Quantcast Anthony Flood "How Does Onto-Theological Personalism Avoid Pantheism?"


Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

How Does Onto-Theological Personalism Avoid Pantheism? 


A Record of My Incomprehension of 

William Vallicella's "Total Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition" 

Anthony Flood

This site’s usefulness to Dr. Vallicella is gratifying.  By posting hard-to-find journal articles and anthology chapters, I intend to provide convenient access to as many of my sources of insight as I can.  By noting the posting of Deck’s essay on Aquinas’ view of essence-existence composition in creatures and then offering his critical discussion of it, which occasioned this essay, Vallicella enhances the site’s interest.  For that I am grateful.  By such means our conversation can progressively detach itself from its occasion in Deck’s paper.

My gratitude takes the form of exposing my ignorance of the systematic basis of his critique.  His distinctive interpretation of “essence” and “existence” raises difficulties for me that I cannot yet resolve because they ultimately refer to a book I have not had the opportunity to study, namely, his own A Paradigm Theory of Existence.[1]  My questions, then, pertain only to his essay, “Total Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition.”

In criticizing the blurb I [once] gave Deck’s essay (“The Paper That Broke Thomism’s Hold on Me”), Vallicella does not mean to defend Thomism.  So the defensibility of Vallicella’s understanding of composition is neutral to my claim that Deck opened my eyes to a fatal weakness in Thomism, an autobiographical claim readers will have to take at my word.

More objectively, I also claimed that Deck “decomposed Thomistic ‘composition’ unanswerably.”  With this, Vallicella takes issue.  He proposes, however, an alternative understanding of “existence” and “essence” that leaves Deck’s critique intact.  That is, he answers Deck’s criticism of Thomism by showing that a philosopher can mean by “essence” and “existence” something other than what Deck (or Thomas) meant.  If that is so, then my claim provisionally stands.

The “fatal weakness” that I allege is the notion of the “reception of existence.”  For nothing can be in act and potency simultaneously and in the same respect, but that is what “reception of existence” implies.  “To be able to receive” presupposes the existence of the receiver, that is, that the putative receiver is already actual.  Therefore, whatever it is that something can receive, the actuality requisite to receiving is not it.  As Vallicella summarizes the charge, “the essence of [contingent being] C is both logically prior and logically posterior to the existence of Cwhich is a contradiction.” 

Vallicella begins by defining a basic tenet of classical theism, namely, “creation out of nothing,” creatio ex nihilo, or “exnihilation,” to use the handy coinage of Mortimer Adler.[2] I accept Vallicella’s review of that term.  I do not, however, understand why he and other theists have not concluded what seems to me to follow from exnihilation.  For if (to quote Vallicella’s discussion) God does not “create out of some stuff called ‘nothing’”; if “it is not the case that there is something distinct from God out of which God creates”; if “divine creation is not the forming of a pre-given matter, or any sort of operating upon something whose existence is independent of God,” then we must conclude, it seems to me, that God operates upon and creates out of that which is not distinct from God himself.

Now that which is not distinct from a thing logically cannot fail to be that thing.  Therefore the creation that issues from God’s operation upon himself is, necessarily, God.  If God exists, then for any x, x is either God or a creature of God: tertium non datur.  For God to create, but not out of that which is other than God, is for God to create out of God.  Perhaps Vallicella can shown, or has already shown in PTE, how the product of such a process could be other than God.  Absent such a showing, the logic of exnihilation would seem to issue in pantheism.[3]

But Vallicella steers this train of thought along another track: “This classical notion of divine creation implies that created entities (creatures) are totally dependent on God.”  If exnihilation implies pantheism, however, it cannot also imply total dependence of creature upon creator: a thing cannot sensibly be said to be dependent upon that with which it is identical.  Vallicella doesn’t say “God is dependent on God,” but that seems to follow from what he holds.

When we use “dependent” to express the relationship of one thing (or attribute, state, or trait) to another, we abstract that relationship from all the others the two may have to each other.  The predicate “dependent” cannot express the totality of relationships that the one has to the other. That is because non-dependency or independence in at least one respect is a necessary condition of non-identity or difference.  If a is dependent on b in one respect, then there must be at least one other respect whereby it is not the case that a is dependent on b.  The notion of total dependence, dependence in every respect, entails identity, and therefore no dependence at all.  If a is dependent on b in all respects, then a “collapses” into b, taking dependency, and difference, with it. 

If a is dependent on b in all respects, then any difference between a and b is merely nominal, i.e., “a” and “b” are two names for the identical entity.  And if a stands for the world and b for God, then b differs from a only, perhaps, as an amnesiac’s full personal identity “differs” from his defectively narrow understanding of it (a theme for which absolute idealism provided a cosmic translation).  To preserve ontological distinction, which total dependency threatens to abolish, we must understand that dependency is never total, that “total dependency” is linguistically disguised nonsense.  And that was one import of Deck’s exegesis of Thomas, at least for me. 

My PTE-deprived brain could not follow Vallicella’s use of “essence” and “existence.”  So, for example, he states that essence (“whatness” or “quiddity”) “comprises all of a thing’s properties,” whereas existence is “not a property, or at least it is not a property that could add anything to a thing’s” essence (which, we were just told, comprises all of them).  A thing’s existence (the property that could not add anything to that thing’s essence) is “that which distinguishes a merely possible thing (even a completely determined merely possible thing) from the same thing actually existing.” 

I am afraid that “existing,” being cognate with “existence,” cannot illuminate what Vallicella means by the latter.  And by referring to a “completely determined possible thing,” I am not sure whether he crossed the line of self-contradiction or merely walked up to it.  I understand determination to be an act of selection from among rival possibilities available for future determinations of actualities.  A “completely determined possible thing” strikes my mind’s ears as does “an absolutely concrete abstraction.”  Surely I have misunderstood.

Vallicella says that this distinction between essence and existence is “real,” that is, it “reflects a distinction in contingent beings apart from our mental and linguistic activities."[4] Then he asks how the essence and existence of a contingent being are related.  He does not define “contingent being, however, and I doubt that he could without begging disputed questions.  He may not be able to this satisfactorily in a short comment, but that circumstance does not ease my difficulties with his thought in the compact form in which I have it.

The form of the question raises my attenae.  Take, for example, “How is length related to width?”  It may have the grammatical form of “How is Bob related to Mary?,” but it is not logically the same.  For Bob and Mary are concrete individuals, whereas length and width are abstractions from our experience of extended beings, of which Bob and Mary’s bodies are instances.  “How are essence and existence related?” presupposes that they are related, but that might be like presupposing that length is related to Bob’s body, and then doggedly asking how it is.   Bob’s body is spatially extended, but there’s no sense to asking how one dimension of that spatial extension (e.g., length or width) is related to a concrete instance of extension.  And so until we know more about what Vallicella means categorically by essence and existence, their commensurability is in doubt, and so is any question of their relationship to each other.

Vallicella also refers to essence and existence as a contingent being’s “ontological factors,” but does not define “factor.”  Presumably they together “make” (facere) the contingent being.  Vallicella identifies Deck’s allegedly erroneous assumption, namely, that “existence is a proper constituent” of a contingent being.  For Vallicella, it is not.  Again, however, a key term, “constituent,” is not defined so that the reader might distinguish it from “factor.”  (Perhaps factors make a thing, whereas constituents make it up.)   What we need from Vallicella, which I’m sure he provides in PTE, is his case for extending by analogy the use of “factor” and “constituent” from our ordinary experience (e.g., “factors of production” and “constituents of an electoral district”) to our metaphysical generalizations about beings that are contingent with respect to their existence.

Out of the blue, at least for someone who hasn’t read PTE, Vallicella claims that it “should be clear that [contingent being] C is totally dependent on its existence.”  The reader was not prepared for this assertion of possible causal commensurability between these two “factors,” “constituents” or, as he later terms them, “ontological parts.”  The reason Vallicella gives for this assertion further disoriented me: “For if C lacks existence, then C is nothing at all. The same goes for C’s essence since C apart from its existence just is C’s essence. Both C and C’s essence depend totally on C’s existence.”

Now both Hercules and his friend Pholus the centaur lack existence, but surely they are not “nothing at all”?  That would entail, it seems to me, that Hercules is identical with Pholus because, after all, nothing equals nothing.  Clearly, by “Hercules” and “Pholus” we refer to essences or concepts or, in one understanding of the term, “propositions.”  But we would no more want to say that the essences of Hercules and Pholus are identical than we would want to say that the numbers 5 and 9, which also lack existence, are for that reason identical.  Hercules, Pholus, 5, and 9 are not “nothing at all.”  The question remains whether they are “pre-given,” i.e., something that God operates on prior to his bestowal of existence, which they somehow “receive” in their non-existent state.

To show us how to avoid Deck’s conclusion so that we might affirm both “total dependence” and a real essence/existence distinction, Vallicella, at long last, defines “existence.”  He does so, however, in a way that invites the charge of equivocation: “existence cannot be identified with one of a thing’s ontological constituents; it is rather the togetherness of all its constituents, among the latter, the thing’s properties.”

Existence is the togetherness of constituents, “their bundling so as to form an individual.”

What happened to existence as affirmability or “thatness”? We are told that the identification of existence with constituent togetherness is “intuitively obvious [!] since the existence of a thing pertains to the whole of it, and cannot be located in one part of it. If it were, the other parts would precisely not exist.”  I agree that the existence of C pertains to the whole of C, but I had always thought that when we affirm, “C exists,” we are saying something other than, “C’s constituents cohere.”

“God is the unifier,” Vallicella writes, “responsible for the contingent unity of a thing’s ontological parts. God does not bestow existence upon a pregiven receptacle, for prior to the unifying of C’s constituents, there is no C or essence of C”;  “divine creation is not the bestowal of existence on a mere possible that already has an identity; it is rather a bestowal of both existence and identity.”  (My emphasis.)  There is, then, no remainder possibly patient to this bestowal, and nothing to unify. 

Vallicella has one more play: “Suppose the ontological constituents of C are properties construed as universals. If divine creation is the unification of these universalstheir bundling so as to form an individualthen God operates on universals to form individuals. Do we not then face a similar problem, namely, the problem that these universals are a pre-given ‘matter’ vis-a-vis the divine creative activity, with the consequence that the creature cannot be totally dependent on the creator?”  No, because:

“One may construe universals as divine concepts. [My emphasis]  As such, they do not exist apart from God. It follows that in creating, God does not operate upon anything independent of himself. God creates ex nihilo in this precise sense: God creates, but not out of something distinct from himself.” 

Then God creates out of himself.  It all God, all the time.  It’s pantheism.

Vallicella, of course, knows what pantheism is, and if he championed it, he would say so.  He regards himself as an onto-theological personalist, not a pantheist, so I may not justly refer to him as one.  It is therefore plain that I do not understand onto-theological personalism and therefore also whether and how much it overlaps with my panexperientialist panentheism. I know what I must do to remedy my deficiency, but not when I will be able to.  Until I do, however, I would gratefully receive any public remedial instruction that he thinks my paper calls for, and thank him for the stimulation his comment on Deck provided.

[1] William Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. Kluwer Philosophical Studies Series #89, 2002.  Hereinafter referred to as PTE. 

[2] Mortimer Adler, How to Think about God, New York: Doubleday, 1980.

[3] Exnihilation also logically underpins classical theism’s understanding of divine omnipotence.  As Uncle Ben counseled Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  And with all-power comes all-responsibility, including for excessive, nondisciplinary evil.  See my "He Would If He Could, But He Can't So He Doesn't: A Letter on the Problem of Evil"

[4] This is his essay’s first reference to “contingent.” Now while that word has a history outside of theistic, mainly Christian theistic, apologetics, its contemporary use invariably signals a discussion, pro or con, of the cosmological argument for the existence of classical theism’s deity.  I’ll grant Vallicella’s point that “the contradiction that Deck sees . . . is already to be found in the very notion of essence/existence composition quite apart from the question of whether or not a contingent being has a metaphysical cause of its existence,” i.e., God.  But will he grant me that in fact only those in the hunt for such a cause have availed themselves of “composition,” and that this extra-argumentative agenda or interest largely inspires that device’s deployment and attendant “problems”?