An Unsuccessful Defense of Classical Theism: A Systematic Response to Sonna, Kerr, and Tomaszewski

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I’ve had some wonderfully informative and engaging interactions on the topic of classical theism, and I am so grateful to all participants in such discussions. Consider this post an extension of this grand topic, one concerning the fundamental nature of reality and our place in it. As such, I extend my deepest gratitude to Suan, Christopher, and Gaven for their insights into this grand topic.

In the battle of ideas, we sometimes get bogged down in defending our tribe and attacking ‘outsiders’. We start seeing our fellow interlocutors and explorers as enemies. We strip others of their humanity and see them through caricatured lenses.

But this is a perversion. It’s a perversion of true dialogue, of true humanity, of truth itself. We are fellow explorers on a common path, on a common team, seeking treasures of truth. Our insights should serve others, not tear them down. I urge all of us to put down our weapons and instead pick up our flashlights. With these in hand, we can illuminate a common path towards treasure.

For ease of reference, here’s an outline for those reading the post. I highly recommend reading each portion, since some portions build upon others, and arguments for and against classical theism are covered in almost every section.


Outline

1. The nuts and bolts

2. ‘Theistic personalism’ vs ‘Neo-classical theism’ vs ‘Neo-theism’

3. Denying classical theism is equivalent to denying God’s existence?

3.1 “The God of theistic personalism is different from Zeus only in degree.” (Tomaszewski)

3.2 God is posterior to categories?

3.3 Platonism

3.4 PSR, explaining other things, and explaining necessity

3.5 Necessity and aseity

3.6 The argument from worship

4. The Bible and classical theism

4.1 The priority of natural theology and metaphysics

4.2 Exodus 3:14

4.3 ‘God is love’ and 1 John 4:8

5. Securing monotheism

6. Rejecting conclusions on the basis of unintelligibility

6.1 Nemes’ argument

6.2 In defense of Mullins

6.3 In defense of Sonna

7. The De Ente argument

7.1 Per se causal chains

7.2 Metaphysical presuppositions

7.3 Two false premises

7.4 Existential inertia

8. Aquinas’ First Way

9. Reasonable disagreement

10. Modal collapse

10.1 The simple modal collapse argument is invalid

10.2 A resurrection of modal collapse

11. Timelessness and Immutability

11.1 No Real Relations Doctrine

12. Trinitarianism

12.1 Intrinsic but distinct

12.2 From individuating features

12.3 Essential Trinitarian-hood

12.4 One in essence

12.5 Multiplicity (allegedly) requires a cause

12.6 Processions and DDS

13. “As classical theists, the Euthyphro dilemma can’t even touch us.” (Sonna)

14. Conclusion

Here’s a tip for navigation in and through sections: copy the section title from the outline, then perform a ‘command F’ search on the post, and then search up the section title.


The nuts and bolts

Before reading further, it’s important to understand the structure of the post and the nature of my critique. I will proceed through the video from start to finish and critically appraise the content therein. Of course, I cannot (and, hence, will not) address absolutely everything in the video with the fullest breadth and depth that such topics deserve. That would require tens upon tens of thousands of words. Nevertheless, I aim to address the most important topics covered in the video.

Note, further, that all quotations are either directly (verbatim) from the video or are extremely-minimally-paraphrased snippets from it. Understand that merely by placing something in quotes with the speaker’s name next to it, I’m not claiming that those exact, strictly identical words in that exact order were said; rather, the order might be ever-so-slightly altered, or an ‘um’ might be omitted, or a small side phrase might be omitted, and so on. What I will say is that the vast majority of the quotations I provide are exact, verbatim quotations.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the criticisms themselves!


  1. ‘Theistic Personalism’ vs ‘Neo-classical theism’ vs ‘Neo-theism’

It’s worth reflecting on the terms used in the video, as these set the stage for all further discussion in terms of clarity, precision, and rigor.

Let’s first cover why ‘theistic personalist’ is an unbefitting title. First, it’s simply not taken seriously by scholars working in models of God and conceptions of ultimate reality. It crops up almost exclusively in semi-popularizers of philosophy like Ed Feser and David Bentley Hart, but almost nowhere in analytic theology and philosophy of religion journals, papers, books, conferences, and so on. Brian Davies introduced the term in his introductory philosophy of religion book, wherein he employed the term for pedagogical purposes to essentially set aside anything that is not classical theism. For beginners, that might be a somewhat useful heuristic. But that’s really as far as it goes, and scholars can do (and have done) better. All else being equal, we should probably utilize terms that scholars in the relevant fields and relevant literature actually take seriously.

As Ryan points out in a recent video, the term — by and large — is simply found nowhere in wider scholarship. An almost exhaustive list of those who use the term is: Ed Feser, Brian Davies, David Bentley Hart, and Stephen Long. The lack of usage is evident by the sheer preponderance of books and articles on things like open theism, panentheism, and process theism. There are countless books on models of God in contemporary analytic theology and philosophy of religion, none of which even mention the term. Excluding the really obvious examples like Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities and Alternative Concepts of God, and several forthcoming book projects on models of God that make zero mention of ‘theistic personalism,’ there are other obvious examples of books that have opted for well-established and better defined models of God.

This point is worth emphasizing. There is a preponderance of literature that refers to each of classical theism, modified classical theism (or what is also known as neo-classical theism), open theism, panentheism, etc., but barely anything that refers to ‘theistic personalism’. Consider, for instance:

  • Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: 4 Views, ed. Bruce Ware (2008)
  • God in an Open Universe, eds. William Hasker, Dean Zimmerman, and Thomas Jay Oord (2011)
  • Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Scieince, ed. Thomas Jay Oord (2011)
  • John Cooper, Panentheism (2007) which speaks of classical theism, modified classical theism, and panentheism
  • Panentheism Across The Worlds Traditions, eds. Loriliai Biernacki and Philip Clayton (2013)
  • Philosophical Essays Against Open Theism, ed. Benjamin Arbour (2018).
  • Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015). Discusses classical theism, open theism, and relational theology. ‘Theistic personalism’ is found nowhere.
    • Oord’s previous and subsequent publications discuss classical theism, process theism, open theism, etc. without mention of theistic personalism. In fact, he has recently launched a Center for Open and Relational Theology. It is strange how he did not launch a Center for Theistic Personalism. Perhaps that’s because Oord is unaware of the vast and important literature on theistic personalism? Or perhaps it’s because there is no such literature…
  • John Peckham, The Doctrine of God: Introducing the Big Questions (New York: T&T Clark, 2019). This is the most recent book on models of God.
    • Peckham’s book surveys various models like classical theism, modified classical theism (i.e. another name for neo-classical theism), open theism, and panentheism. He only mentions ‘theistic personalism’ once in the entire book, and it’s buried in a footnote. Peckham rightly recognizes that the label doesn’t deserve any more scholarly treatment than a measly footnote. And here’s what he writes:
    • “Conversely, some pejoratively refer to modified classical theists such as William Lane Craig as theistic personalists or theistic mutualists, often focusing on the denial of strict simplicity by such thinkers.” (p. 9, fn. 27)
  • James Dolezal, All That Is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017). Here Dolezal (a prominent classical theist) pits all other views against classical theism, but — strikingly — he doesn’t use the label ‘theistic personalism’. Instead, he intentionally uses his own category of ‘theistic mutualism.’

It’s also worth pointing out that the phrase and definition of ‘neo-classical theism’ that Mullins employs comes from well-established, well-respected philosopher of religion Kevin Timpe’s article “Introducing Neo-Classical Theism” in Models of God and Alternative Ultimate Realities. Indeed, the entire section in this monolithic, one-thousand-page-long book is entitled ‘Neo-classical theism’, which comes immediately after the section on ‘Classical theism’:

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Another place to see the scholarly dearth of reference to theistic personalism is Mullins’ “The Difficulty of Demarcating Panentheism,” Sophia, (2016). Mullins gives a taxonomy of models — with abundant scholarly references — none of which mention ‘theistic personalism.’ Mullins’ God and Emotion (Cambridge University Press, August 2020) likewise discusses classical theism and neo-classical theism, with none of the references contained therein mentioning ‘theistic personalism’ once. If the phrase is meaningful and useful, it’s a miracle that almost no serious scholars use it. 

Some may object to the word ‘classical’ within the phrase ‘neo-classical theism’. Indeed, Suan is explicit at 30:38 on excluding the word ‘classical’. Note, however, that the term ‘classical’ is modified by ‘neo’, signifying that the view is undoubtedly distinct from (and in contradistinction to) classical theism simpliciter. But ‘classical’ is warranted due to the significant overlap between the views. For both views, God is:

  • Radically metaphysically necessary, self-subsisting, self-explanatory, independent
  • The creator and sustainer — ex nihilo — of everything outside God. Such radically contingent things would lapse into non-being at any moment were it not for God’s causal activity
  • Omniscient, omnipotent, absolutely perfect, wholly good, sovereign, provident, etc.
  • Distinct from creation (the universe is not part of God or identical to God)
  • And so on

The vast amount of overlap makes any qualms with the term ‘classical’ unwarranted, especially in light of the obvious modification of ‘neo’ attached to it.

It’s also worth noting the strangeness of the use of the term ‘neo-theism’ in the discussion. Suan was near-insistent on the phrase, and Christopher used it as well. The term goes back to Norman Geisler’s intentional refusal to use the well-established phrase ‘open theism’ or ‘free will theism’ to describe the position articulated in The Openness of God (1994). His use of neo-theism was rejected by open theists because it was entirely pejorative. Geisler said things like ‘they have made God a creature, an idol. They are worshiping a god and not God.’ (Cf. Norman Geisler, Creating God in the Image of Man? The New “Open” View of God—Neotheism’s Dangerous Drift (1997) and Norman Geisler, Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism (2001)). The fact that neo-theism is obviously pejorative and was invented to critique open theismnot even modified or neo-classical theism — reveals a disconcerting lack of awareness of the scholarship surrounding these issues. This is worth emphasizing. The participants in the discussion were aiming to address Mullins’ view (and, by extension, the views of other neo-CTists like Bill Craig, Josh Rasmussen[Fn], etc.). But Mullins decidedly rejects open theism. The use of ‘neo-theism’ is sloppy at best.

[Fn] Josh is difficult to fully categorize. I would argue that the best categorization is neo-classical theism with elements of panentheism and/or theistic idealism sprinkled in.

A second problem is that its scope covers a range of views so vastly divergent that ‘theistic personalism’ simply has no meaningful evaluable content. Among them are open theists, neo-classical theists, pantheists, panentheists, process theists, and countless others in between. None of these groups share any overarching metaphysical or epistemological system; there is no single, united methodological approach to questions of God, his nature, and his relation to the world (in fact, the methodological approaches often vastly contrast with one another); none of them understand parts in exactly the same way; none of them understand the divine attributes in exactly the same way; and so on. There is simply no meaningful, evaluable content to ‘theistic personalism’ as there is in ‘classical theism’, ‘open theism’, or what have you. 


  1. Denying classical theism is equivalent to denying God’s existence?

The title of this section is a claim Tomaszewski makes in the video.

The short answer to the question is no. The long answer is noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

3.1 “The God of theistic personalism is different from Zeus only in degree.” (Tomaszewski)

This is flatly false. Zeus is contingent, whereas the God is neo-classical theism is uniquely metaphysically necessary.[Fn] Everything extrinsic to the God of neo-classical theism is caused to exist — at any moment at which it exists — by God. This is radically different from Zeus, who is situated alongside a pantheon and requires a whole host of external factors to be in place for him to exist.

[Fn] Keep in mind that Christopher is trying to offer an internal critique of neo-classical theism. As such, we have to keep in mind neo-classical theism’s commitment to God’s unique status as metaphysically necessary.

Tomaszewski claims that the differences between Zeus and the neo-CT God aren’t ‘fundamental ontological differences’. While he cannot be faulted for not defining what he means (given it’s a YouTube video), it doesn’t give us much to work with in terms of rigorous, clear argumentation. What exactly is a ‘fundamental ontological difference’? Surely the difference between being radically contingent and radically dependent at any moment for one’s existence is a ‘fundamental ontological difference’ compared to being radically self-subsistent, self-explanatory, metaphysically necessary, and independent. But that’s precisely the chasm between Zeus and the neo-CT God. Under neo-CT, Zeus (and any others in the pantheon of lowercase-g-gods) is radically contingent, but the neo-CT God is radically necessary and sustains every radically contingent thing in existence. How is this not a fundamental ontological difference?

Ultimately, I suspect that the insistence on a ‘fundamental ontological difference’ will come down to a mere insistence that the neo-CT God simply isn’t the classical theistic God. It’s a mere insistence that the only adequate ‘fundamental ontological difference’ could be a demarcation between that which is Being Itself and Pure Actuality as opposed to that which is not. In other words, it’s a mere insistence that only the God of CT is metaphysically ultimate and truly deemed ‘God’. And that’s precisely what’s at issue, of course.

“Zeus and the God of theistic personalism don’t have different ways of existing” (Tomaszewski).

Well, once again, no definition is provided concerning what ‘ways of existing’ means.[Fn] But, once again, Christopher cannot be faulted for this — keep in mind that it’s a YouTube video. Still, as of yet, it’s a mere assertion, and it’s one that seems flatly false on its face. How is the radical contingency and radical necessity outlined earlier not a different way of existing? How is being utterly dependent on the neo-CT God at each and every moment as opposed to being the independent source of existence of things external to God not a different way of existing?

[Fn] He does go on to say that Zeus and the neo-CT God ‘share the same fundamental kind of being’. But this seems to be foisting upon neo-CTists a metaphysical framework they wouldn’t adopt in the first place, one only (or mainly) accepted by CTists. Many neo-CTists take existence to be primitive and univocal (for a defense, see van Inwagen (2014)). Under this view, it simply doesn’t make sense to say something ‘exists’ in a different way from another thing. Something either exists or it doesn’t. It’s either in reality or it isn’t. Nothing has one foot in reality and another foot out of reality; nothing is 50% existent. Now, obviously, CTists don’t hold to these ideas. I am neither claiming nor implying that. I’m simply trying to give a glimpse into (a small sample of) the intuitions driving someone to hold that existence is univocal. Now, there may be a sense in which x and y have a ‘different kind of existence’ if x is necessary and y is contingent, or if x is a substance and y is an inherent accident or property of that substance, or what have you. But that seems to be a difference in the manner of their existence, not a difference in their existence. They both exist — equally, fully, wholly, really. They both exist simpliciter. Regardless of whether they exist in the same set of circumstances, or in the same possible worlds, or if one is dependent upon another, they both exist full stop. Again, I’m simply trying to give a taste for (a small sample of) the intuitions behind this sort of metaphysical framework. I’m not defending it, or claiming it’s true, or claiming that opposing views are false or irrational, or what have you.

Once again, I suspect that this criticism will ultimately boil down to a mere insistence that the God of neo-CT isn’t the God of classical theism. And that’s uninteresting, first, but it’s also granted on all sides. We all agree that the God of neo-CT is not Being Itself. But that doesn’t entail in the slightest that the neo-CT God and Zeus don’t have different ways of existing.

3.2 God is posterior to categories?

“If you accept that God is ‘a’ being but not Being Itself,” states Tomaszewski, “you are committed to placing God into ontological categories — at least logical if not metaphysical — that are prior to him.”

Again, this seems to be foisting a king of metaphysical framework that only (or at least predominantly) classical theists accept onto neo-classical theism and claiming victory on such a basis. There is no straightforward entailment whatsoever from neo-classical theism to the ontological or logical posteriority of God to certain categories.

Consider first the nominalism of William Lane Craig or the modified rationalism of John Feinberg. For them, there simply are no such things as these ‘categories’. Or consider any of the views articulated in Beyond the Control of God? 5 Views on God and Abstract Objects.

It’s also not clear what a ‘category’ in this context even is. No definition or clarification is provided on it (and, again, no fault on Christopher’s part). This makes it difficult to assess in a precise and rigorous manner. Depending on what a ‘category’ is, it could be incoherent to say that anything is beyond some kind of logically or ontologically prior categories. For instance, consider the law of non-contradiction, or the law of identity. In some sense we can say that ‘all the x’s such that the law of non-contradiction apply to x’ is a category. But even the CT God cannot be beyond this category. The CT God couldn’t even exist unless the law of non-contradiction or law of identity applied to him. Alternatively, if we construe ‘category’ more narrowly, then it seems that the neo-CTist can rest content with building such categories into the very nature of God, such that neither is prior to or posterior to the other.

3.3 Platonism

Tomaszewski states that Neo-CT “places God into a metaphysical framework where God is situated among the rest of beings. And this ends up inhibiting its ability to explain how God explains everything else. That’s why they end up having book length treatments by people like Bill Craig on how we could possibly reconcile God with Platonism — and end up committing ourselves to nominalism or other philosophical errors — in order to make aseity fit with our other philosophical commitments.”

This is a strange point given that platonism, if true, is a challenge for all theists. It’s a challenge for classical theism because under classical theism, everything that has being is either Being Itself (i.e. God) or derives its being from the creative bestowal of esse by God. It follows that if there are eternal, necessary, uncreated Platonic abstracta, then classical theism is false. Platonism is a challenge for everyone.

But there are distinctive problems for classical theism deriving from abstracta. For classical theism cannot account for typical realist intuitions. For instance, abstracta are typically thought of as necessarily existent. For instance, the number 2 doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that only exists on Tuesdays, or that only exists in the Milky Way galaxy. Rather, 2 seems to be the kind of thing that cannot begin to exist, cease to exist, or fail to exist. It seems to exist of metaphysical necessity. Similarly, 1+1’s equaling 2 simply couldn’t be false. It couldn’t be the case that 1 and 1 make anything other than 2. And similar realist intuitions support the necessary existence of essences, propositions, numbers, shapes, universals or properties, and so on.[Fn]

[Fn] In fact, there seems to be a powerful argument for the necessary existence of propositions. For instance, the proposition ‘if there are philosophers, then there are philosophers’ is necessarily true. Call this proposition P. Now, it seems clear that if x doesn’t exist, x doesn’t have any properties. In other words, if x has properties, then x exists. Having properties seems to presuppose that the thing exists in the first in order to bear such properties. But P has the properties of ‘being necessarily true’, ‘necessarily corresponding to reality’, and so on. So, P exists. Now, P either exists contingently or necessarily. But if P exists contingently, then P can fail to exist. And if P can fail to exist, P can fail to be true (since having the property being true presupposes existence). But P cannot fail to be true — it is a necessary truth. So, P cannot fail to exist. So, P necessarily exists. For an elaboration and defense of an argument along these lines, see Rasmussen, From Necessary Truth to Necessary Existence”.

But it’s also equally obvious, it seems, that the number 2 is really distinct from the number 7. While both necessarily exist, they are also not identical with one another. After all, 2 is even, but 7 is not even; 2 is the first prime number, but 7 is not the first prime number. And not only are numbers not identical to other numbers, but numbers are not identical to propositions. Numbers cannot be true or false, but propositions can. And propositions and numbers aren’t identical to shapes. Triangularity is not identical to the proposition that ‘dogs are cute’. Nor are essences, or universals, or what have you, identical to any of these either. The essence of humanity is not identical to the number 7, or redness, or circularity.

But now we have a problem. These realist intuitions have told us that there are really distinct, metaphysically necessary things. And this is starting to look a little difficult for classical theism. For they’re either intrinsic to God or extrinsic to God. Now, if they’re intrinsic to God, then God is not absolutely simple, for then there are really distinct things within God but which are not identical to God. But under DDS, whatever is in God is God. So, they must be extrinsic to God.

But anything apart from God has its being sourced in God’s free, creative act. That means that it is not necessary that there exist anything distinct from (and hence extrinsic to) God. But that contradicts the realist intuitions we saw earlier, which get us to really distinct, metaphysically necessary things that are extrinsic to God.

So, far from being a unique problem for non-classical conceptions of God, issues concerning Platonism (specifically the central intuitions and arguments favoring realism with respect to abstracta) seem to militate against classical theism. What’s more, non-classical views of God can actually accommodate these realist intuitions by assimilating the necessarily distinct abstracta into God. This is because such non-classical theists deny absolute divine simplicity and hence allow there to be really distinct things intrinsic to but not identical to God. Necessary abstracta, then, could simply be identified with God’s thoughts, or his concepts, or what have you.

To be sure, this isn’t the end of the story, and there are lots of fun issues to untangle here concerning both classical theism and non-classical theism.[Fn] Suffice it to note for present purposes, however, that the issue is nowhere near as straightforward as might be gleaned from Tomaszewski’s treatment in the video.

[Fn] When I say non-classical theism, I mean any theism that isn’t classical theism (which includes panentheism, pantheism, open theism, neo-CT, etc.). This is distinct from neo-classical theism, which rejects one or more of the Big Four (simplicity, immutability, timelessness, and impassibility) but keeps the distinction between creator and creation, keeps creation ex nihilo, keeps omniscience, etc.

3.4 PSR, explaining other things, and explaining necessity

“In explaining the world,” says Tomaszewski, “if you don’t get to the God of classical theism, you haven’t gotten to the entity that answers the question ‘what explains everything?’– you either leave some things unexplained (and hence deny the PSR) or end up in a position that is equivalent to denying theism.” He also went on to say that “you’ve made what needs to be explained harder, since we can reasonably ask the question: why is he necessary? If I’m after why he exists, telling me that he necessarily exists doesn’t help much at all. If anything, it makes the problem of explanation worse.”

This is incorrect. First, the scope of the PSR is almost invariably restricted to the realm of contingent things and contingent propositions (see Pruss (2006)). But given that’s the case — and given that under neo-CT, God is the only metaphysically necessary being, and that God is the causal explanation of every other contingent being — it’s just flatly false that neo-CT ends up denying the PSR. This account ends up preserving the truth of the PSR and preserving a position that is decidedly not equivalent to denying theism.

Second, the point about explaining the neo-CT God’s metaphysical necessity is likewise wrongheaded. We first need to get clear on two notions of explanation, both of which I outline at the end of this video (from 1:15:27 to 1:16:32). One is an epistemic kind of explanation, the other is an ontological one. An epistemic explanation of x satisfies our curiosity as to why x is the case; it removes puzzlement or mystery concerning x; it provides a kind of intelligibility to x. An ontological explanation of x, by contrast, provides an extramental account, explanation, cause, or ground, for why x exists at all (in the ‘why x exists in the first place’, as it were).

These conceptions overlap in many cases, but in some cases they come apart. Self-explanation is eminently plausible if we mean that x is self-explanatory in the epistemic sense, as x might be self-evidently true and such that — upon grasping x — one thereby understands x (why it’s true, why it exists, etc.). But self-explanation is simply incoherent in the ontological sense of explanation. For something would already have to exist in order to have any explanatory power to account for why it — itself! — exists. It would thereby be both prior to and posterior to itself, which is absurd. Nothing can pull itself up by its own metaphysical bootstraps. In order to have any explanatory power or efficacy at all, something must exist in the first place; but in that case, its serving as an explanation already presupposes the prior reality of the being in question; but in that case, the thing in question cannot explain (ontologically) its own being, for doing so already presupposes the very thing in need of explanation. So, while (say) 1=1 may be self-evident and hence self-explanatory in the epistemic sense, 1=1 cannot be self-explanatory ibn the ontological sense, since 1=1 cannot make it be the case that 1=1 is true or exists (at all, simpliciter). It would already have to be true or exist in order to have such explanatory efficacy.

With this in mind, we can see that any view which has some ultimate reality that isn’t explained in terms of something apart from itself will run into an unexplained, primitive being. This is true of CT no less than neo-CT. For nothing can ontologically account for why it — itself — is in reality at all, in the first place. All views of God, then, ultimately hit a brute, primitive metaphysical necessity, and a problem for everyone is a problem for no one.

And the epistemic notion of explanation won’t help here either. For it’s certainly not self-evident in the way that 1=1 that the God of CT (or the God of neo-CT) exists. Aquinas himself agrees with this.[Fn] Even if we did try to claim that the God of CT is self-evident or somehow has a kind of intrinsic intelligibility (in the epistemic sense of explanation), the exact same moves are open to the neo-CTist. The neo-CTist can hold that a reflection on the nature of sheer perfection (along the lines of a Godelian ontological argument, say) provides an equally compelling account of the self-evidence or intrinsic intelligibility of the neo-CT God as is alleged to hold (we are supposing) in the case of the CT God.

[Fn] If I recall correctly, Aquinas thinks that God is self-evident in himself, but that he is not self-evident to creatures, since we don’t have access to God as he is in himself.

As an exercise illustrating all these points, we can play a game. It’s called the Why Game, and it illustrates why both neo-CT and CT both reach a primitive metaphysical necessity at the bedrock of their views:

Q: Why does the CT God exist?

A: Because he is purely actual, with no potency not to exist, and he is Being Itself.

Q: But why is he purely actual? Why is he Being Itself? What accounts for why such a being is in reality at all?[Fn]

A: Well, that’s just how it has to be. It’s metaphysically necessary.

Q: But why is it metaphysically necessary?

A: Bruh, it just is.

[Fn] Note that this is completely separate from the question of why we should conclude that such a being exists. That’s a point concerning what we ought to believe on the basis of certain premises, not about what accounts for why the being exists at all in reality.

3.5 Necessity and aseity

“One of the things I saw Ryan say is that you don’t really need simplicity to secure aseity, all you need is necessity” (Tomaszewski).

But this is a misrepresentation of Ryan.[Fn] In a conversation with Ryan wherein this very objection is addressed (roughly 24 minutes in), Ryan does not claim that all one needs to secure aseity is necessity. He begins by making the point that what’s doing the work in the argument from asiety to simplicity is “an overly permissive Thomistic notion of ‘parts’, and so all you have to do [to avert the argument] is reject that overly permissive view and specify any other kind of mereological theory that’s more plausible.” For instance, one could adopt priority monism, according to which God as a whole substance is ontologically prior to his ‘parts’. Matthew Baddorf considers a whole host of mereological accounts even under constituent ontology that don’t make God dependent on his parts. Ryan himself takes a mereological account (roughly, philosopher Keith Yandell’s) according to which x is a part of y only if x is detachable from y. This quite clearly shows that Ryan doesn’t hold that “all you need” is necessity to guarantee aseity.[Fn]

[Fn] I texted my friend Christopher, and he said he based his claim on Ryan’s emphasis (found in the video I linked) — in connection with the De Ente argument from essence-existence distinction — that, plausibly, a cause of an essence-existence composite would only be requires provided that such a composition is a contingent composition. But — argues Ryan (and me) — in the case of something whose composition between essence and existence is absolutely necessary (granting the highly 2controversial metaphysical framework underlying talk of this type of ‘composition’), it’s not clear why a cause is needed for such a composition. Christopher connected these points to aseity, because one core component of having aseity is lacking a cause. While I don’t think connecting this to aseity is something Ryan had in mind, we need not split hairs about this point any further.

[Fn] I texted Ryan and asked him if he’s ever said this in word or print. He told me he has never said it in print, and that he doesn’t recall ever saying it verbally. I also re-checked the entire section of the video on Majesty of Reason dedicated to the argument for simplicity from aseity, and he doesn’t say it there.

3.6 The argument from worship

Here’s Pruss’ argument that Tomaszewski levels:

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I won’t spend much time on this argument, mainly because I’m writing this section after writing many other sections, and I’m somewhat exhausted. Suffice it to note that there seems to be nothing absurd or immoral for worshipping not only God himself but also worshipping God for who he is and what he does. People worship God for what he does all the time, such as saving the Israelites, or redeeming humanity, despite the fact that these are not utterly identical to God himself. There seems to be nothing idolatrous in worshipping God for exemplifying all of the great-making properties. And, moreover, premise (2) also smuggles in assumptions concerning what counts as ‘parts’ that most neo-CTists simply don’t accept and that only (or, at least, predominantly) CTists accept.

Premise (1) is also highly dubious. No one is worshipping mercy itself. They’re worshipping the person who is merciful. This also ties into priority monism with respect to God. For under priority monism, God’s having certain properties is less fundamental than and explained in virtue of God simpliciter. And if that’s the case, then even if we worship God on account of (say) his mercy, we aren’t committing idolatry precisely because God is merciful in virtue of God simpliciter.

Here’s a case that seems to be analogous. When Jimmy performs a virtuous action, we praise Jimmy. And this is true even if we praise Jimmy on account of his virtuous action. We aren’t thereby praising the action itself. No one goes around and congratulates or thanks actions. And this is so even if Jimmy is distinct from his virtuous action. We are praising Jimmy and not his virtuous action even if we praise Jimmy on account of his virtuous action.

It also might be open to the neo-CTist simply to say that idolatry or improper worship occurs only if the thing being worshipped is extrinsic to God. There seems to be nothing immoral or wrong about worshiping either God or worshipping something intrinsic to God. This particular response is a ‘bite the bullet’ response, but perhaps it’s not a terribly difficult bullet to bite.

Anyway, this part of the blog post (Section 3.6) is probably one that I’m most tentative about. I haven’t studied this argument in any profound depth. I’m also writing this after writing most other sections, so I’m a tad exasperated. As such, take these criticisms with some grain of salt; use your own tools to see for yourself whether these brief criticisms have merit or whether the original argument succeeds.


  1. The Bible and classical theism

4.1 The priority of natural theology and metaphysics

It is true that an interpretation of scripture must accord with the correct metaphysics. But we cannot conclude from this that our metaphysics couldn’t be informed by the Bible. For a Christian, Biblical evidence can actually be something that weighs in on whether or not a metaphysics is correct. For there can come a point where the Biblical data and evidence is so strong and overwhelming in one direction that such evidence can itself be reason to doubt what we initially thought was a decisive metaphysical proof of something. Any metaphysical proof is just a set of premises (P1, P2, … Pn) and an entailment relation between them and a conclusion (C). But in principle there could easily come a point where the Biblical evidence against C is strong enough that we should simply re-evaluate our affirmation of the conjunction of the premises. Perhaps a premise we found somewhat intuitive is wrong after all. Or perhaps an underlying presupposition of the argument is mistaken.

This points to a more general methodological point, viz. that any argument is susceptible of a Moorean shift. For we can reason like this:

(P1 & P2 & … Pn) → C

(P1 & P2 & … Pn)

∴ C

But we can also reason like this:

(P1 & P2 & … Pn) → C

~C

∴ ~(P1 & P2 & … Pn)

To arbitrate between these, we need to compare the relative evidential weight favoring the conjunction of P1, P2, … Pn (on the one hand) and ~C (on the other hand). And it’s a perfectly legitimate form of reasoning to find overwhelming biblical support for ~C and, on that basis, conclude that at least one of the premises P1, P2, … Pn is wrong.

To illustrate this, consider it mathematically. Suppose we have an alleged proof of metaphysical position x with five premises. Suppose that for each premise, you are 90% certain that the premise is true.[Fn] Even if this is true, then you can only justifiably be 59% confident in the truth of the conclusion C on the basis of such premises. Thus, if you have a measly 60% confidence that the biblical evidence shows ~C, you would actually be more justified in rejecting the metaphysical demonstration on the basis of the Biblical evidence.

[Fn] Keep in mind that this is a high number — maybe unwarrantedly high given the staggering number of experts who disagree with you [universal you] and have studied the topic thousands of hours longer than you. I say ‘maybe’, since this will depend on the argument in question. But we can ignore the perhaps unwarrantedly high confidence.

So, while it’s true that if we know that x is the correct metaphysics, then scriptural exegesis must comport with x, that’s an if — and the argument in favor of x’s being the correct metaphysics can actually be defeated (as we’ve seen) from scriptural evidence.[Fn]

[Fn] Provided you’re a Biblical theist, of course.

4.2 Exodus 3:14

It’s worth noting, first, that almost no Old Testament scholars even consider divine simplicity as an interpretation of this text. They are instead interested in debates that actually pertain to the Hebrew people at the time of the Divine appearance to Moses in the burning bush. And I can assure you that none of these debates were on whether anything intrinsic to God, including any attributes, is identical to God.

Here’s one passage from footnote 517 on page 116 from John Peckham’s forthcoming scholarly monograph Divine Attributes:

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Old Testament scholars, then, generally don’t see this passage as anything like God revealing his absolute divine simplicity to Moses or the people of Israel.

To drive this point home, let’s consider other well-respected Old Testament scholarly investigations into this very passage:

(1) Bruce C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Petersen, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999). From chapter 4 Bondage, Exodus, Wilderness: Exodus 1-18, Selected Psalms.

God responds to the suffering of Israel. Exodus 3:7 says that God sees their suffering. It uses the Hebrew word yada (to know). Yada is more “than cognitive knowledge. It indicates a participation in and experiencing of that which is known. Thus, God indicates a divine choice to enter into and experience Israel’s suffering. It points to a quality of divine character that we might call the vulnerability of God, the willingness of God to be wounded in solidarity with human woundedness.” (p. 111)

This is in contradistinction to the impassible God of classical theism, and it’s inextricably bound up with the story of Exodus. God’s vulnerability and willingness to suffer are themes throughout the entire Old Testament. In Exodus 3, God chooses to identify with the suffering of Israel for the sake of changing things. He made Himself known (yada) as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob before, but God had never given them a name. In Exodus 3:13-18, God gives them His name. (p. 112)

“The act of revealing the divine name is itself remarkable. In the ancient world, the giving of one’s name is an act of intimacy that establishes relationship. It is related to vulnerability as well, for to know God’s name is to have access, communication, and relationship by those who name the name. To know the name of God opens the possibility of honouring God more deeply in relationship, but for God runs the risk of abuse and dishonoring of the divine name as well.” (p. 113)

Most scholars prefer to translate “I Am” as “I will be what/who I will be” or “I will cause to be what I cause to be.” This relates to the dynamic character of God to the unfolding existence of Israel’s salvation and birth (p. 113).

(2) Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Eternity, Time, and the Trinitarian God,” in ed. Colin Gunton, Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

“Although eternity is said [by Augustine and the Christian-Plotinian tradition] to be simultaneous possession of the wholeness of life, that life does not have a future, nor is its wholeness constituted by such a future. But if the whole of life is structured by the future source of its completion, which is also the source of the new that happens in the course of that life, then even the simultaneous possession of that life should be expected to be structured correspondingly. Regarding the biblical God, we have no word that precisely states the importance of the future for himself. But when he calls himself the God “who will be who he will be” (Ex. 3:14), his future action seems to constitute his identity. In addition, it seems there will be something new in connection with God’s future or rather issuing from his future.”

Pannenberg continues, writing:

“Augustine was convinced that his concept of eternity was based on the biblical witness to the one and eternal God. He found this idea particularly in some of the Psalms: When Psalm 102 says of God, that his years “last throughout all generations” (v. 24), Augustine found in these words an expression of God’s eternity. In his exposition of the Psalms this phrase provided the occasion for explaining the concept of eternity, which is no less than the very substance of God (ipsa Dei substantia est), since there is nothing changeable, no past, that is no longer, nor future which is not yet, but only being, in accordance with Ex 3:14, where God says of himself: “I am who I am” (ego sum qui sum). Our contemporary exegesis, of course, tells us to read that phrase “I shall be who I shall be.” This changes the point and deprives Augustine’s argument of its most important evidence. There is future to God, then, and God will show himself to be what he will be. … This is a far cry from the timeless identity of “I am who I am.” Thus in his reference to Ex. 3:14 Augustine was mistaken, because he used a misleading translation.”

(3) Clark H. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology” in Pinnock et. al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

In this article, Pinnock is explicit that ‘I AM’ is not saying ‘I exist’; rather, “God is saying that he will be a faithful God for his people” (p. 106).

(4) R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

Here, Moberly explains that there is a debate among Old Testament scholars over how to understand the name of God and the statement in Deuteronomy. The debate is over whether this verse (Ex 3:14) implies that there is only one God (monotheism) or if Israel is only to worship one God (monolatry). (pp. 7-10) There is little to no debate among OT scholars over whether divine simplicity is even a possible interpretation of this, as it’s simply foreign to the Biblical text.

It’s not only foreign, of course, but seems decidedly contradicted by Old Testament themes. “A distinctive characteristic of Israel’s scriptures is that God, on occasion, ‘repents’ (Heb. Niham)” (p. 108). Reflecting on divine change in Jeremiah 18:7-10, Moberly emphasizes that “A fundamental presupposition within 18:7-10, therefore, is that God’s relationship with people is a genuine relationship because it is responsive. The relationship between God and people is characterized by a dynamic similar to that of relationships between people: they are necessarily mutual, and they can both grow and wither. How people respond to God matters to God, and affects how God responds to people” (pp. 120-121).

4.3 ‘God is love’ and 1 John 4:8

Tomaszewski is emphatic that 1 John 4:8 supports classical theism, since it doesn’t merely say that God is loving, or merely has the attribute of love, or whatever; instead, it said God is love.

Let’s examine, then, what scholars write on this.

(1) John Peckham, The Love of God: A Canonical Model (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015)

“First John declares that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8, 16). However, many scholars contend that this statement does not require the view that love is [the is-of-identity] God’s essence, especially in consideration of the fact that John also states that “God is Light” (1 Jn 1:5) and “God is spirit” (Jn 4:24), not to mention other predications of God such as “God is a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24). In this way, the question of whether love is God’s essence cannot be settled by this singular statement in 1 John 4. Yet, whatever else may be said with regard to the relationship between God’s essence and love, since the text proclaims that “God is love,” all that God is and does must be understood as congruent with divine love. That is, God’s character is itself love, and God is essentially loving. The members of the Trinity have always been involved in a love relationship (compare Jn 17:24). Intratrinitarian love is thus essential to God, a product of God’s trinitarian, essentially related nature. However, if God’s character is love, and God is essentially loving, does that mean that God loves of necessity? Is God, ontologically or morally, bound to love the world?” (p. 252).

 (2) John Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001)

Louise Berkhof says that scripture does not explicitly teach simplicity, but it might imply it from statements like God is love. Herman Bavinck makes a stronger claim that scripture is implying that attributes like love, light, wisdom, etc. are identical with God.

Feinberg tackles these arguments head on: “As for the biblical passages Berkhof and especially Bavinck propose, such arguments beg the question and wrongly use surface grammar as indicating that these verses teach the doctrine [of divine simplicity]. Bavinck and Berkhof assume that because there are biblical passages that speak of God as righteousness and truth, the writer is making the metaphysical point that God’s being is these attributes. However, as even Bavinck admits, there are also biblical passages that refer to God as righteous (rather than righteousness) and true and faithful (rather than as truth). So, if we only look at the surface grammar of these passages, we can make a case against and for simplicity using Bavinck’s and Berkhof’s line of argument. Since there are two types of passages, it is question begging to appeal only to the one kind and argue that they tell us that the Bible teaches simplicity… It is dubious that the writer is trying to say anything more than that God has the attribute named. There needs to be further evidence in the text before we can conclude that the author intends to say either that the attribute named is equal to God’s being or that it is only a part of God’s being. Put differently, when John says that God is love, is the “is” the “is” of identity or the “is” of predication? If the former, then what John says allows us to infer simplicity. If the latter, then simplicity is not implied. From the context alone, we cannot tell which “is” it is, but given the general nature of the contexts in which such statements appear, it is dubious that the writer wants to teach some metaphysical doctrine about the relation of God to his attributes. Of course, it is possible that the writer is making that point, but if so, he needs to make that clearer. As it stands, biblical data do not offer convincing support for the doctrine of divine simplicity” (pp. 328-329).


  1. Securing Monotheism

“An identification of God with his nature is the only solid footing — the only sufficient foundation — on which to secure monotheism.” (Tomaszewski)

“If you can get that God is identical to his nature, then there’s no escaping that there can only be one God. If there were a second God, that God would also be identical with its nature and therefore identical with the first God.” (Tomaszewski)

These arguments do not succeed. First, even if God G1 is identical with its nature and God G2 is identical with its nature, it doesn’t follow that their nature is thereby one and the same. Their natures could still be distinct, period. They could, for instance, have a primitive haecceity (individual thisness) of divinity.

A non-question-begging argument would be needed to get the further conclusion that even though they are each identical with their respective natures, they are also such that these respective natures are one and the same nature. It’s difficult to find a non-question-begging reason for this, though. It wouldn’t do merely to say that they could only have one and the same nature, divinity, since that is to assume that there is only one possible nature that a divine thing could have. But that’s the very question at issue, viz. whether there could be two divine things each of which has a divine nature and each of which is identical with their respective natures.

Even ignoring this problem, however, there are more fundamental worries for the argument. Here’s one. So, CTists have to admit that God’s being Trinitarian is compatible with God’s being identical with its own nature (i.e. the supposit or individual, God,  is identical with God’s nature). But this is an obvious avenue for allowing there to be — in principle — more than one God. For there seems to be no non-arbitrary, principled way to say that a God (that is distinct from the Trinitarian God) that is actually Binitarian somehow couldn’t be identical with its own nature. In other words, the argument completely ignores that there seemingly could — in principle, for all classical theism says — be two divine beings, each of whom is such that the supposit/individual is identical with its nature. And this is because one such God could be Tinitarian while the other is Binitarian. Indeed, this extends further: another could be unitarian, another tetratarian, another pentatarian, and so on.

Of course, you could say that it’s just necessary that any divine being could only be Trinitarian. But then it’s open to the neo-CTist to say that it’s just necessary that there could only be one God. Problem solved.

Here’s another problem. Basically, the argument ignores certain powerful arguments for the necessary uniqueness of God that have nothing to do with simplicity or the identity of supposit and nature. For instance, consider the method of perfect being theism, which takes one popular form like so: x is perfect iff x has all perfections essentially and x lacks all imperfections essentially (Bernstein (2014)). To get necessary uniqueness, all we have to add is something like ‘necessary uniqueness is a perfection//great-making property’. Or we could add that ‘being the source of the existence of every concrete object apart from oneself is a perfection//great-making property’. And this, too, will entail that there could only be one perfect being, since if there could be two, then it would follow that each causes the other to exist. But that would be a causal loop, which is metaphysically impossible. (It’s just self-causation with an extra step; also, if causal loops are possible, then lots of cosmological arguments are in deep trouble).

There are many, many more such arguments with rigorously articulated and defended premises within the philosophical literature. Christopher’s argument simply fails to engage with these.


  1. Rejecting conclusions on the basis of unintelligibility

6.1 Nemes’ argument

For an extended exposition and rebuttal of Nemes’ argument, see this video from 30:45 to about 1:09:00.

6.2 In defense of Mullins

Suan criticizes Mullins for rejecting the argument on the basis of the unintelligible conclusion:

“It doesn’t seem obvious to me which premise another theist would reject from the De Ente. I remember in the debate between Nemes and Mullins on Capturing Christianity, and Ryan looked straight at the conclusion and said ‘Well look, that conclusion is just unintelligible, it doesn’t make sense to me’. But I say hold on; if a conclusion is weird, it could be an indicator that one of the premises went awry, but it’s still on you to show which premise went awry.”

This is wrong on many levels. First, the criticism that Ryan is leveling — which is further expounded upon in the video cited above — is not that the conclusion doesn’t make sense to Ryan (even if Ryan happened to say that in the discussion itself). Nor is it that the conclusion is ‘weird’. This is not a charitable way of understanding the criticism.

Rather, the criticism is that the being at which the conclusion arrives is unintelligible simpliciter, full stop, out-and-out. It’s not just a personal taste thing like ‘this is weird’ or ‘this makes no sense to me’. It is strictly entailed by Nemes’ line of argument and how Nemes defined his terms: the being at which his argument arrives utterly lacks a principle of intelligibility, which is precisely that which gives content to and makes intelligible something. Without said principle, the thing is utterly unintelligible, utterly content-less. And it’s a perfectly legitimate strategy in philosophy and argumentation to reject something on the basis of being contentless and unintelligible.

This points to yet another flaw in this criticism, namely that it simply has a mistaken conception of arguments. When presented with an argument, it actually isn’t the opponents job to pinpoint which premise in particular went wrong. All we need to do is have excellent reasons for rejecting the conclusion, perform a Moorean shift, and then conclude that at least one of the premises — even if we know not which — is false.

If you come up to someone and offer a Zeno-esque argument with (say) four premises and a conclusion that says ‘therefore, change is impossible’, the person is well within his or her epistemic rights to reason as follows:

“Well, I know change is obviously possible. So there must be at least one false premise in here. But I don’t quite know which. Nevertheless, I can reject the argument, since I do know the negation of the conclusion, and by modus tollens, it follows that the negation of the conjunction of the premises is true — in which case, at least one of the premises is false. And so long as I know that, I’m well within my epistemic rights of rejecting the argument.”

Sure, it would be nice if we could pinpoint which specific premise is false. And for a full, systematic, book-length investigation into an argument, we probably should pinpoint which premise in particular is false. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that one is well within his or her epistemic rights in rejecting an argument without being able to specify which premise in particular is false.

6.3 In defense of Sonna

I do want to express agreement with Suan, though, that Ryan also could have leveled attacks on the premises themselves, and that his case would have been stronger had he done so. Thankfully, we spend 40 minutes discussing criticisms of the argument — including (especially!) its premises — in the video.


  1. The De Ente argument

7.1 Per se causal chains

*** This section needs clarification concerning its scope, intention, and terminology. See the beginning of this video for such clarification. <3

Long story short, I was not sufficiently clear in my original intention with this section. My intention is *not* (and was never) to state that the way I specifically present this line of reasoning is the way Aquinas himself does or the way Gaven does in his book ‘Aquinas’s Way to God’. Instead, my purpose is to outline *one way* of understanding a broadly De Ente-type line of reasoning. Gaven noted that my presentation sounded distinctively Feserian, and he is correct; I wrote this section as I was co-authoring a paper with Graham Oppy on Feser’s Thomistic proof.

I therefore want to make clear something that I was not sufficiently clear on in the original published post, namely, that I am not attributing this specific argument to Kerr or Aquinas. Rather, I am articulating different lines of reasoning found in Kerr, Aquinas, Feser, Juarez, and many others in the Thomistic tradition in espousing this argument and its line of reasoning.

However, it’s also worth noting that Kerr does explicitly say in his work lots of the things that I mention below. Consider this passage on page 99 of his ‘Aquinas’s Way to God’:

“In order to determine that a thing has properties dependent on some extrinsic principle, it must be antecedently determined that such a thing does not have those properties as a result of its intrinsic nature, i.e., that the property in question is distinct from the essence of the thing.”

***

The De Ente argument (or its broadly Thomistic development over the centuries and especially as of late) crucially relies on the claim that anything with an essence distinct from its existence requires a concurrent, per se sustaining cause of its existence.

One way Kerr (in his ‘Aquinas on the Metaphysics of Creation’) motivates the demand for a concurrent, per se cause for such cases as follows. First, he argues if S is such that its essence and existence are distinct, then existence is not essential to S, i.e. S doesn’t exist in virtue of what it is. Second, he argues that if the members of a series don’t have the causality of the series in themselves, in virtue of what they are (essentially), then they require a primary cause from which they derive the relevant causal power in question. In other words, if S doesn’t have F essentially (i.e. if F is not essential to S), then S derives F from a concurrent, per se cause.

The argument would then look something like:

  1. If S is such that its essence and existence are distinct, then existence is not essential to S.
  2. If F is not essential to S, then S derives F from a concurrent, per se cause.
  3. So, if S is such that its essence and existence are distinct, then S derives its existence from a concurrent, per se cause. [From (1) and (2)]
  4. Chains of per se causes of F must terminate in a primary member M that has F non-derivatively (i.e. without deriving it from a further, per se cause).
  5. If (3) and (4) are true, then there is an M that has existence non-derivatively.
  6. So, there is an M that has existence non-derivatively. [From (3), (4), and (5)]
  7. So, M is such that its essence is identical to its existence. [From (3) and (6)]
  8. So, there is an M in which essence and existence are identical. [From (6) and (7)]

7.2 Metaphysical presuppositions

It’s important to note that one way to avert the argument is simply to reject the underlying metaphysical presuppositions. For instance, it treats existence (the act of being, esse) as a ‘principle’ that is added or conjoined to an essence and thereby is a ‘component’ of things. At the very least, this monumentally controversial assumption requires justification. (This is not to say Kerr and others don’t argue for it; in fact, Kerr has many papers on the Thomistic conception of esse and rival conceptions of existence. This point, instead, is a dialectical one concerning the potential weaknesses of the argument, especially given the dozens of other conceptions of existence and the fact that most experts working on the metaphysics of existence reject treating existence as some distinct principle that’s added or conjoined to an essence and is a component of things). There are also other hefty assumptions (like a Thomistic conception of essence, which is not demanded even by a realism with respect to essences), but we need not explore these here. Let’s move on to some other critical points.

7.3 Two false premises

Premises (1) and (2) are false. Or, at the very least, insufficiently warranted. Let’s consider these in turn.

Let’s take premise (1) first. The consequent simply doesn’t follow from the antecedent. Merely from the fact that x and y are distinct, it doesn’t follow that x is not essential to y. But that’s precisely the inference the De Ente argument needs: it needs it to be the case that merely from the fact that essence and existence are distinct in S, existence is not essential to S. But this is just a non-sequitur.

In other words, merely from the fact that x and y are distinct, it doesn’t follow that one is accidental to the other. Consider, for instance, the properties having a circumference and having a diameter. These properties are clearly distinct; however, it is impossible to have one without the other – it is simply false that one is accidental to another.[Fn] It is part of the very nature of having a circumference to have a diameter as well. The two are necessarily or essentially ‘connected’ (as it were).

[Fn] To be sure, I am not attributing to defenders of the De Ente argument the view that ‘esse is an accident’. On the medieval understanding of accidents, accidents are inherent monadic properties of a substance, and hence they presuppose the (ontologically) prior reality of the substance in which they inhere. But esse cannot presuppose the prior reality of anything, since esse is precisely that without which nothing has any reality or being or existence at all. But in another sense of accidental, Aquinas does think that existence is accidental to non-God essences, so long as we understand ‘accidental’ as ‘non-essential’. And this is decidedly something Aquinas holds. Moreover, others who write on the essence-existence argument use the phrase ‘accidental’ as well. Consider, e.g. Thomistic philosopher Paulo Juarez (2018) who employs the following argument: (i) In X essence and existence are distinct; (ii) A being in which essence and existence are distinct is a being whose existence is accidental to its essence, (iii) A being whose existence is accidental to its essence depends upon another for its existence; (iv) So X depends upon another for its existence. (2018, p. 26).

The fact that x and y are distinct, then, neither means nor entails any of the following: (i) x doesn’t entail y, (ii) x is accidental (non-essential) to y, (iii) x is not necessarily ‘conjoined’ with y, and so on. Hence, merely from the fact that a being is such that its essence is distinct from existence, we cannot infer that existence is accidental (non-essential) to it, or that it can fail to exist, or that it requires a concurrent cause to combine its essence and existence. So, not only does (1) not follow from the antecedent, but (1) also has counter-examples.[Fn]

[Fn] Other counter-examples arguably abound. For instance, my essence is not animality; nor is my essence rationality; my essence is something like rational animality. So, while rationality is distinct my essence (rational animality), it doesn’t follow that rationality is not essential to me, or that I don’t have rationality in virtue of what I am. Similarly, the neo-CTist — who holds to the metaphysically necessary existence of God, but who also holds that the ‘existence’ of God (if they’re comfortable with this kind of controversial metaphysical framework) is distinct from God’s essence — will probably say something like existence is distinct from God’s essence, but that this is perfectly compatible with existence being essential to God (just as rationality’s being distinct from my essence is perfectly compatible with rationality being essential to me).

Let’s consider premise (2) now: “If F is not essential to S, then S derives F from a concurrent, per se cause.” First, merely from the fact that F is not essential to S at t, it doesn’t follow that S requires a per se, concurrent, efficient sustaining cause of S’s being F at t. In more concrete terms, merely from the fact that existence is not essential to S at t, it doesn’t follow that S requires a per se, efficient sustaining cause of S’s existence at t. At best, all it requires is that S at t requires an explanation for why S exists. And that could be in terms of the state and existence of S immediately temporally prior to t in conjunction with no sufficiently destructive causal factors operative[Fn], or it could be in terms of that which brought S into existence in conjunction with an existential inertial tendency, or it could be in terms of the explicability criterion (see Section 7.4), or what have you.

[Fn] Moreover, we know that past things are explanatorily efficacious with respect to present things. Past things can and do factor into perfectly legitimate explanations of present things all the time. For purposes of space, I shan’t discuss them here. I discuss them at length in one of my papers on EI under review.

This gets into the second problem, which is that even if S’s being F requires a cause, the cause need not be a per se cause; rather, it could be a per accidens cause. Merely from the fact that S doesn’t have F essentially, we cannot infer that the only way in which S could be or have F is in a wholly derivative, per se manner.

The third problem is that — as in the case of premise (1) — there are counter-examples to premise (2). For instance, consider a cup. A cup is not essentially in any particular location in space. Nor does it even have an intrinsic tendency to be in a particular location. But when astronauts on the ISS place the cup in a location L, the cup simply retains L as a form of stasis or unchangingess without the need for some kind of concurrent ‘holder-in-location-L’. And this makes perfect sense: if the cup has no inherent tendency toward a non-L position, and if no external factors operate on the cup to cause it to go out of L, then it would simply be inexplicable if the cup ceased to be in L. Explicability motivates inertial location.

And the same thing (I would argue) applies to existence.[Fn] It seems eminently plausible that, say, Russel’s teapot floating around Mars is not something with an intrinsic nature that disposes it or inclines it toward expiration or non-being. I haven’t come across any good demonstration that any given nature or essence E has a built-in inclining factor towards utter nothingness. And so let’s suppose that there simply is no such intrinsically inclining feature toward utter non-being.

[Fn] Or, at the very least, we’ve been given no reason as to why the same thing doesn’t apply in the case of existence — a reason that would need to be given in order for the De Ente argument to have a chance at success.

Well, once that’s established[Fn], then existence seems to be just like the cup’s location. Just as the cup has no inherent or built in tendency or inclining factor toward some location distinct from L, concrete things have no intrinsic or inherent or built in tendency inclining them or ‘pulling’ them toward utter non-being. And that seems to entail that concrete objects only cease to persist if they’re causally destroyed. If there weren’t such a destructive factor, then the object’s ceasing to exist would be inexplicable: there would be nothing intrinsic to it that accounts for its lapsing into non-being (per our earlier supposition), and there would also be nothing extrinsic to it that accounts for it (since we are supposing there’s an absence of external causally destructive factors). The object’s lapsing into non-being would be like the cup’s magically changing its spatial location without some internal or external reason.

[Fn] I don’t claim to have established it here; in fact, I usually conceive existential inertia as a mere undercutting defeater for sustaining-cause arguments; I simply haven’t been given sufficient reason to think that every non-God thing has a nature which is such that something intrinsic to it inclines it toward utter nothingness; and I don’t even know how this could be demonstrated.

Regardless of what we make of this latter kind of reasoning about existence, it suffices to point out a single counter-example to premise (2), which we did with the case of the cup on the ISS. The latest points about explicability and inertial persistence in existence bridge us nicely, though, into the next section.

7.4 Existential inertia

It might surprise people, moreover, that there are actually arguments in favor of existential inertia, the thesis that objects persist in existence without requiring a sustaining cause of their existence at each moment. I present a Bayesian argument in my paper (and briefly in this video), but here is a separate argument for EI.

In short, I aver that the very nature of per se chains gives us reason to favor existential inertia.

To see why this is the case, let’s consider one of Feser’s examples of a per se causal chain. In explaining why a coffee cup is three feet above the floor, Feser writes that “it is sitting there at that moment only because the desk is holding it up at that moment, and the desk is holding it up at that moment only because it is in turn being held up, at that same moment, by the floor” (2017, p. 21). Other examples of per se causal chains include a lamp being held aloft by chains, in turn being held aloft by the ceiling, and so on; the stone moved by the stick, in turn moved by the hand, and so on; and gear one being turned by gear two, gear two being turned by gear three, and so on.

Notice, though, that in each of these chains, the only reason concurrent causal sustenance is required seems to be that, absent such sustenance, there is some ‘net force’ or ‘net causal factor’ that is causally contributing to a single, definite outcome.[Fn] In other words, the causal operation of the sustaining, per se cause C is required precisely because C acts against what would otherwise be a net causal factor towards some different outcome.

[Fn] I don’t mean net force in an expressly mechanistic or physical way (although such forces are sub-categories of what I mean). Instead, I just mean a causal factor or group of causal factors whose overall causal contribution is like a vector quantity insofar as it contributes toward a definite end state or outcome and is not counterbalanced by some other (group of) causal factor(s).

To see why this is the case, consider again Feser’s example. It is precisely because – absent the table’s existence – the cup would revert to the ground that it requires causal sustenance to remain in the air; and this, in turn, is because there is a net causal factor (namely, gravity) operating on the cup that the table is actively preventing from achieving its definite causal outcome (in this case, attraction toward the center of Earth’s mass).[Fn]

[Fn] The same applies to the other examples of per se chains. For instance, the stone has net causal factors operating on it so as to keep it stationary (friction, gravitational and normal forces, and so on). A concurrent sustaining cause of the stone’s motion is required precisely because such a cause contravenes the causal activity of the friction, gravity, etc. toward the definite outcome of stationary spatial position.

There is inherent to per se chains, then, a requirement of either (i) a net causal force that causally inclines things toward outcome ~O that is contrary to the outcome O produced by the causally sustaining intervention, or (ii) a natural tendency, inclination, or disposition of a thing toward ~O that is actively being suppressed by the causal sustainer in order to maintain O.

The Argument

With the requisite groundwork laid, we can level the following argument:

  1. A per se, sustaining cause C is required for substance S’s being in condition or outcome O only if (i) there is some causal factor or force F – intrinsic or extrinsic to S[Fn] – acting on S to bring S toward some condition or outcome ~O; (ii) F is a net factor or force in the absence of C’s causal operation; and (iii) S (or some state of affairs involving S) is in condition or outcome O distinct from ~O.
  2. So, a per se, sustaining cause C is required for S’s actual existence only if (i) there is some F acting on S to bring S toward non-existence; (ii) F is a net factor or force in the absence of C’s existential sustenance; and (iii) S actually exists such that actual existence is distinct from the condition or outcome of S’s non-existence. (1)
  3. But there seems to be no adequate justification for holding (i) and (ii).
  4. So, understood in terms of epistemic closure, there seems to be no adequate justification for holding that a per se, sustaining cause is required for S’s actual existence. (2,3, epistemic modus tollens)

[Fn] An intrinsic causal factor or force would be something like a natural tendency or disposition inherent to a thing; an extrinsic one would be something like the effect of gravity, friction, and so on.

One preliminary worry for the argument concerns premise one. In particular, a classical theist might hold that it is not the presence of some internal or external net causal factor inclining S towards some ~O distinct from the O in which S actually finds itself that spawns the requirement of a concurrent sustaining cause. Rather, the relevant feature of S (or state of affairs involving S) that spawns the need for a per se sustaining cause is that S by itself has no capacity or tendency to be in outcome or condition O and hence requires a concurrent cause to keep S in O.

Arguably, though, this inadequately describes the scenario, since it ignores the fact that (e.g.) the cup – absent any gravitational force pulling it down – simply retains its spatial location without causal sustenance. Consider again the astronauts on the ISS who, upon placing a cup in location L, observe the cup remain in L without any causal factor sustaining it there. Indeed, this illustrates rather than undermines my point concerning the nature of per se chains. For the only reason the cup would fail to remain three feet above ground (on Earth) is because there is a net causal force acting on it to pull it toward a given outcome. And the reason it is in fact able to remain three feet high even in the presence of (what would otherwise be) a net causal factor is because some C is actively concurrently preventing the net factor from eliciting its characteristic outcome.[Fn] C accomplishes this by providing a causal force or factor towards an outcome contrary to that dominant in C’s absence.

[Fn] C would therefore be like a vector quantity that counterbalances in the opposite ‘direction’ of what would otherwise be a net causal factor/force.

But absent a tendency or causally inclining factor toward either O or ~O, S will simply remain in the condition or state in which it is in, as there would be no reason or explanation as to why it deviated away from the outcome in which it actually finds itself. And this is precisely what the cup on the ISS reveals: although the cup by itself has no capacity or causal inclination to be in any particular location, it will nevertheless remain in the actual location L in which it finds itself without requiring an external causal factor keeping it there. And again, this is precisely because (i) the cup is presently in L; (ii) any deviation from L would be inexplicable in the absence of a tendency or causal factor inclining the cup away from L; and (iii) there is no such tendency or causally inclining factor operative.

What the foregoing analysis reveals, then, is that a given substance S could lack a tendency either way (neither towards persistent existence nor existential expiration/annihilation) – and hence once placed in condition O (i.e. once brought into actual existence), S will simply remain in O as a form of stasis, rather than change. Its continually occupying such an outcome or state will simply not involve a reduction of potency to act but will instead simply be a persisting state of stasis or actuality. And this follows simply upon the nature of per se chains and the nature of explanation: any deviation from the actual state, condition, or outcome O in which S finds itself would be inexplicable in the absence of (i) a tendency toward ~O or (ii) a net causal factor inclining S towards ~O.

Feser, though, and many other classical theists, have given us little to no justification as to why there exists either (i) a tendency of things to expire or annihilate, or (ii) a net causal factor ‘pulling’ or ‘inclining’ things toward non-existence at any moment at which they exist. And as we have seen, this is precisely what needs justification in order to affirm that S’s existence requires a per se, sustaining cause.


  1. Aquinas’ First Way

I’ve done a whole series (check this post for a series index) on Aquinas’ First Way, so I advise people to check out such a series to see why it doesn’t successfully conclude to a purely actual being. I’ll be brief here.

Here’s a brief survey of a small portion of the argument’s problems. Each of these could have thousands of words dedicated to them, of course, and I’ve done some of that in other papers. For now, let’s deal with a brief survey.

First, if eternalism is true, then the act-potency analysis of change cannot be categorically or universally true. For under eternalism, all times (and contents of such times) are eternally, tenselessly, and equally actual. But that means that no times (or contents) of times are potential and transition from potency to actuality. So, the following argument arises:

  1. There is temporal change (i.e. change over time).
  2. If change is the actualization of a potential and there is temporal change, then some times (or their contents (objects, events, etc.)) are merely potential (i.e. not actual).
  3. But all times (and their contents) are actual. (Eternalism)
  4. So, change is not the actualization of a potential.

Instead, eternalists adopt something like an at-at theory of change, or some other account of change. Now, an obvious way to avoid the argument is to adopt a dynamic theory of time. Indeed, I lean towards presentism. But it’s certainly a weakness of an argument if it presupposes an extremely controversial theory of time.

Second, it’s dubious that every reduction of potency to act requires a cause; instead, it seems plausible that it only requires an explanation. For instance, many philosophers think that libertarianly free exertions of agent causal power are uncaused but nevertheless explained in virtue of reasons, desires, and so on. For such philosophers, the agent is an unmoved mover, and there isn’t anything in principle debarring there to be other unmoved movers whose motion is uncaused but still explained.

Third, inertial motion seems to be an obvious case of the actualization of potency without any cause of such actualization. Of course, Feser anticipates this. One of Feser’s most plausible accounts of the compatibility of CP (the First Way’s causal principle) and mechanical inertia runs as follows. The account treats uniform spatial motion as stasis or unchangingness rather than involving change as the actualization of potential. Feser writes:

“[P]recisely because the principle of inertia treats uniform local motion as a ‘state,’ it treats it thereby as the absence of change. … In this case, the question of how the principle of motion [i.e. CP] and the principle of inertia relate to one another does not even arise…” (2013: pp. 239, 250-251).

But just as we can understand uniform spatial motion as stasis or unchangingness, it seems we can equally justifiably understand persistence in existence as an absence of change. Indeed, this seems to be the ordinary, common sense way we conceive of persistence. Remaining or persisting in existence is commonly thought not to involve change but rather the maintenance of a state of actuality. Indeed, we tend to think only that deviations from something’s state of non-existence or existence count as changes (i.e. either coming into or passing out of being).

Even if we deny this common sense conception of persistence in existence as stasis, at the very least it seems we lack any principled, non-arbitrary, non-question-begging reason to think (i) persistence in uniform spatial motion is a state, but (ii) persistence in existence (at any moment) cannot be.

But if we lack justification for denying persistence in existence (at any moment) constitutes unchangingness or the absence of change, then we lack justification for the application of CP to S’s persistence in existence at a given moment. The demand for a per se sustaining cause of S’s persistent existence at any moment on the basis of the causal principle is therefore unjustified. We have simply been given no reason to suppose S’s existence-at-a-moment involves a process of actualization as opposed to a state of actuality.

The most plausible attempt to reconcile CP with mechanical inertia thereby provides an undercutting defeater for the First Way.

Fourth, it seems clear that a per se chain could derive the relevant causal power from a per accidens series, and hence we cannot automatically conclude to a per se, unmoved mover. For instance, suppose S1’s change concurrently (per se) depends on S2’s causing it, and that S2 changes in doing so, and that S2’s change concurrently (per se) depends on S3’s causing it. Suppose, further, that S3 changes in causing this. But suppose that instead of depending on a concurrent (per se) mover of S3, S3 instead simply depends on an immediately temporally prior mover, S4, in a per accidens series. There doesn’t seem to be anything in principle incoherent about this scenario. But given this, we cannot infer from the finitude of per se chains to a per se, unmoved mover.[Fn]

[Fn] Out of my six critiques offered here (there are many more that can be offered), this one is the most tentative, i.e. the one I’m least confident about. It seems to have prima facie force. Secunda facie force? Well, more research and thought it needed for that.

Fifth, the inference that the unactualized actualizer is purely actual is a non-sequitur on multiple fronts. Consider any one such chain of changes: the noodles are heated by the water, in turn heated by the pot, in turn heated by the stove, in turn heated by the fire, and so on. Suppose further that this is a per se chain of changes, and that such chains must terminate in a per se unchanged changer. All that would get us to here is something with the power to make something else hot at time t without having to derive that power (to make other things hot) at time t. This says nothing about other causal powers such an entity may have; it says nothing about whether it can derive this causal power but simply does not in fact derive it; it says nothing about whether the being has the causal power non-derivatively at t but fails to have it non-derivatively at some t* distinct from t; and so on. It also says nothing about this entity’s being fully, wholly, utterly, and purely actual. For the entity could have potencies that simply have nothing to do with the relevant chain of changes in question, or potentials which are simply not right now reducing from potency to act, or what have you.

In order to infer a purely actual being from the conjunction of (i) the CP (the causal principle that whatever reduces from potency to act is caused to do so by something already actual) and (ii) the view that any per se chain of actualizations must terminate in a per se cause of such a chain, the following claim is needed:

The Claim: Anything which is an admixture of act and potency is such that at any moment at which it exists, it reduces from potency to act in respect of its existence.

For only then can you infer that every changeable (non-purely actual) being concurrently depends on an actualizer of its existence, and hence (given assumption (ii)) there must exist an uncaused and hence non-changeable (i.e. unchangeable, i.e. purely actual) being.

But why on earth should we accept The Claim? Why on earth would the mere fact of having a potency entail that the entire existence of the entire substance is right here, right now reducing from potentially existent to actually existent? We need some demonstration of this deeply implausible claim, and I doubt a successful one can be given. Though, I’m certainly open to its possibility. I don’t want to close off investigation here — it’s perfectly possible that others see things that I don’t (presently) see.

Sixth, the inference(s) from purely actual being to God is (are) extremely dubious. I won’t go into it here, as I have two papers in the works on Stage Two of Feser’s Aristotelian Proof rebutting his alleged inferences to divine attributes. (And those of other thinkers in the tradition)


  1. Reasonable disagreement

“I don’t think one can reasonably reject any of the premises in the [De Ente] argument.” (Kerr)

“I lose my grasp of how exactly you avoid divine simplicity… we’re not at liberty to say ‘Yeah, I don’t want a simple God, so I’ll go with something else’… I don’t see how you escape divine simplicity even if you want to.” (Sonna)

Wow. These statements are shocking. I won’t reflect on them further, mainly because I would say some not-maximally-kind things about them[Fn]. I just want to draw attention to them.

[Fn] By ‘them’ I mean the statements, if that wasn’t clear from context. I have nothing but kind statements for the people in the discussion itself, as they are each so appreciated, so brilliant, and so appreciated. 🙂


  1. Modal Collapse

10.1 The simple modal collapse argument is invalid

The following argument is certainly invalid:

  1. Necessarily, God exists.
  2. God is identical with his act of creation.
  3. So, necessarily God’s act of creation exists.

This argument is invalid because it illicitly uses a non-rigid descriptor (‘act of creation’) in premise two. The conclusion would only follow if God were identical to his act of creation rigidly designated. For only then can we secure the necessity operator in premise two (necessarily, God is identical with his act of creation). Consider the same problem here:

  1. Necessarily, Neil Armstrong is human.
  2. Neil Armstrong is identical with the first mammal on the moon.
  3. So, necessarily, the first mammal on the moon is human.

Premises (1) and (2) are true, but the conclusion is false: Laika, the soviet-communist-Marxist-Maoist-Leninist-Libtard dog, easily could have been the first mammal on the moon. But Laika is not human.

The trouble lies in the fact that ‘the first mammal on the moon’ is a non-rigid descriptor, meaning its referent can change from world to world. By contrast, rigid designators pick out the same referent from world to world. The argument would only go through by treating the descriptor in premise (2) as a rigid designator. But then the argument becomes question-begging against the CTist.

10.2 A resurrection of modal collapse

It’s worth noting that modal collapse arguments are a diverse family, and so undermining one doesn’t automatically undermine others. Omar Fakhri, for instance, has a forthcoming paper in the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion wherein he argues quite forcefully that CT is explanatorily disadvantaged compared to neo-CT. His argument is essentially a non-deductive form of the EDP argument[Fn], and he nicely rebuts the to quoque objection that neo-CTists face the same problem in explaining contingently obtaining divine actions or intentions despite an intrinsically identical divine nature across all possible worlds (his rebuttal is based on the nature of reasons and reasons-based action, as well as the notions of basic reasons and the justificatory relation). But we shan’t dwell on that; I’ll direct y’all to the paper once it is published.

[Fn] for those unfamiliar with EDP, this post discusses it. For a critical discussion, see this video. I have a paper under construction wherein I discuss the EDP and address the video’s criticisms.

Johnny Walldrop also has a forthcoming American Philosophical Quarterly paper wherein he shows that there are, indeed, valid versions of the modal collapse argument that still capture the original spirit of the ‘simple modal collapse argument’. Whether they’re sound is, of course, another question; my point is simply to help readers recognize that the failure of the simple modal collapse argument says little about the status of modal collapse-type arguments in general. And Christopher, of course, recognizes this — I am not claiming he denies this. But Suan seems not to realize this in light of his ‘recap’ of the modal collapse discussion near the end of the video.


  1. Timelessness and Immutability

11.1 No Real Relations Doctrine

In a recent video [will be posted on Majesty of Reason YouTube channel on 1 July], Ryan and Joe extensively deal with the No Real Relations Doctrine. See that video for responses and criticisms of the Intellectual Conservatism video. Ryan and Joe discuss the incarnation and the problems it poses for CT, the problem fro timelessness from omniscience and presentism, the metaphysical impossiblity of the CT God’s being in a personal relationship with us, and much more.

I do wish to address Kerr’s following argument (at 1:26:45), though:

“If we say that God has a real relation to creatures, and that God can change in relation to creatures, then we have to countenance the possibility that when it comes to sin, there’s the possibility that God could change his mind and stop loving us because of some sort of sin we commit.” (Kerr)

This is a straightforward non-sequitur. Merely from the fact that God can change in certain ways (say, come to know that this blog post is publicized and thereby change in knowledge), it doesn’t follow in the slightest that God could change in any way whatsoever, such as stopping loving creatures. For that would only be possible if that were consistent with God’s nature. But it’s not. Under neo-CT, God is essentially loving and essentially merciful, and as such he simply couldn’t stop loving sinners even though he could change in other respects (like change in his knowledge of what time it is).


  1. Trinitarianism

This section is the most tentative of all. I’m actually going to be toying with some potential arguments here; that is, I’m not propounding all of them as refutations or clearly sound arguments. Instead, this is experimental; each of the arguments is such that it seems prima facie plausible; but whether it’s secunda facie successful is something that I cannot say at the moment. That requires further research into these issues. So, while I will be giving brief ‘defenses’ of the premises and brief responses to potential criticisms, know that this is all in the spirit of tentative experimentation.

All of this is to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of the arguments in here are unsuccessful. That’s the nature of experiments! Sometimes experiments yield null results. And that’s a beautiful thing — it means we get to grow and learn from null results. Are they null? That’s the question for exploration and discovery.

Note, finally, that I will not be addressing Christopher’s argument that Trinitarianism entails DDS. Perhaps I’ll do a video with someone on it later, or make a blog post. A proper treatment of the argument would require a separate medium on its own. Instead, I’ll explore arguments against DDS on the basis of Trinitarianism.

12.1 Intrinsic but distinct

Here’s the first experiment:

  1. If DDS is true, then whatever is intrinsic to God is identical to God.
  2. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each intrinsic to God.
  3. So, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identical to God.
  4. If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identical to God, then (since identity is transitive) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identical to one another.
  5. It is not the case that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each identical to one another.
  6. So, DDS is false.
  • Premise (1) seems to follow from the definition of DDS: whatever God has, God is. Whatever is in God is God.
    • God is pure, undifferentiated, unqualified, unlimited being or actuality. He is the very act of being — Being Subsisting. If there’s any x intrinsic to God but not identical to God, then it seems God wouldn’t be the sheer act of being itself but would instead be being plus some further x

Potential response: The domain of quantification for ‘whatever is in God is God’ is restricted only to non-relational attributes. So, God’s power, goodness, intellect, will, etc. are all identical to one another and God. But the persons are subsisting relations, and hence DDS is silent as to their identity with each other and God.

Potential reply:

  • Persons as relations seems to be a category error (Cf. this post)
  • Relations presuppose relata, and hence relations presuppose non-relational attributes
    • Relations presuppose relata. In other words, there can’t be a relation without relata to stand in the relation.
    • Now, the relations amongst the persons in the trinity are not merely reflexive relations. For instance, presumably nothing can ‘beget’, ‘generate’, or ‘spirate’ itself, for that would seem to require itself to be both prior and posterior to itself, which is absurd. So, the relations are not reflexive. But if relations presuppose relata, and the relata aren’t reflexive, then there are three, distinct, non-relational things standing in these various relations.
  • Relational distinctions seem to entail non-relational attribute distinctions as well
    • The attributes ‘being the Father’, ‘being the Son’, etc.

Again, keep in mind: this is an experiment. I’m not sure this argument is a decisive, successful argument. I’m exploring it with you!

12.2 From individuating features

If x and y are distinct, then there is some feature one has that the other lacks.

  • If there were absolutely no features that one had that the other lacked, then the difference between the two things in question is inexplicable (see Feser (2017) for a defense of this line of reasoning). There would be no feature that accounts for their real distinction.

This — in conjunction with real distinctions among persons of the Trinity — entails a multiplicity of really distinct features (attributes, properties) intrinsic to God, which is incompatible with DDS.

Couldn’t different relations of opposition be the individuating features/attributes?

It seems, though, that x and y standing in a non-reflexive relation already presupposes that x and y are non-identical in the first place, for if x and y were identical, then clearly x and y couldn’t stand in a non-reflexive relation.[Fn] But if that’s the case, then the non-identity (distinctness) of x and y cannot be constituted by their standing in a non-reflexive relation. There must ‘already’ be (as it were) individuating attributes or features between them, in which case their distinction won’t be accounted for in terms of different relations but instead in terms of different attributes/features.

[Fn] Moreover, relations seem in some sense less ontologically fundamental than their relata. Put another way, relata seem more ontologically fundamental than the relations in which they stand. Relations depend on their relata, not the other way around. But if that’s the case, then the non-identity between x and y cannot be constituted by a non-reflexive relation in which they stand, since their standing in such a relation would already presuppose the more fundamental reality of the distinct x and y. It must be the case that x and y are ‘already’ distinct in order for them to stand in a non-reflexive relation, since relations are in some sense dependent upon and hence posterior to their relata.

Finally, appealing to relations of opposition to account for the non-identity simply pushes the problem back a step. For in virtue of what are the relations distinct from one another? It would seem that there would have to be some feature that one has that the other lacks — otherwise, their real difference/distinction would be inexplicable. And hence an appeal to relations of opposition doesn’t solve the problem but only reinforces it.

12.3 Essential Trinitarian-hood

Terminology: ‘S is Trinitarian’ means ‘S is, or has, three persons intrinsic to S’.

Experimental argument:

  1. God is essentially Trinitarian.
  2. If God is essentially trinitarian, then anything with an essence identical to God’s essence is trinitarian.
  3. The Father (else: Son or Spirit) is something with an essence identical to God’s essence.
  4. So, the Father is Trinitarian, which is absurd.

So, we have a reductio of the conjunction of (1)-(3).

  • Premise (1) seems true since God has no accidents and hence couldn’t be accidentally Trinitarian. He could only be essentially Trinitarian.
  • Premise (2) follows from Leibniz’s Law (if x=y, then Fx iff Fy).
  • Premise (3) is a core commitment of the Christian tradition: the Father is fully divine in the sense of having the Divine essence.

Potential response: ‘Triune’ is an attribute of the Godhead, but not an attribute of divinity.

Potential reply: This might help non-classical theists, but it seems to introduce multiple intrinsic attributes in God. And that’s incompatible with DDS.

12.4 One in essence

Now, either the Son is one in essence with God’s essence or not. If not, then trinitarianism is false. But (we are supposing) trinitarianism is true. So, the Son is one in essence with God’s essence. Now, God is identical to God’s essence. So, the Son is one in essence with God. But the Son has no accidents that effect composition with the Son’s essence, so the Son is his essence.

  • What about the relations the Son stands in? Well, those are either essential or not. If they are not essential, then the Son could have failed to stand in those relations. But that seems absurd — the Godhead is necessarily trinitarian, not merely contingently Trinitarian. If the Son failed to stand in the relation of being begotten (say), it seems that the Son wouldn’t be who he is. But that isn’t possible — the Son necessarily exists. So, it seems the relations are essential to the Son. But since the Son’s essence is one with God’s essence (and hence God himself), it follows that the relations are essential to God himself as well.

But the Son’s essence is identical to (i.e. one with) God’s essence, which is identical to (one with) God. So, the Son is identical with God (in the robust, Leibnizian sense). So, whatever is true of the Son is true of God (and vice versa). But God himself is not begotten from anything; there is nothing apart from God from which God could proceed or ‘be begotten’. But the Son is begotten from something really distinct from him (even if that real distinction is cast in terms of a relational opposition). So, something is true of the Son that is not true of God. So, the Son both is and is not identical to God.

Once again, this is an experiment. Perhaps it will return a null result! If so, that would be a beautiful treasure in its own right.

12.5 Multiplicity (allegedly) requires a cause

Whenever there’s a multiplicity of n1, n2, n3, etc., there’s always the question: what accounts for why the nn’s are unified or together?

We cannot appeal to one of those very nn’s, for that would be part of the very thing we are seeking an explanation for. We would therefore have to appeal to some sort of extrinsic principle or cause that accounts for the unity of n1, n2, n3, etc. And this is an anathema to the Divine Nature, which cannot be subject to any kind of actualization or cause or whatever.

If we respond that the explanation of the unity is simply the metaphysical necessity of the unity, then the same response can be made by someone who thinks contingent composite things are ultimately explained by a metaphysically necessary composite thing, and yet another motivation for classical theism collapses (from composite being to utterly non-composite being).

More generally, we need some principled difference between (i) the real multiplicity of persons within God and (ii) the real multiplicity of features, properties, etc. (in constituent ontologist language, ‘parts’), such that this difference accounts for why a cause is needed for (ii) but not for (i).

From my sight, here are lots of failed examples of what one might (wrongly) propose as a motivation for the demand of a cause in the case of (ii) but not in (i):

  • Contingency of the subject of composition (fails b/c type (ii) composition can be necessary)
  • Contingency of the inter-part relations and links to one another (fails b/c type (ii) is such that the interpart relations can be necessary)
  • Intrinsically generated (fails b/c type (ii) is such that its multiplicity can be intrinsically generated)
  • Internal intelligibility (fails b/c type (ii) is such that the reason as to why type (ii) parts are unified could easily be a kind of internal intelligibility as opposed to an extrinsic cause)
  • And so on

It seems to me that the only remaining thing that could spawn the motivation of a cause of substance S in the case of type (ii) composition would simply be the presence of a real multiplicity of genuinely distinct nn’s such that n1, n2, n3, and so on are not identical and the nn’s are intrinsic to S. And once we see this, we see that the motivation equally applies to Trinitarian multiplicity (i.e. type (i) multiplicity).

12.6 Processions and DDS

Eternal processions seem to constitute some sort of priority/posteriority relation (like a dependence relation, say). But that seems disallowed under DDS — there cannot be two distinct things, one of which is prior to the other, intrinsic to God. Moreover, how can the Son and God be one in essence if God is essentially independent of everything (i.e. not ontologically posterior to anything) whereas the Son is dependent (in the sense of being ontologically posterior) on the Father? To put it another way: the Son stands in an asymmetric relation of ‘being begotten’ to the Father, but God simpliciter stands in no asymmetric relations to anything else (for that would require God to stand in a relation to something distinct from him[Fn]).

[Fn] By definition, if x stands in an asymmetric relation, such a relation cannot be one between x and x.


  1. “As classical theists, the Euthyphro dilemma can’t even touch us.” (Sonna)

I added this section at the last moment. Real quick: this claim is incorrect, at least if we’re trying to get to the heart and soul of the Euthyphro dilemma. The Euthyphro dilemma is ultimately after the following question: in virtue of what is something good? Why is kindness (say) good?

Merely identifying God with goodness itself does nothing to solve this. For there is still the question of that in virtue of which any property is good, and merely speaking in terms of what God is identical to won’t help resolve that. For why is God identical to kindness as opposed to malice?[Fn] Is it because kindness is good? But that’s the very question we were after in the first place, viz. we were trying to understand why kindness is good. More generally, God can only be identical with F if F is, in fact, good; and hence appealing to God’s identity with F as constituting F’s goodness or being that in virtue of which F is good simply assumes that F is good to begin with (for if F weren’t good, then God wouldn’t be identical with it).

[Fn] Yes, it’s metaphysically impossible (on other grounds, like God’s lacking any and all privations) for God to have (or be) malice. But that’s not relevant, since the Euthyphro concerns with counterpossible reasoning even in the case of neo-CTists and other theists. After all, even the neo-CTist has the option open to him or her to say ‘well, it’s just impossible for God to command murder, rape, torture, etc. given who God is’ when presented with the Euthyphro. Moreover, we normally assume the legitimacy of counterpossible reasoning. For instance, it seems perfectly legitimate to reason along either of the following lines: (i) if theism were true, such-and-such would follow; and (ii) if atheism were true, such-and-such would follow. But one of these antecedents is not possible (assuming that theism or atheism is necessarily true if true at all). For justification of the legitimacy and indispensability of counterpossible reasoning, see Tan (2019), Nolan (2014), Krakauer (2013), Jago (2013), Brogaard & Salerno (2007), Nolan (1997), and Zagzebski (1990).

And if we say that it’s just primitive that kindness is good — ie. it’s not good in virtue of anything else — then the same option is open for non-classical theists in response to the Euthyphro. It’s just primitive (say) that kindness is built into God’s essential nature, and that’s why we can respond to the Euthyphro by saying that God’s nature is the standard of goodness, or is essentially good, or what have you.[Fn]

[Fn] An alternative way to think about this: Is kindness good because God is identical to kindness? Or is God identical to kindness because kindness is good? The former seems to make goodness vacuous, since had (per impossibile) God been identical to malice, malice would have been good. The latter has the goodness of kindness explanatorily prior to God’s being identical to kindness. And any response the CTist makes here seems to be equally available (in a parallel form) to non-classical theists.


  1. Conclusion

Well, that’s all folks! Hopefully this post served you. Hopefully it helps illustrate rational disagreement and helps you start to regain your grasp of how one can, rationally, avoid divine simplicity.[Fn]

[Fn] And let me be the first to emphatically proclaim that one can, also, rationally affirm divine simplicity.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, but don’t let that detract from the main goal of all of this: truth and service. We are here to serve you and others in a collective pursuit of truth. That’s the treasure of all treasures!

Author: Joe Schmid

Email: MajestyOfReason@gmail.com

Book: https://www.amazon.com/Majesty-Reason-Critical-Thinking-Philosophy-ebook/dp/B086G7KS52/

13 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post. A few comments:

    First, it’s not right to say that only 4 people ever use the term “theistic personalism.” A quick
    google scholar search shows the term being used by Roger Pouivet, Paul Moser, James Dolezal, and THOMAS SCHÄRTL (he prefers the
    term “personal theism.”). Dolezal, it is true, prefers the term “theistic mutualism” in the book, but he does recognize “theistic personalism” as a valid term (see his lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ48rIWIEnk).

    Furthermore, this entire discussion up until section 3 seems petty and unnecessary–it doesn’t matter which term has more citations anymore than it matters whose blog gets more traffic.

    Second, you claim that “It follows that if there are eternal, necessary, uncreated Platonic abstracta,
    then classical theism is false. Platonism is a challenge for everyone.”

    I agree with the second sentence, and think that modified-classical theism is plausible and can deal with this challenge. But I think classical theism can as well. The Classical Theist could simply respond by saying that abstract mathematical concepts like triangularity exist, not in some 3rd realm, but in the thoughts of God, and that these thoughts cannot exist apart from God. Thus, there is no distinction between God and his thoughts. To argue otherwise, we would need independent justification for rejecting the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity.

    -Michael

    • Thank you *so* much for your comment, Michael! I appreciate your input so much my dude.

      You state: “First, it’s not right to say that only 4 people ever use the term “theistic personalism.””

I agree! That’s why I didn’t say it. 😉

      I was very careful to make the following qualifications in the post:

“It crops up *almost* exclusively…”

      “but *almost* nowhere…”

      “the term — *by and large* — is…”

      “but *barely* anything that”

      “*almost* no serious scholars use”

      And so on. 🙂

      And as I hope to have shown, the *vast preponderance* of literature doesn’t utilize the term at all and instead opts for more precise and meaningful uses. So the google search doesn’t quite tackle my central claims. And it kinda does matter which terms are taken seriously by scholars. All else being equal, I should probably use a term like ‘theist’ to describe someone who believes in a personal creator God, not ’magical-sky-daddy-lover’. Granted, this is a charged example, but you get my point: for sake of academic rigor, precision, and clarity, we should be using terms that are fraught in the literature and used by scholars, lest we run the risk of muddying the waters, introducing imprecision, etc.

      Next, you write: “The Classical Theist could simply respond by saying that abstract mathematical concepts like triangularity exist, not in some 3rd realm, but in the thoughts of God”

I don’t think so. Here’s why: under CT, God cannot have multiple, distinct thoughts, since that would introduce a complexity into God that is an anathema to divine simplicity. And hence the real multiplicity of necessary abstracta (propositions are really distinct from numbers, say) is not so friendly to CT.

  2. Nathaniel Olson

    Very interesting post!! I think there are a few things I’d say in response.

    While it’s true that the term “theistic personalism” is not found widely in contemporary literature in philosophy of religion, I think it may be because it is a novel term to describe a contemporary theological position. If I recall correctly, Brian Davies was the first who coined the term, and he was using it to differentiate the Thomistic tradition [along with most of the various traditions in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian theology] from the position of those who tend to shirk away from the notions of Simplicity and Immutability.

    Ultimately for Classical Theists, these two doctrines of simplicity [or at least a simplicity that posits attributes as logically distinct but virtually contained] and immutability are quite important for Classical Theists and are doctrines that have been maintained from the Early Patristic period, to Islamic and Latin Scholasticism, to early Reformed Protestant Theology [hence why proponents refer to themselves as affirming “classical” theism]. Even some of the outliers such as Scotism [which posits a formally distinct Simplicity] and Palamism [which posits diverse and distinct accidents in the Godhead] still affirm God to be unchanging and Immutable. I think that since there are many famous theologians in recent decades such as Plantinga and Craig who tend to deny immutability and divine transcendence from their conception of God, the term was coined so as to differentiate this contemporary understanding of God from a more traditional one.

    As for the Tetragrammaton and the meaning of God’s name, while it is true that many contemporary biblical scholars tend take a different hermeneutical reading of Exodus 3:14 than a Thomistic one, some biblical scholars at the Angelicum have given arguments as to why God’s conversation with Moses is one where he reveals Himself as being ontologically distinct from the other gods of Egypt. Since Moses is enquiring as to what name should he give his people to tell them of their liberation [and thus what name to differentiate God from the Egyptian deities], God tells Moses through his name that he is ontologically distinct and prior to all gods by telling him He is to be to be and existence is proper to Him. While the Thomistic hermeneutic certainly isn’t the only reading of Exodus, I think it could still be a tenable one.

    I don’t have the Angelicum paper on handy, but when I find it, I’ll send it over to ya. 😉

    With respect to the arguments for God, I don’t have my Thomistic volumes with me on handy [they’re at school and I’m on summer vacation], but I think we have to remember that Ed Feser isn’t always the best Thomistic commentator around. Specifically I think his example of water being cooled is a bad way of framing causal series.

    I’m currently doing research on Divine Simplicity and the Incarnation, as well as God’s relation towards creation via intellect and will, and I’d love to read any material you’ve got on hand about concerns with simplicity and the incarnation. 🙂

    Finally, I think that we have to remember that respect to the Trinity, all the processions and emanations within God do not describe a temporal succession but rather a logical one. I’m not an expert with Trinitarian theology though, and that’s definitely an area I need to work on.

    All in all, great post! I look forward to reading more in the coming future. ^^

    • Thank you *sooooo much* for your comment my dude. So very much appreciated. 🙂

      I hope to respond at some point today or tomorrow to your comment. I’m trying to finish up a manuscript for a paper. 🙂

    • “I think that since there are many famous theologians in recent decades such as Plantinga and Craig who tend to deny immutability and divine transcendence from their conception of God, the term was coined so as to differentiate this contemporary understanding of God from a more traditional one.”

      You make an excellent point here. I would say in response, however, that there already exist well-established, much more precise, etc. terms in the literature, such as modified classical theism or ‘neo-classical theism’.

      Thank you so much for notifying my of the Angelicum bit. I appreciate it. My engagement with Biblical scholarship is limited because that’s well outside my domain of research [I consulted a theologian to help me write the Bible sections, lol].

      Mate, that’s super cool about simplicity and the incarnation!!! I discuss it with Ryan near the end of my latest video on my youtube channel (Majesty of Reason), and I also discuss it as one of the ‘problems’ in my ‘plethora of problems reconsidered’ post. 🙂

      Once again, thank you so much for your comment my dude! You are appreciated.

  3. thomistica

    Burn the heretic! Kidding.

    I’m inclined to accept classical theism but you’ve raised a number of interesting, well-informed objections here, and I do agree what you call neo-classical theism is sometimes too easily dismissed by classical theists. Looking forward to your forthcoming papers and future debate; best wishes!

  4. allvirtuesareimportant

    My friend….. you are 19 and so knowledgeable and smart. I envy you man. You are doing great bud. I am 21 and I didn’t think about these objections that you raised. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy is not as clear (to me) as internet encyclopedia of philosophy.

    Good job buddy. Good job. Greetings from India. 😉 .

  5. Joe writes,

    >> But now we have a problem. These realist intuitions have told us that there are really distinct, metaphysically necessary things. And this is starting to look a little difficult for classical theism. For they’re either intrinsic to God or extrinsic to God. Now, if they’re intrinsic to God, then God is not absolutely simple, for then there are really distinct things within God but which are not identical to God. <<

    Unfortunately, there is then *no* interaction with Hart or Feser’s work on these issues and their relevance to DDS. Perhaps Feser and Hart (and others) fail, but *some* interaction would be good.

    Or did I just miss your interactions?

    Meow, sir, meow.

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