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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Posted on October 8, 2014, in Arguments for God and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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