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An Ontological Argument from Actuality

Here is a refinement on my ontological argument from actuality:

1. Something is an Anselmian God if and only if it is conceivable, nothing can be conceived of which is more actual, and it necessarily exists (definition Θ).

2. There is something conceivable such that nothing can be conceived of which is more actual (premise).

3. For all x, if the possibility of failing to conceive of x implies the possibility that x doesn’t exist, x is mentally dependent (premise).

4. For all x, if x is mentally dependent, there is something conceivable that is more actual than x (premise).

Therefore,

5. An Anselmian God exists.

I start out with a definition of an Anselmian God, which is a stipulation, but is rooted in the idea that a Being of Pure Actuality is arguably perfect and possesses a good number of divine attributes.  

As I noted in a previous post, the traditional argument uses a “greater than” relation, which some find suspect.  “Greatness” would have been understood by Anselm as something that can be evaluated objectively on a scale, as in the Neo-Platonic notion of the Great Chain of Being.  To the contemporary ear, “greatness” seems subjective and vague.  I think “actual” in the Thomistic-Aristotelian sense is a fair approximation of greatness, but we can have a better sense of what “actual” means.  Thomas is able to derive the divine attributes from a being of Pure Actuality, so “most actual” is plausibly a divinely loaded superlative.  Moreover, it seems to me that the act-potency distinction is not something the contemporary ear would take to be dependent on subjective opinions.  So, I think (2) is fairly impeccable.  

I think (3) is a bit clunky, but it basically means that if something is merely a concept, then it is mentally dependent.  So, in the case of God, if God is merely a concept in the mind, then the possibility that God could fail to be conceived by all minds that exist implies that God, as a mere concept, could fail to exist, and so depends upon minds to continue to exist.  Put another, if God is merely a concept, then there was no God in the Jurassic period, as William Lane Craig once suggested to John Dominic Crossan.

Finally, (4) says that if something is mentally dependent, then something is conceivable that is more actual than it.  Some people think, for instance, that moral values are mind-dependent.  So, for instance, the actuality of the value of human life, VHL, depends on there being an actual community of minds that actually conceive of human life as valuable.  Were such a community to cease to exist, the VHL would only potentially exist, even if humans existed.  If the VHL were an objective fact grounded in human nature, then the actuality of the VHL would obtain whenever humans actual exist.  There is a certain assymetry that suggests that grounding the VHL in human nature is to view VHL as more actual than grounding VHL in the subjective opinions of a community of minds.  For the VHL to be actual in one case, there need only be actual humans exemplifying human nature, where as in the latter, there needs to be actual humans exemplifying human nature and an actual community of minds that actually is of the opinion that human life is valuable.  For, without the humans, a community of minds that endorses the VHL would really just be saying that VHL potentially exists and would be actual upon the occassion of human life.  We could say, then, that x is more actual than y iff the existence of x depends upon the actualization of fewer potentials than y depends upon.  VHL grounded in the actuality of human nature depends upon the actualization of fewer potentials than VHL grounded in subjective opinions about humans. So (4) just tells us that for any x that depends upon the mental for its actuality, it is conceivable that there is something that is more actual (and less dependent) than x, e.g. to conceive that x can actually exist independent of mentally conceiving of x.

Let

Cx – x is conceived
Mx – x is mentally dependent
Axy – x is more actual than y
Θx- x is an Anselmian God, 

that is: 

1. (∀x){Θx ≝ ([♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & ☐(∃z)(z=x))} (Def Θ)
2. (∃x)[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] (premise)
3. (∀x){[♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)] ⊃ Mx} (premise)
4. (∀x){Mx ⊃ [(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)]} (premise)
5. (∀x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] ⊃ [♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (IP)
6. ♢Cu & ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy) (2 EI)
7. [♢~Cu ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=u)] ⊃ Mu (3 UI)
8. Mu ⊃ [(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] (4 UI)
9. [♢~Cu ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=u)] ⊃ [(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] (7,8 HS)
10. [♢Cu & ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] ⊃ [♢~Cu ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=u)] (5 UI)
11. ♢~Cu ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=u) (6,10 MP)
12. (∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy) (9,11 MP)
13. Avu & ♢Cv (12 EI)
14. ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy) (6 Simp)
15. (∀y)~(Ayu & ♢Cy) (14 QN)
16. ~(Avu & ♢Cv) (15 UI)
17. (Avu & ♢Cv) & ~(Avu & ♢Cv) (13,16 Conj)
18. ~(∀x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] ⊃ [♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (5-17 IP)
19. (∃x)~{[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] ⊃ [♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (18 QN)
20. (∃x) ~{~[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] ∨ [♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (19 Impl)
21. (∃x){~~[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & ~[♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (20 DeM)
22. (∃x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & ~[♢~Cx ⊃ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (21 DN)
23. (∃x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & ~[~♢~Cx ∨ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (22 Impl)
24. (∃x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & ~[☐Cx ∨ ♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (23 ME)
25. (∃x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & [~☐Cx & ~♢~(∃z)(z=x)]} (24 DeM)
26. (∃x){[♢Cx & ~(∃y)(Ayx & ♢Cy)] & [~☐Cx & ☐(∃z)(z=x)]} (25 ME)
27. [♢Cu & ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] & [~☐Cu & ☐(∃z)(z=u)] (26 EI)
28. ~☐Cu & ☐(∃z)(z=u) (27 Simp)
29. ☐(∃z)(z=u) (28 Simp)
30. [♢Cu & ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] (27 Simp)
31. [♢Cu & ~(∃y)(Ayu & ♢Cy)] & ☐(∃z)(z=u) (29,30 Conj)
32. Θu (1,31 “Def Θ”)
33. (∃x)Θx (32 EG)

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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