I should thank (or perhaps blame) Spencer Case for sidetracking me into the thickets of Mormon metaphysics. But I have no cause to complain seeing as how my motto is "Study everything, join nothing." Earlier I made a preliminary response to some of Spencer's concerns about the "facelessness" of the full Anselmian conception of deity. Here I am not concerned to defend that conception in all its aspects. Indeed, I will concede arguendo all of the following for the space of this post: divine simplicity is incoherent; divine simplicity is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity; the latter doctrine is incoherent; and so is the doctrine of the Incarnation. I make these concessions to focus the issue and to make clear that my interest as a philosopher is neither apologetic nor polemical. I want to put Blake Ostler and other Mormons at ease: I am not here interested in attacking their faith or defending the sort of God conception found in Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Philosophy is first and foremost inquiry; its purpose is not to attack or defend any worldview. It does not exist to shore up or legitimate antecedently accepted worldviews or ideologies. (So it is not ancilla theologiae, not the handmaiden of theology or of natural science or of anything else.) Religions are worldviews; philosophy as inquiry is no more a worldview than is mathematics or physics. It is also important to note that if the Augustine-Anselm-Aquinas conception is incoherent it doesn't follow that the Mormon conception is coherent: they could both be incoherent.
The issue I will discuss is precisely whether the following assertion by A. A. Howsepian is true: ". . . nothing countenanced by Mormon metaphysicians could possibly count as God." ("Are Mormons Theists?" Religious Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, Sept. 1996, p. 367) Since I am not familiar with the particulars of Mormon doctrine, I will simply assume that they are what Blake T. Ostler says they are in his response to Howsepian in "Worshipworthiness and the Mormon Concept of God," Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 3 (Sept. 1997), pp. 315-326. So what I will be doing is examining Ostler's view of the the Mormon conception of God with an eye to deciding whether it is an adequate God conception.
1. The Anselmian Criterion of Deity
Obviously, not just anything could count as God. So we need a criterion of deity. According to the Anselmian criterion, which both Howsepian and Ostler accept, at least in the main, it is a matter of broadly logical necessity that nothing could count as God that is not the greatest conceivable being (GCB). The Anselmian provenience of this notion is clear: God is "that than which no greater can be conceived." The greatness of the GCB consists in its unsurpassibility in respect of all perfections or great-making properties. The GCB possesses all great-making properties and the highest degree of those that admit of degrees. Among these properties are the traditional omni-attributes, e.g. omniscience. Only the GCB is an adequate object of worship.
Let's note that if a being is unsurpassable by any being distinct from itself it does not follow that it is unsurpassable, period. For it might be "self-surpassable in some respects." (Ostler 315) Obviously, a being that was unsurpassable by any other but self-surpassable could not be actus purus inasmuch as it would have to harbor unrealized potentialities. We ought therefore to distinguish an unmodified and a modified GCB criterion:
Unmodified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being, including itself.
Modified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being distinct from itself.
2. Does the Mormon God Satisfy the Modified Anselmian Criterion?
It is obvious that the Mormon God cannot satisfy the unmodified criterion since that criterion leads to the ontologically simple God in whom there is no composition of any kind, whether of form and matter, act and potency, essence and existence, supposit and attributes. Since Mormons can reasonably reject ontological simplicity, they needn't be fazed by the unmodified criterion. Ostler maintains, however, that the Mormon concept of God can satisfy the modified criterion. It may have a chance of doing so if 'God' is construed as 'Godhead.' (319). This Godhead, Ostler tells us, is the one supreme being. (319) If henotheism is the view that there is at least one God, then the Mormon view as Ostler presents it is henotheistic. If monotheism is the view that there is exactly one God, then the Mormon view is not monotheistic. Ostler tells us that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct Gods. (319) So there are at least three distinct Gods in the Mormon pantheon, which prevents the view from being strictly monotheistic. They are nonetheless one Godhead in that the three "divine personages" are united "in love and unity." (320)
Each of the divine persons is "corporeal" and "located in a particular space-time." (320) The Godhead, however, is not corporeal, at least if Godhead is the same as Godhood. Ostler employs both of these terms without explaining whether or how they differ. (320) My impression is that he is using them interchangeably. If that is right, then Godhead/Godhood is not corporeal. This is because ". . . Godhood refers to the immutable set of properties necessary to be divine. There is only one Godhood or divine essence in this sense." (320-321, emphasis in original) Presumably, an immutable set of properties is not corporeal. The same goes for a set of immutable properties, and a conjunctive property the conjuncts of which are immutable properties.
How are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost related? They are related in a "relationship of divine love" which is "contingent and not necessary." (321) It is contingent because "Love is a voluntary attitude freely chosen." (321) "The divine persons can kenotically empty themselves of the divine glory by separating themselves from the divine unity of the Godhead." (321) Despite this ability of the persons to separate themselves from the unity of the Godhead,
. . . there always has been and always will be a God in the sense of divine persons united as one. The divine persons obviously can so plan that there will always be at least two joined as one to govern the universe. (321)
The individual divine persons are subject to "eternal progression," progression in knowledge, power and dominion. (321) Does it follow that "Godhead as a whole" or "God-as-divine-persons-in-relationship" is subject to eternal progression? No it doesn't, says Ostler, and to think otherwise would be to commit the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy with which Ostler taxes Howsepian.
3. Preliminary Evaluation
My question is precisely this: Does the Mormon conception of God/Godhead, as explained by Ostler, satisfy the modifed Anselmian criterion? The modified criterion requires that a candidate for GCB status be necessarily unsurpassable by another, but allows the candidate to be self-surpassable in some respects. Ostler tells us that
. . .there cannot be a greater being than God qua the divine persons united as one Godhead in Mormon thought. God is necessarily unsurpassable by any other being. (323)
Here is one difficulty I am having. Ostler claims that the divine persons are contingently related to each other. It follows that the Godhead as the unity of the persons contingently exists. Please note that if x always existed and always will exist,it doesn't follow that x necessarily exists. (If x exists at all times in the actual world, it does not follow that x exists in every possible world.) If the divine persons "c an so plan that there will always be at least two joined as one" (321, emphasis added), it doesn't follow that they must so plan. Now if the Godhead contingently exists, then there can be a greater being than "God qua the divine persons united as one Godhead," namely, a being having the same properties bu existing necessarily.
I conclude that the Mormon conception as explained by Ostler cannot satisfy the modified Anselmian criterion. For whether God/Godhead is or is not self-surpassable, he must be a necessary being. But he can't be a necessary being if the divine persons are merely contingently related. If they are contingently related, then they are possibly such as to be unrelated. But if they are possibly such as to be unrelated, then their unity is possibly nonexistent, i.e. not necessary. So it looks as if Howsepian is right in his claim that ". . . nothing countenanced by Mormon metaphysicians could possibly count as God."
Does Ostler have an escape via his talk of Godhood as opposed to Godhead? (320-321) Godhood or "the divine essence" is "the immutable set of properties necessary to be divine." This set counts as a necessary being unlike Godhead which we have seen is a contingent being. But although metaphysically necessary, Godhood cannot be the one God who is "the governing power of the enture universe." For no such abstract object as a set can play that role. But, to be charitable, I won't hold Ostler to his talk of a 'set.' Let us take him to mean a conjunctive property the conjuncts of which are the divine attributes. It too is a necessary being, but it too is causally impotent and cannot be the governing power of the entire universe.
In sum, Godhead is powerful but contingent while Godhood is necessary but powerless. To satisfy the modified Anselmian criterion, Ostler needs a being that is both necessary and powerful.