Onto-Theological Personalism Avoid Pantheism?
A Record of My
"Total Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition"
This site’s usefulness to Dr. Vallicella is gratifying.
By posting hard-to-find journal articles and anthology chapters, I
intend to provide convenient access to as many of my sources of insight
as I can. By noting the posting of
on Aquinas’ view of essence-existence composition in creatures and then
of it, which occasioned this essay, Vallicella enhances
the site’s interest. For that I am grateful. By such means our
conversation can progressively detach itself from its occasion in Deck’s
gratitude takes the form of exposing my ignorance of the systematic basis
of his critique.
His distinctive interpretation of
“essence” and “existence” raises difficulties for me that I cannot yet
resolve because they ultimately refer to a book I have not had the
opportunity to study, namely, his own
A Paradigm Theory of Existence.
questions, then, pertain only to his essay, “Total
Dependence and Essence/Existence Composition.”
In criticizing the blurb
[once] gave Deck’s essay (“The Paper That Broke Thomism’s Hold on Me”),
Vallicella does not mean to defend Thomism.
So the defensibility of Vallicella’s
understanding of composition is neutral to my claim that Deck opened my
eyes to a fatal weakness in Thomism, an autobiographical claim readers
will have to take at my word.
More objectively, I also claimed that Deck “decomposed Thomistic
With this, Vallicella takes
proposes, however, an alternative understanding of “existence” and
“essence” that leaves Deck’s critique intact.
That is, he answers Deck’s criticism of Thomism by showing that a
philosopher can mean by “essence” and “existence” something other than
what Deck (or Thomas) meant.
If that is so, then my claim provisionally
“fatal weakness” that I allege is the notion of the “reception of
For nothing can be in act and
potency simultaneously and in the same respect, but that is what
“reception of existence” implies.
be able to receive” presupposes the existence of the receiver, that is,
that the putative receiver is already actual.
Therefore, whatever it is that something can receive, the actuality
requisite to receiving is not it.
As Vallicella summarizes the
charge, “the essence of [contingent being] C is both logically prior and
logically posterior to the existence of C—which
is a contradiction.”
Vallicella begins by defining a basic tenet of classical
theism, namely, “creation out of nothing,” creatio ex nihilo, or “exnihilation,”
to use the handy coinage of Mortimer Adler.
I accept Vallicella’s review of
do not, however, understand why he and other theists have not concluded
what seems to me to follow from exnihilation.
For if (to quote Vallicella’s discussion)
God does not “create out of some stuff called ‘nothing’”; if “it is not
the case that there is something distinct from God out of which God
creates”; if “divine creation is not the forming of a pre-given matter, or
any sort of operating upon something whose existence is independent of
God,” then we must conclude, it seems to me, that God operates upon and
creates out of that which is not distinct from God himself.
that which is not distinct from a thing logically cannot fail to be that
Therefore the creation that
issues from God’s operation upon himself is, necessarily, God.
God exists, then for any x, x is either God or a creature of God:
tertium non datur.
God to create, but not out of that which is other than God, is for God to
create out of God.
Perhaps Vallicella can shown, or
has already shown in PTE, how the product of such a process could
be other than God.
Absent such a showing, the logic
of exnihilation would seem to issue in pantheism.
Vallicella steers this train of thought along another track: “This
classical notion of divine creation implies that created entities
(creatures) are totally dependent on God.”
If exnihilation implies
pantheism, however, it cannot also imply total dependence of creature upon
creator: a thing cannot sensibly be said to be dependent upon that with
which it is identical.
Vallicella doesn’t say “God is dependent on
God,” but that seems to follow from what he holds.
When we use “dependent” to express the relationship of one thing (or
attribute, state, or trait) to another, we abstract that relationship from
all the others the two may have to each other.
The predicate “dependent” cannot
express the totality of relationships that the one has to the other. That
is because non-dependency or independence in at least one respect is a
necessary condition of non-identity or difference.
a is dependent on b in one respect, then there must be at least one other
respect whereby it is not the case that a is dependent on b.
notion of total dependence, dependence in every respect, entails identity,
and therefore no dependence at all.
If a is dependent on b in all
respects, then a “collapses” into b, taking dependency, and difference,
a is dependent on b in all respects, then any difference between a and b
is merely nominal, i.e., “a” and “b” are two names for the identical
And if a stands for the world and
b for God, then b differs from a only, perhaps, as an amnesiac’s full
personal identity “differs” from his defectively narrow understanding of
it (a theme for which absolute idealism provided a cosmic translation).
preserve ontological distinction, which total dependency threatens to
abolish, we must understand that dependency is never total, that “total
dependency” is linguistically disguised nonsense.
that was one import of Deck’s exegesis of Thomas, at least for me.
PTE-deprived brain could not follow Vallicella’s use of “essence”
So, for example, he states that
essence (“whatness” or “quiddity”) “comprises all of a thing’s
properties,” whereas existence is “not a property, or at least it is not a
property that could add anything to a thing’s” essence (which, we were
just told, comprises all of them).
thing’s existence (the property that could not add anything to that
thing’s essence) is “that which distinguishes a merely possible thing
(even a completely determined merely possible thing) from the same thing
am afraid that “existing,” being cognate with “existence,” cannot
illuminate what Vallicella means by the latter.
And by referring to a “completely
determined possible thing,” I am not sure whether he crossed the line of
self-contradiction or merely walked up to it.
understand determination to be an act of selection from among rival
possibilities available for future determinations of actualities.
“completely determined possible thing” strikes my mind’s ears as does “an
absolutely concrete abstraction.”
Surely I have misunderstood.
Vallicella says that this distinction between essence and
existence is “real,” that is, it “reflects a distinction in contingent
beings apart from our mental and linguistic activities."
Then he asks how the essence and
existence of a contingent being are related.
does not define “contingent being, however, and I doubt that he could
without begging disputed questions.
may not be able to this satisfactorily in a short comment, but that
circumstance does not ease my difficulties with his thought in the compact
form in which I have it.
form of the question raises my attenae.
Take, for example, “How is length
related to width?”
may have the grammatical form of “How is Bob related to Mary?,” but it is
not logically the same.
Bob and Mary are concrete individuals, whereas length and width are
abstractions from our experience of extended beings, of which Bob and
Mary’s bodies are instances.
“How are essence and existence
related?” presupposes that they are related, but that might be like
presupposing that length is related to Bob’s body, and then doggedly
asking how it is.
Bob’s body is spatially extended,
but there’s no sense to asking how one dimension of that spatial extension
(e.g., length or width) is related to a concrete instance of extension.
And so until we know more about what
Vallicella means categorically by essence and existence, their
commensurability is in doubt, and so is any question of their relationship
to each other.
Vallicella also refers to essence and existence as a contingent being’s
“ontological factors,” but does not define “factor.”
Presumably they together “make” (facere)
the contingent being.
Vallicella identifies Deck’s allegedly erroneous assumption, namely, that
“existence is a proper constituent” of a contingent being.
Vallicella, it is not.
Again, however, a key term,
“constituent,” is not defined so that the reader might distinguish it from
(Perhaps factors make a
thing, whereas constituents make it up.)
What we need from Vallicella,
which I’m sure he provides in PTE, is his case for extending by
analogy the use of “factor” and “constituent” from our ordinary experience
(e.g., “factors of production” and “constituents of an electoral
district”) to our metaphysical generalizations about beings that are
contingent with respect to their existence.
of the blue, at least for someone who hasn’t read PTE, Vallicella
claims that it “should be clear that [contingent being] C is totally
dependent on its existence.”
The reader was not prepared for
this assertion of possible causal commensurability between these two
“factors,” “constituents” or, as he later terms them, “ontological parts.”
The reason Vallicella gives for this
assertion further disoriented me: “For if C lacks existence, then C is
nothing at all. The same goes for C’s essence since C apart from its
existence just is C’s essence. Both C and C’s essence depend totally on
both Hercules and his friend Pholus the centaur lack existence, but surely
they are not “nothing at all”?
That would entail, it seems to
me, that Hercules is identical with Pholus because, after all, nothing
Clearly, by “Hercules” and “Pholus” we refer to essences or concepts or,
in one understanding of the term, “propositions.”
we would no more want to say that the essences of Hercules and Pholus are
identical than we would want to say that the numbers 5 and 9, which also
lack existence, are for that reason identical.
Hercules, Pholus, 5, and 9 are
not “nothing at all.”
The question remains whether they are
“pre-given,” i.e., something that God operates on prior to his bestowal of
existence, which they somehow “receive” in their non-existent state.
show us how to avoid Deck’s conclusion so that we might affirm both “total
dependence” and a real essence/existence distinction, Vallicella, at long
last, defines “existence.”
He does so, however, in a way that invites
the charge of equivocation: “existence cannot be identified with one of a
thing’s ontological constituents; it is rather the togetherness of all its
constituents, among the latter, the thing’s properties.”
Existence is the togetherness of constituents, “their
bundling so as to form an individual.”
What happened to existence as affirmability or “thatness”? We are told
that the identification of existence with constituent togetherness is
“intuitively obvious [!] since the existence of a thing pertains to the
whole of it, and cannot be located in one part of it. If it were, the
other parts would precisely not exist.”
I agree that the existence of C pertains to
the whole of C, but I had always thought that when we affirm, “C exists,”
we are saying something other than, “C’s constituents cohere.”
“God is the unifier,” Vallicella writes, “responsible for the contingent
unity of a thing’s ontological parts. God does not bestow existence upon a
pregiven receptacle, for prior to the unifying of C’s constituents, there
is no C or essence of C”;
“divine creation is not the
bestowal of existence on a mere possible that already has an identity; it
is rather a bestowal of both existence and identity.”
There is, then, no remainder possibly patient to this bestowal, and
nothing to unify.
Vallicella has one more play: “Suppose the ontological constituents of C
are properties construed as universals. If divine creation is the
unification of these universals—their
bundling so as to form an individual—then
God operates on universals to form individuals. Do we not then face a
similar problem, namely, the problem that these universals are a pre-given
‘matter’ vis-a-vis the divine creative activity, with the consequence that
the creature cannot be totally dependent on the creator?”
“One may construe universals as divine concepts.
such, they do not exist apart from God. It follows that in creating, God
does not operate upon anything independent of himself. God creates
in this precise sense: God creates, but not out of something distinct from
Then God creates out of himself.
It all God, all the time.
Vallicella, of course, knows what pantheism is, and if he championed it,
he would say so.
He regards himself as an
onto-theological personalist, not a pantheist, so I may not justly refer
to him as one.
is therefore plain that I do not understand onto-theological personalism
and therefore also whether and how much it overlaps with my
panexperientialist panentheism. I know what I must do to remedy my
deficiency, but not when I will be able to.
Until I do, however, I would gratefully
receive any public remedial instruction that he thinks my paper calls for,
and thank him for the stimulation his comment on Deck provided.
Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology
Vindicated. Kluwer Philosophical Studies Series #89, 2002.
Hereinafter referred to as PTE.
Mortimer Adler, How to Think
about God, New York: Doubleday, 1980.
This is his essay’s first
reference to “contingent.” Now while that word has a history outside
of theistic, mainly Christian theistic, apologetics, its contemporary
use invariably signals a discussion, pro or con, of the cosmological
argument for the existence of classical theism’s deity.
I’ll grant Vallicella’s point that “the
contradiction that Deck sees . . . is already to be found in the very
notion of essence/existence composition quite apart from the question
of whether or not a contingent being has a metaphysical cause of its
existence,” i.e., God.
But will he grant me that in fact only
those in the hunt for such a cause have availed themselves of
“composition,” and that this extra-argumentative agenda or interest
largely inspires that device’s deployment and attendant “problems”?