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Perishability, the actual world, and the existence of God

  • Robert Oakes (a1)


In this paper I shall formulate and defend what I take to be a fresh argument for the rationality of theistic belief. Specifically, I propose to establish the reasonableness of believing the following proposition to be true: Every possible world that includes the existence of perishable objects includes the existence of God. Success in this endeavour would, of course, ensure the reasonableness of believing that the possible world which happens to be actual – including, as it does, the existence of perishable objects – includes the existence of God. I intend to show that the reasonableness of believing the aforesaid proposition to be true is consequent upon careful scrutiny and explication of a doctrine that constitutes an absolutely indispensable ingredient of theistic metaphysics.



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page 493 note 1 I am presupposing that the reader has some familiarity – it need be no more than rudimentary – with the ontology and semantics of possible worlds.

page 493 note 2 In addition to the ingenious ontological argument found in Chapter Ten of Plantinga's, AlvinThe Nature of Necessity (Oxford, 1974), a number of provocative ‘Scotist’ reformulations of Anselm's argument can be found in Ross, James F., Philosophical Theology (Indianapolis, 1969). Also, anyone who happens to believe that Anselm's argument – specifically, the ‘modal’ version defended in Proslogion 3 – is amenable only to very limited dialectical variation may find it illuminating to consult the second chapter of Hartshorne, Charles, The Logic of Perfection (LaSalle, Illinois, 1962).

page 494 note 1 Cf. Van Inwagen, Peter, ‘Ontological Arguments’, Nous, XI (1977), 375–95. For some helpful discussion of the (perhaps unanalysable) notions of concreteness and abstractness, see pp. 380–1.

page 494 note 2 If we stipulate ‘A’ as the (or a) proper name of that possible world – or maximal consistent state of affairs – which happens to be actual, it is clearly a necessary truth that A includes the existence of perishable objects. For a possible world just is the world that it is by virtue of the states of affairs it includes; thus, no possible world that failed to include the state of affairs consisting in the existence of perishable objects could be A. Hence, the conditional ‘If A is actual, perishable objects are actual’ expresses a necessary truth. However, since A is not the only possible world – i.e. since worlds other than A (among which are worlds that do not include the existence of perishable objects) could conceivably have been actual – it is conceivable that perishable objects should not have been actual. Hence, that they are actual constitutes a contingent fact.

page 495 note 1 McPherson, Thomas, The Philosophy of Religion (London, 1965), p. 67.

page 495 note 2 Summa Theologica, 1, q. 104, a.1, ad.4.

page 495 note 3 Ross, James F., ‘Creation’, Journal of Philosophy LXXVII (1980), 620.

page 495 note 4 Third Meditation (LaFleur translation), p. 47.

page 496 note 1 Theodicy, edited and introduced by Allen, Diogenes (Indianapolis, 1966), p. 43.

page 496 note 2 Letter to Samuel Johnson, 25 November 1729.

page 496 note 3 Mavrodes, George I., Belief in God (New York, 1970), p. 70.

page 497 note 1 This is not, of course, to imply that it is inconceivable for there to exist a non-abstract (concrete) object that is imperishable. Clearly, it is necessarily the case that God (if existent) is a concrete albeit imperishable being. Rather, the point to be stressed is that it is impossible for there to be an object that is both abstract and perishable. (Moreover, it seems intuitively clear that being-abstract isa property that cannot be had non-essentially or accidentally. Hence, it would seem clear that every abstract object is such that it lacks BCEG essentially.)

page 498 note 1 Assuming, of course, that O ‘began to exist’. As recognized by Aquinas (Summa Theologica, 1, q. 46, a.2) and many others, the function ‘God created x’ does not entail the function ‘There was a time before which x failed to exist’. On the contrary, it is compatible with reason (if not with the articles of the Christian faith) to hold that God's creative power has been exercised from all eternity, and, consequently, that no moment (let alone period) of past time was such that there failed to exist at that time something that could properly be called ‘a cosmos’. Now it is instructive to note that, if there exist (existed) perishable objects which are (were) ‘such’ that they never began to exist, it becomes rather difficult to discriminate God's conservation of these objects from his creation of them, i.e. any such object would be such that there is no time prior to a time at which its existence is conserved by God. Hence, God's conservation of any such object could not properly be held to have begun at the moment subsequent to ‘the moment of its creation’. In short, ‘beginningless creation’ would seem to entail ‘beginningless conservation’. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Schleiermacher, who believed the universe to be eternal, held that the activity of divine conservation is identical to that of divine creation (cf. Pike, Nelson, God and Timelessness, New York, 1970, p. 108). While James Ross does not seem to endorse such a reduction, he does defend the view that ‘the cosmos’ is such that there was never a time at which it did not exist, even though ‘all its components, relatively to one another, perhaps did begin’, op. cit. p. 621.

page 498 note 2 This point received considerable emphasis in Ross, op. cit. pp. 620 and 623.

page 499 note 1 Quoted in Ross, op. cit. p. 620 (my italics).

page 499 note 2 Summa Theologica, 1, q. 104, a.1 (my italics).

page 499 note 3 Maimonides, Moses, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. with an Introduction and Notes by Shlomo Pines, and an Introductory Essay by Strauss, Leo (Chicago, 1963), p. 171 (my italics).

page 499 note 4 Mavrodes, George I., op. cit. p. 69.

page 502 note 1 I take this point to be uncontroversial; for those who do not, see Plantinga, Alvin, op. cit. pp. 51–5.

page 503 note 1 This was brought to my attention by George Mavrodes. I am grateful both to him and Bill Wainwright for their very helpful criticism of my former argument, which has appeared under the title A New Argument for the Existence of God’, The New Scholasticism, LIV (1980), 213–23.

page 503 note 2 Smart, R Ninian, The Philosophy of Religion (New York, 1970), p. 139.

page 504 note 1 I want to record my gratitude to Philip Quinn for reading an earlier version of this paper and locating some problematic points in the argument. His criticisms eventuated in (what I hope he takes to be) a more secure defence of my thesis.


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