Perfect Being Theology

According to Perfect Being Theology, we count a being as truly divine only if said being is maximally great.  That is to say, this being posesses the greatest array of compossible great-making properties.  The term “great-making properties” is generally used in the literature to signify those properties that it is intrisically better to have than to not have.  Perhaps Anselm had something like this in mind when he said of God that He is whatevert it is better to be than to not be.  

So perfect being theology offers us a way of thinking and talking about God.  But what exactly are those great-making properties?  What would the attributes of a maximally great being be?  Fortunately, theists have long reflected on that question: Christians for example confess that to count as divine, this being must posess great power. Not merely in the sense that He is capable of bringing about more than any other known agent is capable of bringing about, but that He somehow possesses a degree of power that is itself unsurpassable.  Or to count as divine, said being could not have any moral defect but must exemplify perfect goodness.  Or that such a being must have a certain degree of knowledge that cannot be excelled.  These properties–power, goodness, knowledge–are “great-making” in that for some subject S, it is better that S has any or all of these, than that S does not.  That is to say, S is greater when S is powerful rather than when S is not powerful, or when S is knowledgeable rather than when S is not, and so on. 

In God, these properties are maximal because great-making properties are apparently the sorts of things that also have an intrinsic maximum.  This is another interesting point.  Great-making properties must be the sorts of things that can admit of a degree such that it is not possible that it be excelled.  So the greatest knowledge would be omniscience, but we couldn’t have a greatest natural number–since these do not have a maximum. 

On my weaker days there are two things that trouble me about Perfect Being Theology, however.  The first is the problem of deciding just what it is that counts as a great-making property.  The second is the fear that we may at times be overly anthropomorphosizing God.  But the first is the more thorny one for me so I’ll speak breifly of it.  What property or attribute is fit for a perfect being?  I mentioned above Omnipotence, Perfect Goodness, and Omniscience.  These are relatively uncontroversial examples.  But if I were to ask this question to virtually any theologian in the high middle ages, he would also include Simplicity, Eternity, Immutability, and Aseity.  And each of these to the number is generally rejected by the majority of contemporary philosophical theologians (at least those in the analytic tradition).  What gives?  This illustrates my problem.  Frequently, philosophers of religion speak as if our intuitions are reliable guides to discerning which attributes make a being perfect.  Daniel Hill in his Divinity and Maximal Greatness makes this case.  He surmises for instance that our intuitions seem to tell us that it is greater to be a concrete particular than an abstract object.  Well I suppose that concrete particulars might very well be greater than abstract universals; but would an early Church Father reared in a Platonist tradition share that intuition?  I dare say that he might think that it’s the contrary that is true.  And this would be perfectly intuitive to him.  Our intuitions, it seems to me, depend a great deal on the cultural, theological, and philosophical influences we have.  So how reliable are our intuitions in discerning which properties are great-making?

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11 Responses to Perfect Being Theology

  1. Susan says:

    Hi Xavier,
    great post. I laughed out loud when I read

    “…our intuitions seem to tell us that it is greater to be a concrete particular than an abstract object.”

    that’s how I feel when I read J.P.Moreland’s Universals.

    You pose a great question. How much does the philosophy du jour influence our “intuition.” I have been struggling with that recently as I’ve been confronted with the metaphysics of Catholic theology. Does Thomism act as one’s “intuition” if one is a Catholic? Do our philosophical comittments become a hermeneutic which then shapes our theology?

  2. Daniel Hill says:

    Of course, even if you don’t agree with me that in and of itself being a concrete particular is intuitively greater than being an abstract object, you could still agree that being an abstract object precludes being loving, powerful, morally good, and knowledgeable, and that these *are* intuitively great-making properties . . . .

    • Finn Wilson says:

      For some of those qualities, I’d agree, but for others I wouldn’t. Why should we assume that our intuitions about great-making properties are necessarily true, especially when we can’t even agree on our intuitions? To take a single quality for example, I see why it’s said that being powerful or even omniscient is a great-making quality, but I can also see where somebody would say that humbly relinquishing all-power is a quality of greatness. What reason do we have to think that any particular one of these is objectively correct? What reason do we have to say that there’s such a thing as an objectively great quality in the first place?

  3. Xavier says:

    Daniel, a pleasure to have you stop by. I should add that my reservations regarding perfect being theology notwithstanding, I found the book quite splendid.

    Let me answer your question this way: Consider for instance, Anslem’s comments in Monologion 16, what is more necesarily and clearly the case than that the supreme nature is justice itself?…And so if you ask ‘what is this supreme nature we are talking about?’, you my answer ‘justice.’ What could be truer?

    I recall Anselm making similar moves like this (in the Monologion and Proslogion) where he explicitly identifies God with certain universals–and yet he does not think that God, by virtue of being identical with the abstract object, Justice, is thereby incapeable of loving, of being knowledgeable, and so on.
    Or Aquinas’ comment that God’s nature is such that He can be appropriately described with both abstract (to signify his simplicity) and concrete names. And he doesn’t think that God insofar as he appears abstract, isnt loving or the like.

    So these thinkers do not seem to think it odd that God is at least like an abstract object and is also loving, knowledgeable, etc. Now it may be that they are just terribly wrong on this. But whether they are wrong or not is beside the point. The point is that the move for them seems purely intuitive given their philosophical/theological commitments. So if I were Anselm, I would not unqualifiably affirm your statement that being abstract precludes being loving et al.

    Again, good to have you stop by.

    • Finn Wilson says:

      I don’t see it justified to say that God is ‘justice’ as Anselm would say. If you base your idea of God on scripture, a good case could be made that He’s unjust. Repeatedly he makes children suffer for the ill-deeds of their parents. By some interpretations, He allows infinite torment for finite crimes. These seem to be the definition of unjust, not just. Regardless, my main point is that people are quick to confuse what they regard as great with what is actual greatness, assuming that such a thing exists. People tend to prefer power over weakness, existence over non-existence, and they thus declare that these things are objective, great-making qualities.

  4. Daniel Hill says:

    Thanks for this reply, Xavier, and for your kind words about the book.

    Yes, you’re right that Anselm’s and Aquinas’s intuitions were different from mine, but I am responsible to my own intuitions not to theirs. In philosophy our intuitions are the only thing we can start from, and so it would be on the one hand folly to throw them away totally and on the other hand unnecessarily constricting to restrict ourselves to conditional philosophy (‘if these intuitions are true then this follows’).

    All the best for your blog.

  5. Xavier says:

    Indeed, Daniel, I am all for intuitions. The fact that my intuitions about what it is that makes God perfect differs from Anselm’s or Aquinas’ (or any other brilliant theist) is the thing that makes me at least wary of it. Whose intuitions most closely aproximates the truth of the matter? But I do not supose that I can dispense with my intuitions either so I guess I’m stuck with it.

    Nice to chat with you Daniel. Blessings.

  6. […] that Craig appeals to perfect-being theology as a reason to identify God with the good, an orthodoxy with distinguished luminaries (Anselm, […]

  7. […] like this in mind when he said of God that He is whatever it is better to be than to not be. Perfect Being Theology | SUMMA PHILOSOPHIAE There is a lot of thought that went into what God is. None of it involved asking Agnostic. Please […]

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