A Critique of Vallicella’s Critique of McCann

If one isn’t familiar with the issues from the title, feel free to skip this post.

Vallicella thinks McCann is wrong in holding that God transcends modality. He wrote a paper explaining why, titled “Hugh McCann on the Implications of Divine Sovereignty,” published in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 88:1 (2014).

His main reasons (I’m sure he would accuse me of butchering his views) for thinking McCann is wrong are three. I’ll post them in his own words below.

“In closing, I suggest that divine sovereignty cannot extend as far as McCann would like to extend it. God cannot be absolutely sovereign because he himself is subject to modal constraints. First, God cannot create himself. Second, the divine aseity, pace McCann, entails both the divine de re metaphysical necessity and the de re metaphysical contingency of the created realm. Aseity is a modal notion: it implies the possibility that God exists without the world, and the impossibility that the world exist without God. Third, God’s being the best explanation of the world’s existence entails that the world needs and explanation, which is true only if the world is contingent – which it cannot be if McCann’s scheme is correct.”

Now, far be it from me to act like I can go toe to toe with a guy like Vallicella. Take this like a kitten bucking up to a grizzly bear. Meow.

It just seems to me Vallicella isn’t really grasping what McCann is suggesting, because all these objections can be met with the same response: namely that they are category mistakes. Let’s take his objections one by one.

a) Criticism: if it is impossible for God to create himself, God is therefore subject to “possibility” in a modal sense. Reply: not necessarily. Why not just say that the idea of a thing creating itself is meaningless, and therefore impossible to predicate of anything in the first place? If I say that it is true that Tuesday cannot gain 15 pounds, that does not mean that Tuesday is somehow limited by the notion of “pounds.” For when I’m making this statement I need not really be invoking some metaphysical criteria which delineates Tuesday. I can say all sorts of words and attach them to a subject – but that need not entail anything about the subject. In other words, to deny that A applies to X is not to affirm therefore that not A does in fact apply to it. For it may be that both A and not A are terms that are not predicable of X at all, either positively or negatively. The truth we are expressing when we say that God cannot create himself is really the truth that no being that exists in time can exist prior to itself – for that is a logical contradiction. But God, as not being a being in time, simply doesn’t even fall into the category in which “existing before” applies. Thus to say anything about him creating himself – whether you say its possible or impossible – is simply a meaningless predication.

(Also, remember, “impossibility” for McCann is a conceptual category; it is about PROPOSITIONS, not about God, which just is what he is.)

b) Criticism: aseity implies that God can exist without the world but that the world cannot exist without God. Response: again, this doesn’t necessarily follow. Aseity entails that God’s being comes from himself and that he does not depend on the world (it does not “happen to him”). But that need not imply ANYTHING about his ability to act otherwise. If God timelessly creates the world then he is a se insofar as he does not gain being from anything and that he neither could do differently nor necessarily does what he does. And that’s all you need. You don’t have to say that he “could” exist differently.

c) Criticism: the cosmological argument entails assuming the world is contingent and could have not existed, which is impossible if God’s act of creation is amodal. Response: the cosmological argument is really, at its core, an argument from the phenomenon of CHANGE and BECOMING – not contingency as a modal notion. All you need is an object undergoing succession to run Aristotle’s or Aquinas’ proof of a first moved mover. In short, you need the act/potency distinction, nor the contingent/necessary distinction. Vallicella’s point here fails to consider this fact.

So, pace the Maverick, a) impossibility applies to the conceptual order; b) aseity per se need not entail anything about the ability to do otherwise; and c) the cosmological argument needs only change, not contingency, to be a metaphysically “real” category.


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