Hidden Assumptions: Feser and Polytheism

I had planned on continuing a philosophical look into reincarnation for this month’s blog post. However, philosopher Edward Feser took the time to engage a question of mine, and I believe that by responding, it may be possible for a polytheist-monotheist dialogue to open up. Forgive the detour, but I think it may well be worth it!

Consider the following propositions:

  1. That which is divine cannot be an instance of any kind.
  1. There are many Gods.

Some thinkers will look at (1) and (2) and see a contradiction. Why? For them, in order for there to be a plurality, there must be many instances of a kind. So, there could not be many Gods – as (2) asserts – unless each God was an instance of a kind. But, that which is divine cannot be an instance of any kind, per (1). As such, they find these propositions to be mutually exclusive.

But, why think that the members of a plurality must instantiate a kind? Unfortunately, this is one of the beliefs that must be discussed in a monotheist-polytheist dialogue, but it is hardly ever given any thought; instead being assumed to be true without argument.

Recently the website Strange Notions offered people the chance to ask Thomist philosopher Edward Feser a question. I honestly did not expect him to answer, but I asked the following:

“Monotheism asserts the proposition that “Only one God exists.” In quantifying the amount of Gods that exist, this proposition treats of a plurality of “Gods.” In denying existence of all but one in this plurality, monotheism separates Gods from “existence”, and thus treats of a plurality of abstractions, or “essences” as Thomists may say. It would seem, therefore, that monotheism is committed to a view on which a God’s essence is separable from his “existence.” But, for Aquinas, the essence of God just is his existence. Was Aquinas thus not a monotheist? If not, what was he?”

Feser replied:

“Aquinas is a monotheist, and he argues – correctly in my view, as I argue in the book – that there could not even in principle be more than one God.  One of the reasons for this is indicated in the answer I gave above to the questioner who asked about whether we can define God.  As I noted there, given that God is absolutely simple or non-composite, he cannot be defined in terms of a genus and some differentiating feature that sets him apart from other species in the genus.  Now, whenever there is more than one instance of a kind of thing, there is some genus to which it belongs, and something that differentiates it from other things in that genus.  Since these notions don’t apply to God, it follows that there is no way for him to be merely one instance of a kind of thing.  There is no genus or general class to which he belongs.  He is of his nature unique.  We get the same result when we analyze the implications of something’s being purely actual, or its having an essence that is identical to its existence, as I show in the book

Your question seems to suppose that because we can stick an “s” at the end of the word “God,” that suffices to show that there is a general class of things we call “Gods,” and then we can ask how many things are in that class.  But that is a fallacy.  Essentially, it confuses grammar with metaphysics.  To borrow an example from Chomsky, I can form the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”  But though the sentence is perfectly well-formed, it is still nonsense.  Ideas aren’t green or any other color, if they were then they wouldn’t be colorless, they don’t sleep, and it makes no sense to speak of sleep as something one could do furiously.  Mere grammatical possibilities don’t by themselves entail anything about reality.

Similarly, we can stick an “s” on the end of the word “God” and then go on to ask questions like “How many Gods are there?”  But that doesn’t entail that it really makes sense to think of “Gods” as a class of things that might in theory have more than one member.  Again, in fact that makes no sense when we unpack the implications of what it is to be absolutely simple or non-composite, to be purely actual, and to have an essence identical to one’s existence.  It seems otherwise only if we confuse grammar with reality.”

Feser’s argument against polytheism boils down to this:

  1. Whenever there is more than one instance of a kind of thing, there is some genus to which it belongs, and something that differentiates it from other things in that genus.
  2. But, these notions don’t apply to God.
  3. Therefore, there is no way for him to be merely one instance of a kind of thing.

Rather than discuss whether these premises are true or reasonable, I want to discuss whether they are relevant. What does this argument have to do with polytheism? The argument crucially assumes without explanation that polytheism would involve many Gods instantiating something in common. But, why think that?

I cannot think of a sufficient reason – especially one so obvious that it does not need to be said while objecting to polytheism.

Perhaps Feser is under the impression that polytheists themselves believe that the Gods instance a kind, and he’s just letting them define their own position. But, even if this were true of all polytheists, one should be expected to stand polytheism on its strongest legs. In light of the belief that the divine cannot be an instance of any kind, this would amount to conceiving of the Gods as forming a plurality that did not involve instantiation. Moreover, it is not true of all polytheists – anymore than that all Christians deny divine simplicity – and the literature on henadology is readily available to any who look (e.g. here).

Perhaps Feser is relying on a Thomistic theory of plurality on which every plurality must involve instances of a kind. But, I saw no argumentation at all for such a theory in his most recent book, let alone even a mention of it, and there is certainly none in his reply quoted in full above.

The ease with which Feser assumes that polytheism would involve instances of a kind, despite the audience, leads me to believe that when Feser addresses polytheism, he holds on to the belief that every plurality involves instances of a kind instead of the belief that that which is divine cannot be an instance of any kind. If you hold on to the former belief, you’ll evaluate polytheism as a position on which Gods instance a kind because they form a plurality. But, if you hold on to the latter belief, then you’ll evaluate polytheism as a position on which Gods form a plurality that does not involve instances of a kind.

The former route involves treating a plurality of Gods as if they are not really Gods: if they were, then they could not instance any kinds. As such, this route attacks a straw-man and calls it polytheism. The latter route involves developing an understanding of plurality that is appropriate for that which is divine, rather than holding such a one to a standard that only applies to that which is not.

Feser may find problems with the notion of a plurality that does not involve instances of any kind, but until he interacts with such a notion, he will not have addressed polytheism, and his entire worldview will remain severely under-warranted.

As to his remarks about confusing grammar with metaphysics, it seems to me that Feser wants to have his cake and eat it too: if it is true, as Feser suggests, that a plurality of Gods is linguistically meaningless, then every statement which explicitly or implicitly uses a plural form of the term “God” is meaningless, including the statement that there is only one God. But, he wants this statement to be true, not meaningless.

Whether or not divine plurality is metaphysically incoherent or linguistically meaningless, it was not my intention to infer metaphysics from grammar. I simply presented a condensed propositional analysis that I gave at greater length elsewhere. This analysis allowed me to deduce what monotheism amounts to, and, coupled with beliefs about the divine which Feser shares with me – such as that to be divine is to be simple – to deduce that monotheism is not a position Thomas Aquinas held, nor is it even a theistic position at all.

If Feser responds to this post, maybe he will argue that no two things can form a plurality without having something in common, and nothing can be had in common unless it is instantiated. Or maybe he will argue that no two things can be non-identical unless they are differentiated, and no two Gods could be differentiated. Whatever the case, I and others are more than willing to dialogue on the matter.

I am grateful that Feser took the time to answer my question, as well as link to my comments on his most recent book. I hope that he engages with Edward Butler’s material, as well as the Platonists from whom Butler draws upon. Perhaps this is an opportunity for dialogue between monotheists and polytheists.