A Thomistic Response to Modal Collapse

Here is a response to part of Alan Rhoda’s critique of classical Thomism, which can be read here:


I was at one time very moved by the modal collapse argument, which you nicely articulate here. Some Thomists, in order to avoid it, have said that God’s knowledge with respect to creation is itself extrinsic to God (e.g. Matthews Grant.) This seems absurd to me, for I can’t understand how a being can both possess knowledge and have that knowledge as something *outside* that being itself.

However, after thinking more about the modal collapse critique, it seems a believer in simplicity could invoke another strategy: namely to deny that in saying “God’s essence is necessary” we are saying all that can possibly be said about the divine essence itself. Aquinas seems to hold that God is both necessary and determined to will his own goodness as an end and contingent insofar as God is a intellectual agent who can will that end in various ways (e.g. with a creation or without one.) In fact, in the questions on God’s will in ST Aquinas says both that the divine being is “undetermined” AND that it “determines itself” towards things to which it has no necessary connection.

If this is the case then a believer in simplicity can hold that God, as the perfect instance of pure and free act, exists both necessarily and contingently. And, like all other attributes we predicate of God, we can draw this analogical predication of him based on our experience with creatures: in particular of our own free actions. For our actions themselves are BOTH necessary, insofar as we necessarily will our own happiness, AND contingent, insofar as we will it this way or that way, by pursuing via this means or that means.

Thus a response to the modal collapse argument would be this: modal collapse does not occur because in defining God, although it is true that his essence is necessary, that is not ALL that God’s essence is. In order for modal collapse to occur God’s essence must be exhaustively identical to “necessity” simplicter. But this is not what Thomists have held or those who’ve believed in simplicity, for they’ve also held God to be wise, just, loving, triune, etc. Thus they’ve not held that God is strictly identical to “necessary being” although God is in fact necessary, for he is much more than that also.

Now Thomists have actually held this in the past – in particular (I am told) Thomas Cajetan. To carry the point through that God is both necessary and contingent would require one to deny that these terms are mutually exclusive, and evidently (I cannot read Latin), that is just what Cajetan does. But it seems to me in light of experiencing our own free choices, which are both necessary and contingent in various respects, it is not patently obvious that it is impossible to predicate both attributes of the same being – i.e. it is not obvious to me that the terms “necessary” and “contingent” are necessarily mutually exclusive predications of personal action. Therefore, it seems possible to hold that they both can be attributed to God’s essence.

In short, one who holds to simplicity could, it seems, say that God, as the supreme instance of purely free act, necessarily wills his own goodness as an end, and contingently wills a particular means to that end, namely to be a creator. Further, he does all this timelessly, so the problem of him “becoming” is avoided. Thus one who holds to simplicity could say that “necessary” and “contingent” are attributes given to God like all the other attributes: just, loving, wise, etc.

Anyway, I’d love to hear Feser’s take on this. Hopefully he will respond in particular to this point, seeing as it is one of the dividing lines in current theology between those who believe in a temporal God and a timeless one.


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