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.

23 comments:

Parker said...

I also liked:
James Chastek's Post

Jinzang said...

That raises the question of the identity conditions for God. Can any two people praying to God be praying to different gods, supposing their concept of God is sufficiently sophisticated? That is, above the primitive anthropomorphic level?

Ismael said...

@ Jinzang

I tihnk people will always pray to a 'crude image' of God.

No matter how 'good' your understanding of God is, it's stll gona be crude and as Feser himself puts in his book 'The Last Superstition' all rational understandigs are inferior to those who come from supernatural means (mistycal ecstasis or the 'beatific view') - see TLS pages 87-88.


In any case my point is: prayer depends more on FAITH (as supernatural virtue, not mere 'believing') rather than rational understanding.

So if a child prays his prayer is still good even if he perhaps still imagines God as the 'white-beared superman'.

So if we are praying perhaps we all have 'different conceptions of God' in our mind (rather than different gods), being that the classi Christian God conception or the islamic one.... but in terms of (supernatural virtue of) Faith we are all praying to the same God.

So, although what exactly we have to belive in does matter (for several reasons which do not matter right now), in my opinion a (sincere) prayer is never a "call to the wrong number".

Interstellar Bill said...

Your analysis of Zeus and Thor applies equally well to Allah, who is nothing but Mohammed's demon, shilling for polygamy, slavery, and genocide.

Ismael said...

BTW Recently I read "Philosphy - A Beginner's Guide" by J Teichman & K Evans...

... and it was surprisingly shallow.

Perhaps I should have been alarmed when the back of the book featured AC Grayling (who wants to write a secular bible) saying it was '... a pleasure to read'.

The arguments of Aquinas and Aristoteles are so bad represented it's almost appaling.

Also the authors, discussing 'Evil as a privation' "cannot see how the evil of Nazism or Stalinism could be a privation" (privation of good morals, privation of common sense, privation of self control... etc... just to name some few examples)

I understand the book is a beginner's guide but even the bibliography is a sham... on the section on causation they mention books on Descartes and Hume (of course) but no texts on Aquinas or Aristoteles even.

How can a person who wants to do serious philosophy start doing so while so badly mislead?

It's quite sad.

Ismael said...

@ Interstellar Bill

I would not dismiss Allah just as quickly.

As a matter of fact I think muslims believe in the same God as we Christians do, even if I think their "revelation" is false and Mohammed was a false prophet.

Yet, since Mohammed did base Islam on Christian and Judaic foundations the God muslims pray to is God Himself and not some demon.

BenYachov said...

Christians, Jews and Muslims have nearly the same natural theology so on that level they believe in the same God.

Anonymous said...

You've missed the point of the "one further god" objection.

Your first sentence should have been the only sentence: "there is ample reason to think they do not exist."

Well, then you understand why I dismiss your god. I have ample reason to think he doesn't exist. Or, to be more accurate, I don't have ample reason to think he does exist.

That's it. That's the objection in a nutshell. "Dismiss" in the sense of the objection has nothing to do with being worthy of worship but to dismiss as non-existent.

You apparently understand why you dismiss other gods as non-existent. Theoretically, you should now understand why atheists do as well.

Everything else, about whether it's appropriate to call them gods, or whether they'd be worthy of worship, are immaterial to the objection.

Richard A said...

@Ismael,
"I would not dismiss Allah just as quickly.

As a matter of fact I think muslims believe in the same God as we Christians do, even if I think their "revelation" is false and Mohammed was a false prophet.

Yet, since Mohammed did base Islam on Christian and Judaic foundations the God muslims pray to is God Himself and not some demon."

I would. Not the "Allah" of Arab Christians, "Allah" being the Arabic word for "God", but the "Allah" of Muslims. The god who is pleased by brutality against women, honor killings and suicide bombings of innocents is NOT "the One Who Is". If such a god is claimed by his followers to be ultimate, subsistent being, pure act, then that god is borrowing the glory of the true God.

That, by the way, is how we can know that the young child and the uneducated centenarian peasant are praying to the true God, despite their being unable to formulate an "accurate" mental image of Him as He is.

Lonnie Allen said...

Riiiiight. Because the Judaic/Christian God is not ridiculous as Greek or Norse gods at all.

Richard A said...

@Lonnie Allen,

Now you're getting it! Congrats.

Neil said...

Anonymous wrote: "I don't have ample reason to think he does exist."

Professor Feser has written two books showing that there is ample reason to think God exists. That's going to require some effort on your part to read.

"the objection has nothing to do with being worthy of worship"

The content of the definition of "God" vs the content of "gods" has everything to do with the subject. When the differences are understood, the objection is as silly as arguing, "When you understand why you dismiss all apples, you'll understand why I dismiss your orange."

I think its you that has missed the point.

One Brow said...

Neil said...
Professor Feser has written two books showing that there is ample reason to think God exists. That's going to require some effort on your part to read.

Having read TLS, I came away with no more reason to believe in God than when I picked it up. It's not just effort, it that the arguments for God are simply bad.

Nick said...

I don't dismiss anyone else's gods. The Zeuses and Odins represent divine realities that all people everywhere have yearned for, but which weren't actualised in history before Christ. Christianity doesn't replace other religions so much as sum them up.

People like to point out the ways in which pagan myths prefigure the Christian story. Of course they prefigure it. Why would God enter human history to meet human desires that aren't sufficiently profound, universal and keenly-felt to be worth making stories about?

Nick said...

Incidentally, with regards to offal and veal, I'm a staunch vegetarian.

Gio said...

@Lonnie Allan:
"Riiiiight. Because the Judaic/Christian God is not ridiculous as Greek or Norse gods at all."

You're kidding me, right? God behaves nothing like these. The Narratives of the Old and New Testaments are much farther from Soap Operas and Pulp Fiction than the Greco-Roman or Norse stories. The Bible is not loaded with secret affairs, stupid demigods, or limited gods like the European myths are.

Gio said...

"Having read TLS, I came away with no more reason to believe in God than when I picked it up. It's not just effort, it that the arguments for God are simply bad."

It takes little effort to read a book. It takes a lot of effort to put aside your loaded worldview long enough to actually reflect on the arguments. I did it when I read Dawkins and Harris and Loftus. Why don't you try it with Professor Feser? Objectively analyze his arguments, with no bias except to the laws of logic and science.

Gio said...

"You've missed the point of the "one further god" objection."

This post is sad, and misses the point of this post. If you looked at the previous one, he was addressing the claim that if Christians were to worship their God, why shouldn't they worship the other "gods" too? Prof. Feser answered this point perfectly. Redefining one objection to make it fit is not a good idea, friend.

Anonymous said...

I imagine a God who is not jealous or vengeful, and who would never have his son (or daughter or children) become sacrifices to Him.

Your God is more limited than mine and therefore not worthy of worship. Please begin worshiping my God. I call him "Tim."

Gio said...

"I imagine a God who is not jealous or vengeful, and who would never have his son (or daughter or children) become sacrifices to Him.

Your God is more limited than mine and therefore not worthy of worship. Please begin worshiping my God. I call him "Tim.""

God's jealousy is a way of revealing himself in a way the scribes would understand. God's "vengeance" is simply justice towards those who go against him. God did not order the sacrifice of his Son, that is a misinterpretation by SOME Protestants.

Finally, Tim has been proven to be a fabrication of your ego in response to your irrational anger towards theists and the concept of God.

Congratulations, you lost.

Arthur said...

"You've missed the point of the "one further god" objection."

In my experience, this seems endlessly to be the problem with most of these vague atheist arguments. (I'm thinking of Russell's Teapot, the One God Further argument, comparisons to the Tooth Fairy, etc.) Whenever I try to argue against them, I'm told, "You're missing the point of the comparison!" Of course I am. Atheists are doing a great job of never stating their arguments with clarity and directness. Whether this is deliberate or not I don't know, but the advantages of this should be fairly clear. So long as you never put an actual argument on the line, you don't have to stand your ground. I can expose all the question-begging and misconceptions in one interpretation, and then be told "But you're missing the real point of the comparison! The realargument was something else all along!"

What I find particularly strange is that this sort of indirectness is actually the norm when talking about God. Can you imagine someone trying to refute, say, Quantum Theory by saying that it was "like belief in fairies"? Heck, can you imagine someone trying to refute belief in Leprecauns by saying that it was "like belief in fairies"? Of course not. In normal discourse, no matter how "silly" you think the thing you're trying to argue against is, you state your arguments as clearly as possible. Yet somehow, when it comes to God, we get all these vague, snide, indirect comparions. We can do better.

Lucat said...

Your argument assumes that the God of the Christian Bible is the God postulated by later theorists who imagined God as all powerful, all good, and all knowing. But you haven't convincingly argued that the God of the Bible is these things, and I don't think a serious Bible scholar could argue that.

You also say that apparent limitations or flaws imply that a being is not the God you worship, but that would imply that Jesus was not God because he showed despair on the cross.

I'm not a fan of atheist fundamentalism, but I'm also not a fan of dismissing every other religion so flippantly.

Anonymous said...

@Lucat

I know you posted a few years ago, but if you happen to see this: I think the idea is that even though Christ is God, in human form he is perfectly capable of experiencing all of humanity save sin. I think Christ could accidentally forget how to calculate some particular math problem, he could go to a burger joint and accidentally choose a less-than-stellar option on their menu, etc.