Common natures in God's mind: A response to Bill Vallicella

Bill Vallicella poses the following problem

Consider a time t before there were any human animals and any finite minds, and ask yourself: did the nature humanity exist at t?

Vallicella points out that, for Aquinas, the answer would be that at t humanity existed in God’s mind. He comments on Aquinas’s answer thus:

This may seem to solve the problem I raised.  Common natures are not nothing because they are divine accusatives.  And they are not nothing in virtue of being ausserseiend. This solution avoids the three options of Platonism, subjectivism (according to which CNs exist only as products of abstraction), and Meinongianism.

What Vallicella is talking about here, of course, is Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas. But he isn’t satisfied with the solution this doctrine offers.

The problem with the solution is that it smacks of deus ex machina: God is brought in to solve the problem similarly as Descartes had recourse to the divine veracity to solve the problem of the external world.  Solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality ought to be possible without bringing God into the picture.

I don’t see any reason to concede this deus ex machina (DEM) objection against Aquinas's doctrine. Why ought solutions to the problems of universals, predication, and intentionality to be possible without bringing God into the picture? Vallicella doesn’t say.  What if I instructed you in the following way: “Solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to an immaterial intellect”? You could legitimately ask why I’ve barred the path of inquiry in this way. What if our reflection on the evidence indicated that an immaterial intellect had to be a part of the solution? (If you’re a naturalist, suppose I tell you to solve the problem of human knowledge without appealing to the brain.) Vallicella needs to explain why God can’t be involved in the solution of the above problems.

Vallicella references an earlier post where he considers what’s wrong with arguments that rely on a DEM. Let's look at this post to see if we can find out why he wishes to object to Aquinas in the way he does.

Vallicella suggests in this post five possible ways to understand what is meant by the DEM charge when it is leveled in philosophy. Vallicella’s DEM catalogue, however tentative, is very useful and appears to fill in a gap in the literature. Here are the possibilities he proposes:

(1) Any appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM.

(2)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no independent reasons are given for the existence of the supernatural agent.

(3)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent.

(4)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws.

(5)  An appeal to a supernatural agent in a theory of natural phenomena is a DEM iff EITHER no reasons are supplied for the existence of the divine agent, OR the working of the agent violates natural laws, OR the agent’s intervention in nature is miraculous in the sense in that it takes over a job that ought to be done by a natural entity.

Vallicella doesn’t think we should a priori rule out arguments to God as the cause of natural phenomena. So, he says that (1) can’t be what a DEM is. (Actually, he doesn't argue exactly like this but this is how I interpret him.)

Vallicella also concludes that (2) can’t be what a DEM is. Here's how he explains its flaw:

Why would the reasons for the supernatural agent have to be independent, i.e., independent of the job the agent is supposed to do? Suppose the appeal to a divine agent takes the form of an inference to the best or the only possible explanation of the natural explananda. Then the appeal to the divine agent would be rationally justified despite the fact that the agent is posited to do a specific job.

I’m not quite sure what Vallicella’s view of (3) is. He seems to think that it constitutes a DEM but isn't the only form it can take. It can also take the form of (4) and (5).

But if we construe DEM as (3), (4), or (5), Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas isn't conspicuously guilty of DEM. Aquinas doesn't fail to offer reasons for the existence of the divine agent whose mind contains the ideas (cf. ST, Ia, 2, 3). There is no obvious way that the doctrine of divine ideas violates natural laws (presumably the laws of the physical world that the natural sciences investigate). And, finally, it doesn't give a job to God that ought to be done by a natural entity.

With respect to the last point, Aquinas takes the divine ideas to be God's understanding of his essence as imitable by any creature (cf. ST, Ia, 15, 2). No natural entity as such could have God's understanding of his essence. Ergo, God isn't doing a job some natural entity should do, for no natural entity could do it.

So, I'm perplexed by Vallicella's suggestion that Aquinas's doctrine of divine ideas is an instance of DEM.

Vallicella is a careful, sharp thinker, so I assume that I have misunderstood him or he has only incompletely expressed himself. It’s possible that we do simply disagree but I suspect that the point of disagreement has not yet been identified.

Objective and Subjective Sin

Does anybody know where and when the widespread use of the distinction between objective and subjective sin was introduced?  I can find plenty of medieval and modern distinction between perfect and imperfect acts, and between human and non-human acts.  For instance, there is a lot on how somebody who sleeps with another's wife does not commit adultery if he does not know that she is married to another.  But I can't find anything about how someone who knowing sleeps with another's wife might not really be committing adultery.  There has to be something in the literature.  I have seen several statements like "The Church teaches that adultery is objectively wrong, but not always subjectively sinful."  I can see why it might not be sinful if it is not formally adultery, but I don't think that this is what they are saying.

I've looked around a bit in different descriptions of why we shouldn't judge others.  There are obvious remarks on how it is not our place, how we lack the relevant knowledge, etc.  It is like one servant judging another.  There is also material on how we might not know circumstances that would mitigate or change the act.  But most medieval and early modern authors seem to assume that if someone knowingly murders or commits adultery, we can know that they sinned mortally.  Augustine states that we should then reflect on the fact that they might repent, and we might be damned, etc.  The general approach seems to involve a combination of some of at least four elements: 1) don't judge if you don't need to because it is not your place, 2) you cannot know all the relevant circumstances, especially of acts that are not intrinsically evil, 3) even if you know that the neighbor's act is mortally sinful, you don't know if it is merely on account of weakness or ignorance instead of malice, and 4) you don't know that the person will repent and become a great saint, whereas you might be damned.  I don't find any suggestions that we should consider that our neighbor is not in fact sinning by committing adultery, blasphemy, or murder.  In other words, nobody says, "You can know that your neighbor is choosing to commit objectively evil actions such as murder or blasphemy, but you can't know that he is subjectively guilty."  Where does this come from historically?  Please send an e-mail or comment if you have citations from before the twentieth century that don't have to do with the formal/material distinction, or even if you know of anything that suggests the possibility of invincible ignorance concerning the substance of the Ten Commandments.




Amoris Laetitia: Misquoting St. Thomas on Rules

There is another misuse of St. Thomas, this time on rules.  It is in a section called "Rules and Discernment."

The document quotes Thomas to justify exceptions to"rules," as if the natural law concerning sexual relations did not involve exceptionless negative precepts.  The document lacks a basic understanding of Thomas's view of how rules are applied to particular situations.  

Consider this quote: 304.
It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being. I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: “Although there is necessity in the general principles, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects… In matters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all… The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail”.347 It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations. At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule. That would not only lead to an intolerable casuistry, but would endanger the very values which must be preserved with special care.

347 Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, art. 4.

The document seems to conflate rules such as "You shalt not commit adultery" with rules such as "Return borrowed items."  But consider this statement: "It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations."  In this case it seems to confuse rules such as "You shall not commit adultery" or "You shall not murder" with rules such as "Love God," "Help others, "Give alms."   I first thought that the passage was discussing primary and secondary precepts.  But then it seems to be discussing the difference between rules that oblige semper and ad semper and those that oblige semper and not ad semper.  Which does it mean?  And how are either relevant to the issue at hand?

For clarifying these issues, it is might be helpful to look at a good book on Moral Philosophy, such as Ralph McInerny's Ethica Thomistica.  

Amoris Laetitia: Misquoting St. Thomas on Irregular Relationships?

There is an interesting quote from St. Thomas in the new exhortation Amoris Laetitia.  Unless I am mistaken, it follows the trend of much neo-Modernist "scholarship" by misquoting St. Thomas in favor of a political or religious goal.  Thomas discusses the difficulty that some saints have in spite of their virtuous habits.  It seems to be used in the exhortation as evidence that those who commit reproductive acts in irregular situations might not be guilty of mortal sin.  I have no idea what sort of argument or interpretation might cause one to interpret Thomas's comments in favor of this view.  Apart from what the document actually says, there seems to be an egregious misuse of St. Thomas. 

Here is the passage:

 For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised. The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”,339 or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. As the Synod Fathers put it, “factors may exist which limit the ability to make a decision”.340 Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one of the virtues well;341 in other words, although someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues”.342

 341 Cf. Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 65, art. 3 ad 2; De Malo, q. 2, art. 2.

342 Ibid., ad 3.

The quotes from St. Thomas have nothing to do with the issue under discussion, and seem to be merely manipulated to support a very different position.   Apart from any religious reservations a believer might have about the paragraph, Thomists should be very worried about the misuse of Thomas's texts for political and religious reasons.

I am willing to believe or at least accept anything in such documents that is not obviously wrong.  But the use of St. Thomas in this passage is embarrassing.  Or am I missing something?


Incidentally, is this document claiming that Christians can be sometimes be free of guilt on account of invincible ignorance of the Ten Commandments?  I have seen this in some recent preaching and writers, but not so clearly in other official documents, and never (or almost never) before the twentieth century.     There is an isolated passage from St. Thomas that some have argued proves that there can be invincible ignorance of fornication (De Malo, q. 3, art. 8).  But here he has not yet described the different kinds of voluntary and involuntary ignorance, and is merely distinguishing between ignorance concerning the deformity of the act (such as ignorance that fornication is a sin), and ignorance of the circumstances, (such as that someone is not one's wife).  Interpreting this article as in favor of invincible ignorance of fornication at least seems to conflict with other passages such as:  De Veritate, q. 17, art. 3; l I-II, q. 6, art. 8; I-II, q. 19, art. 5-6;  I-II, q. 77, art. 7, ad 2. But the exhortation seems to be stretching this invincible ignorance to Catholics, and to adultery.


Thomism and Indissolubility of Marriage at Trent

Concerning divorce and remarriage, in addition to the texts cited by Brugger, it is interesting to look at some passing treatments by moral theologians.  Gonet discusses the matter of Pani's article, which is the relation of the Greeks to Trent, sess. 24, can. 7 de matrim, in Clypeus Theologiae Thomisticae, vol. 5, tract. 8, disp. 5, art. 3, nn. 61-62 (Antwerp, 1725, p. 530).   This text is available on the PRDL site.

Pruemmer, in his Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Pars II, tract. 10, cap. 3, art. 2, n. 62, notes that some hold that the indissolubitiy of a consummated Christian marriage is certain, it lacks the certitude of faith.  Nevertheless, it is heretical to say that the church errs when it taught and teaches that the bound of marriage cannot be dissolved by the adultery.  Consequently, those who reject the doctrine are at least "in errore proximo haeresi."  He deals with Trent and the Greeks in a footnote.