Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Voltairean Argument for God’s Existence

This post is a variation on what I have called an indispensability argument.  My original formulation can be found here, and I have made some further comments here. In this post, I thought I would do a take on the argument using Voltaire’s famous dictum “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” as an explicit premise (Epistle to the author of the book, The Three Impostors, 1768).  As an aside, it is commonly supposed that, since Voltaire was critical of organized religion, he was an atheist.  Voltaire was a deist. In fact, in the poem where he says that if God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, Voltaire doesn’t merely refer to God as some generic super-being, but as the “supreme essence.”  So it seems that he has something like a perfect being, or the God of the philosophers, in mind, at least in this poem.  I find the following argument cogent, and I think historical reflection makes the premises plausible. Thoughts are always appreciated, of course, though I anticipate some objections below.

  1. If God does not actually exist, it is necessary to invent the concept of God. [Voltairean Premise]
  2. For all x, if it is necessary to invent the concept of x, the concept of x is logically coherent. [Premise]
  3. If the concept of God is logically coherent, God actually exists. [By S5 and the logical possibility of God as a perfect being is necessarily existent and essentially perfect]
  4. For all x, x does not actually exist, or x actually exists. [Law of the Excluded Middle]

Therefore, God actually exists. Proof:

  1. Either God actually exists, or it is necessary to invent the concept of God. [From 1 Material Implication]
  2. If it is necessary to invent the concept of God, the concept of God is logically coherent. [From 2 Universal Instantiation]
  3. If it is necessary to invent the concept of God, God actually exists. [From 3, 6 Hypothetical Syllogism]
  4. God does not actually exist, or God actually exists. [From 4 Universal Instantiation]
  5. If God actually exists, God actually exists. [From 8 Material Implication]
  6. Either God actually exist, or God actually exists. [From 5, 7, and 9 Constructive Dilemma]
  7. God actually exists. [From 10 Tautology]

In this argument, I want to grant the Voltairean Premise, though I suspect most atheists would attack it with a Laplacean counter that “I have no need for that hypothesis.” Indeed, Laplace did not have a need to invoke God to explain the motion of the planets, but I don’t think that was Voltaire’s point. Rather, he was talking about the need of the concept of God for social cohesion. But, I think the concept of God plays a larger role than merely grounding natural law for a social contract, or putting the fear of hellfire into the hearts of the criminally minded and depraved. There is a necessity of God in many aspects of philosophical speculation. It is out of the concept of God that various philosophical concepts found further development, such as the notions of free will, personhood, simplicity, and aseity. The concept of God has helped thinkers clarify concepts surrounding Being, substance, essence, the relationship between eternality and time, etc. I suspect that the concept of God, a perfect being, was necessary in the intellectual development of our civilization. Whether one thinks that God is currently necessary to ground human rights and dignity, natural law, it happened that way historically. So it is important to note that the concept of this God, the God of the philosophers, is one that is both maximally great and fecund.

If the concept of God, a perfect being, is incoherent then such a history would be surprising, since incoherent concepts are not really all that necessary for anything. I take a concept to be incoherent if the sense of the concept is implicitly contradictory. Such a concept would not be any more necessary for deriving other philosophically interesting concepts than any other incoherent concept. For, impossibilities trivially imply anything and everything. Nonetheless, real work and reflection has gone into inferring the attributes and implications of the God of the philosophers. It is true that theologians and philosophers have come to contrary conclusions from the concept of God, but the steps by which they reach those contrary conclusions are comprehensible and not merely based on an explicit use of the principle of explosion or by being arbitrary. Often times the dispute is based on one philosopher taking an attribute or the concept of perfection to have a different sense than what another philosopher thinks. They genuinely disagree. So, it is not the case that they are simply picking out contradictions—contradictions that they would bashfully agree are there within the concept of God all along— and reaching contrary conclusions. They are actually disagreeing on basic definitions of terms that they think are implied by perfection. That being said, there is some consensus that has grown around perfect being theology. For instance, God’s power does not imply the ability to do the logically impossible, and God cannot make free-agents always do what is morally right. There are still genuine disputes over the details of a maximally great being, or a perfect being, but few would dispute that such a being would be necessary, omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect. Some dispute whether God’s omniscience is propositional. For instance, if God is absolutely simple, there can be no composition in God’s knowledge, and so it cannot be based on the composition of subject terms and predicates in the mind of God. But these sorts of disputes are not willy-nilly where anything goes. The disputes are rigorous, and based on careful definitions. So, it seems to me that while the concept of God is not settled upon by all philosophers, there are definite rules around how to do natural theology, and limits upon what the God concept entails.

One might also argue that, though the concept of God, the God of the philosophers, is incoherent, various aspects of the concept are coherent, and it is those aspects that have been fecund in the history of philosophy.  This doesn’t seem to be the case, however.  Rather, it is typically the confluence of various divine attributes that have generated so many ideas.  Perhaps even more to the point, if classical theism and absolute divine simplicity are granted, then these philosophers are not really considering a confluence of God’s attributes, but one essence that reveals itself to us an a variety of ways.  That thought itself has produced some of the most penetrating theology in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The entire Summa Theologiae is built upon this foundation, brick by syllogistic brick.  Perhaps that brick was all straw, but the Summa itself has produced entire schools of philosophy and theology. I think the concept of God was a historical necessity and philosophical necessity, one born out of a reflection on the divine, the perfect, and the infinite. That this concept is both necessary and incoherent would be surprising since, as I have said, any incoherent concept could do the job of generating random inferences.  I don’t think that is what the concept of God has been doing in our history.  I don’t think it is there as an incoherency from which surprising and profound thoughts emerge.  The concept of God gives us traction in a way that a round-square does not.  Round-squares or squared-circles might in some sense be “meaningful” concepts, but they are not necessary to invent.  In fact, it is not entirely clear that they are concepts, at least in the sense that they can be conceived in the mind.  It seems more the case that one is conceiving of roundness and squareness and noting that they cannot be predicated of the same Euclidean plane figure.  They are more an oddity, a conceptual contradiction.  Their use is merely as a stand-in for any obvious instance of an impossibility.

As for premises (3) and (4), they are relatively uncontroversial rules of logic, and I will not go into defending them here. I know some people lament S5, but the issue is not whether the axiom is true, but rather, whether we genuinely know whether something is logically possible rather than, say, merely epistemically possible. I think my defense of (2) makes it clear that I am not merely saying that the God concept is conceivable, but that it contains no incoherency in it. So, I think that if Voltaire’s dictum is right, and the necessity of a concept implies its coherence, we have good reason to think God actually does exist.

An Argument from Transcendence

In a previous post, I attempted a version of the ontological argument that makes use of a comparative relation other than “greater than.” In the argument, I used “more actual.” Of course, I meant “actual” in a sort of Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, and so it depends upon understanding that particular set of metaphysical jargon. It occurs to me that one might make use of other comparatives to similar effect. This post can be considered a “Part 2,” as I attempt a similar argument with “more transcendent” as the comparative (though I have made a few modifications to the original version that I think strengthen it). Of course, there will still be some metaphysical unpacking to do. As I have said, it is impossible to avoid metaphysics when considering arguments for God’s existence. First, we must consider what it means to “transcend” and why it might be appropriate to define God this way. For, if an ontological argument is to be successful, the definition must at least implicitly contain the traditional divine attributes.  So we must consider if “transcendence” entails those other attributes.  I think it does. That which transcends goes beyond some limit, whether it is the physical laws, space, time, or any of the fundamental categories of existence. God is often defined as transcendent, but not in the sense that He is completely detached from us and in no way relates—transcendence and immanence seem to be related attributes of omnipresence, but from different perspectives.. For, in a sense, to say that God lacks immanence is to say that God cannot transcend those limits back into our finite existence. So I don’t see transcendence and immanence as true opposites, but as two perspectives by which one can refer to the omnipresence of God. The concept of transcendence can also help us understand other divine attributes. God is said to be omniscient, transcending anything that would limit knowledge. Likewise God is omnipotent, transcending, for instance, the physical laws that limit the amount of power finite creatures possess. God is also morally perfect, transcending anything that might limit His ability to perfectly express his being good and loving towards others.  So a if we conceive of God as that than which none more transcendent can be conceived, it seems that we will arrive at a being that exists infinitely perfect and a se (self-existent and not limited to depending on other things to exist). Such a being would be omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect (so personal), and transcending time and space.  Now one might consider whether it is conceivable that God transcends existence itself.  Some theological traditions flirt with this idea, but I strongly suspect that the idea that something transcends existence is logically incoherent.  That is, it would be something not limited by being something.  I have no idea what that would mean, but if it means that God is something or someone who doesn’t exist, then it is incoherent.  It may just be that “transcending existence” is just meaningless. Anselm defined God as that than which none greater can be conceived, and I think we can understand “greatness” in terms of “transcendence.” As I mentioned in a previous blog, “greatness” can be difficult for some people to grasp. Is it supposed to be defined subjectively? For Anselm, “greatness” was conceived in terms of the Great Chain of Being, and so was an objective evaluation of existing things. But today, most people think of “greatness” as something that is in the eye of the beholder–and opinion with no factual basis whatsoever. When I have presented Anselm’s argument in the classroom, a few of my students inevitably ask, “Why must anyone agree that it is greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone?” Responding with neo-platonic metaphysics might help the student to understand what Anselm was thinking, but it makes the argument seem irrelevant, antiquated, and weak. Transcendence, though, is more clearly an objective feature. One may simply observe whether some being goes beyond a certain limit. Now one might say that it makes no sense to say that there is a limit if something transcends the limit. But we speak of things moving beyond limits all the time. Voyager I has recently transcended the limits of our solar system. When you drive too fast, you transcend the legal limit at which you can drive (though you might not use such a grandiose term as “transcend” when the cop pulls you over for speeding). So the existence of something surpassing a limit is not inconsistent with there being limits. The physical laws of nature are physical limits on the way natural objects can behave. If naturalism is true, there is nothing that transcends those limits. Whether something transcends those limits is an objective question, not a question dependent upon one’s opinions, desires, or tastes. So perhaps we can modify Anselm’s definition and say that God is that than which none more transcendent can be conceived. Just as Anselm initially invites us to consider, we may ask ourselves if such a God could merely exist in the mind, as some idea, imaginary thought, or mental construct. Surely ideas, imaginary thoughts, and mental constructs are limited by the mind in which they inhabit. They are limited not only by the mental capacity of the mind conceiving of them, but also insofar as their existence depends upon and so are limited by the very existence of minds. An argument from transcendence would look like this:

  1. God is that than which none more transcendent can be conceived. [Definition]
  2. If God exist only as an idea in the mind, something can be conceived more transcendent than God. [Premise]
  3. If it is not the case that something exists only as an idea in the mind, then it exists as an extra-mental reality. [Premise]
  4. If something can be conceived more transcendent than God, something can be conceived more transcendent than God. [Tautology]
  5. If something can be conceived more transcendent than God, something can be conceived more transcendent than that which none more transcendent can be conceived. [From 1, 4 Definition]
  6. If something can be conceived more transcendent than that than which none more transcendent can be conceived, then that than which none more transcendent can be conceived is not that than which none more transcendent can be conceived. [Premise]
  7. It is not the case that that than which none more transcendent can be conceived is not that than which none more transcendent can be conceived. [Law of Non-Contradiction]
  8. It is not the case that something can be conceived more transcendent than that which none more transcendent can be conceived. [From 6, 7 Modus Tollens]
  9. It is not the case that something can be conceived more transcendent than God. [From 5, 8 Modus Tollens]
  10. It is not the case that God exists only as an idea in the mind. [From 2, 9 Modus Tollens]


  1. God exists as an extra-mental reality. [From 3, 10 Modus Ponens]

Is this argument subject to parody? I think not, and much for the same reason I did not think an ontological argument using the comparative “more actual” is susceptible to parody. Consider, for instance, Gaunilo’s perfect island. It seems incoherent to define an island as “that island than which none more transcendent can be conceived.” The very nature of an island is such that it does not transcend the limits of water on all of its sides. Otherwise, it would cease to be an island! “Very well,” you might think, “let’s say that it does not transcend watery limitations, but it does transcend all other limits.” Well, which ones must such an island transcend? Must it transcend all limits as to the amount of sand it has on its beach? Would it have an actual infinity of sand on the beach? Perhaps there is some physical restriction you would want to place on the amount of sand, otherwise the gravitation would be so great that it would be more like a super-massive black hole than an island resort. Ah, but it transcends all physical limitations, and so it would not be bound to obey gravity or other physical laws. But now it is sounding less and less like an island, which seems to at least be bound by physical laws to do with water and land. Would it be limited such that it could not be conscious? Would it be limited in power? If you grant that it would, so that it could remain island-like, then it becomes more and more ad hoc that you should insist that one of the ways in which the island than which none more transcendent is transcendent is insofar as it must exist beyond the mental. If you insist that it would be conscious, even all knowing, and all powerful to boot, then it sounds less and less like you are really talking about an island, and more and more like you are really talking about God. Perhaps you are really just saying that God could choose to manifest himself as a physical island. And perhaps this is true. But then the island isn’t so much a parody as it is a reiteration of the actual proof, while insisting that we consider God in this odd manifested form. So, if we strictly hold to the concept of “island” it is not clear that the concept of an “island than which none more transcendent can be conceived” is coherent, or physically possible. If we ditch the idea that it really is an island, as islands are traditionally conceived, the parody crumbles apart and just becomes a reiteration of the proof. There are, of course, other objections to ontological arguments. Perhaps you could mention your objections to the argument in the comments below.

Divine Propositions and Referential Opacity

The following thoughts occurred to me yesterday, and I wanted to jot some notes down before forgetting them, though I am far from endorsing them.  Just something to chew upon. Some philosophers reject Divine Simplicity and certain explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity because such doctrines seemingly involve contradictions. These contradictions arise when the attributes of God and/or Persons of the Trinity are related to one another by numerical identity. Here are some problematic Divine Propositions:

  1. God = the Triune Godhead
  2. The Son of God = God
  3. God = God’s Knowledge
  4. God = God’s Power

These are problematic, because (1) and (2) seem to suggest that the Son of God = the Triune Godhead, which no orthodox Christian wants to say. Likewise, it prima facie problematic to take (3) and (4) to mean that God’s Knowledge is identical to God’s Power. One solution to this latter problem is to appeal to the doctrine of analogy and say that God’s Knowledge and Power and not the same as the knowledge and power we commonly know about from our everyday experience, so they can be identical. This may be compelling for some, like myself, but for others, I suspect it comes off as appealing to mystery. That is, we don’t really know what we are saying when we say that God has power or knowledge. The former problem is more difficult to resolve. How can we say that the persons of the Trinity are identical to God, but not infer that they are identical to one another, or to the totality of the Godhead? A method to address this is to appeal to the Relative Theory of Identity, devised by Peter Geach. According to this theory, it is an incomplete expression to say that “x is the same as y”. Geach thinks we have to specify the sortal concept by which x and y are the same, that is “x is the same F as y”. This might help us to explain the “The Son of God is the same God as the Father” while also admitting “The Son of God is not the same Divine Person as the Father”.   The sortal terms prevent a direct contradiction. Of course, this may pose a problem for absolute simplicity, since it seems like a sortal is kind or type, and “The Son” or “The Father” are tokens of the type. Also, this solution does not seem to help with (1) and (2), since it seems that the same sortal term could be specified. That is “God is the same God (or Divine Substance) as the Triune Godhead” and “The Son of God is the same God (or Divine Substance) as God.” With the same sortals in place, it seems that Leibniz’s laws are in play again, and we should be able to substitute terms salve veritate. A recent discussion got me thinking of a possible solution to these puzzles. A person was arguing against the Identity of Indiscernibles by appealing to Max Black’s Spheres as possible counterexamples.  The other interlocutor noted that the issue really isn’t the Identity of Indiscenibles, but the Indiscernibility of Identicals. Just to be clear, the two principles are here:

  1. (∀x)(∀y)((x = y) ⊃ (∀φ)(φx ≡ φy)) [indiscernibility of identicals]
  2. (∀x)(∀y)((∀φ)(φx ≡ φy) ⊃ (x = y))[identity of indiscernibles]

The interlocutor seemed to be saying that while (6) may be controversial, it is irrelevant to his problem.  Rather, it is (5) which seems to imply that since the Son of God is numerically identical to God, and God is supposed to be Triune, the Son of God must be Triune, where “Triune” stands as some sort of property, attribute, predicate or description. This implies a transitivity among identicals, which I take to be the real underlying problem in these theological discussions. If the orthodox teachings of divine simplicity and the Trinity depend on a notion of numerical identity, and numerical identity is transitive, or admits of substitution, then certain untoward consequences and contradictions result. By transitivity, I mean the following formal expression:

  1. (∀x)(∀y)(∀z)(((x = y) & (y =z)) ⊃ (x = z)) [transitivity]

So my proposal is to consider whether there is a way to maintain the claim that all of God’s attributes and relations are strict identity claims (rather than relative identity claims, or mere predications) while avoiding untoward inferences. It occurs to me that the indiscernibility of identicals, identity substitution, and the transitivity of identity generally are disrupted in referentially opaque contexts.  So, for instance, consider the following:

  1. I believe that the Boston Strangler = Bobby Orr.
  2. The Boston Strangler = Albert DeSalvo.

We cannot infer from (8) and (9) that Bob Orr is Albert DeSalvo. Perhaps it is true that Albert DeSalvo has been living under a false identity of Bobby Orr, so “Bobby Orr” and  “Albert DeSalvo” refer to the same person. That’s possible, but it is not logically necessary, so truth would not be preserved. This is because “I believe” is a context that is referentially opaque. How does this help us in preserving orthodox theological claims? There are other referentially opaque contexts. One such context that Quine famously argued for is de re modality. In a de re modal claim, one asserts that a certain property, predication, or identity is necessarily predicated of an individual (or property). This is opposed to de dicto modal claims, in which propositions themselves are said to be necessary. So, for instance, a de re modal claim might be something like “Daniel is necessarily an animal” where as a de dicto claim might be something like “necessarily, Daniel is an animal.” Now it might not strike us immediately that de re and de dicto phrases are in any way different from one another, but consider something like this: “necessarily, a bachelor is an unmarried male” and “a bachelor is necessarily an unmarried male.” It seems clear that the de dicto expression is true, as it is positing a necessity between synonymous. The latter is clearly false, because many bachelors are not necessarily unmarried males, and many cease to be unmarried at some point in the future. Quine is suspicious of de re modality because of issues found in the above examples, but he makes his concern more explicit in the following:

  1. 9 = the number of planets.
  2. 9 is necessarily greater than 7.[1]

From (10) and (11) can we infer that the number of planets is necessarily greater than 7? It seems not, because the number of planets can change, and not just by scientific fiat (poor Pluto). A few planets could blow up, or fall out of orbit around the sun. There seems to be no logical or metaphysical necessity that the number of planets in our solar system is greater than 7. So Quine reasons that de re modality is referentially opaque. If this is so, then Divine Propositions expressed in contemporary logic, where modality is treated as an operator, may also be referentially opaque. Let’s stipulate that Divine Propositions are identity statements about God, the Persons of the Trinity, or the Divine attributes. So, I argue that they are not merely identity claims, but de re identity claims. Now some philosophers claim that de re necessity is not referentially opaque. David Wiggins, for instance, endorses the following argument, claiming that opacity is a problem that “no longer presses”:

  1. Hesperus is necessarily identical to Hesperus.
  2. Hesperus is identical to Phosphorus.


  1. Hesperus is necessarily identical to Phosphorus.[2]

I remain completely unconvinced that this argument is valid. While it might be the case that the object to which Hesperus and Phosphorus refer, the planet Venus, is necessarily self-identical, it doesn’t seem to me that there is any logical or metaphysical necessity that Hesperus and Phosphorus could not have been two distinct objects. So even though these are co-referring terms, it seems to me that de re identity is an intensional context, i.e. it is referring to the intension of the terms and relating them to one another by a necessity of identity. I find this tantamount to the following:

  1. I necessarily believe Hesperus is Hesperus.
  2. I believe Hesperus is Phosphorus.


  1. I necessarily believe Hesperus is Phosphorus.

Let’s say that (16) is true, that I am a consistent thinker. It seems odd though, that (17) should follow. Of course, those who think that de re contexts are not opaque will remain unconvinced. To me, this is one of the major shortcomings of contemporary modal logic, and is a primary motivator for seeking out a modal logic that avoids the opacity problem. In my estimation, Aristotelian modality has the advantage of making de re-like modal claims, but without being opaque. Aristotle achieves this by treating modality as a copula modifier rather than a predicate modifier, or movable operator. But this is a tangent that I will have to explore in later posts. Now let us re-examine Divine Propositions:

  1. God is necessarily identical to the Triune God.
  2. The Son of God is necessarily identical to God.

These are de re identity claims, and if these claims are referentially opaque, it unclear whether we can now infer from (18) and (19) the the Son of God is necessarily identical to the Triune God. So, if all identity relations said of God are de re identity claims, then substitution of identity cannot occur. This does not mean that certain substitutions will not happen to preserve truth, but that we simply cannot assume to make such substitutions.  That is, the identity relation in Divine Propositions will not guarantee the preservation of truth when terms are substituted.  This gives some philosophical reason to appeal to a certain mystery regarding God’s nature. That is, God’s nature cannot be fully comprehended, at least in part, because Divine Propositions are referentially opaque de re identity claims. Now one might object that if it is true that God is necessarily identical to the Triune God, then God is identical to the Triune God, and so we can reduce out the referential opacity so that the substitution problem arises. One response to this would be to say that it is simply false to assume that the reduction from de re modality is truth preserving for Divine Propositions. For if we assume that Divine Propositions are, at the very least, always based on identity, then a certain problem arises with Divine Identity itself.  That is:

  1. God’s identity to the Triune God is identical to God’s necessary identity to the Triune God.

If God’s identity to the Triune God is identical to necessary identity, then we must ask whether the identity relation that relates the two sorts of “God’s identities” is itself referentially opaque. If we grant that “identity” is not referentially opaque in (20), then by transitivity “God’s identity” on the left side is referentially opaque as it is on the right side. Alternatively, we might deny that such a transitive relation exists in (20), but that must be because it is an opaque context despite being explicitly de re.  And this is precisely what we are arguing.  So the conclusion seems unavoidable. Another objection one might make is that referential opacity disappears if the same intensional context is used throughout an argument. So, for instance:

  1. I believe that the Boston Strangler = Bobby Orr.
  2. I believe the Boston Strangler = Albert DeSalvo.

From this, it seems that I can validly infer that:

  1. I believe that Bobby Orr = Albert DeSalvo.

Is this true? Well, not if I am an inconsistent believer. We have to make certain doxastic assumptions about me, in addition to these premises, to reach that conclusion. What about in the case of de re modality?

  1. 9 is necessarily identical to the number of planets.
  2. 9 is necessarily greater than 7.

Does the following follow?

  1. The number of planets is necessarily greater than 7.

Can we make this inference? I suspect not without making certain assumptions about the kinds of necessity at play. Even then, it is ambiguous as to which sort of “necessity” is found in the conclusion. So, I don’t think including the same opaque context throughout an argument transforms the premises into something transparent. For instance, it may be  that (24) is about metaphysical necessity, nomological necessity, physical necessity, or some other sort of necessity? Is the same sort of de re necessity used in (25)? I think most of us would see (25) as some sort of logical, or arithmetic necessity. What about in the case of Divine de re claims? Well, we would have to have a clear sense of the univocal way in which God’s attributes and persons are related to one another by de re identity. I suspect that our own understanding of the ways in which these relations are described will vary from logical necessity, to metaphysical necessity, to necessities that are contextualized by our understandings of specific attributes. For instance, there is a sense in which the Father is unbegotten and necessarily exists a se, and a sense in which the Son is begotten, but still necessarily existing in that the divine relation from the Father to the Son is a necessary because of the metaphysics of subsistent relations, or because of some necessity in the nature of perfect love and community. So the Son is necessary, but begotten of the Father, which doesn’t seem to be exactly the same sort of necessity.  Is there an overarching sense in which the Father and Son are both necessary, sure, but that sense may be beyond our immediate comprehension. Consequently, I find it dubious that we can settle on one opaque de re context in all of our discussions of God. And even if we could, it is not likely that opacity can be remedied by maintaining the same context throughout an argument. Therefore, I think we must conclude that Divine Propositions, i.e. propositions about God, the Persons of the Trinity, and Divine Attributes that are linked together by de re identity relations can be strict, opaque, and not admit of transitivity.  Thus, God’s nature can be described through the Divine Propositions, but God’s nature prevents inferences about specifics about His nature unsubstantiated by revelation, which preserves mystery.  This is not a fallacious appeal to mystery though, but one that has philosophical motivation.  If this is so, it represents one way that orthodoxy can be intellectually defended.

[1] See W.V.O. Quine. 1966. “Three Grades of Modal Involvement” in The Way of Paradox and other Essays. New York: Random House. pg. 161.

[2] See David Wiggins. 2001. Sameness and Substance Renewed. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 114-115.

Richard Carrier and γίνομαι

Richard Carrier believes that Jesus Christ never existed.  His theory is that Christ was initially a celestial being and later received historical biographies.  Part of Carrier’s case is that he claims that Paul never makes mention of Christ in any way that would indicate that he was a historical flesh and blood person.  He has a video where he puts together his argument here: At about the 31:50 mark, Carrier addresses a criticism of his argument, and it is his response that I would like to address here.  The criticism is that Paul does indeed indicate that Christ was a flesh and blood individual, who is a born member of the human race.  The significant passages are Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4. That is:

…concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh (Romans 1:3, NAS).

In Greek, is says, “περὶ τοῦ Υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυεὶδ κατὰ σάρκα…” (Romans 1:3, emphasis mine). Likewise, Galatians 4:4 says,

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law… (Galatians 4:4, NAS).

The Greek says, “ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου, ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν Υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον…” (Galatians 4:4, emphasis mine). Carrier’s argument is to focus on γενόμενον or γενομένου, which are the accusative and genitive forms of the aorist participle of γίνομαι.  According to Carrier, this is an odd form of the verb to use for “born”, and indicates that Paul was trying to make a specific point, namely that Christ was directly made or manufactured by God.  Thus, these passages don’t actually conflict with the idea that Christ was a celestial being.  Carrier makes the point that this is the same word used in the to describe the creation of Adam.  He may have had Genesis 2:7 in mind:

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7, NAS).

The verse in the Septuagint reads: “…και έπλασεν ο θεός τον άνθρωπον χουν λαβών από της γης και ενεφύσησεν εις το πρόσωπον αυτού πνοήν ζωής και εγένετο  ο άνθρωπος εις ψυχήν ζώσαν…” (Genesis 2:7, LXX emphasis mine). In this verse we see the aorist indicative form of γίνομαι, which is related, though not precisely the same form of the verb that Paul uses. Another important point is that the verb being used to describe the moment of divine manufacture is not εγένετο, but έπλασεν, the third person aorist indicative of the verb πλάσσω, which means “to form” or “to mould”.  The verb εγένετο is used in the context of saying that when God breathed life into Adam, he “became” a living man.  So here, the verb is being used more broadly to discuss a change of state or coming to be of life from the non-living clay that God had formed.  So it isn’t exactly correct to say that γίνομαι means “divine manufacture”.  At best, πλάσσω could take that meaning.  Instead, γίνομαι can mean “become”, but in this context it is the coming to be of life in the body of Adam, which is γίνομαι + a predicate (living) rather than γίνομαι + a person, in which the proper translation is “born”.  So, context always rules over these situations.  It makes sense to say that Adam came to be a living soul, but in Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4 we are talking about γίνομαι + a person, not a property, predicate, event, or state of affairs.  Citing Adam in Genesis just won’t do. Perhaps Carrier has St. Paul in mind when he says:

So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45, NAS).

“οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζωοποιοῦν (1 Corinthians 15:45, emphasis mine).” As you can see, Paul is quoting from the Septuagint at Genesis 2:7.  The only difference is that he inserts “first” and “Adam” because he is making the typological contrast that Jesus Christ is the “last Adam.”  So this can no more be used to indicate that εγένετο in Paul mean “manufacture” rather than “born” than it could in Genesis 2:7.  Genesis, and Paul’s quote of Genesis, predicates “living soul” of Adam—that he became a living soul—so it is simply wrong to translate this passage as “born” here.  The New American Standard correctly translate this as “became.” Carrier notes that Paul doesn’t use the word γίνομαι to refer to a human birth.  This is somewhat question-begging since, he must assume that these two instances are really meant to indicate “to happen, become, or be made” but not “to be born”, which is precisely the question he is raising.  Consequently, he precludes instances where Paul seemingly does use the word because he already assumes that it has a different meaning than “born”.   This is not entirely fair since the word specifically does mean “to be born” in the context of persons, as I’ve mentioned in my analysis of Genesis 2:7.  So it does have broad meaning for a general “coming to be” but Greek relies on context to shave down the meaning.  One need only check Liddell and Scott’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon to see that, of persons, it means to be born, as I have said.  Carrier points out that Paul uses another verb for being born in Romans 9:11 and Galatians 4:23,29.  It is true that Paul also uses γεννάω, but that just means that Paul is willing to use synonyms of a word, it does not not imply that Paul was trying to make a careful distinction.  Carrier then makes a big deal about the fact that some scribes switched verbs in certain manuscripts (indicating for Carrier some grand conspiracy to make Jesus appear historical rather than mythic-celestial). It could be just a substitution error.  They put in the synonymous word by accident. There is a major flaw in Carrier’s argument.  He cites Paul, who is citing the Septuagint, as evidence that γενόμενον means divinely manufacture rather than born, since it is used to describe the creation of Adam.  Well, how is this verb used elsewhere in the Septuagint? I started to check and only made it through the rest of the book of Genesis, but I am almost certain there will be more examples, if I had the time an patience to research the entire Septuagint.  Here, I am searching out the precise aorist participle form of the verb γίνομαι to see how it is used in those context.  We might ask if “divine manufacture” to “born” would be better translations in these passages.

Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac (Genesis 21:3, NAS)

The Hebrew word translated into “was born” is “yalad”, which means “to bear, bring forth, or beget”.  The translators of the Septuagint render the passage this way: “καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Αβρααμ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτοῦ τοῦ γενομένου αὐτῷ, ὃν ἔτεκεν αὐτῷ Σαρρα, Ισαακ” (Genesis 21:3, LXX emphasis mine). Notice that γενομένου, used in Genesis 21:3 is precisely the same word used in Romans 1:3, right down to the same case and number.  So are we to interpret this as “divinely manufactured”?  In the context, we are talking about Abraham, not God.  It doesn’t make sense to translate this any other way.  Surely Paul would be familiar with this passage, if he was familiar with the Greek word used in Genesis 2:7. Also, let us consider this passage:

and the sons of Joseph, who were born to him in Egypt were two; all the persons of the house of Jacob, who came to Egypt, were seventy. (Genesis 46:27, NAS).

Again the Hebrew word that is translated as “were born” is a form of the verb “yalad”.  Let’s see how the Septuagint translated the passage: “υἱοὶ δὲ Ιωσηφ οἱ γενόμενοι αὐτῷ ἐν γῇ Αἰγύπτῳ ψυχαὶ ἐννέα. πᾶσαι ψυχαὶ οἴκου Ιακωβ αἱ εἰσελθοῦσαι εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἑβδομήκοντα πέντε” (Genesis 46:27, LXX emphasis mine). Here we have the same aorist participle, but this time it is the nominative plural form of γίνομαι. Clearly we are seeing a translation pattern here.  And again, consider whether “divine manufacture” makes sense when we are talking about the sons of Joseph! My last example is:

Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are (Genesis 48:5, NAS).

Again, the Hebrew verb translated to “were born” is “yalad”.  And the Septuagint is as follows: “νῦν οὖν οἱ δύο υἱοί σου οἱ γενόμενοί σοι ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ πρὸ τοῦ με ἐλθεῖν πρὸς σὲ εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἐμοί εἰσιν, Εφραιμ καὶ Μανασση ὡς Ρουβην καὶ Συμεων ἔσονταί μοι…” (Genesis 48:5, LXX, emphasis mine). Again, this is the aorist participle of γίνομαι, which comes from the older form γίγνομαι.  It is a word that is commonly translated as born when set within the context of the “coming to be” of humans.  Clearly Paul would have had access to these examples from the Septuagint.  He would have known that it is a common way to translate “yalad”, which means “to beget”.  So Romans 1:3 and Galatians 4:4 are very strong evidence that Paul thought Jesus was actually born of the seed of David, and of a woman, just as the Gospels report.  This is compelling evidence against the thesis that Paul thought Christ was a celestial being who never walked the Earth. So, my assessment of Carrier is that he really did not do a careful analysis of γίνομαι.  I think it is clear that Paul uses the word to mean “born” and that he would have been quite familiar with the verb as one which can mean “born”.  That Paul uses a synonym occasionally does not mean that he wants to use γίνομαι in some technical sense with Adam’s “divine manufacture” in mind.  In fact, there are plenty of instances of the Septuagint where the exact same verb-form is used and “born” is the only reasonable way to translate.  I don’t see how Romans 1:3 or Galatians 4:4 could be about “divine manufacture” like Adam since they specifically mention the involvement of humans in both cases.  Why mention David’s seed or that He will be from a woman at all?  Carrier says that the latter instance is an allegory.  Undoubtedly, he has Galatians 4:21-31 in mind, where Paul tells us that Abraham had two sons, the first born to a slave woman and the second was of a free woman.

This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar (Galatians 4:24, NAS).

So Carrier wants to say that “being born of a woman” is “being born of a covenant” and so Galatians 4:4 really just means that Jesus was born of a covenant, not that he was actually born of a human.  But is this a fair assessment?  Paul makes the point that his discussion of Hagar and Sarah are “allegorizing” of what was said before, namely the story of Hagar and Sarah.  Carrier wants us to extend the allegorical interpretation back to verse 4, but Paul is only indicating that he is allegorically treating the story he just referenced from Genesis.  This does not mean that Paul did not think it was true that Jesus was born of a woman. Rather, a straightforward reading is that he made the statement in Galatians 4:4 quite plainly and then adds an allegorical dimension to the idea of being “born of a woman” by referencing Hagar and Sarah as a way to draw out a deeper dimension of what the birth of the Jewish messiah means given that his lineage traces all the way back to Isaac. But, let us suppose this was meant to be allegorical even in Galatians 4:4.  If so, then Carrier’s claim that it would be odd or incorrect to translate γενόμενον as “born” utterly falls apart.  For it must be translated that way, though allegorically.  Otherwise, we would expect to see a derivation of γεννάω, if Carrier is correct this is the only word Paul would use for “born”. That is, Paul would not use γενόμενον if he intended it to have a different meaning other than “born”. The allegory in which it is employed depends upon us understanding the word to mean “born”.  To slip out of the allegorical language would mean that Paul is slipping between literal and allegorical language, which would be sloppy, if not incoherent.  But if “born” is the proper translation in Galatians 4:4 (though allegorical), then Romans 1:3 is the clincher against Carrier’s case.  For there is no “allegorizing” going on there.  This means that Carrier must recognize that Romans 1:3 is saying that Christ Jesus, who was promised by the prophets, was  indeed “born of the seed of David according to the flesh.”  Without the excuse of saying that this was “divine manufacture”, Carrier has no retreat.  Carrier speculates that, somehow, David’s seed is taken into the heavens to produce Christ, but that speculation is insufficient if the verse indicates birth.  Any reasonable interpretation and translation of the passage would see that Romans 1:3 says that Christ is born, not made or generated.  So, insisting that the woman in Galatians 4:4 is allegorical is not actually helpful to Carrier’s case in the least given that it pretty much proves that γίνομαι + person should be understood as “born”. This shows that Paul is willing to use synonymous terms for “born”, as I suggested earlier in this post.  So, this is not an extra argument that he can add to his thesis that γίνομαι shouldn’t be translated as “born”.  Rather, it directly contradicts that argument.  Perhaps if Galatians 4:4 were the only instance where Paul uses a derivation of γίνομαι, Carrier could simply insist that it is only an allegorical birth of a “woman” = “covenant”.  However, there is also Romans 1:3, remains a thorn in Carrier’s side. The mythicists demand that we throw away all context and instead imagine some grand conspiracy was afoot.  I just can’t buy it.  And Carrier’s efforts to pretend that γίνομαι is inappropriately translated as “born” is either extremely ignorant or dishonest.  Combines with his attempt to allegorize Galatians 4:4, I find his case to be contradictory and confused.

At the end of the day, I think there is good reason to take Paul as an early witness to the testimony of those who directly knew Jesus while he lived his earthly life.  Mythicists emphasize this idea that Paul says little about Christ’s life on Earth, and try to explain away what he does say.  Each attempt to explain away gets more and more convoluted.  My short list of things that Paul claimed about Jesus includes.  I’m sure they would dispute some passages, and offer unusual interpretations of others.  But the point isn’t whether one can explain away evidence to fit an alternative hypothesis, the question is about what is more likely.  Anyways, here is why I think Paul believed in a historical Jesus:

1. Paul says that there was personal experience, or first-hand acquaintance of Christ in the flesh, or according to his flesh (2 Cor 5:16, ‘ἐγνώκαμεν κατὰ σάρκα Χριστόν’– the word ἐγνώκαμεν is translated into Latin as “cognovimus” as opposed to “οἶδα” or in Latin “sciare” which is a more scientific way of knowing things. In Romance languages, like Italian we see the contrast between verbs like “conoscere” and “sapere”, which roughly map on to the distinction. Paul is talking about a familiar sort of knowledge, not an abstract or indirect knowledge).

2. Paul tells us that Christ was born of a woman under the law (Galatians 4:4), born from the descendants, or lineage of David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). Paul uses the the aorist participle of γίνομαι, which is to be translated as “was born” (see above).

3. Paul credentials himself by writing of a meeting that he had with James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19). James was a common name—there being more than one James in Early Church leadership, e.g. James, son of Zebedee (who incidentally is also identified via fraternal bond in Acts 12:2)—and Paul uses a particular epithet to identify this particular James, “X the brother of Y” is a common way to identify people and, in the Bible, the phrase never indicates anything other than a real familial bond. “Brother in Christ” or “brethren” is not the same sort of expression as “X, the brother of Y” and no other Apostle, aside from those directly claimed to be familymembers in the Gospel, is given this epithet. It was not just a common way of indicating that James was a believer as this would have been a) redundant given the context, and b) self-defeating since “believer” wouldn’t specify James among believers named James. Also, the familial relationship is corroborated by the Gospels, Josephus, and Hegesippus. Finally, Jude is identified as a brother of James and Jesus in the Gospels (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55) and Jude identifies himself as James’s brother in Jude 1:1).

4. Paul gets Christ’s teaching on divorce right (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). See Matt 5:32, Mark 10:12, and Luke 16:18.

5. Paul says that Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (the historical existence of Pilate is fairly well established) (1 Tim 6:13, as the Gospels relate). Celestial beings who are never born or walk on Earth do not testify before Roman prefects.

6. Paul says that Christ was having supper the night he was betrayed, took bread and a cup and said that it was his body and blood and to do that in his memory, (1 Corinthians 11:23-24, as the Gospels relate).

7. Paul says that Jesus was killed, like the Jewish prophets, by his fellow Jewish countrymen (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15).

8. Paul relates and affirms a very early creed that he learned, that Jesus died, was interred (buried in a tomb—to celebrate funeral rites as opposed to merely be put in a common pit), rose on the third day, and appeared to his twelve Apostles and many others—many of whom Paul says were still alive at the time he wrote the letter, as if to invite his readers to corroborate his testimony by asking them about what they saw. And like the Gospels, he says that God raised Jesus from the dead (1 Cor 15:3-15).

9. Jesus not only appeared in the likeness or form of a man (Philippians 2:7).  Paul explicitly says that Jesus was a man (1 Corinthians 15:21; 1 Timothy 2:5).

None More Actual

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana (Wikipedia, Great chain of being)

Whenever I discuss the ontological argument with my atheistic friends, I find that they always get hung up on the same word, “greater”. They want to infuse it with moral or aesthetic meaning, and so suspect that it is subjectively defined. They don’t think there is any objective way to determine that one thing is ontologically greater than another (a flea is no greater than a child and the fact that you would swat one and not the other is just based on speciesist opinions). Indeed, to fully explain what Anselm meant by the definition, we would have to develop the neo-platonic notion of the Great Chain of Being, which is far more central to the argument than most contemporary philosophers of religion realize. Nonetheless, that requires some metaphysical assumptions from which many atheists will shy away. I want to sidestep that whole discussion by using something other than “greater.” My proposal is to run the ontological argument on a “more actual” relation. I think you can still derive the traditional divine attributes from this term, but it doesn’t suffer from seeming subjective (what is more actual is an objective question).  Nonetheless, understanding what is meant by “actual” will require some metaphysics.  When discussing proofs for God, metaphysics is inescapable.

What do I mean by “more actual”? I am appealing to the distinction between act and potency in the Aristotelian-Thomistic sense of the word. For Thomas, God is the only being that is purely actual. This is because God’s essence is His existence. God is “I am”. The distinction between act and potency is an important one in the history of philosophy. It is that distinction, which allowed Aristotle to provide a response to the Eleatics, who denied change. The Eleatics argued that change was impossible because it would have to involve being arising from non-being. Since nothing comes from nothing, change cannot arise from non-being.  Instead, Aristotle said that change occurs when a potential is actualized. So, a seed can become a plant because it is potentially a plant. And it undergoes that change when it is acted upon by actual things like water, soil, heat, etc.  We see change happen all around us, and it is rooted in the nature of things.  For instance, I am potentially bald, a potential that I am slowly actualizing with every lost hair follicle.  So, while act and potency are metaphysical concepts, they are fairly close to our commonsense.  The log is potentially fire, smoke, and ash.  The log is actually hard and damp.

An ontological argument that exploits the notion of actuality is a bit odd and perhaps shocking for my Thomistic friends. It is commonly thought that Thomas Aquinas did not accept the soundness of such arguments, a point that I am not going to discuss here. Nonetheless, I think the premises of such an argument could be defended. The argument would run like this:

1. God is that than which none more actual can be conceived (definition).
2. If God exists only in the mind, something more actual than God can be conceived (premise).
3. If something more actual than God can be conceived, something more actual than God can be conceived (tautology).
4. If something more actual than God can be conceived, something more actual than ‘that which none more actual can be conceived’ can be conceived (from 1 and 3).
5. Nothing more actual than ‘that which none more actual can be conceived’ can be conceived (premise).
6. Therefore, it is not the case that God exists only in the mind (from 2,4,5).
7. If it isn’t the case that something exists only in the mind, then it exists in reality (premise).
8. Therefore, God exists in reality (from 6 and 7).

Now, there are a few premises and a definition. The definition, I think, is fair. Aquinas takes great pains to show that whatever is pure actuality has the divine attributes. So a being than which none more actual can be conceived would be purely actual, and so simple, a se, necessary, immutable, eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and good.

Furthermore, I think (2) is defensible. Generally that which exists merely as a conception is less actual, in some way, than its counterpart in reality. You can’t be cut by the thought of a knife.  Also, (5) seems plausible. For if something more actual than ‘that than which none more actual can be conceived’, a contradiction arises. Lastly, all that is meant in (7) is that if something doesn’t just exist in the mind, that means it exists independently of our minds, which is to say that it exists in reality.  I suspect someone might say that it is a false dichotomy to insist that if something doesn’t just exist in the mind, then it must exist in reality, but I can’t think of any alternative.  And if an alternative could be found, I am sure the argument could be adjusted in the relevant ways.

One last note is to consider whether this argument is susceptible to parody.  I think it is less susceptible.  Consider Gaunilo’s island.  Could we define an island than which none more actual can be conceived?  Well, every island is a composite of act and potency by nature.  So no island can be maximally or purely actual.  One can admit that islands that exist in reality are more actual than islands that exist in the mind, but this does not mean that ‘an island than which none more actual can be conceived’ would necessarily exist, since there is no such thing.  There are, at best, islands that are more actual than other islands, but that doesn’t lead to parody.

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