September 7, 2010

Would a Being With All Positive Properties Be God?

Sobel's final objection to ontological arguments is that, even if they are sound, their conclusion does not mean that God exists. That is, according to Sobel, a necessarily existing 'being than which none greater can be conceived' or 'being with all perfections' or 'being with all positive properties' would not be God. His argument for this is rather confusing and depends (1) on a controversial modal intuition, and (2) on an odd definition of 'worshipfulness'.

As far as I can tell, the argument goes like this: it is clear (so Sobel claims) that such properties as consciousness, knowledge, power, love, and wisdom are not necessarily instantiated "in the world with us" (p. 130), but the being established by a sound ontological argument (if there was one) would be a being that had all of its properties necessarily, so it would either not have any of these properties or not be "in the world with us". But a being without any of these properties or not "in the world with us" would not be 'worshipful' (i.e. worthy of worship), and, therefore, would not be God.

Now, first, as Sobel acknowledges, most ontological arguers would reject the modal intuition that these properties are not necessarily instantiated "in the world with us." I don't have clear intuitions that I trust on the matter, so, for me, this couldn't be a compelling objection to an argument.

Furthermore, Sobel is wrong about 'worshipfulness'. Citing J.N. Findlay, Sobel says that the God of the ontological argument "would have to be of the nature of a [Platonic] Form" (p. 136). This, evidently, is supposed to be because only abstract objects exist necessarily, so, if Gödel's argument (for instance) is sound, then it must be that none of the properties that can only be possessed by concrete objects (including, obviously, the property being concrete) is positive. He goes on to say,

I draw a line this side of worship and 'give as the verdict of my felling' that to worship a Form or abstract entity would be like declaring one's gratitude, one's love and devotion, one's awe and amazement to a recorded announcement after recognizing it as such (!), and similarly absurd (p. 137).

Now this all depends on what 'worship' means. For instance, Sobel acknowledges that
there is ... nothing irrational about liking a Form or abstract entity, having a favorite Form or abstract entity, being thrilled by the details [of] an abstract entity such as The Perfect Being [so] understood or The Ford Prefect, or even adoring such a thing, though that is something of a stretch (ibid.).

I would go further. I would argue that, for instance, Plato's own attitude toward Goodness Itself, as indicated in such texts as Symposium, is one of religious devotion and, in fact, genuine worship. Furthermore, it seems to me that Plato's attitude is appropriate given his beliefs. Goodness Itself is, for instance, far more 'worshipful' than any of the traditional Greek gods inasmuch as the Greek gods are forever causing trouble and evil in the world with their misbehavior, whereas Goodness Itself is literally the source of all that is valuable and worthwhile in the world and, indeed, its very being. The fact that Goodness Itself lacks consciousness, knowledge, power, love, and wisdom does not disqualify it as an object of worship. Indeed, it is worthy of worship as the source of these valuable properties, for each of these things is good and comes from Goodness.

It similarly seems to me that a Heraclitean logos, an impersonal ordering principle of the universe, might be an appropriate object of worship.

Nevertheless, it is surely true that unless there is a personal God, most traditional religious practices are seriously misguided. For instance, Sobel remarks that "it would be absurd to worship the anti-log of 105 (which happens to four places to be 2.0212), and the North Star, since they are incapable of hearing prayers and devotions" (p. 129). Now, it is true that if there is not a personal God, then petitionary prayer, for instance, makes little sense, and this is a central element of traditional religious practice. (Of course, there are problems with petitionary prayer even on traditional conceptions of God.) But petitionary prayer is not worship. Furthermore, it is not clear that the appropriateness of 'devotions' (if by 'devotions' Sobel means 'acts of worship') depends on the object of devotion being able to hear them. For instance, many Biblical Psalms and traditional hymns (I would take the sincere singing of such a song to be a paradigmatic act of worship) are not addressed to God but, rather, speak of God's acts and attributes in the third person; the worshipers proclaim the greatness of God to one another. An act of this sort would surely be appropriate with respect to Goodness Itself as described by Plato.

I conclude, then, that Sobel is wrong about this. Nevertheless, he is right about one important thing: it is often said that ontological arguments have an advantage over other traditional theistic arguments in that, if they were successful, they would establish a being very much like the traditional God. However, as Sobel points out, it is not obvious that this is so. With ontological arguments, as with cosmological and teleological arguments, even if one can establish the existence of something, it requires a lot more work to establish that that something is God.

Posted by Kenny at September 7, 2010 9:15 PM
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