Sunday, 27 May 2018

Review: Maximal God by Yujin Nagasawa

Reader's Note: Next week I will publish a follow-up entry giving more of my own thoughts on the book's central thesis. Since this review, like all of my Ontological Investigations reviews, was partly written with Amazon in mind it was neither desirable nor feasible to an in-depth technical response within the review itself.

In Maximal God Yujin Nagasawa presents an ambitious, fascinating and frustratingly sketchy development of perfect being theism. The book also contains a wealth of material on the ontological argument, including an overview of its history and a comprehensive discussion of the normally disregarded epistemic version originally given by Anselm. Nagasawa’s prose is admirably lucid and relatively free of technical jargon or the complex semantics of formal logic. Although the book requires a basic knowledge of analytical philosophy it will be accessible to anyone interested the topic and willing to put a bit of background reading in.

The book is divided into three sections: the first covers perfect being theism, the second his new ‘Maximal God’ interpretation and the third to the ontological argument.

The first section is split into discussions of perfect being theism itself and the related idea of the great chain of being. The former gives a quick run-through of the origins of perfect being theism, both psychologically and historically (a minor quibble pertaining to this later area: I think insufficient attention was paid to role of Plato’s Form of the Good in this genealogy).

For those who are not familiar, perfect being theism is the claim that God is the perfect being, the being with the highest degree of perfections, as captured in Anselmian definition of God as the ‘being than which no greater is metaphysically possible’ or in Alvin Plantinga’s definition of God as a ‘maximally great being’. It is normally held to entail the traditional divine attributes: Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omnibenevolence (Nagasawa terms this the ‘Omni-God thesis’). The three main classes of objection to perfect being theology each target these properties: (A) either by arguing for a property’s being incoherent, (B) for it being incompatible with the possession of another such property or (C) the possession of it conflicting with some fact about the rest of reality.

Nagasawa’s discussion of the great chain of being, the project of arranging all actual and possible beings into an axiological hierarchy culminating in God, is one of the best overviews of this topic available. Nagasawa looks at two ways of modelling said hierarchy. The linear model, the historical view familiar to us from Plotinus and Dante, envisions a single top to bottom hierarchy the members of which are ranked in terms of overall greatness. Another more recent proposal, the radial model, allows for different value hierarchies, individual members of which need not be commeasurable with member of other hierarchies, each having God at its summit. Instead of there being a single chain of being there are multiple interlinking chains—a great web of being as it were. Nagasawa offers a number of observations on the nature of great-making properties, distinguishing between relative and absolute great making properties, as well as between intensive and extensive greatness (possessing a higher degree of a certain great-making property versus possessing more great-making properties).

Although he devotes considerable time to the radial model he concludes that the linear model offers an advantage in responding to incompossibility and incompatibility with the world objections to great-making properties. As, on the linear model, the sum of a being’s individual great-making properties can be factored into a single scale, that of overall greatness, we can grant that God may not possess a certain great-making property e.g. knowledge, to the maximum degree, yet is still the perfect being in virtue of having that property to a significant degree plus other compensatory perfections (what God might lack in a specific instance of intensive greatness he can easily compensate for in overall extensive greatness). One wonders though whether the supposedly ‘decisive’ objection he mentions the linear model having faced was ever taken that seriously by its historical proponents; indeed it just seems to beg the question against that view.

It is in the following section that the book’s central thesis and unique contribution to philosophy of religion, the Maximal God thesis, is developed. The perfect being thesis, the claim that God is maximally great or the being than which a greater is not metaphysically possible, is normally taken to entail that Omni-God thesis. There is no a priori reason why this should the case—instead, Nagasawa proposes, we should understand it as entailing only that God is the being that has the maximal consistent set of power, wisdom and benevolence (the Maximal God thesis). Nagasawa stresses that the Maximal God thesis does not rule out the Omni-God thesis—the theist is free to defend the traditional omni-attributes if he or she wishes—only that its coherence is not integral to perfect being theology. The strengths of the Maximal God thesis will be apparent to the reader—by making the concept of a perfect being a moving target it potentially allows the theist to resolve all three classes of objection to perfect being theology mentioned earlier. If a critic attacks perfect being theology on the basis that a certain account of the divine attributes is flawed, say because knowledge of a certain class of propositions is incompatible with Omnibenevolence, the proponent of the Maximal God thesis can simply accept that such an account of the attributes is false but say they are not committed to it at any rate, because whatever specific attributes a perfect being possesses said attributes are necessarily consistent.

Nagasawa is aware that his thesis will be met with hostility from both atheist and theist alike, and spends the majority of this section defending it from various criticisms. Of these the most serious seem to be that the Maximal God thesis opens the door multiple, competing ‘alternatively perfect’ beings and that potentially some objections might force us to reduce the intensity of one of the great-making properties to the point God ceases being very impressive. He concedes that the Maximal-God thesis alone cannot defeat the modal problem of evil (if we reduced God’s power to account for some apparently possible scenarios of gratuitous evil even we could prevent God would be very weak indeed).

The final section, which makes up nearly half of the book, is an account and defence of the ontological argument. Discussion of the Maximal God thesis slips into the background and only returns to prominence in the last chapter. Nagasawa obviously thinks very highly of the ontological argument, going as far as to call it a successful argument for theism in general and the only direct argument for perfect being theism (this latter claim I find dubious). Interestingly for much of the section Nagasawa defends the classical or epistemic version of the argument, which, unlike with the modal version, most philosophers consider vulnerable to the Kantian contention that existence is not a first-order property. Nagasawa points out that not only is it a subject of controversy that existence is not such a property but it is also debatable whether the classical version even requires this. I would have liked more in-depth coverage of this point, particularly as some philosophers otherwise friendly to the argument take the existence criticism to be decisive. Instead Nagasawa focuses on what he terms ‘shallow logical’ objections, objections that seek to highlight conflicts between the argument’s premises and not the ontological and epistemological background of these premises.

The first of these is an ingenious criticism given by Peter Millican to the effect that the epistemic claims of the classical argument e.g. ‘being thought to exist’ do not yield the conclusion theists desire. Nagasawa’s response involves the interesting observation that although existence is a great-making property it need not and should not be a great-making property which trumps all other great-making properties. Contra C.S. Lewis a truly existent dust more is not greater than the (presumably) non-existent Coleridgean Palace of Kublai Kahn—some non-existent things are greater than some existent things albeit the former would be greater still if they did exist.

The second is the ‘maximally great island’ parody objection and its more formidable cousin the ‘Devil argument’. Exhaustive responses are given to both—in the first case one might wonder why as, Nagasawa’s own protestations aside, the parody objection in its standard form is equivalent to the ‘What caused God?’ strawman objection to various cosmological arguments and is at its very best only useful in revealing semantic inadequacy in various formulations of the ontological argument. Nevertheless scholars will be grateful to have such exhaustive breakdowns and case studies of this family of objections.

The Maximal God thesis returns with a vengeance in the closing chapter of the book, which deals with modal ontological argument. As most readers know, the modal version of the argument shows that if a perfect or ‘maximally great’ being is even possible then it exists in all possible worlds, the controversial premise therefore being whether such a being is indeed possible. Nagasawa offers a (once again excellent) overview of all previous attempts to justify the possibility premise and argues, tactically rather than convincingly one feels, that none of them are satisfactory. By now it should be easy to guess Nagasawa’s own proposed method of justification—if the perfect being thesis entails the Maximal God thesis i.e. that God has the maximal consistent set of positive properties, then such a being is of course possible for its possibility is implied by its being consistent. The Maximal God thesis allows us to turn the modal ontological argument into a formidable piece of natural theology.

Some concluding thoughts: Nagasawa’s detailed overviews of perfect being theology, great-making properties, contemporary work on the epistemic and the modal ontological argument mean that Maximal God will be required reading for anyone interested in those topics. His development of the Maximal God thesis is well argued and lucid but over rather too quickly. The book’s greatest fault is that it lacks cohesion, a factor no doubt due to some of the chapters deriving from articles originally written without the Maximal God thesis in mind; it would have benefited greatly from a concluding roundup section about further work to be done with that thesis. These faults aside the volume represents an important intellectual contribution and perhaps the start of a new paradigm in philosophy of religion.


  1. Nagasawa’s response involves the interesting observation that although existence is a great-making property it need not and should not be a great-making property which trumps all other great-making properties

    A remark on this point: were existence a perfection which trumps all others it would have counter-intuitive consequences in the debate over the best of all possible worlds. Were it so then the term ‘best of all possible worlds’ would cease to pick out one specific possible world necessarily and instead apply to any world which happened to be the actual world. This would lead to the further paradoxical conclusion that a world which, if not actual, was the worst of all possible world, the one with the lowest sum of value, could de facto become the best of all possible worlds just be being actualised)

  2. Sounds like a really fascinating book!