Material Constitution and the Trinity

Jeffrey E. Brower and Michael C. Rea

As is well known, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity poses a serious philosophical problem. On the one hand, it affirms that there are three distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—each of whom is God. On the other hand, it says that there is one and only one God. The doctrine therefore pulls us in two directions at once—in the direction of saying that there is exactly one divine being and in the direction of saying that there is more than one.

There is another well-known philosophical problem that presents us with the same sort of tension: the problem of material constitution. This problem arises whenever it appears that an object a and an object b share all of the same parts and yet have different modal properties.1 To take just one of the many well-worn examples in the literature: Consider a bronze statue of the Greek goddess, Athena, and the lump of bronze that constitutes it. On the one hand, it would appear that we must recognize at least two material objects in the region occupied by the statue. For presumably the statue cannot survive the process of being melted down and recast whereas the lump ofbronze can. On the other hand, our ordinary counting practices lead us to recognize only one material object in the region. As Harold Noonan aptly puts it, counting two material objects in such a region seems to "manifest a bad case of double vision''.2 Here, then, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, we are pulled in two directions at once.

Admittedly, the analogy between the two problems is far from perfect. But we mention it because, as we shall argue below, it turns out that a relatively neglected response to the problem of material constitution can be developed into a novel solution to the problem of the Trinity. In our view, this new solution is more promising than the other solutions available in the contemporary literature. It is

* © Faith and Philosophy, vol. 22 (2005). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

1 For purposes here, an object x and an object y stand in the relation of material constitution just in case x and y share all of the same material parts. Thus, on our view, material constitution is both symmetric and transitive. Contrary to some philosophers (e.g., Lynne Baker, discussed below) who treat material constitution as asymmetric, we think that there are good theoretical reasons for regarding it as a symmetric relation; but we will not attempt to defend that view here.

2 Noonan 1988, 222.

independently plausible, it is motivated by considerations independent of the problem of the Trinity, and it is immune to objections that afflict the other solutions. The guiding intuition is the Aristotelian idea that it is possible for an object a and an object b to be "one in number''—that is, numerically the same— without being strictly identical.

We will begin in Section 1 by oflêring a precise statement of the problem of the Trinity. In Section 2, we will flesh out the Aristotelian notion of "numerical sameness without identity'', explain how it solves the problem of material constitution, and defend it against what we take to be the most obvious and important objections to it. Also in that section we will distinguish numerical sameness without identity from two superficially similar relations. Finally, in Sections 3 and 4, we will show how the Aristotelian solution to the problem of material constitution can be developed into a solution to the problem of the Trinity, and we will highlight some of the more interesting consequences of the solution we describe.3

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