All God’s Instruments

by Thomas M. Cothran

1. Preamble

God causes all of our actions, including our acts of choosing. He does not merely give mankind the power of choice, he causes the act of choosing itself. We are mere instruments of God’s will. Such is the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas also believes that human beings choose freely, and that the dependence of human volition in its every movement on God does not violate human freedom. On its face, St. Thomas’ view appears paradoxical, even contradictory. And yet a number of recent religious thinkers appeal to the medieval Dominican in their own attempts to reconcile divine providence and human freedom.

2. The Compatibilists

One such school attempts to read St. Thomas as a compatibilist, holding that while God’s providence determines human choice, nevertheless it does not act on the level of natural causality, and so cannot compromise human freedom. One being in the world can coerce another being in the world, at least in principle. But God is not a being in the world; he is the cause of every being. Without God’s providence, there would be no choosing person. And therefore, there is no conflict between divine providence and human freedom. This, roughly, is the view advanced by Herbert McCabe, Denys Turner, and Hugh McCann.

Herbert McCabe, for instance, insists that “to be free means not to be under the influence of some other creature, it is to be independent of other bits of the universe; it is not and could not mean to be independent of God.” Denys Turner concurs:

For Thomas the divine action of grace could not “interfere” with human freedom even as it infallibly brings about our justification by means of it. It is too easily taken for granted that to speak of God causing my free actions is necessarily a contradiction. For Thomas far from it: worse, to say that my actions are free only insofar as God does not cause them presupposes a plainly idolatrous conception of the divine causality. For Thomas’s is what philosophers today call a libertarian account of free will: my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause. Here there is a genuine completely disjunctive either/or, it is one or the other and nothing in between. To the extent that an action of mine can be accounted for in terms of any created cause other than my own will, to that extent it fails of freedom.

Hugh McCann is perhaps the most consistent, if extreme example of this view. He likens the relation between God and creatures to that of the author of a novel and the characters within it.

The author of the novel never makes her creatures do something; she only makes them doing it. It is the same with us and God. He does not make us act; he makes us acting, so that the freedom that goes with genuine action can still be present. To think otherwise is to confuse providing for the existence of something and tampering with its nature.

What unites the compatibilist view is the conviction that there cannot, by definition, be a conflict between God’s determination of human choices and human freedom. For humans are free, by definition, if their choices are not coerced by things in the world. And God, by definition, is not a thing in the world. At its extreme end, compatibilism enables the view that not only is God able to determine some of our choices, but he in fact determines all of them so that history has no more contingency than does the plot of a novel.

3. The Trouble with Compatibilism

The compatibilist school runs into two related problems. In the first place, they answer the problem of freedom by changing the subject. Most who ask the question of human freedom are asking: might one do otherwise? Could one have done otherwise? But this is not the question which the compatibilists seek to answer. Their approach is to define freedom at the outset as, in McCabe’s words, “not to be under the influence of some other creature,” or in Denys Turner’s words, “my action is free insofar as I, and only I, am its created cause”. It is no less arbitrary than adding to the definition of torture the condition that, by definition, it is only performed by non-Americans. It is not an answer; it is a way of changing the subject. One might think that, if the compatibilist approach addresses a different question than the one we would tend to ask, still perhaps it asked the question that St. Thomas seeks to answer, and so at least has the sanction of the tradition. If so, perhaps their answer, drawn from St. Thomas, should inform how we approach other questions of divine providence and human freedom.

As a matter of fact, St. Thomas does consider a view that strongly resembles the compatibilist position with its definition of freedom.

Some have held that the human will is necessarily moved to choose things. But they did not hold that the will is coerced, since only something from an external source, not everything necessary, is coerced.

This, of course, strongly resembles the view of McCabe and Denys Turner, though it does not so explicitly beg the question by excluding God as a cause in the definition of freedom. The human will may be necessitated, it could not ultimately choose otherwise, but nevertheless free because freedom is defined in opposition to external principles.

St. Thomas’ response?

But this opinion is heretical. For it takes away the reason for merit and demerit in human acts, as it does not seem meritorious or demeritorious for persons to do necessarily what they could not avoid doing.

4. St. Thomas’ Notion of Freedom

St. Thomas believes that the question of freedom cannot be reduced to the question whether a person is coerced by something out there in the world, or even the broader category of an external principle. He thinks that defining freedom in such a way is heretical and morally destructive.

So the question the compatibilists prefer to ask is not the question of freedom St. Thomas asks, and the answer they give stands uncomfortably close to the one he condemns. The question of freedom is, in the words of Aquinas, whether persons have “mastery of their own acts, so that they would not be bound to the one or other contradictory alternative.” Does a person have the power to choose either of two (or more) alternatives? Again, “the proper act of free will is choice: for we say that we have free-will precisely because we can take one thing while refusing another, and this is to choose.”

St. Thomas puts the question unmistakably in terms of necessity and contingency. To say that an event is contingent is to affirm a potentiality that could, but need not necessarily, be realized. Conversely, to affirm the necessity of an act is to deny the possibility of an existence of a potentiality that it be otherwise. What St. Thomas affirms is an ontological proposition. To say that a person’s choice between choosing A and choosing B is free is not only to affirm the possibility person might choose A, B, or decline to make a choice at all; it is to declare that the choosing person determines which possibility is realized. If a person’s choice could have been different on the sole condition that person chose differently, then that person is the master of their own acts.

This is the second problem with the compatibilist position. The question of freedom is the question of the existence of a potency, and the principle of non-contradiction prevents both and affirmative and negative answer. Something exists or it doesn’t. Hugh McCann’s proposal of the authorial metaphor may seem to suggest a perspectivalism – from God’s perspective, things are necessary; from ours, they are contingent. However, characters of a novel do not really have free wills because they are not persons; and this is why they are subject to the author’s pre-determinative deliberation.

St. Thomas considers at a number of places the objection that God’s foreknowledge vitiates human freedom. Never does he offer the view that the compatibilists ascribe to him. Instead, he affirms that, while God is a cause of the power to choose, and even the act of choosing, this causality does not determine human choice to one or another alternative. St. Thomas could not be more clear:

We should not say that God left human beings in the hands of their own deliberation without acting upon their will. Rather, he did so because he gave human beings’ will mastery over their acts, so that they would not be bound to one or another contradictory alternative.

To modern ears, the notion of a non-determinative cause sounds quite strange. But readers of St. Thomas may already be familiar with these distinctions. The act of existing is a cause of the corresponding thing’s being; it is the reason something differs from nothing. Formal causes specify things as this or that, a hydrogen atom or an amoeba; and the formal cause is what is expressed as a thing’s nature. Only in God is the act of existing identical with nature. St. Thomas demonstrates that in everything other than God, form must differ from the act of existing. It follows that the act of existing does not specify what a thing is; for that we need a formal cause, and existing is not a formal cause.

Even more famously, St. Thomas insisted that the existing of things depends on God. Things, even an infinite series of things causing each other, cannot account for their existence. The act of existing is not a native principle for any thing; it is present as light passes through air. The formal cause, on the other hand, is native to things. While things are not adequate to explain why they exist, they can explain what they are. The action of a non-specifying cause is perfectly ordinary given St. Thomas’ metaphysics, and a general understanding of his metaphysics gives us a very good idea of just what sort of non-determinative cause God might be in relation to the will.

5. A Theory of the Instrument

If we are to understand St. Thomas’ claim that we are all God’s instruments, and yet free, we need to understand St. Thomas theory of the instrument. The initial difficulty in understanding this theory lies in the examples used. Human tools are unthinking, unfree things. This confusion can be dispelled if we attend to the explanation of instrumentality.

Consider the abacus. Prior to the use of the decimal system, there was no good way of performing numerical operations on large numbers. If we were to subtract 249 from 3,927, we could not place the former number in a row under the latter, align the decimal places, carry over number, etc. A mathematician in a culture that lacks the decimal system needs an instrument that aids in calculation.

The abacus represents a number (e.g., 1, 5, 10, 20, 100, 1,000) with a bead. The beads are arranged on rods, and each rod represents the different quantity. Thus, a bead on the top rod may represent 1, a bead on the next rod 5, and so on. Beads are aligned to the left, and when they are counted, moved to the right of the frame. A mathematical problem that is impossible to do in the mind becomes possible with the abacus.

The abacus is an instrument because it jointly produces an effect with the primary cause (the mathematician). Both the primary and the instrumental cause are necessary to produce the effect. In our example, the abacus alone cannot solve a problem, and neither can the mathematician. The effect which they produce together is the solution. The reason that the abacus is the instrument and the mathematician the primary cause is that there is an something in the effect that requires a higher sort of causality than the abacus could account for. An abacus, on its own, is only beads and sticks; and yet when the mathematician is done, he sees in it the answer. When employed by the mathematician, the counting frame participates in a higher order of reality, for the intelligibility of its effect (the answer) is disproportionate to the instrument considered in itself.

6. Free Instruments

The theory of the instrument combined with the participation of things in God as subsistent being resolves our riddle. For all things, on St. Thomas’ account, participate in being on account of God’s providence. Creatures in their concrete being are an effect of God. Yet God is not the only cause, for they also possess a nature, an imminent principle, that answers the question “what is this?” Existence without a finite nature is not a creature, but God. A nature without existence is indistinguishable from nothing. To explain the creature as an effect requires invoking both something proportionate to the creature (form or nature) and something disproportionate: existing.

And this is just to say that creatures are instruments. An effect that requires two causes, one of which accounts for a higher intelligibility than the other, has what we have defined as a primary and an instrumental cause. God is the primary cause because existence is a higher intelligibility than nature or form. We can fancy whatever creatures we like, but knowledge is had in knowing the creatures that actually are. Understanding is in potency to judgement. God is the universal cause of all that exists, and because existence invokes a higher causal order, all things are God’s instruments.

Now we can clearly understand how it is that God can cause human choices without determining them to one or another alternative. For St. Thomas, a thing’s existing is distinct from its nature. Nature is a specifying cause. Existence only “determines” things to be; how things are determined belong to other sorts of causes. If God causes every occurrence, and human choosing is an occurrence, then God causes all human choosing. Yet God need only make them be; he does not specify them. This is no more perplexing than is the distinction between form and existence. A parting thought. It is often noted, and then forgotten, that phrases like “God causes human choice” or “God wills an event” entail no new difference in God that would be lacking had God not caused or willed. If God is infinite (and St. Thomas is by no means unusual in this claim), then God cannot change. For if God has a potential state other than his actual state, he is by definition finite, for he there is something he is not–that which he is about to become. A great deal of the confusion in the discussion of God’s relation to human events arises from attempting to imagine what it is like for God to cause, or know, or will, or provide. We must be content in the knowledge that imagination pertains only to sensible, material realities, and to know that God, by nature, is beyond the material world.

* * *

Thomas Cothran is a writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky. He blogs at Interstices Between Philosophy and Theology

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51 Responses to All God’s Instruments

  1. John H says:

    According to the Turner quote in the article divine predestination works through human freedom to necessarily guarantee the salvation of the predestined. Predestination is at the level of primary causality and determines through the secondary causality of human free choice (which is indeed contingent) the result that the divine will has preordained from eternity. This is straight from Asqinas on predestination. See Summa Thrologiae First Part, Q 23. Divine predestination is perfectly compatible with human freedom.

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  2. Thomas says:

    St. Thomas’ general solution to predestination and human freedom is the same as that of providence and freedom. Human choice is really contingent, it is not necessitated to one or the other option, though it be the effect of providence or within the scope of predestination.

    What I take Denys Turner to be saying is that the question of whether God can be said to compromise human freedom is a kind of category mistake, because freedom is defined in opposition to things in the world. On this account, one could affirm that God decrees a human choice to one or another option, yet maintain God is free because he is not a being in the world.

    That is not St. Thomas’ account on a number of levels. He defines freedom as the real power to choose different alternatives, and he affirms that God does not determine which one chooses. Moreover, he strongly affirms that God does not determine our choices. Given God’s causal agency being what it is, we could still have chosen otherwise.

    The efficacy of grace does raise a specific problem though, for it seems that to say that grace is necessarily efficacious requires determining a person’s choice. In fact, St. Thomas appeals to something a lot like the notion of statistical limits. While any particular action may not be determined, God can shift the probabilities, and with the right relation of probability to time, probabilities become certain. The specific issue of grace isn’t addressed in this post, though.

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  3. David S says:

    Thank you for this Thomas. Very interesting article. I had been taking it for granted that the McCabe/McCann interpretation of Aquinas was essentially the correct one. Good to see there’s room for maneuver here.

    One question:
    If God is simple and creates (or ’causes’) the entirety of the world in one timeless act, how can God have knowledge of our free acts in the same timeless ‘moment’ that God wills the creation of the world?

    i.e. God is identical with God’s knowledge, with God’s consciousness. Now God’s consciousness is a simple unity – indeed it is absolutely simple. God does not have two distinct mental states in the same eternal moment (wouldn’t that just be two gods?), and he does not have different mental states over time. To be Creator, God’s one unified consciousness – which is just identical with God – is what causes the world to exist. But if God’s one unified consciousness includes ‘parts’ which are only filled in as a result of human free choices, this implies that God does not logically exist ‘until’ we make those choices, in which case God is essentially created by us, not the other way around – i.e. how can God’s one unified consciousness be the reason if we exist, if that one unified consciousness is logically dependent on our existence? If God just *is* God’s ‘subjectivity’, then that subjectivity cannot ‘come to exist’ until the course of the world and the last autonomous free choice is made.

    This seems to be a problem that only exists once we allow for genuinely autonomous creaturely choices, rather than God just determining everything via primary causality in the same logical moment.

    I’d be interested to know how you (and Aquinas!) might respond.

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    • Thomas says:

      That’s a large question! Here’s how I would characterize St. Thomas’ general approach.

      First, St. Thomas rejects the idea that we can imagine what it is like for God to know. His primary stress in the via negativa: we know not what God is, but what he is not. However, we can come to clear propositional truths on God, which can be positively understood. So he is not concerned to say what it is like for God to know, and he thinks that if we imagine it, we have it wrong.

      Second, by saying that God is eternal, St. Thomas is rejecting that God is temporal. Thus, he rejects that we can place God prior to the creation of the world or a given action, and then ask if he learns anything new over time. The approach, St. Thomas would say, pre-supposes that God is temporal.

      Third, St. Thomas rejects the notion that God is different knowing worldly truths than he would be not knowing worldly truths. That is, God having not creating the world, and thus having no finitudes to know, is not different than God having created the world, and knowing everything there is to know about it. Key to understanding this is that God does not know by registering facts, but by virtue of being an infinite act of understanding. An infinite act of understanding, by definition, is not infinite if it could be other than it is. Nor is it infinite if there is something outside its scope. An infinite act of knowledge cannot not know something knowable.

      The fourth point goes to the apparent implausibility of the second. For St. Thomas knowledge is not essentially a confrontation in which a subject registers something about an object. Knowledge is a perfection. If one can demonstrate that God has all perfections to an infinite degree, it follows that there is no knowledge he lacks. Because St. Thomas does not think the confrontation model constitutes knowledge in its essence, there is no need to assert that a subject registers (and is changed by) its knowledge of an object. That does happen in our case, but we are animals.

      If there is a difficulty in getting ones mind around this, that is because one doesn’t get one’s mind around the infinite. In other words, a theory of God’s knowledge that tells us perfectly well what God’s knowing is could not be true of an infinite God. A theory of God’s knowledge that places a grasp of God’s Act beyond our comprehension is required. Just as the scientist has to be on guard about imagining what the Higgs boson is like, as it is a non-pictorial reality; so we must be on guard about insisting on a notion of God’s knowledge that satisfies the desire for an imaginable answer.

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      • David S says:

        Thank you for this Thomas.

        I’m not sure my argument depends on any particular understanding of divine cognition, or what it ‘feels like’ for God to know, which I’d certainly agree must be beyond our comprehension. But I am claiming that the content of God’s infinite act of consciousness is in some sense ‘different’ – not in a temporal sense, but logical sense – by virtue of God creating world x rather than world y.

        I am never quite sure what to make of claims that God is not different by virtue of knowing certain worldly truths vs. not knowing them. How can this be? I can understand the claim that, by virtue of being timeless, God never changes from one state to another. And I can understand the claim that God’s essential properties, that which makes God God, do not change as a result of God’s knowledge of the world. But surely God having knowledge of a creature making a free decision is in some sense a property of God’s, albeit a non-essential and contingent one. How can we not say that this makes a difference to God’s consciousness, however we imagine that consciousness to feel like? (I am here particularly thinking of Norris Clarke’s view, set out very well by Fr Kimel here https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/god-is-different-because-of-the-world/)

        So it seems to me that God’s atemporal and infinite act of consciousness has a specific determination, linked to what goes on in the world – God’s knowledge being X, which is part of God’s infinite act of consciousness, can only be X if X actually happens. And on your view, whether X happens is not always up to God as creatures have genuine autonomy.

        My point then is that, given God’s existence is atemporal, and given that God’s existence just *is* this atemporal, infinite act of consciousness… doesn’t God’s existence then logically follow after our free creaturely choices, rather than the other way around? To put it another way, God does not first exist, then create the world, then have knowledge. If that were the case, you could easily see how God was the first necessary principle, who creates the world, and then later picks up a few extra non-essential properties depending on what free creatures do. But on divine simplicity and atemporality, all of these are simultaneous and one single unified act of consciousness. As knowledge of contingent things is now bound up in God’s one act of consciousness, doesn’t that make the whole act of consciousness logically dependent on the world, rather than the other way around?

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        • Thomas says:

          Those are incisive questions. I think you hit the crux of the debate here:

          > But surely God having knowledge of a creature making a free decision is in some sense a property of God’s, albeit a non-essential and contingent one. How can we not say that this makes a difference to God’s consciousness, however we imagine that consciousness to feel like?

          If one accepts the idea that knowledge of a creature making a free decision is a property of God, then your conclusion does follow. But this is what St. Thomas rejects. (Clarke’s position on this, whatever its independent merits might be, would not be a historically correct reading of St. Thomas, and I don’t think that is what he was trying to do.)

          St. Thomas maintains that God does not have properties or accidents, if these are taken to be real features distinct from his essence. What we attribute to him (goodness, beauty, creation) has a single ground; they are different points of view on the one divine essence. That is, while, say, goodness or beauty is notionally distinct (we mean different things by it), what these terms refer to in God are not really different realities (God’s goodness and beauty are not really distinct).

          The distinction between attributing goodness to God on the one hand, and knowledge of creaturely goings-on on the other, is that the latter is a form of extrinsic predication. Take the proposition “God knows that I decide to drink green tea”. St. Thomas would say that proposition is contingently true, and the contingency that makes it true or false is whether I in fact go for the green tea. No difference intrinsic to God is required. So the predication of knowledge of contingencies, on St. Thomas’ view, does not attribute a property to God, nor does it say that God is different than he would be had the contingency that God knows were different.

          My hypothesis is that whether this account is plausible or not depends very much on background assumptions about knowing. If one has a Thomist account of knowledge, it will be quite natural and plausible to say that God is not different depending on the contingencies he knows. And if one adds in the notion that God is infinite, not only will it be natural and plausible: it will be necessary. On the other hand, if one has an opposing account of knowledge, one which entails a specification or determination on the side of the knower, the foregoing will be implausible, or even self-contradictory.

          If my hypothesis is right, then the difference between our positions is that you would argue that knowing requires some difference or determination on the part of the knower, and I would argue that no such difference or determination is necessary for knowledge as such, though it might be necessary to human knowledge. If that is the core difference, then evaluating the difference between our respective positions would turn on a general account of knowledge, and a specific account of knowledge as it is attributed to God.

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        • Thomas says:

          Those are incisive questions. I think you hit the crux of the debate here:

          > But surely God having knowledge of a creature making a free decision is in some sense a property of God’s, albeit a non-essential and contingent one. How can we not say that this makes a difference to God’s consciousness, however we imagine that consciousness to feel like?

          If one accepts the idea that knowledge of a creature making a free decision is a property of God, then your conclusion does follow. But this is what St. Thomas rejects. (Clarke’s position on this, whatever its independent merits might be, would not be a historically correct reading of St. Thomas, and I don’t think that is what he was trying to do.)

          St. Thomas maintains that God does not have properties or accidents, if these are taken to be real features distinct from his essence. What we attribute to him (goodness, beauty, creation) has a single ground; they are different points of view on the one divine essence. That is, while, say, goodness or beauty is notionally distinct (we mean different things by it), what these terms refer to in God are not really different realities (God’s goodness and beauty are not really distinct).

          The distinction between attributing goodness to God on the one hand, and knowledge of creaturely goings-on on the other, is that the latter is a form of extrinsic predication. Take the proposition “God knows that I decide to drink green tea”. St. Thomas would say that proposition is contingently true, and the contingency that makes it true or false is whether I in fact go for the green tea. No difference intrinsic to God is required. So the predication of knowledge of contingencies, on St. Thomas’ view, does not attribute a property to God, nor does it say that God is different than he would be had the contingency that God knows were different.

          My hypothesis is that whether this account is plausible or not depends on one’s background assumptions about knowing. If one has a Thomist account of knowledge, it will be quite natural and plausible to say that God is not different depending on the contingencies he knows. And if one adds in the notion that God is infinite, not only will it be natural and plausible: it will be necessary. On the other hand, if one has an opposing account of knowledge, one which entails a specification or determination on the side of the knower, the foregoing will be implausible, or even self-contradictory.

          If my hypothesis is right, then the difference between our positions is that you would argue that knowing requires some difference or determination on the part of the knower, and I would argue that no such difference or determination is necessary for knowledge as such, though it might be necessary to human knowledge. If that is the core difference, then evaluating the difference between our respective positions would require a general account of knowledge, and a specific account of knowledge as it is attributed to God.

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          • David S says:

            But what does it mean for God to know something, if this is just a matter of external predication, and not something real in God? You say above that God’s ‘infinite act of knowledge cannot not know something knowable.’ – which implies God’s infinite act of knowledge knows everything that in fact exists, including that free creatures do X. Isn’t this just saying that God knowing X, including the choices of creatures, is part of God’s infinite act of knowledge? And if it’s part of God’s infinite act of knowledge, isn’t it therefore a property of God?

            Similarly, surely God’s act of understanding – God’s act of knowing – is, albeit in a manner impossible for humans to understand, a kind of consciousness, a kind of cognition. It is a subjective, first-person act of understanding. If God’s act of knowing involves God having the subjective act of understanding that X is the case, what is the rationale for not saying that is an intrinsic property of God? And if it is not the case, why call it knowledge?

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          • David S says:

            Sorry for all the questions – what I am really asking is, could you please explain what the Thomistic model of divine knowing is, how it works, and exactly how it resolves the issues I have raised – i.e. if the model ends up saying something like God isn’t actually conscious of the things he knows, I don’t see how this could be called knowledge, but if God is conscious of the things he knows, surely that means God’s consciousness is X rather than Y because X has occurred in the world, making at least an element of God’s consciousness (which just is God) dependent on how actions.

            It would also be very interesting to hear your reflections on how God’s knowledge of things intrinsic to God (like that God exists, is good, is Father, Son and Spirit, etc.) differ from God’s knowledge of creaturely choices, especially whether there is any difference in which one could describe God as conscious of these realities.

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          • Thomas says:

            St. Thomas’ account of knowledge is in the Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 14. It probably won’t be compelling without the broader account St. Thomas gives of cognition and the metaphysical account he gives of the relationship between God and the world. However, we can at least get a general idea of what St. Thomas says.

            For instance, your summary of St. Thomas is correct to say that for him, God knows all contingent events, but it does not follow that he knows them in distinctive acts or that the knowledge implies some determination in God. We are familiar with cases where we, in a single act, grasp a number of cases (e.g., when we grasp the decimal system, we simultaneously understand the base-10 and base-60 systems, whereas before we grasped them in isolation). St. Thomas’ claim is that God, by virtue of understanding himself, understands all things.

            This point follows quite naturally from St. Thomas’ metaphysics. For if God is unrestricted existence, and things are only insofar as they participate in existence, there is nothing simply outside God. If God knows himself perfectly, then it follows that there is nothing outside the range of his knowledge. Contingent things are not nothing, and therefore, by knowing himself, God knows all things. Granted that God is an unrestricted act of existence and he knows himself, the rest follows. The contradiction arises if one denies that God either that God is an unrestricted act of existence, or that he fully knows himself. And St. Thomas offers proofs for both these claims.

            The objection that repeatedly surfaces is that God must, in knowing, be changed or specified thereby. But St. Thomas rejects this and is able to offer a comprehensive and detailed account of God’s knowledge that supposes no such thing. Without knowing what argument is being offered for the claim that knowing must change or specify the knower, it’s difficult to offer a particular response. It’s clear that people suppose this to be true, what is not clear to me is whether there is any reason for believing it, or even what motivates the position.

            As to the subjective, first-person consciousness question, I think we can be pretty clear. If consciousness is taken to involve sensible images, or the presentation of an object over against the knower, or discursive knowledge, or grasping one thing and then another, or being changed in the act of knowing — in short, everything that pertains specifically to animal experience — then God is not conscious in that sense, any more than he is present in my living room in the way a lamp is. Anything that implies limitation or mutability is, by definition, inapplicable to an unrestricted act of existence. But there is another kind of consciousness associated with knowing, and so long as we are careful not to smuggle in the animal features of how we human beings know, that is appropriate to God.

            Maybe someday I will write an extended defense on this topic. But for the moment, I’d have to point toward St. Thomas’ own argument at ST I, q. 14, and helpful supplementary material by the likes of John F. Wippel, Bernard Lonergan, or Brian Shanley.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      My apologies, Thomas. Your comment(s) for some reason got caught by the spam filter, which I check infrequently. I just found it today.

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  4. Thomas, thanks for this thought provoking article. Since I am from the Reformed tradition, I am more or less a compatibalist. However, I am revisiting these issues and trying to get a better sense of where I land presently. That said, the Reformed tradition draws heavily off of St. Thomas in many key areas. One of which was, I assumed, compatibalism. How might Aquinas answer the standard Reformed formulae in the Westminster Confession 5.2:

    Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently

    As I have reflected on these issues further, the Westminster Divines appear to be throwing the kitchen sink of causality at the problem of providence and hope something lands. What do you make of this?

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    • Thomas says:

      Thanks, Jedidia. Although I grew up on a Reformed environment, I’m not well read enough in Reformed circles to have an informed opinion on the Westminster Confession’s meaning.

      It does certainly seem like there are strong parallels with St. Thomas. St. Thomas does declare that God infallibly brings about every occurrence in the world, but in a way that does not compromise their contingency.

      Some Thomists have interpreted this to mean that, from our perspective, things are contingent, while from God’s perspective, they could not have been otherwise. For instance, Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon is contingent, yet, given God’s providence, it could not have failed to happen.

      There are two problems with this. The first, which is less relevant to non-Thomists, is that that is what St. Thomas vehemently rejects. The second problem is that, as far as I can see, it is self-contradictory. To say that something is contingent is to say there is a real, objective possibility of it being otherwise. But to say that God without fail brings about that specific occurrence, foreclosing alternative possibilities, is to say there is no real, objective possibility of it being otherwise. To affirm both is to deny the principle of contradiction.

      What St. Thomas means is this. Suppose there are two alternatives, x and y. There is a real possibility that x or y could happen. Now, on St. Thomas account, everything that happens is caused by God, yet God’s causation does not impose necessity (at least on contingent events). That is, whether x or y comes to pass, the occurrence depends on God, yet God does not necessitate either.

      Were x to come to pass, while God determined that y should come to pass instead, God would be fallible. Were y to come to pass and God had determined that x should, God would be fallible. But because God causes contingencies without necessitating them, there are no circumstances in which an occurrence or non-occurrence would show God to be fallible. And so he is infallible.

      This is regarding general providence; there are issues unique to grace where this solution doesn’t work well. Grace does–perhaps irresistibly–lead to particular results.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was reading through some intra-Reformed debates on the matter of determinism and freedom. What I found interesting as it relates to this particular discussion is how much diversity there has been and presently continues on this matter. I would say that Reformed range from soft compatabilism to harder determinism (they do not range into libertarian accounts of free-will). As you point out however in the case of St Thomas (and the whole of the Augustinian tradition), the matters change in Reformed theology (and confessional standards) when it comes to the operations of grace and election. I have come to reject the confessional stance on double predestination in favor for the far less morally hazardous Barthian account of election that includes all humanity (which incidentally is why I have come to embrace universalism).

        Given these things, I am interested if St. Thomas does address the difference between the operations of grace from the operations of general providence. If time permits, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

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  5. Paz says:

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting article!
    Often with knowledge comes responsibility and free will… but we also and often have to make choices within the bounds of our abilities, experiences, environment, culture, self-awareness, our (limited knowledge) and understanding. This is certainly a complex but also a fascinating topic!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thomas, I’d like to ask your take on Aquinas’s understanding of divine freedom—specifically, his freedom not to have created the universe. In what sense, therefore, is this not a contingent decision and how does this not introduce complexity into the Godhead? TIA.

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    • Thomas says:

      For an overly brief account, I’d say than an action is free if i) it could have been otherwise, and ii) the agent producing the action is intelligent.

      If the world emanated from God as light from the sun, creation would not be a free choice. For, given the sun’s nature, it cannot but radiate light; and given that the sun is not intelligent, the agent is not intelligent.

      If the existence of God entailed the existence of the world, condition ii would be met, but not condition i. Put differently, if the activity of creation follows from God, by virtue of who and what God is, then creation would not be a free act. Or again, if “being the creator” were an inherent attribute of God, creation could not be free.

      But if we can establish that God is an unrestricted act of existence, and that as such God has no conditions for being what he is, it follows that creation must be free. For if creation followed from God’s nature, God’s existence would be conditioned on creating the world, a separate reality. If it were a condition for God to be who he is that creation exists, then God would be conditioned. And I think St. Thomas is very successful at showing that the world would not exist without an unconditioned cause. Few, I think, would bite the bullet and claim that the Christian God depends on a further, higher creative source.

      The definition of a free choice I’ve offered is intentionally minimal. It does not attempt to offer an image of what it is like for God to create. It deliberately excludes features specific to human decisions — deliberation over time, making up one’s mind, moving from indecision to clarity. God is beyond our comprehension, and to offer a picture of God’s will is to reduce him to the dimensions of our imagination.

      The difficulty we have in understanding this is that, for us, the immediate term of our decision is a resolution within ourselves. That is, I decide to brew some tea, and the immediate effect of my decision is within me: my resolve. Then I go to brew tea and find that I’m out, and my will is thwarted. Not so for God: the immediate effect of any decision made by God *is* the external created reality. Consistent with St. Thomas’ account of causality, the effect, the difference resulting from God’s will, is in the world, not God. Which is why St. Thomas denies that God has a distinctive, imminent act of will corresponding to creation or that God is specified or determined by choosing to create this world rather than another.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps there isn’t a wholly satisfying answer to the question Fr. Kimel and several of the interlocutors in this conversation (broadly relating to Dionysus) about whether or not creation with respect to God’s nature as Creator is in some sense necessary. I do think that the Thomistic perspective you are bringing does help clarify some of the problems I am wrestling with here. I do think that there is real diversity between what Origen and Dionysus are saying about the relation between God and creation from the broad Christian tradition, but possibly the differences are not ultimately irreconcilable. I’ll trace out the issues as I think through them:

        1) If we properly name God as Creator, then being Creator inheres to his eternal and simple existence. So, being Creator is not a passive potency, rather it is an expression of Divine actus purus.

        2) What then, is the relation between being Creator (if this is proper to God), and the causing of creation? I realize that there is a distinction between the cause and effect. However is there a distinction between Divine Act (in this case as Creator) and Divine causation? I think you are touching upon this in the later part of your response, can you elaborate if you get the chance?

        3) The real reef I am not able to navigate relates to Christology. I don’t think there is any issue in the eternal generation of the Son and necessity, but I do not understand if this has any bearing on the Incarnation. Was the Incarnation necessary, or a necessary expression within the Divine Act? If so, might this imply some kind of necessity to creation?

        All these things said, I am perfectly willing to accept that whatever we perceive as necessary and free are actually transcended in God; who is Being beyond being and the mystery and apparent paradox remains part of the mystery of who he is and what he does. I don’t think there is any way of getting around the fact that God creates freely and creation is wholly contingent. But, likewise, I am simply grappling with who God necessarily is in himself (he cant choose to be or Act otherwise), and what he does in creating. This is where I do think that Origen and Dionysus after him are, in the very least, raising important issues for us to grapple with. This is especially appropriate in any discussion regarding St. Thomas, given his overwhelmingly positive appropriation of St. Dionysus’ theological and philosophical insights.

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        • brian says:

          I would make a distinction between “metaphysical necessity” and “aesthetic necessity.” The former implies a lack of freedom. The latter, I think, is compatible with Divine freedom (or created freedom, for that matter.) I don’t think God is driven by metaphysical necessity to create, but I do believe that God is compelled by love of creation the way an artist “has” to give body to inspiration. Further, it seems to me that Godself creates in order to bring Creation into the fullest participation in TriUne life possible. This implies that even if there had never been a Fall, God always intended the Incarnation for the flesh of Christ is the way in which divinization of Creation is possible.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. David S says:

    Thank you for your response Thomas. I apologise as I suspect I believe I been rather rude in my scattergun and demanding approach to questioning. I am sorry.

    I would like to offer a response, but I will be scrupulous in avoiding questions!

    To clarify, I would like to say that I have not tried to claim God is changed by contingent events – indeed I have tried to argue on the assumption that God is timeless. Apologies if I have not been clear here.

    I am also not saying that God’s personality, that God’s essential Being, is in any way impacted or specified by the affairs of the world. I agree that God’s knowledge of the world does not consist of discursive or separate acts of consciousness, or any actions of ‘finding things out’: God is just one infinite act of consciousness, which embraces all things as a unity. I am just saying that, if the world is contingently X rather than Y because of a creaturely choice, that means that God is conscious – i.e. God has a first-person sense of knowing and understanding a particular fact to be true, albeit without division and change and discursive reasoning etc as you say – of X, rather than Y. But God would have had a different subjective act of understanding if the world had been Y, rather than X. The fact that God knows everything through knowing Godself as their cause does not seem to alter this – God’s intuitive understanding of Godself as Father, Son and Spirit is not specified by actions in the world, but surely God’s knowledge of what goes on in the world is specified by what happens in the world.That is the only extent to which I am claiming God is ‘specified’ by God’s knowledge. Not that God’s inner-self is changed or modified, but that God’s knowledge involves a genuine conscious act of understanding, and that this conscious act of understanding would obviously ‘feel different’ if the world were different, as it would obviously involve knowing different things. To me, this subjective, interior element on God’s part makes it more than a purely relational or ‘Cambridge property’.

    My point is that it is unclear to me on this model how we can say that God’s consciousness is the cause of the world, if God’s consciousness in fact logically follows after my acts, rather than coming before. This is because it appears that, on your view, the first ‘logical moment’ (not merely ‘temporal moment’) at which God could create the world is *after* the events of the world.

    I’ll try and put this into into clearer propositions below, but I’m afraid I am no logician!

    1) God’s infinite act of understanding involves a ‘subjective’ or ‘conscious’ feelings of knowing.
    2) In knowing the world, God therefore has conscious knowledge that free decision X occurs.
    3) God’s conscious knowledge that free decision X occurs logically follows decision X occurring, if decision X is a libertarianly free act.
    3) God has only one act of knowing, one act of consciousness, rather than multiple separate acts.
    4) Therefore God’s whole act of consciousness logically follows free decision X (i.e. it cannot be that God has one act of consciousness independent from the world, but another act of consciousness that follows from the world, as it is all just one act).
    5) Therefore God’s act of consciousness cannot be the reason why the world exists, because God’s act of consciousness in fact follows from the world’s existence.

    Alas my brain is too small to determine what errors I might be smuggling in here and which ones you might disagree with. Perhaps one can say that, although God’s consciousness is one, different ‘elements’ of it (if that doesn’t mess up the unity) can be related in different logical ways to the world.

    Thank you for your author recommendations. If I appear overly critical or prone to simplifying, please understand that this down to my own lack of understanding and not any negative feelings towards your position: in fact desperately want your view to be true!

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    • David S says:

      Or to put it even more simply:
      1) God is conscious (being God ‘feels like’ something)
      2) This ‘feels like’ includes knowledge of the world, such that God’s consciousness would be different in content if the world that consciousness referred to were different.
      3) The sufficient conditions necessary for God to be conscious are not complete until after the last genuinely contingent free decision has been made.

      I don’t see how this argument is affected by Thomas’ account of knowledge, or whether we call God’s act of knowing the world a contingent/necessary/intrinsic/extrinsic/Cambridge/whatever property, or deny that it is a real property at all. So long as you admit that God is conscious of what God knows, surely it follows that God’s consciousness of what God knows logically comes after the thing known (assuming libertarian freedom with its genuine contingents). If God had multiple conscious acts, that might not be a problem, as you could have a ‘core’ conscious act that created the world, and other conscious acts that were (logically, not necessary temporally) subsequent to creation. But if it’s just one conscious act, as we both maintain, it seems that God cannot have his one conscious until a point logically subsequent to creation.

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    • Thomas says:

      Your questions didn’t come off as rude in the least — they were probing and thoughtful, and I couldn’t ask for a better reaction for something I’ve written. And thank you for your response, it’s interesting, and helpful to know your outlook. I’ll continue the tired preface that it’s a big topic to discuss in the short space of a comment, but I hope to write something longer on this if I get the time.

      My approach would be to back up to consider the question whether there can be, in God, a real distinction between essence and accident, then to consider whether the conscious knowledge of the sort that you articulated would qualify as an accident.

      1. To define the terms, essence refers to what a thing must be in order to be what it is. It is that reality which is grasped in the answer to the question “what is it?” Accident refers to a positive reality in a thing that is not in or of the essence. It refers to a way in which a thing might be, but need not be in order to be what it is.

      2. From (1), an accident is something in addition to an essence. For it is not part of the essence, but it is in the thing.

      3. God’s essence is pure, unrestricted being.

      4. What is simply other than being, is nothing. Put differently, there is no positive reality outside the ambit of being.

      5. God has no accidents. For his essence is pure being (3), and there is no positive reality outside being (4). An accident is a positive reality in a thing that is in addition to its essence (1). Therefore, God has no accidents.

      6. God is not different on account of the world. He cannot differ accidentally, for he has no accidents (5). He cannot differ essentially, for his nature is unrestricted being (3). To suppose that God could be different is to just to say that God has or could have some restricted mode of being: being this way rather than that.

      It seems to me that the conclusion at (6) would rule out (2) in your simpler formulation — that “God’s consciousness would be different in content if the world that consciousness referred to were different.” This, I think, qualifies as an accident as it is defined in (1). It is partly for this reason, I believe, that St. Thomas declares that the object of God’s knowledge is himself, and that the world is not known by God as a direct object, but in virtue of his self-knowledge.

      I suspect it is likely the debate hinges primarily on point (3), and secondarily on how we can make sense of God’s knowledge in light of the conclusion at (6). Though I welcome any objections to the formulation above as well.

      With respect point (3), Fr. Kimel was kind enough to run a previous article of mine on the subject here. My formulation is certainly not the best thing out there on this, and I’d recommend John Wippel, Joseph Owens, or Barry Miller’s treatment of this argument over mine. But at least I’m not evading making the argument myself.

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      • David S says:

        Thank you for your gracious response Thomas. I am more relieved than you might expect not to have caused offence.

        For me the most significant problem is what you correctly identify as the issue of how we can make sense of god’s knowledge in light of the conclusion at (6).. I take it that God’s knowledge must be occurrent knowledge – that is, knowledge that God is actually consciously aware of. I do not see how God could be said to know X if God were not consciously aware of X.

        I am not entirely certain whether we agree on this point or not. It would be good to clarify whether your basic claim is something like either of the two options below

        A) God can have knowledge of the world without actually being conscious of it, which is why we can say God knowing the world to be X rather than Y does not entail a difference in God’s conscious state.

        B) God’s knowledge of the world is conscious. But it is nevertheless possible for God to have conscious knowledge of the world being X rather than Y

        If your position is A) I would query how anything that is not conscious can be said to be knowledge. I would also question whether this introduces two different ‘ways of knowing’ in God, i.e. God is surely conscious of being Father, Son and Spirit – if God is conscious of that knowledge, why not be conscious of other knowledge? Are they not both knowledge?

        If your position is B), I am just not sure how it is possible to say that one’s consciousness can be the same and yet know different things. I appreciate your point that, for Thomas, God knows the world through knowing Godself, but I don’t see how this helps. Earlier you said:

        “We are familiar with cases where we, in a single act, grasp a number of cases (e.g., when we grasp the decimal system, we simultaneously understand the base-10 and base-60 systems, whereas before we grasped them in isolation). St. Thomas’ claim is that God, by virtue of understanding himself, understands all things.”

        But the reason we can understand base-10 and base-60 through grasping the decimal system is precisely because the nature/essence of the decimal system is such as to include all these bases. But the nature/essence of God does not include all our actions – especially as God is not determining those actions. You might say that the divine nature includes all possibilities, but surely for God to have knowledge of the world, that means knowing it the world as actual, not only as possible – i.e. not just knowing an infinite number of possibilities, but knowing the finite number of possibilities which are actually realised.

        It therefore seems that God does not know the world just through understanding Godself, but through understanding Godself in a way that includes how God relates to other things – which goes beyond just understanding the divine nature in abstract. But if how God relates to other things is not already determined eternally, I don’t see how God could have this knowledge – the knowledge logically doesn’t exist until after we have made those determinations.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          David,

          Perhaps this is helpful, this is how I approach this thorny subject of God’s relation to creation: while pantheism is soundly rejected, traditionally it is understood that God is beyond the I-Thou poles of distinction and relation. Which is another way of stating that God is not an object or being among other objects in relation to which he would be opposed to or distinct (as we are distinct from or opposed or similar to the other). So it is with St Augustine the strangeness of God as ‘interior intimo meo et superior summo meo’ can be affirmed. This is what transcendence means, God is beyond difference and similarity. But this has implications for and pertains to divine knowledge of the other, in that knowledge is not obtained, added to, revealed, approached, made conscious, and so forth; unlike knowledge is for the creature who does stand in the I-Thou relation among other objects and beings. Temporal determination does not condition God’s knowledge as it does so for the creature; hence ‘knowledge not logically existing’ is an inappropriate application of creaturely diastemic temporality foisted upon the divine adiastemic mode of being. I follow your logic, but I maintain for the reasons stated above, that such does not have purchase on God’s mode of being and knowledge. In my estimation Analogia Entis holds promise to approach God’s transcendence/immanence in terms made understandable to diastema.

          Liked by 3 people

          • David S says:

            Robert,

            Thanks for this. There is a difference between God being made conscious and being conscious of things made, is there not? Am I right in thinking that you perhaps have a stronger sense of the conscious nature of God’s knowledge than Thomas, but feel that God’s transcendence of the usual categories of existence make it possible for God to know non-determined things in the same logical moment that he himself determines?

            I still find this confusing. I am sympathetic to the general view that God’s transcendence does funny things to our usual categories, and perhaps here it does just put our notions of ‘logical priority’ out of a job. But I suppose I am thinking that God’s will is in some sense a conscious assent to a particular proposition – so God’s will is just God feeling ‘I will there to be a world’. But God’s will can’t be totally prescriptive of everything humans choose, given that we all will various nasties that God could never will, and that if we are genuinely autonomous then the outcomes of our autonomous actions can’t already be determined in God’s will in eternity.

            Anyway, I still find myself thinking that God’s knowledge of free actions must in some sense come ‘after’ those actions – not temporally, but logically, in the sense that we are responsible for determining whether various possible truthmakers for God’s knowledge come to exist or not, and God’s knowledge is dependent on those truthmakers.

            I suppose it’s like someone in the present sending a message back in time to the past, with the effect that it has some direct and immediate result on that person’s present state.
            We might then think of God’s being as having a certain element of futurity over the world – I know we shouldn’t be thinking in temporal categories, but I think in some ways the future is more analogous to God’s eternity than the past, inasmuch that it includes God’s perfect knowledge of free actions that could normally only be known if those actions were in a certain analogous sense ‘past’ to the knowledge-bearer, and also that God is the future of the world who always remains ahead of us. Many scientists argue that genuine retro-causation is possible and actual in this universe – personally, I don’t think I can rule it out as a logical possibility. So maybe something analogous to retro-causation is going on in eternity – while eternity is in a certain sense dependent on the world for God’s knowledge (not that God is caused to change by the world, but that God’s knowledge is dependent on truthmakers that actions in the world autonomously determine), the world nevertheless depends on God for its existence.

            This still sounds fairly paradoxical to me, but maybe that’s not the same thing as logically impossible.

            Maybe we could also say that God’s will is just so perfect, that in a certain sense the actions accomplished by God’s will are in a certain sense accomplished ‘before’ God even wills them. I suppose the problem of human free will and eternity is really the same as asking can God generate a random number machine and get the output in the same instant – it is almost as the random number machine’s ‘operation’ of generating the number takes place in a point prior to God willing the existence of the machine. Perhaps the ‘nothingness’ that the world was created out of is so subservient to God that it somehow anticipates and carries out God’s will before God wills it. Perhaps that makes more sense when we bear in mind that the world, created out of nothingness, remains forever a kind of nothingness, poised between non-being and the only real Being that is God. We occupy a kind of phantom, imaginary time, a time in which God does not really exist.

            One rather more literalistic and overly analytical way of conceiving this might be imagining that there is a conscious and unconscious element in God – perhaps not a real distinction in God in light of divine simplicity, but if God is transcendent then surely as there are some aspects of God’s will that are analogous to our own conscious experience, there are other aspects which are disanalogous and so in a certain sense unconscious. (if it helps, I am partial to using the idea of the ‘formal distinction’, i.e. a distinction midway between a real and purely notional distinction, when thinking about simplicity). We might then conceive of the ‘unconscious part’ (terrible language I know) causing the world, and the ‘conscious part’, while equally necessary to the unconscious part’s causing, not ‘waking up’ until the results of God’s will has been carried out. But as this is all in timeless eternity, there is no waiting for God, God’s power is so great that the nothingness of the world does God’s bidding before He even asks.

            Sorry if these thoughts are unhelpful and half-formed, I’m throwing ideas around and trying to see whether anything sticks I suppose!

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            David,

            While I affirm with you that we are truly free to make determinations not predetermined by God, I also maintain that our free determinations do not ‘come after’ to God’s knowledge (conscious or otherwise, I don’t think the distinction holds – God either knows or He doesn’t, to know is to be aware, is to fully know, for God): our free choices are not successively revealed to God as they are determined by us during the unfolding of time. I have a feeling Fr Norris’ response to Hartshorne’s panentheism, will likely be of interest to your inquiries. Following Fr Norris, our free actions make a difference, but do not change God. Good questions!

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        • David S says:

          (apologies, I didn’t quite finish my thoughts on B – it should read more like the below)

          B) God’s knowledge of the world is conscious. So God’s knowledge that the world is X, rather than Y, is genuinely conscious. Yet God’s consciousness is mysteriously ‘the same’ whether God is conscious that X is the case or whether he is conscious that Y is the case.

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      • Thomas says:

        I think it is helpful to distinguish two separate stages of the debate. The first stage is related to God’s essence (I’m referring to my 6-stage argument), and the second is related to the sense in which God is said to know created things.

        If my argument at the first stage is sound (and I realize that is a big if), then it resolves the issue of whether God is different on account of his knowledge of the world than he would be otherwise. Put differently, if that six-stage argument holds, then there is no wiggle room: God is not different, he cannot be different, on account of the world. Any account of God’s knowledge that supposes otherwise must be denied.

        The second stage is constrained by the first. If the first stage is established, this means that however we say that God knows, or is conscious, we cannot attribute a theory of knowledge that attributes contingency to God. This is consistent with St. Thomas’ position that we predicate unmixed perfections (i.e., perfections which do not entail limitation, contingency, or finitude) of God analogically, and we predicate mixed perfections (i.e., perfections which do contain or entail limitation, contingency, or finitude) metaphorically. So we say that God is good analogically, that he is strong metaphorically.

        The approach to the specific question of whether God is conscious of the world in a way that entails some difference in God were he not conscious can be resolved at the first stage. If my argument there holds, he is not, and there is no two ways about it. A defense of that sort of consciousness in God would require showing the flaw in the argument at Stage 1. If, however, we both accept the conclusion of the first stage, then we have a different discussion at the second stage: what account of divine knowledge, if any, is viable given that we cannot attribute contingency (including some conscious difference), finitude, or limitation to God?

        I certainly have thoughts on the second stage (the sense in which God is said to know, or to be conscious). But to my mind, the second stage cannot be clarified until after the first stage is resolved. My position is that it is premature to discuss Stage 2 until we have some resolution on Stage 1. At least in the context of this conversation, since any argument I would offer on God’s knowledge (Stage 2) would be predicated upon the conclusion about God’s nature at Stage 1.

        Liked by 2 people

        • David S says:

          I agree that it is helpful to distinguish between these two separate stages. Certainly what we think about one must impact the way the way we think about the other, and I understand that you want to interpret our discussion of God’s knowledge through the lens of God’s simplicity. But why begin at this stage? Could we not reverse the order and posit that the first-order claim about God must be that God is love, and that such love will naturally involve a genuine conscious knowledge of the beloved?

          I can see why the arguments for the very strong form of divine simplicity you advocate are persuasive, but I am not sure that this alone can determine our approach to every other doctrine – if something else theologically important (and I think the claim that God genuinely has knowledge of us and loves us in our particularity is pretty important) can’t be interpreted satisfactorily in light of simplicity, maybe our account of simplicity needs some work. The trinitarian nature of the divine being certainly adds some nuance into account of simplicity anyway, but that does not mean that simplicity has been abandoned.

          Whether something needs to budge here depends in part, I think, on whether we can find an account of divine knowledge that doesn’t involve a potentially different conscious state in the knower.

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          • Thomas says:

            If there were a a strong deductive argument that God is love, and that love entails contingency, we’d have an antinomy: both arguments could not be true, and one would have to go. The task of identifying a flaw with the first stage argument could not be avoided; resolving the antimony would require it.

            The reason I start with the other proof is that I believe it is a strong deductive proof that rests on premises that are certain. Grant that there exist things, and the argument proceeds deductively. Or, on a different variation of the same argument, grant that there exists some sort of change, and the rest follows.

            It seems to me that if both arguments are true, it both proves the theistic point and establishes the existence of another separate intelligence. For instance, I can grant for the sake of argument Swinburne’s claim that there exists a loving, powerful, and impeccably well-behaved entity. That conclusion is not inconsistent with the first stage argument I have presented. If both arguments hold, we have two beings: one that has contingent states (from Swinburne’s argument), and one that does not, with the former dependent on the latter for its existence (from the first stage argument). Confusion only arises here on a verbal level, because the term “God” has been used of the dependent being. But the term “God”, applied to both entities resulting from this argument, has different referents and different senses.

            That is, if the argument for contingency in conscious states is correct and the first stage argument is correct, the success of both arguments would result (it seems to me) in the affirmation of two beings: one a dependent being with contingent conscious states (something like an angel or demiurge), and the other being subsisting immutably and infinitely, as the source by which all other things exist. The two conclusions are not directly inconsistent. So, for the sake of argument at least, I am willing to grant an argument that concludes to the existence of a powerful, immaterial being with contingent conscious states who perhaps even played a role in the formation of our universe.

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          • Thomas says:

            That first paragraph should read: “we would have, at best, an antimony”. The rest of the comment argues it probably would not in fact be an antimony.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Thomas and David,

    Forgive me for intruding into what really is a fine conversation. I have not been able to follow the arguments closely (Dionysius has demanded all of my attention), but I after skimming through the most recent comments, two thoughts came to mind:

    1) I want to reiterate a point that has already been made: God knows what he is doing. That is to say, he knows the world, in every detail, in the most intimate and complete way possible, because he is sustaining it in being at every moment in his eternal act of creation. He does not know entities and events as we know them. He knows them by creating them. The challenge here is to keep this always in mind as we struggle to understand the kinds of questions with which you guys are wrestling.

    2) I believe you need to push back your analyses to a prior question: Did God freely “choose” to create the world? Can we make even make sense of this question? If we can’t, then we certainly cannot answer the question about God’s consciousness of contingent realities. My recent readings in both Dionysius and Plotinus have made me aware than I ever was before of the difficulties here, given the divine simplicity. You may wish to read Plotinus’s discussion of freedom in Ennead VI.8.

    Ignore the above if you do not find it helpful or relevant.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Relevant to the above discussions are the reflections of Norris Clarke, e.g., his critique of Hartshorne.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David S says:

      That’s two recommendations of Norris Clarke’s critique of Hartshorne on this thread! I had better pay attention.

      Clarke definitely represents the view I want to believe! i.e. it combines a strong sense that we are truly free to make determinations apart from God, alongside a strong sense of the reality of God’s foreknowledge as a genuine conscious reality in God. I agree it is sensible to distinguish God’s real being and God’s intentional being, in the sense that God’s infinite joy and plentitude is not added to in the sense of being increased by God’s relations with the world, and yet God has genuine conscious experience that would be different were we to have acted differently.

      Unfortunately, while these two positions are strongly asserted, I’m not sure whether Clarke examines the problem I am concerned about which, to repeat, is basically 1) God has but one unitary consciousness; 2) to safeguard human free will we want to claim that while some of God’s consciousness is necessary (e.g. God know Godself as Triune) while other elements of that consciousness are dependent upon the world (e.g. our free determined acts); but 3) the existence of God’s consciousness as a whole (as it is a unity) is therefore logically consequent on our decisions; 4) how then can God’s consciousness be ontologically prior to this world?

      I suppose Clarke might respond that there is nothing contradictory here: the necessary element of God’s consciousness would exist in any event, the fact that another element of God’s consciousness is dependent on the world does not deny the ontological priority of the necessary element of God’s consciousness, that just is the divine plentitude. But I still find this problematic if it all takes places in one single divine moment.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        David, Clarke discusses his proposal regarding the intentional consciousness of God in his book The Philosophical Approach to God.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “the existence of God’s consciousness as a whole (as it is a unity) is therefore logically consequent on our decisions”

        David, the classical tradition, both East and West, would reject this statement, I believe. Certainly Aquinas would. God neither observes historical events as a bystander, nor does he “respond” to them in the ordinary, temporal-laden sense of the word. He knows everything in the eternal event of creation. He knows what he does. Human decision-making is not some kind of God-free zone. How could it be? God is necessarily the transcendent “cause” of my every thought, every decision, every act of will, every action. If it were otherwise, there would be no thought, decision, act of will, action. It’s not as if God creates a stage and then watches us from the balcony. The interaction of divine and creaturely agency is far more mysterious and probably inexplicable. The logical priority of God is asserted in the claim of Aquinas that God knows contingent creaturely events by knowing himself, and in knowing himself he knows what he does. Or as the Thomists like to say, God’s knowledge of the world is causal.

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        • David S says:

          I agree we should keep this insight (that God knows what God does, and that God’s knowledge of the world is causal). However its implications are not always obvious. If cause meant determining, it would be easy to see how God’s causality caused God to know: in choosing to determine X, obviously X occurs. But in in the account presented by Thomas in this article, he is clear that causation does not entail determination. So it is hard to see how the causing enables the causer to know what happens.

          Now the laws of physics clearly ’cause’ things in the world, although they are not regular efficient causes in the sense that a billiard ball hitting another one is a cause. They cause the whole system to be in a radically different kind of causality – the relationship between physical laws and actual physical causes are not totally disanalogous to God’s primary and secondary causality, I think.

          Let’s think of the laws of motion – none of this fancy new-fangled quantum stuff, just basic mechanics If the laws of motion were somehow conscious and self-aware in a purely Newtonian universe, they would ‘know’ their effects: because these laws of physics are such and such, they inexorably determine that certain events will happen.

          But imagine that instead the laws of quantum mechanics in our indeterministic universe were conscious and self-aware. Quantum events are, the scientists tell us, governed by probabilistic laws. When a random quantum event occurs – say an isotope with a 50% chance of decaying at a certain point happens to do so – that specific event is in a sense ’caused’ by quantum laws, even though they do not specify or determine what actually happens. Are the conscious quantum laws able through their causality, given nothing about the nature of the cause determines what happens? Here I am less sure.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        It’s only problematic in my estimation IF we utilize terms univocally – such in which the single divine moment is precisely as a single moment in time is for us. Creation however is not the prototype – it is analogous to God, and the likeness to God in creation always falls short of, is dissimilar to, the Prototype. Analogy therefore is understood to present us with a profound asymmetry, an infinite interval of dissimilarity. While true likeness is maintained, we cannot on the other hand reduce the interval by slipping into univocity. Like the infamous TV commercials it must be insisted that “but wait, there’s more!” A single divine moment – but wait there’s more – a moment of what? Surely not a moment of time, with a past, present, and future. Subject God to diastemic succession and we have ourselves a man-writ-large, a god who gains perfection over time, acquiring knowledge, experience, etc. who participates in some thing or some one more original, and who is acted upon. I rather understand the Alpha and Omega of scripture to be God in whom everything else participates, who is the Existing One, who has and requires no cause to be fully who He is eternally without change.

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        • David S says:

          Is there anything specific in my account that you think smuggles in a temporal sense of ‘moment’? I am trying to think of these as merely ‘logical’ moments, with no thought as to what that might feel like and without trying to introduce the notion of temporal succession. I am thinking of something similar to the logical orders of God’s decree as conceived in supra vs infralapsarianism.

          I am assuming that God does not simply *have* an infinite act of consciousness but, according to simplicity, God just *is* an infinite act of consciousness. This consciousness must be the cause of all things – there is no God standing behind the infinite act of consciousness, God’s existence is coincident with, or identical with, God’s consciousness.

          One could compare God’s consciousness to a visual field. Perhaps we could imagine the centre as being God’s consciousness of God’s triune life as Father, Son and Spirit, while God’s consciousness of the world perhaps occupies God’s peripheral vision.

          Is it coherent to say that the centre of God’s vision ’causes’ creation to exist, creation responds in free decision, which in turn informs God’s peripheral vision? This seems difficult given that a visual field exists as a whole: the centre cannot exist without the periphery.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            “Is there anything specific in my account that you think smuggles in a temporal sense of ‘moment’?”

            Specifically, yes, because you are finding a ‘single divine moment’ problematic, and it would seem to me to be problematic only if we think of it as temporal (that is to say that God’s way of experiencing and knowing the single divine moment is univocally understood as our experience and knowledge of a moment). And if conceived of as a logical moment, as you suggest, then why smuggle the sense of succession of temporality (past, present, future – ‘first this happens, then that follows after’ ‘first I do this, then God knows’) into it?

            “Is it coherent to say that the centre of God’s vision ’causes’ creation to exist, creation responds in free decision, which in turn informs God’s peripheral vision? “

            Yes, but coherent only analogously, not univocally.

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          • David S says:

            Am I smuggling in a temporal ‘first this, then that’ though? I am not sure that my problem is that I am imagining that some time must pass between God creating and our free response. It is just, if God’s act of consciousness is ultimately one thing, I am not sure it is coherent to imagine that some parts of it cause the world, while other parts are in a certain sense caused by (or otherwise dependent upon the truthmakers of) the world. Like ‘parts’ of a visual field, while conceptually distinguishable, they cannot exist or do anything alone, but only as part of a unity. My seeing one item in my visual field is not separate from my seeing a second item in my visual field: it is all just one instance of seeing, a single conscious unity. In fact I would say they form a logically inseparable unity. It seems difficult then to imagine how part of the same visual field could be dependent on acts that are somehow caused by, but not determined, by the contents of the other half of the visual field.

            Let X be God’s knowledge of being triune and other necessary truths, and Y be God’s knowledge of contingent events

            X causes the world to exist, human responses cause certain truthmakers to exist, and those truthmakers enable Y to exist (in the specific formulation that it takes, depending on what actually happens in the real world). Now it seems to me that God creating the world is a different ‘logical moment’ to creation’s free response to God, i.e. my choices are not identical with God’s act of being God.

            But if it is one act of consciousness, X cannot exist at the same moment – and that is a logical moment, not just a temporal one! – without Y. God’s consciousness is not X, then Y, but just XY. So X cannot cause the world alone, but only XY – God’s consciousness must be specified ‘in full’ in order to be conscious at all. But how can XY cause the world, if Y is dependent on the world, and so XY logically follows the world, not the other way around? Or to reverse the dilemma, how can our actions truly be free to determine Y, if Y is already fixed as part of XY in the single logical moment of creation?

            This is tricky for me to comprehend, even if only conceived analogically 🙂 Perhaps you are right though, an I am fruitlessly trying to imagine a ‘moment’ at which God makes the decision to create, rather than the One who simply lets things be and gives space for creation.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            David,

            Not just let things be, but God knows future contingents (i.e. our free determinations in the future) because He is their eternal cause. If you haven’t already, Fr Shanley’s essay on God’s causal knowledge, to which Fr Aidan has posted a link, you may find particularly rewarding (see for instance the last paragraph on p 451, but really the whole essay speaks to your inquiry).

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  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    For everyone’s interest: Aquinas on God’s Causal Knowledge

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  11. David S says:

    Robert, if God’s knowledge is logically-prior to our actions -in the sense that God’s knowledge of the specifics of what I do is primary, and is the reason that I do what I do, I do not see how one can hold those actions to be free (or only in the sense believed by Hugh McCann, whom I believe you disagree with).

    If this just means that God is logically prior to the world, and that by virtue God existing, we are able to make certain decisions, which God enables and sustains and keeps in existence without determining them (similar to quantum mechanical laws causing but not determining a genuinely random quantum event, as in my example above), then I accept this may be a coherent explanation of how God could in a certain sense be said to cause our actions while we still remain free.

    I have to say that my reading of Fr Shanley is that he takes a position very similar to McCann and that I don’t see evidence in his views for the very robust kind of libertarian action I think you believe in. On p. 456, for example, when explaining how God’s causal knowledge enables him to know what God is doing, he states that ‘in cases of intentional act, the agent knows in knowing what he is doing’. If the reason I do what I do is because God intends that I do it, that does not seem to be an example of something merely caused but not determined by God, but simply determined.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      David, I do not think the distinction between logical or temporal priority is helpful, nor is it necessary to explain God’s knowledge of future, free contingents. Why? because both imply succession – first this, then that – which, I contend, amounts to importing diastemic, univocal conceptions into the atemporal, adiastemic divine mode of knowing and being. Which is to say that for God to know about free contingent event A (be it in our past, present, or future), contingent event A does not need to happen first (and then after, God knows). There is no first this, and then that – neither logically, nor temporally; consequently, there is no reception of knowledge. Adiastemic, divine knowledge of contingents which are caused freely by secondary agency is by way of being their eternal cause.

      I mention secondary agency, as it should not be overlooked that this is an integral part of understanding Aquinas (and Shanley in this case) theology of divine knowledge – the distinction and connection, between first and secondary causality, or as Aquinas puts it more cogently, “the effects of secondary causes are ultimately grounded in first causes.” This is how God knows: as their first eternal cause, God knows free future acts of secondary causes. So, we must then make a distinction between primary and secondary agency to understand the argument Fr Shanley puts forth. With this in mind the meaning of the passage on p456 (‘in cases of intentional act, the agent knows in knowing what he is doing’) Shanley is speaking about our actions and how we know about them, the actions we make as free, intentional agents. Following Fr Shanley, and I believe he makes a powerful point, we have knowledge of our free actions by reason of willing and causing our free actions – the reason you know your actions is because you are their cause. We do not receive this knowledge, and neither does God as their first cause. This I understand to be Fr Shanley’s immediate point on p.456.

      So I suggest that God knows the free actions of secondary agents before they happen – before, after: these are immaterial for the eternal cause of all. Furthermore, the intentionality of secondary causality, what we freely will, is known not by God’s determination but by being their primary cause.

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      • David S says:

        Robert, I would say that the reason that I know my actions is because I am consciously determining them, not simply because I am causing them. If I attempt to teach a student some fact, I could determine to give a lecture and speak certain words to them. By virtue of determining to say this or that, I know that I am in fact saying this or that. I may or may not ’cause’ the students to learn – this depends, at least partially, on the students. Should I happen to cause the students to learn, my causal role in the process would not in any way explain any knowledge I might have about the fact they have learning.

        The issue is confused, I think, because in everyday usage, ’cause’ means pretty much the the same thing as ‘determine’. The reason that we can say that we know our actions by causing them is that there is usually something about the nature of the cause that specifies what happens. The effects are already ‘written in’, as it were, to the cause. But if the effects of God’s actions – my actions – are already ‘written in’ to God’s cause, I do not see how I could be free, other than in the sense used by McCann. Whereas if the effects are not ‘written in’ to the cause, it does not appear clear how causing those effects functions as an explanation for how those effects are known.

        When talking about things being ‘logically prior’ I am not trying to imply ‘this, then that’ but assert some causal hierachy into the picture. Is the Father not in a certain sense the ’cause’ of the Son, but without any temporal interval or gap? Is God not the cause of the universe, but without this implying that the universe follows temporally after God?

        Btw, I feel embarrassed to admit that I am not entirely sure how ‘diastemic’ is being used here – most of my googling reveals only sedimentary rocks and people with interesting teeth 🙂

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Yes of course the Father is the cause of the Son without interval of time; however, your inquiry is specifically about God’s relation to free contingent agency in time, and time implies succession, which requires that first A (my free choice) then B (knowledge of A) follows. One cannot have B before A, temporally, logically. Using logical priority I contend introduces succession: first A then follows B, for one cannot have B before A. This is particularly so as it concern the question of God’s knowledge of free future contingent agency. It applies to God’s knowledge of A due to, I understand you to claim, God’s logical priority; and hence you conclude we can’t be truly free (first God determines, then we do what God has logically prior determined). Priority/succession, in time or logic, has no purchase for God’s knowledge as the eternal first cause of secondary causes.

          Diastema denotes gap or interval (like people with interesting teeth), but theologically (and patristically) specifically making reference to the creaturely mode of existence beset with interval of space and time, and consequently also marked by imperfection, fragmentation, acquisition, potentiality, and so forth; this is in contradistinction to adiastemic Uncreated.

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          • David S says:

            Is it right to say then that, on your view, God’s ‘causing’ me to do X and my free choice to do X are equally ‘logically’ basic?

            I’m not sure in what sense God’s causing is ‘primary’ if there is no question of priority – all I think I mean by ‘logical priority’ is that God’s cause is the reason why our causes are able to exist, rather than the other way around.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            I have no problem using primary or secondary, with the proviso that diastema is not used, explicitly or implicitly, when applied to God as eternal cause. And that is the crux of the matter, as I see it.

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  12. David S says:

    I meant to say, thank you for the diastema explanation!

    I’m not certain I understand what a non-diastemic cause would be though. When I say ‘X causes Y’ I just mean that the reason Y (say, the world) exists is because of X (say, God). Isn’t this appropriately described as ‘this, then that’ in the sense that Y is the reason X exists, not the other way around (which is surely a logical, if not always temporal, relationship)?

    But I sense we are not in disagreement over the adiastemic nature of God’s act of creating, so my confusion over logical priority is likely terminological (I’m sure we both agree that God is the reason the world exists!). I still find it hard to grasp how causing something offers an explanation for knowledge if that cause if not determinative though.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Yes, I find it hard to grasp too, as surely we haven’t explained the mystery of adiastemic existence. However, I do find it coherent to say that as the eternal, primary cause God is the ultimate ground of all secondary causation, and therefore as such has knowledge of all future contingencies without thereby determining them. I find analogous predication most helpful to remind me of the profound dissimilarity adiastema presents to theology. We must maintain the analogous similarity “God is truly like this” and follow it up immediately with the disproportionately (i.e. infinitely) greater dissimilarity and say “God is truly unlike it”. The comparison, true as it is, is always surpassed by an interval of difference. This difference, transcendence, is expressed in the affirmation that God does not belong to the hierarchy of beings. Dionysius makes a big fuss about this.

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