Sunday, 10 June 2018

Further Thoughts on the Maximal God Thesis

Nagasawa repeatedly affirms that holding the Maximal God thesis does not mean abandoning the omni-attributes, only not having to defend them as part of the perfect being thesis. Many theists however will reject this proposal straight out at the mere epistemic possibility of having to water down said attributes. Others will allege that the thesis anthropomorphises God or that it commits us to an account of properties incompatible with divine simplicity. Of these the simplicity question is probably the only one with (non-rhetorical) force, however it would take us on to a wider debate (probably the central debate for classical theism).

One objection that might be raised is that the three great-making properties Nagasawa discusses—power, knowledge and goodness—are each degreed properties i.e. those that admit of varying intensity. Although the Maximal God thesis makes sense in those cases it is difficult to see how it could be applied to divine timelessness, say, or simplicity, neither of which appear to admit of degrees. One could easily respond however that the Maximal God thesis is really intended as a development of the ‘Maximally Great’ definition of God employed in Plantinga’s formulation of the modal ontological argument, which was specifically intended to only capture a ‘bare bones’ picture of theism thus remaining neutral on further attribute debates. Whilst these attributes are important one is not required to defend them in the course of the ontological argument. This is probably a wise move: as Leftow and Gale have pointed out, the possibility of a timeless being or of a divinely simple being also entails the existence of said being, hence appealing to those attributes in the course of the ontological argument would render that argument superfluous. It could also be argued that, despite what Anselm himself may have thought, although timelessness and simplicity are attributes of God they are not great-making properties, that are entailed by God’s status as a perfect being.

A related objection is that theists may already have a priori commitment to the Omni-God thesis in virtue of other theistic arguments and background ontological assumptions. Many philosophers would take issue with Nagasawa’s claim that the ontological argument is the only direct argument for the God of perfect being theism and that at best the other arguments only show the existence of a being with impressive properties e.g. vast degrees of power or intelligence, compatible with God thus understood. Although the Gaps Problem is often touted as a serious objection it follows directly from certain variations on the PSR and powers cosmological arguments that the being in question has at least the power to actualise all possible states of affairs if not also agency and knowledge of all such states. Again defenders of the Maximal God thesis can respond that they do not a priori reject the Omni-God thesis, thus if the reasoning behind the these cosmological arguments is cogent then we have reason to think that Omnipotence and perhaps others are included amongst the maximally consistent set of positive properties God possesses.

Here there is a danger of critics of theism digging their heels in and claiming that far from establishing the existence of an Omnipotent being the fact that the cosmological argument would entail such gives us reason to reject it, as we already know such a being is impossible on the basis of a type A or type B objection (see Vallicella’s ‘Simple Atheist’ for an account of this problem albeit with simplicity instead of omnipotence). Responses vary from tackling the objection head-on with a refutation, the preferred approach since most of them are not that formidable, or ceding the cosmological argument and retreating to Maximal God theism on the basis of the ontological argument.

The type B objection has potentially more interesting consequences if developed along the lines that the cosmological argument does establish the existence of an omnipotent being and that, necessarily, Omnipotence cannot be among the maximal consistent set of positive properties possessed by the perfect being. This would mean we have two necessary beings, one Omnipotent and one with the properties ascribed by the Maximal God thesis, a conclusion many theists would want to reject (then again I cannot see it being a conclusion that would please most atheists either). In order to reach such a conclusion though the critic would have to show that the omni-attribute in question is not only incompatible with other omni-attributes but also with Maximal God’s other properties. This strikes me as implausible on axiological grounds.

It goes without saying that those whose ontology entails or depends on the existence of beings with the omni-attributes cannot profit from the open-endedness of the Maximal God thesis or can only do so as a backup in the eventuality that their preferred metaphysics is proven wrong. This is perhaps another instance of the specific metaphysics problem I discussed in my instalments on Feser’s Five Proofs: epistemically complete theistic ontologies have the advantage in exhaustively mapping God’s relationship to the rest of reality but cannot permit any flexibility in the understanding of God involved.

Finally there is another family of omni-attribute arguments Nagasawa does not discuss, some of which may experience a rise in epistemic credibility given the Maximal God thesis. I refer here to what shall be termed explanatory role arguments, those which claim the existence of a being with a given omni-attribute can be provide the most satisfactory solution to a philosophical problem. Examples would be the proof from eternal truths (which holds an Omniscient necessary being is the best way to account for abstracta), Pruss’ argument that an Omnipotent being helps explain global possibilities and Alan Rhoda’s intriguing suggestion that a timeless Omniscient being could solve the truthmaker objection to Presentism.

Explanatory role arguments are often under examined by sympathetic theists and atheists, perhaps because of an underlying feeling that the perceived ‘costly addition’ of said beings to one’s ontology would dissuade anyone who was not a priori committed to them. Here the Maximal God thesis may be of use—if one has prior reason to believe for example that a very knowledgeable necessary being exists and that the existence of an Omniscient being would solve ontological problem then might not one conclude that said very knowledgeable being is probably Omniscient? If explanatory role reasons are not strong enough to justify positing the existence of an exotic additional being in the first place they might still be enough to give us reason to revise our understanding of an existing being i.e. Maximal God. Likewise for epistemic stalemate situations with for and against arguments—if the reasons for positing an omni-attributed being have the same epistemic weight as those against the existence of a being with said attribute, might not additional prior knowledge of the existence of a being with something very close to that attribute shift the epistemic balance in the omni-being’s favour? The former seems a better route than the latter.

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