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A Response to Schieber’s Problem of Non-God Objects

The problem of non-God objects is an argument against the Anselmian conception of God, i.e. that being than which none greater can be conceived. Given the target, if the argument were successful, it would provide a decisive reason to be an atheist. The argument, devised by Justin Schieber, runs as follows:

P1: If the Christian God exists, then GodWorld is the unique best possible world.
P2: If GodWorld is the unique best possible world, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
P3: GodWorld is false because the Universe (or any non-God object) exists.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Christian God, as so defined, does not exist.1

The argument is formally valid, so if the premises are true, I think we ought to accept the conclusion. What’s more, P2 and P3 are relatively uncontroversial. It is quite obvious that this world is not GodWorld, i.e. the null world where only God exists. One might try some sort of pantheistic escape, but since pantheism is contrary to orthodox Christianity, such a route concedes the debate. Furthermore, the Christian is committed to the existence of non-God objects. Unless it is logically impossible for God to maintain GodWorld, P2 seems to be true. I can think of no reason to think that God would not be able to maintain GodWorld. And if there is a singular best possible world, it seems a maximally great God ought to preserve it.

Contrary to the implications of this argument, Catholics theology teaches that creation is a gratuitous act. God could have decided not to create anything. This suggests that Catholics are committed to the possibility that God could have maintained GodWorld. But in suggesting that God could have acted otherwise, the Catholic is also committed to the position that nothing in God’s nature would have prevented him from bringing about an alternative reality from GodWorld. If we spend some time considering how this could be, I suspect that we will come to a better understanding of why P1 of Schieber’s argument is not sufficiently justified.

Iron Chariots explicates the argument, and this seems consistent with the way Schieber presents the argument in his debate with Max Andrews. So I will go with their explication for the time being. Iron Chariots writes:

If God exists, he is an ontologically perfect being – meaning he has those great-making properties to their maximal compossible degrees and no such properties to any lesser degree. A world comprised of only the maximally-great being for eternity would be a world comprised of all those great-making properties to their maximal compossible degrees and no such properties to any lesser degree. Unless there is some source of unique Goodness – Goodness that exists outside of and fully independent of God, GodWorld must be the unique best possible world. GodWorld eternally sustains the highest overall ontological purity and, therefore, overall ontological quality to which no other world can compare, therefore it is the unique best possible world.2

I agree that if God exists, God is an ontologically (and morally) perfect being. We might dispute the idea that God “has” great-making properties. For the Thomist, God is identical to God’s attributes, and those attributes are identical with one another. God’s goodness is identical to God’s omnipotence. So Schieber’s understanding of ontological perfection is more in line with the contemporary metaphysics of a certain group of evangelical Christian analytic philosophers as opposed to Anselm and Aquinas, who strongly affirm the doctrine of divine simplicity. And I think a good deal of this argument hinges on contemporary analytic metaphysics, so it is worth noting that God is already conceived of as a complex of great-making properties—a complex whose purity can be threatened and altered in some way. Thus the God described in this argument seems to lack genuine (libertarian) freedom, immutability, and simplicity.

Another aspect of this argument that seems to presume contemporary metaphysics, according to this argument “GodWorld” would be comprised of all the great-making properties to their maximal compossible degree and no such property to any lesser degree. However, it isn’t really clear whether and how possible-worlds receive their predicates. And this will be the crux of my criticism of Schieber’s argument. While I think the semantics of possible-worlds is a helpful way of thinking about modality, it raises some thorny metaphysics questions and may even contain some outright presumptions. I will develop my objection as a trilemma: either GodWorld has the ontological status to be the subject of predication, or it does not. If it has the ontological status to be the subject of predication, then either it has the same predicates as God or it does not.

Let’s consider the first horn, that God has the ontological status to be the subject of predication. For this appears to be Schieber’s position. He wants to predicate “unique best possible world” and “highest purity” of GodWorld. And it seems he does so on the grounds that GodWorld, itself, is comprised of God’s great-making properties. Let’s suppose that this means that GodWorld has the same properties as God (the first horn of our second dilemma). This is to treat the relationship between the predicates of an object in a world as transitive to the world in which that object obtains. That is, God has great-making properties, GodWorld has God, therefore GodWorld has great-making properties. There are prima facie reasons a Christian would find this metaphysical position problematic, since God is not just that than which none greater can be conceived, but also that than which a greater cannot be conceived (Proslogion XV). If great-making properties are transitively predicated to GodWorld from God, then something must be conceived to be as great as the Anselmian God. And so conceiving of both is surely greater than conceiving of God alone. This means that the admission of the metaphysics and the transitivity of properties renders Anselm’s God incoherent. But before the atheologian claims victory through insisting on this view of possible worlds, we must consider it more closely. First, we must be cautious that we don’t commit the fallacy of composition, i.e. that the world has the properties of the beings that occupy the world. God is omnipotent, but is GodWorld omnipotent? We have no reason to think so. God is omniscient, is GodWorld? The world itself doesn’t seem to have powers or knowledge. It seems to be a category mistake to think the world has such abilities simply because its singular occupant has those abilities. This seems highly implausible to me.

Consider, then, the alternative possibility that GodWorld has the appropriate ontological status to be the subject of predication, e.g. ‘the unique best possible world’, but those predicates are not the same as God’s great-making predicates. This seems more plausible than the first alternative that we’ve considered, since God does not have a great-making property of being the “unique best possible world”, and GodWorld doesn’t, itself, seem to be omniscient. They seem to have different properties. Further, we might say that GodWorld is being predicated with some degree of purity on the basis of the quantity and quality of non-divine great-making qualities are predicated of the entities that exist. On this interpretation, there are at least two real things that are ontologically sufficient to receive predication in GodWorld, namely God and GodWorld itself. It seems that Schieber does not seem to think that the purity of God’s great-making properties are made impure by the existence of another thing with other properties God lacks. Now Schieber might say that he never intended GodWorld to be absolutely pure in terms of divine great-making properties, but that it is the world with the “highest purity.” But it is not really clear how we are to assess the level of purity viz-a-viz other worlds. More to it, it is not clear that the world with the highest level of purity of compossible and maximized great-making properties must be deemed to be the “uniquely best”. Ironically, “world with highest purity of great-making properties” is a predicate said of GodWorld and not God, it is not a divine great-making property and so an awkward instance of adulteration. It is especially awkward since what makes GodWorld the “uniquely best” is that it is predicated with a property that God lacks, namely the property of “being the world with the highest amount of purity”. If so, having a non-divine property is a necessary condition for being defined as “uniquely best”. In other words, what makes GodWorld the “uniquely best world” is, among other things, an impurity! This seems counterintuitive, if Schieber is arguing that impurity makes a world less good than it would be without the impurity. What’s more, it might not be the case that GodWorld has less of these compossible maximal great-making properties than other worlds. For instance, GodWorld would have the property of belonging to {GodWorld}, but God wouldn’t have that property. It would also, presumably, have the property of being a world, while God is not a world. Furthermore, it stands to reason that GodWorld might be inhabited by abstract objects non-identical to God and lacking in great-making properties. For if GodWorld is the “unique best” world and God is the only individual, we seem to have an instance of one, and two. It is not hard to generate and define all of the natural numbers within such a world. So Schieber may have to argue against mathematical realism, and even against the mathematical properties that threaten to obtain in GodWorld. For such a world will quickly have an infinitude of properties, like oddness, evenness, and other such mathematical features that belong exclusive to numbers. So while GodWorld might have only one concrete entity, it may have an infinity of abstract objects and an infinity of non-great making properties that obtain within it. This is a damning problem for Schieber’s argument, as far as I can tell.  If GodWorld has an infinity of non-great-making properties, GodWorld is at least as adulterated as some other possible worlds.  And if so, Schieber’s thought experiment fails.

Now keep in mind, this does not mean that GodWorld is infinitely bad. An impurity doesn’t have to be an evil, it just has to be a property that isn’t a maximized great-making property. Perhaps all worlds do, and so God is free from needing to avoid the introduction of more impurities, since any finite addition would not be more. Schieber may want to stipulate that the impure properties of abstract objects don’t count, but such a move seems ad hoc and needs independent justification.

Also, It seems that Schieber’s calculus is too narrow for considering which world would be best. Schieber does anticipate this objection in his debate with Andrews. Schieber considers the Christian who might say that God isn’t interested in purity, but maximizing the amount of goods in the world. He notes that manufacturers don’t think it is wise to sacrifice quality for quantity, nor do people tend to want more trivial relationships rather than a few high quality relationships. But a few examples where one wouldn’t sacrifice quality for quantity won’t really suffice to prove the universal. Cases are complex, and it is sometimes preferable to sacrifice quality for quantity. For a real world example, consider friendship. We value our best friends most of all. Aristotle says that goodness is the object of perfect friendship and one desires the good of the other. But does this mean that having lesser sorts of friends diminishes one’s quality of life? It is practically impossible to have a large quantity of perfect friendships, and only a few suffice for achieving the good life. But supplementing perfect friendship with friends of pleasure and utility is not necessarily detrimental or counterproductive towards human flourishing. So a mixture of different kinds of friends could be as good, or even better than maintaining just a few perfect friendships. Also, consider a piece of music. One might think that harmony is a great-making quality of a score, and discord, silent pauses, etc. are not instances of such harmony. Nonetheless, while some of the greatest pieces of music are entirely filled with harmonies, there are some scores that are equally great, though they are adulterated with moments of jarring discord and abrupt silence. We might also consider a man who is about to buy his fiancée a diamond engagement ring. The man has a budget of $5,000 and is surprised to discover how many different sorts of diamonds he might purchase. Some have a high degree of clarity (purity if you like), but the carat size is smaller than some other stone. Some stones are colorless, others are blue, and still others tend toward yellow. The stones are cut in different ways too. The asher-cut looks almost like a water droplet, while the princess-cut shimmers like fire. This solitary has 57 cuts, that one 55, etc. The man might not be indifferent to which diamond he prefers (or thinks his fiancée would prefer), though he is willing to concede that any diamond he purchases will cost $5,000. Each has the same objective worth, and perhaps he will prefer the flawless diamonds, though they are tiny. Perhaps he will prefer a larger carat and accept a color shade less than D because he wants a dazzling cut. Perhaps he would prefer a yellow diamond because yellow is his fiancée’s favorite color. At the end of the day, it is his free choice, and he will make that choice based on many factors that are both objective and subjective. Perhaps it is the same with God. He could choose GodWorld, with whatever (perhaps infinite) impurities found there. Or God might be willing to create non-God objects, adding a finite sum of impurities to whatever impurities exist in GodWorld. Perhaps those additions are counterbalanced by the other quantities and qualities of goods added. Perhaps it is a zero-sum game, i.e. the additional impurity is balanced against the additional finite goods the object brings to the table such that GodWorld is objectively great as any of a variety of worlds possible for God to select. I think this would have to be case, at least from God’s perspective, if we are to believe that God has freedom. And I think we should think that God has freedom, since that is a traditional attribute ascribed to the Christian God, and it seems to be a great-making property, if it is at all possible, or compossible with God’s other attributes. Schieber’s version of God must maintain GodWorld, and so is not free to act otherwise. This is consistent with the Leibnizian God who was only free in the compatiblist sense that he was not compelled by anyone else to create the best possible world. Nonetheless, God’s nature necessitates the actualization of the best possible world, which raises the question of whether there really are any other possible worlds. For if it is not possible for a world to actualize itself, and God can only actualize the best possible world, then it is impossible that any other world should come into existence.

Perhaps Schieber would like to avoid the messy metaphysical exposition of how worlds receive their predicates, and instead opt for a sort of “anti-realist” position with respect to possible-worlds, i.e. worlds do not have the sort of ontological status that would allow one to genuinely predicate anything of them. So there really isn’t a “uniquely best” possible world. A world is some sort of group-fiction that we use to lump together various propositions that might obtain. There are no “worlds” that can be said to be good bad, best, or worst. Rather there are various sorts of beings that may or may not exist together. But then the question of purity is more difficult to explain, since purity was something that was being said of worlds. Surely the existence of a finite good, like a human, has no effect on the immutable nature of God. They are separate beings with distinct natures and attributes.

In fact, on a Thomistic reading, the way in which God is said to be Good is not equivalent to the way we are said to be good. They are not just different in terms of levels of purity, or quantity. They are as different as a cause is from the effect. There is a relationship between the two, as they are said to be analogous. One might compare this to the Aristotelian example of analogy where health is said of medicine, which is the cause of health, of walking, of a book on the topic of health, of certain foods, and of human beings, where health may be the effect of a good diet, exercise, medicine, and knowledge. In the Thomistic understanding, Goodness is convertible with Being. And this helpful when we are trying to understand how God is a different kind of Goodness than everything else. For God is Being itself, or essentially being, while everything else is a being and only accidentally being. So God is essentially Good and Goodness itself, while everything else is good insofar as its nature is perfected, or actualized. Thomas argues that the good is that which is desirable. And what is desirable for any given thing is the full actualization of its essence. Since God is pure actuality, and the omnipotent cause of all other things, God brings about the good in things. In lacking nothing, God is fully actual and perfect, and so perfectly Good. In being the cause of actuality in everything else, God is the ultimate Good for all created things. Created things are said to be good insofar as they are made more perfect by Goodness itself. And God is more properly Goodness insofar as God is the cause of the goodness in everything else. For example, moral goodness is part of the essence of humans and it is good insofar as our will is sustained in existence by God and properly ordered to goodness as it is found in reality. The point is that these are very different kinds of goodness. In effect, the great-making properties of humans are quite distinct from the so-called divine great-making properties, if we can even speak of divine properties (given the doctrine of divine simplicity). And my limited and corrupted great-making properties do not make God any less God. It does not affect God’s essence as pure actuality. So God does not become impure by creating things that are not purely good. And it is impossible to create another being that is purely good, i.e. perfect or purely actual. For such a being moved from potency to actuality, and so would not possess actuality essentially, but only accidentally. Whatever is accidental can be lost. So God cannot create God. This makes sense, since God is non-contingent, and a created thing is contingent by definition. Typically it is not required that omnipotent beings should be able to do the logically impossible. So then purity does not become the issue of Schieber’s argument, rather it is a question of God’s goodness. Why would a good God actualize anything if he cannot make actual another instance of pure actuality? Why make things that are only accidentally good, accidentally existing? But then Schieber’s God is a funny sort of omnipotent being. For he cannot actually bring anything about, and only participates in the love that exists between the persons of the Trinity, which is eternal and uncreated.

But again, I think the answer is to realize that there is a difference in kind when speaking of God’s goodness and the goodness of created things. When God creates, God does not alter His own nature, so he is not perfecting himself. I think it is for this reason that the null-world, where God chooses not to create, is a possible alternative to one where God chooses to create. For, when he chooses to create, he is not bringing about additional goodness in his own nature, but creaturely goodness. His relationship to creation is, rather, one of grace. I think we find ourselves in this sort of world because God has the personality of an artist, a creator. He isn’t morally obligated to be a creator, nor is he forbidden. His creation is itself a finite good, a reflection of His Goodness. But, just as a reflective surface does not generate light, this additional creaturely goodness does not generate more of God’s goodness. Likewise, even the most perfect mirror degrades the light it reflects, but it does not dim or degrade the source of light in being an imperfect reflector. So why think the introduction of creaturey goods adulterates God’s goodness.  Perhaps creaturely goodness cancels itself out, as I have suggested, a zero-sum game or just a case of adding a finite sum to an already existing infinity of impure properties. God could have existed by himself for all of eternity, or he could have created some finite goods. Let’s take the Anselmian insight seriously, that God is that than which none greater can be conceived. If so, conceiving of everything in the world and God is not greater than conceiving of God alone. The finite goodness of the world does not quantitatively add anything when conjoined to the concept of God. Why think that it should diminish the concept of God?  In fact, a God that can be so easily diminished is less great than the immutable God of classical theism (at least it seems so to me).

In effect, Schieber argues that it is greater to conceive of a God that is not free to create non-God objects than to conceive of a God that freely creates non-God objects. He does so on the basis of purity. I have given reason to think that absolute purity is impossible, once we consider the ontological status of the world, or difficult to assess if we do not predicate anything of worlds. Instead, I offer what I take to be an orthodox Catholic position. God is free to create or not create. But in choosing to create, God does not diminish his own nature, for God is immutable. Pure actuality has no potential to be diminished. Further, it is not clear that the additional greatness, finitude, impurity, and evil found in the world balances out such that this world is objectively as good to create as maintaining GodWorld. If so, God may have subjective reasons for producing this world over others. Those reasons might not make this world objectively better than GodWorld, just subjectively preferred by God’s personalities in the way I might prefer a science-fiction novel to a romance. I can have such a preference while genuinely considering both novels as good enough to read.

I fear that this response has been a bit long-winded. Unfortunately, I think an adequate response to Schieber’s argument involves raising some difficult metaphysical questions, which is my backhanded way of saying that I think it is a philosophically interesting argument. I think I’ve raised some of those questions here, and provided at least some reason to think that the answers to those questions would strongly count against Schieber’s argument. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to think through all of this, and it is yet another example of what I call, “the indispensability of God.” I’ve argued elsewhere that the concept of the Anselmian God is a philosophically fruitful concept. It is by thinking through this concept that philosophers and theologians have devised many useful concepts, from the relationship between grace and mercy, to the nature of forgiveness, to the concept of personhood, to new theories in identity theory that seek to reconcile paradoxes in the Trinity. Schieber has attempted to explicate exactly what the God-concept entails, and he has done so through unpacking precisely what God’s properties are said to be. I take this as prima facie evidence that the concept of the Anselmian God is self-consistent, and so logically possible. And since the Anselmian God, if possible, necessarily exists, I think Schieber has given us a performative reason to think God is coherent, and so exists. The warrant for his premises were always rooted in the nature of the Anselmian God. He did not once appeal to, say, the principle of explosion, or contradiction so as to derive any entailments. You’d expect that he would, if the God concept were a mere absurdity. It isn’t, God exists.

1”The problem of non-God objects” in Iron Chariots. Retrieved March 22, 2014.

[Edit on March 29, 2014 with a clarification on why the transitivity of great-making properties to GodWorld is incompatible with the Anselmian God]