Divine Conceptualism

Many theists have taken the potential existence of platonic objects to compromise God’s aseity and sovereignty. God’s aseity is the view that God does not depend on anything outside himself for his existence. God’s sovereignty is the view that everything outside of God depends on him. It’s easy to see how one might think that the existence of platonic objects would compromise God’s sovereignty, as platonic objects are generally thought to be necessary and uncreatable, thus not depending on God. It’s less easy to see how it would compromise God’s aseity. The thought is that if platonism about properties is true, then God would depend on these platonic properties for his existence, because in order to exemplify a property (e.g. omnipotence) that platonic property would have to exist. Similarly, for propositions, in order for God to have a propositional thought, platonic propositions would have to exist. In order to preserve God’s aseity and sovereignty, while maintaining realist (i.e. platonist and divine conceptualist) intuitions about abstract objects, some theists have taken towards divine conceptualism.

I take divine conceptualism to be the position that what play the role of some abstract objects are not platonic but God’s thoughts and concepts. Some candidates for abstract objects are properties, kinds, relations, propositions, numbers, sets, possible worlds, and states of affairs. I’ll limit this post to talk of two abstract objects: propositions and properties. Different issues arise for each abstract object. One may be a divine conceptualist towards propositions but a platonist towards properties. It will be open to the theist how they want to account for the rest of the candidate abstracta.

Invariably, all divine conceptualists will identify propositions with God’s thoughts. The main argument for this is what I’ll call the argument from intentionality. Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis explain:

In short, propositions … are intentional objects; they are of or about things. And this is an essential property of propositions; for if they lacked this property, they could not possibly be claims or assertions of any kind, they could not represent anything, in which case they could not be true (/false). … For surely a proposition is true only if it represents the world as it is. And just as surely the way things stand in reality is depicted as being thus and so only if something is being claimed about the way things so stand (52-3).

Following Searle, we can distinguish between intrinsic (or original), and derived intentionality. For example, a photo of Obama is about Obama but only in virtue or our being able to think it; therefore, the photo has derived intentionality. By contrast, minds are intrinsically intentional. Divine conceptualists argue that propositions need to be about things in order for them to be true, but platonic propositions would only be derivatively intentional. The ultimate truthbearer must be intrinsically intentional; that truthbearer must be thoughts.

The next step is to show that there must be a mind capable of holding all the propositions; the mind must have an infinite capacity. In addition—since propositions are necessary beings—the mind must be necessary.  (A proposition’s truth value may be contingent—true in one world and false in another—but the existence of that proposition is necessary.) A necessary mind with infinite capacity seems much like the mind of God. So we began looking for an account for truth and end in an argument for God.

I will consider issues for divine conceptualism first for propositions, then for properties.

Issues for Propositions
Unholy thoughts
Graham Oppy notes:

… it threatens to lead to the attribution to God of inappropriate thoughts: bawdy thoughts, banal thoughts, malicious thoughts, silly thoughts, and so forth (105).

God must be constantly thinking these unholy propositions.  In addition, God must think of trivial propositions such as “For each real number r … there is the proposition that r is distinct from the Taj Mahal” (Plantinga 1998, 91). Some may think that this detracts from the greatness of God.

Nonuniform account of thoughts
On divine conceptualism, propositions are identical to God’s thoughts. For humans, it seems propositions are the contents of our thoughts. If God’s thoughts don’t have contents—since they are the contents—then, does it make sense to say that God has thoughts?

Multiply instantiating thoughts
It would be weird if the same apple were in two different places at once; we’d think they were two different apples. Similarly, nominalists tend to think it is strange that the same property of redness can be in two places at the same time.  Realists deny this weirdness; they say that properties are multiply-instantiable. This applies not only to properties, but to propositions. Realists say that if propositions were not intersubjectively available, if you and I did not have the same proposition in mind, then communication would not be possible.

But multiple-instantiation seems doubly weird for thoughts. How can someone else’s thought be multiply-instantiated in my mind (and others) as contents?

One of the main motivations behind realism is to account for resemblance, not only for properties but for thoughts. If the Trinity has three numerically distinct minds, then what accounts for the resemblance between their three thoughts when they think the same thought? It can’t be a fourth mind because that would raise the same question for four minds. It can’t be a platonic proposition without giving up divine conceptualism. If no extra ontology needs to account for it, then they seem to have one foot in the nominalist door. (Interestingly, Peter van Inwagen, who is a platonist, denies that platonism accounts for resemblance.)

On one divine conceptualist view God’s creative activity creates propositions, and hence the possibility of truth. It seems that it would already have to be true that (a) God’s creative activity creates propositions. But this would require God to create the truth that (b) God’s creative activity creates propositions, and that would require God to create the truth that (c) God’s creative activity creates the truth that God’s creative activity creates propositions, ad infinitum.

I’m not sure how good this criticism is; (b) and (c) may collapse together. The real worry seems to be a necessary precondition that God exists in order for God to create propositions—that is, for God to think.. In other words, causally (but not necessarily temporally) prior to God’s creative activity, it has to be true that the cause (God) exists.  But if divine conceptualism is true, then there are no propositions causally prior to God’s thoughts, so it’s neither true or false that God exists.

If God’s thoughts creates truth, then God creates the truth that God exists. If God creates that truth, then does God cause his own existence? Self-causation is thought to be impossible. Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis deny that this entails self-causation:

The principle grounding … seems to be that “x makes true y” entails “x causes y” or (more accurately and awkwardly, since y is a proposition) “x causes the object y is about.” Far from it. Socrates’ drinking the hemlock makes it true that Xantippe is a widow, but it doesn’t follow that Socrates’ drinking the hemlock causes her to become a widow … (77).

Even if this is right, it still seems odd to say God makes it true that he exists. The issue, again, seems to do with the logical priority of truth.

Issues for Properties
In this section, I will consider divine conceptualists that think properties are numerically identical to God’s thoughts. Some divine conceptualists deny this, and are only conceptualists about propositions.

Berkeleyan Idealism?
I tend to think divine conceptualism doesn’t lead to Berkelayan Idealism, but Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis think otherwise:

“All properties and relations are God’s concepts.” It is easy to see that this principle undermines basic attempts to explain the notion of a substance. Consider, for example, the bundle theory: conjoined with PCP, it leads to a form of Berkeleyan idealism. For suppose a material thing is nothing but a bundle of compresent multiply exemplifiable properties. Then if properties are God’s concepts, and if relations are God’s thinking concepts together, every material object is a mere collection of divine concepts or ideas, in which case we shall have to say that a substance changes just when God starts or stops “thinking together” His own concepts or ideas. Not only does this eradicate the material nature of reality, it smacks of an objectionable divine determinism (59).

Similar considerations are offered for other metaphysics of substances.

How can thoughts be properties?
How can one of God’s thoughts be numerically identical to redness? It doesn’t seem like God’s thought about redness can itself be redness. Since God is thinking about redness, mustn’t redness be distinct from that thought? If that’s right, what kind of thought would be redness if it’s a thought that’s not about redness?

If properties are identical to thoughts/ideas, and thoughts are intentional, then properties are intentional. But is redness about something?

Bootstrapping, again
If all properties are created as a result of God’s thoughts (and God has properties) then God must create his own properties. But it seems God must already have the property of being able to create a property to create a property.

In answer to this worry, Paul Gould and Richard Brian Davis have a hybrid view where God creates all properties except his own. But this creates a disunified account of properties, which is inelegant, at least. Does the Trinity also create all numbers except 1, 2, and 3?

Gould, Paul, ed. Beyond the Control of God?: Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects. A&C Black, 2014.

This entry was posted in Abstract Objects, Philosophy of Religion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Divine Conceptualism

  1. Excellent article. The two biggest problems I have had with divine conceptualism (to which I am admittedly attracted) are (i) the problem that it seems to lead to Berkeleyian Idealism, and (ii) the bootstrapping problem with respect to God’s properties. I think the right solution to the second problem (if there is one at all) has to be something like: that properties can reduce to relations, so that the property of being powerful (as the term is used in ordinary language) is nothing other than bearing a relation of intimation to the divine nature in a certain context-sensitive sense. This way God is said to have properties ‘by analogy’ (satisfying my Thomistic tendencies), but God’s nature does not literally consist of having properties conceived of as ontological constituents. On this view what we ordinarily refer to as properties (or, at least, some of the things we ordinarily refer to as properties) are ontologically dependent upon God, and only exist because God has elected to create a contingent world (of a certain sort), but God has not literally created beings known to us as ‘properties.’ The first problem, however, still keeps me up at night (literally). It is the greatest obstacle I see in my accepting divine conceptualism whole-heartedly.

    I also found your question about how thoughts could be properties interesting. My inclination was to keep in mind that the term ‘thoughts’ is being used analogously, but that takes little away from the puzzlement I feel at how to make sense of divine thoughts as contents.

    In any case, great material here.

    • Pace Gould and Davis, I don’t think divine conceptualism leads to Berkeleyan Idealism. The issue is still murky for me, but it seems to me the same worries that lead conceptualists to Idealism should lead platonists to think particulars concrete objects are, instead, abstract; but that doesn’t happen.

      With respect to the bootstrapping problem, Gould and Davis’ modified theistic activism and Greg Welty’s Theistic Conceptual Realism are supposed to avoid bootstrapping. Greg Welty is a divine conceptualist that thinks propositions are uncreated thoughts of God. Abstract objects being uncreated allows Welty to avoid bootstrapping. Welty says that “abstract objects” are constitutively dependent on God instead of being causally dependent. On Gould and Davis’ view, abstract objects are causally dependent on God.(Abstract objects is in quotes because Welty thinks God’s thoughts are abstract objects even though they are causally efficacious.) I don’t think Welty mentions properties, but I assume he’s also say that they are uncreated thoughts in God.

      Gould and Davis criticize Welty’s “uncreated” view because (1) thinkers are thought to produce/create thoughts, and (2) it seems to take away from God’s freedom. What Welty means by “uncreated” is not exactly clear to me. I tend to think he means that God’s ideas are fixed by his nature, with no wiggle room for creative activity.

      On conceptualist views (except Goulds and Davis’), properties are God’s thoughts. So God’s properties would literally be his thoughts. Seems weird to me.

      • Hi,
        very interesting article!

        I wonder if you think there is some kind of regress-problem (or some other problem) also for Welty’s idea that universals are uncreated thoughts of God?


      • Another thing I was thinking about.

        Some apologist will claim that (1) “God is Truth” or (1) “God is Logic”, and I was wondering if:

        (1) might be vulnerable to Frege’s critique of the correspondence theory of truth, i.e., that “p” = [p] presupposes that there is a true-relation between “p” = [p]; and that the theory therefore can’t explain Truth but rather just assumes it.
        If “God is Truth” then one is presupposing that there is a true relation between the subject “God” and the predicate “Truth”; and that therefore (1) simply assumes that Truth is irreducible.

        (2) might be circular, since it seems to presuppose that there is an identity-relationship between one “part” of God’s nature and Logic; but that relation will presuppose the law of identity.

      • I think you might be saying the same thing when I say that logically or causally prior to God’s thinking there has to be some truth. Here’s another way to put the point. God as an agent produces (or causes) his thoughts. Take the thought that God exists. That thought is the truthbearer for the truth that God exists. The problem is that that truth is an effect. If this form of divine conceptualism is right, then it’s neither true nor false that God exists causally (or logically) prior to his thinking. But it seems to me that it has to already be true that a thinker exists in order for it to think; nonexistent things can’t think.

        IIRC Welty tries to get around bootstrapping by saying that God’s thoughts are uncreated. The issue that Davis, Gould, and Craig have pointed out is that the relation between a thinker and a thought is one of production or causation; thoughts come from thinkers.

  2. Pingback: A New Problem for Divine Conceptualism? – UseOfReason

  3. Pingback: Edward Feser’s Aristotelian Proof for God | Hugh Jidiette

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