Aquinas and Divine Freedom: To Know the Divine Essence is to Know the Cosmos

If God is eternal, immutable, and incomposite, how is it that his creation of the cosmos is not a necessary, and thus unfree and fettered, act? We have raised this question in two earlier postings on St Dionysius: “Transcending Freedom and Necessity” and “Divine Knowledge, Creation, and Modal Collapse.” The Areopagite does not directly address the question, and some readers have found unconvincing my attempts to formulate a Dionysian response. (Not to worry: I’m only convinced on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays—it’s hard to be totally convinced about anything when traveling beyond the dimensions of beingly being.) But St Thomas Aquinas addresses the question head-on in several of his writings. We shall explore his answer in this blog-series, with particular focus on the Summa Contra Gentiles.

In The Divine Names Dionysius asserts that God knows beings by knowing himself as the transcendent cause of reality: “God knows beings by a knowledge of God, and not by a knowledge of beings” (DN VII.2). Thomas develops this argument by demonstrating and elaborating the intelligence of God (SCG I.44-71) and then reworks it in terms of divine volition and free creation (I.72-96). His argument proceeds along the following distilled lines.

1) God is intelligent (SCG I.44).

How could he not be? In that God is the metaphysical explanation for the movement from potentiality to actuality—in other words, the explanation for the phenomenon of change—he is properly described as the “first self-moving being” and “absolutely unmoved mover.”  This self-movement implies the ability to apprehend the Good. Thomas advances several arguments in support of his thesis. If you still doubt that God is intelligent (and if you do, why are you reading this blog?), check out this chapter of the Summa.

2)  The divine intelligence is identical to his essence (SCG I.44-48).

This thesis is not surprising, given Thomas’s understanding of the divine simplicity. As Brian Davies explains: “Aquinas holds that all that is in God is God, that there is no distinction between the individual God is and the nature that God has, and that there is no distinction between God’s essence (essentia) and existence (esse). Such a position seems to entail that if God has knowledge, that knowledge is not an attribute that God has but is nothing other than the being or essence of God” (Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, p. 104). We cannot, of course, understand how this can be; but we can see that it logically must be. If God is intelligent, then he is his intelligence:

To understand is the act of one understanding, residing in him, not proceeding to something as heating proceeds to the heated thing. For, by being understood, the intelligible suffers nothing; rather, the one understood is perfected. Now, whatever is in God is the divine essence. God’s act of understanding, therefore, is His essence, it is the divine being, God himself. For God is His essence and His being. (I.45.2)

As the infinite plenitude and actuality of Being, God does not need beings external to himself to exercise intelligence; otherwise, he would be a composite of potentiality and actuality and thus a being. “Primarily and essentially,” Thomas writes, “God knows only himself … that by which God understands is nothing other than His essence. Therefore, the primary and essential object of His intellect is nothing other than Himself” (I.48.1-2). God knows himself.

3) In knowing himself God knows the beings he brings into existence (SCG I.49).

This is a key move. We tend to think of God as knowing beings analogous to the way we know beings—by observing them. But, says Aquinas, God’s knowledge of beings is unique: he knows them by knowing his essence; in this self-knowing he knows himself as their efficient cause and causing:

But God Himself is through His essence the cause of being for other things. Since He has a most full knowledge of His essence, we must posit that God also knows other things. (I.49.2)

Again, whoever knows perfectly a given thing knows whatever can be truly said of it and whatever befits it according to its nature. But it befits God according to His nature to be the cause of other things. Since, then, God knows Himself perfectly, He knows Himself to be a cause. This cannot be unless He somehow knows what He causes. This is other than He, since nothing is the cause of itself. Therefore, God knows things other than Himself. (I.49.4)

We may describe this unique mode of knowing as causal. God is not a passive observer of finite beings. His knowledge of others is neither dependent upon nor changed by their active self-presencing. If he were, he would be a composite of actuality and potentiality. God is causative of what is known. He is the ultimate quantum mechanic.

For us, beings enjoy subsistence independent of our cognitive act. The tree is there and I perceive it in its thereness. Philosophers will debate precisely what this means and how it is possible for us to know other beings (Thomas has his own thoughts about this); but the critical point is that the existence of the other is logically prior to our knowing of the other. The tree does not suddenly spring into being by my sensible and intellectual apprehension of it. It exists without my permission. But this cannot be true for God. God and creatures are distinct, yet distinct differently than the way beings are distinct from one another. Simon Oliver lucidly describes the difference:

There is only one focus of being, only one true existent, namely God. Creation, in itself, is nothing. It exists by sharing in or borrowing God’s existence according to its own finite mode of being. Creation is not outside or alongside God as an alternative focus of being, as if God and creation were separate things. In an important sense, creation is ‘in’ God and yet radically distinct because God, who is being itself, is the only source of what Aquinas calls esse commune—‘being in common’ or ‘created being’. To put the matter succinctly, God and creation do not share an abstract thing called ‘being’ in common. Creation has a participation in God’s being. Whereas God’s being is simple and one, it is received in creation in many and divided ways. This is the basis of what later became known as the analogy of being or the analogia entis. Creation exists by analogy to God who exists eternally in himself. (Creation, p. 72)

While creation is really distinct from God, the difference between God and creation is not like the difference between creatures. Why not? Take the example of the desk at which I sit. The difference between the desk and me belongs to both the desk and me. Our material natures—the wood of the desk and my body—constitute us an individual creature standing alongside each other. The difference between the desk and me is symmetrical: the desk constitutes itself as this desk and I constitute myself as this human person. The difference between God and creation, however, is not symmetrical. Creation does not establish itself as other than God in the way that the desk establishes itself as other than me. Why not? Because that would imply that creation has a self-standing, autonomous existence outside its relation to God. Rather, the source of creation’s difference from God is God’s creative act. It is God who holds creation as other than himself. In other words, unlike the desk’s difference from me, the difference that creation has from God is not properly creation’s own; it is given by God. It is ‘improper’ in the sense that it does not belong to creation to be other than God except insofar as God grants that otherness. Rather than picturing creation as standing alongside God and then receiving his gracious gifts, we are better to think even of the capacity to be a recipient of God’s gifts, including the gift of existence, as itself a gift of God. There is nothing in the relation of creation to God that lies outside God’s infinite gratuity. It is God who holds creation as other than himself so that creation can receive a participation in his likeness. If we follow the implications of creation ex nihilo faithfully, we cannot ground the difference between God and creation anywhere except in the gratuity of God’s act of creation, for outside that divine gratuity there is nothing. We can say that creation has its own existence and integrity, but it is an existence and integrity that is received from God’s gratuity. (pp. 73-74)

God is not a being but the transcendent act of being—Ipsum Esse Subsistens. God knows himself and in this self-knowing grasps himself as the doing of the world, both in its totality and particulars. Aquinas insists that we think together God’s knowledge of the divine essence and his knowledge of creatures. In one eternal, simple, and comprehensive act of self-knowing, God knows what he does and does what he knows. In Thomas’s words: “God knows Himself as primarily and essentially known, whereas He knows other things as seen in His essence”  (I.49.5). God does not know beings by observing or perceiving them. He knows them by creating them, by bringing them into existence and thus granting them to participate in the existence that he is. His knowledge, therefore, extends to everything that exists: “Moreover, in knowing His essence, God knows other things in the same way as an effect is known through a knowledge of the cause. By knowing His essence, therefore, God knows all things to which His causality extends” (I.68.3).

There are several more steps to Thomas’s argument, but this much should suffice to get the discussion rolling. Stay tuned for the rest of the story.

(Go to “The Willing God”)

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75 Responses to Aquinas and Divine Freedom: To Know the Divine Essence is to Know the Cosmos

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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  2. Good stuff here.

    Where it breaks down is #3. #3 introduces a real distinction in God – between him knowing himself simply, and him knowing other creatures. This posits at least two acts in God: God knowing himself simply, wherein he knows only himself, and him *also* knowing, by knowing himself, other things.

    If you say this act in God is really one and therefore not really distinct, then God knowing himself must be identical to God knowing creatures. But then creatures are identical to God, or God to creatures. If the act of God knowing himself is different from his act of knowing creatures, however – if, for instance, there is some sort of “reflection” whereby the divine essence “devises” creatures by contemplating his own essence (Aquinas uses this word, even while admitting its inadequacy*) – if, I say, these acts are really different, then they cannot both be God or in God. Or simplicity breaks down.

    The only distinctions in God’s simple act on classical theology are the distinctions between the persons. God’s knowledge of or relation to creatures thus cannot be a real distinction in him. Therefore God’s knowledge of creatures cannot be anything in him, nor identical to his act of knowing himself, nor a real relation in him, else creation becomes God.

    *https://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/QDdeVer3.htm control F “devises” to see the full quote, but here is the short of it:

    “The one first form to which all things are reduced is the divine essence, considered in itself. Reflecting upon this essence, the divine intellect devises—if I may use such an expression—different ways in which it can be imitated. The plurality of ideas comes from these different ways”

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    • #3 introduces a real distinction in God – between him knowing himself simply, and him knowing other creatures.

      Surely only a rational distinction; ‘real distinction’ would usually be taken to imply separation, composition, or relational opposition, all of which are inconsistent with the argument for (3).

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      • If you maintain that the distinction is not real, then there is no real act in God whereby he knows creatures – and the point stands. If however you maintain the distinction is real, then God has two acts: knowing himself and knowing creatures.

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        • There’s obviously, ex hypothesi, a real act in God whereby He knows creatures — that’s literally what (3) itself says. This is an entirely different question from the question of whether the distinction between knowing God and knowing creatures is a real distinction, rational distinction, virtual distinction, modal distinction, formal distinction, or any other; and the argument for (3) seems clearly inconsistent with its being a real distinction as this term would usually be used, because it rules out separability, composition, or opposition of relations. And if it’s a distinction that is not a real distinction, you cannot draw the conclusion that there are two acts without qualification, because ‘two’ usually implies separability or parthood. ‘Two’ can only be applied by an extended or a figurative sense, depending on exactly what the distinction is. It’s exactly like the distinction between intellect and will: ‘intellect’ and ‘will’ are not synonymous, so you cannot move in an inference directly from one to other without qualification, so there is some kind of distinction; the distinction of intellect and will cannot be what is usually called a real distinction (because (2) rules out separability, composition, or relative opposition for intellect and will); but saying that God has two different powers, without qualification simply doesn’t follow for a distinction weaker than a real distinction.

          Likewise, ‘knowing God’ and ‘knowing creatures’ are not by any stretch of the imagination synonymous, so they cannot be conflated in reasoning even when talking about God; the distinction proposed by (3) cannot be what is usually called a real distinction, because the argument for (3) rules out separability, composition, or opposition of relations; but you can’t say that God has two acts of knowledge, without qualification, precisely because of the first two points.Of course, it could be that you have some unusual definition of ‘real distinction’ that you have in mind.

          In short: even leaving aside the fact that individuation of acts (as opposed to, say, ways acts can be understood) can be a difficult question even in human cases, the distinction that is required for counting real things (rather than terms we use or the like) has fairly strict requirements; but everybody recognizes distinctions that are genuine but weaker than this.

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          • I appreciate this interaction. Not sure where to go with it. Are you asserting something?

            Do you hold that the divine essence is identical to God’s knowing creatures?

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          • My assertion is that (3) doesn’t have the implication that you suggested, on either side of the dilemma — it does not introduce a real distinction, and therefore does not involve the separability or composition that would be required to draw the conclusion that there are, in a proper sense, two acts (rather than a metonymy by counting descriptions of acts, or the like); but it does introduce a weaker form of distinction, and thus does not allow the conclusion that creatures are identical to God. Both horns of your dilemma seem inconsistent with how (3) is actually argued. For instance, the argument for (3) is that God knows creatures, not because He learns it from creatures by observation, but because He knows their creative cause, Himself, perfectly. This argument requires that there be in some sense one act, knowing an effect by knowing the cause, but it also requires a distinction between knowing the cause and knowing the effect.

            It’s very roughly analogous to one single act being describable as ‘going up the road’ and ‘going to the library’; they happen to refer to the same thing (the referent of one is identical to the referent of the other), but they don’t say the same thing about it (what one says of the referent is not identical to what the other says). If I go to the library by going up the road, it would be wrong to say that I had performed two separate or different acts, going up the road and going to the library, because what I did was one act describable either way; but going up the road and going to the library are not perfectly interchangeable — for instance, if you ask why I have a stack full of books, “I went up the road” is not a good answer but “I went to the library” is, whereas if you want to know why you didn’t see me crossing the field to the library, knowing I went up the road might be useful for understanding that but knowing I went to the library is not.

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          • Thanks for this. Just now seeing it. For some reason I don’t get notified when people reply to threads.

            I agree that God knows creatures by knowing himself as cause. But this act of knowing cannot be identical to the divine essence. This is because God does is not necessarily a cause. He is only a cause on the supposition that he creates. Had God not created, he would not cause the world.

            Also, if God is identical to knowing creatures – or if he knows them intrinsically by knowing himself, or if he necessarily knows them by knowing himself – then God is essentially referred to that which is not himself. He then essentially becomes “that which can create.” If he is not this essentially, then when we are talking about God’s act of knowing creatures, then we are not talking about the divine essence itself.

            The analogy of the library does not capture the situation. It would if we were using incomplete notions to describe the divine essence – like goodness, life, necessity, etc. But to say the single act of God’s existence is identical to two notions, one of which refer to the divine essence, and one of which refer to something other than it, is to no longer be referring to the divine essence alone. It is the same with calling God’s act of existing both contingent and necessary. These properties are contradictory – like created and uncreated, simple and complex, temporal and timeless. Presumably, you do not think the divine essence is both created and uncreated, etc.? If not, why not? And how can it both be identical to knowing itself, and knowing not-itself (creatures?)

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Chris, there’s a little box below the comment box (the one in which you type your comment) that you have to check in order to receive notifications. At least there is one in my browser; but given that I’m always logged-in to WordPress, it may be different for me than for others.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      For “knowing” to be an action, surely it has to mean knowing in the intellectual or analytical sense, distinguishing this from that and understanding something’s properties and actions? I can’t see how passive awareness / contemplation of oneself without comprehending any properties, actions or distinctions between oneself and others can be described as “action”: indeed such a state in mystical traditions is usually held up as the quintessential example of complete inaction. Since, absent any action by God, God has no properties nor is there anything from which he might be distinguished or to which he might relate, God’s self knowledge other than in relation to his act of creation must be passive self knowledge / contemplation of this kind.

      If such a state is inaction, any self-knowing by God as an action will be his knowing of himself in relation to and in creation of his creatures. In such a case it is difficult to see how God’s knowing that a creature is created and knowing that he is creating / has created it can be sensibly categorised as two separate actions – saying that God’s knowing himself and knowing his creatures is the same action doesn’t break down the distinction between creator and created since it is very the creation of and knowing of this distinction which is the subject of God’s “knowing”.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Iain, may I suggest an alternative interpretation—namely, the passive/active dichotomy cannot apply to the transcendent One who is infinite actuality, Ipsum Esse Subsistens. What could it possibly mean to think of God as either active or passive? Certainly he is not passive in his act of creation, given that at every moment he is actively bestowing existence upon the cosmos. So while we have no choice but to employ human models of knowing if we are to say anything about God’s eternal act of knowing, we do so knowing that our models are only analogies that ultimately break down.

        Thomas devotes several chapters of the SCG distinguishing divine intellection from human intellection (I.50-69). I think you will find that he has anticipated some of your objections. It’s not easy reading (at least not for me)—I think I’ve only comprehended maybe 20%.

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          I was objecting to Malcolmsnotes own objections to Aquinas – I may have completely misunderstood him, but I thought Malcolmsnotes was saying that (contra Aquinas) God’s knowing himself and knowing other creatures would be two distinct actions by God. My point about active / passive knowledge was just that I couldn’t see how God in some sense “knowing” himself abstractly without reference to anything else wasn’t an action by God at all, in so far as it in any event meant anything at all.
          What I couldn’t see was how God’s creative act in “knowing” creatures into existence as things not-God could be separated from God’s knowing that he was God in doing it, since it is all the one knowing of there being not-God coming from uncreated. God knowing the act of creation is only separate from him knowing himself aside from in the act of creation if his action in creation is itself separate from him himself outside the act of creation.
          In other words Malcolmsnotes objection is circular: it is only if God is already taken as divisible between himself in creation and himself in himself that God knowing himself and knowing creation make him divisible by being two separate acts.
          (At least I think that is what I meant. I may have to go and lie down in a quiet dark room until my brain stops hurting.)

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          • I claim that God’s knowing himself is not the same as him knowing creatures. Otherwise, God would be composite and his aseity would be compromised. I claim that God’s “act” of knowing creatures is not something in God, but something created by God, which is simply a relation of the world to God. This holds for anything other than the simple divine essence. That is, anything other than the simple act whereby God knows, wills, and loves himself – i.e. anything,whether that be property or notion or relation that has referents to creatures in any way whatsoever, is nothing really in God, but a created reality outside him.

            If you’re interested more in why I think this I point you to my post on modal collapse and the Trinity over at my blog.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “#3 introduces a real distinction in God – between him knowing himself simply, and him knowing other creatures. This posits at least two acts in God: God knowing himself simply, wherein he knows only himself, and him *also* knowing, by knowing himself, other things.”

      The curious thing is that Aquinas did not believe that he was positing composition in the Godhead in chap. 49 when he asserts that God knows the world by knowing his essence. Given that no one was more sensitive in the Middle Ages about divine simplicity than Aquinas (by comparison, e.g., the Eastern Fathers appear to be loose indeed on the subject), I think we need to ask why he didn’t see composition back then when so many today (particularly in the analytic schools) think they do see composition.

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      • It is certainly an interesting question why Aquinas did not see distinction. But are we asking for historical, or metaphysical reasons? Surely the first is less important than the second. But if the second, then let us look at the arguments. The one I’ve lain down seems to me cogent. More than that, it is based of Aquinas’ own metaphysics. I think if he was alive and looked at it, he would see that what he said about “God knowing creatures through knowing his essence” could be refined. Do you think what he said cannot be refined?

        I also think the claim that Aquinas saw more clearly than anyone – or that he singlehandedly synthesized – Aristotelian and Christian metaphysics is quite an overrated claim. The core metaphysical system he lays out is found in essence in Peter Lombard, and his (Platonic) thoughts on the divine ideas and simplicity are borrowed strictly – and I think uncritically – from Augustine. Aquinas did the best he could according to his understanding. Nothing wrong with that. But he’s not the end all, be all.

        In short, why not press the *arguments* rather than merely harking back to and reproducing “what Aquinas said”?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          It’s of course possible, Chris, that Aquinas did not think sufficiently clearly about divine simplicity and God’s knowing of creatures; hence we should all be open to criticism of his views. But in this case, you have not persuaded me that his argument is vulnerable to your criticism, and it’s hard for me to see how it could be. The assertion of divine simplicity is an expression of negative theology that flows from Aquinas’s conviction that finite beings cannot comprehend the divine essence. Once we concede divine simplicity to Aquinas, then it must govern all further reflection, even if we find ourselves confronted with aporias—and it’s not at all clear to me that the present question presents us with an aporia.

          It seems obvious, at least to me, that God perfectly knows both who and what he is and who and what creatures are. From a finite perspective this would seem to involve two distinct and separate acts—first God gazes at himself, as it were, and then he gazes at creatures. But divine simplicity tells me that this is impossible. Hence we are logically required to think of God’s knowledge of himself and of creatures as one indivisible and eternal act. Now this may be ineffable and mysterious, but is it obviously incoherent? Why is it not sufficient simply to say that the distinction between God’s apprehension of his essence and his apprehension of creatures is notional, as Brandon suggests?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            James Brent puts it this way: “God’s knowledge is a simple unchanging vision of things—a glance at everything as it is in himself. Not only does God gaze upon himself so completely that he comprehends absolutely every other thing, but he gazes upon himself so completely that he at once comprehends every other thing” (“God’s Knowledge and Will,” in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, p. 161). Is this incoherent? Why?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Not incoherent, but unhelpful in respect to Chris’ identity problematic, i.e. that if creatures are in God, how is it that they are different from God. The extrinsic (or notional) denomination does address this adequately. But it is old hat, (not that the issue isn’t worth discussing of course) nothing new that Aquinas didn’t already address. The examples of the sun/grass and health/urine demonstrate this well.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            That’s one reason, Robert, why I included that long citation from Simon Oliver. We can’t think rightly of the difference between God and creature until we grasp the “nothingness” of creatures, i.e., their radical contingency. I suspect that we all fall back into thinking about God as a being that stands in some sense outside us, next to us, rather than the One in whom we live and move and have our being. I know we are in perfect agreement here, but perhaps this helps us to glimpse how it might be possible for God to know creation by knowing himself. For God to know himself as pure Existence surely entails the simultaneously knowing of the beings that participate in his Existence and symbolically express his Being in a finite mode. God knows himself as theophany.

            I’m just thinking out loud here.

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          • Brent’s quote rather states, rather than solves, the problem. Just think Al. If God is simply gazing at himself, what does he see? Himself. That’s just what simplicity claims: God is his own act of understanding, knowing, willing, enjoying himself. If he *also* sees creatures, then we must make some distinction in his act of vision – there must be some difference between his vision of creatures and his vision of himself – or else creatures become identical to and collapse into God. Thus, God’s act of seeing himself cannot be identical to his act of seeing creatures, or the words “God” and “creatures” would share a relation of identity.

            It may seem that since God’s act is eternal (it did not begin) and immutable (it cannot change) that this solves the problem. But it does not. This is because the problem is a modal one. It is really true that God could know different creatures, or no creatures. That is, God could know *only* the divine essence. How then, if God’s simple act includes both him knowing himself and him knowing creatures, or if God is identical to his knowing creatures, would not this simple act be different if he did not know creatures?

            The only way to answer this is to say that it would not be different if he did not know creatures. But that means there must be some reality identical to only itself – simply itself – existing in a single act of self will and contemplation and enjoyment *without referent to creatures*. And this is just to deny that God’s knowing creatures is anything in him, or that it is identical to the divine essence.

            I don’t think it is impossible for God to know creatures, by the way. Nor do I think Aquinas’ metaphysics end in incoherence. Rather it seems to me they can be squeezed and pressed for a more profound understanding of the divine essence than has been largely recognized (a more Eastern one, by the way – I’m thinking of the energy/essence distinction). God can know creatures. Not intrinsically, by being identical to the divine essence, but extrinsically. That is, God knows them by making them present to himself. Which is to say. by creating them.

            When trying to understand the relation between creatures and God, I locate the mystery in the concept of *creation.* This is where we truly do not understand. How can a thing freely come from one another thing, and be different from it, but still be like it? How can it not be of the same nature as the thing, but still be close enough to it to be similar? I don’t know how. It is incomprehensible. But I don’t see a contradiction in the claim, as I do by saying the divine essence is identical to God knowing creatures.

            Have you check out my post on modal collapse? If not, read it as thoughtfully as you would read something by a *real* theologian. Pull out one of those cigars, chew over what I say, and see if I articulate myself any better there. If you’re interested.

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    • Thomas says:

      Actually, St. Thomas denies that there are distinctive cognitional acts in God pretty clearly. And, in the general context of his metaphysics, it is easy to see why. If God is unrestricted being, there is nothing that is other than himself. If he knows himself, then, there is nothing that remains unknown.

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      • Correct. The question is is this coherent, or how can God’s simplicity be reconciled with his knowledge of creatures. If you’re interested in looking at the metaphysics and addressing the problem I’d be happy to do so. It would require you addressing the substance of my critique though.

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        • Thomas says:

          The objection is based on a mistaken interpretation of St. Thomas. Specifically, this line

          > If you say this act in God is really one and therefore not really distinct, then God knowing himself must be identical to God knowing creatures.

          But St. Thomas maintains that the truth of God’s knowledge of things is by extrinsic denomination. It does not attribute any difference to God than if no created things exist and there were no contingent things to know. This is pretty straightforward from St. Thomas’ discussion of the lack of contingency and substance-accident composition in God in SCG and ST.

          What St. Thomas does say is that God’s knowing himself is sufficient to ground the truth of the proposition that he knows other beings, on the condition there are other beings to know–as I indicated in the previous comment. But as this is by extrinsic denomination, there’s no additional reality in God.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Which is why Thomists like to say that God plus the world does not equal two.

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          • Can you cite where Aquinas says “it does not attribute any difference to God that if no created things exist and there were no contingent things to know”? I grant this conclusion can be drawn from what he says, but where does Thomas say it?

            Do you hold that God knowing himself is identical to him knowing creatures?

            Also, if God knowing creatures is identical to his essence, and since God could know that different creatures exist than the ones that do exist, how does this not mean God’s essence could be different?

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          • Thomas says:

            Aquinas directly discusses this, for instance, in ST I, Q. 13, art 7. But to point to just one place would be to obscure how this is a clear logical consequence of his entire discussion of God. And not only his discussion, but the tradition that comes down to him from St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa. There were many issues St. Thomas had to settle, but this had been a solved problem for ages.

            Consider: St. Thomas holds that God is infinite. But if knowledge of creation entails some determination in him, and creation is contingent, then there would be some way he could have been, but in fact is not. For the world could have not existed, and then God’s knowledge would be different. Were it an essential difference, God would depend on the world to be at all. Were it an accidental difference, God would be composed of act and potency, and therefore could not be the first cause. Even had St. Thomas not addressed the question so directly, and even if he was not speaking out of a tradition in which the issue had long been settled, no one, I think, would suppose that St. Thomas could have missed the implications of the doctrine of God.

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          • Thomas says:

            To the second and third question, I already answered that. The claim that God knows contingencies is true, St. Thomas holds, by extrinsic denomination. If St. Thomas is right about that, it resolves any contradiction. It’s rather like asking whether if the sun would be different had its rays not caused grass to grow on earth. It is true that the sun is the cause of grass growing, but the sun would be no different if there were no grass on earth and, as a result the sun were not the cause. There is a notional but not real difference to the sun, just as there is a notional but not real difference to God.

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          • I hear you saying a couple things Thomas. i) “There’s no way St. Thomas could have missed this. Therefore the problem was solved long ago.” ii) “God would not be different if no creatures existed.”

            If you want to keep saying things like i) I have no more to say. The mere historicity of a doctrine is infinitely less interesting to me than the actual doctrine itself. I would rather understand the claims than rattle off a list of who believed what (by the way, I don’t believe you have in fact provided any quotes showing where Thomas says God would not be different if his knowledge were different. If you find one, I’d be interested to read it.)

            If however you would like to discuss point ii) I would be happy to. If so, keep reading.

            I agree that God would be identically the same if no creatures existed. There are a a couple things I’d like to ask you though.

            a) How could God be identically the same if he could know *either* the proposition “the world exists” or “the world does not exist”?
            b) How can God’s knowledge of creatures be identical to the divine essence, if that knowledge could be different but the divine essence could not be?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          It’s not that Thomas hasn’t addressed your critique – it’s just that there’s a disagreement. Aquinas seems to be rather clear that there is only one act of knowing in God, in knowing Himself He knows creates. Why on Aquinas’ metaphysic is this incoherent? If God were conceived of us a being, like you and me, then yes I would agree with you. But God doesn’t acquire knowledge Aquinas is clear about this, for as Thomas points out this is by extrinsic denomination, and thus eliminates the problem your critique poses.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            apologies for typos 😦

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          • Why do you think I’m arguing it’s incoherent Robert? Could you put my argument into your own words?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Yes, in 6 words 🙂 Real knowledge of creatures introduces fragmentation.

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          • Not quite. My argument is that God’s act of knowing himself cannot be identical to his act of knowing creatures, or creatures are identical with God.

            If you are satisfied with your understanding of how God knows creatures, there’s not much else to talk about here. If you are not, however, I would be happy to continue the convo.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            It’s not an unimportant issue you raise, and one is free to disagree with Aquinas of course, and even if I were to agree with you, one can’t claim that Aquinas is incoherent or his metaphysic inconsistent, or that he has’t worked out his understanding of how God’s knowledge of creatures does not pose the problem of identity that you claim it does. And he certainly didn’t pull his metaphysic out of a hat, he himself stood in a long established tradition going back to the early church fathers.

            Introduce a superior metaphysic and I am all ears!

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          • I don’t offer a superior metaphysic. Just the old one more refined on this particular point. See my post on modal collapse on my blog if interested.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            ok I will look for it, thank you

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            And as to incoherency in 5 words: God knows unlike a being.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    No one has yet commented on my sentence “God is the ultimate quantum mechanic.” I thought it was a pretty good joke. 😀

    Like

  4. Thomas says:

    Malcolm’s notes:

    I must admit to a bit of confusion. You say that I did not provide you with a quote that God remains unchanged in his relations with creatures, yet I pointed you to an article from the Summa Theologiae that addresses and rejects real relations in God to creatures – ST I, Q. 13, art 7.

    St. Thomas’ denial that relative predicates signify a distinct reality in God are widely known, and not only in Thomist circles. But again, that’s what St. Thomas is saying when he argues there is no contingency in God, that God is not specified by creatures, etc. Many people in our time disagree with this view, but this is the first time I’ve heard anyone deny St. Thomas held it. And it’s not unique to St. Thomas. It’s the dominant view of the classical Christian tradition.

    The reason that it’s worth expounding on what St. Thomas says is that the misunderstanding of what St. Thomas says is going to prevent the understanding of Thomistic accounts of DS.

    I do agree that substantive discussion is more important than exegesis. For some background, here is how I approach this question. I think St Thomas’ demonstration of God’s existence and nature is a sound deductive argument. (I’ve set it out briefly in another post Fr. Al kindly ran.) If God exists as simple, subsistent, and infinite being, then it follows that there is nothing he does not know–if one accepts a Thomistic account of knowledge. For St. Thomas, knowledge is a perfection immaterially possessed. But outside being, there is nothing. Thus, whatever is intelligible, exists either as participating being or as being itself. And since God is subsisting being, there is no intelligible content outside him. That is the sense in which he knows (though “knowledge” here is mostly apophatic), and it entails no change in God.

    I’ve written at some length about William Hasker’s objections. That post goes into a lot more detail than I can go into here.

    To question a) God is the same knowing an existing contengency as he would be had that contingency not existed, because knowing himself is a sufficient condition for knowing everything.

    To question b) I’ve already indicated that St. Thomas denies that there are in God real relations to the world, and that “God knows the world” is true by extrinsic denomination. You seem to think St. Thomas says there is some reality in God other than his essence that we signify by the claim “God knows contingents.” But that is what St. Thomas explicitly and repeatedly denies.

    Liked by 3 people

    • David S says:

      I would suggest that one of the issues worth exploring here is the coherency of the notion that God can truly be said to know things ‘by extrinsic denomination’. I am not sure whether on this account of ‘extrinsic knowledge’, it would be true to say that God has a conscious belief that X creature exists, such that had God not chosen to create the world, God would have a different conscious belief. If we can’t say this, I don’t see how it counts as knowledge. But if we can say this, I don’t see how this isn’t a real distinction.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thomas says:

        St. Thomas doesn’t put God’s knowledge in terms of conscious belief. In fact, many of our own acts of knowledge aren’t a matter of conscious belief, as when, in understanding the generative principle of natural numbers, I can be said to understand the series though I do not have a specific conscious act for each number.

        St. Thomas regards as a sufficient condition for knowledge the immaterial possession of some intelligibility. But there are a number of ways intelligibilities might be immaterially possessed, including by identity–thus, immaterial beings understand themselves without an act by which subject and object are distinguished. (In fact, almost all of the objections to God’s knowledge apply equally to angelic knowledge, and the solutions are similar.)

        It’s one thing to state a solution and another to do the work to make it convincing. I have been working on a longer piece inspired by our previous conversation, but who knows when or if it will be done (or if it will be any good!).

        Liked by 1 person

        • David S says:

          No doubt your piece will be excellent – I hope it emerges, if beause it would surely be the first and only instance of my inspiring anything 🙂

          However I am not sure that the notion that knowledge does not necessarily involve conscious belief is coherent, and I would dispute that any of our own acts of knowledge don’t involve it.

          I agree with you that one can grasp a series and, despite not consciously thinking of each individual number that is part of that series, still be said in a certain sense to know the numbers. But I think that only works because nature of the generative principle of natural numbers is such as to imply the existence of the series – i.e. all actual integers are in a certain sense contained in the nature of numbers. But it cannot be the case that the divine nature implies the existence of this specific world (at least not while preserving divine or human freedom) so I don’t see how the explanation works.

          A similar example might be the holistic way in which one views an image: when I see a human face, my experience is just that: of seeing a face. I am not necessarily aware that I am looking at a big nose, blue eyes, whatever: I just see the face. In seeing the face, I grasp the details, without having to have a separate conscious thought about those details.

          But so what? All the features of the face still enter into what that face is, even though I may not be consciously aware that I am looking at them. if the features were different, I would see a different face: if the face I saw were different, the features would have to be different. This is because, ultimately, I *am* still conscious of the details of the face. Sure, I am not consciously *aware* that I am aware of them, but I am genuinely aware of them in the sense that the details of the face alter my consciousness, they are part of my consciousness, they make my consciousness an experience of this face rather than that face.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        David, I know next to nothing about Thomistic epistemology (a huge handicap!), but Thomas makes clear in the SCG that God’s knowledge of reality is radically different than ours. And of course, that would have to be the case, wouldn’t it, if God knows all of reality by knowing his essence by one single and eternal act of knowing. Hence it really does not make sense to think of God as having beliefs or working out things by a process of discursive reasoning. Aquinas is clear that the divine intellect is not discursive (SCG I.57). Consider Brian Davies’s summary of divine knowledge:

        Aquinas’s main point is that God having intellect does not mean that he is able to link or unlike a subject and predicate in a sentence expressing a truth. I might understand what a cat is. I might also understand what being black amounts to. Yet suppose I discover and declare that some cast is black. Then I bring together or separate concepts that I have formed independently of each other. According to Aquinas, however, God’s intllect does not work by attaching discrete predicates to subjects, whether in thought or in language. Neither does it work by detaching discrete predicates from subjects. According to Aquinas, God is not a language user and does not acquire concepts over time while bring them together or separating them for purposes of expressing what he knows. God knows by knowing his essence and by knowing all things while being simple and, therefore, immutable.

        Perhaps we might say, God knows all of reality, in totality and in particular, by knowing all things directly and immediately within himself in one comprehensive act (I.50, 55). That’s the point in saying that God’s knowledge of the world is causal, not observational or conceptual. How, therefore, can we explore, as you ask us to do, the “coherency” of Aquinas’s account of divine knowing by comparing it to human knowing. Apples and oranges. Perhaps someone can offer a superior account of the divine knowledge, but it must remain within the parameters stipulated by Thomas, namely, divine simplicity, immutability, eternity, etc.

        Liked by 2 people

        • David S says:

          I agree it does not make sense to think that God works things out through some discursive process of reasoning, but surely it is okay to say that God has beliefs, and true ones at that – that is just what omniscience is.

          What I would deny is that it is coherent to suppose that those beliefs do not involve God being conscious of certain facts, in such a way that God would be conscious of different facts (and so be conscious in a different way) were those facts contingently different. Sure, we can say God knows reality through knowing himself as their cause, but that just describes how God comes to know reality, not what the nature of knowledge is.

          I think it is legitimate to compare God’s knowledge to human knowledge in this sense only: knowing involves awareness. In fact, knowledge just is awareness: namely, being aware that something is the case. How is being aware not an act of consciousness? Awareness, consciousness, is not the ‘mechanism’ by which humans know things: awareness just is humans knowing things, and knowledge without awareness simply is not knowledge. Sure, you say, but the way God knows is not the same as the way human beings know: we say God knows, but this is only analogy. But I can contend that an account of knowledge which ultimately ends up claiming God is not consciously aware of certain facts stretches analogy past breaking point: this is because unawareness is not simply different from ordinary human knowledge, but rather the exact opposite of it. What I am thinking of here is similar to how DBH argues that we cannot claim the Calvinist God who straightforwardly does evil is ‘good’ by appealing to transcendence or analogy.

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    • Again, as I said, you can interpret Aquinas’ theory of relations (which he lifts directly from Peter Lombard – he does not invent -) to argue that God’s knowledge of creatures is denominated extrinsically. But that is you connecting his doctrine of relations with his doctrine of divine omniscience – not him. Where does he talk about relations and God’s knowledge *specifically*? To my knowledge he does not, except in a few places about the divine ideas (arguably).

      But the whole issue of “what Thomas said” is not that important to me. What is more interesting is working at how creatures are related to God’s knowing and willing.

      You take this up some, so I will comment on your thoughts.

      You say “You seem to think St. Thomas says there is some reality in God other than his essence that we signify by the claim “God knows contingents.””

      No. I claim that if God is his simple act of self knowledge, then he must be identical to his knowing of himself. Since “himself” is not identical to “creatures” therefore he cannot be identical to his knowing of creatures.

      I agree that if God knows creatures at all he must know them by extrinsic denomination. But precisely because this is so, God cannot know them intrinsically. That is, God’s essence cannot be identical to his knowing creatures.

      I think we agree on the worded doctrine being expounded here. I just think you draw an invalid inference by saying that God essentially knows creatures. If he essentially knows creatures, then his knowing of creatures must be identical to him knowing himself. But if identical to knowing himself, then creatures are identical to himself. Thus the divine essence either becomes a creature, or the creature becomes God.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        How else do you suggest that God knows other than essentially?

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        How else do you suggest God knows other than essentially?

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        • I would say God knows himself essentially. He knows creation extrinsically – that is, contingently – by making it share in his existence. In other words, God knows creation by making it present to himself: that is, by creating it.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            And knowledge of creation (and the act of creation, if I understand you right) is somehow not done essentially? How do you propose essential divine self-knowledge is different from non-essential divine knowledge of creation?

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          • Knowledge of creation, being not identical to knowledge of God, is not in God – therefore not identical to the divine essence.

            The knowledge is different because God has created the world. Him “knowing” the world is the same as him willing and therefore creating it, which amounts to nothing more than the worlds existing and being casually dependent on God.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            You lost me Chris/malcolmsnotes. How can God’s knowledge of creation not be in God? (“Knowledge of creation…..is not in God “) Do I understand you right to mean that the knowledge God has of creation is not in God but outside God? And how would God have knowledge of this ‘outside knowledge’? On that account it doesn’t appear knowledge it possible at all.

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          • It does sound odd, Robert. But I think this is the logical implications of God’s independence of creation, aseity, and being creator of all creaturely reality.

            All that is not identical to the divine essence, must be created. Otherwise, you posit dualism, and make God essentially referred to the creature.

            “God’s knowledge” of creation is thus I think something “outside” him. What could be called his intentional consciousness regarding creatures, is, I think, not God himself, but a reality created by God.

            What I lay out, by the way, fits in snugly with the respectable doctrine in the East regarding the real distinction between God’s essence and energies. God’s “knowledge of creation” would in this way be an energy of his, not identical to the divine essence.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            Christ/malcolmsnotes;

            St Palamas was quite unambiguous in regards to the uncreated nature of God’s energies. In fact, he insisted on this, as the created/uncreated was exactly the point of contention between Palamas and his opponents.

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          • Well, so much for that comparison!

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          • Although a subtle thinker could, I think, still make some rapprochement to Palamas and what I propose. 😉

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            malcolmsnotes: “What could be called his intentional consciousness regarding creatures, is, I think, not God himself, but a reality created by God.”

            I don’t see how this is coherent – kicking the epistemological can down the road solves little, it only makes things worse. If you are right that God cannot know creatures essentially, then you will have to explain how God knows the created intentional consciousness of other creatures. You are ending up with an infinite set of layers of created realities to explain God’s knowledge, not to speak of the absurdity of a created consciousness which is I presume still God and not some one or some thing else. Not Bingo but Bizarro.

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          • Not kicking it down the road Robert. I’m denying God essentially knows creatures. I affirm that instead, he knows them by creating them. This I think resolves the problem I was pointing out in making God identical to his knowing creatures.

            Bizarro is the word of a man who pronounces before he tries to understand. One can imagine an atheist saying the same about the doctrine of the Trinity. Surely it does not move the conversation forward – ?

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            “Although a subtle thinker could, I think, still make some rapprochement to Palamas and what I propose.”

            Knock yourself out. 🙂

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          • David S says:

            Robert, if there was something ‘in’ God that could be different (as knowledge of the world is obviously contingently dependent both on God’s will to create and human choices), surely that would mean God’s essence could be different, which is not compatible with divine simplicity. Or do you hold something can be ‘in’ God but not be part of / identical to his essence?

            Liked by 1 person

          • Robert Fortuin says:

            David, I don’t claim that God’s will to create changes God, neither that human choices do make a real difference in God (essentially or otherwise, whatever that ‘otherwise’ may be).

            My argument all along has been exactly the opposite.

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      • Thomas says:

        Malcolm’s notes:

        Phrases like “God creates the world” expresses a causal relation between God and the world. “God knows the world” or “God wills the world” also, according to St. Thomas, express causal relationships with the world (God as cause, creatures as the effect). (See ST I, q. 14, art 8.) How could there be a knower and a known without a relation between them? The knower must know the known for the statement “X knows Y” to be true.

        I’m puzzled as to what part of this is obscure. St. Thomas considers whether God’s knowledge is a real relation at ST I, q. 28, art 4 and explicitly answers that it is not–only the four inner-Trinitarian relations are real. But again, to cite just the affirmation right on point misses the how directly this fits into the entire movement of the beginning of the Summa Theologiae. There’s no mistaking what St. Thomas is up to in his explanation of what type of knowledge theology is, the via negativa, the proofs for God and the derivation of the attributes. A grasp of those points yields the solution to this particular problem.

        Anyway, I believe you have misunderstood the role of extrinsic denomination here. I agree (and St. Thomas agrees) that God’s essence is not his knowledge of creatures. But of course, the ambiguity lies in the notion that God “essentially” or “intrinsically” knows creatures. St. Thomas is fortunately quite careful with his terminology on this point and is not content with phrases like “God essentially knows creatures.” God knows what is by his essence; in reference to God’s self-knowledge this is identical with his essence, while in reference to things the statement is true by extrinsic denomination. To say that God knows all things by his essence is not to say that God’s essence is any different in virtue of knowing creatures (which St. Thomas clearly denies, e.g., at ST I, q. 14, art. 15).

        Thus, St. Thomas is able to say very consistently and precisely that God knows all things without compromising his immutability or attributing to him any difference than if no creature whatsoever existed.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You say, “How could there be a knower and a known without a relation between them?”

          But this is precisely what I (and, as you even say, Thomas) denies in the case of God and the world. There need be no relation in God to the world. Therefore his knowing the world need be no feature in him either.

          I’m not sure how q. 28 clears up anything we’ve been discussing. If you’d like to flesh your thought out in this matter, feel free.

          Where does q 14 art 15 speak of God’s knowledge being different than it could have been? It speaks of the immutability of God’s knowledge. Where does Aquinas say – as you keep saying he does say – that God’s essence would not be any different were he to know differently than he in fact does know?

          I would appreciate an actual quotation. If he says this so clearly, that should be easy to reproduce.

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          • Mere immutability, by the way, does not get at the modal notion under discussion. What we want to know is, not whether God’s knowledge is variable, but, whether God’s knowledge, being identical to the divine essence, would be *different* had he known differently. To my knowledge Aquinas never gets to the nerve of this issue. He stops short at immutability (among other things.)

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          • Thomas says:

            Malcolm’s notes:

            “What we want to know is, not whether God’s knowledge is variable, but, whether God’s knowledge, being identical to the divine essence, would be *different* had he known differently.”

            Immutability does not mean merely that something does not become different, but that there is no possibility that could be different. If that is the issue, I would suggest reviewing his discussion of act and potency and their application to God before moving on to God’s knowledge. The former is a prerequisite of the latter, and it goes a long way toward explaining the difficulties with following St. Thomas’ argument.

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          • You said

            “Immutability does not mean merely that something does not become different, but that there is no possibility that could be different.”

            But that is false. You are describing necessity, not immutability.

            Further, if immutability did mean that something could not possibly be different, then there is a contradiction in supposing God’s knowledge is immutable (*cannot* be different) and that he could know other than he knows.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Relating to God’s consciousness of created reality, do check our this article by Norris Clarke: http://www.anthonyflood.com/clarkehartshorne.htm

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Chris, Thomas does not deny a relation between God and the world. He denies a real relation, as opposed to a notional or conceptual relation. That conclusion follows logically from the way he derives divine simplicity, immutability, and eternity. God’s relation to the world is assymmetrical in precisely this sense.

            I suspect that the counterfactual questions you are posing are excluded from the get-go. It all has to do with the grammar of God-talk.

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          • I don’t disagree with anything you say in the first paragraph.

            How can counterfactual questions be excluded for the get-go, and it still be true that God could have willed otherwise?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Chris, my remark on counterfactuals may be off-base as a generalization. What I have in mind is this: Aquinas’s claim that the creation of the world is nonnecessary is a consequence of his claim that God necessarily wills the Good; hence his creation of the world cannot be necessary, i.e., must be voluntary, as he has no need of it, etc. The counterfactual, in other words, is embedded in or entailed by the argument itself. So if you want to persuade Aquinas that he’s wrong, you need to show him where the flaw in his argument is. What is his misstep?

            I suppose it would be helpful to lay out in syllogistic fashion each step, but I don’t have that kind of precise mind. Maybe Thomas could do that for us. 🙂

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          • I don’t think he’s wrong on that point. I think so long as the world is not God, it cannot be necessary.

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          • Thomas says:

            Malcolm:

            Mutability involves a possibility of being otherwise, immutability is the absence of this possibility. Necessity and immutability get you to the same place, but have different approaches. To say that God “could have been different” as you did, is to suppose a possibility (whether actualized or not) of being otherwise. (Necessity in this context is actually the weaker term; St. Thomas occasionally speaks of angels as necessary beings, but he denies that anything other than God is immutable.)

            Immutability, like eternity, has stronger connotations than the common usage of those terms.

            So to say that Aquinas “stops short at immutability” and does not answer the question of whether God’s knowledge could be different, does not capture the strong notion of immutability St. Thomas uses. “But in the first cause of motion, if it is altogether immovable, there cannot be potentiality with actuality, for a thing is movable because it has potentiality.” Compendium Theologiae, 9.

            To the larger issue, it’s unclear to me on what ground you would think God’s knowledge would be different were the world different. As others have noted on this blog, Aquinas’ affirmation that God knows is primarily negative — we say he knows because it is wrong to suppose that he lacks knowledge like a stone or a tree, not because he knows the way we do.

            All of the various ways in which our knowledge is affected and determined by things are denied in the case of God. He denies that God has distinctive cognitional acts towards things, he denies that God’s single act of knowledge has as its object created things, he denies that God knows discursively, propositionally, or by distinguishing and relating things. We might ask if there is good reason for this account, and I think that question is more complicated. But given the account he in fact offers, there’s no contradiction here.

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  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Bill Vallicella has weighed in on this series on Aquinas: “God, Simplicity, Freedom. Read his article and see if his critique touches Aquinas.

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