Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Plantinga's "Does God Have a Nature?"

Well, dear readers, I just finished reading the book in the title line. I read it as part of my preliminary dissertation research as it deals with similar issues. I must say, I was a bit disappointed. He is a big name and all that. But it was a little book. Basically, I think the book suffered from two deficiencies. First, that he did not give his own determinatio but instead rejected the views of "classical theism" (simplicity...I bet our energetic easterners are right on board with him here, and perhaps through much of this little volume), nominalism, and the views of Descartes. Now, it was one of the Marquette Aquinas lectures so perhaps he had no space, and was contenting himself with an apophatic method. He said in the beginning that his view was that God had a nature, but was not identical to it.

My second complaint, and I think an actually philosophical one, is that he did not distinguish between divine simplicity and divine unity. Catholics are bound to hold divine simplicity by conciliar decree (i'm assuming this one...I can't name the council off hand); But Christians, Jews, and Muslims all are bound by the Shema, "Hear o Israel, the Lord your God is One". So God is one, but not simple. So what then is the distinction between simplicity and unity. Are God and his nature distinguised as res and res, as the scholastics would say? He rejected divine simplicity by giving a heavy-handed description of Aquinas' views on the subject from the Summa, that God isn't composed of substance and accident or potency and act, etc., and analyzed the view that God and his essence, properties and whatnot are all one without mentioning at all the famous (and confusing) dicta of St. Thomas that they are one but with some distinction founded in reality. Fine. But if we grant his refutation of Thomas, the question still remains: If God is not identical to his nature, how are they distinguished?

A further, minor complaint: In his description of Aquinas' views, he gave only a few brief quotes of his arguments. But Descartes got page and after page of quotation, and to top it off, they weren't arguments at all, only assertions Descartes made while writing letters that the truth of eternal truths is contingent on an act of divine will. Furthermore, he assumed that Descartes also rejected divine simplicity, and without any quotation to back it up. Yet Descartes was Catholic, and probably bound by the same councils as the rest of us Catholics who care about such things. I don't recall ever seeing Descartes talk about divine simplicity, but I have seen him go out of his way to detail how his philosophy can be applied to the Eucharistic mystery without heresy, so he clearly was concerned with keeping his views within Catholic orthodoxy. But perhaps someone will just say that was because he feared persecution; I suppose the only way to disprove that is ask Descartes himself in the beatific vision. No good.

All in all, an interesting and stimulating read. I'll probably read it again in the near future, just to make sure I followed all of it.


Michael said...

I haven't read any Platinga. He's one of those "big names" in the philosophy of religion world, which is not exactly coextensive with our field. I admit I make no effort to keep up with secondary or contemporary literature in any academic discipline not directly bearing on my work, because it's just so irritating so much of the time to read second-rate minds dissecting first-rate ones. Instead I just go and read something else of interest, Like Churchill or Icelandic sagas or something. Not that I want to cast any aspersions on Plantinga himself, of course. I should probably read him sometime, so I know what's in everyone else's head.

Anonymous said...

"Our energetic easterners are right on board with him here, and perhaps through much of this little volume."

That would be correct. Plantinga's work is one of the first reads that "kick started" me out of the Augustinian tradition and the search for something else.


Brandon said...

Furthermore, he assumed that Descartes also rejected divine simplicity, and without any quotation to back it up.

Does he really do this? I must have missed that when I originally read it. Descartes, an unusually strong affirmation of divine simplicity: he seems to reject even distinctions of reason. (I'm not sure how it could be missed given that divine simplicity is one of Descartes's reasons for holding that even eternal truths are created by God: there is no distinction, beyond the purely verbal distinction of the words, between divine will and divine intellect.)

Lee Faber said...

I went back and could find no explicit reference to Descartes' position on divine simplicity. What I did find was the following, where Plantinga dialectically presents Descartes position as an alternative to divine simplicity and nominalism.

p. 125: "In a way, Descartes' position hasmore to be said for it than either nominalism or the view that God is imple. Descartes recognizes that the real issue with respect to God's sovereignty and aseity is control-what is or isn't within God's power. He holds that there are jpropositions, porperteis and all the rest of the Platonic swarn. He clearly sees, however, that what counts so far athese things and God's sovereignty is concerned, is the question whether or not they are within his control. [...] Failing to see the centrality of control, both the nominalist and the partisan of divine simplicity misdiagnose the situation. Descartes sees the situation clearly..."

Michael said...

Personally I don't believe that God is imple.

Man, you'd be a terrible scriptorium-monkey, faber. All your copies would come out looking like--well, like the stuff we read.

Anyway, everything in that paragraph sounded foolish to me.

Michael said...

Spelling aside, I mean.

Acolyte4236 said...

Actually, I think Plantinga is wrong about simplicity. His arguments against it to the effect that it makes God a property are bad ones. When you catch up on the literature you'll see why. Try Hughes, On a Complex Theory of a Simple God, or Leftow's, Is God a Property, along with Wolterstorff's article on different conceptions of properties.

Anonymous said...

It strikes me that much of these neo-theologians really don't understand what it is to be INFINITE. Not only that but God's 'energies' are just the divisions of his act as understood in the multiplicity of effects, but never in the Essence. So, God's 'energies' is just another mode of understanding the divine providence.

Furthermore, does not Descartes merely place the Eternal Truth of God's Divine Essence prior to any specific universal essence? I see nothing amazing in this.

Quite simply, in an INFINITE principle there can be no distinction except that of essence. So, either God is One (which is to say ABSOLUTE and SIMPLE) or he is not Infinite. It thus appears that any rejection of divine simplicity is either ignorant/fallacious or heretical. Likewise, the intellectual belligerence of some contemporary Easterners is largely a phenomenon of late modernity, dating back to the late 19th century Russian movements. No real hesychast would reject divine simplicity per se, but only some mode of formulation.

The anti-'Augustinianism' of some Easterners, particularly Russians, is superficial rhetoric.

Michael Sullivan said...

I agree with you, anonymous.