Two God Books

"Jesus is the reason for the season," I figured, so this Christmas I asked for Philip Pullman's book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and also read The God Dialogues:  A Philosophical Journey, by Torin Alter and Robert Howell.  Robert is a colleague of mine at SMU, and Torin teaches philosophy at the University of Alabama. 

The God Dialogues  is a great book for teaching philosophy of religion to undergraduates, but also engaging and enlightening for civilians.  The dialogue goes on between three students traveling around the US--mnemonically named THeo, evA, and GeNe.  You guess what position each takes.  There is amusing banter among them, but mostly they are the ideal interlocuters.  They're clear, they're coherent, they're witty. They even occasionally write out arguments with precision on pieces of paper.

In a book like this, and in philosophy generally, the explainer's job is to present each argument so it makes as much sense as it possibly can. Counterarguments have to be presented charitably as well.  The book is a model of impartiality, but the nice thing is that the interlocutors themselves are invested in their own positions.  That invites the reader to take a stand too.  A more encyclopedic overview of positions tends to make the reader/student just assimilate passively, instead of grappling.

So let's do some grappling.  The great thing about the book is that it tells you everything you always wanted to know about certain arguments, but were afraid to ask.  True confession:  I never quite "got" the modal version of the Ontological Argument.  As I recall from the last time I took a dive into the contemporary literature on the subject, it was pretty technical and dense.  So I was very happy to be enlightened in no more than a few painless pages.

So here we go... starting at page 90, after Theo the theist has given a quick snapshot of the modal version of the ontological argument.

THEO: Surely you think the conclusion follows from the premises.

EVA:  Actually, I'm not sure. It would help to have them...

THEO:  Written out in premise-conclusion form? Already done.

GENE:  Wow. Did you wake up early this morning and prepare for this discussion?

THEO:  Well, yeah.

GENE: You bum.

THEO:  It's better than spending the morning with my head under a pillow.

GENE:  Good point.

THEO:  Thank you. The argument has two parts. The first establishes God's possibility, and the second infers His actuality.  Here's the first part:

1.  It's conceivable that God exists. 
2.  If it's conceivable that God exists, then it's possible that He exists.
3.  Therefore, it's possible that God exists. In other words, there's at least one possible world in which He exists.

GENE:  Okay.

THEO:  And here's part two:

4.  If it's possible that God exists, then it's necessary that He exists. In other words, if He exists in any possible world, then He exists in all possible worlds--including the actual world.
5.  Therefore, God exists in the actual world.  In other words, God exists.

GENE:  I think there's a little verbal magic going on here.

Eva the Atheist makes an interesting concession right away--if you want to block this proof, you're going to have to ramp up your atheism. You're going to have to reject the first part of the argument, and deny that it's even possible that God exists.  You would have thought atheists just believe God doesn't exist, not that he couldn't exist.  The argument thus succeeds in a strategic sense--it pushes the atheist toward a position that seems too strong.

Or does the atheist have to go that route?  I found myself wanting Eva to accept the first part of the argument, but challenge premise 4. The whole idea of God as a necessary being strikes me as peculiar. Theo explains it like this--

THEO:  ... If God existed contingently, then His existence would depend on the way things turned out--on luck, or in any case on something other than Himself. But God, as a perfect, being, simply does not depend on other things.  God is a being that depends on nothing but Himself. (p. 87)

And then on the next page like this--

THEO:  ... If God exists, the it's impossible that he would have failed to exist.  You're not like that. You do exist, but you didn't have to exist--your parents might never have met. (p. 88)

It's easiest to get a grip on necessary facts.  2 + 2 = 4 is necessarily true--true in every possible world.  However things might have gone differently, starting 10 years ago, or 100, or a billion, or from the beginning, it still would have been true that 2 + 2 = 4.  And maybe the numbers themselves are necessary entities--they exist (in some sense) in every possible world.

Maybe there are even some less abstract things that exist in every possible world.  Might we think of space as a necessity?  Or maybe time? Or spacetime?  OK...that doesn't sound crazy.  But what's with the idea of an all powerful, all good being, who exists in all possible worlds?   Could we also construct the concept of a necessary book, or a necessary person, or a necessary mountain?  But obviously none of that even begins to make sense.  Why does it make sense that the omnipotent, omniscient creator of everything would be able to add  necessity to his laurels?  (And don't say it's just "by definition," because the necessary mountain is also necessary by definition, and that makes no sense.)

Another way of making this point occurs to me.  If you already have the Cosmological Argument under your belt, and you think you've shown that a world couldn't get going without God, then God must exist in every possible world--no matter how this world had gone differently, there would still be God.  Necessity would be an upshot of the proof, along with God's existence.  However, the ontological argument is supposed to work from scratch. It would be useless if you needed a different argument for the existence of God in order to make the Ontological Argument work.

Eva actually winds up overcoming the Ontological Argument by turning it against itself (see pg. 93).  You see, two can play that game.  Just take the original and put "doesn't" in front of every "exist" or "exists".  The argument now proves God doesn't exist.  Eva claims this reverse argument is actually more compelling than the original (see pg. 93-6 for details).  But making the reverse argument does saddle the atheist with the view that God is impossible.  That's certainly atheism on steroids!

And now for Pullman's novel--if that's the word for it. This is a retelling of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with Jesus and Christ portrayed as twins.  Let's just say, interesting!  I would call the book a discussion-generator more than a really gripping piece of literature, but it's a great discussion-generator.  It would be a good choice for reading groups of all sorts--especially for Christians and former Christians. I think it must help if you know the gospels extremely well, because no doubt much of the excitement lies in seeing all the departures from the original.  I don't know the gospels well enough to pick up on every intriguing deviation.  The book is ultimately about scripture, and how it comes to be...and if I tell you any more I'll spoil it for you. I had read no reviews at all beforehand, and I was very glad I hadn't.


Faust said...

Hmmmmmmmmm. I worry about this gloss on Anselm.

It's not clear to me that the way "God" is being deployed here does justice to the core logic in Anselm's argument.

Anselm defines God as "a being than which nothing greater can be concieved." Or The Greatest Concievable Being for short. Right off the bat we see how wierd it would be for this to be reversed as you suggest Eva does eg:

(A) It is concievable that a being greater than which nothing can be concieved does not exist.

Because this already begs the question against Anselm's central assertion namely: that things that exist in reality are "more perfect" than things that exist "in the understanding alone."

Everything interesting (in my opinion) about Anselm's argument consists in these two elements:

1. What it might be to "concieve" of "a being than which nothing greater can be concieved."


2. Whether or not "existence" is an "attribute" that should be regarded as "making things more perfect."

I'm just not sure that dialogs presented here really do justice to Anselm's central assertions, or indeed if they adress them at all. At a minimu, the use of the term "God" without a definition creates confusion imo.

But maybe this stuff is brought out in the book. .

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, but wait...The modal version is not supposed to be a "gloss" on Anselm's argument, preserving everything in the original. There are devastating objections to the original argument. It's something new and different, but inspired by Anselm.

Faust said...

Ahh so this is supposed to address Plantiga et al?

Jean Kazez said...


Unknown said...

Hey Jean,
Thanks for the write up! A coupla things.
First, I agree one could deny the necessity of God premise, but I'm not sure the necessary mountain parody gets it done. That's really a version of Gaunilo's objection, I think, and interestingly Robert Adams (who I find to be better on this than Plantinga) things that is precisely what this argument avoids. He thinks we really can't conceive of a mountain that exists in all possible worlds. That seems right to me because there are worlds that are clearly conceivable where there is, for example, a lake where the mountain is, or where there is only empty space. A necessary god seems less difficult to conceive in some ways, though one might think that is because what you are conceiving is a little less concrete and clear. Another thing Adams and others will say is that the argument doesn't start with our having to conceive of a necessary god, but with our conceiving of an all powerful god. If that is conceivable, then he has an argument that it must be necessary. Nothing like this holds for mountains and islands.

On the other side, I'm not really so sure that Eva's atheism is all that steroidal. It's important to see that if the theist is right about the necessity of god premise, than any evidence that would show that god doesn't exist in this world (such as unnecessary evil) would by that very premise show that god is impossible. In other words, the steroids come from the theist's premise. The atheist relies on the same old evidence she always did, but with amplified results.

Jean Kazez said...

Hi Robert, I was trying to avoid Gaunilo-ishness by not supposing the mountain is perfect. But OK... a necessary God is not as nutty as a necessary mountain. At least, it raises different problems... But I'm still not really getting the hang of why I ought to think of God as necessary, apart from there being existential reasons. You widen the gap between humans and God by saying humans are contingent and God is necessary--there's more to be awed by. But are you just gluing necessity on, or is there some basis for thinking of God as necessary? I think that's my question. I don't really see the connection between powerfulness and necessity. Atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima....very powerful...but it exists in no more possible worlds than some specific firecracker. Is there a short sweet way to explain how Adams gets from powerfulness to necessity?

Unknown said...

Ultimately, Jean, I'm going to agree with you, and like almost all of the arguments in the book this argument (and responses to it) can be developed in a greater degree--hence the recommended readings. But here's, maybe, a couple of ways to get the hang of the theist's point.

1. God is supposed to be responsible for everything being the way that it is. But for him to be responsible for a world with mountains and rivers, he must have the option to have created a world without them. But for that to be the case, he must exist in the world without them. This holds for all contingent things, so any way the world could have been, he must have existed.

2. Many actual traits depend upon how things would have been in different circumstances. So, my being virtuous (of course!) requires that I not only happen to do the right thing, but that I do the right thing even if circumstances were different--if the person I gave charity to were black instead of white, for example. Same with honesty, fortitude, loyalty, etc. God has the highest excellence, by definition. So, he must not only do the right thing (etc.) in a subset of worlds, but in all worlds. But do do the right thing in all worlds he must exist in them all.

Are there problems with these arguments? Yes, I think there are big ones. But they are stronger than merely tacking necessity onto god, I think.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, not just tacked on. I will resist the temptation to grouse about those two arguments, which are interesting, BUT.....!

Anonymous said...

I find it mildly disturbing that the notion of necessity is not seen as immediately calling into question part 1 of the argument.

Was the god that we allowed was conceivable necessary? Doesn't this then imply that anything we can conceive as being necessary, is necessary (since it exists in some possible world)?

And how do we determine whether it's conceivable that a necessar god exists?

In the end, this is only another semantic quagmire and not really an argument for the existence of anything. ugh!

Unknown said...

@Anonymous--If I recall correctly, the first response in the dialogue is, in fact, to call 1 into question. In general, I agree with you--and in fact have published elsewhere arguing something similar in a different context. I disagree that it is purely a semantic issue, though. It is true that depending on one's semantics of thought, conception will have different metaphysical implications, but that doesn't make the disagreement semantic. (Depending on one's semantics, "Rabbits" can designate amoebas, but that doesn't make it a semantic issue whether Rabbits have kidneys.)
But again, I have no doubt we agree more than we disagree here.

Jean Kazez said...

"Was the god that we allowed was conceivable necessary?"

I took myself to be agreeing to 1 without being committed to God's necessity. I was assuming "God" means something like "the highest one" (or some such...under the influence of Mark Johnston), so I can have God thoughts without automatically have "necessary being" thoughts. If I were forced into saying "God" thoughts are "necessary being" thoughts, then my worries about 4 would become worries about 1 as well.

Anonymous said...

I have problems with 1, and an enormous problem with 2.

1. It is certainly conceivable that something somebody might call God exists. But what does it mean to say that it is conceivable that God exists, without a lot of clear explanation of "God"? (And maybe "conceivable.")

2. It is NOT necessarily possible that something that is conceivable is actually possible. (I can conceive of six impossible things before breakfast without breaking a sweat, and often without noticing.)

For example, on a bad day, at a distracted moment, I could probably entertain the notion that 2378 is a prime number---it might be conceivable, and quite clearly conceivable. (If I remember what "prime" means but fail to notice that 2376 is an even number, or fail to remember that no even numbers greater than 2 can be prime.)

My being able to conceive of it simply doesn't imply that it's actually possible. It may be clearly impossible, on reflection, in light of actual facts, and only "possible" in the sense that I don't realize it's impossible. (For lack of relevant information or, as in this case, because I don't notice the implications.)

This seems like the same kind of mistake Descartes made in the Pensees when he assumed that what he could clearly conceive (that the mind could exist without the body) was actually possible.

Conceivable just doesn't imply possible, for any interesting value of "possible" that means anything more than "conceivable."

-- Paul W.