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#177 Perfect Being Theology

September 06, 2010

Dr. Craig,

I first would like to thank you for your work. Although I am an agnostic with theistic leanings, I was first directed to your website by a persistent friend of mine who has gotten me to consider the deep questions of life. I find what you have to say about the existence of God clear and stimulating in helping me formulate my views on this most important of questions. That being said, I do take issue with one aspect of your theological views, as I am somewhat puzzled by your tacit endorsement of Anselmian perfect being theology (APBT), which attempts to describe God as "the greatest conceivable being" or "that which no greater can be conceived." I have noticed that you use APBT quite a bit in your debates and publications to argue against the Islamic conception of God, defend the Divine Command Theory of ethics, and establish God as a necessary being. Nevertheless, in spite of its advantages, I am convinced that APBT is an untenable Christian theological doctrine for three reasons.

First, the concept of a greatest conceivable being which is central to APBT is inherently subjective, for what seems great to one person might not be great at all to another. To illustrate, consider a moral realist and an "enchanted" moral nihilist, who relishes the destruction of all objective moral value, duty, and accountability. To the moral realist, the property of being omnibenevolent might be conducive to being a greatest conceivable being. However, to the enchanted nihilist, omnibenevolence might be seen as a crutch which limits God's omnipotence; hence, he does not think that omnibenevolence is a great-making property. Another example would be God's being a concrete object rather than an abstract object. While most of us today agree that being concrete is greater than being abstract, for a follower of Platonism living 2,200 years ago, it would be the opposite. Thus, many of the intuitions people appeal to justify their conception of God under APBT are unreliable because they conflict with one another and are largely shaped by the surrounding culture.

Second, even if the problem mentioned before can be answered, APBT makes theism impossible. One of the benefits of APBT is that it can be used to silence the atheist who thinks that he can conceive of a greater being than God. For if he is telling the truth, then that being would be God, not that to which he was originally referring. To see why this is problematic for theism, consider two people A and B, who both have conceptions of the greatest conceivable being. However, B has a greater imagination than A and conceives of a greater greatest conceivable being than A. Under APBT, B, by definition, has the correct conception of God. Now suppose C enters the picture and has a greater imagination than either A or B. As such, his conception of God is the correct one under APBT, and A and B's is false. This process can be repeated until we arrive at a being who has the greatest imagination possible. However, such a being is God Himself! Only God can correctly conceive of God under APBT! This makes theism impossible since in order to believe in x, one must first be able to conceive of x, which cannot happen since every human's conception of God would be false.

Finally, APBT is not only problematic, but also contrary to what Christianity teaches. As Greg Bahnsen and others have pointed out, APBT undermines the glory and might of God by limiting His power and attributes to what we humans think of Him. If Christianity is really true, then God is not simply a being whose properties are contingent upon human cognition; rather, He as the Creator of the world is entirely independent in both existence and essence from what we as humans think of Him.

So, because of these problems, I believe that Christians should abandon APBT, regardless of its assets. Instead, they should move towards something akin to Plantinga's maximally great being theology, which describes God by attributing to Him a set of clearly-defined properties. But what are your thoughts on this? Do you think that these problems with APBT can be surmounted?



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Dr. craig’s response


To say that I tacitly endorse Anselmian Perfect Being Theology is an understatement, Aditya. I am an enthusiastic proponent. As I explain in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, I see the conception of God as the greatest conceivable being as one of the guides for systematic theology’s formulation of the doctrine of God:

Two controls have tended to guide this inquiry into the divine nature: Scripture and Perfect Being theology. For thinkers in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, God's self-revelation in Scripture is obviously paramount in understanding what God is like. In addition, the Anselmian conception of God as the greatest conceivable being or most perfect being has guided philosophical speculation on the raw data of Scripture, so that God's biblical attributes are to be conceived in ways that would serve to exalt God's greatness. Since the concept of God is underdetermined by the biblical data and since what constitutes a ‘great-making’ property is to some degree debatable, philosophers working within the Judaeo-Christian tradition enjoy considerable latitude in formulating a philosophically coherent and biblically faithful doctrine of God.

It seems to me that your questions evince some confusions about Perfect Being Theology and that once these are cleared up your misgivings will be allayed. Indeed, Perfect Being Theology includes among its advocates Alvin Plantinga, whose view you endorse. So let’s look at each of your three misgivings.

First, the concept of a greatest conceivable being is inherently subjective, for what seems great to one person might not be great at all to another. This objection seems to confuse God’s being the greatest conceivable being with our discerning what properties a greatest conceivable being must possess. I’ve already acknowledged a degree of play in the notion of a great-making property. For example, is it greater to be timeless or omnitemporal? The answer is not clear. But our uncertainty as to what properties the greatest conceivable being must have does nothing to invalidate the definition of “God” as “the greatest conceivable being.” Here Anselm’s intuition which you mention seems on target: there cannot by definition be anything greater than God.

Now you might think, “But what good is it defining God as the greatest conceivable being if we have no idea what such a being would be like?” The answer to that question will depend on what project you’re engaged in. If you’re doing systematic theology, then you have that other control, namely, Scripture, which supplies considerable information about God, for example, that He is eternal, almighty, good, personal, and so on. Perfect Being theology will aid in the formulation of a doctrine of God by construing those attributes in as great a way as possible. On the other hand, if your project is natural theology, which makes no appeal to Scripture, then you will present arguments that God must have certain properties. Note that mere disagreement about whether a property is great-making does not imply that there is no objective truth about the matter. When we have a disagreement, then we may present arguments why we think it is greater to have some property than to lack it. The fact that some properties (like timelessness) are not clearly great-making does not imply that no properties are great-making or that the concept of a greatest conceivable being is wholly subjective.

Consider your two examples. First, is it greater to be omnibenevolent rather than not? If omnibenevolence really is a moral property, then it seems morally better to be all-loving than partially loving. The problem with your moral nihilist is that he denies that such a property as omnibenevolence has any moral value! That strikes me, along with most ethicists, as incredible, since love is one of the clearest examples of a moral virtue. On the nihilist’s view the concept of God, who is by definition a being worthy of worship, is incoherent. So the moral nihilist must be an atheist. If we believe that there are objective moral values, then we shall reject moral nihilism and along with it the nihilist’s claim that the concept of God is incoherent.

So suppose someone is not a moral nihilist and thinks that omnibenevolence is a moral property but denies that God has it because it infringes on His omnipotence (I can imagine a Muslim arguing in this way). In that case, one has two strategies to pursue in response. One would be to hold that any increase in power enjoyed by a non-omnibenevolent being is offset by such a being’s inferiority in moral worth and that on balance a being is greater if He is morally perfect even if unable to do certain (immoral) acts which a less than omnibenevolent being could do. The other strategy would be to show that omnipotence does not entail the ability to do just anything (see Flint and Freddoso’s article “Maximal Power” in my anthology Philosophy of Religion). In fact, I think Anselm and others argued plausibly that the ability to do evil acts actually evinces weakness not power. So there is no inconsistency between omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

Next, is it greater to be concrete rather than abstract? What you need to understand here is that the modern conception of abstract objects is quite different than the ancient conception. In the contemporary sense, abstract objects are essentially causally effete. They can’t do anything or cause anything. But for Plato and the ancients the Forms were causally potent and affected the world. They were really more like concrete objects. Now I take it to be clear that it is greater to be causally potent than impotent and that God therefore cannot be an abstract object in the modern sense. Moreover, God is personal and therefore cannot be an abstract object, since persons are concrete objects.

The point is that the attributes of God can be debated: there is no reason to think that we are utterly in the dark about the matter. Contrary to your claim, I think it is demonstrable that people’s conception of what a greatest conceivable being would be like has a core which has not varied much over history and culture since Anselm.

Second, APBT makes theism impossible, since only God can correctly conceive of God under APBT. Ironically, the medieval proponents of Perfect Being Theology would have heartily agreed that God alone has a perfect comprehension of His essence! In fact, that’s why Thomas Aquinas rejected Anselm’s ontological argument. But they would rightly respond that your conclusion that theism is impossible does not follow. First, it at most follows from your argument that theistic belief would not be warranted, not that theism would be false. Second, a partial grasp of God’s essential properties does not entail that one’s conception of God is false, but merely incomplete—especially if one is aware that one grasps only a glimmer of God’s greatness. Third, one can believe in x without being able to grasp x’s essence. For example, one could believe in God as the Creator and Designer of the universe.

But there is a more fundamental confusion underlying the second question, and that is the confusion of conceivability with imaginability. These are not the same. A thousand sided polygon is unimaginable, but it is hardly inconceivable. Conceivability is taken to be co-extensive with metaphysical possibility. So the greatest conceivable being is the same thing as the greatest possible being. It is, as Plantinga says, a maximally great being, the greatest being possible. True, Plantinga does give content to this notion in terms of specific properties, but those properties are obviously chosen because he thinks of them as great-making properties which a maximally great being cannot lack. Maximal greatness is doubtless not exhausted by the properties he mentions. His version of the ontological argument is based, in effect, on one of those incomplete, inadequate conceptions of God that you mention in this question.

Third, APBT undermines the glory and might of God by limiting His power and attributes to what we humans think of Him. The two confusions underlying the first two questions come together in this terribly misconceived objection. Of course, God “is entirely independent in both existence and essence from what we as humans think of Him.” To think otherwise is to confuse once again God’s being the greatest conceivable being with our discerning what properties a greatest conceivable being must possess. Moreover, the concept of the greatest conceivable being is not the same as the concept of the greatest imaginable being. No advocate of Perfect Being Theology thinks that God is “a being whose properties are contingent upon human cognition.” The very absurdity of such an allegation should have led you to suspect that something was very much amiss with the argument leading to such a conclusion.

So these objections are, I think, far from insurmountable. Notice that if you do think that Plantinga’s conception of God as a maximally great being is a metaphysically possible concept—as your advocating it for the task of Christian theology seems to suggest—, then it follows that God exists.

- William Lane Craig