Category Archives: Divine Freedom

Divine Freedom – Transcending Modality and being Essentially Related to Creation

I still think a majority of the problems posed by each question stem from applying created modalities to God’s essence. In particular, several (most?) of the seeming contradictions regarding God’s freedom result from imagining God as existing in other possible worlds. But this, again, is just to assume a priori that created modality applies to God’s act of being itself. If in fact such an assumption is incorrect, to imagine God existing in possible worlds is meaningless.

God’s freedom need not be thought of as his “ability to do otherwise.” Why not simply construe his freedom as the fact that all God’s act come from himself, without movement or dependence from some prior cause? This does not entail that God “had” to create; nor that he “could have” not created. (For these statements assume possible world metaphysics apply to God, and if McCann is right that’s incorrect or meaningless). Rather it just implies what all Thomists agree on: God’s act simply IS, period. Why is it so essential to think that God “could have” done other than he did, if the opposite – that God “had to” create – is also false?

Also, it seems to me that God is essentially related to creation, even on the view that modality applies to God. For even if this is correct, and it is a contingent fact that God decided to create the world (i.e. if God “could have done otherwise”) then it still follows that, had God not so decided, he would have still had some act of his being conditioned by creation, namely the fact that he “chose not to create the universe.” In other words, if you ascribe contingency to God’s act itself, you still have God “faced with the question” of whether or not he will create something. And even if he refrains from creating, you still have his essence defined by that very refrain itself: i.e. you still have God being essentially a “non-creator.” So long as there is even a possible referent to God’s action, and God can either act towards that referent or not, then you are positing an action of God that is defined only insofar as it is referred to that very referent. Thus, it seems to me, far from making God essentially unrelated to creatures, if you in fact put his act of being itself in the world of modality, then, in his very decision to refrain from creation, he is still essentially related to the potentially created world which he decides not to make. If you think of God existing “ad intra” contemplating only the contingent possibilities of creation, even not creating any world at all is still an example of God actualizing a state of affairs which is impossible – indescribable – without referent to a creation itself. In fact even the term “ad intra” – even conceiving of God in himself, apart from creation – necessarily supposes a creation over which to juxtapose God’s “aloneness.” In which case, it seems, God’s own self-constitutive definition as “existing without a creation” is essentially related to the possibility of a contingent creation itself – therefore, God is essentially related to creation.

In light of these issues it still seems to me best to view modality as such as part of the *conceptual* realm only. I.e. to view the difference in the Necessary and Contingent to be basically equivalent to the “Unimaginable” and the “Imaginable.” We say it is “necessary” that 1+1=2, but that is only because it is unimaginable to us that it could be otherwise. We don’t mean that, as considered in God’s changeless and immutable act of Pure Existence, which itself encompasses everything that exists, it makes sense to say 1+1=2 “could not have been otherwise.” There is no “otherwise” to speak of: there is nothing outside the Everything that is both God and his eternal action with which to compare things to.

Nor does this seem problematic for speaking about God’s essence. True, it would not be technically correct to say that God’s act of existence is “necessary.” But God’s existence could still be necessary in the sense that it is unimaginable that God not exist. Furthermore, it would not therefore be FALSE that God’s existence was necessary; it would just be meaningless, or, rather, less comprehensive to describe God using these words. The best thing to say would be that God essentially is all that he is and does; period. And one could still be led by the classic arguments to posit the necessary existence of a being like THAT; a being whose essence is simply the act of existing. That is, the statement “there exists a being whose essence is to exist” could be necessarily true, and it could still be false to say that “there is a being who necessarily exists.” Or so it seems to me.

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Does God’s Contingent Action Imply He Has Accidents (and Conflict with Simplicity?)

“As in God “what is” and “whereby it is” are the same, so likewise in Him “what acts” and “whereby it acts” are the same, since everything acts, inasmuch as it is a being. Hence the Divine Nature is both that whereby God acts, and the very God Who acts.” Aquinas, ST III q. 3 a. 2

It seems to me the question of God’s knowledge of creation is similar to the question of the second person assuming a human nature. In each case, something is true of God that need not necessarily be true of him – i.e. he has this particular knowledge of creation or he assumes this particular created nature. Presumably God could have different knowledge or could have assumed a different nature.

Open theists say this means God cannot be simple, since such things appear accidental to God. And if a thing is accidental to something else, it can be added to it. But if something can be added to God, he is temporal and composed, and can at one time have “this” property and at another “that.”

But what if we think about it like this. God is the same across all possible worlds because in all possible worlds God knows his one act, which is his existing and his doing. But this means that we can only arrive at a sort of analogical predication of God, insofar as in every possible world we say that God has both a necessary existence (willing his own goodness) and a contingent existence (willing it in this way – say with a creation – rather than that way – say without one.)

Is God the same in a world that is different than this one? Yes, just like we would be the same person even if we did otherwise. For in any possible world God is still knowing his own existence and his own action. That action is different in terms of how it terminates (he actualizes this creature rather than that, or he even fails to actualize any creature at all.) But the action, in terms of the way it is performed, is the same (a necessary end attained through a contingent means.) In other words, God is the same in all possible worlds because God justin st is an instance of free act. In any world that could exist, God would be freely acting to bring it about. That is, he would always know the extent of his own free action. Therefore, God’s action would not be essentially different in any possible world even if the world was different, or if no world existed at all (God would know that he is freely actualizing his own goodness without bringing about a world, for instance.)

Interestingly in the question in the ST that asks whether God’s will is the cause of things Aquinas says “the divine being is undetermined.” And he also says in the previous question that the divine will “determines itself” to things which it has no necessary connection to. These thoughts lead me to believe that we can attribute both necessary and contingent existence, analogously, to God’s single act of being. We can consider these attributes under certain respects: God’s necessity in terms of him wiling his own goodness and his contingency in terms of the way in which he wills that goodness. This saves us from having to say that God’s knowledge (and will) are things “outside” or “extrinsic” to God himself, but still allows us to speak truly about God’s necessary existence.

On God’s Freedom

“The idea of that which God “could have” done involves a too anthropomorphic conception of God’s freedom. Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.” CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain

There are a host of problems that attend thinking of God’s relationship to the created world that come from, what seems to me, incorrectly imagining God’s power and freedom. To put it shortly, many people think of God as being either “able” to do other than he does or “having” to do what he does. Thinking this way leads people to ask things like “couldn’t God have stopped such and such tragedy” and “couldn’t God have made a universe in which such and such wasn’t possible.”

Imagining God this way is problematic, for this reason. It presupposes that God is, at one point in time, faced with a plurality of options “out there” in front of him which he must choose between. God can perhaps put earth here in this bit of space and put just this many humans on this patch of land and so on. He can make this many stars, this many animals, this many primary colors. He can choose to have Jesus come at this time or that time, die this way or that way, offer salvation in these means or those means. You see the point.

The reason this is problematic is because it really reduces God not to the absolute source and creator of all that exists, but to something that is itself conditioned by outside “possibilities.” But where would such possibilities come from? For God, there can be no such independent possible worlds, existing as brute facts on their own. He is not “confronted” with outer “possible worlds.” Neither does he have “options” (even an infinite number of them) which,  as it were, confine him or hem him in. For again, just who, if not God himself, would be setting up these options; who would be creating them?

The truth is that it is God’s creative and omnipotent will which itself gives possibilities to things. Hugh McCann put it like this: “de re modalities” do not apply to God. That is, the words “possible” and “necessary” describe, not God’s true being and action, but rather the created things which God makes. God himself transcends the categories of Possible and Necessary in the same way he transcends the categories of everything else he has made. God himself created kangaroos, peach cobbler, dandelions, and the color red. Yet he himself is not a kangaroo, a peach cobbler, a dandelion, or the color red. In the same way it seems to me we should think about possibilities and necessities as applying to the created order; not to God’s very essence and action. For it is his very action which imparts possibility and necessity to the world. He alone is what causes the Possible and Necessary to exist.

With this in mind we can simply side step a whole host of theological problems. In particular any one that begins with “could not God have…” we can say is meaningless. God is not and has never been a temporal being who at one point of time faced options. Thus to speak of him as deliberating or weighing choices is meaningless. He simply Is what He Is and does what He does. So also, when we conceive of God’s freedom, we are to think not in terms of him “considering” what he “will” do; but rather in the fact that he alone is the source – the sole generator of – his own action, which he is always timelessly doing. His action is not imparted to him by some other thing; nor is he moved by anything outside himself to do as he does. He simply Is his Action, eternally.

Therefore there are two errors we must avoid in talking about God’s creative will and his causal relationship to the world. The first is in supposing that God “necessarily” created – as if the logic of possibilities compelled him to do as he did. And the second error to avoid is in supposing that God “could have” not created – as if there is some conceivable state of affairs other than God acting as he always is acting eternally. Both of these options reduce God to a temporal being faced with options and then picking something. But God, in his eternal essence, is not like that. He never “was” faced with anything other than what he has been doing timelessly and always. Again, to end with McCann, “If de re necessity does not apply to God then neither does de re possibility apply to God… The foundational reality is simply this: God is.”