Can God be a single being?

In his discussion of how the world and its discontent began, the philosopher Vasubandhu refers to the views that it began through divine creation, through an evolution of primordial matter, or on account of time, fate or pure chance. Moreover, Vasubandhu supplies arguments designed to show why these various theories are inadequate. Concerning the theory of divine creation of the world, Vasubandhu focuses his attention on three issues. First he explores the question of how a single, undivided God, existing at all times, can create a complex universe the parts of which arise in temporal sequence. Second he examines God’s psychological motivation in creating the world. And third he looks into the relationship between God as principal creator and auxiliary causal factors that go into making up the world. Vasubandhu treats these issues in about one page of Sanskrit prose. Later Buddhist philosophers wrote more extensively on each of these three issues than did Vasubandhu, but for the most part they did not explore other issues beyond these three.

The position that Vasubandhu and most other Buddhist scholastics accepted is that the world is caused by a virtually infinite number of causes, namely, the intentional actions of the continuous sentient beings who have lived through all of beginningless time. The belief that there is a single entity responsible for the rich diversity of experience is fundamentally wrong-headed. Vasubandhu writes:

The world does not have a single cause. Although they generate their own actions in birth after birth, the poor wretches of unripened wisdom, who experience the consequences of their own actions, wrongly contrive a supreme God.

And so it should be noted at the outset that Vasubandhu’s arguments are designed to demonstrate the untenability of any theory whereby the world’s diversity is traced to a single source. In particular, Vasubandhu points out that all his arguments for the necessary plurality of causes does as much damage to the theory of primordial matter or to Brahman as to the theory of divine creation.

Given that understanding of Vasubandhu’s own position, let us see how he criticized the positions that were contradictory to it. He begins by saying:

If the world had a single cause, whether that single cause be God or something else, the entire universe would have to arise all at once. But what we observe is that beings occur one after another. Now that fact could be a function of God’s intending for each individual that it arise at a given time and disappear later. But in that case, since there are numerous intentions, it would turn out that the cause of the world is manifold. Moreover, that plurality of intentions would be simultaneous, for the reason that god, which is their source, putatively has no internal divisions.

As will be discussed more fully later, this argument, or various modifications of it, was one to which Buddhist academics repeatedly resorted, not only in their arguments against theism but also in their arguments against any hypothetical entity that was supposed to retain its singularity while possessing a plurality of parts or characteristics. As we saw in in a previous module, Vasubandhu defines a real thing as any ultimate simple, that is, anything that cannot be reduced either physically or conceptually into smaller components. Consistent with that understanding of what it means for something to be a real thing, Vasubandhu argues that if it is claimed that God is real and therefore simple, then it cannot be consistently said that he also have a plurality of separate intentions, one for each object in the universe. But if God’s uniformity is taken seriously, then he must have only one intention that is applicable to everything at once. And if that single intention is “let it be,” then everything must be at once. A simple God can create, it would seem, only a perfectly static universe. But the universe that we experience is not static.

Vasubandhu anticipates one objection to the above line of reasoning:

Now one might argue that even if God’s intentions occur all at once, the [created] universe need not do so, since it is created in accordance with divine will.

God’s mind could have exactly the same set of intentions at each moment in history, and in that case it could not be said that he undergoes change. His unchanging set of intentions could be: “Let A be at ta, B be at tb, C be at tcX at tx.” Each event in history could then occur in the sequence that we observe and still the sequence could occur according to a constant set of volitions. Vasubandhu rejects this possibility, saying:

That is not so, because there is nothing that distinguishes those intentions at one time from those that occur later.

The point appears to be that if God’s set of volitions is constantly in the form “Let all the events of history occur in a prescribed order,” the problem still remains that in order for the intentions to be realized by being translated into action, some change must occur in something; some potentiality must be converted into an actuality. That change that must occur cannot be in God himself, for he is changeless. It must, then, occur outside God. But if that which converts God’s intentions into actions is something outside God, then we should say that it, rather than God, is the creator of the universe.

How are potentials realized?

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