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Wednesday, February 15, 2012


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I am happy to accept the praise/blame for this project/distraction. I will post a more substantive response later, when I do not have homework awaiting me. For now, I want to point out that Mormon doctrine is quite explicity that at least one member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, is conceived as incorporeal, at least on ordinary conceptions of matter. The Holy Spirit, I vaguely recall from Sunday School, must be incorporeal to serve its role as witness-bearer to each person's heart. Does Ostler really claim otherwise?

Dr. Vallicella,

Thanks for the post.

You write, "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[t] existing necessarily."

While I am strongly inclined to accept your conclusion, I wonder whether a Mormon couldn't argue that, by the peculiar S5 axiom, since no such necessary God actually exists (since then something distinct from the actual Godhead would surpass the Godhead in point of perfection), therefore it cannot exist in any possible world, and thus that your proposed instance of a possible surpassing of the Godhead is in fact an impossibility. Am I making sense?

Mr. Mollica,

You are very welcome.

Here is the characteristic S5 axiom: Poss p --> Nec Poss p. I.e., what's possible does not vary from world to world. Contraposing: ~(Nec Poss p) --> ~(Poss p). Driving the tilde through the antecedent results in the logically equivalent: Poss Nec p --> ~(Poss p).

Now where do you want to go from thtre? What do you want to substitute for 'p'? 'God is a necessary being'?

Try to lay out your argument more clearly. You may have something; I don't know yet.


Ostler speaks of the "divine persons" and lists: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. They make up the one God, the Supreme Being who governs the entire universe. Then he writes, "Although the divine persons are located in a particular space-time in virtue of their corporeal existence, the spirit proceeds from their united presence . . . ." (320)

This implies that the Holy Ghost is a corporeal being. But it also implies that 'the spirit' is distinct from the Holy Ghost.

I expect Mr Ostler to show up here at which time he can set us straight.

If the necessary God you posit (call Him g) were to exist, then it would necessarily be the case that He exists. Now the Mormon thesis MT is that the contingently existing Godhead (call it h) is greater than anything actually existing. Therefore, as g would be greater than h were it to exist, given MT it is not the case that g exists. But, were it possible that g exist, since g can only exist necessarily, it would be possible that g necessarily exist. But, since by the S5 axiom the necessary does not vary from world to world, if it be possible that g necessarily exist, it would be true at our world that g necessarily exists, and thus that g exists, which conflicts with the Mormon thesis. Therefore, if we grant the Mormon that h is, in fact, unsurpassed by any other being in perfection, it will be impossible that g exist, and thus h would not, in fact, be possibly surpassed by g in perfection. I thus do not see that your argument would have any force against a Mormon.

I take it that Ostler is conceding that only a necessary being could count as God. What he is not conceding is that only a being unsurpassable in point of great-making properties could count as God. He wants to allow as God a necessary being that has the power to surpass itself. Of course it cannot surpass itself in point of mdal status; but it can surpass itself in degree of power, or extent of knowledge, etc.

So Ostler's MT does not posit a contingently existing Godhead.

Yes, I hope Mr. Ostler does show up, because I am very, very confident that the spirit is the Holy Ghost and is not corporeal. I could dig up specific references if need be.

But let me move on to the main thrust of your argument.

You argue that the Mormon godhead cannot constitute God by the modified Anselmian criterion because the three members are related contingently, when a three-person set not related contigently would be greater. I think that is the jist of your argument.

Here are three responses that I see the Mormon can make:

1.) The first and least sophisticated available move is to deny that the modified Anselmian criterion of God matters. This may not be a very exciting move, but it is the one I suspect most Mormons would make. What cares Salt Lake City of Athens, Jerusalem or Bec? However, Ostler seems to be trying to provide an account that would satisfy this criterion, so maybe we can set that aside for the sake of evaluating Ostler's view.

2.) The second move is to deny that being necessarily related would make them better. The assumption that something good's being necessary makes it better than something similar in all respects but contingent is a very common assumption. However, I see no good reason for accepting it. Suppose something is very, very good in this world. Does it really detract from its goodness that there is some distant possible world where it is not present? Would it be any better if it did exist in that distant possible world? I don't see why it should matter either way. In short, the connection between goodness and modal properties seems tenuous.

3.)The third move is to read the modified Anselmian view in a restricted way. The Godhead cannot be surpassed by anything nomologically possible, for instance. By that reading, it is not inconsistent with Mormon theology. Granted, you may be able to conceive of something greater, but conception is cheap.

Hello gentlemen,

I have the impression that this whole discussion is rather pointless. What does it matter, in the end, if you cannot call the beings Mormons believe are referred to as "Father", "Son", "Holy Spirit", are spoken about in the Bible, etc., are not "God" according to a (Western) philosophical understanding of the respective term? Suppose they do not qualify as God; what follows? Maybe God doesn't exist, let's say, if Mormonism is true; but it would still be true that Mormonism is soteriologically interesting, in that we ought to believe it and follow its precepts in order to be saved. Suppose the Mormon says: "Okay, perhaps we don't believe in 'God.' But, in the first place, we can just go on to qualify our use of the word 'God' so that there is no confusion; and in the second place, as for what you mean by 'God', no such being exists, anyway: all that does exist is what we speak of, and you must be rightly related to it in order to be saved." After all, the Mormon's primary interesting qua religious believer is salvation, moksha, not a perfect use of the English language, and so he will be (rightly) unmoved and unimpressed by these kinds of arguments.

What seems to me a more pressing issue is whether there is any hope for the materialist metaphysics Mormonism evidently includes (I don't think there is), not whether we can call the sorts of beings Mormons refer to as "God" as really counting as Gods. Furthermore, what would be more interesting would be to see if, even given Mormon presuppositions, there must be some kind of immaterial and absolutely simple ground of being. This is all to say, of course, that we ought to address the metaphysics of Mormonism and metaphysics in general prior to semantics.


The word you want is 'gist' not 'jist.' (I think it is etymologically related to the German Geist, spirit, but I'd have to check.)

You are changing the subject in #1. I am concerned in the above post ONLY with Mormons such as Ostler who take the Anselmian criterion serious, albeit in a modified form. Maybe there is only one such Mormon, Ostler. I don't know. It has already become quite clear to me (from the responses to the first post) that Mormons disagree quite a lot among themselves as to what their doctrine is and is not.


In #2 you are questioning the Anselmian criterion. But that is not what is under discussion. I made it very clear that the post is about ONLY whether Ostler's view can satisfy HIS OWN modified Anselmian criterion.

In #3 you suggest a further modification of the criterion. That is interesting, but again not to the point.


The issue is a metaphysical one, but it cannot be raised apart from semantic considerations. One cannot ask: Does God exist? without a prior clarification of what is meant by 'God.' This amounts to the question: What counts as God? Hence the need for a criterion of deity.

To put it another way, to know whether there is anything that does the God job, one must first get clear about the God 'job description.' Don't you and I agree that one of the jobs God must do to be God is to serve as ultimate explanation of why anything contingent exists? And that nothing could count as God if it were not a necessary being?

I am afraid you did not address the issue in the post either. The issue is only this: GIVEN the modified Anselmian criterion, does Ostler's view satisfy it?


Forget about 1 for now. Let's take a look at that criterion again to see if I'm changing subjects on 2 and 3:

Unmodified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being, including itself.

My 2 is about whether the modal property you claim is necessary for satisfying the criterion really is necessary. It questions an Anselmian assumption, but not the criterion itself. That sounds right one topic to me.

My 3 points out that this formulation is ambiguous. How is it unsurpassable? Metaphysically? Nomologically? Some ways of making this formulation more precise are consistent with what Ostler wants and some are not. But to refine an existing criterion where it is ambiguous is not to propose a new one altogether. Clearly, I am right on topic here, too.

You are right that most Mormons don't know a lot about the deeper areas of their own philosophy. Ostler is a rare critter. Over the last century they've shown a striking lack of curiousity about their own metaphysics, somewhat reminiscent of Islam. I'd like this to change, which is one of the reasons why I, as an atheist, engage in debates like the one we're now having.

Oops. I meant to cut and paste the modified definition. Which is:

Modified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being distinct from itself.

The rest of what I say in the previous post holds. Awaiting your response, sir.


The above post is very narrow and o perhaps of little interest to anyone but Ostler, Howsepian and me. You are not addressing the exact issue I raised. But let's not worry about that. Tomorrow I will try to post something on what sorts of jobs a candidate for deity would have to perform to be an adequate candidate.

Sorry I've not been able to reply. I've been nursing a bad head cold and sinus infection.

The short answer is that it's not clear to me why the group as group can't be necessary while the individuals contingent. That is there may be no possible world where there aren't divine beings making up the godhead as godhead but in each world there may be different beings constituting that godhead. I can't think of any logical objection to that as an alternative.


Finally a good comment.

You seem to be suggesting the following. In every possible world there is a Godhead, a group consisting of three Gods. So the group is necessary.

There may be a modal confusion here. Note the difference between

A. Every world w is such that a Godhead exists in w. I.e., Necessarily,there is a Godhead


B. There is a Godhead G such that G exists in every world. I.e. there is a Godhead that necessarily exists.

You need to show that the group is necessary, but all you have shown is that it is necessary that there be some group or other.

The Anselmian criterion requires that one and the same Godhead exist in every world, not the weaker thesis that every world contain a Godhead.

Yes, I anticipated that response in the blog post I wrote. It's the idea that identity requires something that is the same in all worlds. The structure of reasoning is similar to arguments for a substantial soul.

However Blake adopts what Searle calls radical emergence. That is the idea that what emerges out of the parts can't in any way be reduced to the parts. Thus the emergent entity is to be considered separate from the parts out of which it emerges. Given that ontological presupposition I don't think you can make the counter argument you do.

Given radical emergence different parts can lead to the same identical entity.

One can find radical emergence wrong as Searle does and I do. (And if I recall past discussions you do as well) But to make the move you do above one first had to show why radical emergence is logically a problem.

Bill: Forgive my not showing up earlier. I just became aware of your response. As an actual working lawyer putting in 60-70 hours per week, it sometimes takes me a bit longer to respond. I will get to your argument shortly. Short answer: there are various notions of necessity, and you are assuming a particular kind of necessity (logical necessity) whereas I have a different view of necessity (somewhat like that developed by Swinburne in his social trinitarian model).

An other rejoinder I just thought of beyond the radical emergence critique is that it isn't clear that having the same Godhead in every universe is greater than having one of the same class of Godhead in every universe. Put simply why aren't (A) and (B) in your above equally great? Why does the Anselm criterion require that distinction? (It's been close to 20 years since I last read Anselm here so maybe there's something I'm forgetting that's obvious)

Bill: I think that you raise a good question. However, let me observe that I did not suggest or admit that a GCB must be a necessarily existing being. I think that conclusion must be demonstrated. You have assumed that a (the) GCB must be a necessarily existing being. I am going to argue that a GCB must be a necessarily existing being in one sense (but not the sense assumed by the ontological argument) and need not be in another sense -- and indeed cannot be a necessary being in this other sense.

First, why think that God must be a GCB? Well, it seems reasonable to suppose that if we are going to rely on God for our deliverance in the sense required of faith, God must be trusted to never pass out of existence. If God could just cease to exist, then we cannot truly place faith in God. But is logically necessary existence required for this kind of faith? I don't see why it would be. Suppose that God (and here I'll leave God vague as between the Godhead and the divine persons) existed simply of factual or metaphysical necessity. That is, it is just God's nature to exist -- like in the sense that it is just the universe's nature (in the broad sense of whatever just happens to be the case) to exist in naturalism. Or perhaps God could exist in the way that Platonic ideas are supposed to just exist but not of logical necessity.

Let me posit this: each of the divine persons exists of ontological necessity where the N is explained by the fact that it is just their nature to exist. Let me also posit that nothing can cause them to cease to exist. Think broadly of the way mass-energy was assumed to always exist in Steady State Theory. So the divine persons exist of such broadly factual necessity.

However, the divine persons are not necessarily divine in the sense that they always manifest a fullness of all divine properties. They could choose to not have such properties, but they cannot choose to not exist. They have the properties in dependence on a particular kind of indwelling sharing of life, glory and love for each other.

However, as I said, love is (necessarily) such that it must be freely chosen. There may be forms of love that aren't voluntary or freely chosen, but they are inferior to the type of love that is freely chosen. The divine persons exist of factual necessity, and if they freely choose to love one another, then they also enjoy the fullness of divine attributes. When they love each other this way, they are joined in the kind of perichoretic unity spoken of in John 17. When joined as one in this kind of maximal unity where the divine persons are nevertheless distinct, they are one Godhead. Given that they are in this unity, they possess a joint power of maximal power. We could say that the divine attributes emerge or exist in dependence on being in such a relationship.

Here is a key point: nothing outside of the divine persons in the Godhead can cause them to sever their relationship which gives rise to (participate in, share, jointly indwell in or something like that) to the divine attributes. They possess the property of maximal power in virtue of being in this relationship. Therefore, unless they voluntarily choose to sever the loving relationship, the continued existence of the Godhead is assured.

Now, it is clear that it is logically possible that the Godhead could cease to exist. The Godhead does not exist of logical or factual necessity. However, the Godhead does exist in a way that is sufficient for faith: in the sense that we can trust them to always love one another in the same way we can trust God to always love us. However, as I stated, love must be freely chosen. What could cause the divine persons to cease to love one another? Well, a simple free choice by any one of them.

However, let's also posit that the divine persons have the properties of perfect knowledge and perfect rationality as a result of sharing a fullness of the divine attributes (that seems pretty reasonable to me). Let's also say that it is always rational to choose perfect love. After all, participating fully in the divine unity in such a loving relationship is believed to be the most fulfilling kind of life and existence possible by most Christian thinkers. So a rational being, if acting rationally, would always freely choose to be in such a relationship. So nothing outside of the Godhead can cause them to either cease to exist or to choose to cease to be one Godhead. Further, we can trust with perfect faith that they will not freely choose to cease to be in such a relationship in such a way that would leave the universe (all there is) at the mercy of meaninglessness and Godforsaken existence.

One more point is crucial based on a value judgment that I am willing to argue for (and have argued for): a being that can freely choose to love another is superior to one that cannot. A relationship that arises from freely chosen love is superior to one that is not. So the Godhead and the individual divine persons who participate in the properties of godliness or Godhood is superior to a suppose gcb that does not exist in such a relationship. The supposed purely simple gcb is not quite as great as it could be because it is not in a divine relationship of freely chosen love but at most in a relationship that is necessitated (though in what way it is necessary and by what the relationship is necessitated would have to be carefully parsed).

It is usually admitted that not all great-making properties are compossible. God cannot have both the property of being the most compassionate being possible and the happiest given that many in the world suffer greatly in many different ways. If God is just as happy if we all go to hell for eternity and suffer greatly as if we are all saved in eternal bliss, then so much the worse for "god". When valuing great-making properties, I suggest that loving unity derived from freely chosen love is far superior to a single, solitary being that exists of necessity.

One last point: this view is far more Christian in my opinion that the view of the gcb in classical thought. Any view of the Godhead in Christian thought must allow for distinct divine persons and the possibility that one of the divine persons can become incarnated. That is what is driving this view.

Why isn't my response showing up?


Sorry about your comment not appearing sooner. It got sent to the spam corral presumably because of its length. I'll have to complain to TypePad about this. I get e-mail notifications of comments but not of comments adjudged to be spam comments. Anyway, it's up now, and I will respond as time permits.

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