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.
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.