The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity and The Problem of Attributes

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.

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18 Responses to The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity and The Problem of Attributes

  1. DDS appears to be at one with the Monism and Pantheism of Hindu beliefs where God the ParamAtma, supersoul is one with the individual soul the Atma, as the ocean is with a drop of itself, or again the unity of Brahman, the Universal Essence and its creation. Non-dualism ( Advait ) is the most cherished of Hindu beliefs passed on from the Upanishads – you may like to visit my blog where Upanishadic thought is discussed at length.

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Indrajit. Yep. This is what struck me about DDS. One always ends up back with the Upanishads.

  2. cabrogal says:

    Excellent post Peter.

    The problem of attributes is they imply their opposite which is an ontological paradox dualistically and an ontological impossibility non-dualistically.

  3. donsalmon says:

    Agree – excellent post. Alan Wallace throughout his many fine books does a “part-whole” analysis (based on the Gelugpa tradition in Tibetan Buddhism) that consistently shows that what we reify as “objects” are simply a collection of attributes. What is unique about his approach is he applies this to physics, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. This is a wonderful counterpart to what Benardo Kastrup is doing, and in some ways more profound because Alan always takes it to its logical conclusion – going beyond conceptualization altogether, to a realization of the “non duality of primordial consciousness and Great Space” (Shiva and Shakti in the tantric tradition)

    • PeterJ says:

      Hi Don. Yes. Alan Wallace is always on the ball. It seems to me that the problem of attributes may be one of the most effective arguments against materialism since it is within the reach of most people and difficult to bury under a load of unnecessary complications.

      • donsalmon says:

        One thing that is missing in using attributes as an argument against materialism is the fact that what we call “attributes’ are not wholly “objective” phenomena but are rather, perceptions (or “percepts”). This is why in anti materialist arguments I like to connect the “attributes” argument first, with percepts, and next, with the fact that percepts don’t just “appear’ but unfold. This is why I find Oliver Sachs’ story of Virgil, who became blind at 6 and regained sight in his late 40s, and had to learn all over again how to identify not just “objects’ but 3 dimensional space (he initially had difficulty climbing stairs because he perceived them as 2 dimensional; he couldn’t recognize his dog when it was in different positions – that is, he couldn’t tell it was the “same” dog!!).

        plus, this takes care of materialistic views of evolution, since the unfolding of our consciousness in each moment as an exact parallel in the unfolding of consciousness over billions of years. All of it happening “now” (the eternal now, outside time and space – this may, by the way, relate to that “theological” notion of the difference between the energy of God and the essence of God – shakti and shiva, which I don’t’ think poses a problem for divine simplicity when properly understood. Divine simplicity relates to an infinite not a void Divine.

  4. whitefrozen says:

    The Cappodician/Palamite distinction between the energy of God and the essence of God > divine simplicity.

    • PeterJ says:

      Ah now, you’re going to get all theological on me. I need to do some more work on this. Googlng the Cappodician/Palamite distinction now….

  5. PeterJ says:

    Don – No reply button so had to go out of order. Agree with what you say. Attributes are always phenomenal. .

  6. johsh says:

    indeed DDS is much better than regular theistic stuff. Infact the omni-xxx is quoted often in regular religious discourse. So, it is being discussed/thought as such, DDS is not alien to regular religious folk, it has always been part of mainstream one-way-or-other. But, like in mysticism, the contemplation ends there.

    DDS (and mysticism in general) tries to externalize the description. It doesn’t capture the point that one’s self is itself an attribute of the ultimate (or god) – thus there is only ignorance(suffering) we need to shed.

    As long as the focus is not on “self”, it will always be mystic.

    • donsalmon says:

      hey johsh

      (is that your real name?) nice comment. Are you familiar with both Eastern and Western mystical traditions?

      • johsh says:

        not my real name…just a nomadic name on the inter-webs. More familiar with eastern than western, though i did attend a catholic convent school for few years in my childhood, where they always used to describe god in omni-terms.

      • donsalmon says:

        Cool. I grew up a Unitarian/atheist; mostly into eastern, but was choir director at Spanish Catholic church for 10 years – very enjoyable service since I know only minimal Spanish and could listen to the sermon as if it was just more music:>) “God is He in whom we live and move and have our Being” (Corinthians, chapter 2, verse 27) – one of the best verses in the Bible!

      • johsh says:

        wow!! thats a beautiful quote thanks for sharing, beautifully expressed..very relevant for our discussion at hand. Blessed are those who truly understand what that means.

      • donsalmon says:

        I first noticed it in Sri Aurobindo’s writings. I did a search once and found dozens of places where he quotes it all or in part. he was a master of Latin and Greek, so it was probably particularly appealing that the story is, Paul was speaking to the Greeks when he said to them, “Your wise men knew that God is He in whom we live and move and have our being.”

        Someone told me that in the 1800s, Cambridge had a scoring system for Greek scholars. as of 1985, nobody had yet attained a higher score than the one Sri Aurobindo graduated with in the 1890s. People think his writing is mostly Victorian; a greek scholar told me that when he first read Sri Aurobindo – particularly the Life Divine – it reminded him of nothing more than the pre-Socratics – all the commas and colons and dashes and semi-colons in SrI Aurobindo’s writings giving a feeling of oceanic flow that the pre socratic writers had.

      • johsh says:

        interesting to know the context…it sounds like a prevalent view of the times in greece.

        Aurobindo nicely weaves everything together, though i try to shy away from intellecutalization of any kind, which most of the “thinkers” do. I always felt buddha has it right…just focus on the ignorance/suffering (4 noble truths), keep it simple as it could be, dont go into any seemingly-mystic-stuff.

        But, over the centuries, the buddhism has turned into heavy literature as well. May be the tantric/advaitic ways have a point…treat this whole thing as “maya” or something you need to “conquer”…use all means possible.

        It used to be a lot simpler/easier 2K-3K years ago, not many distractions, easy to be close to self. Over the last 100 years, the distractions have grown exponentially.

      • donsalmon says:

        people have all kinds of ideas about sri aurobindo as an intellectual. Some context may be helpful – the books for which he is “famous” – Life Divine, Synthesis of Yoga, Commentaries on the Gita, Upanishads, Vedas, etc – were all written in a 7 year period. he had not planned to write anything. He had gotten together with 2 other people who wanted to start a journal. They left in 1914 and returned in the 1920s, and he ended up writing it himself, 64 pages a month, for 7 years, 6000 pages, all 7 or 8 books being written simultaneously. he never wrote another book after that 7 year period. There are collections of several thousand letters he wrote to disciples, a few brief essays here and there, and of course, his epic poem, Savitri. The only philosophy he ever attempted was The Life Divine. But his colleague, Mirra Alfassa, always said you don’t need to read anything for awakening and transformation. Just remember and offer. Simple.

        I personally find, for my own purposes (my own dharma, swadharma, if you like) that Sri Aurobindo is the most helpful writer I’ve ever come across for bridging science and spirituality. But you don’t need any of that for awakening. it’s just part of my play:>)

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