In “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake”,1 William Hasker argues that “the strong doctrine of divine simplicity is a mistake, one from which theology needs to be liberated.”2 With this sweeping charter, Hasker proceeds to critique the “traditional strong doctrine of divine simplicity, attributed to Aquinas and before him to Augustine.”3 The strong notion of divine simplicity is, in Hasker’s view, riddled throughout with category errors, logical failures, the “dehumanization” of God, and departures from the broader traditional understanding of God’s character.

Through a Secondary Source Darkly

Hasker begins with certain qualifications. His purpose lies not in settling a historical question in the history of thought, but in engaging with that history of thought on the substance of the matter at hand.

I recognize, of course, that it is often important to establish as accurately as possible the exact views of some historical figure, even though this will not be the purpose of the present essay. But once that has been done, this accomplishment is merely preliminary to raising the question: Do we have good reason either to agree or to disagree with the thinker in question?4

That Hasker is not engaged in historical research is clear from selection of interlocutors. Neither St. Augustine nor historian of his through merits examination.5 St. Thomas Aquinas receives more attention, but primarily through contemporaries who draw on St. Thomas in the context of current debates.6 Hasker does not examine either Augustine’s or Aquinas’ accounts of what he means by the terms “will”, “knowledge”, “love”, “action”. And although Hasker does quote Aquinas’ account of what he terms “simple simplicity”,7 he does not set forth a clear statement Aquinas’ (or Augustine’s) formulations of the strong version from which he seeks to liberate theology.

Nor does Hasker address the key components of the metaphysical framework necessary to explain the traditional notion of divine simplicity, at least in the work of St. Augustine or St. Thomas. He raises the St. Thomas’ postulate of the identity of God’s existence and essence only to say suggest it may involve a confusion of categories and quickly move on, saying “we won’t pursue this example.”8 As any reader of St. Thomas knows, St. Thomas’ formulation of divine simplicity turns on the identity of existence and essence in God,9 and any treatment of divine simplicity that does not address the existence-essence distinction does not address Aquinas’ notion of simplicity. And Hasker raises a number of questions that Aquinas himself raises as objections and then answers; yet Hasker does so without indication of those discussions. For instance, Hasker asks, if God is actus purus, “how can he be free?”10 without giving any sign that Aquinas raises the question and offers an answer in a number of places.11

Had Hasker not held himself out as correcting the traditional views of Augustine and Aquinas, the neglect of what Augustine and Aquinas actually said would not be objectionable. Were Hasker’s purpose simply to limit his criticism to the recent and narrow confines of analytic philosophy of religion where St. Augustine and St. Thomas have colored the debate, little treatment of their views would be necessary on Hasker’s part.

Hasker, however, does not withhold judgment on Augustine or Aquinas, and verdicts on their conclusions come thick and fast. His goal, after all, is extravagant: to “liberate theology”. He does not hesitate to pronounce a verdict on Aquinas’ motivation for the doctrine of simplicity12, or to declare that truthmaker theory represents a genuine advance in the traditional argument for simplicity,13 or to identify logical deficiencies in the traditional formulations of simplicity,14 to announce “we need to grasp the problem [of divine cognition] as it is conceived by Aquinas and his followers”15, and to lay out “Aquinas’ perspective” on the individuation of actions.16 That Hasker is targeting the view of St. Thomas is clear both from the judgments he makes in the course of his article and in the light of his overall purpose. Unfortunately this lets the paucity and inaccuracy of Hasker’s treatment of St. Thomas’ views undermine his entire argument. And I, like Hasker, in employing the shorthand of the “traditional view of divine simplicity” be referring primarily to the tradition stemming from St. Thomas.

Methodological Objects: Nescience and Deferral

Hasker’s constructive argument prominently features two methods: declarations of personal nescience and raising objections only to defer discussion of their merits. The former methodological deficiency is worth noting, because is hardly unique to Hasker, but are widely deployed in analytic philosophy of religion. The latter is worth noting because Hasker defers the very questions most vital to evaluating the truth of the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity.

Personal Nescience

Personal nescience serves Hasker’s argument both as an offensive and defensive tactic. On defense, Hasker puts forward a syllogisms with premises such as “God is a conscious mental subject”, and is largely content to support this premise by claiming he cannot understand how anyone could disagree. “I find it difficult to see how anyone could regard any of the premises in this argument as seriously open to question.”17 But of course a central matter in dispute concerns whether God is a conscious mental subject.18 That Hasker cannot even conceive how one could disagree with him is connected, is not merely Hasker reporting on his psychological state. Hasker’s inability to visualize that the opposition disagrees seems to result from his deferrals of essential components of the opposing view, as we shall see shortly.

Confessions of intellectual myopia crop up frequently in his critique of others. Citing Stump’s exposition of St. Thomas’ notions of identity, which in her view resolve some apparent problems in the objections to divine simplicity, Hasker confesses “far as I can see her proposals fail to resolve the problems with simplicity that are discussed in this essay.”19 His reply to W. Matthew Grant’s essay, which is directly on point for most of the criticisms Hasker advances? “I do not see, however, that Grant provides any resources for answer the argument given in the text.”20 And, in place of a critique that sets forth the rudiments of knowledge as traditionally predicated of God, Hasker replies “‘knowledge’ that involves no distinctive intrinsic state of the knower is, it seems to me, simply unintelligible.”21 Where personal nescience served on defense as an attempt to assert the indubitability of Hasker’s premises, here it serves an offensive function. Hasker attempts to motivate the opinion that the traditional arguments for divine simplicity are unintelligible because he has not made sense of them.

The argument from personal nescience lacks philosophical significance, but it does have several rhetorically advantageous properties. As a general principle, the less one understands, the more one can apply one’s personal nescience. The work of an author is simplified. A systematic presentation of the opposing view decreases the scope of one’s nescience, which defeats the purpose of the tactic. And the argument from personal nescience has this useful advantage: if the author makes a mistake in his presentation of the alternatives, how can he be blamed? He can immediately claim the opposing view too complex, too esoteric, too unintelligible–and cite his own error in proof of that point. Careful philosophical consideration is inimical to such a strategy.


Hasker’s other tactic is to allege problems with traditional view only to indefinitely defer a defense of that allegation. Simply flagging points of disagreement for discussion at some future date is not in itself objectionable. However, Hasker defers points critical to understanding the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity. The two most crucial points for getting a handle on the traditional notion of simplicity concern the identity of being and essence in God, and the notion of accident and extrinsic denomination. We consider each in turn, showing how Hasker evades consideration of these points and why they are critical.

Identity of Being and Essence

St. Thomas understands metaphysical composition in terms of act-potency correlates. A being is composite if it is a composed of potentiality and a corresponding actuality; otherwise it is simple. While St. Thomas thinks that bodily existents are composed of form and matter, the ultimate composition that distinguishes created things from God is the distinction between being and thing, existence and essence. For St. Thomas and his progeny, metaphysical simplicity just is the denial of a real distinction between a thing and its being. Composite beings have being, but they are not identical with being. Created things exist, but are not their existence; they have existence, but do not exhaust its content; they have a nature, they have being, but their nature is not being.22

Given that St. Thomas’ account of simplicity is in his view–and in the view of several of the writers Hasker is engaging–articulating the existence-essence distinction, one would think that Hasker would counter with an argument. Instead, Hasker simply brushes the existence-essence distinction aside as a “possible example” of a category mistake; asserting that, in any event, it “certainly looks like a category mistake, but there are complications here and we won’t pursue this example.”23

Accident and Extrinsic Denomination

The second point necessary to understand the traditional articulation of divine simplicity concerns St. Thomas’ approach to accidents and predicates. Not every predicate is a real accident. An accident is some formal act to which a subject stands in potency. I have the capacity to learn French; a labrador does not. If I become fluent in French, I have both a formal perfection and a potentiality to further act: conversing in French. The developed ability to speak French does not belong to me by nature, and it is something that changes me. Thus, it is an accident.

“French-speaking” is also a predicate. That is, one can assert “Jane speaks French.” And in this case, there is a real accident that does correspond to the predicate, if the statement is true. Yet predicates do not necessarily entail accidents. Some entail natures: “Alice is a cat.” Some predicates are grounded in relations that are in turn grounded in intrinsic accidents. In the statement “Ann is taller than Beth”, “taller than Beth” is predicated of Ann by virtue of a relation grounded in an accident: in this case, her height. Ann’s height is a real accident. Yet if Ann is an older sister, and Beth grows to be taller, the predicate “taller than Beth” can no longer be predicated of Ann, despite no imminent change in Ann herself.

Some predicates are grounded in causal relationships. Take “the spider startled Jeffrey”. The predicate “startled Jeffrey” can be predicated of the spider, without the spider being undergoing any intrinsic change. If Jeffrey does not overreact, the spider may continue on his way, unobstructed and oblivious of Jeffrey. So the predicate “startled Jeffrey” may be true of the spider, without implying any change or accident in the spider itself. “The sun killed the plant” is a similar example: nothing inherent to the sun changes in killing the plant.

This turns out to be critical to understanding how things are predicated of God. If we say “God created the world”, an elementary understanding of predication its relation to accidents shows us that this need not imply no more change in God than it does a spider or the sun. Moreover, St. Thomas has been at pains to set out the sense in which terms like “knowledge”, “action”, “love”, “will” etc. are predicated of God.

Unfortunately, Hasker pays little attention to this notion of accidents and their relation to predication. The subject comes up briefly:

“Stump’s way of addressing this is by a discussion of the medieval notion of an ‘accident,’ which she argues is not the same as our modern notion of an accidental property …. So for God to create individuals instead of others he might equally well have created is not an ‘accident’ in God and is not inconsistent with God’s simplicity. (I omit here a discussion of the sense of ‘accident’ Stump attributes to Aquinas, as this is complex and not altogether clear.)”

Hasker’s Presentation of the Arguments for Divine Simplicity

What of Hasker’s presentation of the arguments for divine simplicity? At a minimum, a philosophical presentation should present those arguments for an opposing position which the opposition regards as the strongest, and, needless to say, it should do so accurately. Does Hasker meet this minimum? Hasker presents two arguments: an argument from the multiplicity of the forms, and an argument from the dependence of a whole on its parts. The first argument is simply not one advanced by any of Hasker’s primary interlocuters; though Augustine makes brief appearances and a citation to an essay by Brian Leftow mentioning Augustine’s motivations is mentioned, neither Augustine nor a similarly Platonist stand-in features prominently in those writers with whom Hasker is engaged. So we can happily grant that the multiplicity of subsistent forms is not a useful one for establishing divine simplicity, unless one is arguing with a certain type of Platonist.

The second argument for divine simplicity is relevant to the remainder of Hasker’s discussion, but he both misstates and misunderstands it. The argument is taken from the following passage in St. Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles I.18:

Every composite … is subsequent to its components. The first being, therefore, which is God, has no components. Every composite, furthermore, is potentially dissoluble. This arises from the nature of composition…. Now, what is dissoluble can not be. This does not befit God, since he is through himself the necessary being.24

Hasker immediately glosses this passage: “Aquinas lucidly explains the basis for an important claim made by the doctrine of simplicity: namely, God is not assembled out of parts and cannot be decomposed into parts.”25 Yet this is not what St. Thomas says. He does not refer to parts, but to components (componentibus), and the difference is clear in the immediate context that Hasker omits. SCG 18 is about whether God is composite, and Aquinas quickly says: “In every composite there must be act and potency.”26 St. Thomas is explicitly speaking here of components in the sense of act-potency correlates.27

Here we see the relevance of the essence-existence distinction that Hasker defers. For if in things there is a real distinction between what a thing is and its act of existing, then we have components in sense that Aquinas is using the word componentibus. Aquinas’ motivation here is unabashedly metaphysical, and articulated in view of the existence-essence distinction that runs through the entirety of his metaphysics. It arises not from the vagaries of common sense and the concomitant ambiguous notion of parts to which Hasker appeals, but from a strict demonstration.28 Because Hasker does not have this in view, he misstates what St. Thomas’ argument actually is, and as a result neither of the two main arguments of divine simplicity Hasker sets forth are relevant.

Specific Critiques of Divine Simplicity

Hasker divides his critiques of “strong” divine simplicity into a) category mistakes, b) logical failures, and c) the dehumanization of God. We begin by attempting to determine what Hasker takes “strong simplicity” to be. He believes that the problematic transition from “simple simplicity” to “strong simplicity” is that the latter rejects “any sort of internal distinction whatsoever in God, including distinctions which cannot at all reasonably be considered as indicating ‘components’ of which God is assembled or into which God can be decomposed.”29 Hasker provides no citation here of who makes this extension, perhaps because this is not the traditional notion of divine simplicity. But it is evident that he regards this view as the one held by St. Thomas, and even elsewhere makes the wildly incorrect claim that St. Thomas rejected a real distinction in God with respect to the Trinitarian persons.30 (In fact, St. Thomas clearly affirms a real relation between the persons in God, and regards any denial of this point as heresy.31) The traditional notion of divine simplicity, which St. Thomas explicitly states in the part of the SCG passage cited by Hasker, consists precisely in the denial that God is composed of act and potency.

Category mistakes

Hasker’s primary example of a category mistake is the identify of God with his actions. Says Hasker, “we are told, God is identical with his action of parting the Red Sea.”32 The culprit who misinformed Hasker goes unnamed; traditional adherents to the doctrine clearly assert otherwise. God is identical with his own act of being, yet the actus essendi of finite things are different acts distinct from God. These acts are caused by God, and St. Thomas deploys a sophisticated notion of instrumentality to explain them as God’s actions; but they are nevertheless extrinsic to God.33 The difference between God willing some event or not is not in God, it is in the world, and if one cannot see that, one has missed the whole point and God is conceived as no more than one more wistful soul (albeit gifted with super-powers) struggling to have his way.

Hasker believes that the sort of truthmaker theory advanced by Brower and widely accepted in contemporary philosophy vitiates some of the conceptual confusions that plague traditional theists. And he pronounces the verdict: “this truthmaker interpretation represents a genuine advance in formulating the doctrine of divine simplicity, one that advocates of that doctrine would be well advised to embraced.”34 To which those advocates may well respond that the salient point was grasped long ago, and articulated perfectly well by, say, St. Thomas’ instructions to beginners.

The various names applied to God are not synonymous, even though they signify what is in reality the same thing in God. In order to be synonymous, names must signify the same thing, and besides must stand for the same intellectual. conception. But when the same object is signified according to diverse aspects, that is, notions which the mind forms of that object, the names are not synonymous. For then the meaning is not quite the same, since names directly signify intellectual conceptions, which are likenesses of things. Therefore, since the various names predicated of God signify the various conceptions our mind forms of Him, they are not synonymous, even though they signify absolutely the same thing.35

Truthmaker theory does not, as Hasker sees it, clear away all the category confusions. He things that “relational predications, such as ‘God created the universe’ or ‘God loves King David’” still pose a problem, but he defers that to his discussion of logical failures.36

Logical failures

Hasker claims to identify “the logical inability of the doctrine [of divine simplicity], in its traditional form, to accommodate assertions about God that are nearly universally accepted among theistic philosophers and theologians, including the adherents of divine simplicity.”37 More specifically, Hasker thinks he has discovered in the cases of God’s knowledge of contingent facts and God’s willing particular events a fundamental incoherence.

If God is pure act, God cannot have multiple intrinsic acts of thought. On this point Hasker is correct. Divine simplicity entails that God does not have a multiplicity of intrinsic acts, whether of will, or knowledge, or anything else. Because Hasker has not examined the relevant arguments for divine simplicity, he has only one option: to show a logical inconsistency between God’s knowledge and his simplicity. If there is a logical error lurking within the doctrine of divine simplicity, the doctrine cannot be true; if, on the other hand, there is not a logical error, then determining the truth of the doctrine turns on the exact arguments Hasker has evaded.

God’s knowledge

Hasker raises two primary objections to way divine simplicity has been reconciled to divine knowledge. First, if God knows things by knowing his essence, he can only know possibilities, not actualities. Second, the claim that God’s knowledge of contingent facts entails nothing about his inner state is both unintelligible and contrary to the nature of a conscious mental subject (a category which for Hasker includes God). The latter question Hasker raises again in the context of divine action, and we, like he, will address the issue there.

Hasker relies on James Dolezal to relay the traditional view that in knowing his own essence, God knows all contingent things. Hasker counters by declaring that

What a knowledge of divine essence gives us–and gives God–is a knowledge of the realm of creaturely possibility; what it does not and cannot give us is knowledge concerning which of these possibilities are actual.^20^ What is actual but contingent does not follow from what is possible; that is the nature of possibility and actuality. Only if the divine nature contained within itself, not only the myriad realm of possibilities, but the specification of which possibilities are to be actualized, could that nature be by itself an adequate vehicle for knowledge of the created world. But this would mean that all actual creaturely objects and state of affairs are as necessary as the divine essence itself, a conclusion that would be welcome to Spinoza, but not, one would think, to an orthodox theist.38

At footnote 20, Hasker claims that “On this point Aquinas agrees”, citing SCG I.81.4. Yet St. Thomas clearly does not believe that God’s self-knowledge renders only knowledge of creaturely possibilities. Nor does he agree, as Hasker assumes that we can comprehend the divine essence. Hasker’s implicit argument seems motivated by the assumption that while we may know what God is, that knowledge does not give us knowledge of which creaturely possibilities in fact are, and therefore God’s knowledge his essence yields no more. Yet St. Thomas rejects the premise, holding that “we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not.”39 Because God is infinite, and our acts of understanding are finite, we cannot comprehend of God’s essence. So our knowledge of God, which proceeds indirectly, cannot yield knowledge of actuality of creatures. The notion that our knowledge of God fails to entail anything about the concrete goings on in the world has no bearing on whether God’s self-knowledge in fact does.

Hasker’s claim that St. Thomas counts God’s knowledge of himself insufficient for knowledge of the concrete actualities in the world is contrary to every one of St. Thomas’ statements on the subject. St. Thomas treats this exact question so many times and at such great length40 that one is at a loss to see how his meaning could be mistaken.

We need not even grasp all the details where St. Thomas rejects what Hasker says he affirms. A general understanding of St. Thomas’ thought sufficiently explains his doctrine. Existence makes the difference between a thing and nothing. God is existence subsisting, and things exist by participation in him. God’s knowledge of himself is inclusive of knowledge of what participates in him. Given that what makes a singular thing be is its participation in being, and it is that participation which renders a thing known by God, it follows straightforwardly from St. Thomas’ framework that God knows singular things, not merely general possibility. The only way to mistake St. Thomas on this point is the misinterpretation of being as possibility rather than act, and one could not get St. Thomas more backward than that.

Hasker says that “only if the divine nature contained within itself, not only the myriad realm of possibilities, but the specification of which possibilities are to be actualized, could that nature be by itself an adequate vehicle for understanding the world.”41 The “specification” that makes the difference between possibility and actuality is, for St. Thomas, existence; and St. Thomas’ central metaphysical claim about God is that he is by nature existence. Hasker’s claim that the presence of this specification in God renders the being of things necessary is given without supporting argument, or any consideration of the many places where St. Thomas considers this exact point.

The point here is not merely that Hasker mistakes the traditional view, but that his allegation of a logical contradiction is premised upon that very mistake. If God is subsisting existence–pure act–and he knows how he is participated, then he knows not only what could be, but what actually is. What does not take part in existence does not exist, and so if that participation entails divine knowledge, then God’s knowledge of singulars is exhaustive.

The primary difficulty Hasker has lies in imagining what it is like for God to know. He tries to imagine what it would be like to grasp everything in a single act of cognition and comes up blank. This is not, on St. Thomas’ account, because of Hasker’s limitations, but rather the limitations of human cognition. Human beings, according to St. Thomas, do not comprehend God, God is identical with his act of knowledge, and so human beings do not comprehend God’s act of knowledge. This does not, however, imply a retreat into mystery, for we do not need to imagine what it is like for God to know to affirm that he does, any more than it is necessary to understand what it feels like for a bat to navigate to affirm that it in fact does. Knowledge is, on St. Thomas account, the immaterial comprehension of form; and if God is subsistent being, he comprehends everything that is.

Although we cannot know what it is like for God to know, we nevertheless find strong indications that higher modes of knowledge tend to be more unified. The child learns that 1 + 1 = 2, and that 2 + 1 = 3. The two are discrete facts, relatively unconnected. But as the child advances to understand the principles of arithmetic, the notion of integers and of addition is grasped in principle, and the child performs an act of understanding that includes within its sweep the addition of any integers whatsoever. Likewise, even adults use the base-10 decimal system and the base-60 decimal system without grasping just what a base decimal system is. We know that after _9 the decimal second from the left becomes 1, and that the 1 in 10 is in the tens place. And we know that 30 minutes past the hour is half past. But what we often do not grasp is the essential feature of the base decimal system is that every place is the digit multiplied by a number that is the base number to the power of the index. So, in the base-10 system, the first place is 10^0, the second 10^1, the third 10^2, and so on. In understanding the pattern b^i, where b is the base and i is the index, one grasps at once not only base-10, but base-60, base-2, and so on.

Our higher acts of understanding grasp a multiplicity in a single act. The higher the act, the larger the multiplicity. This does not demonstrate that God knows in a single act of cognition – for that we need the arguments for simplicity – but it does strongly indicate that the higher the form of knowledge, the more unitary it is and the broader its sweep.

God’s actions

Brower, on Hasker’s view, proposes a “radical and surprising” solution to the problem of how the diversity of what God does (and knows) can be reconciled with God’s simplicity: “these propositions not only are not solely about God’s intrinsic state, but they entail nothing whatever concerning that state.”42 How can we say that God performing an action involves no internal difference than God not performing an action? Or for that matter, how can we say that God knowing some fact about the world makes no difference to God?

The key to answering this question–or at least to understanding the traditional answer to this question–rests generally on an account of extrinsic predication and specifically–in St. Thomas’ case–on a theory of actio and operatio. Brower’s solution is neither a radical revision of the tradition, nor surprising to one familiar with that tradition. For St. Thomas, predicating any action or act of knowledge of God save his proper act is by extrinsic denomination.43 The question of the logical coherence of attributing action to God turns on the logical coherence of extrinsic denomination as it pertains to action.

Consider this example: “God creates the world.” What makes the predicate “creates the world” true? It is the real relation of dependence of the world upon God. St. Thomas believes that he has shown that insofar as anything exists, it is due to God’s granting that thing existence. The difference between God granting the thing existence or not is simply whether the thing is or not. Has a thing existence or not? If the former, it is from God. “Creates the world” entails no difference in God from “did not create the world”.

St. Thomas is not engaged in special pleading on this point. Causal predication even in the case of creaturely causality often is a clear cut case of extrinsic predication. The sun kills the plant. Does the plant’s dying or surviving make some intrinsic difference in the sun? Clearly not: no intrinsic difference in the sun occurs by a plant’s dying or surviving.44 Thus, “kills the plant” is predicated of the sun by extrinsic denomination: the real difference, the ground in reality that makes the predication true or false, is in the plant.

The example of the sun need not be taken to imply an emanationist theory of God’s creating the world. We can substitute examples of human affairs. “The lecturer taught the student” is true if the student actually learned; it is the intrinsic state of the student, not of the teacher, that makes that proposition true.

The apparent difficulty that remains, perhaps, is that the teacher performs a particular action (diagramming on a board or reading a passage out loud) that is distinctly directed teaching the student. Here we find both analogous and disanalogous features. The act by which the lecturer attempts to teach the student (drawing on the blackboard) is not the actuality that makes it true to predicate “taught the student” of the lecturer. Likewise, God’s proper action is not the act that makes it true to say that God created the world, though the latter act has a real dependence on the former. On the other hand, a teacher makes an attempt–one that may succeed or fail–to teach the student. That act is directed toward the student’s learning, and may or may not achieve its aim. God’s action, on the other hand, cannot fail, and his proper act has as its end the ultimate good, with which it is identical.

Now Hasker may find incredible the view that God does not have particular, imminent actions the way we do, but he cannot very well argue that the tradition has committed a logical contradiction. Discrete imminent actions are simply not a component of “knowledge”, “will”, or “action” as the tradition predicates these terms of God. Knowledge is the immaterial, intentional presence of a thing;45 “will” is either the enjoyment of the Good46 or the ordering of things toward the Good47, and action is the production of an effect. Hasker may find these notions of knowledge, will, and action unsatisfying, but that is a different matter than identifying a logical contradiction.

De-Mammalizing God

The substance of Hasker’s argument does not rest in his allegation that the traditional articulation of divine simplicity involves category errors and logical inconsistencies. Hasker has not examined the traditional formulation of divine simplicity, nor distinguished it from its corollaries and consequents. Nor did Hasker examine the traditional formulations of divine will, divine knowledge, and divine action to put it into relation with divine simplicity (a rather critical step in showing a logical inconsistency, one would think).

Where Hasker’s argument has any purchase it is not at the level of conceptual or logical rigor, but by appealing to a commonsense notion of God’s personality. Hasker puts the case this way: in its strong form, the doctrine of divine simplicity “has the effect of dehumanizing God.”48 Hasker’s terminology here is as striking as it is unapologetic, and it helps a great deal in explaining why he finds the traditional notions of knowledge, will, and action unintelligible. The explanation is not merely that Hasker has not dealt with those traditional notions, though this likely plays a large part. It is that the tradition Hasker belongs to ties its notion of God to the specifically mammalian aspects of our rational and volitional faculties.

Human beings are intelligent mammals. Our intelligence is bound up with our animality, and our animality with our rationality. Our knowledge is gained from our experience, even if it may not be reducible to it. And the world of our experience is, beyond any doubt, the world of an upright, social mammal. Quarks and black holes, however real they are, are not the fare of our ordinary experience. Useful objects that fit in our hands, homes suited to our size and fit for our biological needs, the magnitude of the earth beneath us and the sky overhead constitute our everyday frame of reference, the opinions of those in our social circles are the norm of our common sense.

It is easy enough to see how our mammalian nature means that our knowledge is had in the transition from potential to actual knowledge. Is there food to be had? The infant cranes his neck to the feeling of another’s skin, the hunter-gatherer heads out to his favorite spots, the employee goes to the store armed with a credit card. We look nearby, and if we cannot see what we are looking for, we move to a better position, employ the tools we have available to us, and being social animals we ask someone else. If that does not work we have more indirect strategies for deciding whether something is there. We start out not knowing, not seeing, and we set about finding out. Our instinctive, pre-philosophical notion of knowledge is that of animal extroversion, which is based primarily on ocular vision.

It is clear enough why animals like ourselves move from potential to actual knowledge. We are here, and most of the objects of our daily concern are located out there. We lack knowledge of things, and our conduit to knowledge is perception. What is unclear is why the same should be said of immaterial entities who are not here rather than there, who, being immaterial, do not have the need for a conduit from one spatio-temporal point to another, and whose object of concern is not limited to everyday medium sized objects. The problem is not unique to God; it encompasses angels as well. We do not know, so we take a look. But we look with our eyes. Our eyes are receptive (though we can turn them in this direction or that), and are informed by what stands opposed to them at some distance. What could it mean for angels to take a look, or for God? Perhaps an angel turns its attention now to this, now to that; but that can only be on the basis of something it already knows. We know things as “out there” because we are here and have senses that convey what is spatially outside ourselves. Imagining a similar conduit in the case of an immaterial being only attributes the features and limitations attendant on materiality.

St. Thomas’ answer is clear: we might not know what it is like for angels or God to know, and we should not attribute to them that are bound to animality. But while we might not know what it is like for immaterial beings to know, we can know that they know. It is a sufficient condition for knowledge that a thing be comprehended immaterially. Nothing remains uncomprehended by God; God is being subsisting, and nothing is simply other than being. It follows that God knows, even if we have no qualitative feel for that knowledge. We should not expect to.


It may be suggested that Hasker’s essay could be charitably and creatively re-interpreted as a critique not of the traditional notion of divine simplicity as held by Augustine and Aquinas, but merely as a critique of how that notion has been interpreted or even misinterpreted by the contemporary philosophers of religion for whom Hasker devotes the most space. Yet we can divide these philosophers into two camps: those who hold to the traditional doctrine, and those who diverge from it.49 To the extent that Hasker aims at those who in fact hold to the traditional doctrine, the charitable interpretation does nothing to shield Hasker from the critique I have advanced (namely, that Hasker does not address or misinterprets key elements of that doctrine). And to the extent Hasker aims at those who diverge from the traditional notion of divine simplicity his efforts are irrelevant to his overall thesis: that the traditional notion of divine simplicity is mistaken. In neither case does the charitable revision salvage Hasker’s arguments.

I have argued in this essay that Hasker’s case against the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity fails. Yet this conclusion is not entirely negative; the argument also serves as a template for how an evaluation of divine simplicity would need to proceed. If Hasker’s omission of the notions of essence-existence distinction and the relation between predication and intrinsic accidents renders an evaluation of divine simplicity impossible, then, inversely, a pre-condition for understanding the traditional notion of divine simplicity would be articulating those notions. If Hasker has operated from a mammalian notion of knowledge, action, and will, then a successful approach to divine simplicity would require the examination of knowledge, action, and will as traditionally attributed to God.

Understanding is a prerequisite for judgment. Grasping the traditional case for divine simplicity and formulating it accurately a necessary condition to reaching a judgment on its merits. My argument has been that Hasker has rushed to judgment on that traditional doctrine. And my criticisms have operated at the level of understanding: what is the traditional doctrine of divine simplicity, its corollaries and consequents, and the broader framework in which it has been situated? And my concern, like Hasker’s, has not remained within the narrow confines of recent analytic philosophy of religion, but with the broader tradition, and especially as that tradition stems from St. Thomas. Unlike Hasker, I have devoted attention to what that tradition actually says. That tradition not only remains standing after Hasker’s critique; it remains untouched.


Hasker, William. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90, no. 4 (2016): 669-725.


  1. William Hasker, “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 90 (No. 4) 2016 669-725, p. 725. 

  2. Hasker 2016, p. 725. 

  3. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?” p. 699. 

  4. Ibid 699-700. 

  5. Hasker does briefly cite an article by Brian Leftow for a short account of Augustine’s position, but the mention is brief and plays little role in Hasker’s overall argument. 

  6. Aquinas is cited in footnotes 4, 20, 57, 58; John Wippel’s Metaphysical Themes in Thomas Aquinas II is quoted on p. 709. Stump, Brower, and Dolezal all use St. Thomas as a resource in contemporary debates. 

  7. Ibid. 701 - 702. 

  8. Ibid. 703. 

  9. See De Ente 4.6. 

  10. Ibid. 713. 

  11. Treatment of this question abound in St. Thomas’ corpus. See, for instance, DV Q. 24, art 3, Q. 23 art 1, and SCG I.82. 

  12. “Is Divine Simplicity a mistake?”, p. 702. 

  13. “Is Divine Simplicity a mistake?”, p. 705. 

  14. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake”, p. 706. 

  15. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake”, p. 707. 

  16. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 708. 

  17. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, pp. 712 - 713. 

  18. If this remark seems puzzling, recall that a subject is one actualized by accidents; and that in the case of knowing, our possible intellects are actualized by the forms of things. Our knowledge is passive. But for the traditional view, God’s knowledge is not passive but active, not receptive but creative. God is not a subject that receives forms, and hence not a conscious subject. 

  19. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 703. 

  20. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 713. 

  21. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 712. Hasker acknowledges that not everyone finds this notion unintelligible, and so offers an argument. But the argument is explicitly premised upon God being a “conscious mental subject”, in defense of which Hasker notes that he cannot imagine how anyone would disagree. 

  22. The best short overview on the subject is St. Thomas’ De Ente

  23. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 703. 

  24. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 701; cf SCG I.18 3-5. 

  25. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 701. 

  26. /SCG/ I.18 2. 

  27. And when Aquinas does use the term partes in this chapter, he clearly does so in the broad sense, one not restricted to material parts. See e.g., SCG I.18 2. 

  28. See, e.g., DE 5, ST I qs. 2-3, SCG I ch. 13-18. 

  29. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 702. 

  30. See Hasker’s interview with Dale Tuggy, at the 22 minute mark. 

  31. /ST/ I.28 1, 3. 

  32. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 704. 

  33. The best scholarly treatment of which I am aware on this subject may be found in Bernard Lonergan’s Grace and Freedom I-4 (2000 ed.). 

  34. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 705. 

  35. See, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas, Compendium of Theology sections 23 - 27. 

  36. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, 706. 

  37. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, 706. 

  38. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, 709. 

  39. /ST/ I, q. 3 prol. 

  40. /ST/ I, q. 14, art 11, SCG I.65, DV 2.7, all take as their subject this exact question. 

  41. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 709. 

  42. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p 710. 

  43. See, for instance, St. Thomas distinction at ST I q. 25, art. 1 ad 3. 

  44. It may be objected that this is an empirical question for astro-physicists, but this only makes the point. If the sun’s killing the plant does involve some slight effect on the sun itself, this is an empirical question, and its affirmative answer runs contrary to expectation. 

  45. See ST I q. 14, art. 1. 

  46. See ST I, q. 19, art. 1. 

  47. See ST I, q. 19, art. 2. 

  48. “Is Divine Simplicity a Mistake?”, p. 719. 

  49. Of course, a writer may hold to certain elements and diverge from other elements. In that case, we can divide positions, rather than writers, into the categories of those that hold to the classical doctrine, and those that do not.