Quinquae Viae: The Five Ways of Aquinas (parts 4&5)

I’ll admit, part of the reason this post took so long was because Aquinas’ Fourth Way was a bit confusing to me. It is commonly classed as an “argument from degree” but I couldn’t figure out quite what it meant. Aquinas’ argument goes like this:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.

On the one hand, this argument seems easy enough. There are comparative terms. For us to have comparative terms of abstract concepts, like “Goodness”, “Beauty” and so on, there must be a thing which is their maximum and causes them to be more or less of itself, assuming that such things exist. His example though, of Fire, puzzled me.

Yes, Fire is hot. And it causes other things to be hot. But we know that it’s not really the fire, per se, that is hot, but the energy given off by the reaction that causes the fire to be hot. Since fire is caused to be hot by other things, what is it that gives those things heat?

But, as anyone should do, I attempted to be sympathetic and think about fire like Aquinas would have. When he claims that fire causes heat in all things, what does he mean? It can’t simply cause it by existing. Aristotle had four different types of causation that Aquinas would be drawing on: Material, Formal, Final, and Efficient. Fire is an example where all four types of causation would be met out in a single instance.

Material: Fire is made of fire.
Efficient: Fire creates Fire
Formal: The substance of fire is heat which is fire.
Final: The aim of fire is to produce more fire.

This is an odd example for Aquinas to use in reference to trancendentals like “Goodness”, and “Being.” And this is what puzzled me. God cannot be all four types of causation to the universe: The Universe is not made out of God. And so naturally, I did some research. 1

I discovered that Aquinas’ views on God’s causal relationship to the universe are in play here, and that upon investigation I found out that he denies that God is the causal relationship in two categories: material, and what might be called inherent formal.

Urban argues, in his paper, that Aquinas views at least five types of causation built on Aristotle’s four:
1. Material
2. Final
3. Efficient
4. Inherent Formal
5. Extrinsic Exemplary Formal

While 4 and 5 are subcategories of “Formal Causation” the distinction winds up being important. The first type, Inherent Formal, concerns structural principles present in things which make things as they are. The second type, Extrinsic Exemplary Formal, concern archetypes in the minds of intelligent beings to which they can form their artifacts.

This distinction suggests that the Fourth Way of Aquinas could deal with three types of causes: Efficient, Extrinsic Exemplary Formal(henceforth EEF) and Final causation. The argument goes that if Aquinas thinks that God is the maximal exemplar of Goodness, Truth, and Being then he is the cause of them, but each of them has different kinds of causation.

Truth must be conformed to by propositions, and is thus an EEF. Goodness is normally considered a “final” cause, that which all things strive towards, and Being is taken as an efficient cause, at least by Aquinas if we go back to his Second Way. In order for things to come ‘into being’ being must first bring them there. Thus, Aquinas’ Second Way is laying out his understanding of how Being relates to the world.

If this interpretation is correct, the Fourth Way, in a sense, ties all of the arguments in the Quinquae Viae together. The First and Second Ways show that God has efficient causation. The Third Way makes it impossible for Being, that is the Efficient Cause of the universe, to not exist. The Fifth Way deals with EEF and Final Causation, and since it has not gotten it’s own post I will expound on it here:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

The so called “Argument from Design” is the Final of Aquinas’ Five Ways. A common objection to it is that you could just dismiss the Fifth Way out of hand since Darwin came along and disproved that the Universe had any purposes other than survival. The problem with that objection though is that if the universe really ‘aimed at survival’ as some have suggested then ‘survival’ or ‘fitness’ is the final cause.2 But what is the source of that final cause? What is the supreme ‘fitness’? This is what Aquinas is getting at between his Fourth and Fifth Ways.

Final Causes are always directed towards something, “Fitness”, “Goodness”, “Survival”, “Progress” but you have to have a terminus for these objects that are not within the object itself. The difficulty with certain abstract notions like, “Fitness” or “Progress” is that they don’t seem to have a maximum. Progress, as Chesterton once remarked, “is a comparative to which we have not settled the superlative.”3 because even if you arrive, you must progress beyond it. Fitness, well, if Fitness has a superlative it fails at evading the Third Way, much less the Fifth. Fitness is a state that readies you for survival. The longer you survive the more fit you are. To survive all things at all times would be to be the “Fittest” and the only thing I can think of that would fit that category would be a Necessary Being.4

But that doesn’t quite get at the guts of the Fifth Way. The Fifth Way, has to do with Aristotelian Physics again. According to that system, when an object is moving it is trying to move somewhere. With earthy and watery objects it is towards the center of the universe. With fiery and airy objects it is up to the edge of the universe. Thus, when you throw a rock and it falls to the ground it is doing so because it’s ultimate Final Cause is the Center of the Universe, it just gets stopped by the Earth along the way.

If this is true and all objects move according to purpose, or are shaped according to purpose: The eye being to see, rocks to fall to the ground, etc. then there must be some Final cause that ALL FINAL CAUSES MOVE TOWARD. The Universe as a whole, in an Aristotelian Framework, rotates. That whole thing, is seeking out a final cause, and that thing must be outside the universe. Thus, it must be either an abstract principle: like Goodness, Truth, or Being, which are not grounded in physical reality, OR an intelligence that Goodness, Truth and Being find their root in. Or as Aquinas puts it:

For since things in the physical world are naturally inclined to induce their likeness in things which are generated, this inclination must be traced back to some directing principle which ordains each thing to its end. This can only be the intellect of that being who knows the end and the relationship of things to the end. Therefore this likeness of effects to their natural causes is traced back to an intellect as their first principle. (In Meta. I 15 233.)

So then how do Final causes make sure they link up with the proper effect? Simple, an intelligence does it. And that is Aquinas’ answer to how that works. There is an intelligence who arranges the universe so that final causes wind up being aligned with the proper effects. In a sense, this intelligence is also EEF of those cause and effect situations, because it causes the archetypes to align with the types.

Which brings us full circle back to the Fourth Way.

  1. If there are certain comparatives we use to describe objects, such as “Goodness”, “Truth” and “Being”, then they cannot exist without a superlative.
  2. There are such comparatives.
  3. Therefore there is a superlative.
  4. This superlative is the final cause of the universe, due to being Goodness.(Goodness is the source of all Final Causation, as all things seek the Good.).
  5. This superlative is the efficient cause of the universe: in that it is Being. (Via the First and Second ways.)
  6. This superlative also is the EEF of the universe, due to being the intelligence that aligns effects to causes(and helps final causation.)
  7. Therefore, the Superlative is the Cause of the Universe.
  8. This superlative can be called God.

At least, this is the most around the argument that I’ve been able to get. You are welcome to disagree with my interpretation, but this is what I have come to.

  1. Urban, Linwood. “Understanding St. Thomas’s Fourth Way” History of Philosophy Quarterly 1.3: 281-195. Web 
  2. There are entire types of Darwinism that extend out beyond the realm of evolutionary biology. Fields such as “Evolutionary Ethics” and “Evolutionary Cosmology” exist. see: 
  3. Chapter 2, Heretics 1905 
  4. Whether or not any form of Darwinism can be directed into an argument for the existence of God is a subject for more debate. It’s possible Darwinian Cosmology was born out of an attempt to escape modern recastings of Teleological Arguments. 

Quinquae Viae: The Five Ways of Aquinas (Part 3)

When thinking about the Second Way of Aquinas, which states that no cause can cause itself and therefore there must be a first cause, we run into a difficult problem of which the Second Way cannot get itself out. This problem is this: Aquinas has only proved this First Cause, he has not proven God.

In light of Modern Cosmology you might make the argument that the first cause was the Big Bang that brought all matter into existence.1 And given the restraints of the Second Way there is no way out of it. You cannot deny that if you define the Big Bang by the simplified way it usually is, then it fits the qualifications of “First Cause”. So then why think the First Cause is God? That is what Aquinas seeks to do in his Third Way. Show that “Even if there is a Big Bang, it did not have to occur, it is possible that the universe could have not existed. Since it is possible for the Big Bang to have not happened, there must be an explanation for the possibility that is namely: the Big Bang did happen.”

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence – which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

What we have above is a precursor the Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument from Contingency and a follow up on Avicenna’s argument from the same. As his other arguments in this series it depends heavily on the argument against actual infinities, but has a distinct flair from his versions on motion and causation. This is a distinctly modal argument.

While Avicenna drew largely on Aristotelean principles he seems to have come to a different conclusion than Aristotle did. Aristotle and Aquinas both argue that there is a first cause because of an infinite regress of causes is impossible. Avicenna however, argues that since the totality of all possible things cannot be caused by itself (since it is itself possible) it must be caused by something outside itself. And since the thing is outside of the totality of all possible things, it must be necessary. And that means that there is a necessary thing, and that thing is God.

Aquinas doesn’t take this same sort of modal approach to the argument. He argues very similarly to the fashion of Aristotle, namely that the unvierse has to have an explanation of itself. A cause of causes. It is easy to conflate this argument with the Argument from the Beginning of Motion, but we should not do that because they are distinct even though they have a logical similarity to their argument. We should not think of these causes, for example, as temporally sequential, happening one right after the other. Instead we should view them as simultaneous causes: logically simultaneous like what exists in an argument.

Let us take for example his argument:
1. Contingent beings are caused.
2. Not every being can be contingent, for this would create an infinite regress.
3. There must exist a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.
4. This necessary being is God.

There is not a temporal succession to these things. It is not that ‘First’, step one comes, and then step two and then three and then four. Our minds may track through that path, but they all exist simultaneously. They are on your screen at the same time whether you are reading them or not. And they happen concurrently, and YET there is some degree of dependence of 4) on 3) and 3) on 2) and 2) on 1). If any of these had been different the argument would not work.

In the same way, we like to say that the irrational number Pi, “Goes on to infinity…” which is a misstatement. It is not as if Pi is continuing to count itself out every time it is calculated. It exists in it’s entirety, like a ray but rather all of it’s infinite digits exist simultaneously though each is dependent on the former. This is not to say that it is an actual infinite. Pi has a definite end point, namely the 3 on the other side of the decimal. It is infinite in the future direction only and all later numbers are dependent on that 3. 3 however, could not exist if it were the final number of Pi, that was dependent on an infinite set of variables in the other direction.

Similarly, if I had an argument consisting of infinite premises, all of which was dependent on the others but I came to a conclusion at the end.

Infinite 1: There exists an x
Infinite 2: There exists an x+1
Therefore: _____

That conclusion would be dependent on an infinite number of non-temporal causes that occurred before it, and therefore could never be reached.

In the same way, Aquinas argues that necessity and possibility work. For every contingent thing must have a cause. To put it another way, every contingent thing is dependent on something else for it’s existence. Since an actually infinite number of causes is impossible, this first thing must be a necessary being.

Since God is the only thing that could exist necessarily (think about Anselm trying to show the absurdity of a God that doesn’t exist) and must exist of its own power, then this first cause is God. It is not just a convenient stopping point for Aquinas it is the end.

  1. This doesn’t actually help the problem since it doesn’t make sense for that to have occurred un-caused at any point. If there was an infinitely dense ball of matter that existed there since eternity past, there would have had to have been a change in order for it to rapidly start expanding. That would be the first cause. 

Quinquae Viae: The Five Ways of Aquinas (Part 2)

“The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.”

Someone mentioned to me that in my last blog post my discussion of Aquinas’ notion of motion was unclear, and that perhaps I could have left my analogy of potential and kinetic energy out of it. The informer argued that that fit more properly into the notion of cause, in that the table being removed is what causes the ball to change from potential into Kinetic energy. I informed him that this is simply a misunderstanding on his part of the distinction that I was trying to make. It is not the reason that the change happens because of but rather that an actuality exists (in that case, namely gravity) that changes potentiality into actuality. These actualities can be any number of causes, matter, gravity, force, etc.

The point is this. Any cause must be an actuality. This leads to the conclusion above however:

Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

Why? Simple, for the same reason that we did in our last post, namely, that nothing can cause itself to be or to change. For anything to be an efficient cause of itself, nor is it possible to go on to an infinity of prior causes. This is because any infinite number of prior causes would be actually infinite, and this is absurd. There are multiple reasons for this, which you can find in one of my earlier posts, but also one that I don’t think I’ve mentioned before.

No Infinite Set can be created by adding a finite number to any already existing set. Or, in other words, it’s impossible to reach an actually infinite set by addition.

This is because for any number x, you can always add x+1 to produce the next sum. Since an actually infinite set must contain all infinite members at the same time, the fact that you can always add 1 to any sum to get a new number shows incompleteness in the set.

Unfortunately, or perhaps: as typical, this winds up simply to be a modern restatement of ancient ideas expressed by believers in the creation of the universe at a fixed point in time (for example: John Philopinus, and Al-Ghazali.) which state that if you were to count down from infinity to zero, there is no reason you should finish yesterday rather than today.

So we’ll not dwell much on this point, let us instead move to the more interesting point in light of modern science. Can an object cause itself (or can a cause cause itself)?

In “The Grand Design” Stephen Hawking posits that “The universe creates itself out of nothing.” The argument given for this is that, “Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.” 1 At first glance, you might think that this is a bit absurd, but it does rely on some fundamental assumptions.

A) Something can be created from nothing.

This part is generally only applicable on the quantum scale, but could be reasonably asserted given that ‘nothing’ is defined as ‘the quantum vacuum’. The quantum vacuum is however an incredibly complex series of interactions of energy that have measurable effects. (For example, interactions in the vacuum create “zero-point energy” which can be observed in phenomena like the ‘cosmological constant’.) 2

Because it has measurable effects, it cannot be properly defined as ‘non-being’ but given this qualifier we shall continue.

B) Laws can create something.

Generally speaking, when talking of ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ we do not speak of them as causing things to occur. And even in the cases we do we are speaking of prescriptive laws in personal agents. “The law is what caused George not to kill Hannah.” And even more accurately speaking, in that circumstance what caused George to not do it was the fear of the punishment and not the law itself. The law of Gravity is a ‘descriptive’ law, not a prescriptive law, meaning it describes the way something usually behaves or acts, and the way it appears, but not the way it should or ideally will. Descriptions are naturally passive things that are disconnected from the actual thing that they describe.

Given this, I think this premise is unfounded.

It’s also a case of a mistaken mechanism, to mistake a nominal construction for an object with a positive existence. To mistake a construct like the law of gravity, as something that has existence in its being is part of the flaw of their reasoning. 3

So even given the qualified redefinition it seems as if A) does not prove what it seeks to prove, that something can come from nothing (or without cause(since the quantum vacuum is a cause). Since the statement is self-referentially incoherent, then it cannot and does not make sense to say that ‘the first cause created itself’.

This is what Aquinas is getting at, this incoherence of non-causal causes. So he gives this argument that no efficient cause can be caused by a prior efficient cause back to infinity.

This post was short, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into posting regularly from here on out. Thank you for your patience.

  1. Page 180 
  2. Sean Carroll, Sr Research associate – Physics, California Institute of Technology, June 22, 2006 C-SPAN broadcast of Cosmology at Yearly Kos Science Panel, part 1. 
  3. Of course mathematical Platonists might make an argument here. Even if it can be shown that Platonic objects exists, we have to wonder how they cause things, being themselves abstract. 

Al-Ghazali: First Proof against the Past Eternity of the Universe (Part 1)

Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (c. 1058–1111) was an Asharite theologian of Persian descent who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. He spent a lot of time in Baghdad teaching at the Madrasa there, and he devoted a lot of his time to rejecting Greek philosophy and more fully embracing the religious traditions found in Islam.

The work we are going to be examining today is his “Incoherence of the Philosophers” which he published as a refutation of men he referred to as ‘corruptors of the faith’ and that anyone who reads their writings becomes more lost in their own ignorance and incoherence. His point is to show that the philosophers do not provide demonstrative proofs of knowledge, they do not even stand up to their own tests of wisdom and truth.

In short: he was trying to show that Philosophy wasn’t able to meet it’s own standards. Or in more modern analytic terms, that it was “Self-referentially incoherent.” He does this by attacking several of the philosophical topics of his day that were commonly held, but not unquestionably. The one we want to focus on here is his first critique, namely of their doctrine in the Past Eternity of the Universe.

In this post I will be focusing only on his first objection to their (the philosophers) first proof. This is for two reasons, the first is for the sake of brevity, and the second is to give me more material for later. Now some of you may think that the Universe’s past eternity was thrown out among People of the Book aeons ago, since the book of Genesis clearly states that God created the world, and the creation accounts in the Koran are similar. (That God created the world in a set number of days.)

So why then the difficulty? In short: Aristotle.

Aristotle(who has reached Ghazali by Al-Farabi and Avicenna) believed that the universe was eternal in the past for several reasons. Existence was a form of motion, and in order for there to be a motion there had to be a motion that set that motion into motion and so on and so forth. Time is a measurement of motion. If motion came into being, then there would have to be movement away from something, and therefore there be something before time, which is contradictory. These arguments held and continued to hold influence over the world from the time of Aristotle, until (arguably) the end of the Middle Ages.1

Ghazali in his work, starts to outline the thinking of the philosophers up to his time and how they have agreed on the past eternity of the universe. He claims that “the view of the multitudes, both ancient and modern, has settled on upholding its past eternity: that it has never ceased to exist with God, exalted be He, to be an effect of his, to exist along with Him, not being posterior to Him in time, in the way the effect coexists along with the cause and light along with the sun; that the Creator’s priority to [the world] is like the priority of the cause to the effect, which is a priority in essence and rank, not in time.” 2

He talks about how Plato seemed to be an exception to this rule stating that the universe was created in his Timaeus, but this is an exception and not to be noted. He then says he is not going to get bogged down in every single argument they give, but instead only focus on the good ones. He doesn’t want to waste time on the bad arguments but rather the ones that can cause even the best thinkers to doubt because “…arousing doubt in the weak is possible with the most feeble [of arguments]” 3

The first proof he focuses on (and the only one we will be focusing on here) goes from this:

“They say, ‘it is absolutely impossible for a temporal to proceed from an eternal.'”

In short the argument they give for this looks like this. If states of the Eternal are similar then either everything always comes into existence or nothing comes into existence at all. Since there is no difference in one state of the eternal than another there is no reason that in one moment there should be something and in the next moment there not be, unless something changed that brought about its creation. This thing could not be the ‘will of the divine’ because it would be utterly arbitrary to refrain from one thing and then act on it the next moment without something bringing that change in will into being.

The philosopher does his best to bolster the argument by asking why the world did not exist before its creation. There was no logical or physical necessity to stop it, since God has no physical limitations.4 The Eternal would have to change from “…Impotence to Power, and the world from Impossibility to Possibility, both of which are impossible.” And the philosophers argue that it would be unbecoming due to the nature of God, for God to have a will to create. This is because deciding to create is to say that He became a willer of its existence after having not been, but this creates a problem of a will having come into existence. And God cannot receive things that are created because he is separate from creation, nor can it have been created apart from him because that would make him not a willer.5

To push this even further, not only could God not create his own will, but if will can come into existence uncaused then so can anything, even universes. This makes God superfluous really. The question still remains, why the universe came into existence then and not earlier? Was it because God lacked an instrument by which to do his purpose? Or perhaps a purpose, or a nature, that once they come into existence, so then will the universe? But, then why do those things come into existence then and not earlier and so on and so forth ad infinitum.

This is the heart of their argument.6 And we will spend the rest of the time dealing with the first part of Al-Ghazali’s first objection to it. (though he does have two objections.)

Ghazali argues that perhaps God willed the creation of the world at a specific time, timelessly. That past-eternally the will was created that “at such and such a time I will create the universe.” and asks what proof there might be to show this to be false.

The response he then imagines is something like this: That if the necessary conditions exist they always bring about their effects immediately. Since the will exists, and the willer exists, and these two things are related to each other, then the effects of the will will come about immediately. If this is not the case then nothing could ever come into existence, since the Eternal always exists in identical states, that from moment to moment there is no difference.

“Indeed the state of affairs would have remained identical to what it was [before], the object of the will not having come into existence, and would remain thereafter as it was before when [lo and behold] the object of the will would come into existence! This is nothing but the ultimate in impossibility.”

So the problem rests in the fact that nothing changes, no new will is gained, and no new thing is given, but suddenly there is a new thing. And this is the first response of the Philosophers.

Ghazali wants to know if they know of the impossibility of Eternal Will through basic knowledge, or through investigations? He wants to know if they use a middle term to connect “eternal will” and “temporal creation” for they have not shown it. And if it is basic knowledge why do men like Ghazali and the others not have it? Is it because they lack some knowledge, but this knowledge is basic and necessary? Since you have done neither, but instead given “nothing but [an expression of] unlikelihood and the drawing of an analogy with our resolve and will, this being false, since the eternal will does not resemble temporal [human] intentions.” And just saying something is unlikely is not enough, without a proof that can be demonstrated!

The Philosopher might say then, we know this by the necessity of reason, and one who denies this is stubbornly defying their own reason and resorting to irrationality!

This is where Al-Ghazali resorts to some of his most famous arguments, the arguments based on the concept of infinity. He asks what the difference is in that response and someone who says that they are stubbornly defying reason with their own doctrines. This is not a reasonable response, but instead an irrational one, as it puts forth no argument or explanation. Indeed, Ghazali thinks that their ‘necessity of reason’ can be shown to be demonstrate logical contradictions, or at least logical absurdities, and therefore must be false.

  1. If the universe is past eternal then there must be an infinite number of movements by each heavenly sphere. 7
  2. These spheres all rotate at different rates, one being a sixth, a forth, a half, and so on, of the radius of the whole heavenly body.
  3. If Jupiter rotates twice for every rotation that Saturn makes then Jupiter has logically rotated twice as many times as Saturn.
  4. Yet they have both rotated the same number of times, namely, an infinite number of times.
  5. Indeed, they are not only the same number, but infinitely different, for with every rotation Saturn falls further behind.

He then asks, if someone says “This is impossible by the necessity of reason!” how does this differ from their defense? How would they answer if they were asked whether the rotation is even or odd? It cannot be one or the other. If it were odd then by adding one you could make it even, but how can the infinite be in need of one? If on the other hand you answer it to be both or neither, these Ghazali argues, are also false by necessity.8

If they try and rebut saying that infinites cannot be measured like finites, then we can simply say that they can be divided into eighths, and sixths, and fourths, why not into odds or evens?

Interestingly an appeal to what came to be known as the “A” theory of time was made to try and fenagle their way out of this. That the past is ‘non-existent’ and only the present exists, and the present has a finite number of rotations, because past rotations do not exist.

Ghazali does not find this objection very strong saying that numbers are even or odd regardless of existence of the objects or non-existence. He gives an example of horses. If we suppose we have six horses, this number of horses is even or odd, even if the horses are hypothetical or non-existent.9

He then goes on even more of an offensive, saying that they claim that there are existing substances that vary in properties and are infinite. These are human souls that have been separated from their bodies. These then are neither even or odd, if the philosophers are to be consistent.

The philosophers might then throw up their hands and say that is it is not Avicenna who is correct but Plato, who thought that there is but one soul and it is divided into bodies and then returns and becomes one with the over-soul again after death.

Ghazali thinks that this is repulsive, and contrary not only to experience but also to logic. We experience ourselves as ourselves and not as other people. If we were the same as other people we would experience ourselves as one. But logically he also holds it to be untenable. Since souls are immaterial talking about ‘dividing’ it is nonsense. You cannot divide things that do not have extension. This only makes sense in objects that have quantitative value. For example an ocean can split into three rivers that all merge back into the ocean again. Non-quantitative substances cannot be divided. This is impossible according to logical necessity.

“What is intended by all this is to show that they have not rendered their opponents unable to uphold belief in the connectedness of the eternal will with the act of temporal creation except by invoking [rational] necessity and that they are unable to disengage from those who [in turn] invoke [rational] necessity against them in those matters opposed to their own belief.”

This ends his treatment of the rejection of rational necessity. He then begins to treat the same objection from a different angle, of a person who rejects rational necessity as the starting point of the disagreement on will. He takes this approach from the impossibility of actually distinct events among the eternal. But this will be a topic for another post, for now, this is the first argument in his first objection to the doctrine of the Past Eternity of the Universe, and we shall sit content with that. (Or at least I shall.)

  1. I say that this is arguable because of thinkers like Crescus and Abū l-Barakāt al-Baghdādī brought into question the Aristotelian framework long before the end of the middle ages. 
  2. Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Translated Michael E. Marmura. Pg 12. 
  3.  Ibid. Pg. 13 
  4. And in certain Islamic schools, no logical limitations either. 
  5. The similarity this has to the Euthyphro problem always makes me smile. Either wills exist because God wills it, or wills exist apart from God. The answer is of course that God is will. 
  6. This is much more Avicennan than Farabian metaphysics. 
  7. Note that this is dependent on Aristotelian physics though many of his arguments still hold water in my opinion given a non-Aristotelian system. 
  8. Modern set theory has something to say about this it is true. Actual Infinities are both even and odd. 
  9. Similarly I suppose you could invent an object. “I have seven glarks.” The number of ‘glarks’ is still odd, despite the fact that glarks are a nonexistent thing. 

More thoughts on Arguments for Divine Personality

In my last post, I gave several arguments for Divine Personhood.

Today I’d like to expound a bit more on some.

In the Argument from the Absolute Beginning I mention how the cause of the Universe must be a person because of it’s immateriality and it’s spaceless and timeless nature. Another potentially useful analysis of it, is (again, assuming the argument goes through) that given that the cause caused the Universe, it must have had a series of necessary and sufficient conditions that had to obtain in order to bring this about.

If a universe can bring itself into existence out of nothing, then specific conditions must obtain in order for this to be the case. The gravitational constant, and other constants must be particularly tuned so that even given the self-creation of the universe, the universe doesn’t implode in on itself.1 That being said, assuming a universe had the necessary conditions to come into being…and had so from Eternity past(since time did not exist before the Big Bang event), why did it come into being 13.7 billion years ago, and not 18.9 trillion years ago, or now, or ten minutes ago, or all the time? The conditions could not have changed (since time did not exist, and change requires time), and yet the universe popped into existence at a certain time when nothing changed.

Which make sense if a personal being willed it. A being endowed with non-deterministic free will could make this decision. If it was a necessary outflowing, there is no reason why it could not have happened ten thousand years before it did, or ten minutes ago. The pattern would be the same, but it should be happening at the instant the necessary conditions are met. (Which if they are logically necessary, is all the time.)

Basically, the question comes down to. What caused the change that caused the Big Bang. Even if the universe popped into existence out of some pre-existent state2 that pre-existent state had to change. But why change then and not at a different time? What caused this change.

This leads us back into the Cosmological Argument from the Absolute Beginning, which leads us to a personal creator. This creator is shown to have Free Will by this argument, being able to act, but not out of necessity, and being able to bring about spontaneous change.

  1. Modern versions of the Teleological argument take this form, but I am not going to address it much here. 
  2. Maimonides arguably thought that God created the universe from something pre-existent. He at least thought it wasn’t inconsistent with Judaism. Philo of Alexandria as well. 

Objective Personality: Arguments for the Personhood of God

Recently in discussion a friend of mine brought up the fact that all of the arguments for the existence of God, are good, but only get you to a sort of Platonic Form of the Good. A metaphysically necessary, first cause, moral ground of the universe. He then said that this object could be impersonal, and so they are not good arguments for Theism.

While I certainly believe that God is a person I will admit I was a bit stumped here, if only for sheer surprise, Normally I have people reject premises or just get annoyed, but this did seem like a semi-solid objection. The Contingency Argument got you back to a Metaphysically Necessary thing, the argument for Objective Morality got you to a Platonic Object of the Good, and the Cosmological Argument from Absolute beginning got you back to a Timeless, spaceless, immaterial, thing. The only one I knew that could definitely prove personhood was the Telelogical argument, assuming it went through successfully.

After a bit of reflection though, it occurred to me that this is false. All of them refer back to a Personality. We will take each argument one at a time and show how.

The Moral Argument.:
1. If God does not exist objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective Moral Values exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

First, let us define objective morality. Objective morality is the state of affairs in which for any situation x, there is a moral thing to do.1 But what do we mean by ‘moral’? Morality seems to be rooted in the idea of persons: The Oxford Dictionary2 has as their first definition for the adjective moral as:

Concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character:

and Merriam-Webster has three:

: concerning or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior

: based on what you think is right and good

: considered right and good by most people : agreeing with a standard of right behavior

Notice, they all refer to people or persons. Morality has to do with people and our behavior, how how we treat people due to their inherent value. Rocks cannot be said to be ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’. Therefore, if Objective Morals exist, it also means ‘objective personhood’ exists. There is of course Kant’s Principle, wherein we are to treat people as ends in themselves, is an objective statement, but implies no direct personhood. The problem with Kant’s principle is that there seems to be no way to make sure that that actually aligns with the world. It seems utterly contingent.

“Apparently, Kant’s Principle of Humanity, as it appeared in the empyrean and before the foundation of the world, read, ‘Should, against all probability, there be stars, and should, also improbably, those stars align in such a way as to permit the emergence of life, and should, against overwhelming odds, some of those living things turn out to be ‘human’, then they are to be treated as ends-in-themselves and never as means to an ends, and this even in the event that the contingencies of evolution direct them to think otherwise. Disregard this directive in those universes in which these conditions fail to obtain.” (Mark Linville: The Moral Argument, The Blackwell Companion for Natural Theology)

And the reason for that brings us nicely into our second argument.

The Argument from The Absolute Beginning
Simply put the argument from the Beginning of the Universe goes like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The Universe began to exist.
3. The Universe has a cause.

The cause of the spatio-temporal-material universe could not have been anything spatio-temporal-material, which leads to a non-spatio-temporal-material thing that caused the universe.3 The problem with this, is that there are only a scant few things which could be immaterial/spaceless/timeless, and those things are ‘abstract objects’ and ‘unembodied minds’.

Abstract objects would include things like numbers, shapes, universals, propositions, and so on and so forth. The problem is however, that all of them are causally impotent. They bear no causal relationships to anything. The number seven does not cause anything, but seven objects might. This is the problem with the above statement of Kant’s Moral Principle. As a principle, it stands in causal impotence with the world unless the world happened to be aligned to it, or else was aligned to it by a mind, then it seems implausible to think it shapes the morality in the universe.

This leads us then to a cause of the universe that is an Unembodied Mind. Minds in most cases are regarded as persons, persons here being something with will and knowledge, and power. (The ability to make a decision, know the decision, and execute the decision.) Or else we have a universe that is contingently aligned with principles and propositions.

The Contingency Argument:

1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.
3. The Universe exists.
4. Therefore the Universe has an explanation of its existence. (Modus Ponens, 1,3)
5. Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (Modus Ponens, 2, 4)

Assuming that the argument goes through we wind up with an explanation of the universe that is God. 2) seems at first blush to be an unfounded assertion, but lets pick it apart a bit. If the Universe is taken to be all of material-temporal-spatial reality, then that would include anything material-temporal-spatial that could exist. Therefore the explanation of the universe has to be in something timeless, immaterial, and spaceless. This thing, which we established cannot be an abstract object without itself being contingently aligned (though not necessarily contingently existent) with the universe, must therefore be an unembodied mind. Which is a being with will and knowledge and power, which is a person. And an unembodied mind that is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial is what everyone means by God.

So we can conclude that the personhood of God is deducible from these arguments when you really begin to ponder them. There are some arguments that might go to show that he’s multi-personal, but these require theological assumptions and could belabor a whole post by themselves. We do know however, that if these arguments go through, we have a timeless, spaceless, powerful, willing, personal being, who is also immaterial, who is the source of the universe and the cause of the universe, as well as the being who is good enough to be the grounding of all our moral values. Which sounds a lot like God to me.


  1. This allows you to deal with difficult situations. While “It is wrong to lie” is a general absolute, when you have Nazis banging on your door it may not be okay to follow. But there is nonetheless a ‘right’ thing to do in this situation. This is not to suggest situation ethics, where it may be okay to slaughter little children if it brings around a good result or if the situation requires it. That would imply that there are relative morals that change depending on the circumstance. 
  3. Cause here is being used in the sense of ‘efficient’ cause, not ‘material’ cause. 

The Ontological Argument: Anselm

Today I give the first post in my new series on Natural Theology. I plan on discussing arguments for the existence of God, and giving the pros and cons against them. I may follow up on it in later weeks and continue to give different approaches and thoughts on it.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) 1 was an 11th century bishop who started his career as a Benedictine Monk in the Monastery at Bec, and wound up being Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death in 1109. He was, broadly speaking, a Neoplatonist. This was a world-view which he had inherited from Augustine of Hippo, who influenced Anselm greatly. By the end of his life he had published many works on theology, including works on the Trinity 2 and the Atonement, as well as works of Philosophy. In his tract De Veritate he lays the groundwork for a Christian Epistemology based on Neoplatonic ideas. Roughly speaking, he believes there is an absolute truth of which all other truth partakes, and that we come to know by coming to know other truth; and that without we could know nothing.

He is best known, perhaps, among philosophers for two sets of works. The first is the Monologion, is an outline of Theistic Proofs for the Existence of God. After completing that however, Anselm wished to find a single argument that could prove that God existed by definition, and not only that God exists, but that he is the supreme good upon which all else depends and exists. And so he writes his Proslogion, to put forth this argument which he frames thus:

Therefore, Lord, you who give knowledge of the faith, give me as much knowledge as you know to be fitting for me, because you are as we believe and that which we believe. And indeed we believe you are something greater than which cannot be thought. Or is there no such kind of thing, for “the fool said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” But certainly that same fool, having heard what I just said, “something greater than which cannot be thought,” understands what he heard, and what he understands is in his thought, even if he does not think it exists. For it is one thing for something to exist in a person’s thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists. For when a painter thinks ahead to what he will paint, he has that picture in his thought, but he does not yet think it exists, because he has not done it yet. Once he has painted it he has it in his thought and thinks it exists because he has done it. Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.

Anselm starts by defining God as “A being which nothing greater can be conceived.” Using this definition he then puts forth a simple argument, which I will reformulate into clearer terms than the above:

  1. God is a thing which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than to exist solely in the mind. 3
  3. If God does not exist, then we can conceive of a greater being, namely one that exists in reality, therefore that being must exist and must be God.
  4. Therefore: God exists in reality.
  5. Therefore: God exists.

This argument, for better or for worse, has been talked about for many centuries. Most people suggest there has to be something wrong with it, but they disagree over exactly where the misstep is. It is not exactly obvious.

Even his contemporaries were not pleased with it. Guanilo of Marmoutiers wrote a response to Anselm in his book, Liber De Insipiente, where he basically parodies the argument, trying to show that Anselm is mistaken in his idea that this form of logic can work. If it works, than absolutely anything is possible, is the idea. The parody argument goes thus:

“Welcome to the Lost Island. Fantasy Island.”

  1. The Lost Island is an island greater than which none can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone.
  3. If the Lost Island does not exist, then you can conceive of an even greater island, then that one must exist.
  4. Therefore: The lost island exists.

This argument, however, seems to miss the mark on its intended goal. It’s goal was to show that if the argument is valid in an obviously false case, then it cannot be used to show the true one with any more certainty. The problem here is that Guanilo did not understand the nuance of Anselm’s position. Anselm first off, postulated a thing of which nothing greater than can be conceived, but Guanilo postulated an Island, which precludes the possibility of the argument being effective at all on it. The argument goes that any thing which is the greatest conceivable thing must exist. The island therefore, can not exist4, because it could be out-conceived by a non-island.5 You might be able to revise it to include something like Premise 1 in Anslem’s argument; which is “The Lost Island is  a thing of which none greater could be conceived.” But then you’d have to justify why an island is the greatest of all conceivable things.

Further, I think Guanilo misses another nuance of the position, that Anselm did not flush out. If we revise the argument to look like this:

  1. A being greater than which nothing can be conceived is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.
  2. In order for something to be understood by a hearer the object being talked about must exist in the mind.
  3. If something exists only in the mind it is inferior to an object that exists both in the mind and reality.
  4. “A being greater than which nothing can be conceived” would obviously be better than a being that existed only in the mind.
  5. Therefore: said being exists both in the mind and in reality.

The key difference is now that “is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.” Anselm, in combination with his idea about truth given in De Veritate, is roughly saying that everyone will at least roughly agree on what the greatest conceivable thing is, even if they don’t like it. Guanilo’s counter-objection does not follow then, because what makes the greatest possible island might not be agreed upon. I for example, like peace and quiet, and would like an island with a steady climate, books and easy to reach fruit. My girlfriend on the other hand, being an active person and a lover of people, might want there to be resorts and dances and events she could go and do and see. My brother might wish for an island with dangerous animals to pit his skills against, or at least seemingly dangerous ones. So it seems much harder to pin down what might make something great. Infinity. Anselm does spend the rest of the Proslogion showing exactly what kind of attributes this sort of thing would have. The following is just the table of contents of the Proslogion:

CHAPTER III: That God Cannot be Thought Not to Exist
CHAPTER IV: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought
CHAPTER V: That God is whatever it is better to be than not to be, and that existing through Himself alone He makes all other beings from nothing
CHAPTER VI: How He is perceptive although He is not a body
CHAPTER VII: How He is omnipotent although He cannot do many things
CHAPTER VIII: How He is both merciful and impassible
CHAPTER IX: How the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has mercy on the wicked
CHAPTER X: How He justly punishes and justly spares the wicked
CHAPTER XI: How ‘all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth’, and yet how ‘the Lord is just in all His ways’
CHAPTER XII: That God is the very life by which He lives and that he same holds for like attributes
CHAPTER XIII: How He alone is limitless and eternal, although other spirits are also limitless and eternal
CHAPTER XIV: How and why God is both seen and not seen by those seeking Him
CHAPTER XV: How He is greater than can be thought
CHAPTER XVI: That this is the ‘inaccessible light’ in which He ‘dwells’
CHAPTER XVII: That harmony, fragrance, sweetness, softness, and beauty are in God according to His own ineffable manner
CHAPTER XVIII: That there are no parts in God or in His eternity which He is
CHAPTER XIX: That He is not in place or time but all things are in Him
CHAPTER XX: That He is before and beyond even all eternal things
CHAPTER XXI: Whether this is the ‘age of the age’ or the ‘ages of the ages’
CHAPTER XXII: That He alone is what He is and who He is
CHAPTER XXIII: That this good is equally Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and that this is the one necessary being which is altogether and wholly and solely good
CHAPTER XXIV: A speculation as to what kind and how great this good is
CHAPTER XXV: Which goods belong to those who enjoy this good and how great they are
CHAPTER XXVI: Whether this is the ‘fullness of joy’ which the Lord promises

A summary then of the properties he believes God to have are
1. Metaphysical Necessity.
2. Self-existent.
3. Perceptive.
4. Immaterial.
5. Omnipotent.
6. Just.
7. Merciful.
8. Timeless.
9. Spaceless.
10. Simple.

While it might be hard to get people to agree on all of these being the greatest possible things, surely at least some of them seem intuitive. Something which is omnipotent and self-existent and necessary, seems greater than something which is impotent and contingent. Justice and Mercy might be omitted from the list, but still it seems like Anselm has something going for him. His argument just might make it out.

Until we get to Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant famously attacks Anselm’s Ontological Argument (and is actually where we get the term ‘ontological argument.’) in his Critique of Pure Reason. In his Critique, Kant levies a series of arguments related to the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments that directly attack the plausibility of the premises of the argument. Analytic judgments are judgments wherein the information of the premise is already inside the premise. (ex. “All bachelors are unmarried.”) They are tautologies and  give no new information about the subject during analysis. Synthetic judgments on the other hand do give us information about a subject. (Ex. “The book is on the desk.”) In our example sentence, we have the subject ‘book’ and the predicate ‘on the desk’ and ‘desk’ is no where contained within the idea of ‘book’ and so we have learned something new about this book, namely it’s relation to the idea of ‘desk’.

After making these distinctions Kant argues that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent. If the Ontological argument is intended to be Analytic in nature, then the statement “God exists” is only true because of the definition we ascribe to the terms. (I.e. “If God exists then he exists.”) but you could easily have an incorrect definition, or believe that God exists falsely. (If bigfoot exists, then he exists.) However, if it’s intended to be a Synthetic statement, then the knowledge required to prove God would be outside of God himself, and is not an a priori judgment then.

This is a pretty detrimental attack on Anselm’s argument as he phrased it. It even takes to task particular attributes of God that Anselm puts forth as being part of the Maximally Great being such as “Not being able to not exist.” Kant claims that in order for a contradiction to arise in a sentence, the subject and predicate must be maintained throughout it. He argued that non-existence then could not be a contradiction with anything, because that would deny the predicate. So there is no way to arrive with a contradiction through non existence.

He concludes his attacks on the argument by concluding that “‘being’ is obviously not a real predicate.” 6 It does not add any information to the definition of something only indicates that it actually occurs in reality.7 He argued that the ontological argument depends on existence to be a predicate and thus it is possible for a maximally great being to not exist and thusly he refutes Anselm.

Can Anselm’s argument survive this attack?


Immediately preceding Anselm(b. 1033) lived a man the Latinate world came to know as Avicenna(980-1037)8 Avicenna was, and perhaps still is, one of the most important philosophers of the Arabic World. He derived several arguments that showed how there must be a necessary existence, because everything in the universe(even the universe itself) is obviously contingent. Without belaboring the argument too much (since I will be dealing with it later) it seems that Avicenna may be able to rush to his Latinate successor’s rescue.

If, instead of using ‘existence’ as a property of the maximally great being you can show that ‘necessary existence’ is a property of the maximally great being, then you could defeat Kant’s objection. This is because “If a God exists, he necessarily exists.” Because it is in the conditional tense it is still possible to reject this premise, it does have the unfortunate effect of weakening the ontological argument. It can now no longer be used to prove God and all his properties. But it could still be useful as a sort of ‘capstone’ argument in a cumulative case for God.

So sadly, I ultimately think Anselm failed at his goal for coming up with a single argument to show both that God exists and that he has all the properties we believe he does. He does however, come up with a concept of an argument that could unite all the other arguments for God’s existence and serve as a sort of capstone argument. He also succeeds in creating what is known as “Perfect Being Theology” which is taking God’s attributes and stretching them as far as logically possible. So when God is said to be ‘almighty’ we can extend this as far as is logically possible and take him to be this way in the greatest conceivable way. This form of theology is incredibly useful in both apologetics and personal theology.

That does not mean I think it’s the end for the Ontological Argument. As we’ll see there are several modal versions which I think are useful and we’ll look at later, starting with one put forth by Alvin Plantinga.

  1. Sometimes also known as Anselm of Aosta after his hometown, or Anselm of Bec after his home monastery. 
  2. His works on the Trinity are interesting in that they draw on Augustine’s De Trinitate where Augustine uses himself and how the mind relates to itself, to show how a trinity might conceivably exist. What’s fascinating is that a similar line of reasoning is used in Ibn-Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” when Hayy is coming to an awareness of the Unity and Multiplicity of the Necessary Existent. 
  3. I take it then that Anselm probably has a problem with nominalistic existences of entities such as numbers, properties, etc. However, this could also be a reference to Aristotle’s active intellect, which contemporary and earlier Arabic thinkers had thought enabled us to know things by relating the forms of things to particulars. This is farfetched though and is wildly speculative on my part, and I find little in the texts to support it. 
  4. This does not necessitate that the island does not exist, rather that it is possible for it to not exist. 
  5. William L. Rowe: “The Ontological Argument” in Feinberg; Shafer-Landau: Reason & Responsibility, p. 15. 
  6.  Kant, Immanuel (1958) [1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Norman Kemp Smith (2d. ed.). London: Macmillan @ Co. Ltd. pp. 500–507. (first edition, pp. 592–603 
  7.  For example: Unicorns are not defined as “Non-existent” but they simply do not occur in reality. If you were to find a one horned Horse you could call it a unicorn and not be “Oh, that can’t be a unicorn, they’re non-existent. 
  8. His full name was Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā. 

Ancient Problems: Euthyphro and the Problem of Goodness

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (Plato, Euthyphro)

The Euthyphro dilemma seems to the in the utility belt of every non-theist who has anything of any rational substance to say about religion and morality and how the two relate. It has been a matter of defense and attack for nearly two millennia and is considered by many to be unavoidable.

I plan here, not to give a knockdown defense of the Euthyphro Dilemma, but instead to survey a few of the many possible defenses that have been run for it. This can be a useful exercise for both the Theist and the Non-Theist, who wishes to engage the other. The Theist should know the defenses that have been done, and some of the weaknesses with them. And the non-theist should as well, so as to be prepared for rebuttal. (or with rebuttal.)

First, I suppose we should restate the argument in a way that would affect the classical Theist.

“Is something Good because God wills it, or does God will it because it is Good?”

Given this revision, we no longer have multiple gods, we are no longer dealing with ‘piety’, and we set up the dilemma to attack not only duties(such as piety) but also moral and aesthetic value judgments. In short, this restatement of the dilemma broadens it and gives it more power against the Theist.

Second, we should discuss the underlying assumptions of the dilemma.

  1. Objective Goodness exists.
    This may seem obvious, but it is one of the reasons why it is commonly used against Theists. Theists almost by necessity have to assert objective morality. The problem arises however, when the assumption also spreads to God, as if God either has to conform to objective goodness, or inflict arbitrary subjective goodness on us.
  2. Goodness is a property.
    In order to talk reasonably about ‘goodness’ in the common sense, we need to assume it as a property. ‘X is good’ could easily be restated as ‘X has the property of goodness’.

Now that we have spoken at least briefly about the underlying assumptions of the dilemma, let us begin to look at a few ways this dilemma has been defended against in the past two millennia.(1)

A) Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm: The three A’s of Classical Christianity often give the defense that God simply is the standard for goodness. He’s like a great divine meterstick against which all things are measured. It does not make sense to ask why a meterstick is a meter, it simply is. This is by far the most common defense against the Euthyphro dilemma and it comes in various shapes and sizes. In classical theology it tended to depend upon one’s ontology of evil. If one had properly come to understand goodness, then you could easily show how God is the meterstick for it.

The three A’s base their understanding of goodness as “that which all things aim for.” (Aristotle, NE 1.1. 1094a2-3) Goodness has a certain positive ontology that shows that it exists in a real and substantive way. It is “being” if you will. This leaves evil or ‘badness’ as a lack of something. Aquinas for example, builds upon this idea stating, “When we say that good is what all desire, it is not to be understood that every kind of good thing is desired by all; but that whatever is desired has the nature of good.” (Aquinas, ST 1 6, 2) This again returns to the idea of goodness as a property of objects. We do not want riches because they are riches but because they have the property of goodness. Our aims are often misguided because we do not know this perfect standard in a perfect way. If we did, we would never miss with our aims and our judgments of the Good. “Only God would have perfect knowledge of Himself, and thus can always will in ways that are perfect. His will is the ‘rule’ by which created wills find their measure, but God’s will has no rule above which it finds measure.” (ST 1 63, 1) And thus we find that “Anselm, like Augustine before him and Aquinas later, rejects both horns of the Euthyphro dilemma. God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather his very nature is the standard for value.” (Rogers, Katherine. Anselm and Free Will, 2008)

The problem with this is that it raises questions about God’s ontology and allows for what many consider to be a clever riposte, namely, “Is God’s nature good because God chooses it, or is his nature good due to some outside factor?” This is due to the fact that the Euthyphro dilemma assumes that goodness is a property, and if we say that God has a property that allows us to derive other properties, we open ourselves up to the Third Man argument of Plato’s Parmenides.

There have been several semantic attempts to get around this. Aquinas thought that our language was analogical, and so we were not saying God is ‘good’ in the same sense as we would use the term Good. But more recently philosophers like Robert Adams, and William Alston have attempted semantic solutions to the problem.

For example, in Alston’s “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.”(2) Alston builds on a distinction that was made by philosopher Robert Adams, in that the property of ethical wrongness “is (i.e. Identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God.”(3) In this way technically God is exempt from the property of being ethical or moral or ‘good’.(God is not subject to his own commands) But Alston continues to build on this idea and goes to try and show that despite this exception to his own commands, God is nonetheless still able to be the root of objective and necessary morality.

He does this by attempting to show that God has a nature that is loving, good, and caring and then tries to show how it would be impossible for God to give a command that is ethically binding that is opposed to his nature. He says that the only reason a divine command is ‘good’ is because the nature of God’s attributes supervenes upon that command, and makes it so. However, it is not that these things are good just because that is what God ‘happens’ to do, rather God does them because he is the standard which determines goodness.

“I want to suggest, by contrast, that we can think of God himself, the individual being, as the supreme standard of goodness. God plays the role in evaluation that is more usually assigned, by objectivists about value, to Platonic Ideas or principles. Lovingness is good (a good-making feature, that on which goodness is supervenient) not because of the Platonic existence of a general principle or fact to the effect that lovingness is good, but because God, the supreme standard of goodness, is loving. Goodness supervenes on every feature of God, not because some general principles are true but just because they are features of God. Of course, we can have general principles, for example, lovingness is good. Or this principle is not ultimate it, or the general fact that makes it true, does not enjoy some Platonic ontological status; rather is it true, just because the property it specifies as sufficient for goodness is a property of God.” (Alston)

The problem I think arises if we think that God is identical with his properties. Surely he can have properties, but he cannot be identical with them. Because as Alvin Plantinga points out, “If God is identical with each of his properties, then, since each of his properties is a property, he is a property – a self-exemplifying property. Accordingly God has just one property: himself. This view is subject to a difficulty both obvious and overwhelming. No property could have created the world; no property could be omniscient, or, indeed, now anything at all. If God is a property, then he isn’t a person but a mere abstract object; he has no knowledge, awareness, power, love, or life. So taken, the simplicity doctrine seems an utter mistake.” (Plantinga, Does God Have A Nature?) We could simply deny that God is identical with his properties, he is the possessor of, rather than product of, his properties. And I feel like this makes sense. A book is not the result of it’s properties, nor is it identical with it. If I said that a book is nothing except, “Hard, page-filled, word filled” and go on to list it’s properties ad absurdum then we would have a bunch of disjointed properties and not a coherent unity.(4)

So this solution seems to be difficult, but could be coherently defended I believe. I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.

B) The Both/And approach. TJ Mawson in his paper “The Euthyphro Dilemma” (5) presents an argument that I have only found in him, but may be extant in other places. (I have not read every book ever.)

“I suggest that the theist is best advised to reject Socrates’ ‘Either . . . Or’ way of framing the question, saying instead that some things God wills because they are good and other things are good because God wills them. For this solution to the Euthyphro Dilemma to give the theist the best of both worlds rather than the worst, he or she then needs a way of explaining how the things that God wills because they are good are things that do not set up a standard of behaviour independent of God, a standard that could correctly be thought to constrain God in His actions, and also a way of explaining how the things that get to be good solely as a result of God’s will are things that it’s not, after all, counterintuitive to suggest could have been bad.” (Mawson)

Mawson takes the approach that instead of splitting the horns of the dilemma, we try and grab on to both at once and say that they are both aspects of the whole. Certain things out of logical necessity are good and others out of necessity are bad, and other things are contingently bad. Since most Theists are happy to claim that God cannot do the logically impossible(6) then we can see that this would not be a limitation on God, as God can still do all logically possible things. Mawson argues that some things we pick out with certain concepts that are by logical necessity ‘bad’. (Or some things are necessarily bad due to the fact that they apply to people.) Agonizing pain for instance is logically bad by definition, in the sense that all bachelors are unmarried. God could not ever, due to his logical limitations, bring about a state of affairs where ‘agonizing pain’ was a good thing, just as he could not bring about a bachelor that was unmarried. This would be the sort of thing that accepts the second horn of the dilemma. “God does them because they are good.” Presumably, if certain things are bad by necessity, it’s inverse is true as well. There are things that are good by necessity, and there’s nothing anyone, not even God, can do about that. But that is not a limit to his omnipotence.

For the first horn though, “Things are good because God wills them.” Mawson argues that though certain concepts are logically necessary to be bad, the types of situations that they might be applied to is different. For example, he says:

Some concepts pick out things that are bad for people via contingent features that
people happen – universally but not essentially – to have. As it happens, all people in this world have the property of suffering agonizing pain if a large amount of electricity is passed through their bodies; this being so, it is a universal truth that it’s bad to pass this amount of electricity through people. But the universal badness of passing large amounts of electricity through people is obviously the result of
contingent features of the natural world, features that on theism God has freely chosen to create and that consequently it is not at all counterintuitive to suggest could have been different. Thus the theist is free to say that all substantive moral truths (as opposed to conceptual necessities) depend on God’s will in creation, but this does not, after all, have the counterintuitive consequence that we must say that God could make torture, for example, good.

He argues that torture is bad by logical necessity, as it inflicts agonizing pain upon people for no good end. (Even if there were a good end, it would still be bad, even though the result of it would be good.) However, his specific example which is ‘passing a large amount of electricity through someone’ he argues that God could have made good, if he had chosen our contingent properties and physiological makeup differently so that this action is good. But then it’s not torture anymore, because torture is ‘inflicting agonizing pain on someone…’ and so this is not counter-intuitive in the sense that most people raising the Euthyphro dilemma would have you believe.

He thus argues that this sort of solution does not limit God in any way unacceptable to the Theist, nor does it remove the possibility of objectively knowable morality. Here is his conclusion to his paper:

“In conclusion then, we have seen that the theist may say that God creates all value in the sense that prior to God’s creation, there were no substantive principles to constrain Him in the choices He made. However, this does not mean that He could have chosen to create a world in which torture was good, for such a world is a logical impossibility and not even God should be expected to be able to do the logically impossible. The goodness of refraining from torturing people is something that is logically necessary. God wills that we refrain from torturing people because of the necessary badness of torture. It is not that torture gets the badness that it does because of God’s will. But what acts count as torture and what not is something entirely a result of God’s free will in creation. So we may say that of anything which can be picked out using a term that does not itself of logical necessity entail anything about the goodness or badness of the thing so picked out, the answer to the question of why that thing has the goodness or badness that it has is that it does so because God has willed it to do so. And thus the Euthyphro Dilemma is solved.”

This seems like a decent solution to the problem. It neither tries to evade the dilemma by splitting it and opening up discussions about the properties of God’s and so forth, nor does it accept one of the two arms with unacceptable consequences. It does however, seem like an attack could be run against it by asking how we interpret God’s commands in particular passages of the Hebrew Scripture. His commands to kill all the people or wipe out groups. That is a tricky situation for any Theist, but doesn’t much deal with the Euthyphro problem proper, but gets more into a discussion about textual epistemology and hermeneutics, but these objections still might be raised.(7)

C) Islamic solutions to the Euthyphro problem:

Up until now I have dealt primarily with answers stemming from the Judeo-Christian tradition, more specifically the Christian tradition. Judaism rarely addresses the issue because as Jonathan Sacks has written, “In Judaism, the Euthyphro dilemma does not exist.” (8)(9)

In Islam however, the solution is very different. The Mutazila thought that since Allah is perfect unity and perfectly eternal, then the Qur’an could not have been co-eternal with God and thus is accessible to rational inquiry (as opposed to accessible only by tradition and literal interpretation.) The Mutazila (such as Averroës) argue that God wills things because they are right. They give in to the second horn of the argument and yield that God does what is right. That there is a moral logic that exists that God conforms to, but God is necessary for us to know it perfectly. Averroës says that God’s aim is “to preserve the health and cure the diseases of all the people, by prescribing for them rules which can be commonly accepted… He is unable to make them all doctors, because a doctor is one who knows by de­monstrative methods the things which preserve health and cure disease.”(10) This aligns with Averroës’ emphasis that truth does not contradict truth, and shows that even though we can come to understand moral law through our reason, it does not mean that revelation is not a valid way to arrive there as well. Since God is trying to help us, he gives it to us without our need to understand it, but it is possible for us to arrive there as well. Truth does not contradict truth.

The Asharites on the other hand embrace the first horn of this dilemma and take the voluntarist position. That whatever God commands is acceptable. The voluntarist position says that whatever God wills is what is Good, and there are no restraints on what he could will. ““Then lying is evil only because Allah declared it to be evil? Certainly. And if He declared it to be good, it would be good; and if He commanded it, no one could gainsay Him.” (Al-Ashari) (11) and further, “We confess that the decision concerning good and evil wholly depends on Allah. For whoever should say that the decision regarding good and evil depends upon another than Allah would thereby be guilty of unbelief regarding Allah, and his confession of the unity of Allah would become invalid.” (Al-Ghazali) (12) This option also subtly rejects the first underlying assumption of the Euthyphro dilemma, but also goes to show that the objector is making a silly claim. If there are no objective moral values except what God decrees, then trying to reason about it is pointless.(13)

These two version of the defense are actually fairly powerful as they do undermine the dilemma. I am not particularly happy with the consequences of the second one, as they ascribe a sort of circularity to the argument, dismiss objective right and wrong, and also seem to endanger God’s standing as an all wise being. Though I suppose we could simply say that God’s wisdom is far beyond us and we can’t actually get at it anyways, but that to me always seems like a cop-out. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all agree that Man was created in God’s image. Images reflect something of their creator. Can we not gather something of God by looking at ourselves, even if it is dim and far off. We have reason and God has reason, it would seem to me. Even though ours is more finite.
Anyway, I can’t quibble with the second due to the fact that standards set without reason cannot be reasoned about or with, and so to argue is pointless. The first solution though, is nice, but almost seems to make God just a second option on our path to perfection. We can obtain the truth of reality through moral reasoning, what good is God? And how is he more wise than us? Both of these solutions seem to me to reduce God in some way, though I know many people would disagree.

Anyways, that’s a brief history of the Euthyphro dilemma and some of the defenses to be brought against it, as well as a brief review of what I think their strengths and weaknesses are. Sorry if you wanted something else, but here’s what you get.


(1) One should not assume that we are trying to present all possible defenses against the Euthyphro dilemma here. That would be long and exhaustive and defeat the purpose that the reader set out for. What I will do here is attempt to give a few major defenses.
(2) Alston, William P. “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002. 283-98. Print.
(3) Adams, “Divine Command Metaethics”, p76.
(4) Interestingly, I think Van Til makes the argument that the Christian God is precisely the reason we can have anything.  The Trinity and the reality of the Multiplicity in the Unity, is what allows us to understand the Universals and the Particulars. I can’t find a citation for this argument at the moment.
(5)  T. J. Mawson (2008). THE EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA. Think, 7, pp 25-33. doi:10.1017/S1477175608000171.
(6) I wrote a paper in my undergraduate studies explaining how if a Theist is to have discourse on any matters of philosophical discourse without being overpowered then God cannot do the logically impossible. The problem of evil disappears if God can do contradictory things and so on and so forth.
(7) Recently Paul Copan published a book called “Is God a Moral Monster?” which I found helpful for learning to properly interpret these Old Testament passages. A shorter version may be found here
(8) Sacks, Jonathan (2005). To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-8052-1196-2.
(9) Arguably though, their solution is similar to the classical Christian solution. Presumably Classical Christian thinkers based their idea off earlier Jewish thought, like what is found in Amos, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah.
(10) Averroës, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, trans. George Hourani (London: Messrs. Luzac & Co., 1976) ch. 3 line 174.
(11) Cited in Beers, T. Euthyphro and Islam (2010)
(12) Cited in Faris, N. The Foundations of the Articles of Faith Sh. Muhammad Publishers, Lahore, 1999
(13) I made a similar objection to the idea of unlimited omnipotence due to the fact that logic becomes useless.

John Piper, Necessity, and the Problem of Dependence

As I mentioned to the Blog’s Author, I think it’s feasible to consider Piper running a defense that looks like this.

1. God’s glory is actually infinite. (1)
2. The addition of any number of finite objects to an actually infinite set does not increase the value of said set.
3. No matter how many finite beings you add to the enjoyment of God’s glory, God’s glory does not increase at all since it is actually infinite.

Since Piper’s claim seems to be that God does everything so that he will enjoy His own Glory. But as we can see, there is no increase in glory by the addition of finite creatures (since it is all about God’s enjoyment and not about the enjoyment of other creatures.) and so God’s will is not determined by this aspect of his character.

(1) This is a qualitative, and not quantitative statement. Quantitative actual infinities are metaphysically as well as physically impossible.

Andy Britton

A few days ago, my wife and I went out to our favorite place with some dear friends of ours. Over dinner and drinks, one friend (who plays in a worship band) mentioned that a speaker at a DNOW he played made the statement “God needs us just like we need him”.  We all a had a good laugh at the thought of an impotent God begging man for his cooperation, discussed it a bit, and went on with our night.  For reasons unknown to me, over the next week I began to pursue this thought a bit further and I believe that I’ve developed some interesting thoughts on this through the lens of John Piper’s theology.

Here’s the premises I’m working with, and the purpose of this blog is to prompt a discussion on whether or not Piper must accept the conclusion of this argument.

1.  God unchangeably ordains…

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