Gerson’s Monotheism

As a student of Plato, I’m a fan of Lloyd P. Gerson. His knowledge of the ancient Platonists is encyclopedic and his ability to relate their ideas to contemporary discussions is brilliant. His translation of the Enneads will become standard, and his work on “ur-Platonism” will be instrumental in reinvigorating Platonic interest for generations to come.

But he is not for the light reader. His style of thinking is a process of deeply interactive reflection. He’ll take you through a dozen Platonic texts, immersed in the most fascinating details, to a destination that is, by that point, only rivaled in import by the journey! Sincerity and devotion course through his pages, it seems to me.

In that capacity I could only aspire to be capable of critiquing him, though I should hardly have need nor want to.

But as a philosopher; as someone also practicing dying (Phaedo 67e) by striving to be more like the ideal, disembodied version of myself, I do find one line of his thought to be vexing.

He seems in various places to argue for a sort of monotheism. I encountered this most recently in his paper Platonic Hylomorphism, but it is also present in earlier works such as in his book From Plato to Platonism. I’d like to take a look at his presentation of this idea and offer some reasons why I find this vexing.

In Platonic Hylomorphism, he states

“The fundamental principle on the basis of which the hypothesis of hylomorphism arises is that absolute simplicity is uniquely instantiable in the world. That is, there can at most be one absolutely simple being. The reasoning is quite straightforward. Let there be two absolutely simple beings, ex hypothesi. Then whatever property each possesses in order to make it different from the other will negate its absolute simplicity. It and whatever property we assign to it will be distinct. Thus, everything but one being (at most) is composite,” (33)

He says in the footnote to this that

“It must be added that if there is in fact one absolutely simple being, it cannot be really different from all composite beings, although they can be really different from it. The term “real difference” applies only to substances or composites. The sort of difference that an absolutely simple being has from substances is variously explained in the tradition.”

But how could absolute simplicity be “instantiable,” let alone uniquely so? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? That is to say, is absolute simplicity not opposed to instantiating properties altogether, and so even the property of absolute simplicity? Moreover, if the absolutely simple would not be in relation to other things, then why would two absolutely simple things be in the relation of difference to each other?

Indeed, he seems to be saying that two things which have no properties and stand in no relations would stand in the relation of difference and possess properties.

It doesn’t help that he goes on to say

“One additional point should be added. It is that absolute simplicity entails absolute self-identity. That is, there are no differences even within that which is absolutely simple such that we could say that it has the identity of a composite or that its identity is just the “sum” of its parts. From this it follows that “identity” is equivocal and proximity to absolute simplicity is gradable,” (34)

But if each one has absolute self-identity by virtue of being absolutely simple, why would they still need to be differentiated by properties they possess? That is, if they already have absolute self-identities, why do they not already differ? Why do they not differ by their identities? He seems to assume that they would have to differ by their composition and which assumes they are not absolutely simple after all.

He phrases this differently elsewhere by saying

“If there were more than one absolutely simple entity, each would be one, yet different from the other. That wherein they would supposedly differ would, therefore, be distinct from each entity itself,” (From Plato to Platonism, 231)

But if each entity really were absolutely simple, then they would not differ by virtue of anything they possess which is distinct from themselves. The assumption otherwise is egregiously question begging, and is made by monotheist thinkers down through the ages.

I have harped on the scholastics and classical theists in particular not only for committing this fallacy, but for doing so with such flippancy or ease; an indictment against their times rather than their caliber as thinkers.

The problem, I submit, is the assumption that all plurality is structured in such a way as to involve composition. That is, it is assumed without argument that in every plurality, individuals have something in common, which makes them complex, however minimally. But, as I and others have argued, this structure of plurality, though pervasive throughout Nature, cannot model a plurality of what transcends Nature, and so wholly inadequate to understand such a plurality as of Gods or absolutely simple entities. It’s holding what transcends Nature to a standard that only applies to Nature. Why would you do this?

While I do not expect Gerson to read this, I resubmit the argument below as an invitation to reconsider the position that he argues for and which is prominent throughout monotheistic literature:

D. Let a plurality =df. what forms when individuals have something in common.

A. Assume Divine Simplicity; that God is a way of being whatever it has.

  1. If there is a plurality of Gods, they have something in common. (From D)
  2. If they have something in common, they are each a way of being it. (From A)
  3. If they are each a way of being it, then they are each a way of being one another. (Ex hypothesi)
  4. Therefore, if there is a plurality of Gods, they are each a way of being one another. (1-3, H.S.)

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