|Alvin Plantinga, Does God Have a Nature?, Milwaukee, Wis.:
Marquette University Press, 1980, 146 pp., $6.95, ISBN 0-87462-145-3.
Reviewed by Alfred J. Freddoso, University of Notre Dame
In this, the Aquinas Lecture for 1980, Alvin Plantinga proposes (p. 9) to discuss three questions: (i) does God have a nature? (ii) if so, is there a conflict between God's sovereignty and his having a nature? and (iii) how is God related to properties (including his nature), propositions, states of affairs, numbers, and other denizens of the Platonic realm of necessarily existing abstract entities? Plantinga's conclusions are straightforward: (i) God has a nature distinct from himself; (ii) the claim that God has a nature, while not incompatible with the belief that God is sovereign, does conflict with a common though mistaken intuition about God's sovereignty; and (iii) in whatever way we are ultimately to conceive of God's relation to his own nature and to other necessarily existing abstract entities, it is at any rate clear that God has no control over either their existence or their essential characteristics.
If we define Platonism as the view that there are innumerably many necessarily existing abstract entities, then we can justly characterize Does God Have A Nature? as a defense of Christian Platonism. Plantinga realizes that many Christians, apparently with the heavy weight of theological tradition on their side, will be predisposed to balk at tbe suggestion that God is not the sole necessary being, i.e., the only being whose nonexistence is metaphysically impossible. For we hold that God is the creator and sustainer of all things, and that whatever occurs falls within his providential control. But if this is so, then the abstract entities countenanced by the Platonist seem to run afoul of the Christian worldview:
According to Augustine, God created everything distinct from him; did he then create these things? Presumably not; they have no beginning. Are they dependent on him? But how could a thing whose non-existence is impossible--the number 7, let's say, or the property of being a horse--depend upon anything for its existence? Does God (so to speak) just find them constituted the way they are? Must he simply put up with their being thus constituted? Are these things, their existence and their character, outside his control? (pp. 4-5)
Similar difficulties attend the assertion that God has a nature, i.e., a property that he has essentially and that includes every property he has essentially. For if God has a nature, then he could not have existed without having that nature, and he is powerless to alter that nature. "So God' s having a nature seems incompatible with his being in total control" (p. 8).
One strategy available to the Christian Platonist would be to show that while the rejection of abstract entities (nominalism) coheres better than does Platonism with the revealed truth that God is sovereign, nonetheless nominalism is unacceptable on purely philosophical grounds. Then, armed with Aquinas's characteristic assumption that there can be no conflict between revealed beliefs and beliefs firmly established by unaided reason, the Platonist would attempt to prove that the common understanding of God's sovereignty is mistaken. This line of argument thus begins with the concession that Platonism, but not nominalism, requires a departure from the Christian community's intuitive construal of what Sacred Scripture has to say about divine sovereignty.
Plantinga, however, is unwilling to grant this much to nominalism. Instead, he tries to persuade us that Platonism and nominalism are on equal footing vis-a-vis the "sovereignty-aseity intuition" (SAI) common among believers. According to the SAI, God is sovereign and exists a se only if
(a) he has created everything distinct from himself, (b) there is nothing upon which he depends for his existence and character, (c) everything distinct from him depends upon him, and (d) everything is within his control. (p. 78) /79/
The most important dialectical transition in the book occurs on pages 67-84, where Plantinga argues that (d) is the central element of the SAI, and that the other elements are simply special cases of the idea that everything is within God's control. In broad outline the argument goes like this:
The proponent of the SAI finds the denial of (a) unpalatable because that denial entails that there is something distinct from God whose existence or non-existence is independent of God' s will. So (a) falls under (c). But (c), in turn, is just an instance of (d), since what is really objectionable about such independent beings is that it is not up to God whether or not they exist. In short, their existence or non-existence is beyond God' s control. Likewise, (b) is just a special case of (d), for if God' s existence and character depended on something other than himself, then various truths about him, e.g., that he is omniscient, would not be within his control.
Some Christians will probably find this argument less than compelling. They might contend, for instance, that the Bible clearly teaches that God has created everything distinct from himself ex nihilo. This, rather than any considerations having to do with the notion of control, is the main reason why the denial of (a) is theologically untenable. Again, someone might point out that Platonic entities have traditionally been construed as exemplars (or paradigms or models) according to which created things are fashioned. But if such exemplars were wholly distinct from and independent of God, then his creative activity would be constrained by standards which originate outside the divine intellect. In that case God in creating would be more like the imitator who copies an original painting than like the creative genius who produces the masterpiece "on his own." Some such line of reasoning apparently led Augustine and Aquinas to "Christianize" the Platonic Forms by conceiving of them as ideas in the mind of God. So if we interpret (b) in such a way that it rules out the dependence of God's creative activity on outside standards, then (b) is by no means merely a special case of (d). For one might hold, as Augustine and Aquinas did, that God has no control over the existence or character of the divine ideas, and yet still insist that a proper understanding of the mystery of creation precludes the hypothesis that the exemplars used by God are entities which are in no way dependent on the divine intellect.
Plantinga can, I believe, respond plausibly to these objections. In the first place, it is surely not obvious that the relevant biblical authors intended to address the philosophical problem of abstract entities. They did, of course, mean to teach that God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. But barring further considerations of the sort articulated by Plantinga, questions about the existence and status of abstract entities seem to be left open.
Second, Plantinga quite clearly does not think of abstract entities--even the most obvious candidates, viz., properties--as exemplars for God's creative act. In fact, one might reasonably doubt whether creation requires exemplars in addition to the properties, propositions, and states of affairs championed by Plantinga. Aquinas posited the divine ideas as exemplars in order to preserve the Christian dogma that the universe came about neither by random chance nor by necessity, but rather by the free action of an intelligent and provident agent. It seems, however, that we can safeguard this dogma just as well by conceiving of creation as God's freely actualizing certain contingent states of affairs or, equivalently, as God's freely making true certain contingent propositions. Moreover, Plantinga speculates at the end of his lecture (pp. 145-46) that there may be some non-trivial sense of dependence in which abstract entities, though they are necessary beings, depend asymmetrically on God's intellect. This conjecture, which would bring his conclusions more into line with those of Augustine and Aquinas, is spelled out in a bit more detail in his recent Presidential Address to the Western Division of the American Philosophical Association. /80/
Let's provisionally grant, then, that the notion of control is central to the SAI. With this preliminary conclusion in hand, Plantinga argues next (pp. 84-95) that the SAI, properly understood, entails the strong thesis that God is absolutely omnipotent. That is,
(A) For any proposition p, (i) God has the power to make p true and (ii) God has the power to make p false.
(A), of course, entails "universal possibilism", i.e.,
(B) There are no necessary truths or necessary falsehoods.
If (B) is true, then even logical laws and simple mathematical truths might have been false, and any contradiction you please might have been true.
Plantinga shows impressively and convincingly that universal possibilism is neither unintelligible nor incoherent (pp. 114-26), and he musters a strong case for the historical claim that Descartes actually held this view, having adopted it because of his antecedent commitment to the SAI and (A) (pp. 95-114). (Plantinga does not, unfortunately, attempt to square this claim with the fact that in the Meditations Descartes contended that God cannot be a deceiver.)
If the SAI does indeed entail (A) and (B), then it is easy to understand why nominalism is no more congenial to it than is Platonism. The simple assertion that there are abstract entities is just as compatible with (B) as is the denial that there are such entities. What makes Platonism as defined above repugnant to the friends of the SAI is the further claim that the existence and character of such entities are necessary and hence not within God's control. But nominalists have typically accepted the parallel thesis that some truths are necessary and hence not within God's control. So nominalism as such is neutral with respect to the SAI. It follows that if (A) and (B) are false, then Christian Platonism is just as theologically viable as any form of Christian nominalism which repudiates (A) and (B). In short, if the Christian Platonist can show that (A) and (B) are false, then he will have undermined the SAI and provided an adequate defense of his position against the "sovereignty objection."
Notice that Plantinga's argument here does not depend essentially on the contention that the SAI entails (A) and (B). For suppose that this entailment does not hold. In that case it is difficult to see how anyone could plausibly assert that there is a conflict between God's sovereignty and his having a nature--except perhaps on the grounds that God's sovereignty precludes the existence of "outside standards" for his creative activity. But we have already seen how tenuous an appeal to such grounds is when directed at Plantinga's version of Christian Platonism. The Christian Platonist's main opponent, then, is the advocate of (A) and (B), regardless of whether these two theses are derivable from more basic intuitions about divine sovereignty. My own experience with undergraduates suggests, in fact, that (A) may itself be a basic prereflective intuition for many Christians.
In any case, it is not surprising that Plantinga next (pp. 127-40) attacks (B) in an effort to bring (A) into disrepute. His argument is a simple one: if (B) is true, then each of the following is possibly true:
(1) God is wicked,
but it is much more intuitively obvious that (1)-(4) are impossible than that (B) is true; so it is more reasonable for a Christian to reject (B) than to accept it.
Of course, a tenacious defender of (A) and (B) might counter that on his view it is also possible that the negation of, say, (1) be true when (1) is true, in which case God would be /81/ non-wicked as well as wicked. But he will likewise have to admit that (1) might be true when its negation is false. And, in any case, my suspicion is that an orthodox Christian will be extremely reluctant to concede that any of (1)-(4) could be true in any circumstances.
It is hardly surprising that the doctrine of absolute omnipotence encapsulated by (A) has not found many supporters in the history of theology. Our Christian heritage instills in us an overwhelming inclination to believe that there are necessary truths at least about God himself and his "great-making" attributes. Even the nominalists among us grant this much. Moreover, if we believe that God is a necessary being and conceive of his nature as a Platonic property, then, as Plantinga intimates, God's having a nature is just logically equivalent to there being necessary truths about him. Hence, it is eminently reasonable for a Christian to reject (A) and (B), and at the very least theologically permissible for him to accept the Platonist's claim that God has a nature. As I see it, then, Plantinga has clearly succeeded in defending Christian Platonism against the "sovereignty objection."
We should note immediately, however, that Plantinga's argument against universal possibilism does not deal a mortal blow to the more modest thesis that if God is sovereign, then many allegedly paradigmatic necessary truths (e.g., truths of logic and mathematics) are in fact only contingently true and within God's power to make false. (Perhaps this is what Descartes and hosts of undergraduates really have in mind.) Even philosophers with no theological axe to grind have had doubts about the alleged necessity of logical and mathematical truths. So perhaps for at least some Christians the proposition, say, that it is necessary that 2 + 2 = 4 is no more intuitively plausible--and maybe even less so--than the proposition that if God is sovereign, then it is possible that 2 + 2 do not equal 4.
In addition to the main line of argument just discussed, Does God Have A Nature? contains two subplots which merit passing attention. First, Plantinga aptly uses the occasion of his Aquinas Lecture to launch a devastating attack on the obscurantist thesis, apparently held by some contemporary theologians, that we cannot even discuss God's nature because none of our concepts applies properly, i.e., non-metaphorically, to God. (Aquinas criticizes this very position in Summa Theologiae I, 13, 3.) After carefully distinguishing this claim from the hallowed via negativa, Plantinga shows convincingly that no one can coherently hold it (pp. 20-26). For anyone who asserts its main justificatory premise, viz., that God transcends human experience, presupposes that our concept transcending human experience properly applies to God. Worse yet, to assert the conclusion that none of our concepts applies to God is self-referentially incoherent, since being such that none of our concepts applies to him is itself one of our concepts and must be properly applicable to God if the conclusion in question is true. Now it may be that Plantinga has misread the views of Gordon Kaufman, the later John Hick, and others. If so, it would be interesting to hear their reply.
Second, if there is any part of this masterful little book that ought make the theologically educated reader uneasy, it is the discussion (pp. 26-61) of Aquinas's explication of the venerable doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). According to the DDS, God lacks any sort of metaphysical composition and because of this is neither perfectible nor corruptible. It follows, according to Aquinas and others, that God is identical with his nature and with each of his perfecting attributes.
Despite its name, the DDS is a desperately complex and difficult doctrine, and I will not attempt to discuss it in any detail here. Instead, I will limit myself to some general observations.
Plantinga discusses the DDS under the assumption that this doctrine is meant to provide a resolution to the apparent conflict between God's sovereignty and his having a nature. Only later (p. 93) does he note, correctly, that the DDS does not directly address /82/ the issue of control. Like nominalism, the DDS as such does not bear on the question of whether God is absolutely omnipotent in the sense defined by (A) above.
The truth of the matter, I believe, is that the proponents of the DDS never intended it to be an answer to the questions which concern Plantinga in Does God Have A Nature? They presuppose that God has a nature, that he is sovereign, and that there are necessary truths over which he has no control. And they further presuppose that these three propositions are consistent with one another. Hence, their identification of God with his nature and attributes is not motivated by a desire to reconcile God's having a nature with his sovereignty. Rather, it is meant to provide a metaphysical characterization of the divine perfection and of the chasm which separates infinite from finite being.
However, even if Plantinga's discussion of the DDS is dialectically misplaced, it is nonetheless interesting in its own right. In the end the DDS is rejected mainly because it appears to entail the starkly counterintuitive thesis that some property (or perhaps state of affairs) is a divine person. On the surface this rejection seems plausible. But it also engenders some misgivings which Plantinga does little to assuage.
It is important to remember that Aquinas quite explicitly acknowledges that statements such as "God is Love," "God is Wisdom," and "God is his act of understanding" are grammatically deviant. On his view, it is precisely God's simplicity which accounts for our inability to name him univocally by means of ordinary descriptive terms and phrases. For all such terms and phrases, Aquinas believes, connote metaphysical composition and hence imperfections of the sort characteristic of mere creatures. In our groping way we resort to grammatical deviance in order to cancel out, as it were, such connotations. So to say that God is Wisdom (and not just wise) is to say at least that God's wisdom is not accidental to him or limited in any way, and that he is the source and exemplar of the limited wisdom possessed by his rational creatures. But at this point we must ask: Does Aquinas also intend to claim that God is an attribute or property in some (perhaps minimal) sense of those terms which he shares with Plantinga? I confess with Plantinga himself (p. 53) that this is no easy question. Nonetheless, we cannot claim to comprehend the DDS adequately until it is answered.
This metaphysical enigma suggests a more general worry. Within the metaphysical flamework accepted by Aquinas, simplicity is a necessary as well as a sufficient condition for absolute perfection. Hence, to deny the DDS while affirming God's perfection is to claim implicitly that Aquinas's metaphysical system is defective in a way that leads to error in his doctrine of God. Though Plantinga expresses doubts about certain facets of the DDS, he does not undertake here to articulate what he takes to be the deeper metaphysical confusions which engender this doctrine. Clearly, however, any convincing critique of the DDS will have to contain an illuminating diagnosis of this sort.
The DDS, after all, is no latecomer to the Christian theological scene. It has some (perhaps weak) scriptural basis and was explicitly held (at least in inchoate form) by some of the early Fathers. Numbered among its medieval advocates are Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham, among others. Moreover, it has been affirmed in conciliar decrees, some of which antedate the Reformation. So one who rejects the DDS at least prima facie runs the risk of jettisoning unintentionally something essential to Christian orthodoxy. Thus, only a painstaking analysis of the meaning and metaphysical roots of the DDS will suffice to dispel qualms about the theological ramifications of denying it. Especially important in this regard is a careful and sympathetic explication of the central Thomistic-Aristotelian distinction between act and potency--a distinction which is treated in what I believe to be too summary a fashion on pp. 44-46. My hope is that Plantinga himself will at some future date undertake a more thorough examination of this distinction and of the DDS. /83/
Despite these minor criticisms, I wish to commend Does God Have A Nature? as yet another Plantingean exemplar of tough-minded yet creative philosophical theology. It goes without saying that such work is sorely needed today as an antidote to the disappointingly uncritical modernism characteristic of so much contemporary theology.