Friday, April 29, 2016
I previously discussed some problems with the Thomistic metaphysical concept of act and potency. As expected, it resulted in lots of harsh commentary from the good folks at Feser's echo chamber. One thing that didn't happen is any kind of cogent rebuttal to the issues I raised. I am not arrogant enough to think that I am an expert on scholastic metaphysics, or to think that these issues haven't been raised before. But I can say with confidence that they haven't been answered in a way that is intellectually satisfying to a scientifically-minded skeptic. I raise these questions because in my opinion, they cast serious doubt on the whole enterprise, and all the explanations that have been offered are simply rationalizations. The Thomist must live with some cognitive dissonance when he tries to explain how his metaphysics exists in harmony with modern science.
My next area of criticism is the concept of divine simplicity. This is the notion that God is simple - that he is composed of no parts and has no complexity. He is identical to his properties: simplicity, perfection, goodness, infinity, ubiquity, immutability, eternity, and unity. God's is said to be unknowable except by analogy. His intellect is utterly unlike the intellect of man. And so we have some problems that demand an explanation.
Of course, we have all heard that the doctrine of the trinity is incompatible with divine simplicity. How can God manifest himself in these different ways and still be simple? The standard answer to this question is that the three persons of the trinity are not "parts" of God. They are a unity in three persons, distinguished by their relationships with each other. Well, that settles it, then. We just play a little game of word salad, and pretend that we have made a cogent response to the question. But don't relationships define the manner in which two or more things are connected? If you claim that the parts of the trinity are all one and the same, then how can they have a relationship with each other? It sounds a bit like the creepy kid who has trouble with girls, but has a very nice relationship with himself. At any rate, despite the supposed answers to this question, I remain unconvinced that the concepts of trinity and simplicity are mutually coherent.
And there is the issue of God's intellect. Aquinas recognized that God can't think in the manner that humans do, because that entails a process, which entails change. The human intellect is complex. God's is simple. That in itself is enough to give one pause. When we say that a person is simple in intellect, we usually mean that he doesn't understand, or that he doesn't think with the depth of complexity that most people do. So can we say the same thing about God? Here's where the word salad must once again come into play. God's intellect is said to be incomprehensible to us humans. And so we are expected to accept that, and understand that God's intellect, which is simple, is yet superior to the most complex human intellect.
Well, maybe, but there are still some questions. Isn't God rather like a human? Don't we say that he is a person? He is loving, and he has will. Those are things that we can comprehend, because they are human-like. Love is an emotion, and like all emotions, it is caused by chemical changes in the body. But that can't apply to God, because it would be incoherent with our conception of God's nature. Our will is a manifestation of our needs and desires. But God can't have any needs or desires, because he is perfectly complete. So how can he have will?
Doesn't the bible tell us that man is made in the image of God? We generally take that to mean that our intellect is God-like. We have an intellect that distinguishes us from all other animals, and it is a reflection of God's intellect. We say that God is the author of our logic and morality. But the Thomistic notion of divine simplicity is a denial of that. God's intellect can be nothing like ours. God can't employ a logical process. He can't think in a human-like manner. If I were a Thomist, I should be quite confused by these incompatible notions of the nature of God. As it is, I'm able to look at it dispassionately and realize that it is just incoherent.