John Anderson's rejection of God is radical indeed. A. J. Baker writes:
Anderson, of course, upholds atheism, though that is a rather narrow and negative way of describing his position given its sweep in rejecting all rationalist conceptions of essences and ontological contrasts in favour of the view that whatever exists is a natural occurrence on the same level of existence as anything else that exists. From that position it follows, not merely that the traditional 'proofs' of the existence of God can be criticised, but that the very conception of a God or a supernatural way of being is an illogical conception -- God is an ontological category mistake as we may say. (Australian Realism: The Systematic Philosophy of John Anderson, Cambridge UP, 1986, 118-119)
If someone said that the average thought has such-and-such a volume, you would not say that he was factually incorrect; you would say that he had committed a category mistake inasmuch as a thought is not the sort of item that could have a volume: it is categorially disbarred from having a volume. Someone who says that God exists is saying that there exists something whose mode of being is unique to it and that everything other than God has a different mode of being. But the idea that there are two or more modes of being or two or more levels of reality, according to Anderson, is 'illogical" and ruled out by the exigencies of rational discourse itself. To posit God, then, is to involve oneself in a sort of ontological category mistake, in the words of A. J. Baker.
Let's see if we can understand this. (This series of entries is booked under Anderson, John.)
The Andersonian thesis is an exceedingly strong one: the very concept of God is said to be illogical. It is illogical because it presupposes the notion, itself illogical, that there are levels of reality or modes of existence or ways of being. What makes the argument so interesting is the implied claim that the very nature of being rules out the existence of God. So if we just understand what being is we will see that God cannot exist! This is in total opposition to the tack I take in A Paradigm Theory of Existence (Kluwer 2002) wherein I argued from the nature of existence to (something like) God, and to the tack taken by those who argue from truth to God.
The Andersonian argument seems to be as follows:
1. There is a single way of being.
2. The single way of being is spatiotemporal or natural being.
3. If God exists, then his way of being is not spatiotemporal or natural.
4. God does not exist.
Note that the argument extends to any absolute such as the One of Plotinus or the Absolute of F. H. Bradley or the Paradigm Existent of your humble correspondent. Indeed, it extends to any non-spatiotemporal entity.
The crucial premise is (1). For if 'way of being' so much as makes sense, then surely (3) is true. And anyone who accepts (1) ought also to accept (2) given that it is evident to the senses that there are spatiotemporal items. So the soundness of the argument pivots on (1). But what is the argument for (1)?
Note that (1) presupposes that 'way of being' makes sense. This is not obvious. To explain this I first disambiguate 'There are no ways of being.' Someone who claims that there are no ways of being could mean either
A. There are no ways of being because there is a single way of being.
B. There are no ways of being because the very idea of a way of being, whether one or many, either makes no sense or rests on some fallacious reasoning: either a thing exists or it does not. There is no way it exists. We can distinguish between nature (essence) and existence but not among nature, existence and way of existence. What is said to belong to the way a thing exists really belongs on the side of its nature. A drastic difference such as that between a rock and a number does not justify talk of spatiotemporal and non-spatiotemporal ways of being: the drastic difference is just a difference in their respective natures.
Many philosophers have championed something like (B). (See Reinhard Grossmann Against Modes of Being. Van Inwagen, too, takes something like the (B)-line.) If (B) is true, then Anderson's argument collapses before it begins. But I reject (B). So I can't dismiss the argument in this way.
Anderson's view is (A). The problem is not with the concept of a way of being; the problem is with the idea that there is more than one way of being. This is clear from his 1929 "The Non-Existence of Consciousness," reprinted in Studies in Empirical Philosophy, wherein we read, "If theory is to be possible, then, we must be realists; and that involves us in . . . the assertion of a single way of being (as contrasted with 'being ultimately' and 'being relatively') [a way of being] which the many things that we thus recognise have." (SEP 76) Thus what Anderson opposes is a duality, and indeed every plurality, of ways of being, and not the very notion of a way of being. One could say that Anderson is a monist when it comes to ways of being, not a pluralist. To invoke a distinction made by John Passmore, one to be discussed in a later entry, Anderson is an existence-monist but not an entity-monist.
Now what's the argument for (1)? As far as I can tell the argument is something like this:
5. Truth is what is conveyed by the copula 'is' in a (true) proposition.
6. There is no alternative to 'being' or 'not being': a proposition can only be true or false.
7. There are are no degrees or kinds of truth: no proposition is truer than any other, and there are no different ways of being true. (5, 6)
8. (True) propositions are concrete facts or spatiotemporal situations: propositions are not intermediary entities between the mental and the extramental. They are not merely intentional items, nor are they Fregean senses. The proposition that the cat is on the mat just is the concrete fact of the cat's being on the mat. And the same goes for the cat: the cat is identical to a proposition. Anderson's student, Armstrong, holds that a thick particular such as a cat is a proposition-like entity, a state of affairs; but Anderson holds the more radical view that a cat is not merely proposition-like, but is itself a proposition. But if a cat is a proposition, then
9. Being (existence) = truth.
1. There is a single way of being. (from 7, 9)
Therefore, by the first argument above,
4. God does not exist.
A full critique is beyond the scope of this entry especially since brevity is the soul of blog, as some wit once said. But what I am about to say is, I think, sufficient to refute the Andersonian argument.
If everything exists in the same way, what way is that? Anderson wants to say: the spatiotemporal way. He is committed to the proposition that
A. To be is to be spatiotemporally
where this is to be construed as an identification of being/existence with spatiotemporality. Good classical metaphysician that he is, Anderson is telling us that the very Being of beings, das Sein des Seienden, is their being spatiotemporal.
Now there is a big problem with this. A little thought should convince you that (A) fails as an indentification even if it succeeds as an equivalence: one cannot reduce being/existence to spatiotemporality. For one thing, (A) is circular. It amounts to saying that to exist is to exist in space and time. Now even if everything that exists exists in space and time, the existence of that which exists cannot be identified with being in space and time. So even if (A) is true construed as telling us what exists, it cannot be true construed as telling us what existence is. A second point is that, while it is necessary that a rock be spatiotemporal, there is no necessity that a rock exist, whence it follows that the existence of a rock cannot be identified with its being spatiotemporal.
Now if (A) fails as an identification, it might still be true contingently as an equivalence. It might just happen to be the case that, for all x, x exists iff x is spatiotemporal. But then it cannot be inscribed in the nature of Being (as a Continental philosopher might say) that whatever is is in space and time. Nor can it be dictated by "the nature and possibility of discourse" (SEP 2) or by the possibility of "theory" (SEP 76). Consequently, the Andersonian battle cry "There is only a single way of being!" cannot be used to exclude God.
For any such exclusion of God as an "ontological category mistake" can only proceed from the exigencies of Being itself. What Anderson wants to say is that the very nature of Being logically requires the nonexistence of God. But that idea rests on the confusion exposed above. For his point to go through, he needs (A) to be an identification when at most it is an equivalence.