Monday, July 26, 2021

Divine simplicity and knowledge of contingent truth

I think the hardest problem for divine simplicity is the problem of God’s contingent beliefs. In our world, God believes there are horses. In a horseless world, God doesn’t believe there are horses. Yet according to divine simplicity, God has the same intrinsic features in both the horsey and the horseless worlds.

There is only one thing the defender of simplicity can say: God’s contingent beliefs are not intrinsic features of God. The difficult task is to make this claim easier to believe.

It’s worth noting that our beliefs are partly extrinsic. Consider a world just like ours, but where a mischievous alien did some genetic modification work to make cows that look and behave just like horses to the eyes of humans before modern science, and where humans thought and talked about them just as in our world they talked about horses. If a 14th century Englishman in the fake-horse world sincerely said he believed he owned a “horse”, he would be expressing a different belief from a 14th century Englishman in our world who uttered the same sounds, since “horse” in the fake-horse world doesn’t refer to horses but to genetically modified cows. Their beliefs about rideable animals would be different, but inside their minds, intrinsically, there need be no difference between their thought processes.

But it is difficult to stretch this story to the case of God, since it relies on observational limitations. Moreover, it is hard to extend the story to more major differences. If instead of fake horses, the alien produced tauntauns, no doubt the minds of the people in that world would be intrinsically different in thinking about riding tauntauns from our minds when think about riding horses (even if accidentally their English speakers used “horse” to denote a tauntaun).

While our beliefs are partly extrinsic, God’s contingent beliefs are radically extrinsic according to divine simplicity. There are no intrinsic differences in God no matter how radical the differences in belief are.

This feels hard to accept. Still, once we have accepted that beliefs can be partly extrinsic, it is difficult to mount a principled argument against radical extrinsicness of divine belief. All we really have is that this extrinsicness is counterintuitive—but given God’s radical difference from creatures, we should expect God to be counterintuitive in many (infinitely many!) ways.

But I want to share a thought that has helped me be more accepting of the radical extrinsicness thesis about divine belief. There is something awkward in talking of God’s having beliefs. The much more natural way to talk is of God’s having knowledge. But knowledge is way more extrinsic in us than belief is. For you to know something, that something has to be true. So what you know depends very heavily on the external world. You know that your car is in the garage in part precisely in virtue of the fact that your car is in the garage. If your car weren’t in the garage, you wouldn’t have this knowledge.

In us, belief and knowledge are separable. Belief is much more of an intrinsic state, while knowledge is much more of an extrinsic one. When we know something outside ourselves, what makes it be the case that we know it is both a state of belief and a state of the external world. This separation makes error possible: it is possible to have the belief without the external world matching up.

But in a being that is epistemically perfect, there is no possibility of belief without knowledge. I want to suggest the plausibility of this thesis: in a being that epistemically perfect, there is not even a metaphysical separation between knowledge and belief. For such a being, to believe is to know. But knowledge of contingent external states of affairs is significantly extrinsic. So if to believe for such a being is to know, then we would expect beliefs about contingent external states of affairs to be significantly extrinsic as well.

In other words, the extrinsicness of belief that divine simplicity requires matches up with an extrinsicness that is quite plausible given considerations of the perfection of divine epistemology.


Wesley C. said...

I wonder if one part of the solution lies in the nature of intellect and will as immaterial perfections. The nature of intellect is to be able to receive the form of another thing without becoming it - in other words, the essence of intellect isn't intrinsically changed, but at the same time it's intimately united to the form known.

Since the intellect can be said to be formless or structureless insofar as it isn't material and can take on many different forms without becoming the thing whose form it has, maybe in God the nature of intellect is much more intense to the point where knowledge isn't an intrinsic modification in any way, like it is in our own? This might seem to be fitting then - God would be even more independent and formless, and intellect by nature is meant to be a blank canvas or container that doesn't become that which it knows, so God is just the highest manner in which this can be taken.

Same for free will - just like the intellect doesn't become what it knows due to transcending the forms it has, and can therefore take on many different forms unlike limited matter, so too is the will free since it isn't determined or restricted by any finite good, and is free to choose because of this.

Wesley C. said...

Also, have you heard of Mark Spencer's article on The Flexibility of Divine Simplicity where he reconciles Scotus, Aquinas and Palamas with another model of divine simplicity?:

Basically, he posits from several sources a middle type of relation in between a real relation and logical relation, called an intentional relation. From what I recall (and I may be likely wrong on this since I only read a bit of this recently) it seems his view is that acts of the intellect or will don't contribute to the essence nor are they perfections, and so they can differ without violating God's complete perfection, pure actuality or divine simplicity.

He also incorporates Palamas and Scotus into this and how they solve the dilemma of God's simplicity and contingent knowledge and acts. What do you think?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes, it has to be something like your suggestion. Some sort of intimate closeness between God and the world which is a direct vision.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Since everything apart from God is a result of God's Will it is simply impossible for any knowledge to be extrinsic to God.
God knows that horses exist because God knows that He wills horses and that horses are a result of His immutable Will.
The only way out of this is by arguing, like Joe Schmid does, that God's Will may be indeterministic, that is, that His willing A may also result in A or in B. But is any thomist willing to open that can of worms?

Wesley C. said...

@Walter, Since God's Will by definition can't be necessitated by finite things, this means that even if God's willing A can only result in A, the willing of A itself can't be necessary.

Wesley C. said...

Also, it's possible that the indeterminism is purely with regards to God's willing anything at all, not just God's willing one particular thing and the outcome of that being indeterministic. So you could easily say that God's willing A can only result in A, but that the very willing of A is indeterministic itself, and God could instead have not willed, or have willed differently.

Walter Van den Acker said...


"Since God's Will by definition can't be necessitated by finite things". That seems question-begging to me, but even if what you say is true, it doesn't remove the problem, because we are talking about god's knowledge being extrinsic. Even if God's willing A isn't necessary, God's knowledge that A exist is not extrinsic.

There cannot be indeterminism with regards to God willing anything at all. According to divine simplicity, God is God's Will. If in w1, God wills A, then in that world, God is identical to His willing A but in w2 He would be identical to His willing B, in which case we have two different gods.
But, as I said, even if this kind of determinism were possible, it wouldn't remove the problem.

Wesley C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wesley C. said...

@Walter, Well since God's Will is also infinite, and the Will's strength corresponds proportionately to the ontological nature of its object, then it stands to reason that God's Will can't be necessitated or have a necessary relation to finite things, since finite things are finite. And if God's willing isn't determined, then neither is His knowledge of the things He creates.

As for God being His will, on the one view of divine simplicity which you're describing God would indeed be identical to God's will... but He'd also be identical to His wisdom, and His love. And if you stopped there, you could just as well say God is identical ONLY to His wisdom, meaning He isn't His will, so God doesn't have a will at all. What this means is that God isn't actually His will in the way we attribute this of Him when we say so - we can't help but use univocal language, and of a single attribute, but in God they are all actually one thing, and only analogous to them. Under this view of divine simplicity, what God actually is is neither His will or His wisdom - He is something different from all of those things as we attribute them to Him, so we can't just say God is identical to His will strictly speaking as He is more than this and not univocally the will. God is actually one thing, which we as finite beings have to view in multiple different finite ways, and those ways are distinct from each other. They are also analogous to the attributes as we understand and apply them to God - meaning that though the attributes are distinct from each other in our understanding and thus saying they are one thing is a contradiction, since what they are in God is different and analogous, they don't need to contradict in God at all. In a similar way, God's will being free and non-determined towards contingent things, and it being in God's essence and thus necessary, needn't contradict - they are in reality one thing, different from how we typically understand them. So God's relation to the world doesn't need to be necessary.

We don't just attribute will to God though - we also attribute free will to God in particular; the will we attribute can't be necessitated towards finite creation. We also say God loves Himself as well, yet God and creation are clearly different things and so the relationship to each of them is different, so them being one thing can't imply pantheism. The one thing that God actually is contains both the free will attributions and all of the other attributes in one unity.

Now if you take a different view of divine simplicity where God's attributes aren't one unity but are formally distinct - like the angles and sides of a triangle, meaning they aren't the same thing and have different properties which aren't strictly determined by the other property, but also can't be separated or exist independently from each other - then you could speak of God's will as being distinct from God's essence, since they don't have the same definition. In this way, you could speak of God's willing being indeterministic since it isn't God's essence.

Mikhail said...

Dr. Pruss, does this idea help with God's contingent knowledge in a world where he's alone? In such a world, there's nothing extrinsic to him.

Alexander R Pruss said...

God's knowledge that he is alone is then constituted by God and the absence of anything else?

Mikhail said...

Can absences ground anything? This seems strange to me.

Arath55 said...

Why not just become a necessitarian to avoid all these millions of problems with no benefits.

Alexander R Pruss said...


What grounds the existence of a hole in the carpet is an absence. On Augustine's classic theory, what grounds evil is always a privation, which is a kind of absence.


We lose freedom of will, and a God who can create only one cosmos doesn't seem omnipotent.

Arath55 said...

Compatibilism doesn't deny that you make decisions, or that decisions are free, just that there are multiple possible worlds where you choose one option instead of the other given the same antecedent conditions.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Some compatibilist views--e.g., David Lewis--are not compatible with necessitarianism.

Garou said...


We lose freedom of will, and a God who can create only one cosmos doesn't seem omnipotent."

There are compatibilist models of free will that are compatible with necessitarianism, and I don't think God's omnipotence would be clearly violated. Suppose you can conceive a different cosmos: well, for all we know God has created that cosmos as well. There's only one possible world, but multiple universes exist in this world - and God has necessarily created all good-enough universes. The only loss of omnipotence in this case would be if libertarian free will were a possibility, but under necessitarianism it wouldn't be a possibility, and hence no power would be missing in God. God just necessarily creates all good universes as it is in the nature of the Good to be diffusive and loving - following, say, Plotinus and Pseudo-Denys.

A theistic necessitarianism can be rather neat, actually. Cosmological arguments wouldn't be blocked either, since they're based on a more fundamental kind of contingency than modal contingency - things are still dependent, and as such even if they are necessary, they are only necessary ab alio and not a se.

Arath55 said...

Can you explain more about how cosmological arguments wouldn’t be blocked, I’m interested.

Garou said...


Cosmological arguments would not be blocked because although a lot of versions use the language of modal contingency, they are not primarily about the modal contingency of things, but about their dependent nature.

Suppose that necessitarianism is true. In this case, you and I could not have failed to exist - our existence is necessary. Is that sufficient to explain our existence, however? Of course not. Even if we couldn't have failed to exist, we would still have been caused by our parents. We would be dependent on our parents as our causes, and we would also be dependent on the oxygen, our particles, etc. for our persistence right now. The sufficient reason for our existence cannot be found in ourselves alone - we need external factors. We are conditioned, dependent beings, whether or not necessitarianism is true.

If necessitarianism were true, it would simply mean that we would have been caused necessarily. But we are still caused. The explanation for our existence can't be found solely in ourselves. We are dependent on multiple causes for our existence - and these causes will then be dependent on other causes, and so on. This dependency is what counts as "contingent" in cosmological arguments. The whole of reality cannot include only dependent beings - even if all dependent beings had to necessarily exist, they would still be dependent as the whole plurality (or there could be no infinite series; or they form a per se/hierarchical series of causes; etc., just pick your favorite version of avoiding the regress problem).

The terminology for marking such a difference would be "a se" and "ab alio". A modally necessary being could be necessary ab alio (through another), in the manner that a necessary cause necessarily causes it. Or it could be a necessary being a se (of itself), which is the type of necessary being that cosmological arguments seek to conclude. God would be an a se necessary being. We would clearly not be a se necessary even if we happen to be ab alio necessary. And whatever is modally contingent cannot be a se necessary, but it might be ab alio necessary.

Necessitarianism concerns itself only with modal necessity, however. So necessitarianism doesn't block cosmological arguments.

(I'm not a necessitarian, btw. I believe in libertarian free will, but I think necessitarian theism would be a very neat model and it would easily and simply dissolve all of the biggest issues with divine simplicity - God doesn't ever change and necessarily creates all the good universes; God also always necessarily knows all facts, which are all necessary anyway; etc.)