Thursday, May 21, 2020

Oderberg on the hierarchy of being

In February, David Oderberg gave a lecture in Oxford on the theme “Recovering the Hierarchy of Being.”  You can now watch it on YouTube.  Be sure also to check out David’s new book The Metaphysics of Good and Evil (about which you can find information at the publisher’s website).


  1. He seems to be a thomist who has so much overlap with your own thoughts. Do you know his thoughts on Aristotle's Revenge? I'd imagine epistemic structural realism works well his work in real essentialism

    1. Callum,
      Ed has long admired Oderberg's work, and has specifically recommended Real Essentialism on several occasions on this blog.

    2. Callum,
      Further to Tim Finlay's reply...
      If you read Dr. Feser's books, you will find that he frequently cites Oderberg, in support of various A-T metaphysical concept -- with corresponding annotations and associated bibliography.

  2. Ed,
    In my class on Genesis, I argue that significant portions of the medieval Great Chain of Being are present in pre-philosophical form in Genesis 1.

  3. Aristotle endorses the idea that these hierarchies need to be painted with a very general brush.

    (P1)You have to paint the hierarchy by appealing to essential powers of beings within the hierarchy as a species.

    The most generic in the hierarchy. We are talking about metaphysical species, not biological species .

    This hierarchy is
    1-Purely material bodies
    5-disembodied minds.
    6-Divine being

    (P2)The principle of gradation is the heart of the hierarchy:

    In material and living bodies we find an ascending order of perfections in which the higher beings have their own perfections as well as those of the lower level of being. (Wuellner, Summary of Scholastic Principles)

    (P3)The principle of continuity:

    The order of the universe displays a gradual scale of perfections from end to end through all essentially different intermediate steps.

    Every superior nature in its least perfection of operation borders on the hieghest perfection or operation of the nature ranking next below it in the scale of being. (Such that 1 includes 0, and 2 includes 1 and 0, and 3 includes 2 and 1, and 0)

    (P4)The principle of plenitude:

    By the free choice of the creator the universe of being contains all essential levels of perfections and of natures.
    The superior one is represented by many inferior beings.

    The concept of metaphysical superiority is as follows:
    -Members of species S1 is superior to species S2 = def S1 can do was S2 can do and more (see P2).
    -"Can do" means P1.
    -It has to be not just a relative superiority, but an absolute superiority. We are after the most generic powers of the essences of the most generic metaphysical species of things.

    1. I think P1 is really important here. Any attempt to narrow down any further will lead to the political and racial extremes Oderberg fears for sure.

      I never knew the generic hierarchical structures he setup were so important in this regard.


    2. Daniel,
      "Purely material bodies"
      The words "purely material" are redundant. An assertion of a non-material body is incoherent.

      Since one is speaking of a body, could it be made of absolutely nothing at all? Then in what sense would you say it is an existent body?

      Thus, a body must be made of something. How could that something not be some form of material? What would that even mean, a non-material thing? The assertion of a non-material body, or a component of a body that is non-material is a self contradictory term.

      "disembodied minds" an incoherent term. Minds think thoughts. How could absolutely nothing at all think thoughts?

      Supposing that mind is not absolutely nothing at all, rather, something, a thing that thinks thoughts. Then that something is the body of that mind, perhaps not a body like yours or mine, but if that mind is something thinking thoughts then that something must be some sort of body.

      "the free choice of the creator" incoherent in combination with the assertion of eternal immutability.

      A free choice requires a real possibility to do otherwise. If there is no real possibility to do otherwise then there can be no real free choice.

      If god has been eternally the same as god is right now then there has never been a time when god could do otherwise. Eternal immutability means god has never had the real possibility of doing otherwise, so to assert a free choice for god together with eternal immutability is incoherent.

      Oderberg acknowledged that the hierarchy of being is nearly eliminated from modern discourse, hence his work attempts to recover the hierarchy of being so that it is no longer nearly universally rejected.

      He also acknowledged that he could not identify any positive normative value added beyond what we already know, that things are different from each other. A lack of present day normative value by itself is not necessarily a problem since systems are often introduced on a logical basis without any identifiable contemporary social benefit, yet in time may grow to be of enormous benefit, for example Boolean Algebra.

      But, given that Oderberg employs so many incoherent terms his system fails even on purely logical grounds.

    3. Did anyone catch his argument against bats being considered superior on this model? Such that just because bats can fly, we would still not consider them to be metaphysically superior to all other mammals who cannot fly.

    4. The only problem is that "Boolean Algebra" does not exist, because things cannot exist if they have no material body. Is Boolean Algebra a body? Obviously it is: it is a body of mathematical thought. But it has no material! So this is why Boolean Algebra does not exist.

    5. Hi JMM,

      I totally agree!


      P.S. Ed has asked folks not to engage with Stardust. Just ignore his posts, if you can.

    6. "Did anyone catch his argument against bats being considered superior on this model? "
      Yes, say, compared to a mouse, which might not be able to fly away from, say, a cat but could scurry away in circumstances the bat cannot.

      So, neither animal has a set of powers that is a superset of the other.

      But then, what species is a superset of the other?

      Are human beings able to do everything a plant can do, and more, and thus superior? No, because a plant can take its nutrients directly from the ground and air, humans can't do that.

      A rock can keep being a rock without having to obtain any nutrients at all, humans can't do that, so humans can't be superior to a rock.

      His system of superiority just doesn't work, hence it is lost in the general discourse, as Oderberg acknowledges in stating what he asserts is a need to recover the hierarchy of being.

    7. JMM,
      "The only problem is that "Boolean Algebra" does not exist,"
      I see you, Daniel, and I are all in agreement, Boolean Algebra does not exist.

      Abstract objects do not exist. However, abstractions are identifiable processes of real existent material.

      Real existent material objects do have identifiable processes that facilitate communication, and the labeling of particular sorts of processes, such that you and I can agree by convention to label a sort of set of brain processes as "Boolean Algebra".

      So yes, I agree, there is no static immaterial object called Boolean Algebra, no such abstract object really exists.

    8. Daniel,
      Duly noted. Sorry but I just couldn't help myself.

  4. Is David Oderberg theist?

    1. I think he is a Catholic.

    2. Yes. Defender of Aquinas' Cosmological arguments and the Kalaam argument

    3. Of course, he's a Catholic.

    4. I couldn't find whether he is a catholic or not, but it shouldn't matter. The important question is whether he is correct.

    5. Our Good friend VJ Torley I believe a long while a go. Years? Decades maybe? I forget. Once called Oderberg an ID supporter.

      He meant it as a compliment BTW....;-)

      Cheers all.

  5. I'm deeply uncertain about the position of the Great Chain of Being in the history of ideas, to which Oderberg very favorably refers. The people who endorse it are English professors, including EMW Tillyard, who asserted in The Elizabethan World Picture that "Elizabethans" believed in it. But if they did, wouldn't Elizabeth be a heretic bastard regicide? Iwon't disagree with a hierarchy of being, but I think it's an error to reify it as a historical thing.

  6. (Going by Audio) I'd bet 20 bucks that the second questioner was William Carroll

  7. Hey everyone.

    I have a question I sent to Feser that I have reproduced below, I'm curious to hear what you all think:

    "I've noticed that you use angels as examples in much of your written work as a hypothetical type of being, but I wonder if you think an argument or more could actually be given for the existence of angels (i.e., purely intellectual beings). It seems to me that observation of the exquisitely patterned gradations of ever higher degrees of being exhibited by the world (e.g., from inanimate matter, to plants, animals, etc. all the way to God) might provide justification for inferring the existence of angels as yet a further ontological class between humankind and God, given this hierarchical pattern of being. Now of course, 5 billion plus years ago there weren't the classes of (at least partially) material substance which currently exist (plant, animal, human). Thus eons ago there would have been a seriously truncated hierarchy of being, I wonder if and how this point impacts the rational legitimacy of inferring the existence of angels from the hierarchical pattern of being.

    Do you think an argument can be given for the existence of angels? Donald Woods piece "Angels and Immortality" in Eternal God, Eternal Life: Theological Investigations Into the Concept of Immortality reproduces an argument of Aquinas which could potentially be taken as demonstrating the existence of angels: "His argument: what Gd principally intends in creatures is the good; the good of creatures consists in the assimilation to God himself; the perfect assimilation of an effect to its cause occurs when the effect imitates the cause according to its causality (as heat causes heat); the cause of creation is God's intellect and will---creation is a rational (intentional, approbative) and voluntary act---and so the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual, volitional creatures. But intelligence and will is not an action of a body nor of any corporeal faculty; hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature" (pg. 77)."

    1. Interesting thought. God has no obligation to create a "Best of All Possible Worlds" or something like that, so this argument probably is more of a probabilistic one, who makes the existence of angels more probable. It does make sense that God would prefer a universe with angels and some new platonics did believe in several beings between The One and man.

  8. *Neo-platonists