friends of God. However, when they came to the point of allowing themselves to be used as his pliant instruments, he established them in an external visible efficacy as bearers of historical development, and awakened from among them his chosen people.

[Edith Stein, "The Hidden Life and Epiphany", The Hidden Life, Collected Works of Edith Stein (Volume IV), ed. Dr. L. Gelber and Michael Linssen, O.C.D, ICS, 1992.]

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Evening Note for Thursday, August 8

Thought for the Evening: Perversion in the Context of Humanitarian Traditions

All humanitarian traditions, like medicine, law, and clerical ministry, are by their nature oriented to human common good. These traditions involve using many skills and instrumentalities in order to provide some care for human beings as such. These skills and instrumentalities, however, do not have the humanitarian end of the tradition as their own immediate ends, and this creates the possibility of a perverse use of the skills and instrumentalities of a humanitarian tradition for non-humanitarian ends. Recognizing and understanding these perversions seems to be of considerable importance to many ethical problems, so it seems worthwhile to try to be more clear about what perversion of medicine, etc., is. All human obligation is tied to human common good; since humanitarian traditions are among the major cooperative means for creating, developing, and protecting good shared in common, their integrity is directly related to moral life.

'Perversion' by its nature indicates an inconsistency of a particular kind. Roughly, we can say that,

(1) Given that humanitarian traditions have for their ends some major aspect of human common good,
(2) where some skill or instrumentality has as its natural context such a humanitarian tradition,
(3) it is impossible for it to be good for this skill or instrumentality to be used in a way in itself contrary to the end of the humanitarian tradition.

(This is analogous to the sense of perversion used in so-called perverted faculty arguments. See Edward Feser, "In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument," Neo-Scholastic Essays, St. Augustine's Press [South Bend, IN: 2015] pp. 378-415.)

'Natural context' here is sometimes straightforward and sometimes more tricky. The most obvious case of a medical skill being used within the humanitarian tradition of medicine as its natural context is the case of its being used by a doctor acting as a doctor. Since medicine is a very large tradition, we would obviously have analogous cases for nurses, pharmacists, medical technicians, and the like. More difficult are cases in which we have someone with medical skills who is not explicitly working as a doctor or whatever else may be relevant. In such cases I'm inclined to think that the origination of the skill within the humanitarian tradition is enough to make the humanitarian tradition its natural context, but there are bound to be gray areas and difficult lines on this point, and very little study as been done in what it means (for instance) for a medical skill to be medical if it's used by someone not intending to use it medically. Nonetheless, we should not let such potential marginal ambiguities disguise the fact that the central cases are quite clear. A pharmacist acting in his role as a pharmacist, using his knowledge of pharmaceuticals and his skill as a pharmacist in compounding drugs to poison people is engaged in a perverse action, a perversion of his skills, within the humanitarian tradition of medicine.

Perversions are not simply failures, nor are they accidental misfires; if a pharmacist accidentally poisons someone, this may, if avoidable, be a sign of incompetence, but it is not a perversion of the skill. If we think of the whole set of skills, practices, methods, and instruments and the like that are formed to serve the ends of medicine as 'the medical panoply', medical perversion is the deliberate use of the medical panoply in ways that are inconsistent with the ends of medicine it has been proposed to serve. This also makes it different from mere repurposing -- if we use a skill in a new way, it's not the original purpose of the skill that is relevant but the ends of medicine that are the standard that have to be met. If the new purposes to which the skill are put are still consistent with the ends of medicine, it is not a perverse use of the skill but simply a new development of it.

Medicine provides the clearest and most obvious cases, as it often does in talking about humanitarian traditions due to its age, relatively consistent history, and complexity, but the same kind of reasoning would also apply to law and spiritual ministry; some (although not all) of the gravest immoralities associated with these are perversions of skills, practices, etc., whose natural context is these humanitarian traditions. The account also extends to kinds of humanitarian traditions that are spottier than these three big ones -- cases where the humanitarian tradition is sometimes more virtual than actual, where consistent maintenance of them as humanitarian traditions has sometimes failed, like education or journalism or politics; the primary difference is that they will have more of the marginal cases noted above. Where professions grow up within humanitarian traditions (which is common), the professional ethics associated with each profession will often be greatly concerned with avoiding perversions within the context of that humanitarian tradition, and the moral growth of a profession is often related to its development of means to limit, correct, and avoid ways in which professional means can be perverted to ends inconsistent with the humanitarian tradition.

Previous Evening Notes on Humanitarian Traditions
- Humanitarian Traditions
- Prima Facie Duties and Humanitarian Traditions
- Humanitarian Traditions and Cliental Privilege

Various Links of Interest

* Russell Sparkes talks about G. K. Chesterton's fight against the eugenics movement. (ht)

* Andreas Kapsner, The Stories of Logics (PDF)

* Jonathan Greig, Nicholas of Methone and Thomas Aquinas on Participation in Their Critiques of Proclus' Elements of Theology, Proposition 23

* Gregory DiPippo on Raphael's Transfiguration of Christ

* Agnes Callard reflects on the relation between aesthetics and ethics.

* Michael Pakaluk and Catherine Ruth Pakaluk discuss the Gospel of Mark. Michael Pakaluk's recent translation of the Gospel, The Memoirs of St. Peter, is quite good.

* The original watercolors for The Little Prince

Currently Reading

Maria Edgeworth, Belinda
Augustine, The Trinity


One of the things the past few years has made clear to me is that there are many, many supposedly intelligent people who nonetheless cannot grasp the elementary point that 'centrism' is a miscellaneous category; it is just the term we use in political matters for anything that doesn't definitely fit into 'left' or 'right'. This should be extraordinarily easy to figure out. 'Centrism' itself is a relative label (center compared to what?), designating what is neither definitely to the right or definitely to the left. It is why there are so very many people who count as centrists of some kind but almost all politics in modern liberal societies gets divided according to some local version of a left vs. right divide -- there is no stable position or set of positions that is 'centrism', even locally, but lots of different leftover positions. And centrists who self-identify as centrists always do so because they don't think that they count as typical 'left' or 'right'. 'Centrism' is capable of covering any number of very different positions.

It's an interesting question why this seems to be so difficult for people, even people who specialize in fields like political philosophy, political science, or history, where you would expect them at least to ask the question of how people get sorted into the category to begin with. I suspect it comes down to two things:

(1) Left-vs.-right talk makes these sound like substantive and stable options along a line. In reality, 'left' and 'right' are none of these things. Even the historical reason for talking about 'left' and 'right' has nothing to do with a line; it seems to trace to a historical accident about which side of the legislative chamber different factions happened to sit on at some point. The terminology stuck, and the reason for assigning people to 'left' or 'right' is just based on a crude sense of precedent -- those people are 'left' who seem to us most like the 'left' of the previous generation, and those people are 'right' who seem to us most like the 'right' of the previous generation. And this means that it wavers all over the place on particular details. Easy movement across borders, for instance, was a 'right' idea opposed by the 'left' that became a 'left' idea opposed by the 'right'. It's just the overall package that gives the labels. And 'left' and 'right' vary considerably according to society. The 'right' in Canada is very different from the 'right' in America.

In reality, politics has many dimensions. When we get to more serious analysis, this becomes obvious -- the alliance of certain fiscal and social positions is obviously due to historical accident, which is why primarily-fiscal and primarily-social factions of both the 'left' and the 'right' rarely get along very well. There is no obvious reason why someone who is 'left' on labor issues should always be 'left' on immigration issues, no obvious reason why being 'right' on marriage must always go with being 'right' on tax cuts. People get sorted into two groups just because binary contests are easier to follow than complicated ones (there are incentives for lumping as many of your opponents into a single group if possible, so that you have an Us faction and a Them faction), and because self-identification as 'left' and 'right' indicates a willingness to ally -- even with gritted teeth -- with other groups who already self-identify as such.

But the fact that we do sort people this way, and the fact that we can pretty easily identify some of the alliances at any given point of time, means that the way we use 'left' and 'right' makes it sound like these are definite positions along one and only one line. And if they were, then 'centrism' would presumably be the definite center of the line.

(2) The name tends toward a confusion of 'moderate' with 'centrist'. This is something you even find in dictionaries. I recently saw a tweet that said that 'centrism' was a false application of the Doctrine of the Mean to politics. This is an immensely stupid thing to say; Aristotle's account of the Doctrine of the Mean directly says that the moderate or mean is not the central point, because what counts as moderate depends on what the extremes are, and the real mean is typically closer to one of the extremes than the other. In addition, the claim requires assuming that left and right are unitary and the only real, stable, and definite directions in politics; this is entirely false. And it is simply not the general motivation for centrism. The most common motivation for centrism -- or at least the most significant in the history of centrisms -- is that people started on the 'left' or 'right', but something happened that made them unwilling to identify as definite allies of whichever one they were, without giving them reason to identify as definite allies of the other side. Alienation, not moderation, is their primary and explicit reason. (Indeed, one of the most widely recognized experiences in contemporary politics in liberal societies is how thoroughly alienating disputes between 'left' and 'right' are; people complain about it all the time. The sense of having no real place in the standard political discussion is a widespread result of the way modern societies work.) Perhaps another common motivation is a mix-and-match of different positions, so that on any one issue they would be classifiable as 'left' and 'right', but not always or even usually the same. There is nothing about the classification that makes this impossible; you could only rule it out if you thought, again, that 'left' and 'right' were substantive and stable options giving direction to a single line.

In reality, of course, everybody everywhere should usually be moderate according to the reasoning of a reasonable person; while probably very few are, I suppose most people at least assume that they are so, and most of the rest are assuming that they have some reasonable emergency justification for extreme measures. Given this, it is inevitable that people on the 'left' and 'right' will often think that 'centrism' is gibberish -- an attempt at finding a middle ground between being reasonable and being unreasonable. But this is an imposed interpretation, and not a discovered fact.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019


Hear and listen, you covetous one: the Apostle explains to you in another place more clearly this that he said, "Let no man seek his own, but another's." He says of himself, "Not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved." This Peter understood not yet when he desired to live on the mount with Christ. He was reserving this for you, Peter, after death. But now He says Himself, "Come down, to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour? 'Seek not your own.' Have charity, preach the truth; so shall you come to eternity, where you shall find security."

Augustine, Sermon 28.6.

Monday, August 05, 2019

In Sooth, the Heavens are Splendid to the Eye

Sonnet to an Evening in August
by Kashiprasad Ghosh

The mellowing glory of the setting sun
Is pouring over Ganga's golden stream;
As when a lofty poet's thoughts have run
Wild and extatic by the soft, sweet dream
Of Fancy many-hued:—the dazzling light
Of genius true and poesy divine
Within his bosom beams in splendour bright,
And makes his every thought resplendent shine.
The variegated streaks, which glow afar,
Appear as if, in his ethereal track,
Arun, who drives the Sun's refulgent car,
Had from his radiant pinions flung them back.
In sooth, the heavens are splendid to the eye;
August! indeed august thine evening sky!

Ghosh, also known as Kasiprasad Ghoshe, was a Bengali poet who largely wrote in English; he was also the editor of the Hindu Intelligencer, an English-language newspaper published in Calcutta.