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Divine Aseity - God's Self Existence

Updated on August 18, 2016

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Do God and Abstract Objects Co-Exist?

Central to the Christian faith is the concept of God existing a se from the Latin meaning “by itself.” Aseity, in referring to God, is the quality of God’s self-existence or complete independence of or with anything else. The theist holds, God is the greatest possible being and would exist in all possible worlds with or without anything, solely alone, and complete. As simple as this sounds there have been many challenges and critiques over the centuries to the idea of divine aseity in referring to God. The most ardent and longstanding challenger facing the theist finds its foundational concepts forged in the debates of ancient Greek philosophy.

Platonism is a philosophical viewpoint, which holds that alongside physical and concrete objects such as people, planets, and parking lots, there also exist invisible, abstract objects like numbers, properties, and propositions. This poses a major problem for a theistic worldview in that if abstract objects exist a se, as God does, it challenges the very idea of God’s uniqueness and he becomes infinitesimal and somewhat irrelevant among a myriad of other abstract objects. In this essay I will show there exists credible arguments for the theist to employ in making sense of the quandary between divine aseity and abstract objects.

Platonism

This ancient Greek philosophy finds its roots in none other than Plato himself. Although the point of view discussed in this essay will lean toward a more present-day view of this philosophical ideology, the foundations extend backward in time over two thousand years. Platonism “is the view that there exist such things as abstract objects — where an abstract object is an object that does not exist in space or time and which is therefore entirely non-physical and non-mental. Platonism in this sense is a contemporary view. It is obviously related to the views of Plato in significant ways, but it is not entirely evident that Plato endorsed this view.”[1]

To develop this philosophy further, these abstract objects exist necessarily, meaning there would be no possible world in which these objects would not exist. J.P. Moreland writes, “it is inconceivable that there should exist, for example, a possible world lacking in numbers or propositions, even if that world were altogether devoid of concrete objects other than God himself.”[2] In Platonism, the undeniable conclusion is that abstract objects exist a se, which brings an unsettling problem to the theist’s position. There is no cause for these objects. The sheer size and scope of all possible abstract objects are mind bending as well. There exist infinities of sets and numbers alone. In a sense, “God finds himself amid uncreated, infinite realms of beings that exist just as necessarily and independently as he.”[3]

Some theists do not accept the view of Platonism and argue against its perspective. These thinkers find the idea of God and abstract objects existing together a se undermining to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. William Lane Craig writes, “God alone exists a se; all else exists ab alio and is, therefore, dependent upon God for its existence. This is a core tenet of the doctrine of God, one grounded in Scripture and tradition. If Platonism is true, then, there literally is no God.”[4] Craig has a valid point in that Scripture teaches very strongly God is the creator of all things and before him there was nothing. There is strong biblical support for Craig’s observation, and clearly, the beginning of the Gospel of John upholds the idea of God’s unique status as the sole and final authority. John writes,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.[5]

Craig points out in his lecture on the Coherence of Theism that John was most familiar at the time with the teaching of Greek philosophy and would have intended to include “all things” within the words that through the “Word” Logos “all things came into being.” Additionally, Craig points to the teachings of the early church fathers to support the view that Platonism is contrary to early church doctrine. In fact, the Nicene Creed affirms;

I believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things came into being.

Craig explains, “The phrase “Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible” derives from Paul and the expression “through whom all things came into being” from the prolog to John’s Gospel. The Council affirms that everything other than God was created by God through the Son, so that God alone is uncreated.”[6]


Nominalism

Craig finds a rejoinder to Platonism and abstract objects in the concept of Nominalism. The biblical data and early church doctrine motivate Craig to search for a solution. Although he is not absolutely settled on this perspective, he finds it the best alternative for a theist. Craig finds a type of, or modification of his own, in this view, on account of nominalist perspectives having various meanings in philosophical discussions today. Craig writes in the Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion,

...if a Christian theist is to be a Platonist, then, he must, it seems, embrace Absolute Creationism, the view that God has created all the abstract objects there are. Those of us who find the boot-strapping problem compelling, however, must look elsewhere to find some solution to the problem posed by the existence of uncreatables. In recent decades there has been a proliferation of nominalistic treatments of abstract objects which has served to make Nominalism an attractive alternative for the orthodox theist. Van Inwagen himself holds that there is rightly a strong presumption of Nominalism's truth which only a rationally compelling argument for Platonism can overcome. Even if we do not hold to such a presumption, the orthodox Christian who is not an Absolute Creationist has grounds for thinking that Platonism is false and therefore has powerful reasons for entertaining Nominalism. Unless all forms of Nominalism can be shown to be untenable, the orthodox Christian can on theological grounds rationally embrace Nominalism as a viable alternative to Platonism.[7]

Paul Gould disagrees with Craig’s perspective on this issue. Gould in an extensive article in Philosophia Christi remarks, “The open question then is this: Is Nominalism explanatorily superior (not merely equal) to realist accounts of various phenomena? It is not clear that it is and thus it is not clear that Nominalism represents the best option for the traditional theist, and certainly not the only option.”[8] The fact that Nominalism holds there are no abstract objects, only particulars, seems like an easy fix and solution to the difficulty presented by Platonism. Nonetheless, Gould reasons that a presumption of Nominalism, as argued by Peter van Inwagen, is not a clear option. Gould accepts a “traditional theist can be a Nominalist”[9] but questions “whether she should be.”[10] His basis for apprehension is a concern for what is the “best theory of the mind-language-world nexus.” Gould does not think Nominalism provides the best theory.

Alongside Gould, R. Scott Smith has difficulties in accepting Craig’s solution to the Platonist – Abstract Object (P-AO) dilemma. Smith writes,

Instead of Platonism, Craig sees much promise for a nominalist view of properties.[11] He disavows the nominalist options (such as trope theory) that would affirm their existence, yet cash them out as particulars. Instead, he takes the route of denying the existence of properties. Besides God and created, contingent AOs, on his view, only concrete particulars that are located in space and time really exist.[12]

It is important to note that on Craig’s view there are “qualitative facts that exist”[13] as Smith writes. For example, grass really is green, and I am thinking of giving my dog a snack. Additionally, It is interesting to note that even though it may be a popular choice to embrace Physicalism alongside the nominalist perspective, Craig does not do so. Craig holds that immaterial essences in the form of qualitative facts do exist and are “immaterial…and spatially and temporally located.”[14] Ultimately, Craig seems to rely on Carnac’s view of meanings and linguistic framework. R. Scott Smith rebuts this view of Nominalism from Craig in showing that if we do away with essences and true meaning, then we do away with the truth of Scripture and even some of Craig’s philosophical perspectives as well, such as his Kalam Cosmological argument.

Furthermore, it becomes a strange circle to utilize words to describe a philosophical view that describes a perspective that words or language have no true meaning. There is much more to expand on this topic; however, the scope of the essay will limit my comments and discovery. But for now, it is safe to conclude that Craig feels as though he’s found a coherent balance on the issue with an anti-realism perspective. Gould and Smith feel as though there is not.


Divine Conceptualism

For the vast majority of Christian history, theologians have held to a view of Divine Conceptualism. Augustine adopted this view and his writings have been instrumental in proliferating this view for centuries. To Augustine, abstract objects somehow existed in the mind of God. It would be agreeable, under this view, to consider AO’s as divine ideas. As such, ideas are conceptualized and hold reality but in the mind of God, not independent of him, and not outside of his mind. The Platonic forms of propositions and properties all exist but are all ideas directed by and coming from the mind of God. As such, the proposition of 4+4=8 and the property of greenness really do exist but as concepts in God’s domain. Gould brings a bit more clarity to the discussion by explaining, “abstract objects are identified with various constituent entities of the divine mind and are uncreated yet dependent upon God. Just how the dependency relation is to be understood is an open question.”[15] It is important to note, with this view, that divine substance is the ultimate origin and thus AO’s are (at some level) causally dependent and ultimately contingent upon God.

Conceptualism is attractive as it offers a conceivable solution to the P-AO predicament. Being that God’s ideas belong squarely in God’s mind, AO’s would not be a part of the created order. AO’s are eternal and uncreated because God is eternal and uncreated. Just as God’s moral intuition and character is a part of his nature, so numbers and logic are imbedded in God’s mind. J.P. Moreland comments, “Just as moral values are rooted in the moral nature of God such that his moral commands are necessary expression of his nature, so the divine mind operates in accord with logically necessary truths. The necessity of logic and mathematics may be seen as grounded in the necessity of God’s intellect.”[16] Additionally, if AO’s are conceived in the mind of God they do not “exist explanatorily prior to God’s conception of them.”[17] Gould goes on to explain, “Thus, realism holds at the human level and conceptualism at the divine level. That is, relative to finite minds, abstract objects exist as realistically as any Platonic entity… But abstract objects do not exist realistically for God, in the sense that they exist apart from or over and above God. Rather, their existence is purely conceptual.”[18]

Modified Platonists have two main problems with Divine Conceptualism. First, it blurs a thought with its thing. Consider someone who is thinking about the color green as it is embodied in a patch of grass on your front lawn. The actual green of the grass resides in the mind of the individual only as it relates to the person focusing on the patch of grass. If you contrast that to a person who is thinking about greenness, the very thought of being green becomes a “constituent” of the person’s mind. J.P. Moreland explains,

Thus a concept in the mind is not identical to the object of the mind that has the concept. God’s various concepts of abstract objects are within his mind, but the objects of those concepts – various abstract objects themselves – are not. On this point, the critic sides with those that believe that universals are instantiated by their possessors, God included, against the conceptualist notion that the universal is abstracted from the particular.[19]

Conceptualists respond to this by noting the difference between the greenness that exists in the grass and the universal property of greenness that is a conceptual entity. They describe greenness as the divine concept that exists as a mind-independent reality, which exists in the grass as an abstract particular.[20] Moreland goes on to explain the conceptualists response, “Such concepts may or may not have mind-independent correlates, as is evident in cases in which one thinks of creatures of fiction or logically impossible entities like a square circle. Abstract objects are God’s concepts, and if he has concepts of abstract objects, then those are concepts of his concepts.”[21]

A second liability charged to the conceptualist’s viewpoint is similar to an objection the modified Platonist faces as well. Essentially, if God is the creator of all properties, then he must be prior to those properties being created. This becomes a challenge because God would have to have those properties to create the very properties he desires to create. Again Moreland comments, “For the divine mind is not identical to its concepts; the divine mind has or contains them…God and his mind must exist causally and explanatorily prior to his concepts. Thus conceptualism seems to face the same problem raised against modified Platonism.”[22] Conceptualists respond in agreement “universal properties that God exemplifies are concepts in God’s mind.”[23] However, that does not preclude the idea that prior to God conceptualizing omniscience he cannot be, by his very nature, all-knowing.


Modified Platonism

Of most recent, historically speaking, some Christian philosophers have advanced a view that abstract objects can exist necessarily, but do not necessarily exist a se. They posit the balance between the competing correlates can be achieved. It is a view that holds AO’s can exist in every possible world and are just as much created beings, as are physical objects. This view maintains, “They are not created by God at any time but rather are timelessly created by him. God is not temporally prior to the existence of such objects, but he is causally or explanatorily prior to their existence.”[24] Two problems seem to block this modest resolution.

The first problem points out that because AO’s exist necessarily, they would exist outside of and free of God’s will. This is a major issue for the modified Platonist perspective since it becomes a direct challenge to God’s sovereignty and control over all creation. God loses all freedom from refusing to create such entities. This becomes an issue due to a principal doctrine fundamental to the Christian faith that God is free to create at will and all of creation is of his free will. Clarified by Moreland as “had he wished, (God) could have remained alone without any exigency of producing a world of creatures.”[25]

How does the modified Platonist view respond to this challenge? God is completely unrestricted from creating contingent beings; however, he is not able to “refrain from sustaining abstract objects in existence.”[26] At first blush this seems to be a real problem, however, when looking deeper, it amounts to nothing more than God not being able to refrain from making green the number two or other such notions. Is it really a problem that God cannot make 1+1=5 or that yellow is not a taste? J.P. Moreland continues, “Virtually all Christian theists have held that mathematical and logical truths do not lie within the scope of God’s will, and the same is true for the nature of and relations among various abstract objects. It may be said that all these ‘limitations’ on God’s freedom are actually pseudotasks and thus not real limitations.”[27]

The second, more serious problem for Modified Platonism is the bootstrapping objection. This is similar to the same objection faced by Divine Conceptualism. The basic problem is best explained by Gould, “God has properties. If God is the creator of all things, then God is the creator of his properties. But God can’t create properties unless he already has the property of being able to create a property. Thus, we are off to the races, ensnared in a vicious explanatory circle.”[28] Craig additionally utilizes the bootstrapping objection again Platonism. Nonetheless, Smith, Moreland, and Gould maintain there is a coherent reply to this quandary. Smith writes,

Now Craig rightly objects against Morris and Menzel’s Absolute Creationism, for God would have to create His own properties, a view that not only is incoherent, but also unbiblical. But why should theists who also are Platonists embrace their view? Why couldn’t they embrace approaches such as advocated by Gould or Moreland? For example Gould suggests the obvious solution to Morris and Menzel’s view is to maintain that “all of God’s essential properties (that is, divine concepts) exist a se as a brute fact within the divine mind, and it is only those properties that are not essentially exemplified by God (that is, necessarily satisfied in God) that are created by God.”[29]

Critics may counter this response as being ad hoc and not adequate. The modified Platonist would be free to respond that there is no conflict to the idea of God being loving, being forgiving, being great, and being powerful is in any way incoherent. These properties of God are simply who he is and these properties exist necessarily as a brute fact. Therefore love and other abstract qualities or objects can and do exist timeless and created by God either on account of his nature or because of his nature. Therefore, I find this view to be the most coherent in regards to theology, philosophy, and in uniformity with biblical accounts of God and his properties. J.P. Moreland concludes, “The modified Platonist solution provides a way to reconcile these two justified beliefs, and that is a virtue of the approach.”[30]


Conclusion

Having discussed and surveyed three possible resolutions to the problem of divine aseity and abstract objects, we have seen that the theist stands firm on a solid foundation in defending the aseity of God. Nominalism, Divine Conceptualism, and modified Platonism all provide a distinctive perspective within a coherent framework to God’s existence a se. Remarkably, the theist can find assurance in the Platonist or Anti-Platonist position. The dialogue really turns on which of these philosophical perspectives best match the biblical description of God’s nature and theological implications of its respective position.

As a concluding note to this dialog, I would tend to agree with Gould in saying, “There is no simple solution to the problem of God and abstract objects.”[31] Nevertheless, “it is reasonable to think that just as all of reality somehow points to the divine, so too all knowledge. And surely God has created us to know him and his created world, which includes abstract objects. So, there is reason to hope, following Anselm, that by faith we can come to understand the reality in question as well.”[32]


[1]Platonism in Metaphysics (revision Tue Apr 7, 2009) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/platonism/#5, accessed May 10, 2015

[2] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 504.

[3] Ibid, 504.

[4] William Lane Craig, “A Nominalist Perspective on God and Abstract Objects,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011): 305.

[5] The Holy Bible, Gospel of John Chapter 1:1-5 (New Revised Standard Version, 1989)

[6] William Lane Craig, Coherence of Theism Conference (Marietta, GA: Biola University, April 17-18, 2015)

[7] William Lane Craig, Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion Volume 4 (Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013) http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199656417.001. 0001/acprof-9780199656417-chapter-3, accessed May 5, 2015.

[8] Paul Gould, Philosophia Christi Vol. 13 No. 2 2011, 274. http://www.paul-gould.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2012/03/art-Gould1.pdf, accessed May 1, 2015.

[9] Ibid, 271.

[10] Ibid, 271.

[11] While he remains open to conceptualism, Craig seems intent on pursuing nominalism: “While conceptualism remains a fallback position should all forms of nominalism fail, I think that the alternatives afforded by nominalism are far from exhausted and merit exploration” (“Anti-Platonism,” 115).

[12] R. Scott Smith, Craigs Nominalism and the High Cost of Preserving Divine Aseity (Biola University, CSSR 660 MD1 SpTpcs: Coherence of Theism course 2014), 3.

[13] Ibid, 3.

[14] Ibid, 3.

[15] Paul Gould, Philosophia Christi Vol. 13 No. 2 2011, 269. http://www.paul-gould.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2012/03/art-Gould1.pdf, accessed May 1, 2015.

[16] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 506.

[17] Ibid, 506.

[18] Paul Gould, Philosophia Christi Vol. 13 No. 2 2011, 270. http://www.paul-gould.com/wp-content/uploads/ 2012/03/art-Gould1.pdf, accessed May 1, 2015.

[19] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 506.

[20] Correlated from J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 507.

[21] Ibid, 507.

[22] Ibid, 506.

[23] Ibid, 507.

[24] Ibid, 504.

[25] Ibid, 505.

[26] Ibid, 505.

[27] Ibid, 505.

[28] Paul Gould, “The Problem of God and Abstract Objects: A Prolegomenon,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011): 259.

[29] R. Scott Smith, “William Lane Craig’s Nominalism, Essences, and Implications for Our knowledge of Reality,” Philosophia Christi Vol. 15, No. 2 (2013): 153.

[30] J.P. Moreland & William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 505.

[31] Paul Gould, “The Problem of God and Abstract Objects: A Prolegomenon,” Philosophia Christi 13 (2011): 274.

[32] Ibid, 274.

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