On God and Abstract Objects: A Realist Sketch

March 30, 2012

For a number of reasons (which I cannot go into here but which I have defended in my book Universals (McGill-Queen's, 2001), I am convinced that universals (properties, relations) exist and are abstract entities.

This is not a conceptualist position because I do not take "universals" merely to be entities in a mind--God's or anyone else's--that are apt to serve as general "indifferent" representations for a number of particulars.  The universal redness is not in anyone's mind.

Regarding God's own essential properties, these are also universals, but God does not sustain them in existence.  He simply has them.  But for other universals, God has the property of necessarily sustaining them in being.  So he "creates" them, not in the sense that the come into being at a time (remember, they are metaphysically abstract), but in the sense that He (necessarily) sustains them in existence.

Does this limit God?  Not in any sense that matters, for all it means is that God cannot, for example, make the color red be identical to the number two.  By dividing universals into those that constitute God's essence and are not sustained by God and those that do not constitute God's essence and are (necessarily) sustained by God, is my solution ad hoc?  Yes, and this tends to count against my view to a small extent.  But as I see it, the weight of this criticism is far outweighed by the evidence for the existence of universals in the first place.

For further scholarly interactions about this topic, you may want to consult the Winter 2011 issue of Philosophia Christi, which can be purchased here.

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4 Responses to 'On God and Abstract Objects: A Realist Sketch'

  1. Doug Groothuis says:


    I have not read your book on Universals, but I favor the more Augustian conceptualist view. Abstract objects exist in the mind of God: all of them. I take abstract objects to be propositional, and I take propositions to be thoughts, not un-thought things that are “just there.” This also allows us to use the conceptualist argument for God’s existence. But to make this work, God must exist as a logically necessary being (the Anselmian view). I hold this view, and defend it in chapter ten of Christian Apologetics.

    Why would you not hold this view? And, yes, you know more about all of this than I do!

    Doug Groothuis

  2. Mike Harper says:

    I’ve read Universals, and as such I don’t think it is necessarily focused on the how universals fit in a theistic framework. I’m sure I could begin to work out what are some of the important reasons for keeping universals as abstract entities and not accepting conceptualism, but what do you think are the most imortant reasons for doing this as you may see some connections and implications I may overlook or not know?

  3. I want to thank my two dear friends and treasured colleagues, Doug and Mike, for their very thoughtful comments.

    As I see it there are two ways for something to be “in” the mind”: as an intentional object (the ball is in my mind merely in the sense that I am thinking about or seeing it) or as a constituent (thoughts, beliefs and so forth are literally “in” the mind). And the way that mental contents are constituents of the mind is that the mind exemplifies them. Thus, concepts, e.g., being-of-the-color-red, are intentional properties, and the having of this property is the thought consisting in having the relevant property. Propositions are structural intentional properties that must be exemplified by some mind to exist (thus, a conceptualist argument is successful on my view).

    But non-intentional universals cannot be in the mind as a constituent for at least two reasons that can be highlighted by focusing on being red. First, is something exemplifies the property of being red, say a ball, then the object is red, and a mind–God’s or anyone else’s–isn’t colored.

    Aristotle and is followers tried to respond to this problem by saying that universals are exemplified by minds in such a way that those minds do not thereby acquire the relevant property. But I have never been able to see how this could be. When something exemplifies a property, it is characterized by that property. That’s just what exemplification is. Second, it is de re necessarily the case that if something exemplifies redness, then that something is spatially extended, and God’s mind is not extended. Remember, the concept of being red is not itself red; it is of-being-red. The concept of being red is, indeed, in God’s mind as a constituent, but not the property of being red.

    These are some of the reasons I cannot be a conceptualist.

  4. Doug Groothuis says:


    This me much to think about and further reveals my ignorance! I’m glad you hold to the conceptualist argument. I did not cover that in Christian Apologetics, but would like to write it up some time, along with the argument from beauty, and the argument from human language.

    Blessings my friend,