Divine Simplicity, Modal Collapse, and Divine Love


A lot has been published recently about divine simplicity, including a book chapter of my own a couple years ago which has played some role in the ongoing discussion. I was once a proponent of divine simplicity, but am no longer. In this brief post, I want to explain what I think is objectionable about this idea.

Briefly stated, the doctrine of divine simplicity conceives of God as pure undifferentiated actuality. This is another way of understanding the more familiar formulas about God as “absolutely simple,” as “identical to his properties,” and so on. It is a way of restating what it means, on the one hand, for God not to be nothing at all and, on the other hand, for there not to be in God any distinction between form and matter, substance and accident, nature and supposit, essence and existence, and so on, as Thomas Aquinas argues (ST 1.3).

God is also supposed to be that in virtue of which everything else exists. If there is anything other than God which exists, then God is the ultimate cause of that thing’s existing. But here a problem arises. If God is pure undifferentiated actuality, then he cannot be otherwise than he actually is. This is because there is in him no mixture of actuality and potentiality, no distinction of ways he actually is and possibilities for being otherwise. Presumably God causes things to exist because of the way he is, just as fire causes water to boil because the way it is, just as the sun melts ice and dries clay because of the way it is (as well as because of the way these things are). Presumably, too, if a thing is to be capable of producing different effects than it actually does, one must hold that it must possibly be different itself. The possibility of a difference in the effect presupposes the possibility of a difference in the cause. From these ideas it follows that if God is the cause of everything else and he cannot be otherwise than he actually is, then nothing can possibly be different than it is, since everything is caused by God in virtue of the way he actually (and necessarily) is. This is called a modal collapse.

I’ve argued that the way out of this problem is for the proponent of divine simplicity to reject the idea that a possible difference in the effect requires a possible difference in the cause. This makes it possible to say both that God could not possibly have been different than he actually is and that all things apart from God could have been different than they actually are, even though God would still be their ultimate cause. But while I think this proposal solves the problem of preserving the contingency of created things, it nevertheless raises other problems that I think are hard to overcome.

Suppose that God could have caused a different world to come into existence than the one that actually did, or perhaps even no world at all. This means that there must not be anything about God in himself that demands or entails the existence of any particular world. Among other things, this entails that God could not want any particular world to exist, since if he did, it would exist, given that he is omnipotent, and it would exist necessarily, since he exists necessarily and would be identical to this wanting of his. Thus, the existence of God, immutable and unchangeable as he is, is equally compatible with the world’s existence or its nonexistence.

What follows from this? I think it follows that it would be strictly speaking false to say that God loves you. That would of course be bad news if one takes Jesus’s words as true: “The Father himself loves you” (John 16:27). But why think that follows?

I think that to love a person means both doing good to a person and wanting to do so as one does it. It is doing good to a person because one wants the other person to benefit from one’s action. But this means loving another person is a matter of being interiorly disposed in a certain way. By “interior disposition,” I mean feeling “pushed” or “pulled” in the direction of a certain course of action. For example, because I love my son, I feel “pulled” in the direction of helping him when I see him crying.

Now, the proponent of divine simplicity can say that God “loves” people in the sense that he does good to people, i.e. he causes things to happen which are good for them. But this is not enough for love stricto sensu because the element of interior disposition is missing. A sudden and unexpected rainstorm can save a village from drought and thus do good to them, i.e. cause something to happen which is good for them, but the rainstorm does not love the village because it did not want to do good to them. In the same way, one person can intentionally cause a chain of events to take place which end up significantly benefiting another person, but so long as the first person did not want to benefit the second by doing what he or she did, so long as the first person did not feel a “push” or a “pull” toward benefiting this other person for his or her own sake, it does not count as an instance of loving.

Now, God cannot have any interior disposition by which he would be pushed or pulled in the direction of causing a particular event to happen. Because he is simple, he would be identical to that disposition and thus the particular event which that disposition would bring about would exist just as necessarily as God himself does. This means that positing the sorts of interior dispositions on the part of God that would make it possible to say that he really loves people would entail positing a connection between the pure undifferentiated actuality of God and this particular world in such a way that leads once more to a modal collapse.

For that reason, I think what the proponent of divine simplicity has to say, if one is speaking strictly, is that God does not “love” people. Rather, he causes things to exist which are good for people, indeed he may even do this as a result of some intentional act on his part, but he does this without wanting to or specifically intending it in particular. It is rather a fortuitous result of the sort of world that God happened to bring into existence as a result of what he does will, although it was equally possible for him to cause a different world to exist as well, or else no world at all, even as he would remain entirely the same across these equally possible scenarios. The essential element of the interior disposition is missing in God’s case, and this is why I think he could not be said to love people stricto sensu.

But Jesus teaches that God loves people. If one is inclined to agree with Jesus, and if one is inclined not to accept an interpretation of this teaching according to which God “loves” in the sense of merely causing things to happen which are good for people, then I think that one also has reason to reject the doctrine of divine simplicity.

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