Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Question: God and Necessity

Here is a question I recently received concerning God as a necessary being and what that may suggest.

“Hi there Randy.
I hope you're doing well.

I had a discussion with an atheist during which time I said that God is by definition a necessary being and thus cannot not exist. He then said that existence is not and cannot be part of the definition of anything. And since necessity implies that God *must* exist, saying God is necessary is simply defining God as an existing being, which, he says is just slight of hand. He also mentioned that existence is not a predicate.
So, I was wondering if you know how to respond to this. If you've written about this on your blog I'd love to read it.

Thanks and all the best,”


Glad to see you're taking on the difficult questions of philosophy of religion! I would be very interested to know the context of this discussion, but I think I can help nonetheless.

The atheist is right in the sense that, traditionally, people have sided with Kant in stating existence is not a predicate. Douglas Groothuis has an excellent discussion of why he thinks Kant's arguments against existence being a predicate fail in his Christian Apologetics work that came out last year. Moreover, I suspect that half (or more) of people who state "existence is not a predicate" are merely parroting, and couldn't make this argument on the spot if they had to. But never mind. Let us suppose that he's right, and that existence is indeed not a predicate. Well who says your argument relies on that?

What is interesting is how we come to state God is a necessary being. First, God is necessary as the metaphysically ultimate explanation (MUE) of the "world" (that is, all of reality). As such, if God is the MUE then he exists necessarily. Next, there is God as the maximally great being (MGB), or of the various ontological arguments (such as Anselm's). John S. Feinberg wrote of these types of arguments the following:

John Hick believes . . . that it [Anselm's argument] tells us what kind of existence God must have if he exists . . . . That is, what Anselm actually proved is that a contingent being could not be God. Any being worthy of the title "God" must be a necessary being, for necessary existence is surely greater than contingent existence. But none of this establishes that in fact there is such a being . . . .Only a being with necessary existence would qualify as God, the greatest conceivable being.[1]

In the modal ontological argument, the MGB is construed as necessary as an entailment of the argument. After all, the MGB has all great-making properties (properties it would be metaphysically better for a being to have than to lack) taken in a maximal way (where it applies: not only is MGB good, but he is perfect; not only is MGB knowing, he is all-knowing, etc.). Necessary existence is just in fact this type of great-making property (notice this avoids the trap of existence being a predicate). This is because if we were to take two beings, MGB and MGB2, and they were identical in every respect except MGB existed necessarily (that is, in all possible worlds) and MGB2 existed in most worlds, but not all (contingent), which is metaphysically greater? It seems MGB is, because he is displaying the maximal great-making properties in more worlds (namely, all of the worlds MGB2 exists in plus all of the worlds in which MGB2 doesn't exist) than MGB2. MGB is just what we intend to mean when we speak of God.

Finally, let's consider a silly and pedestrian example to show that if God exists, it must be necessarily. Suppose I say to you, "There is a blue ball that exists in every possible world." This means every metaphysically possible world contains this ball; it does not contain just any blue ball, but the same blue ball which we are thinking of. Well then suppose we discover a possible world that does not contain this blue ball. "No problem," you say. "We just amend that ball's existence to match the facts." Not so fast. For what we have construed is a necessarily-existent ball, but it remains in whatever worlds we do in fact find this ball, it is not necessarily existent, so that we do not find this blue ball at all, but rather some other blue ball (remember MGB and MGB2). It also follows there just is no possible world where it is true that the necessarily-existent blue ball exists; which is to say it is necessarily false that such a blue ball exists; which is to say it is impossible such a blue ball exists! See the correlation? If God is construed as necessary (and there are good reasons to think so [cf. MUE and MGB]), then his existence is either necessary or impossible!

Think of the burden placed on the objector. No longer can he remain in agnosticism; he must either formulate an argument to show God's existence is impossible or else concede God does, in fact, exist. Of course, your atheist friend may at any point bite the bullet (in any case many do) and admit he cannot prove God's existence to be impossible. Yet he may then claim that neither have you shown God's existence to be possible. Well that seems to be not too difficult or very difficult, depending on the goal. If your goal is to make anyone who wishes to remain agnostic about the metaphysical possibility of God's existence to be hopelessly mired in irrationality—that will be somewhat difficult. If you wish to show that people who would accept the argument (skeptics included) are being quite rational and are justified in doing so—that will be relatively easy.

Metaphysical possibility involves showing logical coherence (that is, a lack of self-contradiction). But this isn't quite good enough for metaphysical possibility all by itself, for there is no logical conflict in stating "Randy is the number 45." There are, however, no possible worlds in which "Randy is the number 45" is true, so that it is actually necessarily false that "Randy is the number 45" is true. This brings us to the next criterion: there must be no necessary truths which entail the proposition's falsehood. The objector might claim we must do an inductive search and know all necessary truths, but that doesn't seem to be the case (we can adjudicate matters of metaphysics without knowing this). All that follows is that in the presence of a necessary truth that entails our premise's falsehood, we recognize it would constitute a defeater of said premise if the necessary truth is in fact true. Nor is it the case we must know all of the properties of the MGB before we pronounce a decision. We can appeal to rational, modal, intuitions (again, in the absence of defeaters) to support the claim it seems there really could be a being who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, and so on. I hope that helped!

God Bless,


[1] John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001), 192.
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  1. Sorry about the format here; I'm still not sure what happened.

  2. Probably a copy/paste issue. I, too, often have trouble with the formatting on blogger, though.

  3. Randy,

    Here is an issue I've been mulling over lately. I'm not sure we really have the capacity to conceive of a maximally great being or a metaphysically necessary being. This at least presents a prima facie problem because how do we accurately evaluate the truth content of our propositions unless we truly understand the terms they contain. I can evaluate the truth of Aristotle is mortal because I know what everything there means or points to in the actual world. That picture becomes murky in teh case of God (and, to be fair, probably in several cases of complicated things). It seems to me that we shouldn't do anything more than make tentative conclusions about propositions containing such a poorly understood concept.

    I don't know that it strikes a crucial blow to either side, but I think we should be cautious in what propositions we say entails something like metaphysical necessity or what propositions entail existence on a possible world when the subject in question is something like a maximally great being or the perfect solvent, etc.

  4. Hi Dr. Mike! :)

    I see where you're coming from. I wouldn't think we would need to know all of some concept in order to know that concept enough to say we know the concept in a real sense. After all, that would result in an infinite regress. Perhaps you were not saying that, but merely that whatever our knowledge, it is insufficient to discuss the concept. But I'm not so sure that's the case.

    I think I'd give the same response I give to theological noncognitivists when they say they don't know what is meant by "God," and then proceed to say all sorts of stuff about him. What, exactly, are we talking about that we can't know? ;) If we can know enough about it to make some propositions about it, then it means something, and hence can be conceptualized. Now I could see anything held with less than certainty as tentative (since I will be the first to admit I don't know every last property that must be held, and perhaps it will turn out to be the case that two properties that must be held are incompatible), but I don't think it must be so tentative as to say we cannot even conceive of it!


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