Arguments from Perfection (2011)

Ryan Stringer

In this paper I discuss arguments from perfection, both for and against the existence of God. I begin with a simple argument from perfection for the existence of God and argue that it is unsuccessful. Then I defend two kinds of arguments from perfection against the existence of God. The first ones are inductive and thus present atheism as a tentative conclusion, while the second one is deductive and thus purports to conclusively demonstrate atheism based on the logical inconsistency between God's existence and the imperfect world in which we live.

I. Introduction

Perfection is probably a familiar concept for most people, as it is used on a fairly regular basis. Something is deemed "perfect" when it conforms completely to an ideal standard of that thing, which entails that it cannot be any better. Thus a perfect thing will have no flaws, blemishes, or defects—that is, it will not possess any negative feature or lack any positive feature that pushes it away from the ideal. While what constitutes a perfect car or a perfect burrito may be unclear, when it comes to a perfect being, traditional theism says that by nature God is such a being because he is omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving, fully rational, completely free, eternal, immutable, and infinitely good. And since both theists and nontheists can accept this understanding of God, it is a good starting point for a discussion about God's existence. However, I will not attempt a comprehensive discussion about God's existence in this paper, as that would at least require a book-length treatment. Instead, I will examine what I call "arguments from perfection" to see if God's essence as a perfect being points towards either his existence or nonexistence.[1]

When I think of the description "argument from perfection," the first thing that comes to mind is an argument for God's existence. Specifically, I am reminded of my first undergraduate exposure to René Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy. In this treatise Descartes gives two arguments for God's existence, the second of which is an argument from perfection that attempts to deduce that God exists from God's essence (or nature) as a perfect being.[2] However, arguments against God's existence based on his essence as a perfect being also come to mind. Obviously the conclusions of each kind of argument cannot both be correct; at least one of them must be mistaken. For the remainder of this essay I will argue that the positive conclusion that God exists is mistaken, while the negative conclusion that God does not exist is correct. In other words, I will argue that atheism is supported by God's essence as a perfect being and that theism is not.

II. Descartes' Theistic Argument from Perfection

I will begin with Descartes' theistic argument, which I have reconstructed[3] as follows:

(P1) God is a perfect being (or a being with all perfections).
(P2) Existence is a perfection.
(C) Therefore, God exists.

The reasoning of this argument seems simple and straightforward: because God has all perfections and existence is one of them, God has existence. But does this argument really accomplish what it so swiftly appears to accomplish? I will argue that it does not.

Let's begin with a brief examination of P1, which can be interpreted either conceptually or existentially. On the conceptual interpretation, P1 says that the concept of God is that of a perfect being (or a being with all perfections). This would make P1 similar to the proposition "A bachelor is an unmarried male," which merely specifies that the concept of a bachelor is that of an unmarried male. On the existential interpretation, P1 says that there is a God and it has all perfections. This would make P1 similar to the proposition "Ryan Stringer is a graduate student," which is not specifying a concept but asserting the existence of someone named "Ryan Stringer" who has the property of being a graduate student. But if the existential interpretation is correct, then Descartes' argument obviously begs the question because then P1 simply asserts what the argument aims to prove—that God exists. So if the argument is to have any chance at succeeding the conceptual interpretation must be the right one.[4]

Now let's assume that P2 is true. Since P1 is a conceptual truth about what God is, P1 and P2 amount to the following, more expanded conceptual truth:

(G) God is an existing being with every other perfection in addition to existence.

In other words, because P1 says that the concept of God is that of a being with all perfections, and P2 says that existence is one of these perfections, together they amount to saying that the concept of God is that of an existing being with every other perfection in addition to existence. Thus, the simple and straightforward conclusion above that "God has existence" means only that existence belongs to the concept of God. But even if God is properly conceptualized as a certain kind of existing being, this does not necessarily entail that he exists. To see why, consider an analogous case. The following proposition is a conceptual truth:

(RU) A real unicorn is an existing being with the body of a horse and a single horn coming out of its forehead.

RU says that the concept of a real unicorn is that of an existing being with the body of a horse and a single horn coming out of its forehead, which of course implies that existence belongs to the concept of a real unicorn.[5] But even though a real unicorn is properly conceptualized as a certain kind of existing being, this does not entail that any real unicorns exist since there are surely no such things. Thus, the conceptualization of something as a certain kind of existing being does not necessarily entail that this something is instantiated.[6] So the conceptualization of God as a certain kind of existing being does not necessarily entail that God exists. Descartes' inference, then, is quite dubious.

On the other hand, perhaps the concept of God is a special case where Descartes' premises do entail God's existence. While the perfect-making feature of existence that belongs to the concept of God and the concept of a real unicorn is not sufficient to show that either exists, perhaps the concept of God has some other perfect-making feature—or some combination of such features—that renders Descartes' argument valid.[7] However, there does not seem to be any such feature or combination of features. Besides existence, the concept of God includes the perfect-making attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, all-lovingness, perfect rationally, complete metaphysical freedom, eternality, immutability, and infinite goodness. But none of these, taken alone or together, seem to imply the coinstantiation of them all in a single being. After all, we can apparently conceive of several possible worlds in which these attributes are not coinstantiated—any world in which one or more of these attributes is not instantiated is such a world. And since the concept of God remains the same in every possible world, it seems that God's nonexistence is possible even if Descartes' premises are (necessarily) true. And this would make his argument invalid.

Another possibility is that Descartes' premises entail God's existence because a contradiction follows from the conjunction of these premises and the supposition that God does not exist. Now the only attempt to demonstrate such a contradiction (that I know of) comes from St. Anselm, and this deserves some comment. In a nutshell, Anselm thinks that God's nonexistence entails that God is not a perfect being, which contradicts P1. This entailment stems from the following line of reasoning. From P2 we know that existing is better than not existing. So if God does not exist, then it follows that he could be better. But if he could be better, then he must not be perfect. So if God does not exist, then he must not be perfect.

However, God's nonexistence does not entail that God is not a perfect being. First of all, the supposition that God does not exist is an ontological claim—that there is nothing that instantiates the concept of God. In order for us to have a genuine contradiction with P1, this supposition must entail the conceptual claim that God is not a perfect being; but it entails no such thing. For even if existing really were better than not existing, all that would actually follow from God's nonexistence is that the ontological status of God could be better—not that God could be better conceptualized and thus is not a perfect being. In fact, the conceptual truth that God is a perfect being is perfectly consistent with his nonexistence; for what God is conceptually (which again remains the same in every possible world) is not affected by there being no God. Thus, an Anselmian attempt to demonstrate that a contradiction follows from the conjunction of Descartes' premises and the supposition of God's nonexistence does not work.

Given the above considerations, Descartes' argument seems to be invalid. Assuming that his concept of God is a coherent one, it is probably like the concept of a real unicorn: it only specifies what counts as an instantiation of the concept. It does not entail, or in any way suggest, that there is such an instantiation. Whether there is such an instantiation is a completely independent issue.[8]

Even aside from the fact that Descartes' argument appears to be invalid, P2 is a rather dubious premise and is probably false, as it seems misguided to say that existence increases the perfection of a thing. For example, we might think of "a perfect friend" as someone that: (a) we never fight with, become frustrated with, or become turned off by; (b) is always there to support us, care for us, and provide assistance when able; (c) spends the exact amount of time doing fun things with us as we wish; and (d) wants to be our friend and likes us for who we are. Whether a person like this actually exists seems utterly irrelevant to whether this kind of a person would be a perfect friend. Obviously it may be better for us and our well-being if there were such a friend. It might even make the world a better place if there were such a friend. But none of this implies that a real person who fits this description would be a better friend than a fictional person from a story who fits the description. Instead, both would be perfect friends, yet one would exist while the other does not.

Similar considerations apply to God. God is thought to be a perfect being because he possesses properties like omniscience, omnipotence, full rationality, and infinite goodness; existence has nothing to do with it. Of course, it may be better for us or the world if God exists. But this does not mean that an actual being that possesses all of the properties that make a being perfect is any more perfect than a fictional character that also possesses all of these properties. Instead, it seems that the real being and the fictional character are both equally perfect beings, but the former exists and the latter does not. Thus existence seems irrelevant to a thing's perfection, and so P2 is probably false.

Because P2 is probably false, and because Descartes' theistic argument from perfection seems to be invalid in any case, the argument provides no support for theism.

III. Inductive Atheistic Arguments from Perfection

As far as I know, my arguments in this section are uniquely my own, though it would not surprise me if they had occurred to someone else before. They do not purport to establish atheism conclusively, but probabilistically. The first evidential argument that atheism is probably true (or at least more likely to be true than not) runs as follows:

(P1) God is a perfect thing (a perfect being).
(P2) Perfect things are usually nonexistent idealizations of real things.
(P3) Perfect things are unlikely to exist. (from P2)
(C) Therefore, it is unlikely that God exists. (from P3 and P1)

That God is a perfect being is a necessary truth from Descartes' theistic argument, and it entails P1. P2 states an empirical observation—that things we call "perfect" are usually idealizations of real things. For example, in the last section I mentioned what a "perfect friend" might be like, yet it is doubtful that anyone has a perfect friend in real life. Anyone who says that so-and-so is a perfect friend is probably exaggerating, and will freely admit it if hard-pressed and not gushing with emotion. The same goes for intimate partners, children, pets, parents, bosses and employees, teachers and students, schools, jobs, cars, computers, houses, philosophers, and so on. Perfection in any of these categories tends to be an idealization of real things, where the good aspects are preserved and perfected while the bad aspects are eliminated. The idealization is rarely if ever instantiated. From P2 we can infer P3: something said to be "perfect" is unlikely to exist because perfect things tend to be nonexistent idealizations of real things. The conclusion then follows from P3 and P1: since perfect things are unlikely to exist and God is a perfect thing, it follows that it is unlikely that God exists.

Furthermore, we could discard P3 and modify the argument to produce the following argument instead:

(P1) God is a perfect thing (a perfect being).
(P2) Perfect things are usually nonexistent idealizations of real things.
(C') Therefore, it is likely that God is a nonexistent idealization of a real thing.

Because perfect things are usually nonexistent idealizations of real things, and God is a perfect thing, it follows that it is likely that God is also a nonexistent idealization of a real thing—a person.[9]

In addition to the empirical support from P2, C' is supported by other considerations. It is a well-known platitude that people are imperfect in various ways; we are error-prone and very limited in terms of knowledge, power, and freedom, and although we can be morally good, we quite often are not. God, on the other hand, is conceived of as the perfect superperson: maximally knowledgeable and powerful, completely free, fully rational, and morally perfect. Moreover, many people tend to create ideal, unattainable standards and fantasize about how perfect things could have been when reflecting on their flaws, so it is very likely that God reflects a nonexistent idealization of a person.

IV. A Deductive Atheistic Argument from Perfection

While the inductive arguments of the previous section were probabilistic, a deductive atheistic argument from perfection makes a stronger claim—it purports to demonstrate a logical inconsistency between God and our imperfect world.[10] I have reconstructed this deductive argument as follows:

(Q1) God is a perfect being that created the universe.
(Q2) If God exists, then the world is perfect before the creation of the universe.
(Q3) God would not make the world worse in virtue of his moral perfection.
(Q4) If God exists, then the world is perfect during and after the creation of the universe. (from Q2 and Q3)
(Q5) If God exists, then the world is perfect. (from Q2 and Q4)
(Q6) The world is imperfect.
(C) Therefore, God does not exist. (from Q5 and Q6)

Here I use "world" to represent the totality of everything, including God and any other precreation entities that might exist, and use "universe" to represent all of the contingent things that come into existence through God's creation. Like P1 from the arguments of the previous sections, Q1 is a conceptual truth about God. In fact, Q1 simply restates P1 and adds the clause "that created the universe." As such, Q1 is also a necessary truth. Q2 also appears to be a necessary truth. For suppose that God exists. Since he is, conceptually speaking, the eternally existing creator of the universe, it follows from our supposition that God existed eternally before the creation of the universe. Moreover, nothing else besides abstract, necessary entities will exist with God before the creation of the universe. But since God is a perfect being, and only he and abstract, necessary entities will exist before the creation of the universe, it seems that the world would be perfect in this state. So God's existence seems to entail the perfection of the world before the creation of the universe. Q3 is another necessary truth based on God's nature as a morally perfect being. Q4 follows from Q2 and Q3: if God exists and would not make the world worse, then the world during and after the creation of the universe must be as perfect as the world was before its creation. Q5 then follows from Q2 and Q4: if God's existence entails the perfection of the world before, during, and after the addition of the universe (which are the only possible states of a theistic world), then God's existence entails the perfection of the world without qualification. Q6 is the putative contingent fact that the world is imperfect. Q6 conjoined with Q5 entails that God does not exist via modus tollens.

The premise that requires defense from possible objections the most is probably Q2. A critic might contest Q2 by arguing that a world consisting of only God and abstract entities cannot be perfect because abstract entities are not themselves perfect, and a perfect world cannot have anything that is not perfect. However, this argument fails because a perfect world can contain things that, while not perfect themselves, are irrelevant to the world's perfection—or perhaps even enhance it. In fact, abstract entities like numbers or propositions, even if they are not themselves perfect[11], seem to fit into one of these two categories. To see why, compare a world with only God (world G) versus a world with God, numbers, and propositions (world G+). If it is true that perfect worlds consist of only perfect things, and that worlds with only perfect things are perfect, then G would be a perfect world while G+ must be an imperfect one—and so G would be better than G+. But why think that abstract entities make G+ imperfect and thus worse than G? They are not flaws or blemishes, so it is not clear why they would be (or how they could be) responsible for the imperfection of G+. Instead, it seems more reasonable to treat both worlds as perfect ones, which makes abstract entities irrelevant to worldly perfection. On the other hand, those with a fondness for numbers and propositions may argue that they actually make G+ better than G, so even though they are not themselves perfect things, numbers and propositions nonetheless enhance the world's perfection. Either way, abstract entities do not prevent a theistic, preuniverse world from being perfect.

Perhaps a more promising way to contest Q2 is to contend that even though God is a perfect being, this does not entail that the preuniverse world consisting of only God and abstract objects is a perfect world or state of affairs. The standard of perfection for worlds or states of affairs is not the same as that for individual beings, so the perfection of an individual being does not entail that of a world or state of affairs that contains it. Because God's existence does not guarantee a perfect preuniverse world, the objection goes, Q2 is a dubious premise that may very well be false.

In response to this objection, we could point out that God is often thought to be perfection itself—that is, perfection in an unqualified sense. And because the preuniverse world consists of only God and abstract objects, it would consist of perfection itself and nothing to subtract from that perfection. Thus, God's existence entails the perfection of the preuniverse world, and so Q2 is true. Of course, for the response to succeed God must be perfection in an unqualified sense and not just a perfect individual being. For if God is only a perfect individual being, the objection that God's existence does not entail the perfection of a theistic, preuniverse world still stands.

However, even if God is only a perfect individual being—and not perfection in an unqualified sense—it is still quite plausible that the preuniverse world consisting of only this perfect being and abstract objects is a perfect world. First of all, this world with only God and abstract objects contains complete metaphysical freedom, complete justice, absolute peace, great beauty (perhaps even unspeakable beauty), perfect rationality, maximal power and knowledge, perfect moral agency (which includes the virtuous character traits to the highest degree and the complete absence of negative traits), self-respect and self-trust, love (at least insofar as God is love and loves himself), and great pleasure and joy (perhaps even infinite joy). Moreover, this world does not contain any negative things like suffering, injustice, terrible individuals and horrific actions, conflict and war, frustration, or deception.

Now, given what this world both has and does not have, it certainly seems to be perfect. For what blemish or flaw does it contain? What does it have or lack that pushes it away from worldly perfection? Given that neither God nor abstract objects would be responsible for worldly flaws or blemishes, the world must lack something in order to be imperfect; yet the prospects of identifying what this lack could be do not look good. It certainly is not some imperfect thing like human beings in their current form, as the addition of such imperfect beings would render the world imperfect, for we are the source of many of the world's flaws and blemishes.

Might this lack be found in some other perfect thing(s) besides God? This suggestion does not seem to work. To see why, suppose that some other perfect entity P is added to the theistic, preuniverse world. Even if we suppose that this new world with God, P, and abstract objects is perfect, it is still unclear why the original world with only God and abstract objects would be imperfect. For what does P add to the world to boost it into perfection? Why wouldn't we say that even though these two worlds are different, both are nonetheless perfect? The fact that they are different seems to be no obstacle to the perfection of both. For example, two different people could nonetheless be perfect friends for someone, or two days with different contents could nonetheless be perfect for someone. A difference in content does not imply a difference in perfection.[12] Of course, the original world lacks the hypothesized perfect entity P while the new one does not, but this lack of something that is perfect in its own right does not entail worldly imperfection. For example, a friend may lack perfect facial symmetry, but this lack does not entail an imperfect friend. Or a day may lack a perfect trip to some nearby destination, but this lack does not entail an imperfect day. Therefore, the original world with only God and abstract objects can still be perfect, even though it lacks P.

Furthermore, adding another perfect entity, and another, and another ad infinitum would not do any better than simply adding P, for it would still be a mystery why the original world with only God and abstract objects was imperfect rather than simply different from other perfect worlds. Finally, this mystery would not be solved by simply asserting that there is no perfect possible world, just like there (supposedly) is no best possible world. That route not only fails to explain why the world with only God and abstract objects is imperfect, but merely assumes it to be the case. In fact, this assertion begs an even stronger question: it assumes that none of the possible worlds with only perfect entities and abstract objects would be perfect. So until shown otherwise, it is quite plausible that a theistic, preuniverse world consisting of only God and abstract objects is perfect.

One final way to argue for the imperfection of a theistic, preuniverse world is to note that while this world has many good things, it still has a rather limited or impoverished range of goods. For example, it lacks things like friendship, love and trust between different individuals, care, compassion, courage, learning, community, and religious goods like hope and faith. Since the presence of such goods makes a world better than it would be in their absence, the theistic, preuniverse world would be a better world if it had them, and thus is imperfect because it does not. Therefore, Q2 is false.

This argument is persuasive, as it is quite intuitive to think that the absence of such goods signals room for worldly improvement, and thus the imperfection of the theistic, preuniverse world. Nonetheless, I think that this intuitive assumption is probably false, or at least highly questionable. To support this I will consider each of the aforementioned goods in turn and try to show that their absence from the theistic, preuniverse world does not necessarily signal its imperfection, and thereby undermine Q2.

I will begin with compassion and courage. Because God is a supremely compassionate and courageous being, the absence of compassion and courage from a theistic, preuniverse world can only be an absence of compassionate and courageous responses to negative things that call for them. These are surely absent in such a world since there is no negativity to respond to. However, they are also absent in the negativity-free place called Heaven, yet their presence would certainly not make Heaven better—it is, after all, conceived of as a perfect place. On the contrary, the presence of these responses would actually make Heaven worse—thereby obliterating its heavenly status—by bringing with them the negativity that they require. Thus the presence of these responses does not necessarily result in worldly improvement, and may even have the opposite result. And this means that their absence from the theistic, preuniverse world does not necessarily signal its imperfection, and may even point towards its perfection. In fact, the presence of these responses makes a world better than it would be without them only when something negative that calls for them has already happened—they are not intrinsic goods that are sought for their own sake. Consequently, it is not better to have them and the negativity they require than to have neither. For example, we do not value compassionate responses so much that we seek to harm people just to produce such responses. We only value their presence over their absence once suffering has already occurred. Put another way, though it is better to have these responses over no responses once suffering has already occurred, it is ultimately better to have no suffering and no associated compassionate responses than to have both. Indeed, this is suggested by compassionate responses themselves: since they inherently aim to eliminate suffering, it is the absence of suffering—which entails the absence of the compassionate responses produced by such suffering—that is the ultimate or greatest value here.[13] So the absence of compassionate and courageous responses from the theistic, preuniverse world does not signal its imperfection. Instead, it points towards its perfection in virtue of its absence of both these responses and their required negativity.

Now consider the goods of learning, care, community, friendship, and love and trust between different individuals. Their presence appears to make a world better than it would be without them only if the world contains beings that need or can benefit from such things. Similarly, the absence of food and clean water causes suffering or discontent for certain creatures, and so a world with food and clean water to benefit its creatures is better than one without such necessities. But since God has no need for (and would secure no benefit from) food and clean water, their presence would not improve the theistic, preuniverse world. And this means that their absence from this world does not signal its imperfection. I think the same is true for learning, care, community, friendship, and love and trust. When there are creatures that need or could benefit from learning and care, their presence certainly makes the world better than it would be without such goods. But since God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely independent and self-subsisting, he is not the kind of being that could need or benefit from the acquisition of knowledge or care. When there are beings that need or could benefit from friendship, community, and love and trust between each other, their presence certainly makes the world better than it would be without them. But again, God is a completely independent, self-subsisting, absolutely perfect being—that is, the ideal being. If God was in need of or could benefit from these goods, then he would not be perfect. He might be a very good being, but he would not be the ideal that is complete in every way and has no shortcomings or room for improvement. This is not to say that God cannot like or enjoy such goods; it only means that God would be just as fulfilled in their absence as in their presence. Thus, the presence of these goods would not improve the theistic, preuniverse world, and so their absence does not signal its imperfection.

Finally we come to the religious goods of hope and faith. I take hope to be something like desiring and thinking that things will turn out well. But hope requires the worrisome possibility that things will not turn out well, which is obviously a bad thing. So it is not clear why the presence of hope along with its cost makes a world better than it would be without them both. Again, consider Heaven: it is a perfect place and things will stay that way, so there is no worrisome possibility that things will not turn out well. Thus Heaven's denizens have no hopes.[14] However, the presence of hope would not make Heaven better; as an already perfect place it simply could not be better. So the presence of hope would not only fail to improve Heaven, but make it worse—for it would bring with it the worrisome possibility that things may not turn out well. Thus, the presence of hope does not necessarily result in worldly improvement, and may even have the opposite result. So the absence of hope from the theistic, preuniverse world does not necessarily signal its imperfection, and may even point towards its perfection. At best, hope is akin to compassionate and courageous responses, whose presence makes a world better only when there is something bad that calls for it (like the worrisome possibility that things may not turn out well in the case of hope). And hope only makes a world better when there are beings that need or can benefit from it. But since there is no worrisome possibility that things may not turn out well, and no beings that need or can benefit from hope in the theistic, preuniverse world, its presence would not improve this world. So again, the absence of hope does not signal the imperfection of such a world.

As for faith, I am not sure what it amounts to in this context. It cannot simply refer to belief in God's existence, for this is not absent from the theistic, preuniverse world—God certainly believes that he exists! In fact, belief in God has a 100% acceptance rate, and is absolutely certain and never waivers in such a world, so it is as high as it can possibly be, and thus cannot possibly be improved. Faith also cannot simply refer to the belief that God is in control, or that God is the kind of being that will always do the right thing, or always ensure that things will turn out for the best. For, once again, God believes these things about himself with certainty. So what religious good of faith is missing from the theistic, preuniverse world?

I can think of a few possibilities. Perhaps faith refers to a particular kind of belief (one not open to God himself) in God's existence and good character—namely, one held either: (a) with strong yet inconclusive evidence showing it to be probably true, but not certainly so; (b) with insufficient or no evidence to back it up as likely or plausibly true; or (c) with no supporting evidence and in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. However, it is hard to see how the presence of any of these options would improve the theistic, preuniverse world. Option (c) involves theistic belief that is patently irrational, a bad thing whose presence would obliterate the perfect rationality of the theistic, preuniverse world, thereby making it worse. Option (b) would also involve irrational theistic belief on the assumption that it is always irrational to believe something with insufficient or no evidence suggesting its truth. But let's assume that this criterion for rational belief is too strict, and so (b) involves theistic belief that is at least rationally permissible. Option (a) definitely involves rational theistic belief. But even if both (a) and (b) involve warranted theistic belief, adding either would not increase the perfect rationality of the theistic, preuniverse world. Moreover, neither option increases the rate (100% belief) and strength (absolute certainty) of warranted theistic belief in this world. So in either case there is no improvement in the theistic, preuniverse world, and so the absence of either does not signal the imperfection of that world. Furthermore, if everyone in Heaven is directly in God's presence and knows exactly where they are, then they have the same kind of belief in God's existence and good character that God himself has—wwhich is not the kind of belief involved in any of the three options above. Like hope, these kinds of theistic belief have no place in Heaven, and yet their absence does not signal the imperfection of Heaven. At best, it is better for humans on earth to have one of these kinds of theistic belief than to not have any theistic belief at all, an idea which is of course dubious on other grounds. But even if this is granted, the example of Heaven shows that the absence of such belief does not categorically signal worldly imperfection.

I can think of one more thing that might constitute the religious good of faith. For many people, faith is more than just belief in God—it involves religious activity like praying, worshipping, going to church, or even evangelizing. Since there is none of this in the theistic, preuniverse world, belief-plus-activity is a good candidate for the good of faith we are seeking. But again, why think that the presence of such faith would improve the theistic, preuniverse world? For starters, there is no evangelizing in Heaven since everyone is already in the presence of God and thus wholeheartedly believes in his existence and good character. Moreover, there is probably no praying in Heaven, as there is no need for: (a) the psychological benefit that it can provide for us here on earth; (b) attempts to communicate with God indirectly and from a distance; or (c) requesting that things go well, since that is guaranteed by being in Heaven. But again, if Heaven is a perfect place, then this means that the absence of these things does not signal its imperfection. As with the presence of hope, bringing evangelizing and prayer into Heaven would actually make Heaven worse, as evangelizing comes with the cost of nonbelief, while prayer comes with the cost of distance from God and the epistemic possibility that things will not go well (presupposed by requesting through prayer that things do go well). Thus, the absence of such things does not necessarily signal a world's imperfection, and may actually point towards its perfection. Moreover, and again at best, evangelizing makes a world better than it would be without it only when there is nonbelief that calls for evangelizing, or when there are beings that can benefit from acquiring theistic belief. And prayer makes a world better than it would be without it only when there are beings that can benefit from it. But since there is no nonbelief, and no beings that can benefit from acquiring theistic belief or from prayer in the theistic, preuniverse world, the absence of these goods does not signal its imperfection.

Assume for the sake of argument that going to church and worshipping God are aspects of Heaven, and so do not fall prey to the perfection of Heaven objection that I have pressed repeatedly. Even so, I do not think that they do the job for a reason that should be very familiar by now. Like some of the other goods I have considered, their presence seems at best to make a world better than it would be without them only when there are beings that can benefit from such things, and such beings are of course absent from the theistic, preuniverse world. Thus, the presence of these goods would not improve this world, and so their absence does not necessarily signal its imperfection.

Perhaps, one might object, God could benefit from being worshipped; in fact, in traditional religious texts he is portrayed as needing it so much that he threatens people with severe punishment for not doing so. However, this portrayal of God is extremely problematic in its own right—it attributes insecure, psychologically dependent, cruel, and unjust behavior to an independent, self-subsisting, infinitely good, absolutely perfect being that knows how excellent he is and thus must have the highest possible level of self-confidence and self-respect. While he might enjoy being worshipped, as he might enjoy friendship or love between him and another, he must be at least as happy and content in its absence as he would be in its presence, for he is the perfect, ideal being. The presence of worship still would not necessarily improve the theistic, preuniverse world, and so, again, the absence of the former does not necessarily signal the imperfection of the latter.

On the other hand, maybe churchgoing and God-worship are goods that have nothing to do with any kind of benefit to worshipping humans or the worshipped God. Perhaps these goods only concern giving God what he deserves—giving him his due—and thus their presence makes the world better than it would be without them, regardless of any benefit they may have for any party. In fact, the same line of reasoning could apply to other goods I have discussed, such as community, friendship, and love between different individuals. Their presence might make the world better than it would be without them, apart from any benefits they might confer.

However, this sort of categorical evaluative judgment is problematic because it completely ignores what background conditions contribute to our straightforward comparisons about which worlds are better than others. For example, a world where God is given his due by other creatures is clearly better than one where creatures do not give God his due. But we are able to make this comparison because both worlds contain the same background condition: the presence of other, non-God creatures (which may or may not give God his due, as they should). Without holding this background condition constant across the worlds we are comparing, we are dealing with a completely different comparison of worlds—comparing a world with other creatures giving God his due versus one without any non-God creatures at all and thus no due-giving. Because this does not compare a world with creatures giving God his due versus one where creatures fail to give God his due, we cannot assume that the presence of giving God his due makes the world better than it would be without this good. In other words, we cannot assume that giving God his due categorically makes a world better than it would be without due-giving. The same point applies to other goods that might be thought to categorically improve worlds—they probably make an improvement only in the presence of certain background conditions. At this point the onus is on the critic of Q2 to show why background conditions do not have an effect on whether the goods in question improve worlds.

This completes my attempt to thoroughly defend Q2 against a rather powerful counterargument. While I have not discussed every single good that is absent from the theistic, preuniverse world (which would be quite a tall order), I did discuss some very important goods, such as friendship and love between different individuals, and found that none of them necessarily signal the imperfection of such a world. Therefore, it is still quite plausible that the theistic, preuniverse world is a perfect world, and thus Q2 is plausibly true.

But a critic might yet contest Q5, or more specifically, the inference from Q2 and Q4 to Q5. This critic could argue that even though a theistic world is indeed perfect before, during, and right after the creation of the universe, this does not entail that the world will remain perfect after the creation of the universe. Any loss of perfection could not be attributable to God since he is morally perfect, but might result from some aspect of his contingently created universe (e.g., free human beings). However, it is probably false that a world could be absolutely perfect yet not remain so, for it is absurd to think that a world is truly perfect if it contains some feature that will (or even could) make it worse. Surely it would be a better world if it had no such features.[15] Thus, a perfect world before, during, and right after the creation of the universe does entail that the world will remain perfect. The objection fails to undermine Q5.

The final premise that a critic could contest is Q6, though most people probably would not contest it. For it seems obvious that the world in which we live is full of flaws and blemishes; there is a plethora of suffering, injustice, immoral actions and terrible individuals, conflict and war, and plenty of misperception and intentional deception. If the addition of our universe to the world brings so much imperfection, how can the postuniverse world be as perfect as the preuniverse one with only God and abstract objects? Isn't it absurd to think that worldly perfection can be preserved by adding the imperfection mentioned above? Not only does the addition of this universe render the world imperfect, but it pushes it very far away from the perfection of a theistic, preuniverse world.

Nonetheless, a critic may contest Q6. One way of doing so is an appeal to epistemic skepticism: the world appears to be imperfect, but it really is not. Put simply, its perfection is mysterious. However, in addition to being as implausible and ridiculous as the claim "Ryan Stringer is really (and mysteriously) a devout Christian," it is self-defeating: the supposedly false appearance of imperfection is a deceptive appearance, and such deception is a blemish or imperfection. Therefore, an appeal to mystery cannot undermine Q6.

Another option for the critic would be use of an analogical argument. For example, a perfect food dish or musical piece might be composed of some imperfect parts or features that do not taste or sound good when taken in isolation, yet form a perfect whole when combined in a certain way with other parts. The world might be the same way: some of its parts or features are imperfect (or bad) when taken in isolation, but they form a perfect whole when combined with others. But this clever line of reasoning does not work, for the analogy between things like worlds and musical pieces or food dishes is quite poor. For starters, entire worlds are very different from musical pieces and food dishes—worlds not only contain musical pieces and food dishes as components, but also have several other components that are very different from these things.[16] Moreover, while it is not entirely clear how worldly components form a world, it is certainly clear that they are not combined to form a world like musical parts or ingredients that are literally combined to form musical pieces or food dishes. However, it is the particular combination of the musical parts or ingredients that is crucial for the perfection of the whole. Thus the thought that worlds might be relevantly similar to musical pieces and food dishes is initially quite tenuous.

Furthermore, it is unclear just how a world with the imperfect features that I mentioned above could be perfect. But without a plausible explanation here, the analogy is merely a slightly more detailed appeal to mystery: our world with some imperfect parts might be perfect, just like perfect musical pieces or food dishes with some imperfect parts, but just how this works for worlds is mysterious. On the other hand, we can offer an explanation for how perfect musical pieces and food dishes can have imperfect parts[17]: when we hear the musical parts combined in a certain way, or eat the ingredients prepared in a certain way, they take on a unique sound or taste that is distinct from the sound or taste of the musical parts or ingredients individually. In the case of musical pieces, the distinct sound has to do with how the individual musical parts are played in relation to each other and when they are played, which results in sound waves that are different from those produced by the parts played in isolation. In the case of food dishes, the distinct taste has to do with the interplay of mixing certain ingredients with others at certain times or in certain ways, and chemically altering the ingredients with things like heating and stirring, which results in food that is different than the ingredients taken in isolation. The difference between the individual parts and the distinct whole in each case will then lead to different experiences of sound or taste, which in turn can admit of different (or opposing) evaluations.

Finally, there is a crucial disanalogy between the perfection of worlds and that of complex musical pieces or food dishes. On the one hand, musical pieces and food dishes are not mere collections of individual components, but are distinct wholes that result from the specific combining of these components. As such, their perfection is based on their unique sound or taste as a distinct whole—the sound or taste of their components taken individually does not factor into this evaluation. On the other hand, the perfection of worlds is not determined in this independent fashion, but is instead a direct function of its components taken individually, such that any negative component entails worldly imperfection, and perfection entails the absence of negative components.[18] As such, worlds are similar to the individual days we live through, or entire lifetimes, which are also rendered imperfect in virtue of negative components. Therefore, because the actual world quite obviously contains negative components like those mentioned above, and because these contribute to worldly imperfection, Q6 is true.

V. Conclusion

I have argued that Descartes' argument from perfection for the existence of God fails because its conclusion (a) does not seem to follow from the premises and (b) rests on a premise that is probably false. Thus theism is not supported by God's essence as a perfect being. On the other hand, I have defended arguments showing atheism to be supported, both inductively and deductively, from God's essence as a perfect being. Therefore, I conclude that God's essence as a perfect being points towards his nonexistence.[19]

Notes

[1] There are other arguments that could be called "arguments from perfection" that I do not address here. For example, it could be argued that perfection is incompatible with other divine attributes, like being the creator of the universe, and so any God with the traditional attributes cannot exist. But these a priori arguments are usually called incompatible-properties arguments instead of arguments from perfection, for they are not based on God's perfection alone.

[2] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, 3rd edition trans. Donald Cress (Indianapolis, IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 43-45. This argument is usually called an ontological argument because it seems to simplify St. Anselm's classic ontological argument. The classic version attempts to deduce God's existence from the fact that he is the greatest thing conceivable. In fact, this description of God as "the greatest thing conceivable" appears to be identical to the description of God as "the perfect being," so Anselm can be thought of as the first thinker to attempt to deduce God's existence from his essence as a perfect being. However, because Descartes' argument explicitly refers to perfection, I will focus only on that argument, and refer to it as an argument from perfection for the purpose of this paper.

[3] Descartes writes: "I surely need to assent to the existence of God once I have asserted that God has all perfections and that existence is one of these perfections" (op. cit., pp. 44-45). Shortly thereafter he summarizes his argument by saying "whenever I am of a mind to think of a being that is first and supreme, and bring forth the idea of God as it were from the storehouse of my mind, I must of necessity ascribe all perfections to him.... This necessity plainly suffices so that afterwards, when I realize that existence is a perfection, I rightly conclude that a first and supreme being exists" (p. 45).

[4] That the correct interpretation of P1 is the conceptual one is clear from what Descartes says in his text. He begins his reasoning on having an idea of God as a perfect being or thinking of God as such (op. cit., p. 43). However, it is not simply his having this idea of God, or merely thinking of God as such, that leads Descartes to his conclusion. Instead, it is the idea itself of God as a perfect being that leads Descartes there. Finally, this is not Descartes' idiosyncratic idea; it is the idea of God as a perfect being (by standard definition), i.e., the very concept of God.

[5] Real unicorns that have had their horns removed present a complication, for even without their horns they still should count as real unicorns. To account for this we could modify RU to say something like "A real unicorn is an existing being with the body of a horse that is naturally disposed to produce a single horn coming out of the forehead." Whether or not this modification (or even RU itself) is complication-free does not matter for my purposes. The important point is that a real unicorn is conceptualized as a certain kind of existing being.

[6] Even stronger examples than that of a real unicorn (or any other familiar mythical creature) can be constructed to show that the conceptualization of a thing as a certain kind of existing being does not necessarily entail its instantiation. For example, let's say that a "shmanly shman" is a clean-shaven man with a beard. Because being clean-shaven entails not having a beard, and it is logically impossible for someone to simultaneously have a beard and not have one, the concept of a shmanly shman is logically incoherent. Thus it is logically impossible for a shmanly shman to be instantiated. And since the concept of a shmanly shman is logically incoherent, the concept of a real shmanly shman—an existing clean-shaven man with a beard—is also incoherent. Consequently, it is logically impossible for there to be a real shmanly shman despite the fact that a real shmanly shman is conceptualized as a certain kind of existing being. In other words, its conceptualization as something that exists by definition cannot possibly entail the existence of a real shmanly shman.

[7] Descartes does not consider this possibility. Instead, he focuses solely on the alleged fact that existence is inseparable from God—i.e., that existence belongs to the concept of God—because he erroneously thinks that this establishes God's existence.

[8] The coherence of the concept of God is questionable, as there are several arguments purporting to show that it is incoherent in some way. So it may be the case that the concept of God is like that of a real shmanly shman, which would mean that the nonexistence of God follows from the concept of God. If so, then whether there is an instantiation of the concept of God would not be a completely independent issue.

[9] It may be more accurate to say that God is a nonexistent idealization of certain properties of persons since he is, unlike us, unembodied and perhaps outside of space and time. However, I am willing to grant for the sake of argument that embodiment and spatiotemporality are not necessary for personhood since God is normally conceived to be a personal being that, among other things, created us in his image. So I will consider God to be a nonexistent idealization of a person. (If it turns out that my lenience here is too generous because an unembodied or nonspatiotemporal person is an incoherent concept, then so much the better for atheism.)

[10] Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004), pp. 243-244.

[11] On the face of it talk about the perfection or imperfection of abstract entities does not make much sense, for talk about numerical or propositional ideals, and how numbers or propositions could fall short of such ideals, does not itself make much sense. However, a critic might insist that abstract objects fall short of perfection because it makes no sense to talk about their perfection or imperfection (at least in the normal, nonmathematical sense). I will grant the critic's conclusion for the purpose of this paper.

[11] In support of this idea, we could argue that perfection is probably multiply realizable. For example, immediate families and moral goodness are multiply realizable in the sense that they can be realized by different bases. While many immediate families consist of the traditional setup of parents and children, mine consists of my spouse and my cats, and others might consist of a group of friends that share no blood relation and have no romantic involvement with each other. Moral goodness can also be realized by a just distribution of resources, an act of compassion in response to suffering, taking the interests of others into account during deliberation, and so on. Likewise, a perfect friend could be realized in different individuals, or a perfect day could be realized by two days with different contents. Thus it is quite plausible that a perfect world can be realized by different worlds.

[13] This seems to be further confirmed by the compassionate person, who does not actively desire to respond compassionately to suffering, but does so only when it is called for, and who would certainly prefer not to have to respond compassionately in the first place.

[14] This statement may seem problematic because it conflicts with the idea that our loved ones are looking down on us from Heaven with hopes that things go well for us here on earth and that we end up in Heaven with them. But this would surely be a source of great stress or worry for deceased loved ones, and such stress or worry must be absent in Heaven, where people are supposed to experience great and everlasting bliss. The traditional conception of Heaven requires that our loved ones cannot look down on us and experience great stress or worry like we do here on earth. Perhaps our loved ones in Heaven have perfect faith in the goodness and justice of God so that they need not worry, and thus have no hopes, about our earthly or eternal well-being. Things will turn out for the best in both regards, so there is no need to worry about anything and thus no room for hope.

[15] The same will not apply to many other things. Consider the example of a perfect friend from my discussion of Descartes' theistic argument. Surely someone who fits the description of a perfect friend need not be such that they always will. Instead, someone can count as a perfect friend even if they will one day get brain damage from a car crash and no longer count as a perfect friend. However, the same is not true of other things, including worlds. A world that is currently perfect and will necessarily remain so is better than one that is currently perfect but has some feature that will or could make it worse one day. The potential to lose value is itself a source of disvalue.

[16] I intend "worldly components" to be interpreted loosely to include anything that belongs to or is an aspect of a world—e.g., physical objects, events, actions, experiences, institutions, justice, evil, natural and logical laws, numbers, and so on. This strikes me as the most natural way to talk about parts, components, or features of worlds.

[17] While more detailed explanation is certainly available here, I will keep my discussion general due to my own epistemological shortcomings.

[18] I want to make two points here. First, the absence of negative components is a necessary condition for worldly perfection, leaving it an open question whether it is a sufficient one. Suppose that it is not—that the absence of negative components does not guarantee or entail worldly perfection. If so, then worlds without negative components can be imperfect, which opens up the possibility of worlds with negative components being (a) better than those without them and (b) the best worlds overall. However, this does not refute the thesis that the absence of negative components is a necessary condition for worldly perfection, for it is not the case that these best worlds are ideal or perfect ones. Though perfection does imply being the best, being the best does not imply perfection. For being the best is compatible with being imperfect yet better than the rest of the imperfect options—and this is exactly how we should characterize best worlds with negative components.

Second, I am not sure what to think about the relation between worldly perfection and the actual presence of positive components. On the one hand, it seems obvious that worlds with things like pleasure are better than those without such things, suggesting that the presence of positive components (or certain ones) is necessary for worldly perfection. (In other words, it seems obvious that perfection entails the presence of such things.) However, when we say that a pleasureful world is better than a pleasureless one, we are probably thinking of a world with creatures that experience pleasure compared to a world with creatures that do not. But how are we to compare a pleasureful world with a pleasureless one which lacks pleasure because it has no sentient creatures in it? In a creatureless world pleasure is not something that anyone needs or could benefit from because there isn't anybody who could need it or benefit from it. Thus its absence does not result in negativity or missing out on the sorts of positivity that might be beneficial to creatures lacking pleasure. It is not obvious (at least to me) how adding pleasure to such a world would improve it, which implies that it is not obvious how the world with creatures and pleasure is better than the one without them. This kind of worry can be applied to the presence of other positive components, calling into question our initial idea that the presence of such positive components are always improvements and thus are necessary for worldly perfection. Fortunately, this uncertainty need not be resolved for my present purposes; either option is compatible with the relation between worldly perfection and negative components. And that is the only relation that is relevant to explaining the crucial difference between the perfection of worlds and that of musical pieces or food dishes.

[19] I would like to thank Zach Abramovitz and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier versions this paper.


Copyright ©2011 Ryan Stringer. The electronic version is copyright ©2011 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Ryan Stringer. All rights reserved.

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