"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Divine simplicity and divine freedom, Part xn

The topic named in my title is one that I've written about before, for an academic journal, on this blog, and in the course of combox defenses of Catholic doctrine. At his blog Just Thomism, philosopher James Chastek offers a new insight and a new mistake about the relationship between divine simplicity and divine freedom.

The insight is that God's freedom is not that of "indetermination," which is the sort we have in via and, to a lesser extent, even in patria. That's because
If we consider the indetermination of the freedom so far as it does not possess some determinate good, then freedom is not a perfection or a good. The lack of good is not a good. So far as we take freedom in this way, we don’t call God free; and so far as freedom is taken as a perfection, and therefore said of God, we throw out the idea of indetermination-in-the-sense-of lacking-good and keep only the more central perfection (say, self- possession, or being the Lord of ones action.) We might even keep the idea of indetermination so far as we mean that God’s action is not forced by another, or so far as he is responsible for it.
Quite so. But orthodox theology affirms that God is free in some sense. So Chastek says:
Again, the divine freedom, so far as there is a thing, cannot be defined without bringing in the notion of creation. The Son, for example, does not proceed from the Father’s will, but if this is the case, the divine freedom cannot be defined without relation to the imperfection of creation, and divine freedom is not taken as an absolute perfection, as though the possibility of freedom would remain if the imperfect (that is, creation) were not possible.
Now God needn't have created, yet would have been fully free if he had not. Chastek knows that, which why he says that divine freedom entails only the "possibility" of "imperfection,"—a possibility which, given God's absolute perfection, is logically equivalent to the possibility of creation. So God is free just in case he can produce something imperfect, i.e., not fully determined, whether or not he actually does so. And of course, the fact that he has actually done so doesn't make him any more, or less, free.

From the standpoint of natural theology alone, that argument seems attractive. But even at that level, there's a Thomistic worry: since God cannot stand in a "real relation" to actual creation, it isn't even meaningful to say that he stands in a real relation to the possibility of creation, such that one of his essential attributes depends on that relation. That difficulty might be overcome with felicitous distinctions; but from the standpoint of Christian revelation, Chastek's argument surely contains a false premise, namely that God in se, being fully perfect and thus fully determinate, would lack freedom unless he were able to bring about imperfection ad extra.

Although the coming-forth of the Son and the Holy Spirit from the Father is by natural necessity, not by a choice that could have been otherwise, the love shared by the Persons with each other must in some sense arise from free choice, else it would not be love. One might say that such freedom is only the absence of coercion; but then it would be very hard to explain why natural necessity relevantly differs from absence of coercion.

To make such a criticism stick, I needn't give an account of just how the Persons love each other with free choice. I claim no special insight into the inner life of the Trinity, and neither should anybody else reading this. But I do know that our capacities are but faint analogies of God's, and that for us, love entails freedom of the will. It must entail at least that within the Godhead, prescinding from the question of creation.

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