Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Things God can't cause

It is widely held by Thomists that anything that a creature can cause can be caused directly by God without any creaturely involvement. Now suppose Sam thinks the following thought:

  1. All my thoughts are caused in part by me.

But if God directly causes thought (1) in Sam, then God will directly be causing Sam to think a falsehood (since it will be false that all of Sam’s thoughts are caused in part by Sam). This seems contrary to divine truthfulness.

In an earlier post, I suggest that the Thomist retreat to the principle that for anything a creature can cause, God can directly cause something qualitatively identical to it. But that won't help with this problem, since anything qualitatively identical to (1) but caused directly by God will be false.

I suppose the Thomist can make a similar move here to the one Thomas makes when he says that God can do evil in the sense that he has the power to do it, but not the will. So we would deny that it is possible for God to directly cause anything that a creature can (since God’s goodness rules out God’s causation of some such things), but affirm that he has the power to do so.


Michael said...


I think a dose of Nagarjuna puts some cold water on this idea.

Can powers be grounded in things that are not powers? Either answer to this doesn’t seem to be amenable to be applied to God. If God is primary and his causal powers are secondary, then this confronts ability to produce on his own. If not, then I would think God (and God’s will) must be identical to his power because of simplicity which undercuts this post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That God's will and God's power are identical does not entail that what God can will and what God has the power to do are identical. For instance, in humans the upper organ of inhalation and the organ of smell are identical--namely, the nose--but it is false that whatever we can inhale we can smell.

Michael said...

Honestly I am always confused when I hear responses like this.

To me it seems that the reason this can obtain is that the organ has non-identical subfaculties.

The more close analogy would be if the nose was identical to the power to smell, and the nose were identical to the power to breathe. By connecting these we also have the power to smell is identical to the power to breathe.

Given this, I don't think there would be a difference between smelling and breathing. Certainly not to a Thomist, since they would definitely be no difference in the substance or accident.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The analogy is, of course, imperfect.

But you don't want to say that because God's power is the same as God's knowledge, therefore everything that is in God's power is in God's knowledge. For then it would follow that because the existence of unicorns is in God's power, then the existence of unicorns is in God's knowledge. (In fact, God doesn't know that unicorns exist, since they don't.) Similarly, even though God's power is identical with God's will, there are things that God has power for that he doesn't will. Once again, unicorns provide an example.

And God's mercy is the same thing as God's justice. But suppose that God eternally punished all of us to the full extent we deserve, without any forgiveness. We would say that his punishment was an exercise of divine justice not that it was an exercise of divine mercy, even though the same divine virtue--God's perfect goodness, which is identical with God himself--makes it be true that God is just as makes it be true that God is merciful.

So one needs to be very careful with these identities. They don't mean that you can replace a term referring to one with a term referring to the other in any sentence. Rather, I think they mean that the ontological grounds are the same: the same thing--namely, the simple God--grounds God's knowing, God's power, God's willing, God's being just, God's being merciful, etc.

Michael said...
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Michael said...

You're right. I wouldn't want to say these things, but I don't see how I can get away without it.

What you're saying, correct me if I'm wrong, is that God grounds God's Divine attributes. But this puts God logically prior to His own attributes. If this is right, is there not a point in logical/metaphysical priority-space (since it can't be temporally prior) where God is without his Divine attributes?

This is sort of what I was getting at with saying God cannot be prior to his causal power, then that would leave him unable to produce his own causal power.

Michael said...

I think this is a problem in general. If things can be prior to their defining charasteristics being actual, lets say that a ball can be prior to is sphericity being actual, then I don't see how it is a ball in that point-in-priority. Similarly, I don't know how a ball's sphericity can be actualized before there being a ball.

The two things either need to be identified, or to be co-dependent.

Alexander R Pruss said...


These are tough questions.

God is God and he's simple. But we talk about him in manifold ways. So the question is what grounds the manifoldness of our *language* about God. And the simple God grounds that, making it true to say "God is merciful" and "God is just" and "God is powerful." It shouldn't be surprising if the truth of these statements is posterior to God, since these are statements in our human language, and our language is posterior to God.

I am not sure how satisfied I am with this answer.

Michael said...


I don't think this diffuses it, and seems especially destructive to the Thomist for the supervenience-on-being reason. I think I would like the Divine Attributes to be true prior to creatures, and at the very least prior to language. I think there's three ways out for the Theist-in-general, but its a destructive trilemma for the Thomist.

The first is to accept that something analogous to God's divine attributes (since Thomists like saying these are analogies) are co-dependent with God but separate, and adopt a Madhyamaka-like dependent-arising model of causation. This largely would wreck proofs of God's existence I think, and might arguably make the entity referred not be considered a God.

The second is to say that truth while grounded outside of language, is true in a language. This doesn't seem to fit with a Thomist, since they think these things are analogously true and not true simpliciter because our words cannot directly refer. I think then we probably could make it where God would not be necessarily true in languages in general then.

The last is to identify God with his Divine attributes, which to me seems totally amenable for non-religious reasons, but seems to wreck Thomist Theology, and so dismisses the reasons for the Divine attributes in the first place.

Walter Van den Acker said...


"But you don't want to say that because God's power is the same as God's knowledge, therefore everything that is in God's power is in God's knowledge. For then it would follow that because the existence of unicorns is in God's power, then the existence of unicorns is in God's knowledge."

Well, maybe you don't want to say this, but it follows from the notion that God's power is the same as God's knowledge. Either God is simple or he isn't. It seems like Thomists want to have their cake and eat it.

I completely agree with Michael's analysis here.

Helen Watt said...

I wonder in what sense it is really in God's power to do evil (as opposed to create nice unicorns). Surely God's nature as essentially, perfectly good puts this out of God's power altogether. Even human beings whose nature is not perfectly good like God's are literally not capable of many evils at any given time. For example, I'm not psychologically capable, right now without any kind of pressure, drug-taking etc, of running in front of a bus or killing an innocent stranger.

MJ said...

Justified text exists in the Mind of God, but that does not mean God intends for mortal philosophers to use it!!

Michael Gonzalez said...

I've honestly never understood why anyone wants to think God is "simple" in this Thomistic sense. It's certainly not a Biblical teaching, and it creates all sorts of logical problems. As long as God's properties are pure (either 0 or infinity; not admitting of degrees), I just don't see a problem with Him having various properties.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maimonedes thinks this is required for uncompromising monotheism. I think he is right. Monotheism requires there be only one ultimate entity.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Pruss: I agree, but properties are not entities. It is simply true of the one entity, God, that He has unlimited power, knowledge, etc.

Alexander R Pruss said...

If you are a thoroughgoing nominalist, and you think there are no properties, then it may be that you should hold that divine simplicity is largely trivially true.

Hark said...

Dr Pruss, I apologize if this is out of context. But I had a question. Does God know what it's like to be me? Assume God knows everything I know, and God sustains my existence, God causes my synapses to fire, etc. God knows what I will do, what I will think. OK. But does God know my subjective experience, or does He only know objective facts about my subjective experience? If He knows my qualia, how does that work?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am somewhat dubious of the alleged privacy of qualia.

Michael Gonzalez said...

For what it's worth, Hark, I don't think qualia exist, nor do I think there is anything "it is like" to be me. This whole conceptual muddle about "subjective experience" was a reaction to eliminativist and behaviorist approaches, but it is as conceptually confused as they were.

To be sure, "what is it like?" has two very meaningful uses:

1) When something has a particular quality (in which case the answer will not use the word "like", since it isn't a comparison; but will just say what the experience "was"...... What was it like to stand in the Sistine Chapel? It was wonderful. What was it like when your friend died? It was awful.)

2) When asking what it is like for an X to be a Y (e.g. for a woman to be in upper management).

But it makes no sense to ask what it is like for a woman to be a woman (except to receive the trivial sort of definitional answer). And there is no particular quality to the vast majority of what we see, hear, etc. (sure, I can ask what the symphony was like; but what was it like, in the backseat of the cab on the way there, for you to see the seat in front of you? Or for you to hear the background sound of the engine?.... the only appropriate answer is "what the heck are you talking about? it wasn't like anything").

Hark said...

Michael, thanks for the response. It was an unexpected sort of response. I'm surprised that you would deny qualia. Should I take it to mean, then, that in the Mary's room thought experiment, you would say that Mary does not in fact learn anything when she leaves the room?

I didn't ever feel that there was anything muddled about subjective experience. Do you think that whatever comprises your experience can be captured in objective terms that would be understood by everyone in the same way you intended?

I'm also surprised by Dr. Pruss' response that qualia (if they exist) might not be private. I admit I'm a layman, but I hadn't yet run into an account of qualia that wasn't private.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Of course Mary learns something when she leaves the room. She's never seen colors before. And she'll need to be taught which is which. What does that have to do with "qualia"?

There are various conceptual confusions about "subjective experience", especially as it has been used in philosophy. For one thing, most of our seeings and hearings and doings in life have no affective character at all (as I illustrated before). Moreover, philosophers often talk, for example, of "having a visual experience", as though there is anything more to that than "seeing". To talk of "having" some nominal naturally inclines us to look for a real substance corresponding to it, and then we're really tangled in a conceptual knot. There are no things in the world called "visual experiences". There's "seeing", which is a capacity that most animals have. Animals are not in the business of "eating" the world, so to speak (taking in data and digesting it into something else on the inside). They are skillfully and directly engaged with objects in the world.

This whole concept of "privacy" and "subjectivity" all wreaks of Descartes and his inner/outer distinction, which is wholly misguided. It's surprising to me that the modern neuroscientist or "cognitive scientist" thinks they've left Descartes behind because they banished the immaterial soul. But, really, they've left his entire misguided structure in place (inner vs. outer, a thinking thing that is part of the living creature as opposed to the rest of it that is basically a machine, etc.), just replacing the soul with the brain.

There's no room here for us to untie all of this, so I'll have to just recommend reading anything you can find by Peter Hacker (he's the clearest and best at continuing what Wittgenstein started, though Hubert Dreyfus, Alva Noe, and even to some extent Raymond Tallis are also worthy). "The Intellectual Powers" might be a good place to start.

Hark said...

Thanks for the pointers, Michael. I definitely need to read up, because some of what you are saying is really throwing me for a loop. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. Once I do a bit of research I'm hoping you'll continue to indulge me.


Alexander R Pruss said...

You get qualia as entities when you combine the idea that Mary learns something with a trope-based or Platonic metaphysics. I accept a trope-based metaphysics, but I am not sure Mary learns anything.