Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Total Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition

Warning: You are about to enter a hard-core metaphysics zone.

The other day, while on the prowl for an on-line version of Brand Blanshard’s On Philosophical Style, I stumbled upon Anthony Flood’s very interesting website where I found what I was looking for, and much else besides. Among other services, he has done metaphysicians a service by uploading John N. Deck’s excellent, "St. Thomas Aquinas and the Language of Total Dependence." This is an essay that Anthony Kenny, no slouch of a philosopher, saw fit to include in his anthology, Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays (University of Notre Dame Press, 1976).

Mr. Flood finds Deck’s argument to be "unanswerable" to such an extent that it broke the hold of Thomism on him. Although I am not a Thomist, I believe that I can show that Deck’s argument, when detached from the peculiarities of Thomism, is not compelling.

This essay divides into two parts. In the first, I state what I take to be Deck’s argument; in the second, I show how it can be answered from the position worked out in my A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated (Kluwer Philosophical Studies Series #89, 2002).

Deck’s Argument Entdeckt

On classical theism, divine creation is creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. Of course, this does not mean that God creates out of some stuff called ‘nothing’; it means that it is not the case that there is something distinct from God out of which God creates. Thus divine creation is not the forming of a pre-given matter, or any sort of operating upon something whose existence is independent of God. This classical notion of divine creation implies that created entities (creatures) are totally dependent on God.

Deck’s thesis is that this total dependence of contingent beings on God is logically incompatible with the essence/existence composition that Aquinas and others see in contingent beings. Essence/existence composition refers to the real distinction (distinctio realis) between what a thing is and that it is. Essence here is equivalent to whatness, or quiddity.. Essence in this broad sense comprises all of a thing’s properties, whether essential in the narrow sense or accidental. Thus it includes those properties without which a thing cannot exist, and those properties without which it can exist. (I cannot exist without being human, but I can exist without being a blogger.) Existence, however, is not a property, or at least it is not a property that could add anything to a thing’s whatness. It is rather that which distinguishes a merely possible thing (even a completely determined merely possible thing) from the same thing actually existing.

There is a lot that could be said in defense of this distinction, but this is not the place. I should add, however that to call the distinction real is to imply that it is not one that we excogitate, but one that reflects a distinction in contingent beings apart from our mental and linguistic activities. Of course, if two items are really distinct it does not follow that each can exist without the other. Essence and existence in a contingent being are really distinct but not in the way my glasses are really distinct from my head.

Now consider some contingent being C. C has two ontological factors, essence (ES) and existence (EX). How are ES and EX related? It is natural to think of the essence of C as just C minus its existence. Accordingly, the essence of C is that which receives existence in the act of divine creation. An essence receives existence. But now it appears that God, in creating, is after all operating upon something distinct from Him. He may not be forming a pre-existent matter, but He arguably is bestowing existence on something that in some sense must be pre-given if existence is to be bestowed on it. But then how can C be totally dependent on God?
The problem, in a nutshell, is that total dependence entails that there is nothing apart from God that God operates upon in the act of creation, while essence/existence composition entails that there is something that has or receives existence and which, therefore, is something upon which God must operate in order to create. This lands us in a contradiction. Deck concludes that no totally dependent entity can be ontologically dual: if an entity is totally dependent, it must be "one in respect to that upon which it depends."

If one thinks about this problem carefully, one sees that it really has nothing to do with God or creation, and can arise for an atheist who accepts essence/existence composition. Placing God within Husserlian brackets, suppose we focus on C by itself. It is a contingent being composed of essence and existence. It should be clear that C is totally dependent on its existence. That is, whether or not the existence of C derives from God, C depends wholly upon its existence. 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.

Given this fact, a similar problem arises: C’s being totally dependent on its existence is logically incompatible with C’s being composed of two ontological parts, essence and existence, or substratum and existence. For the part of C that has existence is totally dependent on existence to be anything at all. But this part – the part that has or receives existence -- cannot have existence without being independent of existence precisely as that which has or receives existence. The essence of C must already (logically speaking) exist if its is to receive existence, but this contradicts the fact that the essence of C is nothing at all until (logically speaking) it exists. In short, the essence of C is both logically prior and logically posterior to the existence of C – which is a contradiction.

Thus the contradiction that Deck sees in the system of the doctor angelicus is already to be found in the very notion of essence/ existence composition quite apart from the question of whether or not C has a metaphysical cause of its existence.

How to Avoid Deck’s Conclusion

Professor Deck would have us conclude that contingent beings are ontologically simple: they are unitary rather than dual and harbor no essence/existence composition. Deck’s proposal is tantamount to the suggestion (refuted in PTE, Ch. 3) that, for any x, the existence of x = x. But I maintain that one can uphold essence/existence composition while avoiding the contradiction lately rehearsed. What we must do is reject an assumption that Deck tacitly makes but does not defend, namely, the assumption that there can be a real distinction between essence and existence in a contingent being C only if the existence of C is a proper constituent of C.

As I argue in PTE, 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. This 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. So think of C as a whole whose parts include a, b, c, . . . . The idea is that the existence of C is not a further part, but the contingent unity or togetherness of a, b, c, . . . .

On this scheme, there is a real distinction between essence and existence in C: it is the distinction between the constituents and their unity or togetherness. If we now bring God into the picture, we can say that divine creating is the unifying of C’s constituents. God is the unifier responsible for the contingent unity of a thing’s ontological parts. God does not bestow existence upon a pre-given receptacle, for prior to the unifying of C’s constituents, there is no C or essence of C. It is not as if there is an individual C that then (logically speaking) receives existence: 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.

But we are not out of the woods yet. Suppose the ontological constituents of C are properties construed as universals. If divine creation is the unification of these universals – their bundling so as to form an individual – then 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?

I say there is no problem. One may construe universals as divine concepts. 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.

More details need to be filled in, but the basic outline is clear. The total dependence of the creature on the creator is logically consistent with essence/existence composition in the creature. Deck’s mistake is to assume that essence/existence composition requires that both the essence and the existence of a contingent being C be constituents of it. I deny this. Neither existence nor essence are constituents. The existence of C is not one of its constituents but the unity of all its constituents. The essence of C is not one of its constituents either since it exists only when the constitutive properties are unified.

What I have said does not of course constitute a defense of Aquinas against Deck’s criticism, but it does show that Deck is mistaken in the claim he makes in the last sentence of his article, to wit, "If there is any total dependence anywhere, either or creature upon God or of anything upon anything else, the dependent must be a one in respect to that upon which it depends."