Perfect Being Theology, Mysterious Superlatives, and God’s Necessary Goodness.

I typically define theism in company with those who, under the enduring influence of St. Anselm, follow him in affirming that God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived. To update the Anselmian lingo in the preferred way of analytic theologians, God is a maximally great being, which is to say that God is the being which exemplifies the uniqualizing[1] property of exemplifying the largest set of compossible categorically great-making attributes.[2] Thus, if omnipotence is a categorically great-making property (i.e., a property which it is in every respect better to be than not), and omnipotence isn’t known to be incompatible with any categorically great-making properties, then God is probably omnipotent (which is to say, omnipotence probably belongs to the set of compossible categorically great-making properties than which no set is greater). This is obviously a shortcut (for, if some property which appears to be categorically great-making was incompatible with the largest set of consistent categorically great-making properties then it would not really be categorically great-making at all), but it is a useful one. Theists who subscribe to this theological/philosophical strategy claim that what we can coherently say about God, at least absent any appeal to revelation, is that for any categorically great-making property P, God has P if and only if P is part of the largest set of categorically great-making properties all of which are compatible with each other. Practically speaking, if omnipotence is compatible with omniscience, omnibenevolence, omnipresence, immutability, divine simplicity, aseity, et cetera, and those are all compatible with each other, then God can be safely said to have all of those properties.

One notoriously difficult problem with this ‘perfect being theology,’ as I’ve laid it out, is that particular superlative attributes are always liable to be rejected on the grounds that they are found, after all, to be incompatible with each other for some philosophically subtle reason. For example, if we found, contrary to current expectations, that omnibenevolence were incompatible with being altogether just, and those were both categorically great-making properties, then one or the other of them would not actually be a property of God (according to the perfect being theologian). So, the perfect being theologian’s approach to defining God actually makes any alleged property of God negotiable in terms of a philosophical trade-off. By applying the right kind of philosophical pressure you can in principle always get perfect being theologians to choose between God’s being immutable and divinely simple on the one hand, and omnisubjective on the other (or any other superlatives in either place). Most of the time this is a purely academic concern; practically speaking the perfect being theologian can get all of the properties the classical theist wants, using perfect being theology, without any serious difficulties. Still, the perfect being theologian operates almost as though her view of God is a hypothesis which could, at any moment, be overturned by the flood of new philosophical considerations. That may not be such a serious problem on its face; after all, the scientist treats the theory of evolution, or atomic theory, or any other theory, as though it might, at any moment, be overturned, but is increasingly confident in these theories as they prove their explanatory worth over time and in the face of multiple challenges. The perfect being theologian may think the very same thing about God as classically construed (e.g., as being omnipotent, and omniscient, et cetera), since it remains philosophically viable in the face of several serious challenges it has faced down through the centuries. A serious challenge to the strategy of the perfect being theologian exists, however, insofar as the perfect being theologian ought to admit the possibility of mysterious superlative attributes.

A mysterious superlative attribute is a categorically great-making property which is in principle out of the intellectual reach of human cognition. In other words, it represents a property which is beyond our ken, and thus unanalyzable (at least as far as we’re concerned). Suppose we have some such property X; for all we know, X is incompatible with many, all, or at least one of the superlative attributes generally ascribed to God. Even should we think that X isn’t likely to be incompatible with these properties and if it were it would, by reason of that, probably not belong to the largest set of compossible superlatives, for all we know there are other equally indiscernible mysterious properties {X1, X2…, Xn}. We have no way of telling how likely it is that there are only a handful of such mysterious superlatives, or even that there are only finitely many such properties, and it seems impossible to dismiss out of hand the possibility that any one of them might be incompatible with any or all of the non-mysterious superlatives. It isn’t hard to see why this poses such a serious challenge to the strategy of perfect being theology. Unless the perfect being theologian is able to give some very impressive reason to think i) that no mysterious superlatives exist, ii) that if they do exist there are few enough of them, and/or they are each so unlikely to be incompatible with non-mysterious superlatives, that they, taken together, are extremely unlikely to imply that any of the non-mysterious superlatives are missing from the largest set of compossible categorically great-making properties, or iii) that no mysterious superlatives are possibly incompatible with the non-mysterious superlatives, then she is in serious trouble. She will be forced to adopt her theology as a useful fiction, however well pragmatically justified. She will end up having to adopt some form of theological anti-realism analogous to (some) versions of scientific anti-realism, and for the purposes of systematic theology that simply will not do.

I’ve been contemplating this problem for a while. I once hoped that the theologian could use some argument from the nature of language to show that any concepts which in principle cannot be given an expression in at least one language possibly comprehensible to us must necessarily be lacking the semantic machinery required for incompatibility with any concept which can in principle be given expression in a language comprehensible to us. While that sounds vaguely promising, I simply have no good ideas about how to cash out that (speculative) claim. It also raises a legitimate question about what we might call quasi-mysterious superlatives (i.e., categorically great-making properties which are in principle intelligible to us, but which are in fact unintelligible to us and/or have never occurred to anybody) which I am not entirely ready to answer.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me recently that we might be able to safeguard at least one of the non-mysterious superlative attributes even in the face of the challenge posed by the possibility of mysterious superlatives which are incompatible with non-mysterious superlative attributes. It seems that God’s being the paradigm of goodness itself (goodness simpliciter – not to be confused with merely moral goodness) is a non-negotiable non-mysterious superlative attribute. In its absence, there wouldn’t even be a standard against which properties could be said to be objectively great-making. Very plausibly, one needs a paradigm of goodness in order to talk meaningfully about greatness (in the relevant sense), and if there is a maximally great being then it must be, among other things, the paradigm of goodness. Therefore, even if God (understood as the maximally great being) has mysterious superlatives which are just beyond our ken, we can know with certainty that whatever they are, they must be compatible with being goodness itself. Thus, the set of compossible categorically great-making properties must necessarily include being identical to the Good. Unless God’s nature serves as the barometer or paradigm of greatness in our ‘great-making’ sense, God cannot necessarily be a maximally great-making being. The whole coherence of perfect being theology hangs on God having the property of being the paradigm of (categorical) greatness.

Supposing this argument is successful, how comforting should its conclusion be for the perfect being theologian? It certainly doesn’t give her everything she wants, so she has plenty of work still cut out for her, but she might be able to use this as an almost Archimedean point from which to make progress. For instance, perhaps some other properties, such as moral goodness, necessarily flow out of an appropriate analysis of being the paradigm of goodness simpliciter. Perhaps, in addition, a parallel argument can be run for other properties, such as being the paradigmatic existent.[3] Ultimately, I think the potential of the arguments I’ve presented, even if successful/sound, is extremely limited. It isn’t good enough to assuage my concerns, but it does feel like a good start. If there is a fatal problem with my argument I suspect it will be caused by some kind of circularity (e.g., God being defined by greatness and greatness being defined by God), but it isn’t clear to me, at present, that there is a non-superficial problem here. Nonetheless, it is a challenge about which I shall have to think carefully in future.

 

[1] By ‘uniqualizing’ I mean a property which is had, if at all, by at most one being. See: Alexander R. Pruss, “A Gödelian Ontological Argument Improved Even More,” in Ontological Proofs Today 50 (2012): 204.

[2] Thomas V. Morris, “The concept of God,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, ed. Louis Pojman, Michael C. Rea (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2011): 17.

[3] Obviously, the person to read here is Vallicella; see: William F. Vallicella, A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. Vol. 89. Springer Science & Business Media, 2002.