Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The divine attributes

The topic of the divine attributes focuses on the nature of God's properties. A divine attribute is a property of God. So what is the list of properties that belong to 'the divine attributes'?

Traditionally, such properties must be compatible with being God. The properties being good or being wise or being awesome are compatible with being God, but most of wouldn't say the property being addicted to child pornography is. So when it comes to the list of divine attributes, we're just including God-compatible properties on the list, attributes like 'good', 'wise', 'perfect', and so forth. (Which properties, I would suggest, are not PC-compatible, but only Mac-compatible).

In any case, this question has its locus classicus in Aquinas's discussion of the divine attributes. Aquinas's position runs as follows.

When we observe and ponder the world, we notice two types of entities: objects, and the properties of those objects. Consider a red car. The car is the object, but its red color is a property of the car. The car has other properties too, like being fast, weighing such and such, and so forth.

Now, would we say that an object is identical with any of its properties? Is a car identical -- the very same thing as -- its property of being red? Aquinas, at least, would say no. The car can still be the car without being red, so being a car and being red don't seem to entirely be the same thing. Likewise, the property being red can apply to things other than cars (like lamp shades and sunsets), so being red and being a car don't seem to be entirely the same thing.

Aquinas concludes from this that objects are different from their properties. Objects have properties, but objects are not identical to their properties.

Now apply this to properties that we include in our list of divine attributes. Take 'wise' for example. If I say 'Dan is wise', I seem to be talking about an object (Dan), and a property (being wise). On Aquinas's analysis, Dan is not identical to his property of being wise. After all, Dan can exist without being wise, and being wise can apply to objects other than Dan. Thus, Dan has wisdom, but Dan is not identical to his wisdom.

But what about when we say 'God is wise'? As Aquinas sees it, the situation is different. God does not have wisdom, God is wisdom. God is completely identical to his properties (i.e., the divine attributes). In other words, in the created realm, objects and properties are different, but in the divine case, the object in question (God) is identical to his properties (the divine attributes).

(Notice that this entails that God's properties will always be true of God, but this is not the case for creatures. Dan can exist without wisdom, but God cannot exist without wisdom. Dan can acquire or lose (if, perhaps, he had a lobotomy) wisdom, but God cannot acquire or lose wisdom.)

Aquinas, famously, argues that our minds work in accordance with the created order, so when I say something like 'John is wise', my mind understands John as having the property of being wise. So statements like 'John is wise' are understood as 'John has the property of being wise'. Aquinas thinks that our minds think this way because the world is that way, and God made our minds to understand the created order.

But God is not like the created world. God does not have the property of being wise. He is wisdom. As Aquinas sees it, we cannot understand it, because any statement like 'God is wise' gets translated in our brains as 'God has wisdom'. Thus, we always don't really understand the true meaning of our statements about God. We cannot then, understand what it is to be wisdom. We can only understand what it is to have wisdom.

(The same goes for existence. We can't understand what it is for God to be existence, we can only understand what it means to have existence. But existence is slightly more complicated than the other divine attributes like 'wisdom', because it is not clear that existence should be construed as a property. In any case, I won't discuss existence more here.)

As one author puts it, for Aquinas, we know that our words refer to God, but we don't understand the true sense of those words, since we can't understand what it is for God to be wisdom. We know our God-talk has reference, but it doesn't have sense. Aquinas is, in this respect, firmly in the negative theology tradition.


mutabilitie said...

Could you replace 'substance' for 'object'? Or is this analytic terminology that you are using just a way to not get involved in ontological discussions like broadly Aristotelian or Kantian 'categories'?

Also, I'd be interested to what you make of my recent post ['Beatific Vision, Predication of Perfection Terms, and Phenomenological Concerns'] over on my blog: http://mediustemporis.blogspot.com

JT Paasch said...

Yep. I think an individual object is a 'substance', but 'substance' is such a loaded term, as is 'substratum' (both 'substance' and 'substratum' are loaded mostly to do with Locke rather than Aristotle or Kant, but some Aristotle stuff is involved in the discussion of substance too).

Thanks for the heads up on your post. I'll check it out.