Friday, April 15, 2011
A further thought on the “one god further” objection
We’ve been beating up on the “one god further” objection to theism. Here’s another way to look at the problem with it. The objection, you’ll recall, goes like this:
When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
Suppose I go along with the gag. Why do I dismiss all other gods?
Well, in part because there is ample reason to think they do not exist. But also – and far more importantly – because even if they did exist, they would all in various respects be less than ultimate and thus would not be truly divine and worthy of worship. So, for example, if the gods of Olympus existed, we would expect to find them living atop Mount Olympus, and they don’t. But even if they did exist – suppose they return to Olympus when no one is looking, or reside in some other dimension as in the Marvel Comics version of the Olympian gods – they would all in various respects manifest limitations and defects that show them to be mere creatures like us, even if more grand creatures than we are. Hence, as we know from mythology, they are all supposed to suffer myriad limitations on their power, and to be motivated by various petty concerns. They come into existence, just as we do. They can be startled when the face of the guy they’re about to kiss comes peeling off to reveal a leering skull. (Just check out Aphrodite – also known as Venus – on that comic book cover up above! You’d think the skeleton hands would have been a clue that something was up with this dude…)
In short, the gods of Olympus, or of any of the other pantheons for that matter, are all essentially finite, contingent beings like us, about as impressive as extraterrestrials – which might be very impressive indeed, of course, but still within the order of creation. In particular (and to be more philosophically precise) they would all be mixtures of actuality and potentiality and compounds of essence and existence, would all be governed by principles outside themselves, and would all be less than absolutely necessary in their existence and imperfect in their natures. And that means that, no less than we do, they would depend for their being on that which is Pure Actuality, that which is Being Itself (i.e. in which essence and existence are identical), that which exists in an absolutely necessary and independent way and in which all the diverse, derivative, and finite perfections manifest in the world of our experience exist in a united, underived, and infinite way. That is to say, they, no less than we, would depend for their being on the God of classical theism.
Of course, you might reject classical theism on other grounds, but to pretend that it is subject to the same sorts of objections that might be presented against the gods of Olympus is simply to miss the central point of 2500 years of philosophical reflection on the question of God’s existence and nature. For from at least Xenophanes onward, it has been understood by Western philosophers that the only divinity worthy of the name is that which is not “a being” among other beings or in any way less than metaphysically ultimate. Thus, the main problem with all so-called “gods” other than the God of classical theism is not that they don’t exist. It is rather that even if they did exist, they would not be the ultimate source of reality and thus would not be truly divine or worthy of worship. Worshipping Zeus or Thor, for example, would still be idolatrous and irrational even if they existed and the God of classical theism did not. The rational response called for in such a circumstance would not be “Well, it turns out that the one thing worthy of worship doesn’t exist, so let’s instead worship one of these half-assed pseudo-deities. Thor’s got a new movie coming out, so I’ll go with him…” Rather, it would be “The one thing worthy of worship doesn’t exist, so, naturally, there’s nothing worth worshipping.” But then, a world without the God of classical theism would as a matter of metaphysical necessity be utterly unintelligible anyway, so there wouldn’t be any point in doing much of anything, much less worshipping false gods.
Good thing, then, that a world without the God of classical theism is (since the world is intelligible) metaphysically impossible. Indeed, the same writers who developed the classical theistic understanding of the nature of God also put forward cogent arguments for His existence, and the two issues are deeply interrelated. For the arguments that are, historically, the central arguments for theism – those developed within the Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic and other Scholastic traditions – are precisely arguments for a cause of the world which could not even in principle be less than ultimate or absolutely unique. To see why there must be a God is precisely to see why He cannot intelligibly be compared to other so-called “gods.” (See chapter 3 of Aquinas for my fullest defense of the main arguments.) But even someone who rejected those arguments as proofs of God’s existence must, if he understood them, at least agree that such a comparison would be ludicrous.
In response to the “one god further” objection, then, nothing further need be said but this:
When you understand why I dismiss all other gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss your “one god further” objection as puerile.