A modal-cosmological argument for the existence of God

Here’s an attempt at formulating a modal-cosmological argument for the existence of God (I take it it is cosmological precisely because it deals with contingency, and arguments from contingency typically get classified under cosmological arguments). The argument could go like this:

  1. There is no logically possible world in which nothing [meaning ‘not-anything’] exists.
  2. If there is no logically possible world in which nothing exists, then there is some necessary being [‘necessary being’ being defined as a being which exists in all logically possible worlds].
  3. A necessary being exists (from 1&2 conditional elimination)
  4. If there is a necessary being then it is a being the idea of which involves existence.
  5. There is only one being the idea of which involves existence, and this is a maximally great being (a being to which belong all the great making properties maximally or infinitely). [alternatively: if there is any being the idea of which involves existence then there is a maximally great being].
  6. But there is a necessary being (from 3), and therefore there is a being the idea of which involves existence (from 3&4 conditional elimination).
  7. There is a maximally great being (from 5&6 conditional elimination)

I think this argument is sound, and the premises are intuitively obviated. The first premise is not very controversial among modal logicians, as it asks whether it is even possible for nothing to exist – and most philosophers think it is evident that if anything at all exists, then the only possible explanation for its existence is that ‘something’ must exist. Premise 2 is self-evident. Premise 3 follows from 1&2. Premise 4 is an attempt to cut through the objection that there may be multiple necessary beings (beings which exist in all logically possible worlds) thus undermining the legitimacy of leading from necessary being to a maximally great being in the traditional sense. If premises 4 and 5 weren’t logically true, then we would have to appeal to something like Occam’s Razor in order to argue that we should be conservative in our assumptions and admit only one necessary being. However, premise 4 is simply fleshing out the conceptual or modal nature of ‘necessary being’ as involving existence. Premise 5 claims that there is no such being other than a maximally great being (in other words, that there is no idea any philosopher has ever had of something the essence of which involved existence, and yet which was not a/the maximally great being). One might object to premise 5 by claiming that there may be some necessary being which does not have all the great making properties, and thus cannot appropriately be called ‘God’. However, I would respond in two ways: first, I’m not sure that it is even coherent to suggest that some necessary being fail to have all the great making properties maximally – but suppose I were to be dialectically charitable and grant, for the sake of argument, the concession that such a necessary being could exist: I would ask the objector to provide any example of such a being. If they appeal to numbers or to propositions which they think are necessary beings, then they would be appealing to a form of platonism with which I wouldn’t be terribly impressed (on the upside, at least they’d have had to leave Naturalism behind in an attempt to avoid the existence of God consistently). I would argue that neither numbers nor propositions exist as beings on their own which are necessary and not in any way contingent on God. From 5 to 7 the deductive chain seems solid.

Alternatively we could construct the argument like this:

  1. If a maximally great being does not exist then there is no necessary being.
  2. If there is no necessary being then there is a logically possible world in which nothing exists.
  3. But there is not a logically possible world in which nothing exists.
  4. Therefore there is a necessary being (from 2&3 conditional elimination)
  5. Therefore a maximally great being exists (from 4&1)
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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Modality, Natural Theology, Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A modal-cosmological argument for the existence of God

  1. What do you mean by “maximally great” being? Why would that be a necessary conclusion?

    Mark Blasini

    • I mean what analytic theologians typically mean by that term: a being with all the great making properties, and which has those properties maximally or infinitely. For example, if ‘goodness’ is a great-making property, than a maximally great being would be a being which was maximally good or infinitely good. If ‘existence’ is a great-making property (i.e., some being would be ‘better’ if it actually existed than if it were merely an idea), then a maximally great being must exist maximally, which simply means that it exists not only in most logically possible worlds, but in all logically possible worlds (thus is a necessary being).

      The reason it is a necessary conclusion, I think, is that ‘a maximally great being’ is the only idea in the human mind, or the history of philosophy, which involves existence. In other words, of any other thing which I can conceive, such as a blow dryer, I can consistently imagine it existing, and also imagine it not existing (in other words, it exists in some logically possible worlds, and fails to exist in others). However, if God is defined as St. Anselm defined him/it, then God is simply “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, and this thought of itself necessarily entails existence, since if I had an idea of a maximally great being which did not exist in reality, but only in the mind, then I could think of a greater being – namely, one that exists in reality as well as in the mind. When that medieval language is translated into analytic philosophy, we simply say that such a being is a maximally great being, the concept of which involves existence in such a way that it is a necessary being, and of course there are no other necessary beings.

      Hope that helps.

  2. Okay — I just wanted to make sure what your use of “great” was. I agree with your assessment there, but I wonder what this implies for terms like “existence” and “goodness.” God, in your argument, seems pantheistic, i.e. he is existent as existence itself (what Heidegger would call “Being,” or what the Idealists call “the Absolute”). In this sense, cosmology is the study of God, of God’s nature, of God’s being which IS Being. Which is nothing short of saying that God IS Existence, and in this sense, there is no not-believing in God. In order to argue that there IS God, you have to believe that there is “is.” Which IS to believe in God (this is sort of an off-shoot of your argument). That much I can agree with.

    However, that doesn’t really get us anywhere more than saying “God is another name for what we call ‘existence,’ which everyone ALREADY assumes.” So we aren’t really saying anything new. The true question, I believe, is not whether God exists (God is existence; he entails all of existence, the existing of existence), but whether a certain conception of God is true (e.g. God as good, God as the Holy Trinity, etc.). That, I feel, is really where the difficult work begins.

    Mark Blasini

    • I think the semantic equivocation of God as that the essence of which involves existence with any mundane sense of the word ‘existence’ is simply confused. Perhaps Spinoza would be sympathetic, but I find myself not nearly so sympathetic, since I think there is a real semantic distinction between the concept of the ground of being – being itself (Heidegger was ripping the term from St. Bonaventure) – and individual things which exist contingently. If there were no qualitative difference between these things then it seems that everything which exists would be necessary in a logical sense, and that would overturn the entire project of modal logic, along with involving one in cognitive fatalism and perhaps (ironically) irrationalism. The Maximally Great Being in this argument is something the idea of which is distinct and clear in our minds as something distinct from anything and everything in the universe or cosmos (or all contingent reality). You’re certainly on to something when you call this being ‘being itself’, but that language should not be confused with the idea that this being is not itself distinct from other beings, and acts merely as the rational ground of all being – that in which all things which exist participate contingently. This allows us to say that this being would exist even if nothing else existed – but of course other things exist as well, just in such a way that they (logically) depend on God for their existence.

      I think you’d be surprised how many Atheists do deny that ‘necessary being’ exists. On Pantheism, God is everything. On Monotheism, God is that which logically and efficiently grounds all contingent beings. Notice also that God’s being good is entailed by the ‘maximally great’ condition we were just talking about, since goodness is a great making property. This argument, thus, does a lot more than simply demonstrate what most people assume. Rather, the argument is intended to show us that “that than which nothing greater could be conceived” is the only possible necessary being, and yet that there must be some necessary being – it therefore follows that “that than which nothing greater could be conceived” exists and that concept involves every feature which all Theists recognize to belong to ‘God’. This argument does not demonstrate that God is Trinity or anything like that, but rather that the God which Christians, Jews, Muslims, some Hindu’s, and Deists, have in mind, does indeed exist.

      In sum – one must be careful to recognize the distinction between saying that there exists a maximally great being which is necessary in the modal sense, and saying that this being is everything while being nothing in particular. Instead, the concept of such a being exists in the mind as a clear and distinct idea which must be semantically differentiated from all/any contingent things. The interesting part which follows is in the conceptual analysis of what this Being is, and to do this one must simply reflect at length on maximal greatness, or on “that than which nothing greater could be conceived”.

      Thanks for your comments, and I hope you enjoy the blog.

  3. Thank you for your response! I don’t think we’re in disagreement here. The issue is that I’m not sure there is any atheist that doesn’t believe in Being, even if he or she doesn’t fully understand what that means. I agree that Being is distinct from being, and that an understanding of Being entails something much different than simply the “sum of all beings.” But I also believe that in order to have a conception of anything, we have to have a conception of SOMETHING, and that something is God. Even if atheists may not say it this way, I have a hard time believing that atheists don’t believe in “something” (again, even if they don’t fully understand it, as many theists also don’t understand God. Perhaps no one does).

    In other words, I really don’t think it’s possible NOT to believe in God. However, it is possible not to believe in a certain conception of God. But as you said, that wasn’t the aim of your argument, and so I guess I’ll look for that another day. Thank you once again.

    Mark Blasini

  4. rayndeon says:

    I guess my issue with the argument is that I am inclined to believe in necessary abstract objects, so I would reject (5). I’m aware of the varieties of theistic activism and theistic conceptualism but I find them unconvincing for the most part. It’s precisely Platonism that I agree with (1) because in a world bereft of concreta, abstracta would still exist.

    I think I prefer other Scotistic-styled modal cosmological arguments. Have you seen those before?

    • That’s certainly one way of responding to the argument – I would have to produce the whole argument of the medievals on situating the forms in God to defend premise 5. I think it could be done, but it is a bit beyond the project of that post ( I’m not that ambitious at the moment).

      I also can’t answer your question because I don’t know what you’re referring to as Scotistic-styled cosmological arguments, so I would invite you to share more on that.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Coming back to this post because of our discussion on my blog, I notice that your (2.) is a non sequitur. “Every possible world contains some entity, X.” is not equivalent to “There is some entity, X, that every possible world contains.” The reason is that in the first, X can be a different being in every world.

    • I recognize that 2 seems to be the easiest one to deny if one thinks that logically possible worlds are merely models. I have addressed this point elsewhere, but I think that remains to be posted on my blog. If one is inclined to a more realist position about logically possible worlds, rather than a kind of modal nominalism, then the second premise is logically self-evident.

      • Hi, Tyler,

        For some reason I wasn’t notified of your response, even though I “followed” this thread. So, sorry for the delay.

        Even under strict modal realism, (2) is a non sequitur. It simply doesn’t follow from “Every set X in the collection C is non-empty” that “There is an element A that is in every X in C.” Think about it. If i have three sets (of numbers, say), and all I know about them is that they are all non-empty, it doesn’t follow that there is a number that is in all three sets.

        Either you’re making a very elementary logic mistake, or you’re making some other assumption that you haven’t explicitly stated.

  6. Hrm, I wonder. It seems to me that the question we should ask is “why is it the case that a logically possible world must consist of at least one thing?” It seems to me we can answer in two ways. First, we can give a kind of conceptualist account of modality and argue that that’s just the nature of the language game we’re playing; that, in other words, to imagine a logically possible world requires that we imagine at least one thing. However, what I had in mind as a kind of ‘realist’ approach follows from the following considerations (remember that I am adopting a realist position, such that logically possible worlds are not only imaginable, but actually possible):

    1. There is no logically possible world without at least one thing
    2. Therefore, every logically possible world consists of at least one thing.
    3. If there is no thing in the world to which we can point which exists in all logically possible worlds, then there is no way to explain why no logically possible world could not contain nothing.
    4. But, there is some sufficient reason (i.e., explanation for) why there is no logically possible world without at least one thing.
    5. Therefore, there is at least one thing to which we can point which exists in all logically possible worlds.

    In other words, on a realist account of logical possibility, the possibility is not due merely to the constitution of our cognitive faculties, but is grounded in mind-independent reality. Now, why is it mind-independently true that no logically possible world is empty? It cannot be because we cannot imagine a logically possible world without at least one member. Then, it seems to me, short of being some kind of brute-modal fact, we will have to say that it is because there is at least one necessary being, to which we can (proverbially) point. Now, you can easily just avoid the argument by adopting that conceptualist approach I mentioned, and you could do that in at least two ways. First, you could argue that conceptualism is more plausibly true than realism, or second you could argue that the kind of realism I have in mind is just entirely confused and say that there is no alternative to conceptualism. However, to do that would be to say, it seems to me, that modal truths are not mind-independently true, and that seems like a pretty steep price to pay, doesn’t it? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    • Thanks for spelling it out, Tyler. Your (3.) and (4.) here are the extra assumptions that were missing in the original argument. I think there are several serious objections possible.

      First, (4.) assumes the PSR, which is itself controversial.

      Second, (assuming the PSR) there might be other explanations besides a necessarily existing object/being for why all possible worlds are non-empty. Sure, a necessarily existing being gives an explanation for (1.), but I don’t see why I should accept that it is the ONLY possible explanation for (1.)

      This ties back into the discussion of the basis for (1.) If (1.) is merely a restriction imposed on “possible worlds” for technical reasons, then there is no reason to demand a metaphysical explanation for it. On the other hand, if you are claiming (1.) has a metaphysical basis, then you are in danger of running into circularity. You assume (1.) is true for metaphysical reasons, and then demand a metaphysical explanation for (1.).

      On the realism/conceptualism issue, I find modal realism, with its infinity of actually existing possible worlds, to be too high a price to pay. (And no, I don’t like many-worlds interpretations of QM, either.) I don’t really see a viable alternative to conceptualism, but I have to admit I haven’t given it careful consideration.

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