191. A Divine Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence
In earlier posts I briefly presented both St. Augustine’s (see here) and Leibniz’s (see here) arguments for God from eternal truth. Since I find this underrepresented approach to demonstrating God’s existence both fascinating and promising, I decided to present my own Augustine-Leibniz inspired divine conceptualist argument for consideration. This is a “conceptualist” argument since its strength revolves around seeing propositions as thoughts. It is “divine” since it seeks to establish propositions as divine thoughts. By no means am I claiming originality in this general approach: I have been influenced by Augustine and Leibniz as well as contemporary philosophers such as Greg Welty, James Anderson, Edward Feser, Alexander Pruss, Quentin Smith, Brian Leftow, and others. But I think my particular formulation of the argument has some virtues. After presenting the argument, I offer some brief comments on the more perplexing and/or controversial premises for clarification. I close with some objections and an overview of some benefits that might accompany a successful defense of the argument. The following is, despite its excessive length (feel free to just read the argument!), only a sketch and is very much a work in progress. So I welcome any comments or criticisms.
A Divine Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence from Necessary Truth
Premise 1: There are necessary truths (for example, 2+2=4, cats are mammals, triangles have three sides, necessary truths either exist or necessary truths don’t exist) which are true in all possible situations or, to use possible world semantics, true in all possible worlds.
Premise 2: Truth is a property of propositions which are inherently intentional, that is, they are about whether some state of affairs obtains or not.
Premise 3: Inherently intentional propositions are best understood as thoughts.
Premise 4: Thoughts require a mind.
Premise 5: So necessary truths exist as thoughts of a mind or minds.
Premise 6: A necessary being is not dependent on anything else for its existence and can’t fail to exist.
Premise 7: A contingent being is dependent on something else for its existence and could have failed to exist.
Premise 8: Necessarily true propositions are thoughts of a contingent being(s) and/or a necessary being(s).
Premise 9: There were situations in which contingent beings with minds capable of forming propositions did not exist (such as the state of our universe before life developed).
Premise 10: So necessarily true propositions, which are true in all possible situations, cannot be thoughts of contingent beings.
Premise 11: So there must be either a necessary being or necessary beings whose thoughts account for necessarily true propositions.
Premise 12: A necessarily existing mind, being independent, would be purely actual or would have no unrealized potentials.
Premise 13: A purely actual being would, besides being the ground for necessary truths, be at least omniscient, omnipotent, all good, unchanging, and immaterial.
Premise 14: There cannot be more than one purely actual being.
Premise 15: A necessarily existing being with thoughts that is unique, omniscient, omnipotent, all good, unchanging, and immaterial is best referred to as God.
Conclusion: Therefore God exists.
Comments on Premise 1
Those of us who believe in truth typically maintain certain truths are contingent which means they are, to use possible world semantics, true in some worlds and false in others. For example, the sentence ‘Dwight Goodyear was born in 1970’ expresses a true proposition about me that is only contingently true since we can easily imagine possible worlds where I was never born. It seems intuitively obvious to many that there are also truths which are narrowly or broadly necessary or true in all possible worlds (for an overview of narrow and broad necessity, go here). However, some do not share this intuition so it is important to offer some reasons in defense of necessary truths and to do so in a way that doesn’t presuppose the existence of God.
One way we can do this is by considering modal logic or that branch of logic that studies reasoning which employs, among other things, necessity and possibility. For example, axiom 5 of modal logic, an axiom included in the widely accepted system of modal logic S5, states that, as Raymond Bradley and Norman Swartz nicely put it in their book Possible Worlds (Hackett, 1979), “if a proposition P is possibly true, that is, if P is true in at least one possible world then the proposition that it is true in at least one possible world will be true in all possible worlds and thus necessary” (223-224). For example, the sentence ‘Dwight Goodyear was born in 1970’ expresses, as we have seen, a proposition that is contingently true (true in some worlds and false in others) and thus possible since something is possible if it is true in at least one world. But once we have this possibility in place then, according to S5, it implies the following necessary truth that holds in all possible worlds:
Necessary truth: ‘The proposition ‘Dwight Goodyear was born in 1970′ is true in at least one world.’
That is, it is true in every world that there is a particular contingent truth about me that holds in this world. So according to S5 all possible and contingent truths imply necessary truths.
Moreover, we should note that universal possibilism, the view that there are no necessary truths, appears to imply a necessary truth after all. To see this, first note that ‘It is not possible that P’ is logically equivalent to ‘It is necessary that not P.’ So if we take P to be ‘there are necessary truths’ then we would have this:
It is not possible that there are necessary truths = It is necessary that there are no necessary truths.
So claiming that necessary truths are not possible commits one to a necessary truth.
Now, it is a fact that plenty of non-theists from different philosophical backgrounds will accept this analysis. Thus it appears we can give a God-independent account of necessary truths by appealing to some fairly orthodox ideas in modal logic. If you want a few more God-independent reasons for believing in necessary truths go to my post here. But keep in mind that premise one is not committed to any particular example of a necessary truth(s). The fundamental laws of logic and simple mathematical truths will work as convincing examples for many people. If not, other examples might be offered. Those who think they can find a convincing example of any kind will accept the premise.
Comments on Premises 2-4
Our natural language uses the word ‘true’ as a description of something: true statements, true sentences, true beliefs, true intentions, and so on. So it seems plausible that if there are necessary truths then there exist entities that have the property of being true. Perhaps there can be, as Alexius Meinong (1853-1920) thought, non-existent things with properties. But surely it makes more sense to claim that only things that exist can bear properties. It also makes sense that entities that are necessarily true would have to exist necessarily. Alexander Pruss and Joshua Rasmussen, in their book Necessary Existence (Oxford, 2018), sum up these points nicely: “Consider the truth that 2+2=4. It’s necessarily true. But something can’t be true unless it exists. So anything that is necessarily true exists necessarily. So the object, the truth that 2+2=4, exists necessarily” (127). However, we might adopt the deflationary theory of truth and claim truth is not a property at all (for an overview of the theory with a list of objections, go here). But if we accept that truth is a property then we quickly discover one popular candidate for truth-bearers in the philosophical community: propositions.
One plausible view of propositions starts by recognizing that they are intentional or about something. And this “aboutness” makes them the proper bearers of true and falsity insofar as truth claims are obviously about things and represent them to be a certain way. For example, the sentence ‘Augustine believed in eternal truths’ expresses in English a proposition which is about Augustine and can therefore be true or false. This inclusion of intentionality would, following Franz Brentano who argued that all intentional phenomena are mental, plausibly imply that propositions are mental in nature. And if we accept that propositions are mental then they plausibly require minds. Paul M. Gould and Richard M. Davis elaborate:
“And just as there cannot be thoughts without a thinker, ideas (which are nothing but materials for thinking) cannot exist apart from the minds that have them. But then what better explanation could there be for the orderly arrangement of ideas than the mental activity of thinkers? The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that the things properly said to be true or false (propositions) actually result from mental activity – from the joining or separating of ideas….Thus it follows straight away that propositions are mental effects. For propositions have parts, those parts are best construed as ideas, and their being properly related (that is “fitted into” truth claims) requires a mental arranger.” (See Beyond the Control of God?, ed. Gould, 58)
This view of propositions is called conceptualism which Quentin Smith defines as follows: “Conceptualism with respect to propositions is the theory that it is necessarily the case that propositions are effects of mental causes.” (Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 1, 38). Conceptualism is to be distinguished from views that identify propositions with things which aren’t intrinsically about anything and therefore cannot be true or false (for example, sentences, abstract objects, properties, and facts). Beliefs are surely mental in nature and thus may look like promising candidates for being truth-bearers. But beliefs are best understood as attitudes towards propositions rather than being the bearers of truth and falsity themselves: if I believe 2+2=4 I have an affirmative attitude towards the proposition 2+2=4 (for an argument against the view that beliefs can be adequate bearers of truth, see my post here).
Conceptualism, when confined to human mental activity, runs into some difficulties: (1) if propositions are thoughts, and human thoughts are private, then it is hard to see how we can have a shared objective reference for truth; (2) the human mind is always changing so the true propositions we have in mind would be changing as well which is absurd: our estimations of the truth change not the truth itself; (3) humans are contingent beings so there would be no necessary propositions: all propositions only came into being when we did and none would be true in all possible worlds or situations; and (4) if there are an infinite number of mathematical truths then there is no way a finite number of finite human minds could account for such truths. In order to avoid these difficulties, many philosophers claim propositions are non-mental abstract entities which exist independently of our minds. But the foregoing argument aims to conclude that there is a divine mind whose divine thoughts are the propositions we can think, have attitudes towards, represent and assemble into arguments, and so on. The hope is that this mind, being divine, would enable us to both avoid these problems of reducing propositions to human minds and keep in place the sensible intuition that propositions are intentional and therefore capable of being true or false.
Of course, intentionality can be a controversial topic and the above form of mental intentionality, since it is purposeful, is a form many philosophers hope to jettison from their world views which feature the non-teleological (non-purposeful) explanations of physics, chemistry, and biology. But to deny the existence of intentionality in the above sense appears to be self-defeating since the very act of denying the thesis that intentional mental states exist presupposes an intentional mental state toward that thesis. If the so-called denial is nothing but an effect of purposeless movement, akin to a set of words unintentionally formed by the falling of leaves onto the ground, then it seems impossible to construe it as a meaningful denial.
Comments on Premises 6 and 7
Premises 6 and 7 offer definitions: a necessary being is not dependent on anything else for its existence; a contingent being is dependent on something else for its existence. These definitions have the potential to get us into deep metaphysical waters. But Richard Taylor, in his book Metaphysics (Prentice Hall, 1992), offers a helpful elaboration which makes them plausible:
“A being that depends for its existence upon nothing but itself and is in this sense self-caused, can equally be described as a necessary being; that is to say, a being that is not contingent, and hence not perishable. For in the case of anything that exists by its own nature and is dependent upon nothing else, it is impossible that it should not exist, which is equivalent to saying that it is necessary. Many persons have professed to find the gravest difficulties in this concept, too, but that is partly because it has been confused with other notions. If it makes sense to speak of anything as an impossible being, or something that by its very nature does not exist, then it is hard to see why the idea of a necessary being, or something that in its very nature exists, should not be just as comprehensible. And, of course, we have not the slightest difficulty in speaking of something, such as a square circle or a formless body, as an impossible being. And if it makes sense to speak of something as being perishable, contingent, and dependent upon something other than itself for its existence, as it surely does, then there seems to be no difficulty in thinking of something as imperishable and dependent upon nothing other than itself for its existence.” (107-108)
Comments on Premise 12
Premise 12 introduces the concepts of potentiality and actuality and states that a necessarily existing mind would be purely actual or lacking in potentials. This is plausible since if it was partially potential then it would lose its necessary or independent existence in at least three ways: (1) its existence would be dependent upon the existence of its potential/actual parts thus making it contingent; (2) it would be composite and this composite would require a cause upon which it would depend making its existence contingent; and (3) it would be dependent upon external factors for the actualization of its potentials making it contingent upon them. Of course, we would have to accept the reality of potential and actual parts which are often construed as metaphysical parts along with distinctions like form/matter, essence/existence, substance/accident, and genus/species. The belief in metaphysical parts is certainly more controversial than the belief in physical parts. But I think in this case the distinction is warranted based on how the concept of potentiality, far from being some antiquated notion, can help us make sense of various dispositional analyses in both philosophy and science (as Barbara Vetter’s Potentiality: from Dispositions to Modality makes clear; for a summary and critical review, go here). Indeed, we may, as Aristotle points out in an important passage from his Metaphysics (Book Theta, Chapter 3), land ourselves in absurdity if we deny the existence of potentialities:
“There are some who say…that a thing can act only when it is acting, and when it is not acting it cannot act, e.g. that he who is not building cannot build, but only he who is building, when he is building; and so in all other cases. It is not hard to see the absurdities that attend this view. For it is clear that on this view a man will not be a builder unless he is building (for to be a builder is to be able to build), and so with the other arts. If, then, it is impossible to have such arts if one has not at some time learnt and acquired them, and it is then impossible not to have them if one has not sometime lost them (either by forgetfulness or by some accident or by time; for it cannot be by the destruction of the object, for that lasts for ever), a man will not have the art when he has ceased to use it, and yet he may immediately build again; how then will he have got the art? And similarly with regard to lifeless things; nothing will be either cold or hot or sweet or perceptible at all if people are not perceiving it; so that the upholders of this view will have to maintain the doctrine of Protagoras [at Metaphysics 1007b20–22 Aristotle attributes to Protagoras the thesis that “it is equally possible to affirm and to deny anything of anything”]. But, indeed, nothing will even have perception if it is not perceiving, i.e. exercising its perception. If, then, that is blind which has not sight though it would naturally have it, when it would naturally have it and when it still exists, the same people will be blind many times in the day – and deaf too. Again, if that which is deprived of potency is incapable, that which is not happening will be incapable of happening; but he who says of that which is incapable of happening either that it is or that it will be will say what is untrue; for this is what incapacity meant. Therefore these views do away with both movement and becoming. For that which stands will always stand, and that which sits will always sit, since if it is sitting it will not get up; for that which, as we are told, cannot get up will be incapable of getting up. But we cannot say this, so that evidently potency and actuality are different (but these views make potency and actuality the same, and so it is no small thing they are seeking to annihilate), so that it is possible that a thing may be capable of being and not be, and capable of not being and yet be, and similarly with the other kinds of predicate; it may be capable of walking and yet not walk, or capable of not walking and yet walk. And a thing is capable of doing something if there will be nothing impossible in its having the actuality of that of which it is said to have the capacity. I mean, for instance, if a thing is capable of sitting and it is open to it to sit, there will be nothing impossible in its actually sitting; and similarly if it is capable of being moved or moving, or of standing or making to stand, or of being or coming to be, or of not being or not coming to be.”
It should be noted that a fully actual being can indeed act since active power flows from that which is actual not potential. There are, of course, passive powers as well: all contingent beings have the power or potential to be affected by things. But a necessary being would lack such passive powers while retaining active powers. So this idea of a purely actual being shouldn’t lead us to conclude that this being is inert, inactive, and so on.
Comments on Premise 13
Some divine conceptualist arguments seek to only demonstrate a necessarily existing omniscient mind. But premise 13 attempts to establish other characteristics commonly associated with God in light of the connection between necessary existence and pure actuality. Of course, the nature of these characteristics and their relation to pure actuality would require an extensive defense. But the basic ideas are as follows: an independently existing and fully actual mind would (1) be omniscient (would know all true propositions) since any lack in its knowledge would imply the existence of potentials it doesn’t have; (2) would be omnipotent (would be able to do anything logically possible) since any lack in power would imply potentials or dependencies it doesn’t have; and (3) if being bad and evil is a privation or deficiency of goodness, then this being, having no potentials, deficiencies, or privations, would be all good (for my three post series on the privation theory of evil go here). Moreover, if change and material existence are inseparable from potentials then this being, which has no potentials, is (4) immaterial and (5) unchanging as well.
Comments on Premise 14
Premise 14 states there cannot be more than one purely actual being. There are various ways, some more controversial than others, we can defend this premise. Here are a few:
(1) It is simpler to posit one purely actual mind rather than many thus satisfying the principle of parsimony (entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity).
(2) If there were more than one purely actual being then the same class of necessarily true propositions would exist in each of those minds. After all, each of these beings, not lacking anything, would know all the truth there is to know. But this multitude of classes would undermine the objectivity of truth which requires that for every proposition humans think there is only one such proposition (e.g., the Pythagorean Theorem). This reason harmonizes well with the argument’s emphasis on propositions and truth.
(3) To distinguish more than one purely actual being would require that they be different and difference is grounded in what things lack (I can distinguish a red car from a black car because the red lacks black and the black lacks red). But a purely actual being lacks nothing. Therefore any claim that there is a multitude of purely actual beings must be mistaken: the so-called plurality would actually be the same in accordance with Leibniz’s Law (if, for every property F, if object x has F if and only if object y has F, then x is identical to y). Edward Feser, in his book The Last Superstition, provides a helpful elaboration: “[I]n order for there to be two (or more) purely actual beings, there would have to be some way of distinguishing them, some feature that one of them had that the other lacked…For to lack a feature is just to have an unrealized potentiality, and a purely actual being, by definition, has no unrealized potentialities. So if we said, for example, that one purely actual being was more powerful than another, and that that is what distinguished him from the other one, then we’d be saying in effect that the other purely actual being had failed to realize his potential for power as fully as the first had – which makes no sense given that we’re talking about a purely actual being, with no potentials of any sort” (97-98).
(4) If we accept the distinction between essence and existence as implying real metaphysical parts that are separable then we can argue that this distinction wouldn’t apply to a completely actual being without parts. Such a being would just be its essence. But this would imply that such a being couldn’t be a particular example of an essence like a particular scalene triangle is an example of the essence of a triangle. Thus a purely actual being must be unique and can’t be one among others like a scalene triangle is one among others with the same essence. William Vallicella puts the point nicely: “God is necessary because he is simple and not because he exists in all metaphysically possible worlds. And while one may say that the simple God is or exists, God is not an existent among existents or a being among beings, but Being (esse) itself in its prime instance and in this respect different from every other being (ens). Unique in all these ways, God is uniquely unique. He is not unique as one of a kind, but unique in transcending the distinction between kind and member of a kind. God is unique in his very mode of uniqueness. The simple God, we could say, differs not only in his attributes, but also in his very ontological structure, from any and all created beings.” (see the introduction to his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Divine Simplicity” here).
(5) Leibniz claimed there are necessary truths that are the outcome of relating other necessary truths together. After all, “these necessities can be combined, any one to any one, because any two propositions can be connected to prove a new one, when the means of joining them have been added” (see Leibniz: The Shorter Texts, 182). If we maintain, as we did above, that minds are necessary to establish propositional relations, then perhaps we can infer one being as the means for joining necessary truths together. As Leibniz put it in his work On the Ultimate Origination of Things: “Moreover, it [the ultimate source for the reality of eternal truths] can be sought in but one source, because of the interconnection among all these things [necessary truths]” (Hackett, 45). Robert Merrihew Adams, in his book Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist (Oxford, 1998), explains Leibniz’s position:
“According to Leibniz’s argument, for any plurality, P, of (necessary) truths or natures, there necessarily exists a necessary truth, T, grounded in a relation, R, among all the members of P; in order to sustain T in being there must eternally and necessarily exist at least one mind that understand R. But a mind that understands R must be one that understands the members of P, a mind “in which [the idea of] the nature of the circle, the square, and the others is,” if those are the natures in which T is grounded; understanding all that, it will presumably be a mind that understands T itself. The conclusion of this argument is that for any plurality, P, of (necessary) truths or natures, there eternally and necessarily exists at least one mind that understands all the members of P” (182).
Note that Adams claims Leibniz’s account implies there must be at least one necessarily existing mind. But the foregoing allows us to argue for what Leibniz himself asserted: more than one is not only unnecessary but impossible.
We have already seen that the premises of my argument, while they introduce sensible ideas, definitions, and principles, nonetheless include controversial topics like the existence and nature of necessary truths, the nature of propositions, the nature of necessary and contingent being, the existence and nature of potency and actuality, and the nature of the divine attributes. We can raise plenty of questions in relation to these topics: could it be that propositions can be intentional but not mental in nature? Could it be that propositions are truth bearers but not representational? Could it be that propositions are not truth bearers and that truth is not a property at all? If we think that true propositions don’t exist independently of God as objective things then do we run the risk of making truth arbitrarily grounded in God’s mind? Couldn’t God make 2+2=5 as easily as he could 2+2=4? If not, why exactly? If we think that God’s thoughts, like our thoughts, are concrete (capable of causal efficacy) then how can they be multiply-instantiable as universals are? When we think of propositions we usually think they are those things which are thought rather than being thoughts themselves. But, as we have seen, a divine conceptualist maintains that propositions are thoughts of God rather than being the objects he is thinking about. Isn’t this incoherent? And wouldn’t this make propositions hopelessly private and inaccessible to us? If not, how can we understand our access to them? And if we can access God’s thoughts is there something heretical in the idea that we are doing so? If God thinks all propositions then does God think false propositions and immoral thoughts? If God is the ground of necessarily true propositions – say, the laws of logic – don’t we have to presuppose the existence of God as we formulate a divine conceptualist argument thereby begging the question? If we think God has infinite propositions then how can we reconcile this seemingly rich mental life with the doctrine of divine simplicity? Some claim that God’s intellect doesn’t have a plurality of propositions since God’s is simple. But then can the argument with its emphasis on propositions make any sense at all? If God knows all true propositions about the future then wouldn’t we lose free will? If God is fully actual then wouldn’t we lose what many want, namely, a personal and interventionist God with plenty of potentials in relation to changing, choosing, reacting, feeling, and so on? Can’t there be a necessary being capable of change? Can’t something have parts – at least metaphysical parts like potentiality and actuality – but still be necessary?
It appears we can find some plausible, perhaps even convincing, responses to many of these objections. I offer some responses in the benefits section and the comments section below. You can also consider plenty of objections and responses in this paper in which Greg Welty and James Anderson respond to objections to their divine conceptualist argument here; in the book Beyond the Control of God? (Bloomsbury, 2014) in which Greg Welty presents his divine conceptualist argument and responds to a set of objections from various thinkers; in this downloadable paper in which Greg Welty responds to a powerful set of criticisms raised by William Lane Craig in chapter 5 of his book God Over All: Divine Aseity and the Challenge of Platonism (Oxford, 2016); in Craig’s response to Welty’s response which can be found here; in this youtube episode of Parker’s Pensees in which James Anderson responds to many criticisms raised by Alex Malpass; in chapter three of Edward Feser’s book Five Arguments for the Existence of God, in which he responds to objections to his Augustine-inspired divine conceptualist argument, and in this article in which he responds to some of Craig’s objections as well; in this article by Quentin Smith; and in Alexander Pruss’ book Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds (Continuum, 2011) which offers a helpful assessment of the costs and benefits of adopting his version of divine conceptualism (to name just a few resources). But clearly the above objections and others besides collectively pose a serious challenge to any defender of the argument. And we must keep in mind other related issues that are bound to arise such as how a necessary being relates to a contingent world, what we can really know about such a being, the evidential problem of evil, the hiddenness of God, and so on.
A Rationally Acceptable Argument for Some
I think it is safe to say my argument is not a rationally compelling deduction whose premises will be accepted by all rational persons upon consideration. Perhaps it has the potential to be rationally acceptable given a more thorough defense of the premises and a set of adequate responses to the above objections. Quentin Smith defines rational acceptability as follows: “An argument A for a thesis T is rationally acceptable (and no more) to x if and only if (1) A is not a rationally compelling F proof of T and there is no is no rationally compelling proof of not-T, (2) A appears sound to x even after x has considered possible objections to A and considered A’s relations to other relevant arguments which he accepts or rejects, and (3) x is rational with respect to A” (Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 1, 47).
Here is a brief overview of some of the benefits that may come to those who find the argument rationally acceptable:
(1) We can make sense of the intuition that there are true propositions that are mental, intentional, and unchanging. In his dialogue On Free Choice of the Will (Macmillan, 1964) St. Augustine wrote: “If truth were equal to our minds, it would be subject to change. Our minds sometimes see more and sometimes less, and because of this we acknowledge that they are mutable. Truth, remaining in itself, does not gain anything when we see it, or lose anything when we do not see it” (67). If true propositions were to reside in our changing minds then truth would change which is absurd: our estimations of the truth change, not the truth itself. But, as Augustine pointed out, if truth resides in God’s mind then it can be as unchanging as the unchangeableness of God. And once we have unchanging truth we have a necessary condition for knowledge. Consider this passage from Plato’s dialogue Cratylus:
SOCRATES: Nor can we reasonably say, Cratylus, that there is knowledge at all, if everything is in a state of transition and there is nothing abiding; for knowledge too cannot continue to be knowledge unless continuing always to abide and exist. But if the very nature of knowledge changes, at the time when the change occurs there will be no knowledge; and if the transition is always going on, there will always be no knowledge, and, according to this view, there will be no one to know and nothing to be known: but if that which knows and that which is known exists forever, and the beautiful and the good and every other thing also exist, then I do not think that they can resemble a process or flux…(translation by Benjamin Jowett)
Here we see Socrates claiming that without something unchanging knowledge is impossible. This is certainly one of Plato’s fundamental and, for me, convincing insights. Unchanging truths in God’s unchanging mind can offer us a necessary condition for knowledge and prevent us from losing it in the flux.
(2) We can account for how truth is something that exists independently of us which we discover rather than create: propositions are God’s thinkings which exist independent of human minds. In his book Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds (Continuum, 2011) Alexander Pruss elaborates: “If propositions are thinkings, then any necessarily existent proposition will have to, thus, be a thinking by a necessary being, and if God is the only necessary being, then it will have to be one of God’s thinkings. On orthodox views of propositions, all propositions are necessarily existent, and it is in any case plausible that at least the necessarily true propositions should exist necessarily. Thus, if the propositions are thinkings, they can only be God’s thinkings (209). Greg Welty provides a helpful elaboration as well: “Our mental tokens think God’s thoughts after Him, because they are attitudes to His thoughts (whether we are aware of this or not). The contents of our mental tokens are the (adverbially characterized) contents of divine mental tokens” (Beyond the Control of God?, 187).” It is important to understand that divine thoughts don’t have propositional content as our thoughts do; divine thoughts just are the intrinsically intentional content that we come to call propositions.
(3) Our shared access to God’s thoughts makes communication about the same propositions possible which seems to be required if we are going to have objective truth and avoid the pitfalls of relativism.
(4) We can make sense of the intuition that there are indeed an infinite number of truths. After all, God’s mind is omniscient and would know, for example, an infinite number of necessarily true mathematical propositions.
(5) Those who claim propositions are casually impotent abstract entities seem to be left with a problem: why and how are these entities relevant to our world? Why should our world be affected by them in any way? Indeed, how would we come to know them at all? Consider this passage from Paul Benacerraf: “To Platonism, necessary truths’ ontology is independent of thought and language and causally inert. As inert, it cannot affect us; as independent of thought and language, our access to these is not access to it. So we have no good account of how we could know necessary truths if they have Platonic ontologies: we can have an acceptable modal epistemology only by sacrificing Platonism” (see the second edition of Philosophy of Mathematics, edited by Benacerraf and Putnam, 403-420). But perhaps we can overcome these issues that plague Platonism by appealing to God’s intentionality and creative power. These factors would enable us to argue that we are able to connect with God’s propositions because he has the causal power to put us in touch with them (see my post on divine illumination for some thoughts on how). Moreover, these factors can help us account for how propositions represent our world and play a role in its creation. In Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds Pruss writes: “As for the question of how the propositions represent the world, the answer is that they do so by virtue of the intentionality of the divine mind” (210). He then connects this intentionality to God’s creative powers and truth: “Granted, propositions expressing modal truths are ideas in the mind of God. But what, we asked, makes these propositions true? The answer is that they are made true by the capabilities of the God whose action guiding ideas they are and by those beings that he might have created. What makes it true to say that it is possible for there to exist a world with unicorns is that the idea of such a world is an idea in the mind of an all-powerful God capable of acting on it and creating such a world” (222). Here Pruss is working with a common sense account of modality deriving from Aristotle who saw possibility as grounded in the prior actual powers of real beings. So, for example, the modal proposition “It is possible that Dwight Goodyear can paint a picture on August 15, 2023” would, if true now in 2020, be true because I have the ability to paint a picture on that day. But why should we delimit possibilities to those grounded in the actual powers of things in this universe? Isn’t it the case that possibilities far outrun such powers? After all, it certainly seems possible that the universe could have been 22 dimensions or, perhaps, that there might have been no universe at all. If we agree then we might find a theistic ground for global possibilities and possible worlds attractive. Pruss explains: “It is here that combining the Aristotelian account with Leibniz’s theistic story would solve the difficulties. On this combined account, there would be a God outside the universe…who has in his mind ideas of all kinds of possible worlds. We get to retain Leibniz’s intuition (very much in the Aristotelian spirit) that propositional-type entities can only exist in minds. But what we now add is the fact that this God is not just all-knowing but all-powerful. He is capable of putting his divine ideas into action. He can produce a 22-dimensional universe, not just think about one” (216).
(6) We can understand how there is an interrelated system of propositions since all truth is interrelated in God’s unique mind.
(7) Finally, we can avoid having to posit, as a contemporary Platonist who is committed to the existence of abstract entities must, an infinite number of abstract entities to account for the infinite plenitude of truths independent of human minds. This is a boon for at least three reasons. We have seen it is implausible that abstract entities have the intentionality required to be true or false. We have also seen how it is hard to see how we can be causally connected to necessary truths if they are abstract entities with no causal efficacy. And now we can add a third point stressed by Greg Welty, namely, by positing one God with an infinite number of ideas we can reduce the number of ontological kinds to which we are committed. For example, instead of having minds, bodies, and abstract objects in our world view we can just have minds and bodies. So even if, somehow, one could make sense of abstract entities as causal agents with intentionality, we could still argue that divine conceptualism is preferable since simplicity is widely embraced as a desirable property of any explanation.
Hello Mr. Goodyear, have you heard of William Lane Craig’s objections to divine conceptualism? He goes over them in his lecture “Cadbury Lectures 2015. 3: ‘Anti-Platonic Realism’ by Professor William Lane Craig.”
It begins at 20:23 if you are interested. The main objections are the objections that God would have first-person thoughts which would lead to the existence of private propositions and that God’s thoughts would be “about” propositions and so could not be identical to propositions. The latter is more troubling. I myself want to identify properties, propositions, and numbers as divine exemplars, but the objection that His thoughts could only be “about” those things and so could not “be” those things troubles me. Any thoughts (no pun intended).
Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. Here are a few thoughts in response:
(1) You write: “God would have first-person thoughts which would lead to the existence of private propositions.” This certainly seems sensible if we take human minds as our model for God’s mind and our relation to it. But perhaps we can access the content of God’s thinkings themselves due to God’s revelation, divine illumination, love, the imago dei, and so on. If God is infinite and we are made in his image then I suppose we can expect there to be some disanalogies, however mysterious, between our relationship to God’s mind and our relationships to other humans. As I mentioned above, we can’t experience God’s thoughts as God experiences them, i.e., from a first person perspective. But it doesn’t follow from this that we can’t access the content of God’s thoughts. We wouldn’t see from God’s first-person perspective; rather, we would come to know the objective content of divine thoughts from our unique perspectives. This leads to your second point.
(2) You write: “God’s thoughts would be “about” propositions and so could not be identical to propositions.” But must this be the case as well? According to divine conceptualism, when we think true propositions we think about some of God’s thinkings. But must we then maintain that God’s thinkings are separate from the propositions he thinks? Why can’t we say that some of God’s thinkings just ARE propositions? For God, a proposition is a thought; for us, a proposition is the content of a divine thought. Again, perhaps we should accept some disanologies and not tie our understanding of God too tightly to our modes of cognition. For example, Brain Leftow, in his book God and Necessity, writes:
“But someone who grants that mental events represent the world does not automatically commit to there being things which are their representations of the world. In saying that God has concepts, the most I commit myself to is that there is in God some underlying reality making it apt to speak of concept-possession.” (302)
“If so, we are free to hold that while there are contentful mental events in God, there are not items which are their contents. Rather, God causes mental events, and we can speak fictionally of them by saying that He creatively generates a range of representations. In us, what licenses talk of concept-possession is often entirely dispositional: I have the concept of a kangaroo but rarely use it. The reality behind talk of divine concept-possession may be just God’s having certain powers. But it probably involved more. Perfect-being considerations suggest that God is never unaware of anything He knows – that all His knowledge is occurrent, not dispositional. If this is so, every ‘divine concept’ is always in use in some divine mental event. I suggest then that in the final analysis, the ontology behind talk of divine concepts is in terms of divine mental events and powers. So my move is to replace abstract modal ontology with one of divine mental events and powers.” (303)
If something like this is right then perhaps we could maintain that God’s propositions are really just God’s powers/mental events which are inseparable from their content. Our experiences of concept possession, propositional attitudes, etc. might not be the best model to use when thinking about God’s mind.
We might also bring in Aristotle’s account of God as thought thinking thought (Metaphysics Lambda, 1075a). He first notes that “thinking and to be an object of thought are not the same.” But then he asks: “Or is it not that in some cases knowledge and its object are the same?” He then goes on to answer: “Thought and the object of thought are not different in the case of things that have not matter, the divine thought and its object will be the same, i.e. the thinking will be one with the object of its thought.”
And it is crucial to note that, if we accept the doctrine of divine simplicity according to which God has no separable physical or metaphysical parts, there will be no distinction between God and God’s thoughts. Reading our human complexity back into our analysis of God would generate a problem we don’t need to have in the first place.
Finally, in his blog (go here) James Anderson has pointed out that this objection, if it is successful, would undermine any realist position concerning propositions. He writes: “If someone objects that it is impossible for something both to have propositional content but also to be identical to that propositional content, I would point out that this objection, if successful, would refute any realist view of propositions, not merely divine conceptualism. Take, for example, the Fregean platonist view according to which propositions are mind-independent abstract entities (i.e., real immaterial entities that exist necessarily and independently of any mind, human or divine). Consider the Fregean proposition that 2+2=4. Does that proposition “have content”? Is it contentful? Yes, of course; otherwise it wouldn’t be the proposition that 2+2=4 rather than (say) the proposition that Paris is beautiful in the spring. But is the content of that proposition some entity distinct from the proposition itself? No, of course not; otherwise we’d be on the road to an infinite regress. There has to be some fundamental entity that plays the role of propositional content, and that fundamental entity is… wait for it… a proposition. A proposition just is propositional content.”
Anyway, just a few ideas. Feel free to let me know what you think…
Sorry it’s taken so long to reply! I appreciate these thoughts greatly. I will also be looking forward to Welty’s responses to Dr. Craig. I have also been thinking about getting Welty’s book on “theistic conceptual realism.” When you bring up points about things in God being inseparable it reminds me of another criticism of Craig’s. He says that universals cannot be divine ideas because the ideas would be particulars which defeats the whole purpose of them being universals. But this objection begs the question against divine simplicity, which I hold to. It seems you adhere to divine simplicity too given your use of God as purely actual in your premises. Do you think divine simplicity could solve other objections to divine conceptualism other than Craig’s “ideas are particulars” objection? Very knowledgeable people on this topic like you are usually too busy to interact with a lowly commenter, so thanks for interacting!
Hello again Jacob! Thanks for the follow up. And no worries about causing me any trouble: I have more leisure now since I am teaching all my classes remotely for the rest of the Spring semester.
I am not sure divine simplicity implies there can’t be a plurality of conceptual parts. For example, a Leibnizian monad is simple insofar as it is not an aggregate but nonetheless has a multiplicity of perceptions. And a spinning top, as Socrates points out at Republic 436e1, has an axis and circumference as conceptual parts rather than aggregative parts. Perhaps God lacks physical parts (head, arms, and legs) and metaphysical parts (form/matter, substance/attribute, potential/actual, essence/existence, etc.) but nonetheless has a set of conceptual parts which feature in propositions and worlds. But I have an open mind about it and find the whole topic very perplexing. My perplexity leads me to take Craig’s objection concerning universals seriously.
In his new response to Craig, Welty admits that his TCR hasn’t offered a theory of properties or universals at all: only possible worlds and propositions. Presumably we would think of properties as concepts in God’s mind. But if “all concepts have to offer, metaphysically speaking, is intentionality, then can they play the role of properties?” He then offers some suggestions about how a TCR might proceed. In doing so, he writes “perhaps some combination of divine powers and ideas working in tandem, as Aquinas seems to suggest in his doctrine of exemplar causality, is the most fruitful way forward, since on a theistic doctrine of creation, it is not possible for any concrete object distinct from God to exist, except as the realization of of a divine idea by way of a divine power.” This does sound promising. But he admits that “more work needs to be done by theistic conceptualists to meet the challenge of showing how antirealism at the divine level does not preclude and may even require the need for realism at the creaturely level…”
My work in this direction currently entails following a path revealed to me by reading Richard Mohr’s work on Plato (see his excellent book God and Forms in Plato). Mohr argues that Plato’s Forms are not what we think of as abstract objects, species, universals, and so on; rather, they are particular individuals with which the eye of the soul can, under certain conditions, become acquainted: knowing a Form is like coming to recognize a person, a “knowing who”, rather than a “knowing that” or “knowing how” (see pp. 250-253). Given this approach, perhaps the way is open to have particular divine ideas which can be accessed with the soul’s eye via a divine illumination. For example, we can all access the unique Pythagorean formula – a true individual if you will – and this immaterial, objective reference can then function as a universal for us despite being a particular thing in God.
Interestingly, Mohr argues that our access to these individual ideas, since they are really individuals, would be best understood in terms of aesthetic experience rather than conceptual analysis: “Relations between Forms lead the mind’s eye from one From to the next in the way that the parts of a well-composed painting lead the eye around the canvas” (250). As a result one does not “automatically “get” a form that is necessarily related to a Form that one already knows. Rather, the Forms hint at or suggest or point to each other” (250). He gives the example from Plato’s Phaedrus of coming to recollect the Form of Beauty and then coming to see the Form of moderation next to it.
Something seems right about this approach and it appears to work with Welty’s suggestion that we utilize divine ideas and power (perhaps Augustinian divine illumination which has its similarities to Plato’s Form of the Good) in tandem. But all this talk of particular individuals in God’s mind may ultimately not work with divine simplicity. In any case, I think there is really something here but I have yet to work it all through.
Thanks for the reply! Sorry I’m late again, this whole pandemic has really thrown me for a loop. Firstly, I’d like to say that I don’t necessarily think divine simplicity implies a multitude of conceptual parts, but I would simply be weary of calling them “parts” to emphasize that God is metaphysically simple. As you probably know, Aquinas explains in the Summa that even though the divine exemplars (forms/ideas) would be identical to God’s essence they would be multiplied by relation (Prima Pars, Q.15, A.2).
Welty saying that his model only accounts for possible worlds and propositions so far is comforting, since that means people like Craig will have a harder time objecting against an argument from Welty rather than just positing an objection against something Welty’s model hasn’t accounted for yet, if that makes any sense. Thanks for the link too!
I like your quote from Welty about appealing to Aquinas, because I too think this is in the right direction. Going back to what I said about Aquinas, he said that properties would be identical to God’s essence but multiplied by relation, but if properties are just identical to God on divine simplicity, then it seems that property instantiations are in some way instantiations of God, and Aquinas says that the reason these properties are different or as he says “multiplied by relation” is because of imperfect participation(s) of finite creatures (us). This seems to resemble what Welty says, that “…it is not possible for any concrete object distinct from God to exist, except as the realization of of a divine idea by way of a divine power.” The difference in ideas/forms is just the different ways an imperfect finite mind could participate in God, and God eternally knows these ways. But I think I still disagree about calling the ideas “particulars,” since they are identical to God and God is not a particular since He is not in a genus. Seeing forms as particulars also seems like it would cause the Third Man Argument to rear it’s ugly head, but I may be mistaken.
Regardless, as I am a metaphysical idealist, this view of properties and property instantiation seems extremely plausible to me and entirely compatible with idealism. On Kastrup’s idealism, the universe is the extrinsic appearance of God’s inner conscious life, in the way that our neural activity is the extrinsic appearance of our conscious experience, which seems similar to the theory of property instantiation that I laid out above. As an idealist, I am also very sympathetic to Platonic and Neoplatonic metaphysics and epistemology, and divine illumination, which you mentioned, appeals to me more than Aristotelian abstractionism.
The model I’m working on is very Platonic and idealistic. Essentially on Idealism, to account for the seeming existence of private minds (if all is mind why can’t we experience each other’s thoughts and feelings?), Bernardo Kastrup and I posit that we are dissociated alters of God in a similar way that people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder) have dissociated alters. I’d posit that the process of dissociation would essentially be a 1:1 mirror of Platonic anamnesis, which would entail innate ideas and recollection as learning. Since we are all alters of God we have the same innate ideas and this would account for the objectivity of something like the Pythagorean theorem, which you mentioned. In a way this is similar to Kant too, that universals are sort of like built-in categories of the mind, and I would include things like time and space as he did. I appreciate this dialogue and your insightful comments. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this. Stay safe out there! Sorry that this comment is pretty long too!
Whoops! I meant to say “Firstly, I’d like to say that I don’t necessarily think divine simplicity implies that there can’t be a multitude of parts, but I would simply be weary of calling them “parts” to emphasize that God is metaphysically simple.”
Very interesting thoughts on both Aquinas and idealism. I haven’t worked through Kastrup’s ideas in any detail – I’ve just seen a few videos, interviews, etc. But it is all very interesting to me, especially since I have a strong background in Leibniz’s idealism. I will eventually take a closer look. Thanks for sharing – I am glad you are enjoying our exchange as much as I am.
I agree that, if we are committed to divine simplicity, construing forms as particulars will be problematic if we think of particulars as implying a genus. But I am not so sure they have to. Mohr argues that his construal of Plato’s Forms as individuals avoids the third man argument because the Forms, rather than being exemplars which would generate the regress, are standards. And these standards are not instances of any property – they don’t even possess the property “of which they make possible the identification in other things.” (40). He thinks that “Plato does not mean that each Idea is one in number and the only instance or possessor of its kind, but rather means that each Idea is one in number and the only one for its kind, the kind that allows it to identify” (40). Perhaps we can say that God is unique and has unique ideas, each of which is a conceptual part that functions along these lines.
If we want to retain properties then William Vallicella’s defense of divine simplicity can help since it shows that certain properties are individuals that are both self-exemplifying and identical to an individual (see his paper here). The summary of the paper reads as follows: “The doctrine of divine simplicity, according to which God is devoid of physical or metaphysical complexity, is widely believed to be incoherent. I argue that although two prominent recent attempts to defend it fail, it can be defended against the charge of obvious incoherence. The defense rests on the isolation and rejection of a crucial assumption, namely, that no property is an individual. I argue that there is nothing in our ordinary concepts of property and individual to warrant the assumption, and that once the assumption is rejected, the way is clear to viewing the divine attributes as self-exemplifying properties whose self-exemplification entails their identity with an individual.”
This whole topic is very interesting to me as well. Mohr’s interpretation of Plato is novel to me but seems interesting as well. I looked at the table of contents in that book you mentioned, God and Forms in Plato, and it seems Mohr goes over Timaeus quite a bit along with other of Plato’s works. I’ve only read Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo and Book I of the Republic. Would you recommend reading the works of Plato that Mohr talks about in his book before reading his book, or is his book sufficient for understanding his thesis?
Regarding the Third Man Argument (TMA), I was thinking of a possible solution that a Platonic Realist could take to avoid it (even though I’m not a Platonic Realist). One of the propositions that a Platonic realist holds is self-predication, that each form “F-ness” is itself F. The TMA relies on the Platonist holding this view, but I don’t see why they need to, since on the Platonist view as far as I understand it, what it means to be F is to simply participate in F-ness, but F-ness doesn’t participate in itself, so there is no grounds for saying that F-ness is F, which is the basis of the TMA. Is this a viable solution, or is there a problem with saying that F-ness is not F? I know it’s counter-intuitive to say F-ness is not F, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s contradictory.
Also, I saw that you have some articles on Evil and Morality, specifically on Privatio Boni. I’ll definitely check those out, especially the Privatio Boni ones since that’s a view I tend towards.
I think you can read many of the chapters in Mohr’s book without having read the sources but it would help to have them handy, especially Timaeus.
I agree that the TMA can be diffused if we don’t think of Forms as self-predicating. True, Plato from time to time writes about certain Forms, like beauty, as being self-predicating. But this is not held consistently and don’t see why he has to be committed to this view. Forms can be patterns or standards rather than exemplars.
Thanks again for reading and for taking an interest in my posts on the privation theory of evil. Let me know if you have any questions or comments on them – the topic is very interesting to me.
Do you still endorse divine conceptualism and this argument? I have a lot of questions.
I think the argument can be rationally acceptable but I am not completely convinced by it at the moment. What questions do you have?
Fellow New School PhD here. 1999; so we probably didn’t overlap. What’s posted at the website below might interest you, God Proof-wise. (Though it’s an argument, not so much for the existence, as for the irrationality of disbelief in the existence, of God à la Aristotle.)
You’ve got the background. The patience? — I don’t know.
“Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). So criticize, please.