In ‘western’ or dualistic philosophies the problem of attributes arises and is intractable. It is one of many such ‘barriers to knowledge’ collectively known as the ‘problems of philosophy’. Here is Colin McGinn wrestling with this problem as a teenager from his (very readable) book The Making of a Philosopher (2002).
…[P]icture me sitting on a bench staring at a British mailbox on a blustery spring day in Blackpool. I had just been reading about the questions of substance and qualities, and was suitably transfixed. Is an object the sum of its qualities or does it have an existence that is some way goes beyond its qualities? The mailbox had a variety of qualities – it was red, cylindrical, metal, etc. – but it seemed to be more than just the collection of these; it was a thing, a “substance,” that had these qualities. But what was this substance that had those qualities? Did it lie behind them in some way, supporting them like the foundation of a house? If so, what was this underlying thing like – what qualities did it have? If it had some qualities, wouldn’t there be the same problem again, since it would also have to be distinct from these qualities? But if it had no qualities, what kind of thing could it be? How could these be something that had no qualities? So maybe we should say that there is nothing more to a mailbox than the qualities it manifests. And yet how can an object be just a set of abstract qualities? Isn’t it more solid and concrete than that? … I had a vague mental image of a grey amorphous something that constituted the underlying mailbox, to which its various manifest qualities mysteriously were attached… Yet as soon as I replaced this fuzzy image with the qualities by themselves, trying to think of the mailbox as just a “bundle of qualities,” the object itself seemed to disappear.
Here we see one of the fundamental problems with materialism and other such forms of realism, which is the reification of objects on the basis of their phenomenal attributes. When one looks, there is no object there. If the attributes are real then the object must be unreal. This logical and empirical problem is insurmountable once such a reification has occurred. Mysticism solves this problem as it does all metaphysical problems, by refusing to reify anything at all. It makes the claim that experience shows that objects and subjects, and all the products of division and separation, are not metaphysical absolutes but emergent, evolved, epiphenomenal, illusory, not really real.
The monotheistic religions seem at first to be cut off from this solution since there is a tendency to reify God and to define Him in terms of His attributes. If we follow McGinn’s thinking, then this reification of God’s attributes entails the de-reification of God. It is the same problem as afflicts materialism, albeit that it is not so troublesome in philosophy and physics where God can be denied, and where the problem can be more easily stated in terms of English letterboxes. It can be overcome within theism, however, as long as we do not mind our theism becoming consistent with mysticism and the perennial philosophy. Many Christians and Muslims would be horrified at the idea that the seemingly heretical doctrine taught by the mystics might be a correct description of the world and the correct interpretation of the scriptures, but it is not very difficult to make a case and when it comes down to brass tacks the logic of the situation forces us to consider this possibility.
For a solution to the problem of attributes we would have to return to a classical definition of God. This definition would be a great deal more sophisticated than most modern ideas, many of which make easy prey for critics, so easy that they might be called straw-men. A more sophisticated idea of God allows us to consider ideas from Christian mysticism, Buddhism and Sufism, which are at the limit atheistic but which nevertheless find the idea of God perfectly acceptable. We can see the way they overlap in the doctrine of ‘Divine Simplicity’. In the final analysis the problem of attributes can be solved in only one way, and this is by assuming that attributes do not adhere to an object but are what an object actually is. An object would then be no more than its phenomenal attributes. This would be why McGinn can find no more than this, that there is no more. The object is a conceptual imputation. We see the attributes and assume an underlying carrier that binds them together. This gives us an idea we call ‘Matter’. Matter, however, is not something that can be identified, observed, verified or found by any means. All we could ever find is phenomenal attributes. For physics this is all there ever is and ever can be. But for physics the logical relationship between these attributes and whatever it is that they are attributes of is incoherent. A fundamental dualism of object and attribute prevents us from making sense of objects or ever finding one.
In theology this problem may be sidestepped if we endorse the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Then we will have available to us the solution given in mysticism. It would be phrased in theistic terms but this would be a subtle theism and its terms would represent classical concepts and not one of the naïve ideas about God that abound these days and that are so popular with debunkers. Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Divine Simplicity. It seems to me that in this context the term ‘God’ might be replaced by the ‘Real’ or by Plotinus’ ‘First’, which he describes as a ‘Simplex’. We must now think of the whole of the phenomenal world as an attribute of God, thus by reduction identical with God, such that dualism of any kind would be false. All would be a unity, and all division would be conceptual.
According to the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas and their adherents, God is radically unlike creatures in that he is devoid of any complexity or composition, whether physical or metaphysical. Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes. God is thus in a sense requiring clarification identical to each of his attributes, which implies that each attribute is identical to every other one. God is omniscient, then, not in virtue of instantiating or exemplifying omniscience — which would imply a real distinction between God and the property of omniscience — but by being omniscience. And the same holds for each of the divine omni-attributes: God is what he has. As identical to each of his attributes, God is identical to his nature. And since his nature or essence is identical to his existence, God is identical to his existence. This is the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). It is represented not only in classical Christian theology, but also in Jewish, Greek, and Islamic thought. It is to be understood as an affirmation of God’s absolute transcendence of creatures. God is not only radically non-anthropomorphic, but radically non-creaturomorphic, not only in respect of the properties he possesses, but in his manner of possessing them. God, we could say, differs in his very ontology from any and all created beings.
Despite many years studying comparative religion this idea of God and his attributes escaped me until last week. This may be because I find theology an impossible field of study. It is not only that it is complicated, but I find that logic immediately leads me to the idea that the thing I am supposed to be studying does not exist in the way that theology usually assumes. But Divine Simplicity is an idea that transcends theology. It can exist and function without need for the word ‘God’. This word would become optional, as we see from the wisdom traditions and the perennial philosophy. Here the principle of non-duality takes us beyond theism and there is no attempt at the reification of phenomena.
The idea of Divine Simplicity in Christianity suggests that it is possible to move from an exoteric version of this religion with its objectification of God and the world, back to a more classical notion that is ambiguous on God’s existence, and from there onwards to mysticism, without the need for a great deal of mental gymnastics. Divine Simplicity is such a profound idea that much can be learnt from an analysis of what it claims whatever one believes about God, and it quickly becomes apparent that the God it endorses, since it is ontologically unique and transcends existence, would make a very promising ontological primitive for a theory of everything.