Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

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Excerpted from Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1991, 71-77.  I made the title out of one of Griffin's sentences, but the subtitle is wholly mine.  Other citations of Aquinas germane to this topic may be found in the 9th reference note of my rebuttal to Benjamin Wiker—Anthony Flood


“We Can Read the Words, But Can We Think the Thoughts?” 

On a Certain Thomistic Effort to Square Human Self-Determination with God’s “Infallible Movement” of the Will


David Ray Griffin

[John F. X.] Knasas seeks to defend the intelligibility of Aquinas’ assertion that “God’s workings in the human will are not opposed to man being the master of his own act,” which means that “the determining of man’s acts of will is man’s own.”[18] Aquinas explicitly deals, Knasas points out, with the objection that the will could not be “master of its act . . . if it were not able to act without God operating in it.”[19] Knasas says that this objection is similar to mine. This is the one place where he may misinterpret me; I deny not that God influences human decisions, only that this divine influence fully determines them.  In any case, the real question is: How could fully determining divine influence be compatible with human self-determination? In relation to this question, Knasas quotes this passage from Aquinas:

The will is said to have dominion of its act not through exclusion of the first cause, but because the first cause does not so act in the will that it determines the will from necessity to one thing just as it determines nature; and so the determination of the act is left in the power of reason and the will.[20]

In other words, God fully determines all events in the world.  But, while God determines each natural event “to one thing,” so that the event could not have been otherwise, God determines the human will so that it, based on the reason, really selects among alternative possibilities.  “God moves the will . . . preserving in it all the while the ability to do otherwise.”[21]

Knasas admits that the consistency of this statement is not immediately evident:

Is it possible to explain how the divine causality upon the created will does not take away the will’s ability to do otherwise?  As mentioned, the divine causality is unfailing, and so it is difficult to see how what is under it could be called “able to be or do otherwise.”[22]

With regard to this problem, Knasas mentions my remark that God cannot “cause an event to occur which is both contingent and necessary, i.e. which occurs necessarily and yet could fail to occur.”[23] My reason for this claim is that God cannot bring about something that is self-contradictory, such as a round square.  For something to be contingent is, as Knasas says, for it to possess “the ability to be otherwise.”[24] But if God’s causality unfailingly caused an event to occur, then its existence was necessary and its nonexistence was impossible.  The event had no “ability to be otherwise.”  To be both necessary and contingent is as self-contradictory as to be round and square.  Or so I claim.  But Aquinas, quoted here by Knasas, affirms compatibilism:

Although the non-existence of an effect of the divine will is incompatible with the divine will, the possibility that the effect should be lacking is given simultaneously with the divine will.  God’s willing someone to be saved and the possibility that that person be damned are not incompatible; but God’s willing him to be saved and his actually being damned are incompatible.[25]

As can be seen, while I equate “being infallibly determined” with “impossibility to be otherwise” and hence “necessary,” Aquinas and Knasas distinguish them.  For an all-controlling God to will X is incompatible with the nonexistence of X, we all agree.  But they hold that for this God to will X is compatible (in some cases) with the possi-bility of non-X.  X could not not have oc-curred; it had to occur; and yet its non-occurrence was possible. How can that be an intelligible idea?  The notion that God’s power is infinite, infallibly bringing about whatever God wills, seems to rule out all contingency.  The opposite, suggests Knasas, is the truth: it is precisely because of God’s infinite power that divinely determined human acts can be truly contingent.  He quotes Aquinas:

For the patient must be assimilated to the agent; and, if the agent is most powerful, the likeness of the effect to the agent cause will be perfect; . . . Now the divine will is most powerful.  Hence its effect must be made like it in all respects, so that there not only comes about what God wants to come about . . . but it comes about in the manner in which God wants it to come about—necessarily or contingently, quickly or slowly.[26]

This argument begins to be intelligible, Knasas says, when we realize that the divine will, called the “most powerful” in this passage, is really infinitely powerful, because God’s power, being identical with God’s subsistent existence, is infinite.[27] Coming to the crux of the matter, Knasas then asks:

What is it about infinite power that is compatible with a real contingency in its effects?  The answer apparently is in Aquinas’ thought that the divine infinity contains the perfections of all things.[28] Among these perfections are the natures that are created acts of willing.  Under such an infinite deity, rational creatures not only can do, but can do otherwise.  They can do, for the deity can bring into existence in them the finite nature that is a particular act of will. . . . They can do otherwise, because another act of will is likewise contained in the divine infinity and able to be given existence in the rational creature.  The created will’s ability to do this or that is assured by an infinite deity that contains the perfections of either act of willing.  Under the divine causality, it is always true that the rational creature could have done otherwise. Just as the divine causality does not exclude in the creature a real ability to do, so too it does not exclude a real ability to do otherwise.  It makes sense to say this provided the divine cause is regarded as actually infinite.[29]

The reason it “makes sense to say this” if and only if God is infinite is that, as stated earlier, although a finite agent’s determination of another would leave no contingency in the other, an infinite agent’s could:

Only an infinite being, then, respects the indeterminacy of the will.  Only it can ground the ability of the will to do this or that.  Because of its determination, a finite being could not but exclude the will’s indetermination.  That determination would be perpetuated in the finite being’s causality and so exclude any ability to be otherwise.[30]

If I grasp Knasas’ argument, it is that a finite being, because of its finiteness, is determinate.  When it exerts causation on another, it passes that determination on to it, because “the patient must be assimilated to the agent.”  The agent’s efficient causation, having no indetermination in it, excludes any indetermination in the patient, therefore any possibility of self-determination.  God, on the other hand, being infinite, is indeterminate.  God’s causation, which is identical with God’s essence, contains possibilities other than those acts that will actually occur, at least with regard to the acts of rational creatures.  So, although God wills that Jones will do X at time T, God’s infinity also contains Jones’s doing Y at time T, and perhaps also doing W and Z.  Because of God’s infinite power, God can instill in Jones the possibilities of doing W, Y, and Z at time T, so that those are real possibilities, even though it is eternally true Jones will do X.  Knasas does not blame me for not having grasped this notion.  He says, in fact, that even “most Thomists have only dimly perceived the importance here of Aquinas’ construing divine omnipotence in infinite terms. . . . Only Joseph Owens spotlights the insight behind Aquinas’ constant reiteration of the harmony between God’s efficacious willing and creaturely contingence.”[31] He then quotes this passage from Owens:

The mind can reason that every finite agent, because determined and limited in nature, determines the effect it produces to some definite and limited character.  But subsistent existence, because absolutely unlimited in nature, does not operate under this restriction. . . . The explanation has to be poised on the nature of the primary efficient cause, which is unlimited and, accordingly, able to act without determining.[32]

We can read the words, but can we think the thoughts?  Regardless of how unlimited a being’s power is, it cannot make a round square.  How can it, by analogy, create an event that is both necessary and contingent—that must occur (because God infallibly causes it to occur) and yet might not have occurred?  Can those words evoke an intelligible proposition in us?  That is the crucial question, because, the reader will recall, Knasas’ argument is that Aquinas has a coherent concept of omnipotence, one that provides an “intelligible standard by which to judge Griffin’s process God finite and imperfect.”

Knasas, who is always honest, recognizes the difficulty.  He tries to overcome it with these reflections:

What seems to cause all the difficulty in grasping Aquinas’ position is our thinking that we can represent to ourselves this infinite divine causality.  Because all our positive concepts—those able to be brought before the mind’s eye—are finite and determinate, we ineluctably think the infinite divine causality in finite, determinate terms, too. Small wonder God’s causality appears to rub out contingency.[33]

Knasas shows with the following quotation that Owens agrees:

The human mind, able to understand only the determined and determining motion that proceeds from finite natures, cannot form any proper concept of the unlimited motion that causes a will to make freely but infallibly the decision to which it moves it.[34]

But how do these statements show that the traditional doctrine of omnipotence is an intelligible concept?  Do they not imply just the opposite?  If we “ineluctably” think so that we “cannot form any proper concept” of infinite causality, then this concept would seem to be unintelligible in principle for human beings.  More pointedly, how can one know that the phrase “infinite causality” refers to any (proper) concept at all?  Why should one even suspect that it does?  This is one place at which Knasas does not acknowledge the difficulty.  He simply says:

So, knowing that God’s causality of the human act remains identical with his infinity, we can sensibly and rightly say that it moves the will without detriment to the will’s ability to do otherwise. . . . Unfortunately when the above claim is made, the intelligibility with which our words is [sic] laden remains impervious to our mind’s eye.  We know the proposition has meaning quoad se.  But the meaning remains unavailable to quoad nos.[35]

If the intelligibility of the words “remains impervious to our mind’s eye,” so that we do not understand its meaning, how do we “know” that the words enunciate a proposition that has meaning in itself (quoad se)?  Surely the mere fact that Aquinas says it does not in itself prove that it is intelligible; his writings are not, even in the Roman Catholic tradition, authoritative in the sense of belonging to divine revelation.  We can ask what type of proposition this is supposed to be.  Does it belong to natural theology, so that it is based on reasoning from common human experience?  Or is it based solely on revelation, so that it is above reason (though not, Aquinas would insist, contrary to it)?  If it were a proposition of natural theology, it would have to be intelligible to human reason, and this is what it is said not to be. It must then be a product of divine revelation.  That this would be Knasas’ answer is suggested by the fact that he cites Aquinas’ approving quotation of St. Paul’s statement, “It is God who worketh in us both to will and to accomplish.”[36]

But this answer would be doubly problematic.  First, it would be one thing to claim that St. Paul’s statement expressed a revealed truth; it would be something quite different to claim that the Thomistic way of trying to explicate this idea belongs to revelation.  Second, even if one were to make this claim, one would not thereby have shown the concept to be coherent and intelligible: one would have merely announced one’s own willingness to assume, as an act of faith, that the words somehow point to a concept that is, in itself, coherent.

Recalling Knasas’ conclusion that “it is hard to see how Aquinas’ elaboration of the traditional concept of omnipotence would merit Griffin’s label of . . . ‘incoherent omnipotence,’” I must conclude that it is hard to see how it could be labeled anything else.  Knasas made a valiant effort, but, just as even infinite power cannot make a triangle round, even the finest intellect cannot make an incoherent concept coherent.  I therefore see no reason to revise the judgment that the traditional doctrine of omnipotence does not provide an intelligible standard by which to call the God portrayed by process theology imperfect, less powerful than a divine being might conceivably be. Knowing the impossibility of supertriangles (ones that are round as well as triangular), we do not belittle triangles.  Knowing the impossibility of a super-God, we will not belittle God.


Reference Notes

18 John F. X. Knasas, “Super-God: Divine Infinity and Human Self-Determination,” American Catholic Philo-sophical Association Proceedings, 55 (1981), 198. [The article spans pages 197-209.-AF]

19 Ibid., quoting De Potentia 3, 7.

20 Ibid., quoting De Potentia 3, 7, ad 13 (Knasas translation).

21 Ibid., 199

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., quoting David Ray Griffin, God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976; Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.), 79.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid., quoting De Veritate 23, 5, ad 3 (Schmidt translation).

26 Ibid., 200, quoting De Veritate 23, 5c (Schmidt translation).

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid., Knasas here cites Summa Contra Gentiles I, 43.

29 Ibid., 200-01.

30 Ibid., 201.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid., quoting Joseph Owens, An Interpretation of Existence (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1968), 118-19.

33 Ibid., 201-02.

34 Ibid., 203, quoting Joseph Owens, An Elementary Christian Metaphysics (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1963), 362-63.  For the epistemological background to Owens’ position, Knasas refers to Owens, “Aquinas—‘Darkness of Ignorance’ in the Most Refined Notion of God,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 5 (1974), 99.

35 Ibid., 202.

36 Ibid., 198.

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