Wednesday, June 29, 2005

What's a "Property"

Posted in: Philosophy

Since our blog has started we few but proud Moldy Thomists have been repeatedly chastised for our defense of divine simplicity. One of the chief criticisms of our view is that this position holds that God is identical with His properties. We would respond by saying that we hold that God does not have properties, He is a pure act of existence and has no form. This however is beside the point at this time (although I am sure it will draw some response nonetheless). What I would like to know is exactly what is meant by the term "property". It occurred to me that this term is used frequently but I have never seen it defined. I am not well versed in analytic philosophy (although I am now starting to delve into it) so I don't often encounter the term in what I read. Thomas doesn't use it. I would really appreciate it if some of you could help out here. It would greatly help me to better understand the criticism and to engage with those who do not share my views. I look forward to your input. Thanks! And here is the rest of it.


Blogger davis said...


From what I understand, a property is a quality of an entity that is either extrinsic or intrinsic to it. Another definition of a property is an abstraction characterizing an object. An attribute would be a quality that is intrinsic to an entity, or similar to a property, an abstraction characteristic.

Not sure if this helps or not though.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Sal Monella said...

All I know is that I once heard a prominant apologist from BIOLA say that God is a substance that possesses the properties of omnipresence and omnipotence etc.

have stranger things been said about God?

5:31 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

A property is a quality. What's a quality? An attribute. What's an attribute? A characteristic. What's a characteristic? A feature.

It's hard to define something like "property" without just listing synonyms because it's one of the basic categories of thought and being. You can say that a property is something that inheres in a subject or something that can be predicated or denied of a subject. That would help to clarify it a little, but only a little.

Some things can be defined by breaking them down into simpler components. When there are no simpler components, the best thing you can do is point, i.e. "Look, that's a property."

1:42 PM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

It seems that no one is really sure what a property is. The question in my mind is, is a property as it pertains to God real? If it is real, in what sense is it real? To this the Thomist must answer that a property (which I will assume to be the same as an attribute) is not real as it pertain to God. God does not possess properties at least not in a substatial sense. God is the pure act of existence and as such does not possess properties or attributes; at least not in the sense that they are distinct individually existing entities, substances, or forms. The attributes or properties we ascribe to God are true, but only true analogously. That is they are saying true things of God, that God is omnipotent for example, but that does not mean that God possesses the "form of omnipotence" it means that God as pure act is power without limit. When we talk of an attribute we are speaking of a distinction of the mind. It is a real distinction only in the sense that it is a truly stated aspect of God's being. The distinction exists for us in our minds as we contemplate the person and nature of God, but it is not a distinction that exists for or in God. This is not a contradictory position; it is a mystery to be sure, but it is not contradictory. So to the charge that simplicity implies that God's "properties" are identical to each other, I answer that that is true and that it is not a problem. God does not really have properties or attributes, He is unlimited and unique and indivisible in Himself.

So I ask why this explanation is not sufficient. Why do God's properties have to be really distinct? What about a property necessitates that it exist in itself? This seems very platonic to me. Look forward to hearing your thoughts!

6:20 AM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Mr. Hipsley,
Question: What about admittedly complex beings? In what sense do you say that, for example, your own attributes (or properties) are real? Are they ever real, and if so, is it only through abstraction? Is it possible then that those who disagree on divine simplicity require that God's attributes be thought of as real in the same sense? (That might be a palatable petitio princippi, eh?) Perhaps this would be the root of the disagreement.

7:26 AM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

Great question. In terms of complex beings the answer is that we have both kinds. Properties that are real and properties that are distinctions of reason. I do not deny that I have properties that are more than abstraction. I take up space (too much sad to say), I have physciality; accidentally, I am white and male. All of these are real properties that I actually possess. Are there things of me that do not exits as such in themselves? Yes! For instance I am a human being and possess "humaness." Humaness is an abstraction. It really exists but only as a mental entity expressed in the idea of the knower. There is no idependently existing form of humanness out there, nonetheless, humaness is real. It can be said that I possess rationality (although I admit it sometimes alludes me) but where does rationality exist independently, in and of itself? It is real, but does not exist in itself.

These answers do not however fully answer the question. For these are still real distinct properties that are true of me. Is this so for God? I don't think so. I do not think there is a real distinction in God of His attributes. These are purely distinctions of reason. God's love cannot really be distinguished from His justice or His omniscience. we make distinctions because we have to. Whatever can be said of the properties of a complex, composed, or contingent being, it does not follow that these would be true of a simple, uncomposed, non-contingent being. In fact this being must be a pure act of existence and as such would not possess any substance (for then this being would be composed in its being of act and potency). The nature of God's being will not allow for properties, at least not in the independently existing sense. What I say of God's attributes I say based on the nature of God's existence.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Mullins said...

Actually we are quite sure what properties are, it just depends on how you are using the word. I'll grant that philosophers talk rather freely about properties without always being very specific about what they mean by property, No doubt this is because for those of us enmeshed in the analytic tradition the meaning can often be inferred. That aside it is important to note that philosophers don't use property in a monolithic way. That is there are many kinds of properties including, but not limited to, qualitative properties, essential properties, intrinsic properties, extrinsic properties, genus, species, natural kinds, higher order properties, self predications, types, fictional properties, primary and secondary properties, and supervenient properties. A good place to start reading would be the Stanford Encyclopedia on properties.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

I've always thought of properties as predicates. Although, there are trivial predicates and relational predicates I'm inclined to say are not properties. As I see it, divine simplicity has two crucial issues. (1) Can all of God's properties really all be identical with one property? (2) Is there any contingency in God's nature (and the implications this has for divine freedom and the contingency of the way things are)?

I'm not convinced that divine simplicity provides the best answers to these questions. Although, I think it is a viable position. Often contemporary philosophers of religion dismiss divine simplicity without considering the answers and benefits simplicity presents. Even though I don't subscribe to divine simplicity, I think better arguments need to be given against it than the "Gosh, it's really queer" objection.

8:05 AM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

In response to (1) I think this mis-states the Thomist position. We do not hold that all of God's properties are identical with one property, we hold that God has not properties. He is. The pure act of existing, unlimited and unique.

In resonse to (2) no. There is no contingency in God's nature.


9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why choose to say "...God does not have properties, He is a pure act of existence and has no form." as opposed to "She is pure essence"?

10:29 AM  
Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

If there is no contingency whatsoever in God's nature, this seems to generate some problems. For God could nto will the world to be a different way than it is (otherwise his will would be contingent). If the world necessarily is the way it is, then determinism is true. If determinism is true, then (as an incompatibilist) that means there can't be moral responsibility/free will.

Another problem: if God's nature has no contingency, then God is and acts from necessity. Yet, the doctrine of grace seems to involve contingency. God did not have to send his Son or save us from sin, which is why it is by his grace we are saved. But if God acts from necessity, how can this be called grace?

These are the types of questions that stem from (2). There are some others in that neighborhood too. I bring some philosophical baggage into my discussion, which may be questionable. Plus, at best, I think I've raised tough questions for divine simplicity, which may have solid answers. I guess I'll wait and see!

12:21 PM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

Problem One: This is a good question and a tough problem I will admit. As far as the absense of contingency in God I don't see how there could be any if God is simple. This being said, I don't see why this is a problem. If God is completely perfect (as I am assuming we both agree) why would He will the world to be other than it is. A perfect God created the perfect means to the most perfect world (I say this because it is obvious that the current state of affairs is not the best possible world). Why is this a problem? Should God have willed it otherwise? If His will is in perfect harmony with His wisdom and His love and His knowledge then what God wills is in accordance with His perfect nature and "limited" by it if you can call perfection a limit. As to the second part of the first objection I would like to hear more on why you are an incompatibilist. I don't see why the will and knowledge of a perfect God from timeless eternity is contradictory with our choices in time. Please explain.

Problem Two: I don't see how God acts from necessity because He has no contingency in His nature. What God has is no passive potency. He cannot be affected. God does have active potency. He is free, at least, to act or not act. God did not have to create, so in this sense at least, God did not have to offer grace. I will conceed that God, if He acts, must act within the limitations (if that is what you want to call them) of His perfect nature. This hardly amounts to a limitation in my mind. Perhaps God necessarily had to offer grace if He chose to create the best means to the best world, but He still choose to do it in creating at all. Furthermore it is still the perfect choice. So if there is necessity there it is perfect necessity and it is still freely given. Unless you can demonstrate how a simple God must necessarily will to create at all.

Lastly thanks. These are great questions and i am really thinking hard about them. There are some really good objections to divine simplicity that I am investigating right now. The objections of Plantinga are particularly thorny. I am doing some research for a paper now which hopefully I will be able to post by early August. Your feedback has been really helpful. Seeing the other side of this issue and encountering good arguments against my position is very helpful and I really appreciate the dialogue.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Johnny-Dee said...

Just to push you a little bit further on these issues. If God exists necessarily, and wills this world to be the way it is necessarily, then there isn't one possible world that is different from this world. It is literally impossible (and perhaps inconceivable) to imagine the world to be different than the way it is.

But I'm just pushing you here. I'm not sure I've said anything new that wasn't in my previous post.

7:27 PM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

If it is impossible to do this then why can we even know the possibility? I think your objection states too much. Why can God not know other possibilities? He may be "limited" by His perfect nature to creating just this one but this is no limit on His knowledge. Furthermore, God wills the world to be what it is but that does not mean from our perspective that it could not be other than it is. What is the perspective of God, is not the perspective of man. We obviously can imagine other worlds and other possibilities. We can even say that things could be otherwise. 9/11 did not have to happen because the men who committed the act were free not to do so. This is my question, why is this a necessary contradiction. I will admit that I cannot fully comprehend it but I don see it as contradictory. From our perspective we still have choice and it is not coerced. What is the problem? Why/how does God's determination of history necessarily preclude our freedom?

12:49 PM  
Blogger Matthew Graham said...

This is an interesting discussion. I think if it is to be productive, we should talk about our underlying metaphysical commitments, namely, where the neo-platonic categories of thought are similar and different from thomistic categories.

For example, Johnee Dee's notion of properties, kinds, and relations, etc. are significatly different from our notion of substance, accidents, etc. The differences are particularly noticable when we discuss issues of the nature of universals. To a contemporary realist, we would probably look like more like a nominalist (along the lines of a trope theorist). This would be a good blog discussion to start.

6:48 PM  

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