Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is God Really Necessary?

A friend alerted me to another argument against God that I think was poorly made. Christians typically conceive of God as a necessary being. For newcomers, God as necessary means that he could not fail to exist; God exists in all actually possible situations; God cannot come into nor go out of existence; he just exists! For this, we often say God has the property of necessary existence. With me so far? Yes? No? Well, I’ll pretend you said yes, because this is my blog.

I found the argument, as originally given, to be a muddled mess, but I think I can represent it both fairly and validly.[1] It seems to be this:

1.     All necessary beings have all their properties necessarily.
2.     It is possible for God to have different properties than he does have (i.e., some of God’s properties, at least, are not-necessary, or contingent).
3.     Therefore, God is not a necessary being.

Some Christians might shrug their shoulders since, after all, this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist. But it does mean that God is radically different than how we have conceived him. Perhaps he is powerful, perhaps good, perhaps all sorts of things, but one thing he is not is necessary. He therefore would not be the maximally great being (at least, the maximally great being would not exist). This is a price most Christians would not want to pay, though I suspect the atheist thought this means that God does not exist. So what is his defense for (1)? He never actually said. He simply asked a question to the effect of, “How can a necessary being have non-necessary properties?” Asking a question is just that—a question, certainly no substitute for an argument. It’s barely more than an assertion, perhaps masking as an objection, just dying to get out.

But what is that objection? The property of necessary existence itself doesn’t entail that all properties of such a being are necessary. Take the extrinsic, contingent property that God has of “having created Randy Everist.” Why would God’s having the property of necessary existence necessitate or entail that Randy Everist is created? I fail to see the link. I suspect that perhaps the objector means something like “all of God’s essential properties are necessary; there cannot be any essential properties that are not-necessary.” Agreed, but of what relevance is this? Anyway, I can’t figure out a good argument for why we should think (1) is true. What about (2)?

I think (2) is correct: I think some of God’s extrinsic properties are contingent. But it occurs to me in the cleaning up of this guy’s argument that he may not have meant this at all. He may have meant something like, “It is possible for God to have different essential properties than he does have.” But no Christian will agree to this. He says something in the post like, “We can conceive of this type of God, and it would have to be the case that a logical impossibility would come about from this God’s existence. No impossibility comes, therefore the conclusion still follows.” Since he never says what this God is (beyond a vague statement about God having a different “personality,” whatever that means), it’s difficult for us to evaluate and criticize.

Now since we’ve already taken care of God and accidental properties, we need only concern ourselves with necessary properties here. Let’s also assume that (1) means something more like:

1*. All necessary beings have all their essential properties necessarily.

(1*) should be entirely unobjectionable, since everything that exists, necessary or contingent, has all their essential properties necessarily. And interpreting (2) to mean essential properties, the same conclusion still follows: that God is not a necessary being. Now, at first glance, the obvious answer is that it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to say that it’s possible for God to have different essential properties than what he does have on Christian theism, since:

4.     Whatever exists has its essential properties necessarily.

If (4) is true, then not only is (2) false, but it’s necessarily false—that is to say, it’s impossible! So perhaps what he’s really getting at in this argument is that there are no necessary beings, because it seems that for any being postulated, a different set of essential properties could be had. But that doesn’t follow from the current argument. A new argument is needed. Take (1), and add:

5.     There is, at most, only one necessary being.
6.     If there is a necessary being that can be distinguished in its necessary properties from the Christian God, then the Christian God is not the necessary being.
7.     But for any and every proposed necessary being, there can be a necessary being coherently postulated that can be distinguished in its essential properties from the Christian God (and each other).
8.     Therefore, the Christian God is not the necessary being.
9.     Therefore, there is no necessary being.

But, strange as it may seem, this argument is incoherent. For if (7) is true, (9) cannot possibly be true, and vice versa. Why? For something to be coherent, it must be the case that there is a possible world in which it exists. For newcomers, “possible worlds semantics” is a heuristic device philosophers use to discuss ways things possibly could have gone, in reality. So, if (7) is true, then there is a possible world, or a possible way things could have gone, in which that particular necessary being exists. But what it means to be necessarily existent is that you exist in all possible worlds, not just one or some. This would include the actual world, or the way things actually are. But that means that (9) is false, because if there is a necessary being in the actual world, then it can hardly follow that there is no necessary being.

Premises (7, 9) form an inconsistent set: they can’t both be true. So which one will you choose? If you choose (9), you’ll have to say (7) is false. In that case, (8) only follows from (9), and (9) will need its own new argument. If you choose (7), then you’re just left arguing for some other necessary being and not God—which hasn’t been done.

What justifies us in thinking that the Christian God is this necessary being? Well, Perfect Being Theology reveals a God who has all the properties it is better for a being to have than to lack, and he has it to the greatest degree there is (where certain properties admit of degrees, and where those degrees have an intrinsic maximum). When that is fleshed out, it reveals a God of essential properties that looks strikingly like the orthodox Christian conception of God. Other conceptions tend to fail on various accounts; our God never does.

[1] For newcomers, logical validity doesn’t equal correctness. It just means that if the premises are true, then the conclusion does indeed follow. It’s only a statement about the form of an argument, not its truth.

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