Jul 26

What makes a being great?

There is an argument I’ve floated in a few comment threads, but I thought it deserved a formal presentation. This argument, if correct, would show that our existence disproves a greatest possible being. It’s an ambitious claim, but here goes:

1. Given two options, a greatest possible being would only do the better thing in every given situation.

2. An act of creation is considered better if, and only if, it improves the state of affairs compared to what existed previously.

3. No act of creation could improve upon a perfect state of affairs.

4. The existence of a greatest possible being would entail a perfect state of affairs.

5. An act of creation exists (don’t get too hung up on the term, fellow skeptics).

6. Therefore, a greatest possible being does not exist.

Now, there is a lot to defend in this argument. Given the nature of a blog post, I don’t think I should do a full treatment here. But I would at least like to get the ball rolling and hear objections from anyone. I foresee the major objections coming against premises 2, 3, and 4.

I think the most common objection would say that it’s an exercise in greatness to create something, so maybe the creator being is greater. This would probably work similarly to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument. He says that it is obviously greater to exist than to not exist. Well, here we could say it’s better to exercise the power of creation than to simply have it. If someone were to say this, though, I think it would entail some internal consistency problems. For, if they think a greatest possible being exists here and now, then they must admit that certain great acts are not being performed. I think this is essentially covered by premise (2).

I’ll be curious to hear other objections. Basically, I want to say that we can compare two possible beings. One improves the state of affairs by creating some moral beings, etc. The other realizes that nothing it creates will improve the state of affairs because they are already perfect! Now, which is the greater being? It might depend on how we frame the issue, but I think it’s clearly the latter.  The latter being still has the power to create the beings, but it does not because the state of affairs would no longer be perfect. If the state of affairs were no longer perfect, then there could be a greater being. The only way to avoid Guanilo-style problems, I think, is to say that only the greatest possible being could exist.

What do you think?

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  1. Ryan

    My hang-up is in the use of such terms as “greater” and “improvement” and “perfection,” particularly in regard to states of affairs. I’m not sure I’d grant Plantinga’s point that “it is obviously greater to exist than to not exist,” nor that “it’s better to exercise the power of creation than to simply have it.” And I’m not willing to grant premise 4 (which might mean I’m not willing to grant premises 1-3) without understanding what a perfect state of affairs is. Is it lack of suffering? Lack of death? Lack of desire?

    I’m still inclined to agree that the being who “realizes that nothing it creates will improve the state of affairs because they are already perfect” is the greater being, but perhaps for different arguments. Some make the case, for example, that God could not have taken action in the first place without desire, but desire itself implies a lack, which in turn implies an imperfection, which conflicts with the concept of a perfect God.

    You might convince me yet. I’m just wary of poorly defined and/or subjective language in logical arguments.

  2. Mike

    Ryan, I think we can get around the definition of the terms. Surely perfect implies that there can be nothing better. Whatever the terms mean, I think it at least includes that in the definiion. Other times I’ve discussed this, I’ve said pretend god is a perfect circle and then think about whether it makes sense to say you can add something to it to make it more circular. You can’t. So, whatever the terms mean, I think we can rest assured that the greatest possible being is a perfect being. It has to be a being that can’t be improved in any way, otherwise you run into an infinite regress of always adding one more good thing. This argument above is my solution to that problem.

    Here’s another reason I’m not overly concerned with the definitions – you run into trouble either wya you go. Let’s say the question is posed about whether our creation improves the situation of God’s existence or makes it worse. However we define the terms, we have these options. If we say it makes it better, then that means God’s existence alone was improved upon (thus allowing for there to be a better possible being). If you say it makes it worse, then that also obviously means there could be a better possible being.

    There is a third option I’m considering too, which would say that it is neutral. I’m thinking that doesn’t really make sense and might just be impossible, but I’m still working on how to formally describe that.

  3. Ryan

    “Let’s say the question is posed about whether our creation improves the situation of God’s existence or makes it worse. ”

    What if it does neither? Without knowing what it is for a state of affairs to be perfect, I have no standard to judge if we can even speak of such a thing as a better or worse state of affairs. It may be that perfection is nonsensical in this context.

    In that case, your argument is still fine for people who accept your premises, but not for those who see the act of creation as neutral. For them, you would have to ask if God would even bother with a neutral action. I think the problem of divine desire covers all three possibilities: better, worse, and neutral.

  4. Mike

    Ok, so I’ve been thinking about the idea that it produces a neutral result. There is at least one problem right off the bat. So, if you have something perfect and then you add something less than perfect, then you don’t have a net neutral result. Religious dogmas have as a central theme that we are not perfect – sin, suffering, etc. So, you can’t make that defense and also defend Christianity or Buddhism, just as two examples.

    I have some other problems swimming around in my head too, but I haven’t thought of them clearly enough to write down yet.

  5. Ryan

    In the context of our world’s dominant religions, I will concede that point because they seem to offer some standard of judgment. Since those religions do not exhaust the possible realities and understandings of God, however, I will wait for you to establish the other problems in your head.

  6. Moose

    A perfect being in a perfect existence would be bound by perfection. Whatever perfection happens to be, it would lead to a predictable existence. Wouldn’t adding an unpredictable element or universe to a predictable perfect existence add value to an already perfect existence from an observant point of view?

  7. Mike

    Moose, I’m not sure why uncertainty would be better. I would also say that you can’t add value to a perfect existence. If you can add value, then it wasn’t perfect to begin with. That’s really the central part of my argument.

  8. Mike

    Ok, Ryan. Here is my argument against the possibility of a net neutral result. In order to preserve neutrality, perfection of the state of affairs must be maintained (however we define it, this is the case). Here is the problem. To maintain perfection, that means whatever was created by the being must be equal to it, in some sense. But the greatest possible being should have no equal.

    So, I think we still have a solid foundation no matter what net result someone claims. I think this is just one of several ways to show that a greatest possible being is incoherent (alongside any creation).

  9. chad weirich

    Everybody in the world is an agnostic. Agnosticism deals with knowledge, not belief. It means you don’t know. Nobody in the world knows if there’s a god, while at the same time, nobody knows that there is a god either. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. So, I think everybody is an Agnostic (fill in what you are). Examples: Agnostic Atheist, Agnostic Theist, Agnostic Deist, etc…It really wouldn’t be accurate if someone described themselves as just an Atheist, Theist, Deist, etc…

  10. Mike

    Chad, thanks for commenting. I hope you don’t mind, but I moved this comment here: http://foxholeatheism.com/atheist-vs-agnostic/

    I thought you might have meant for it to be there instead. But, just in case, I’ll leave it here on this thread too.

  11. I delude therefore I am

    Perfect doesn’t necessarily imply without change. A perfect chess player plays a different winning game each match. A perfect gem reflects light in different directions, showing it’s beauty without sacrificing it’s nonflawnessness.
    A state of change in a perfect being doesn’t negate it’s original perfection – the change is perfectly in coherence with the still and always present perfection.
    The confusion is between percieving perfection as a final product of all actions or as non action from best state, a maximum among minimums, rather than what it really represents, infinity. Perfection of god is tied to the infinity of god. Analogy- god is to perfection as infinity is to numbers- and infinity is not one particular largest number. So infinity plus one is infinity – change yet perfection.

  12. Mike

    Thanks for the comment.

    I also think the being could change, as long as the change didn’t affect its properties. For example, the greatest possible basketball player could change shirts and still hold that title but could not get arthritis. I was trying to focus more on the creation of something separate from the original being. That seems to be where the problem lies.

    I’m still not sure what to do about the difference between some great as possible things being potentially infinite and some things having a set upper limit, like the perfect bowling score. I want my argument to apply regardless of how we define the good so it is fully applicable, but I still have some clarification to provide to make that happen, if it’s even possible. I think the argument has force, as it is, but ideally I’d like it to be foolproof.

  13. Ryan

    I stumbled upon this post again and realized that our discussion veered off track.

    It is very important to ask what makes a being perfect or the greatest possible. The greatest possible basketball player is defined by his ability to play basketball. A perfect circle is defined by its circularity. We can agree on these matters. But what qualities must a being have to be perfect, so that we all recognize it as such?

    Why is it better to exist than to not exist? Why is it better to create than to have the power to create? These are all personal value judgments that we do not necessarily share. If the idea of a perfect being is nonsensical, then there is no need to develop more complex arguments against it.

    But if I were to play along, I’d say that a perfect being would not have desires, since desires imply a lack. Since (1) desire is the only reason for intentional action and (2) God intentionally created us (according to the religion in question), God must be imperfect.

    One way out of this is to claim that God creates unintentionally, but that has its own set of implications for religion.

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