A few months ago over at the Catholic apologist’s site Strange Notions, where I sometimes debate theists (but am now banned from), a post was written by Catholic philosopher Dr. Dennis Bonnette that was almost entirely addressed at some criticisms I’ve made on the site in the past year.
The post, entitled God: Eternity, Free Will, and the World, tries to defend the scholastic notion of god as coherent, with free will, and timelessness, yet able to interact with time. I had argued that such a god is incoherent, can’t possible have free will, and would be causally impotent if timeless.
In the the following series of posts I shall refute every section of Bonnette’s post, paragraph by paragraph, where ever I see a fallacy or incorrection. So let’s get right to it.
God’s Immutability and Eternity
Dr. Bonnette starts the first section arguing for god’s divine simplicity.
As has been shown previously, a key inference of St. Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for God’s existence is that God is the Uncaused First Cause. Since God is uncaused, he cannot be the subject of motion or change, because whatever is moved or changed must be moved or changed by another. Hence, God is immutable.
Let’s take god’s simplicity for the sake of argument: God can’t be the subject of motion or change. OK. So what about Jesus, who is god incarnate, and a person in time? If the response is that Jesus has a human and a divine nature, and his divine nature doesn’t change, how does the divine nature enter a female womb? Bonnette doesn’t mention Jesus at all in his post, but this is an inconsistency left unanswered that undermine’s his Christianity. Also, as I like to remind Thomists, the Aristotelian principle, that “whatever is moved or changed must be moved or changed by another” necessarily negates free will, since humans would always be moved by something outside them (ie. by another). I addressed this in more detail in my post on how Thomists like Edward Feser fail to defend free will. Bonnette continues,
Moreover, the Uncaused First Cause must be pure act, since change would require moving something from potency to act. But, if no change is possible, God must have no potency to further act. Hence, he is pure act, which means pure being. In fact, as the absolutely simple first being, God is not even composed of essence and existence. He is pure act of existence without any limiting essence, that is, the Infinite Being. Only one such being is possible, since if there were two, one would limit the infinity of the other.
Of course, there’s no need for an uncaused first cause to the universe, since the universe exists as an eternal block that never comes into or goes out of existence. Hence, to borrow Thomistic terminology, the explanation of the universe is in the nature of the universe, because something eternal can’t fail to exist. And it hasn’t been established (and certainly not from Bonnette’s post) that god is not moving or changing. The whole argument that tries to deduce god as unmoving and unchanging is predicated on movement and change in the universe in the sense of things coming into being, often referred to as becoming in philosophy. But as I’ve argued numerous times on this site, this presupposes the A-theory of time, also known as presentism. If one can’t defend the truth of that presupposition, the argument is begging the question. Bonnette on Strange Notions has tried to defend the falsity of eternalism before, which is the antithesis of presentism, but he makes a fool of himself misunderstanding the very basics of the debate. He naively assumes (like almost all people do) that eternalism means timelessness—as if all events would be happening at the same time. This is of course wrong.
Some, confusing activity with motion, misconstrue God’s immutability as meaning frozen, static, lifeless, and impotent. Quite the contrary, the Infinite Being already possesses all existential perfections so completely that change could give no greater activity or power.
I certainly don’t confuse activity with motion. I fully grant god as an immaterial being that doesn’t move through space for the sake of argument, but activity requires change and time. A timeless activity is a non-sequitor. You can’t just define “activity” to be compatible with timelessness and changelessness. Changelessness is synonymous with being frozen, static, lifeless, and impotent. This is why Thomism is obvious to many as a giant word salad. It must clamp together irreconcilable properties as existing in the same thing.
God’s immutability entails his eternity, since what is immutable has neither beginning nor any progression through time. God is utterly outside of time, existing as it were “all at once.” Ordinary language betrays human understanding of God’s eternity. Eternity does not mean endless duration: time without beginning or end. God’s eternity means the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. It is the term defining the divine life of God. We know God is living since he is the cause of that positive existential perfection that we call “life” in creatures. The term, “life,” in God must be understood analogously in that he does not live with the limitations inherent in earthly organisms, but rather possesses pre-eminently whatever positive perfections life entails in created living things.
I’m perfectly fine with the understanding that human language has immense difficulty describing deep philosophical (or scientific) concepts. On eternalism for example, words like “move” and “cause” must be redefined from the standard colloquial definitions. But they are not incoherent. On Thomism, god’s central characteristics are incoherent. We’re just told our brains and words can’t accurately describe them. But what assurance do I have that god’s central characteristics are coherent, if they can never be articulated as such? If eternity means the “simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life” then god would be like all of time squeezed down into a single instant, like a squeezed accordion. God “simultaneously” impregnates Mary, speaks to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and sends the asteroid to the earth that exterminates the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. This defies logic, and I’d bet can’t be coherently articulated because it isn’t coherent. A timeless, unchanging being is necessarily static.
Regarding the claim that god “is the cause of that positive existential perfection that we call ‘life’ in creatures,” this is just false. All life conforms to and is explained by the natural laws of physics. It’s chemistry (and then physics) all the way down. There is no “extra” thing involved that makes life or animate living things. Theories that include an extra force, like vitalism, have been debunked for nearly a hundred years. And in recent years we have definitive proof from physics via Core Theory that there are no additional forces that can affect the matter that makes up life in ways that are undetectable. (More on this in part 2). So non-living things (like the forces and particles in the standard model) can explain life. Hence, the claim that god makes life, therefore god is living, is false. Non-life can make life.
In the divine eternity, God experiences no succession of events. Because of divine simplicity, God’s knowledge of himself and, thereby, of the world he causes, is one with his singular causal act whose multiple objects are the unfolding sequence of temporal world events — events novel to us, but not to God. God cannot change his mind or will or any aspect of his being during his eternal existence.
Funny how god is “absolutely simple,” yet apparently so obscure and complex that “Ordinary language betrays human understanding of God’s eternity.” So god is a single causal timeless act, with multiple objects that are an unfolding sequence of temporal world events. I’m still missing the coherence of this. If time is necessarily linear and sequential on a Thomistic view—meaning event C was preceded by event B, which was preceded by event A, and so on—then the only possible way that a timeless causal act could “create” such a sequence is if the whole sequence exists, like a block universe. But there is no unfolding of events on such a view, in the sense of things coming into being—which Thomism seems to require as a fundamental aspect of its ontology (given the requirement of the act/potency distinction) and such a sequence itself wouldn’t begin to exist, since the whole sequence exists co-eternally with god. So this is hardly a justification of the coherence of god’s immutability and eternity.
And that wraps up part 1.
When closely examined, you can see that for all the sophistication on Strange Notions, the arguments there implode under scrutiny. Dr Bonnette simply has no case for god’s coherency, nor does he have a case for god’s supposed necessary traits. I will follow up with the refutation for part 2 shortly.