A Few Arguments Against Divine Simplicity

By Shannon Eugene Byrd

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May 3, 2017

In my last article I tackled what I referred to as Thomistic Compatibilism. This article can be considered a clarification of some of the earlier material while adding more argumentation against the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS).

Thomas Aquinas modeled his understanding of human free will after his take on the divine free will. Thomas posited that God is the efficient cause of all that occurs (SCG I 11.70.8). But God joins other causal agents in a sort of dual causality; this isn’t in the sense of both contributing 50%, rather both contribute 100%. So, a divine first cause and a secondary cause join together to cause an effect. This signifies that God is the entire cause of what occurs but the agent is the immediate efficient cause of the event. Simply put, God works through agents to enact his will. Both God and the secondary cause are fully the entire cause of an effect. This is what Johnny Sakr was talking about when he mentioned the Thomistic/Reformed view of Divine Concurrence. In the Thomistic version of Divine Concurrence God “moves the will as its object” whereas in the Molinist version, God concurs with the agents choice. (William Lane Craig, Response to Paul Kjoss Helseth in Four Views on Divine Providence. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011., 57.)

So, if God moves secondary causes to do his will, in what sense are they free? Aquinas seems to think that he can preserve genuine free will so long as the agent can choose the means to reach the necessitated last end, which Aquinas sees as happiness.

Free will is the cause of its own motion, because by his free will man moves himself for the sake of acting. Nevertheless, it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself, as neither is it required for one thing to be the cause of another that it be the first cause. God, therefore, is the first cause, moving both natural and voluntary causes. And just as by moving natural causes he does not divert their acts from being natural, so by moving voluntary causes he does not divert their actions from being voluntary; but rather he produces this ability in them: for he operates in each thing according to its own nature. (ST Ia 83.1)

Aquinas posits free will is the cause of its own movement and then goes on to say God is the cause of the very thing in them according to their own nature. Zoller states,

“By definition, a rational agent uses free judgment to decide between a given number of alternatives. So, moral activity is governed by one’s character; this governance is the command of one’s actions by one’s nature. Although nature is chosen by God, we are nonetheless responsible for our actions because they spring from our nature, which is chosen contingently by God.” (Coleen P. Zoller, Determined But Free: Aquinas’s Compatibilist Theory of Freedom. Philosophy and Theology 16,1), 34-35.)

For an easy illustration imagine a cylinder and a cone. Once an external force nudges each, they both move according to an intrinsic principle, this is what Zoller means by actions springing from our natures. What is interesting is that her use of “nature” is synonymous with “character” and God contingently chooses this nature. So according to her, God chooses the character and it acts as it does once God moves on the voluntary cause.

For clarity, Aquinas sees God as the first cause, not in a chronological sense, but in terms of explanatory priority. God is the fundamental cause of all that exists and apart from him, nothing else would exist. So in this sense, God is the first cause of the agents voluntary actions.

According to Zoller, God imbues each individual with a nature and it influences individuals in their decisions (Ibid., 36). This seems to comport with her earlier statements.

I have argued elsewhere, the Thomist commitment to divine simplicity leads to modal collapse. A modal collapse occurs when contingency is annihilated and everything is necessitated. When modal collapse occurs, there are no possible worlds for the reason that the actual world is necessarily the actual world.

R. T. Mullins argues:

“On divine simplicity God’s essence is identical to his existence. Also, God’s one simple act is identical to his essence/existence. God’s act of creation is identical to this one simple act, and so identical to God’s essence/existence. God exists of absolute necessity. So his act of creation is of absolute necessity since it is identical to his essence/existence.” (R. T. Mullins, The End of the Timeless God )

Because of the commitment to DDS, God’s act of creation cannot be hypothetically or even suppositionally necessary; his act of creation is absolutely necessary. This renders Aquinas’s notion of freedom via alternative possibilities dead on arrival. Human choices are necessary and could not have been otherwise.

Of course I would be surprised if Thomists or other adherents to DDS would roll over and play dead when presented this argument. Rightfully so, they will recoil to the ida of a necessary creation and will likely to reject the notion and contend that creation is contingent. I agree that this is what Aquinas and the Thomists I’ve encountered assert, but I do not agree that this is what their commitment to DDS entails. Now if one wants to posit that God’s act was of a conditional necessity then they will have to admit that God’s act is not identical to his essence, which is a rejection of DDS. I do not anticipate anyone is going to be willing to take this route in order to avoid the modal collapse, and I think this is why the modal collapse has so much force.

A possible route around a modal collapse is to posit a different type of modality that can account for possibility without possible world semantics. One could attempt to use a “dispositional modality” where the dispositional properties of objects, which are properties such as an airfoil has the property of flex or I have the ability to learn to play the guitar. These sorts of dispositional properties are bound up in counterfactual conditionals so these dispositional properties act as “truth makers” (which are highly controversial) to the counterfactual conditionals; “if the airfoil is acted upon, it will flex.” I think that this attempt will not rescue DDS. Why? The manifestation of a disposition is contingent; so the airfoil bending is contingent upon it being acted upon by some exterior force such as parasitic drag, lift, gravity and such. Moreover, it wouldn’t be bound up in a counterfactual conditional, if it wasn’t in fact contingent.

In the case someone attempts to avoid dispositional properties being bound up in counterfactual conditionals by positing there only need be the manifestation of dispositional properties in order for them to be individuated then they will still have to wrestle with contingency, which God’s being pure act rules out. Given God is pure act and his act is identical to his essence/existence, God’s existence and creation are absolutely necessary, thus no dispositional property could manifest. The attempt to avoid the modal collapse by positing dispositional properties fails as it is reliant upon contingency to manifest these dispositional properties, which is exactly what the modal collapse eliminates to begin with. Avoiding possible world semantics does not eliminate the difficulty.

If the modal collapse is sound, besides creation being necessary, what are some other detrimental effects? It seems to me that if creation is necessary, then no one has libertarian free will, and if this is the case no one can reason through an argument. And if one cannot reason through an argument, one cannot rationally affirm DDS! With Tim Stratton’s Freethinking Argument in mind, let’s craft a related argument:

  1. If God’s essence is identical with his one act, then this world is absolutely necessary.
  2. If this world is absolutely necessary, then my actions are absolutely necessary.
  3. If my actions are absolutely necessary, then my choices leading to those actions are absolutely necessary.
  4. If my choices leading to those actions are absolutely necessary, then I have no libertarian free will.
  5. If I have no libertarian free will, then I cannot reason.
  6. I have no libertarian free will.
    [ ∴ I cannot reason.

This argument deductively shows that if creation is necessary, which is entailed by DDS, then no one has libertarian free will, and if that is the case then this argument serves as an undercutting defeater to all of our beliefs, including the belief that DDS is correct. Let’s construct a formal proof to demonstrate that the argument is valid.

7. Assume: I can reason. [contradictory of conclusion]
8. [ ∴ I have libertarian free will. [ from 5 & 7 ]
9. [ ∴ my choices leading to those actions aren’t absolutely necessary [from 8 & 4]
10. [ ∴ my actions aren’t absolutely necessary. [from 9 & 3 ]
11. [ ∴ this world isn’t absolutely necessary. [ from 10 & 2 ]
12. [ ∴ God’s essence isn’t identical with his one act. [from 11 & 1]

13. ∴ I cannot reason [ from 7; 6 contradicts 8] reductio ad absurdem

This formal proof demonstrates that the above argument is indeed valid; the conclusion necessarily follows from the stated premises. This proof also demonstrates what would occur if we denied the consequent of premise 5 ( I cannot reason). Let’s construct another argument using premises 1-5 of the above followed with a denial of the consequent of premise 5 and see what occurs.

  1. If God’s essence is identical with his one act, then this world is absolutely necessary.
  2. If this world is absolutely necessary, then my actions are absolutely necessary.
  3. If my actions are absolutely necessary, then my choices leading to those actions are absolutely necessary.
  4. If my choices leading to those actions are absolutely necessary, then I have no free will.
  5. If I have no free will, then I cannot reason.
  6. I can reason. [contradiction of consequent of premise 5]
    ∴ I have free will. [ from 6 & 5 ]
    ∴ my choices leading to those actions aren’t absolutely necessary. [ from 4 & 7 ]
    ∴ my actions aren’t absolutely necessary. [ from 3 & 8 ]
    ∴ this world isn’t absolutely necessary. [ from 2 & 9 ]
    ∴ God’s essence isn’t identical with his one act. [ from 10 & 1 ]

The first premise is the implication of the modal collapse argument R. T. Mullins offered in the above. If God is pure actuality in such a way that there is only one act and this act is identical with God’s essence, which is absolutely necessary, then the one act is absolutely necessary.

Now if this world is absolutely necessary, then everything that occurs in the actual world is absolutely necessary. Our actions arrive from necessity and cannot otherwise be contingent. Choices lead to actions, and if the action is absolutely necessary then the causal process to include the choice of which action to take is necessitated as well.

Robert Kane defines a choice as the “formation of an intention or purpose to do something.” (Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, 142.) Aquinas affirmed along these lines when he posited the intellect presents the will with an object and that the intellect draws contingent conclusions. So, rightfully, there will be natural recoil from the Classical Theist or anyone adhering to a very strong DDS to the notion that choices are necessitated, but this is one of the entailments that the modal collapse demonstrates. It is important to remember, there is a difference between what a view asserts and what it entails. If choice is necessitated there is a causal restraint on agents and no libertarian free will exists.

Kane defines “free will” as:

“. . .the power to be the ultimate creator and sustainer of one’s own ends or purposes. We ‘create purposes’ by making choices or decisions, which are the formations of intentions (‘purposes’ being the contents of intentions).” (Robert Kane, Rethinking Free Will: New Perspectives on an Ancient Problem in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2nd ed., 383)

If one is not free to reason and cannot come to contingent conclusions then rationality itself is undermined. When we develop an argument premise by premise or deliberate on some other decision we feel that it is genuinely “up to us” what we choose and what actions or inactions we take or don’t take. Aristotle said, “when acting is ‘up to us,’ so is not acting.” (1915, 1113b6) This up to us-ness seems to indicate that we are the origins of our choices and actions. So, if this argument holds, then it demonstrates that DDS serves as an undercutting defeater to all our beliefs, even the belief that DDS is coherent and true. I think it is a very good thing there are many reasons to believe DDS isn’t coherent or true, if it were, we couldn’t rationally present an argument for it.

We now turn our attention to another argument demonstrating the impossibility of libertarian free will and determinism/necessity. Peter van Inwagen offered the consequence argument to demonstrate the impossibility of determinism and the ability to do otherwise. In this modified version I’m offering “God” as a replacement to “laws of nature.”

1- There is nothing we can now do to change the past.
2- There is nothing we can now do to change God.
3- There is nothing we can now do to change the past and God.

But if determinism is true, then

Our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and God. (Or, equivalently, it is necessary that, given the past and God, our present actions occur.)

So, if determinism is true, it seems that

  • There is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions are the necessary consequences of the past and God.
  • There is nothing we can now do to change the fact that our present actions occur.

No one to my knowledge has challenged the logical validity of the consequence argument. While reflecting on this argument Robert Kane remarks,

“Since this argument can be applied to any agents and actions at any time, we can infer from it that if determinism is true, no one can ever do otherwise; and if free will requires the ability to do otherwise, then no one has free will.” (Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 24)

The consequence argument assumes two rules (Alpha and Beta) which are in need of consideration.

Rule Alpha. There is nothing anyone can do to change what must be the case (or what is necessarily so).

Rule Beta. If there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and nothing anyone can do to change the fact that Y is a necessary consequence of X, then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y either.

Rule Alpha gets the above argument from premise 4 to 5. This rule is very powerful for the reason no one can change what is necessarily so. If one could change what is necessarily so, it would not be necessary at all, instead it would be contingent. Rule Alpha is undeniable to any genuine seeker of truth.

Rule Beta has been dubbed the “Transfer of Powerlessness Principle” for the reason that if one is powerless to change X, and if Y necessarily follows if X occurs, then one is powerless to change Y as well. (ibid., 25) This rule gets us to the conclusion (6) which is inferred from (3) and (5). Rule Beta is likened to premise 3 of the argument I provided above.

If Rule Alpha and Beta both are undeniable, then the consequence argument would seem to be undeniable as well. Necessity/determinism rules out libertarian free will.

Given the arguments presented above, it should be clear that if DDS entails the absolute necessity of this world, then there is no room for libertarian free will. But, what else might it entail? As I have argued elsewhere, it seems to me that if one isn’t free with regard to their choices or is determined to one path, then moral responsibility goes out the window. Also, if the created universe is absolutely necessary, then it is coextensive with God which threatens the doctrine of God’s a se existence (God’s aseity).

In my article on semi-compatibilism I discussed the Principle of Deontic consistency (OA→¬ O¬A) which says that an action cannot be obligatory and yet forbidden. If DDS entails a modal collapse as I and many others posit, then it seems DDS would violate this principle; God gives many commands in Scripture and holds individuals accountable for infractions, but if the modal collapse is valid, then DDS entails that God punishes individuals for something they ought to have done, but couldn’t. This clearly is against God’s omnibenevolent nature.

I’ve given several arguments that demonstrate that DDS seems to entail a modal collapse (everything becomes necessary) and if it does that there are serious problems with this doctrine. It destroys divine freedom, human freedom, rationality, it runs smack in the face of morality, justice, and undermines God’s aseity. It is clear to see there are a good many reasons to reject DDS.


About the Author

Shannon Eugene Byrd grew up in Liberty South Carolina. At the age of 19 he joined the Air Force and entered basic military training one week after the September 11th attacks on the Twin towers. Since graduating tech school, he has worked as an Aircraft technician. In 2012 he graduated Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelors of Science in Technical Management. Around his last year at Embry-Riddle Shannon began feel called to study the Bible and Theology in depth. He enrolled at SouthWestern Assembly of God University (SAGU) and graduated in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Upon graduating Shannon began studying more rigorously than before. He often quibbles “if there is one thing I learned in universities, it’s how to do research.” Shannon enjoys teaching theology at his local church and defending his faith from internet atheists using precise reasoning. His main vocation with FreeThinking Ministries is research and either writing or contributing to articles.

 

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About the Author

By Shannon Eugene Byrd