Truth and Models of CompositionPosted: October 20, 2012 | |
I am once again reading the rigorous text by James Dolezal, God Without Parts. All too briefly, the goal of the text is an articulation and defense of the classical doctrine of divine simplicity. I’m interested in the text on a number of levels; I’m thinking mainly in terms of theological methodology as I read it, but there is a great deal more in the text than that. Indeed methodology is no where treated explicitly, though it is quite evidently on Dolezal’s mind.
The second chapter is titled “Simplicity and Models of Composition.” The chapter is a kind of extended cosmological argument. The thesis is that compositeness requires a non-composite composer, in the same manner that motion requires an unmoved mover, causality an uncaused cause, and contingent existence a necessarily existent being (Thomas’ first three ways). Does Dolezal’s argument depend upon the PSR? If so, WWBRS (What would Bertrand Russell say?)? Dolezal surveys six models of composition, each, following Thomas, “understood as variations of the composition of act and potency” (32) making this point each time. They are bodily parts, form and matter, and supposit and nature, genus and difference, substance and accidents, and essence and existence. In this post I’d like to submit one observation about these models of composition. My observation is as follows.
The single most intractable question raised by all these models is not whether they are coherent, nor whether they are rigorous, nor whether they have substantial historical or contemporary supporters; affirmative answers to each question are earned by all. The question that I cannot manage to shake is whether there is any reason to think any of them true, where true means something like ‘descriptive of an/the actual state of affairs’ (a realist notion of truth). Perhaps there is another way of stating it: I think these models of composition raise an interesting question about the nature of truth, and perhaps they are so resilient precisely because they float so fluidly between realist and linguistic notions of truth.
Put it this way. Some of these models seem to me very much like self-re-enforcing Wittgensteinian linguistic games, rich in self-referential coherence and definitional or stipulative necessity, while void of argumentation or an authoritative jurisdiction beyond themselves. What makes them so compelling, I suspect, is not that they are likely to be actually descriptive of an actual state of affairs, but that they are so invitingly tidy and practical. I am not by any means denying the utility of any of these concepts; I intend simply to suggest that perhaps we could get a lot more mileage—and clarity to boot—out of these things if we are more self-conscious about what it means when we take such things as “true.” Here’s an example from Dolezal’s pen:
. . . every form-matter composite owes its perfection and goodness to its form. Form, as the principle of actuality, causes matter to exist as this or that particular thing; it supplies quiddity, or the “whatness” of the complete material being. The “goodness” of matter is conveyed to it by the form and therefore the matter is only good by participation in the form’s perfections. But whatever possesses its existence or quiddity by participation is dependent upon some perfection prior to itself and cannot be the first and best “good.” But God is that first and best good, which is participated by all other being but itself participates in none (48).
Dolezal says a moment later, “These arguments will undoubtedly appear more significant if brief consideration is given to Thomas’s conception of substantial form and prime matter” (ibid.). What he means, I gather, is that all of this is meaningless until we understand Thomas’s stipulative definitions of the terms he’s using. We need to be initiated into the conceptual/linguistic game, we have to learn the rules. It certainly is not nonsense, but is its sense limited to its own internal coherence? Dolezal says, “Since prime matter is not an essence it cannot be defined, but only described according to its function” (51). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this statement is packed with goodness; Wittgenstein is winking at us from across the room. Try it like this: ‘Since a substance metaphysic is not an essence it cannot be defined, but only described according to its function’.
So in the excerpt above, what is going on? Let’s kick the tires a bit: If we assume a realist notion of truth, we’d lean toward reading the passage as attempting to describe the ‘essence’ of actual things, things which in fact exist: form, matter (and prime matter), and substance, and so on. Do those things exist? And if we try a linguistic notion of truth, we can read the paragraph as defining functional, abstract terms and as drawing out the implications of those definitions. Those things, functional definitions and their implications, definitely exist. So I find the latter immensely compelling, though maybe I’m just a sucker for the underdog. But at this point I only want to raise the distinction and see whether there hasn’t been something like this lurking all along. Maybe I’m just the last guy to notice.