Metaphysical realism

Dr Ben Holloway, Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

In the next couple of posts, I am going to talk about objects. By an object, I mean a thing or a being, something that exists. That is very general, but it will get us started. I should warn you; metaphysics is neither easy to understand nor easy to teach. I will try my best to explain it, but it is unavoidably technical. However, understanding a little metaphysics has a great deal of benefit for theology. Hence, it is worth spending some time trying to understand the basics.

An Exercise: What is in Your Room?

To begin to think about the topic of this post, perform the following exercise about objects. First, have a look at the objects in your room and list them. You will probably begin with things like chairs, tables, pens, paper and yourself. Once you’ve listed the obvious medium-sized objects, you might move on to list the parts of things. You might see screws, legs, ink, two thumbs. If you go further, you might start listing kinds of material such as wood, plastic, flesh.

How about things you can’t see? You might start to list objects such cells, atoms, electrons but are there other kinds of objects that are in your room but which you cannot see? So far, you have considered objects that are physical (or material). But at some point, you will also likely recognise that God is present, and it is quite possible that his angels are also with you. You may consider yourself as not merely a body but a soul (or mind). God, angels, and your soul aren’t physical. But they are nonetheless beings. They are things that exist. Objects such as these are usually regarded as mental objects.

But don’t stop there. There may be other kinds of objects in your room. You may have a couple of pens at your disposal. They are particular things, but it seems that they both share in a pattern or form. The pen ‘pattern’ perhaps exists in addition to both pens. Added to which, there are two pens. Does the number 2 exist independently of the two pens? Consider your furniture. The chair and the table are both hard. They seem to share in the property of hardness. Thus, being a pen or being hard are properties that particular things possess.

Now, what are you thinking of when you think of hardness without thinking about the chair you are sitting on? Plausibly, you are thinking of something that is not the chair. Hardness is something that the chair happens to possess, but it is not reducible to the chair or the table. The conclusion one might reach is that we can think about the patterns or properties without the objects that exhibit them. They are objects, but they aren’t material objects. They are either mental or abstract. Although, there is a difference between a mental object and an abstract object, for the moment we’ll call these things abstract objects.

Abstract Objects

Once we come to think that there are objects of thought that are not physical, we can begin to think of all sorts of these kind of objects. Hardness and redness are kinds of abstract object called universals. Universals are, “repeatable entities. At any given time, numerically one and the same universal can be wholly and completely exhibited or…exemplified by several different spatially discontinuous particulars” (Loux, Metaphysics, 19). Redness, hardness, courage, and triangular are all universals. They are exhibited or instantiated by particular objects, but they exist independently from them.

There are other kinds of abstract objects. For example, consider the objects expressed by asserting a declarative sentence. We called them propositions. Propositions are not identical to the sentences used to express them. Though, ‘snow is white’ and ‘schnee ist weiss’ express an identical proposition, they are not identical sentences. The proposition expressed by the inscription, ‘snow is white’ is not material. It is abstract.

In addition, numbers are not physical things. ‘2’ is the name of the object 2. If we erased every written or uttered ‘2’ in the world, we would still have the number. Kinds are categories that entities belong to. For example, you are a kind of person. You belong to a real category into which only those things that are persons belong. Hence, categories exist in addition to the things that belong to them. Relations are exemplified by multiple entities in relation to one another such as being taller than, far from, or married to.  Both kinds and relations are objects, but they are not particular things. Instead, they are abstract objects.

Realism verses Nominalism

People who believe in the existence of these kinds of objects are metaphysical realists. There are good reasons to be a metaphysical realist. Consider the following sentence: ‘Socrates is courageous.’ It seems we are talking about Socrates and saying that he possesses the property (universal) of being courageous. Suppose we want to say, ‘Courage is a moral virtue.’ In statements like these, the subject term is itself an abstract object. If there is no such thing as courage and no such thing as a moral virtue, then we might utter the words, but they wouldn’t be about anything.

Those opposed to metaphysical realism are nominalists. Nominalists deny the existence of abstract objects. The central motivation for denying the existence of abstract objects is parsimony (or simplicity). The principle of parsimony is often called Ockham’s razor after William of Ockham (1280-1349 AD). Ockham was a British philosopher/theologian who was educated at Oxford but taught at Paris. Ockham sought to avoid multiplying the metaphysical world with needless universals and abstractions. The principle of parsimony is best summarised in the statement, ‘don’t multiply entities beyond necessity.’

Three Versions of Metaphysical Realism

If one adopts a realist view of abstract objects, we are led to ask about the nature of these objects. What are they? According to the Platonist, abstract objects are neither material nor mental. Instead, they have their own kind of existence. They exist in a third realm. Entities in the ‘third realm’ are causally inert. A material object can cause effects. So can a mental object (your mental decision to raise your hand can cause you to raise your hand). But an abstract object cannot do anything.

According to Aristotelian Realists, universals exist ‘in’ particular things and not in a ‘third realm.’ Rather than being separate from the objects that instantiate them, they are abstracted from things by the mind. We abstract universals by observing the nature of various objects. Observing the nature of human beings leads us to understand their nature as rational creatures. Rationality and creature are universals, but they are ‘in’ the objects themselves.

A final proposal is Augustinian realism. A proponent of this view is Dr. Greg Welty who is a fellow philosopher at Southeastern. He calls the view Theistic Conceptual Realism. According to Dr. Welty, abstract objects are “necessarily existing, uncreated divine ideas that are distinct from God and dependent on God.” (Greg Welty, “Theistic Conceptual Realism,” in Beyond the Control of God? p. 81).

God and Abstract Objects

So far, I have been attempting to focus our attention on different kinds of objects. So, what do they have to do with our views of God? One might think it is irrelevant to theology. However, once one considers some basic Christian doctrines of God, we can raise a few issues of importance to central Christian beliefs. Consider God’s relationship with universals. According to the Platonist, universals are immutable, eternally existing objects. Among them are properties that God possesses such as goodness.

Now consider the doctrine of aseity, which states that God is not dependent upon anything else. But if there are universals upon which he depends, wouldn’t he lose his independence? On the other hand, if we suggest that universals are dependent on God, it seems to follow that God could have been completely different if had so chosen. But surely, we think that God’s nature couldn’t have been otherwise. Hence, a dilemma is produced: either God is not a se, or he has no nature.

In response to the dilemma, many theologians have held to a doctrine of divine simplicity according to which God is identical with his properties. There is a large volume of philosophical literature devoted to defending, refuting, and modifying divine simplicity. Suffice to say not everyone holds to it, and it may be unnecessary for a defence of divine aseity.

An alternative approach does not imply divine simplicity, but which does offer a solution to the dilemma is an Augustinian approach. According to the Augustinian approach, God cannot decide his own nature and universals are eternally existent and immutable. However, merely because they are eternally existent and immutable does not entail that God depends on them for his nature. Indeed, if Augustine is right and universals are ‘in’ God as part of his mind, then they depend on God for their existence. But since God has necessary existence (he cannot not exist), universals cannot go out of existence either.

Such a view also holds that God cannot do anything about his own nature. He couldn’t change it without going out of existence. If he can’t do anything about his nature, he can’t do anything about universals. They might be dependent on him, but they aren’t under his control. He couldn’t get rid of goodness without getting rid of himself. But he is essentially a se, so it isn’t possible that he could do such a thing.

Some may want to say that God can do anything he wants. But we aren’t required by Scripture to think so. Indeed, Scripture teaches that God cannot sin (Psalm 145:17), but we don’t take that as a limitation on God’s nature. He cannot thwart his own nature. But that is not to say that he is dependent on anything else for his existence, so it doesn’t threaten the doctrine of divine aseity.

I have only briefly touched on a very extensive discussion, and one might not think this bears any relation to the Christian life or ministry. However, there are various issues to which this discussion bears relevance. Some of those issues—such as problems of evil—will be discussed in future posts.

Further Reading

Metaphysics is perhaps the most difficult topic to teach. There are very few ways to make it easily accessible. Nonetheless, some study of it is immensely fruitful for a theologian. For a lengthy introduction to metaphysics, try Michael Loux, Metaphysics published by Routledge. For a discussion of abstract objects and God, try Beyond the Control of God? edited by Paul Gould. In Gould’s volume, Greg Welty makes a convincing case for Theistic Conceptual Realism. Augustine’s view is also defended in Alvin Plantinga’s short book, Does God Have a Nature?