An Evaluation of Thomistic Metaphysics – Part 1 – Intro

By | February 14, 2017

This post begins a series on Thomistic Metaphysics. In this introductory post I explain my motivations in undertaking this series.

(1) Better understanding

I went to graduate school at Fordham University. It’s run by the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic monastic order. And since Thomas Aquinas is in many respects “The Philosopher” of the Roman Catholic church, I was frequently exposed to various aspects of Aquinas’s thought throughout graduate school, both in formal classroom discussions and in informal settings outside of class. That doesn’t make me an expert on Aquinas—far from it. I have thought hard about certain aspects of Aquinas’s thought, particularly his doctrine of God, but I wish to come to a deeper understanding of Thomistic metaphysics more generally.

(2) Critique

My desire to better understand Thomistic metaphysics is driven in large part by my desire to critique it. Now that may sound disingenous from the outset, but I don’t think it is. Any system of thought may be evaluated by its implications. If it has implications that seem to a person to be clearly false, then that is sufficient reason for that person to think that something has gone wrong at the heart of the system. And I have carefully considered reasons for thinking that something is fundamentally wrong at the heart of Thomistic metaphysics because the system seems to me to have clearly untenable consequences for our understanding of God and creation.

While I’m starting from a point that presumes that there are some fundamental problems with Thomism, I don’t want to exaggerate those problems more than necessary. Aquinas was a very smart guy and had a lot of keen insights. One shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. My study of Thomistic metaphysics is aimed to help me pinpoint precisely where Aquinas goes wrong. To the extent that those errors can be isolated from the rest of his system, then a great deal of what remains may be salvageable and useful.

I begin with ideas about where some of the fundamental problems lie. In particular, Aquinas’s notion that God that is “pure Act” and “subsistent Being itself” entails that God is not only absolutely simple such that God’s essence is identical to God’s existence, but also absolutely immutable (cannot change in any respect) and utterly impassible (cannot be affected by anything). Each of these doctrines is, I believe, untenable and disastrous for Christian theology.

Divine simplicity entails that everything intrinsic to God is identical to God and essential to God. This seems to lead to one or the other of two problematic outcomes: either (1) complete divine indifference to creation, or (2) modal collapse. We set up the dilemma by asking whether information about the particular details of creation—the fact that it contains at this moment these particular beings of these particular sorts in these particular arrangements—is intrinsic to God. Suppose, on the other hand, that this information is intrinsic to God (e.g., by virtue of God’s knowing or willing these things). If God’s being (which by hypothesis includes this information) is identical with His essence, then it follows that all of these details of creation are essential to God. And since God’s essence is metaphysically necessary (as Being Itself, God cannot not exist), it follows that all of these details of creation are also metaphysically necessary and that metaphysical contingency therefore collapses into metaphysical necessity. This is both deeply counterintuitive and fatalistic in the strongest sense, for not only are creatures not free to do otherwise than they actually do, but God isn’t free to do anything differently either. Now suppose, on the other hand, that information about the particular details of creation is not intrinsic to God. If so, then God would remain intrinsically exactly as God is—would have exactly the same knowledge and will—even if all of these particular details of creation were completely different. Which is to say, God would be completely indifferent to creation, just like Aristotle’s self-absorbed God of “Thought thinking Itself.” How such a God could truly “love the world” (John 3:16) is hard to fathom.

Likewise, absolute immutability and utter impassibility seem to entail that God cannot be responsive to creation in the sense that nothing you or I or any creature can do can make any difference to God. According to Aquinas, relations of causal dependency can only run from God to creation, and never the other way around. This is sometimes expressed by saying that God is “really” related to creation, but that creation is not “really” related to God. But shouldn’t it make a difference in some way to God whether we live righteously or unrighteously, especially if God truly desires that we live righteously (Micah 6:8)? Shouldn’t my acting in one way (righteously) evoke a different sort of response in God than my acting in a different way (unrighteously), even if it’s merely a matter of God’s noticing the difference (Malachi 3:18)? Moveover, it is very unclear how an utterly impassible and immutable God can become a Creator much less become Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and suffer on the cross for our sins. In creation there seems to be a real change from a state in which God and God alone exists and a state in which God-and-creation exists. Surely it makes a difference to God whether creation is there or not unless God is, again, completely indifferent to creation. Likewise, in the Incarnation, there seems to be a real change in God the Son from a pre-incarnate state to a post-incarnate state. Surely it makes some sort of a difference to the Son whether He’s incarnate or not (what sort of difference I won’t here speculate).

(3) Keeping Myself Honest

But it won’t be fair to Aquinas if I engage in cheap shots or misrepresentations, so to help keep myself honest, while keeping this series manageable in length, I will enlist the aid of contemporary philosopher and Thomist, Edward Feser. Feser writes very clearly, and his 2014 book Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction is a serious attempt to explain the foundations of Thomistic thought in a way that other philosophers, particularly analytic philosophers such as myself, can appreciate. In the book he makes a concerted effort to defend key Thomistic assumptions that I strongly suspect will have to be rejected if we are to avoid the untenable consequences I noted above.

In my next post I will begin where Feser does, with the act–potency distinction.

19 thoughts on “An Evaluation of Thomistic Metaphysics – Part 1 – Intro

  1. chris m

    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 to 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 exist in God.

    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.

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Hi Chris,

      Good to hear from you, and thanks for the input. We agree regarding Matthews Grant’s view that the specific contents of God’s knowledge and will are *extrinsic* to God. I expect to say more about his proposal later on, but to my mind it amounts effectively to a *denial* of divine omniscience as well as any robust understanding of divine providence.

      As for your suggested response to the modal collapse problem, I think it creates more problems than it allegedly solves. If God’s will is open to further determination (e.g., regarding whether to create or not), then (1) it introduces an act-potency distinction in God, since God would, at least initially, have been in potency with respect to the further determinations of his will. Hence, God cannot be essentially Pure Act. (2) If some of the determinations of God’s will are contingent, then they are not essential to God. And if these determinations are intrinsic to God (pace Matthews Grant), then God’s being is not identical to God’s essence. So divine simplicity has to go. (3) An intrinsic determination of God’s will from potentially willing X (e.g., creating) to actually willing X would be a *change* in God. Hence, divine immutability would also have to go. (4) The modal terms “necessary” and “contingent” are universally *defined* as contraries, such that nothing can be both necessary and contingent in the same respects. The example you give from human free will is not a counterexample to this as the respects aren’t the same.

      In sum, I think this way of responding to the modal collapse argument introduces intolerable inconsistencies into Aquinas’s system. Frankly, I don’t think there is *any* satisfactory answer to the modal collapse problem. I give kudos to Matthews Grant for taking the problem seriously. His proposal is, I think, the best that Thomists can do, even though I think it ultimately collapses into the other horn of the dilemma (divine indifference).

      God bless,


      1. chris m

        Alan, thanks for the reply. Let me look at your critiques one by one.

        1) this seems to beg the question. It doesn’t follow from the fact that God just is essentially a species of free act that he temporally moves from point a to b in some sort of decision making process (God was not ever “initially” in such and such a state). At any rate I don’t see how your point 1 follows from what I’ve said.

        2) Why does it follow that if God’s determination is contingent it is not essential to God? Again, if God essentially just IS a species of free act, his action is essentially both necessary and contingent, not one or the other. Also, you say “determinations.” What I am suggesting is that God’s single act or determination is just a timeless species of free action that is essentially both necessary and contingent.

        3) God wills this act timelessly, so I don’t think 3 follows.

        4) I don”t think the terms are being used in exactly the same respects. As I said, necessary would be describing how God willed his own goodness as an end, and contingent would be describing how God willed things to be ordained to or used as a means for that end.

        What I am suggesting is that, no matter how you conceive of God, even if you conceive of him as alone and having no actual relation to a created universe, it would still be true that he was a species of pure free act, which is both necessary and contingent, insofar as it would be necessarily true that he existed but contingently true that he existed alone. Thus it is not necessary for a world to even exist in order for God to timelessly and freely contingently act how he acts.

        Thanks for the engagement my friend.

        1. Alan Rhoda Post author

          Hi Chris,

          I appreciate your response. I don’t think I beg any questions, but I do concede that my reasoning could have been laid out more carefully. Since I don’t have a lot of time right now, and since I’m expecting to pick these issues up again in short order, I’ll keep this reply as brief as possible.

          My points (1) and (3) are closely connected. The basic underlying idea is that *choices* essentially consist of a *change* in the chooser from a not-having-yet-decided state of contemplating one’s options to a having-decided state of intending one of the options to the exclusion of the rest. This change is *in* the chooser because it has to do with the chooser’s intentional states. So, if God makes choices, of any sort, free or otherwise, then God changes at least to that extent. On Aristotelian and Thomistic principles, however, change requires that there have been a potency in the thing that changed, which potency was then actualized. So if God makes choices, then God is not essentially Pure Act. Now, you might counter that God *wills* creation timelessly. That’s exactly what a good Thomist should say. A Thomist should not, however, construe this willing as any sort of a choice on God’s part. If we’re clear on that, then I concede that you have a way around (1) and (3).

          So let’s grant that God timelessly wills *thusly* concerning creation, where “thusly” includes all of the specific details of creation. This brings us to my point (2). Is God’s willing in that manner metaphysically contingent or necessary? If necessary then given the essential efficacy of God’s creative will, it follows that all of the details of creation are also necessary, which leads to modal collapse. Since we’re agreed that we don’t want that, let’s say that God’s willing in that manner is contingent, and therefore not essential to God. Divine simplicity, however, says, among other things, that God, which must here mean God-as-willing-thusly, is *identical* to God’s essence. But this is impossible because the two have incompatible modal properties: God’s essence is necessary, but God-as-willing-thusly is contingent.


          1. chris m

            Thanks for the reply Alan. I’ll keep my comment brief and leave this thread alone (you can have the last word if you like). And I’ll look forward to where you’re going with this topic – I’m very interested in it!

            In short – Cajetan’s view would deny that contingent and necessary are mutually exclusive predicates when applied to God’s will. So, when you try to pin me on one horn of the dilemma (is God’s timeless willing *thusly* contingent or necessary) I would deny that it has to be one or the other. It seems to me it could be both contingent and necessary, in the way I described above.


          2. Alan Rhoda Post author

            Hi Chris, I really don’t know much at all about Cajetan, so what you say is very interesting. But if that’s his view then in my opinion it “solves” the problem for divine simplicity at the cost of incoherence. I think that’s too high a price to pay.

            God bless.

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  3. John Farrell

    Looking forward to this series. BTW, I love Ed Feser’s books, but should you not also be considering Eleonore Stump’s scholarship on Aquinas?

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Hi John,

      Well, there’s an awful lot of scholarship on Aquinas worth considering! But my time is limited, and Feser’s book provides an especially good foil for me because (1) he writes very clearly, and (2) he specifically defends Aquinas on some issues where I’m inclined to think that Aquinas got it wrong.

      Thanks for your interest.


    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      Hi Kiel,

      Thanks for the link. Koons’ paper looks very interesting. While I don’t have time right now to read his paper closely, I very much like and endorse Koons’ idea that God’s nature is *essentially* and *intrinsically* relational. I’m not sure if that’s enough to reconcile the Trinity with DDS, but the strategy is straightforward enough—just show that whatever sort of complexity is entailed by the Trinity isn’t among the sorts of complexity that are denied by DDS. Whatever the merits of Koons’ case, though, it doesn’t help address my primary objections to DDS, which have to do with modal collapse, creaturely contingency, and divine indifference to the latter.


  4. Tom

    I guess Feser is as safe a standard of Thomism as there is. I suppose he’d be Neo-Scholastic, no? I ask because I know there can be deep differences of opinion regarding metaphysics even among Thomists (Existential, Transcendental, Neo-Scholastic). I read some Thomists and don’t find myself interested at all. But others (Norris Clark, for example) can be inspiring and inviting.

    1. Alan Rhoda Post author

      I agree, Tom. There are a few different camps within Thomism, and they don’t always like each other. My sense is that Feser hews to a fairly conservative or standard interpretation of Thomism, kind of like, say, Etienne Gilson. What I most like about Feser’s book is that he takes non-Thomistic analytic metaphysics seriously in his aim to “sell” Thomism to that crowd.

      I got to know Fr. Clarke while I was at Fordham. Really nice and interesting guy. One of the things I liked about him was that he didn’t, like some other Thomists I met at Fordham, take Thomism to be obviously correct in its fundamentals to the point that it didn’t need any real defense, just application. Fr. Clarke in particular took the criticisms of process theologians very seriously and in response proposed refinements to Thomism to make it more relational.

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