Simplicity and beyond

It is at least plausible that if something has parts, then it makes sense to ask why these parts are united. If so, then the existence of a being with parts cannot be self-explanatory. The same is true of what one might call "metaphysical parts," like distinct powers, tropes, and so on. If we suppose that the First Cause's existence is self-explanatory, rather than explained in terms of some further metaphysical principles, then we might well conclude that there cannot be any composition in the First Cause. Taking this seriously leads to the well-known difficulties concerning divine simplicity (see Pruss 2008; Brower, 2008), but might also make possible Aquinas' solution to the Gap Problem as given in the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae. (Note that this approach requires that we got to the First Cause through a PSR strong enough to allow us to ask for an explanation of the First Cause's existence and of the composition of any elements in the First Cause.)

Such a Thomistic approach would start by noting that a strong doctrine of divine simplicity entails that there is no potentiality in the First Cause. Potentiality entails the possession of modally accidental intrinsic properties, that is, intrinsic properties that one might not have. But if the First Cause had any modally accidental intrinsic properties, then there would be the aspects of the First Cause that make true its having its particular contingent intrinsic properties and the aspects of the First Cause that make true its having its essential properties, and these aspects would have to be different because of the modal difference here. However, such a distinction would be contrary to a sufficiently strong doctrine of divine simplicity.

Moreover, Aquinas argues that one of the forms of simplicity that the First Cause has is a lack of a distinction between it, its essence and its existence, which is that by which it exists. This assures a kind of aseity: whereas our existence is at least dependent on our essence and conversely, in God there is no such dependency.

From lack of potentiality, Aquinas derives perfection in the sense of completeness. If there were something lacking in the First Cause, then the First Cause would have a potentiality for filling in that lack. But this is perhaps a kind of perfection that only metaphysicians will get excited about. If there were a particle that always had exactly the same intrinsic properties, and could have no others, it would count as perfect in this sense.

Aquinas' next step is to argue that "the perfections of all things" are found in God (Aquinas, forthcoming, I.4.2). Here we start to get something that the ordinary believer cares about. Aquinas offers two arguments. One of them depends on Aquinas' ontological system. Aquinas thinks each thing has existence, which gives it reality, and an essence that delimits the existence by specifying the kinds of reality that the object has. Thus, our essence specifies that we exist in respect of an ability to think and choose, as well as in respect of various physical abilities. In the First Cause, by divine simplicity, there is no essence distinct from existence to limit that existence, and so existence is found in an unlimited way: every "perfection of being" is found in the First Cause. Note that this argument not only yields the claim that the perfection of every actual being is found in the First Cause but also that the perfection of every possible being is found there. A full evaluation of this argument would require an evaluation of Thomistic ontology, and that is beyond the scope of this essay.

Aquinas' other argument relies on the scholastic axiom that:

the same perfection that is found in an effect must be found in the cause, either (a) according to the same nature, as when a man generates a man, or (b) in a more eminent mode. . . .

(Aquinas, forthcoming I.4.2)

This axiom is a staple of classic discussions of the existence of God, reappearing in Descartes' argument from our idea of God, and used by Samuel Clarke for the same purpose as in Aquinas. The idea is that a cause cannot produce something with a completely new kind of positive feature. A cause can produce combinations of positive features it has, as well as derivative forms of these. This would be a good axiom for cosmological arguers. But is it true?

Emergentist theories of mind are predicated precisely on a rejection of this axiom, but it will not do to use them as counterexamples to the axiom, since emergentism is controversial precisely because it allows for nonphysical properties to arise from physical ones in contravention of our axiom. One might try to find a counterexample to the axiom in evolutionary theory: beings that fly, see, think, walk, produce webs, and so on all come from unicellular beings that can do none of these things. But here we should separate out the mental and the physical properties. It might be argued that there is no qualitative difference between flying, walking, and making webs, on the one hand, and doing the kinds of things that unicellular organisms do, on the other. Indeed, perhaps, we can argue that biology shows that these behaviors just are a matter of lots of unicellular organisms going through their individual behavioral repertoire, since higher organisms are composed of cells. On the other hand, whether mental properties can arise from things without them is controversial, and some accounts on which they can do so manage this feat simply by supposing that mental properties reduce to physical ones. Accounts that do not allow such reduction make the arising mysterious, and our being mystified here is a testimony to the plausibility of the axiom.

A different kind of objection to the axiom is an ad hominem one: the axiom is incompatible with theism because the peculiar perfections of material objects can only be found in material objects. Thus, the cause of material objects, God, must either lack some of the perfections of material objects, in which case the axiom is false, or else God is material, contrary to theistic orthodoxy. However, the axiom as Aquinas understands it allows that a more eminent version of a perfection could be found in the cause than in the effect. It could be that omnipresence is helpful here. Thus, God's omnipresence could be a more eminent version both of perfections of shape and movement. Thus, the earth is spherical, and God is not spherical (pace Xenophanes), but God by his omnipresence is also everywhere where the earth is, and so he has a more eminent version of sphericity. The cheetah certainly can run fast, whereas God cannot run, but God is always already where the cheetah's run ends, while also being at the starting line.

Unfortunately, these are only defensive maneuvers. It may be that the axiom is self-evident, but simply asserting its self-evidence will not help those who do not see it as such. And there has been very, very little attempt in contemporary philosophy to give a good argument for the axiom. Historically, Samuel Clarke (1823) had tried. His argument was that if a perfection comes from something that does not have it, then the perfection comes from nothing, and it is absurd for something to come from nothing. But that argument misunderstands what opponents of the axiom think: they do not, presumably, think that the perfection comes from nothing, but from something different in kind from itself.

If we do accept this argument for the First Cause's having all the perfections of created things, we can proceed to argue further as follows. The First Cause either is or is not the First Cause in every nonempty possible world. If it is the First Cause in every possible world, and these arguments are sound and work in all possible worlds, then in every world, it is true that the First Cause has all the perfections of the things in that world. Assuming perfections are intrinsic properties, it follows that what perfections the First Cause has cannot differ between worlds, since there is no contingency in the First Cause, by simplicity. Therefore, any perfection the First Cause has in one world, it has in all worlds. Consequently, the First Cause not only has all the perfections of the things that exist in our world but also all the perfections of the things that exist in any possible world.

Can different worlds have different First Causes? One way to settle this is stipulatively. Just let the First Cause be the aggregate of all the necessary beings. Any First Cause is a necessary being, and now our First Cause is indeed the First Cause of every world, and hence has all the perfections of things that exist in any possible world.

This seems to imply that the First Cause of the Leibnizian cosmological argument is the same being who is found in the conclusion of ontological arguments for a being with all perfections. In particular, if we allow that personhood is a perfection, it follows that the First Cause either is a person, or has some quality that is even greater than personhood.

At the same time, the aggregation move that we had made raises the possibility that the First Cause is a polytheistic committee, having all perfections collectively but with no one deity having them all individually. If Aquinas is right that in any First Cause there must be identity between the thing and its existence, and that having all perfections follows from this identity, then the worry does not arise. If this is not a satisfactory solution, we may need to employ some other argument for the unity of the First Cause, such as that if there were multiple necessary beings, we would not expect to see a nomically unified world (Aquinas, forthcoming, I.11.3).

From being perfect and having all perfections of things, of course, the sailing is fairly smooth, just as it is after one has come to the conclusion of an ontological argument. Aquinas, thus, proceeds to goodness, infinity, omnipresence, immutability, eternity, unity, knowability, omniscience, and omnipotence.

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