In the preceding article, “An Utterly Simple State of Affairs,” we were left with questions about divine freedom: specifically, if the act of creation of essential to the divine being, as Hugh McCann claims, how does this not entail the enslavement of Deity to necessity (i.e. modal collapse)? McCann begins his rejoinder by specifying the necessary conditions of libertarian freedom (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 231). He lists three:
- absence of determining cause
- intrinsic intentionality
That God fulfills the first condition is patent. By definition, nothing compels God, either externally or internally. That the second condition is fulfilled is also given. The timeless and simple Deity does not sit around deliberating upon options. As McCann puts it: “Everything about God is pure doing” (p. 231). The third condition is fulfilled by the fact that all volitional acts are intrinsically intentional. We do not will anything without meaning to do so. Free action implies intention. We do not intend to decide to act; the decision is included in the intention. So also for God. “Exactly the same applies to the act of will that is God: it too is intrinsically intentional, an action he fully understands, and intends with complete commitment, meaning it to have exactly the nature it does” (p. 231). (Note: the capacity “to do otherwise” is not included in the above list of conditions for freedom.)
Now comes the startling McCannian assertion: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determination of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does” (p. 231). The intending of God is the willing of God is the doing of God and only thus is God:
That is, the reality that is God’s having the nature he does is itself the action of his freely undertaking to have it, and all that is essential to him is founded in this exercise of freedom. It does not follow that God confers existence, or any other aspect of his nature, on himself, in the sense that his act of so doing is prior to or causally productive of the aspect being present. But it does follow that his nature falls under his own sovereignty. For even though his nature is essential to God, it is “up to him” in the sense that there is nothing that makes it what it is beyond the very exercise of voluntariness that constitutes it. Thus, just as the features of voluntariness give us control over our own acts of will, so God controls the act of will that constitutes his very being, and thereby exercises sovereignty over it. (pp. 231-232)
There is nothing prior to God, ontologically or otherwise—no pre-existing template or model of divinity waiting to be instantiated. God wills to be the good event he is. All of his attributes and activities are what he intends. This divine willing is primordial, constitutive, definitive, irreversible. God timelessly and immutably purposes to be the One disclosed to reason and faith. There is no other Creator, no other Deity. God determines God. Such is his simplicity and freedom.
The assertion that God wills his being might easily be misinterpreted as self-creation, God creating himself out of nothing. McCann rejects the idea as nonsense: “The fact is that nothing, eternal or otherwise, can confer existence on itself, in the sense that its own being counts as a causal product of some activity in which it occurs” (p. 215). Not even God can generate divinity ex nihilo; God is not ontologically prior to God. Yet neither do we wish to concede that the essential attributes of divinity are metaphysical givens, “conditions of his being, independent of any exercise of will on his part” (p. 217). If this were so, then he would be as much a prisoner of his nature as we are of ours. “You think it’s tough being human, Job? You ought to try being me for a day!” One consequence would seem to follow: “If all of God’s characteristics arise from his own nature, then everything he does as creator counts as a manifestation of his essence, which presumably belongs to him necessarily” (p. 218). Not only is God not free to create; but he must necessarily create this world, and only this world, just as it is. Out goes the window the sovereignty-aseity intuition. The only way to avoid this captivity to nature, argues McCann, is to assert God’s volitional responsibility over the dynamic state of affairs that he is.
But what about all those possible worlds of which modal philosophers speak? They don’t exist!
To speak at all of possibilities and necessities about worlds God might have created is to presuppose that prior to his act of creating the world—the act which, as it turns out—is God himself, there were possibilities and necessities as to what God might be. But that is exactly what we cannot do if … any abstracta pertaining to God have their first being in the action that is God himself. For if that is so, then there is nothing prior to the actual state of affairs that is God, nothing prior to his willing both himself and the universe in the one, free act with which he is identical. As to whether worlds other than the one we have are possible in relation to God, then, we can answer only that the world is as it is, that the creator of heaven and earth has made it so. Beyond this we can say nothing, for beyond this there is nothing [to] be said. (p. 233)
The counterfactuals and de re possibilities imposed upon divinity by the advocates of modal collapse do not obtain. They are a category mistake. They cannot apply to the perfectly simple Deity who is his act of willing. God is too actual to be subjected to our contingencies. Hence we cannot say that “in creating the world God can do otherwise than he does … Prior to creation it is impossible to speak of options” (p. 233). God is the producer of possibilities and necessities. “His freedom as creator is such as to transcend all modality” (p. 234). The simplicity of God is his absolute freedom.
Incompatibilists will of course continue to insist that the “could have done otherwise” is integral to authentic freedom, despite the decisive difference between Creator and creatures. In this case, McCann remarks, all we can do is concede that God does not display libertarian freedom. “I would suggest, however, that if this were done it would only become necessary to define a better, higher type of freedom—one transcending even the libertarian variety—and then to attribute this higher freedom to God” (p. 234). The key point stands: “God is not only a being who by his own choice exists a se, but also one who by his own choice transcends logical possibility itself” (p. 235).
At this point readers are no doubt wondering the extent to which McCann has broken from the classical theological tradition. I’m wondering about that, too. Yet his references to Aquinas throughout his book suggests that he intends a real measure of continuity with the medieval tradition, albeit in the idiom of analytic philosophy. I note the following:
1) Radical transcendence
As for Aquinas, so for McCann—both philosophers invoke divine simplicity to secure the Creator’s transcendence of the created order. God differs differently by the absence within his nature of composition and passive potentiality—hence McCann’s emphatic insistence that the modal and temporal categories appropriate to finite being must not be employed to analyze divinity and its relation to the universe. God is the transcendent source of our logic, not its captive. McCann does not explicitly invoke the via negativa (though what else are simplicity, immutability, and atemporality but negative attributes?), nor does he elaborate the analogy of being, yet both make their presence curiously felt in in his controversial claim that universals are created with beings. Universals, propositions, geometrical figures, and all the rest of the Platonic horde acquire their reality by their instantiation in actually existing entities. They do not exist in a realm independent of the “concrete world and the mental activities of thinkers” (p. 201). He believes that the entities of the conceptual order, including the abstractum of possible worlds, are the products of divine imagination and agency. “Prior to its creation, McCann contends, “an abstractum has no being whatever, not even in abstracto” (p. 211).
Thus, on an absolute creationist account, God is not subject to abstracta, in the sense of being hemmed in by the possibilites they define. Rather, he is able to act with perfect freedom. He is not limited by prior possibilities, because a part of creation is the production of the very possibilities themselves … Absolute creation … is a single, timeless act in which all of creation is produced in one fell swoop, and the natures of things, along with the entire Platonic menagerie implicit in them, are created in their exemplification—that is, as manifested within the concrete reality that is the temporal world. (p. 201)
Despite his firm rejection of Platonism and despite his repeated identification of God as a being, albeit a totally unique being, I am tempted to suggest that McCann’s account of divinity is appropriately described as beyond being. Too Dionysian? Indubitably. Early in the book McCann identifies aseity as the key attribute demanded by the cosmological argument:
The most important property he must have has already been mentioned: that of aseity. If the creator is to bround the existence of contingent beings, he himself must exist of his own nature; there can be no distinction in him between essence and existence … Still, it is difficult to comprehend: the thought is that, were we sufficiently cognizant of the divine nature, we would see in it complete self-sufficiency and fullness of being—so that there could be no question of its depending on anything else, no question of how or why such a being should be. That is a sublime conception: short, at least, of mystical awareness, nothing in our present experience answers to it … For a being that exists a se, essence and existence are indistinguishable: what it is and that it is are the same thing. But then there can be no basis for counting beyond one, because what makes God a God is also what makes him this God, one God. Instead of being the subject of conferred (and hence, not-self-derived) being, God is his own existence, and his fundamental nature is being itself. (p. 12; emphasis mine)
Sounds awfully like an Angelic Doctor we know. God transcends genus and species. I suspect Dr McCann would be content to simply name this one and all-sufficient God … the LORD.
2) God is his willing
Just as the God of Thomas wills his essence as the Good and in this willing simultaneously wills the world as ordered to the Good (see “The Willing God“), so the God of McCann simultaneously wills his divine nature and the world. Nothing is prior; nothing compels. God freely determines his divine life and being. As quoted above: “God is, essentially, an act of will—an act with no prior determination of any kind, in which he freely undertakes to be and to do all that he is and does.” The key difference between Thomas and McCann is that the latter bypasses Thomas’s distinction between the “necessity” of God’s self-willing as the Good and his “voluntary” willing of creatures that need not be. For Thomas, God does not need to create because he is the infinite plenitude of Being and Goodness. That he does create displays a gratuitous excess. McCann agrees, but this is not his way of talking. His emphasis on the divine will approaches a form of voluntarism (confirmed by his preference for divine command theory of morality). God is free in every respect—or perhaps almost every respect, as McCann does not entertain the possibility that God can or will command evil. “God’s will is perfect goodness,” he assures us (p. 192). All Christians pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We invariably come back to the question Socrates posed to Euthyphro. Leibneiz famously formulated the dilemma: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just?” At the level of transcendent divinity, perhaps the answer is a simple yes. God grabs both horns of the dilemma. Theologically translated: God wills himself as the Good; the Good wills himself as God. McCann avoids the language of necessity because he does not want divinity to be subject, as creatures are, to an inherited nature. God is not a haver of attributes; his nature is simple and freely enacted. Does this represent a significant departure from Aquinas? Perhaps not. Clearly Thomas does not think of the Deity as helplessly bound to a nature imposed upon him: in willing his essence as the Good—and with it the world—God freely, and befittingly, determines himself to be the Creator and Maker of all things. “His willing is His being” (SCG I.80.2).
The difference between Aquinas and McCann, therefore, may be more conceptual than metaphysical … or not. Something is lost by the latter’s abandonment of the Neoplatonic identification of God as the transcendent Good. At the end of the day, we are left wondering whether McCann secretly stands with one foot in the camp of another medieval philosopher, William of Ockham.
While I personally and decidedly prefer the apophatic theological tradition, as expressed in Dionysius and Aquinas, I find there is much to admire in Hugh McCann’s presentation of divinity. He is an compelling advocate of the classical theistic tradition and unabashed defender of divine simplicity. What I have learned from him is this: the simplicity of God is his absolute freedom. When this is understood, one begins to see why the modal collapse objection does not obtain; it misses the point. God is the creator of possibilities and necessities and thus transcends our modal worries.