God and Propositions: The Saga Continues

Previously on Analogical Thoughts:

  • In an article co-authored with Greg Welty I argued that if there are laws of logic then there must be a God. A key part of the argument is to explain why propositions should be understood as divine thoughts.
  • In a comment on a subsequent post Jeff asked how I would respond to the claim that God doesn’t think propositionally.
  • In a comment on my answer Jeff cited (without necessarily endorsing) some remarks to the contrary by Nate Shannon and William Lane Craig. Another commenter, Ray, also mentioned some relevant footnotes in Scott Oliphint’s God With Us.

In this week’s exciting episode, I examine the arguments of Shannon, Oliphint, and Craig. Do they show that God doesn’t think propositionally or that propositions couldn’t be divine thoughts? Does the doctrine of divine simplicity rule out Theistic Conceptual Realism? Should anyone care either way? We’ll be right back with some answers after the following short section break!

Nate Shannon

As quoted by Jeff, Nate Shannon commented:

As Oliphint points out, it helps to make a distinction (as Turretin does) between the mode and the object of God’s knowledge. As for mode, it is generally denied that God knows propositions or knows propositionally, as it is denied that God knows discursively, or knows one thing by knowing another.

There may be two distinct arguments here or one argument stated in two ways, depending on whether or not the last clause is epexegetical. Let’s treat them as distinct arguments just in case:

(1a) If God knows propositionally, God knows discursively.
(2a) God doesn’t know discursively.
(3a) Therefore, God doesn’t know propositionally.

(1b) If God knows propositionally, God knows one thing by knowing another.
(2b) God doesn’t know one thing by knowing another.
(3b) Therefore, God doesn’t know propositionally.

The problem with both arguments is that there’s no good reason to accept the first premise of either, at least if “know propositionally” is understood in the minimalist sense I endorsed earlier.

To know discursively, I take it, is to know one truth in virtue of knowing another truth (e.g., I know that it rained last night in virtue of knowing that the driveway is wet). But surely God could know propositionally without knowing discursively: he could know all truths immediately, without any kind of inference or logical progression.

Similar considerations apply to the second argument. The claim that God thinks propositionally is entirely consistent, as far as I can see, with the idea that God knows everything immediately; indeed, it is even consistent in principle with the claim (which Shannon apparently wants to endorse) that God knows everything immediately by knowing himself immediately.

Shannon continues:

He knows as he is, which is infinite, eternal, simple, and a se. So I don’t think there is any reason to try to put any propositions at all into the mind of God.

This is a rather unhelpful and misleading way to state what Welty and I have argued. We haven’t tried to “put propositions into the mind of God” as though propositions were objects of thought distinct from God. Rather, we’ve argued that propositions just are divine thoughts. They’ve always been in the mind of God, eternally and necessarily!

I said in my response something about God thinking logical laws intransitively; what I was thinking was that the most charitable way to construe AW’s thesis that God thinks the laws of logic would be to remove eliminate the subject-object structure of it, or the form-content structure (they say that the Ls of L are God’s thoughts ‘about’ his own thoughts) and suppose this: God thinks himself; God, himself, is self-consistent and without internal contradiction; therefore God thinks ‘self-consistency’ and ‘noncontradiction’. But even that is just bad theology, if not idolatrous: the triune personal God thinks the triune personal God. Anyway so the mode of God’s knowledge precludes our saying that God knows propositions.

The argument here is less than clear, and quite confused at points, but lurking behind it all are two serious theological concerns: divine aseity and divine simplicity. Shannon’s worry, I take it, is that the position Welty and I defended in our paper is at odds with these two doctrines. So let’s take a closer look.

According to the doctrine of divine aseity (DDA) God is absolutely self-existent, self-contained, and self-sufficient. God does not depend in any way on anything external to himself or distinct from himself. Is the claim that God thinks propositionally at odds with DDA? Not in any obvious way. We have argued that propositions are divine thoughts. So insofar as God ‘depends’ on propositions, he doesn’t ‘depend’ on anything other than his own thoughts. In any case, I said earlier that the claim that God thinks propositionally need be understood only as the claim that God thinks in terms of truths and falsehoods. Does that conflict with DDA? Only if one thinks that truths and falsehoods are external to God or distinct from God. But that isn’t entailed by our argument.

Some might contend that DDA entails the doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) and it’s really the latter that conflicts with our position. So let’s turn our attention now to DDS.

Two things need to be recognized about DDS at the outset: first, it is a venerable but very difficult doctrine; and second, there are various interpretations of the doctrine, some stronger than others, some more plausible and defensible than others. So Shannon needs to be clear about which version of DDS he is taking for granted and why.

If the objection here is that talk of “God’s thoughts” is problematic because it implies diversity within God, then I have two comments in response. First, the Bible speaks directly about God’s “thoughts” (e.g., Isa. 55:8-9) but it doesn’t speak directly about divine simplicity (even if DDS turns out to be a reasonable inference from other biblical teachings). So anyone who claims to accept the Bible but denies that God has thoughts has some explaining to do.

Second, those of us committed to the doctrine of the Trinity have to affirm some real ontological diversity within God. If your favored version of DDS entails that there is no such diversity then so much the worse for that version of DDS.

James Dolezal’s God Without Parts is one of the most impressive and trenchant defenses of DDS to appear in recent years, yet even Dolezal concedes that there are some unresolved difficulties with DDS which raise concerns about its coherence. (See my review in Themelios.) So one ought to be rather cautious and circumspect about using DDS as a stick to beat someone else’s argument.

Nevertheless, it’s worth trying to dig a bit deeper. Does DDS really rule out God thinking propositionally? If propositions are conceived of as external to God and distinct from God then yes, it does. But as I explained, the claim that God thinks propositionally doesn’t have to be understood along those lines.

What if propositions are really divine thoughts, as we’ve argued? The baseline understanding of divine simplicity is that God has no parts. But why think that God’s thoughts would have to be parts of God? A stronger interpretation of divine simplicity is that there is no ontological composition of any kind in God and no ontological distinction between God and his attributes or properties. Thus construed the objection is that DDS precludes (i) any diversity of thoughts ‘within’ God’s mind and (ii) any ultimate distinction between God and his thought(s).

Certainly this is a challenge. Still, it seems to me that any resources that the defender of DDS might deploy to explain how DDS can be reconciled with the (indispensable) notion of divine attributes could be redeployed to explain how DDS can be reconciled with the (equally indispensable, in my view) notion of divine thoughts. “It’s acceptable to speak about God’s attributes,” the defender of DDS will say, “so long as we understand that ultimately each of God’s attributes is identical to God.” In that case, why can’t we say that it’s also acceptable to speak about God’s thoughts, so long as we understand that ultimately each of God’s thoughts is identical to God? If the champion of DDS can accommodate a meaningful distinction between God’s omniscience and God’s omnipotence, there’s no reason to think he can’t also accommodate a meaningful distinction between God’s thought that he is omniscient and God’s thought that he is omnipotent.

Dolezal, for example, favors the “Truthmaker Account” of divine attributes, according to which God himself (and God alone) is the “truthmaker” for true predications such as “God is omnipotent” and “God is omniscient”. On this account God himself plays the role, so to speak, of the divine ‘attributes’. If this account is defensible, why couldn’t a similar account be defended with respect to divine thoughts? Why not say that God himself plays the role of the divine ‘thoughts’? In that case God would also be the “truthmaker” for true predications such as “God thinks that he is omniscient” and “God thinks that he is omnipotent”.

One might complain that this raises difficulties with respect to contingently true propositions. Indeed it does — but the problem of logical contingency is one that afflicts DDS across the board (see, e.g., Dolezal, chapter 7). In other words, the source of those difficulties is DDS itself rather than the idea of divine thoughts. My only point here is that if the notion of divine attributes can be reconciled with DDS, there’s good reason to think that the notion of divine thoughts can also be reconciled with it.

Nevertheless, one might worry that identifying propositions with divine thoughts breaches the Creator-creation distinction. Do we really want to say that God himself is the propositional content of all our human thoughts? Doesn’t that in some sense bring God “down to our level”? If that’s the concern, I think there’s a relatively straightforward solution to it. We can say that one part of the creation is a diverse realm of mediating truth-bearing entities. These entities (1) exist contingently (since they are part of the creation), (2) are not identical to God or to one another, (3) are a finite, analogical representation of God’s thoughts, and (4) serve as proximate, mediating truth-bearers for human thought and language. Call these entities “propositions” if you wish, so long as you recognize that they can’t be the ultimate bearers of truth, because the latter (as we argue in our paper) must be mental in nature and exist necessarily. As far as I can see, the scenario I’ve just sketched is entirely consistent with Theistic Conceptual Realism.

Scott Oliphint

As his comments indicate, Shannon is really channeling Scott Oliphint, so let’s turn now to the source. We can be briefer here, given what has been said already. I quote from a footnote in Oliphint’s God With Us (Crossway, 2012):

The question of whether God has beliefs cannot be discussed here in any detail. Suffice it to say that there seems to be no reason to assume that he does, especially since the holding of beliefs would entail some kind of noetic lack or privation. The view that God has beliefs seems to be an erroneous corollary of the view that God knows by way of propositions. This was of thinking has historically been denied in Christianity, since to know by way of propositions is to know by way of a process of reasoning. (p. 94, fn. 12)

I’ve already pointed out that knowing propositionally understood in a minimalist sense — knowing in terms of truths and falsehoods — doesn’t entail knowing “by way of a process of reasoning.” God could know propositionally yet immediately and intuitively (and even simply!). So here we find no objection to the claim that God thinks propositionally or that propositions are divine thoughts.

In the remainder of the footnote Oliphint quotes from Benedict Pictet (via Richard Muller) in support of the same point:

Concerning the manner (modus) in which God knows all things, we must speak cautiously and not attribute anything unbecoming or unworthy to the ultimate majesty. . . . Now we must not at all imagine that God knows things in the same manner as men, who understand one thing in one way, and another thing in another way, and the same thing sometimes obscurely and at other times more clearly, and who, from all things known proceed to things unknown. The divine knowledge is of such a mode, as not to admit of any discursive imperfection, or investigative labor, or recollective obscurity, or difficulty of application. God comprehends all things by one single act, observes them as by a single consideration, and see them distinctly, certainly, and therefore perfectly.

I couldn’t agree more. But none of this, as best I can tell, is inconsistent with the claim that God knows propositionally in the sense I defined. Certainly God doesn’t know things in the manner that we know them — that’s a given. God knows perfectly, immediately, intuitively, exhaustively, and simply. But we cannot deny that in some meaningful sense God has thoughts and those thoughts have propositional content. Otherwise we fall into the pit of pure apophaticism. We must reject univocity, certainly, but we must also reject pure equivocity.

Oliphint adds the following in a subsequent footnote:

There are actually two aspects of God’s knowledge that are traditionally emphasized — the mode and the object. I will mention something of the mode below, but it should be said here that God “knows all things intuitively and noetically, not discursively and dianoetically (by ratiocination and by inferring one things from another)” (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology […]). In other words, God does not know by way of discursive reasoning, nor are the objects of his knowledge propositions. (p. 95, fn. 14)

Once again, I see nothing here that necessarily conflicts with my position. Knowing propositionally doesn’t entail knowing discursively or inferentially, nor does it entail that propositions are diverse objects of knowledge distinct from God (which I presume is the real worry here). If propositions are divine thoughts, and divine thoughts aren’t ultimately distinct from God, then Turretin’s (and Oliphint’s) concerns are satisfied.

William Lane Craig

Jeff also offered the following from William Lane Craig:

Some thinkers such as William Alston, while rejecting complete [divine] simplicity, have advocated that God’s knowledge be construed as simple. On Alston’s view God has a simple intuition of all of reality, which we human cognizers represent to ourselves propositionally. Such a view is in line with Aquinas’s adaptation of the Augustinian notion of the Divine Ideas. In order to preserve divine aseity in the face of Platonism, Augustine located the Platonic forms in God’s mind as the Divine Ideas. Aquinas went further by contending that God does not, strictly speaking, have a plurality of Divine Ideas but rather an undifferentiated knowledge of truth. We finite knowers break up God’s undivided intuition into separate ideas. Similarly, Alston maintains that God’s knowledge is strictly non-propositional, though we represent it to ourselves as knowledge of distinct propositions. Thus, we say, for example, that God knows that Mars has two moons, and He does indeed, know that, but the representation of His knowing this proposition is a merely human way of stating what God knows in a non-propositional manner. Such a conception of divine knowledge has the advantage that it enables us to embrace conceptualism without committing us to an actual infinite of divine cognitions or Divine Ideas. (source)

A full response would requiring delving into Alston’s fascinating essay, but that will have to wait for another time. For now, just three comments:

1. Craig’s concerns are very different than Shannon and Oliphint’s. Craig isn’t worried about reconciling divine thoughts with DDS because he doesn’t hold to DDS. (In fact, he thinks that God is composed of at least three parts: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.) Rather, Craig is concerned about whether there is an infinite number of divine thoughts, because that would pose a problem for his defense of the kalam cosmological argument. (More precisely, it would pose a problem for one philosophical argument he offers in support of one premise of the kalam argument.) Craig doesn’t object to there being a plurality of divine thoughts — only to an infinite plurality of them!

2. When Alston maintains that God’s knowledge is non-propositional, he appears to take for granted that propositions are complex, diverse, and distinct from God — in short, that they are Platonic or quasi-Platonic structured abstract entities. But as I’ve argued, neither the claim that God thinks propositionally nor the claim that propositions are divine thoughts requires us to construe propositions in that way. In fact, the scenario Alston describes as “God knowing in a non-propositional manner” basically amounts to a combination of Theistic Conceptual Realism and some version of DDS. Since I affirm both TCR and DDS, Alston’s view can hardly be regarded as a challenge to mine.

3. As I suggested above, if we want to insist that the propositional objects of our thoughts are complex and diverse, TCR can accommodate that by positing a mediating realm of created truth-bearing abstract entities. That may not be the most parsimonious hypothesis, but ontological economy isn’t the only desideratum in play here.

In conclusion, then, I’ve yet to encounter any good theological objection to the claim that God thinks propositionally (understood in a minimalist sense) or that propositions could be divine thoughts.

8 thoughts on “God and Propositions: The Saga Continues”

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  2. Dr. Anderson,

    Thanks so much for this post and your review of Dolezal’s book! I’ve been thinking about these subjects for some time now, so it’s great to get some clarification from someone much smarter than myself!

    I’m particularly interested in your claims concerning “mediating truth-bearing entities.” My intuition, as I said before, is that some sort of (ultimately) contingent abstracta must exist to evade ontological univocism. Could you elaborate a little more on these entities and how they would function in your and Welty’s argument? I’m assuming that these entities would bear the (analogical) de dicto necessity of the LNC while de re modality (along with the ultimate de dicto bearer of truth) would be in God, right?

    Also, what about possible worlds? What exactly is a possible world according to Theistic Conceptual Realism (TCR)? I know that this takes us into chapter 7 of Dolezal’s book, but I’m still not seeing how our notions of necessity and contingency can be found in God without entailing univocism.

    Thank you for your time!

    Best Regards,

    1. Ray,

      Consider the following scenario. Suppose that propositions are abstract entities in some kind of Platonic realm: they’re diverse, they exist necessarily, and they’re independent of God. Suppose further that for every one of these propositions there exists a concrete linguistic token (e.g., a written English sentence) expressing that proposition. These tokens would be finite, analogical representations of the ‘original’ abstract propositions. They bear the truth-values they do in virtue of the propositions they express. If any is necessarily true, it is necessarily true in virtue of the proposition it expresses. Even though it exists contingently, it can still reflect a necessary truth because it is a replica, so to speak, of a necessarily existing proposition.

      Now modify that scenario as follows. The original propositions become divine thoughts as per Theistic Conceptual Realism. The replicas become immaterial abstract entities created by God, which serve as the proximate truth-bearers for human cognition and language. They are the immediate propositional content of human thoughts. However, they are not — and cannot be — the ultimate bearers of truth; they are only finite, analogical representations of divine thoughts. This is the sort of scenario I had in mind.

      How would these created truth-bearing entities function in the argument for God from logic? Well, they wouldn’t; they’re not needed for the argument per se. But as I’ve suggested, they could be posited as a means of addressing certain theological concerns with the claim that propositions are divine thoughts.

      The atheist might be tempted to say, “Aha! You’ve conceded that abstract truth-bearers could exist contingently! But then your argument for God from logic comes apart at a crucial point.”

      This would be mistaken because I haven’t conceded that the primary truth-bearers could exist contingently. They couldn’t, for the reason we give in our article: a proposition (defined as a primary truth-bearer) is true in every possible world only if it exists in every possible world. If there were contingent (created) proximate truth-bearers, they could express necessary truths only in virtue of necessary (uncreated) ultimate truth-bearers. In other words, you still need an absolute God as the metaphysical ground of truth.

      As for possible worlds, Welty has argued in his DPhil dissertation that they should also be identified with divine thoughts. Specifically, “possible worlds are simply God’s knowledge of his own power, of what he is able to instantiate.”

      Roughly speaking, necessity (of the broad logical kind) reduces to God’s nature, possibility reduces to God’s power, and contingency reduces to God’s will. I’m not sure whether that adequately addresses your concerns about univocity.

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  6. Dr. Anderson,

    Thanks for your response. Your comments cleared up much of my concerns. Though it isn’t as parsimonious as one might like, I do think that these mediating abstract objects are needed to avoid unwanted theological implications. Your suggestion of these mediators seems to add to the plausibility of TCR; at least to my mind.

    Just for clarification, you write: “Roughly speaking, necessity (of the broad logical kind) reduces to God’s nature, possibility reduces to God’s power, and contingency reduces to God’s will.”

    So for propositions (1)-(4) their modality, “roughly speaking,” would look something like the following:

    (1) Necessarily contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense.

    In this proposition necessity is analogically being predicated of the proposition “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense.” This is because it is simply true of *God’s nature* that he thinks logically (or, more precisely, his thought is analogous to our notions of logic) and the proposition “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense” is a logical relation.

    (2) Possibly Heather will arrive on time.

    The possibility of the proposition “Heather will arrive on time” is analogically being predicated because *God’s power* is such that if he wills that Heather arrives on time then she will arrive on time.

    (3) It is contingent that Descartes was a philosopher.

    The contingency of the proposition “Descartes was a philosopher” is analogically being predicated because *God’s will* is free and he could have willed that Descartes was a carpenter or that he never existed—never “thought” as it were. ;-)

    (4) It is impossible that a square circle exists.

    The impossibility of the proposition that “a square circle exists” is analogically being predicated because *God’s power* is such that he can’t do logically incoherent actions.

    Am I in the ballpark of what you are thinking?

    I was wondering, and this is where I’m still a little shaky, what happens when we do the same thing to propositions concerning objects and properties? How might (5) and (6) be parsed out according to TCR? (I’m assuming here that “Barack Obama” is not just a concrete particular but a divine concept—consisting of other concepts/properties—as well).

    (5) Barack Obama is contingently president of the United States.

    (6) Barack Obama is necessarily a person.

    Finally, regarding possible worlds: I should have asked, “Is a possible world a proposition (a divine thought) about a collection of other propositions regarding ‘God’s knowledge of his own power’?” Or something like that?

    I know I’m asking you a lot, but the thesis of TCR seems to have a lot of implications. I’m just trying to wrap my head around it all. Any help would be much appreciated.

    Thanks for your time! And feel free not to answer all of my questions if you don’t have the time.


    1. Ray,

      I’ll restrict myself to addressing your last two questions.

      I’m not quite sure what it would mean to “parse out” (5) and (6) “according to TCR”. TCR as such is just a theory about the ontological status and metaphysical ground of certain abstract entities. I don’t think it entails anything specific about how to understand the modality of (5) and (6). But perhaps you’re looking for an analysis like the following:

      (5) is equivalent to the claim that (a) BO exists in the actual world W and is POTUS and (b) there is some possible world W’ in which BO exists and is not POTUS. As I indicated earlier, the existence of W and W’ cashes out in terms of God’s powers, and the fact that W is actual rather than W’ cashes out in terms of God’s will.

      (6) is equivalent to the claim that for every possible world W’, if BO exists in W’ then BO is a person. Again, this modal fact is grounded in God’s powers. It’s not that God’s power is constrained by some external modality, but rather that the totality of possible worlds ultimately just is the totality of God’s power. Alternatively: each possible world is a power of God.

      As for the nature of possible worlds: I guess it depends on whether one defines a possible world as a set of propositions or as some more fundamental kind of entity that serves as the truth-maker for such a set of propositions (e.g., “a way the world might be” or “a state of affairs”). In the former case, possible worlds would be something like a set of divine thoughts about divine powers; in the latter case, possible worlds would be something like the divine powers themselves.

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