The Reality of the Possibles
July 11, 2006 — 20:19

Author: Tim Pawl  Category: Concept of God  Comments: 7

Many of my philosophical interests intersect at a theistic theory of the possibles (the possibles are things that could possibly be, whether they actually are or not). I’m interested generally in modality, but also in theories of abstracta, the nature of possibilia, and a traditional understanding of the nature and attributes of God. This post isn’t about these things in particular, but these interests did lead me to an article by John Doyle entitled, “Suarez on the Reality of the Possibles” (The Modern Schoolman, Nov, 1967).
Let me start by saying that I don’t know much about Suarez past what I learned in this article. So, in the sequel, any time I talk about Suarez, I really mean Doyle’s understanding of Suarez.
Suarez has some interesting things to say about the relation between God and the possibles. Often Christians say that the possibles somehow rely on God for their existence. Aquinas, for instance, says that it is necessary for every being that exists to be created by God (ST I q44, a1). Other Christians believe that if the possibles are independent of God’s creative work, they infringe on his aseity. Suarez doesn’t agree.
Suarez says that even if God did not exist, the possibles would still exist. The possibles aren’t dependent on God, then, since they can exist even if God doesn’t exist (given that the possibles don’t contingently depend on God).
However, Suarez goes even further and claims that if the possibles didn’t exist, God couldn’t exist. Doyle writes, concerning Suarez’s view of the possibles:
“Of themselves they are eternally true and apt to be known, even if there were no God. Far beyond this, their reality is such that if they were not what they are, there would be no God and, a fortiori, none of the actual creatures that depend on him.”
Suarez has the order of dependence the other direction from Aquinas. The existence of the possibles doesn’t depend on the existence of God, since they can exist without him; but, if there were no possibles, there would be no God.
Suarez has other interesting things to say about the relationships between God and the possibles. He says (here I quote Doyle) that the possibles “are ‘not positively but in a certain negative way’ equal to God.” I suppose they are equal to God in a negative way insofar as Suarez says the possibles have their existence insofar as they are non-contradictory, but I’m not sure. Suarez also says (again, quoting Doyle) “the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, proceeds from the Father’s knowledge of Himself and of creatures inasmuch as they are possible.” As Doyle rightly sees, this makes the Son “somehow subsequent” to the possibles. I’ve never seen any Christian, let alone a philosophical powerhouse like Suarez, affirm something like this. Does anyone know anything about this, or about other Christian philosophers who have held similar views?

Technorati Tags: attributes of god, suarez, john doyle, modality, aquinas, christians, rely, existence, lead

Technorati Tags: attributes of god, suarez, john doyle, modality, aquinas, christians, rely, existence, lead

  • Kevin Timpe

    Like Tim, everything I know about Suarez I learned from Doyle. For those of you that have never had him, his classes were amazing. He’d come into class and 90% of the time, either one of two things would happen. One, he’d nearly quote Suarez verbatem–but not just from one work, instead jumping fluently across his whole corpus (many of the English translations of Suarez’s works were done by Doyle). If he didn’t do this, then Doyle would mention a certain theme in Suarez and then talk about how every other medieval in the 100 years before and 100 years after Suarez had similar and/or different views about that same topic. Either way, Doyle had way more knowledge at his immediate disposal than I think I will ever have in my lifetime.
    I say this as a way of trying to answer Tim’s question–I seem to remember Doyle saying that a few other figures had similar views. If my memory was a quarter as good as Doyle’s, I could name them, what order they belonged to, what years they lived, and the names of their three most widely read treatises. (Tim, is Doyle still there, or completely retired now? He’d be the expert on this.)
    Suarez thinks that the realm of possibility would exist even if, per impossible, God didn’t? I knew there was something about Suarez that I liked! (Though I don’t think I want to go as far as Suarez in reversing the ontological dependence.)

    July 11, 2006 — 21:51
  • Aaron Cobb

    Let me jump on the bandwagon regarding Doyle. In addition to the two practices mentioned above by Kevin, Doyle also at times will read a paragraph from an untranslated text and then say something like the following: “In order to understand what is going on in this paragraph, you really have to understand why it is important historically. So, let’s start with the Presocratics.” Following this, he will recount the issues in the history of philosophy which have direct bearing on that paragraph. It is truly amazing. Tim, you really should take his course in the Fall.
    Now, to add to the philosphical material. I haven’t studied this issue per se, but in some related research I have come across some material which may be helpful in your understanding of Suarez. In addition to articles by Norman Wells which I found to be very helpful, I thought the following article might be of some help to you:
    Amy Karofsky, “Suarez’ Doctrine of Eternal Truths,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 39(1), 2001, 23-47.
    While this article is on a slightly different topic than your post, you might be able to plum the footnotes for more on the unactual possibles.

    July 12, 2006 — 9:10
  • Aaron Cobb

    I forgot to mention the following chapter:
    Jeffrey Coombs, “The Ontological Source of Logical Possibility in Catholic Second Scholasticism,” in _The medieval heritage in early modern metaphysics and modal theory, 1400-1700._ Eds. Russell L. Friedman and Lauge O. Nielsen. (Dordrecht;Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, c2003), 191-230.
    I hope that these help.

    July 12, 2006 — 9:18
  • Tim Said,
    “(Though I don’t think I want to go as far as Suarez in reversing the ontological dependence.)”
    Thats what my immediate reaction was. It seemed to me that what Suarez did (or Doyle’s interpretation of Suarez) is that he ontologized possible being as an actual being, similar to what some folks do with Time itself. Might be way off but thats my two pesos.

    July 12, 2006 — 9:58
  • James

    It seems to me that the view attributed to Suarez in the last paragraph of the of Tim’s original post might require that one hold that the possibles are ontologically prior to God, at least if one wants to remain orthodox. If the Son is “somehow subsequent” to the possibles then it would seem to follow that the Son is ontologically dependant on them. But to say that the Son (and/or Spirit?) is dependent on something outside the Godhead and, at the same time, that the Father is not dependant on that thing might imply that the Son and the Father are more distinct than orthodox Trinitarian doctrine would allow. So either the Son is not subsequent to the possibles or the entire Godhead is.
    This might explain why Suarez makes the awkward-sounding claim that God is ontologically dependant on the possibles: if his commitment to this way of understanding the Trinity is strong enough, it will drive him to the awkward view.
    On the other hand, if Suarez’s commitment to the possibles’ ontological priority over God comes first, then it seems to be a trivial consequence of this view that the Son, being God, is “somehow subsequent” to the possibles (although this observation itself may be trivial, since the concept of “subsequence” certainly is in need of further analysis and this could take a variety of forms).

    July 12, 2006 — 11:34
  • To prove the existence of anything, one must ask the question for which only that thing can be the answer. By definition, let us say that God is infinite, with all power. Thus, our question to prove his existence is, “Why is there something and not nothing?”
    In response to the established quantum theory, Einstein said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Really? Quantum theory says there is only a probability that something may take place. This establishes the legitimacy of the possible.
    Some would argue that if God has perfect knowledge then it is impossible that man could do other than what God knows he will do. But remember also that God is also infinitely powerful. It follows that God can create a universe where possibles exist. For God to choose determinism versus free will for man is an an excercise in the absurd that only man routinely undertakes. Those who curse God for their sad situations are determinists not comprehending the great significance of free will. Without God there are no possibles, only nothingness.

    July 13, 2006 — 12:07
  • Tim Pawl

    Doyle is still around. I, however, am out of the area for 6 weeks. Maybe I can ask him when I return in late August.
    Kevin & Aaron,
    I think Doyle is a supergenius, too. I’m hoping on discussing the possibles with him sometime in the future. Aaron, thanks for the texts.
    You said, “It seems to me that the view attributed to Suarez in the last paragraph of Tim’s original post might require that one hold that the possibles are ontologically prior to God, at least if one wants to remain orthodox.”
    I think that’s true only if Suarez is the measure of orthodoxy.
    Also, I think you are right that having one member of the Trinity be dependent on something outside the Trinity while the others aren’t may lead to theological unrest. I think the rest of the post is spot on as well.
    Thanks for the great comments

    July 14, 2006 — 9:10