Sunday, December 25, 2011

The incarnation and adverbial ontology

Christ is God and Christ is a human. God is unchanging and humans are changing. God is omnipresent and humans are spatiotemporally delimited. God is all powerful and the power of humans is limited. All praise be to Christ on this Christmas day!

Yet such theological claims appear to lead to contradiction: is Christ unchanging or change? is he limited or unlimited? Since we have excellent reason to think the claims are all true, we have excellent reason to think the claims are not contradictory. A traditional way to resolve the apparent contradiction is to introduce a qua or as qualifier:

  1. Christ is unchanging, omnipresent and omnipotent as God, but as human he changes, and is limited in presence and power.
Such answers do work logically speaking, but it would be good to have a little bit more to say about what the "as" does.

I want to suggest something that may not be original[note 1] but that I found enlightening. Start with the observation that there is no contradiction at all in this sentence:

  1. Sam is quick as a reader and slow as a runner.
And there is an obvious and easy way to understand (2) that removes all appearance of contradiction:
  1. Sam reads quickly and runs slowly.
No contradiction results from contradictory adverbs being attached to different predicates. From Sam reading quickly we can deduce that Sam does something quickly, but that does not contradict his doing something else slowly.

Now we can make the same move in regard to (1). We will need two base predicates which are then adverbially modified. The ones that come to mind are "is God" and "is human". Then (1) becomes:

  1. Christ is God unchangingly, omnipresently and omnipotently, but he is human changingly and limitedly in presence and power.

So far that's just words. But now make it into ontology. The ontology takes a cue from Spinoza's nesting of modes. (Other philosophers have nested modes, but I think it is only in Spinoza that the nesting is really central.) When Sam reads quickly, there is Sam, who reads, and Sam's reading, which is quick. If Sam reads excessively quickly, there is Sam, who reads, and Sam's reading, which is quick, and the quickness of Sam's reading, which is excessive. All of these, other than Sam himself, are modes (Spinoza wrongly thinks Sam is a mode, too). We can now talk of a mode being directly or indirectly a mode of something. Thus, the quickness of Sam's reading is directly a mode of Sam's reading and indirectly a mode of Sam. The excessiveness of Sam's quickness of reading is directly a mode of Sam's quickness of reading and indirectly a mode of Sam's reading as well as of Sam.

Next theorize that a mode m is an essence of an individual x if and only if m is directly a mode of x. This could simply be a necessary "if and only if" or, more ambitiously, it could be an account of what it is to be an essence, essences being nothing but direct modes. Observe that this is a non-modal account of essence—here we are talking of essence in the ancient and medieval sense, not in the modern modal sense (such a distinction was pointed out by Fine, but the best account in print is by Michael Gorman).

Thus all our accidental modes are indirectly modes of us, through our essence. My present typing of this post is a mode of my humanity: I am human typingly. And Christ, unlike us, has (at least[note 2]) two essences: humanity and divinity. Thus any mode of his is one of his essences or is a mode of one of his essences. (Sometimes our words will be ambiguous. Thus when we say that "Christ is wise", that is ambiguous whether he is divine in a wise manner or is human in a wise manner or both.)

This account makes it plausible that analogy will be a central concept. Adverbs apply analogically across predicates. The "quickly" in "Sarah runs quickly" and "Sarah thinks quickly" is to be understood analogically. In general, I suspect cross-essence predications are to be understood analogically. That is a Thomistic aspect in the theory.

Another Aristotelian aspect is that we can make sense of "necessary accidents". Thus, Aristotle thinks it is an accident of a human that the human have a capacity for laughter, but he also thinks this is a necessary accident—every human necessarily has a capacity for laughter. It is insufficient for a mode to be an essence that the mode is necessary: it must be directly a mode of the individual. But just as it is indirectly a mode of me that I be laughing—I am human laughingly when I laugh (which differs from, say, being an alien or angel laughingly)—it indirectly but necessarily a mode of me that I have a capacity for laughter—I am a human with a capacity for laughter ("with..." is one of the many ways of indicating adverbial modifiers).

There is a serious theological difficulty. Does not the account contradict divine simplicity? After all, does not (4) posit a mode of God, namely divinity, and modes of a mode of God, namely omnipresence of divinity, omnipotence of divinity and unchangingness of divinity? Yes, but that only contradicts divine simplicity if these modes are all distinct. But they aren't distinct. Divinity, omnipresence of divinity and all the others are all just God. Thus God is his own mode in this technical vocabulary. But since predication of God is analogical, what this means it that God is related to himself in a way analogical to our relationship to our modes. (Compare: the person who loves herself is related to herself in a way analogical to the way someone who loves another is related to that other.) It's important not to take "mode" to mean "accident", but that was already something necessary from the fact that essences are modes.

Of course, this is not a complete account of divine simplicity yet. Something needs to be said about apparently contingent modes of God, such as creating Adam. (I think claims like "God creates Adam" should not be taken as predicating a mode of God. Why not, with the medievals, take the claim as predicating a mode of Adam? Or as predicating being creator of all contingent beings of God and contigency of Adam?)

This reconciliation with divine simplicity does, however, mean that I cannot simply define a substance as something that isn't a mode. For God on this reconciliation is a substance and a mode. (And that is Thomistic, too, though the vocabulary of "mode" is not. God is both substance and that substance's pure act.) We might define a substance as something that isn't a mode of anything else. Or we might say that x is a substance if and only if the proposition that x exists has a truthmaker which is x and has no other truthmaker.

Finally, I leave it as an exercise to the reader to extend my "metaphysically Aristotelian quantification" to this context. At the same time, some of my cross-level uses of "is" in this post will need some charitable analogical reading.


Sam Harper said...

It's very true what you say about me, that I am a fast reader but a slow runner. However, I only run slowly so I can run farther. I could run faster if I wanted to. I could read slower, too, but then I'd have to read less.

Rob K said...

Can this be extended to the Trinity? How do you secure the fact that it was the Second Person of the Trinity who assumed human nature, and not the First or Third?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think there is no special difficulty here. It is the Logos that has the mode of humanity but the Father does not.

But thinking about the Trinity, I think there is a problem with my thesis that all predication is either of essence or through an essence. But what about the predication "The Logos is the Logos"?

Do we want to say: "The Logos is God in the way proper to the Logos"? That sounds OK, but I am not sure it is right.

Marc Belcastro said...

Dr. Pruss:

I suspect I’m simply misunderstanding your thesis, but here are a couple of questions.

If mode m is an essence of x if and only if m is directly a mode of x, then it seems to follow that all indirect modes of God aren’t “components” of His essence. But how can direct and indirect modes of God fail to be distinct if direct modes are components of His essence and indirect modes aren’t? Another related question: if both direct and indirect modes of God just are God, then it appears that both direct and indirect modes are, necessarily, components of His essence. But isn’t this incompatible with a mode m’s being an essence of x if and only if m is directly a mode of x?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Make the definitions rigorous like this:
1. Mode C is indirectly a mode of A iff there is a mode B, distinct from A and C, such that C is a mode of B and B is a mode of A.
2. Mode C is directly a mode of A iff it is a mode of A and is not indirectly a mode of A.

Then the simplicity doctrine implies that all the modes of God that are modes of divinity are direct modes of God. Thus, if C is a mode of divinity, and divinity is a mode of God, then C is directly a mode of God, because C = divinity (and so divinity is a mode of itself).

Is this coherent? Verbally, yes. Metaphysically? I don't know.

Latenter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Latenter said...

So Christ, as man, is clearly not immutable or simple. Thus it seems that Divine Simplicity refers to the simplicity of the Divine Nature (or direct mode), not the Divine Person. Is that how you understand the "traditional way to resolve the apparent contradiction"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

A paper based on these ideas is forthcoming in the European Journal for the Philosophy of Religion.