God and Infinite Choices

William Rowe, in Can God be Free? (2004), gives us three propositions

A) There necessarily exists an essentially omnipotent, essentially omniscient, essentially perfectly good being who has created a world.

B) If an omniscient being creates a world when there is a better world that it could have created, then it is possible that there exists a being morally better than it.

C) For any creatable world there is a better creatable world. (pg. 120)

If B and C are true, then A is false. We don’t want that. C looks plausible to me so I will not dispute it. I know there are those who would have no problem of denying C and argue that there is a best possible world but God does not have to create that one. Again, this looks intuitively false to me. It seems to me that if there is a best possible world, God, if He were to create, should choose that one. But if this is true, then if He were to create, He would have no freedom to choose any other world. God is not free. Now, I do think we can avoid C by arguing that there is a best possible set of worlds and that set consists of an infinite number of worlds. So God is free to choose from that set. That seems to get rid of that problem.

But let’s suppose that C is true. Is B true? Rowe says,

For suppose a being selects a world W1 to create when there is a better world W2 it could have created instead. Surely it is logically possible that there be a being whose degree of moral goodness is such that when confronted with worlds W1 and W2, either of which it has the power to create, it will choose to create W2, the better world. And this would then be a better being than the being whose degree of goodness permitted it to select the less good world to create when it could have easily created the better world. (pg. 112)

It’s a good argument but I think we can reject Rowe’s principle. Arntzenius, Elga, and Hawthorne, “Bayesianism, Infinite Decisions, and Binding” (2003), argued that when we are dealing with a finite case, we are to pick the most dominant option. For example, if I have a choice of finitely many outfits to impress an honorable person, the rational thing to do is to choose the best outfit to wear. However, this does not work when it comes to infinite options. They argued,

Whenever one has no best option, there is no univocal answer to the question, “What should I do?” Suppose, for instance, that God offers to let you live any finite time of your choosing. Assuming that your utility is an increasing bounded function of the length of your life, there is no answer to the question: what life-span should you choose? Where there is a lowest upper bound on your utility, one could perhaps give useful vague guideline: pick a large number. By picking a large number, you can come very close to the lowest upper bound on your utility. So you should pick a very large number…In addition to the normative issue, there is something of a motivational puzzle here. What exactly would cause you to ask for one lifespan rather than another? But this puzzle is nothing new. We are already used to the idea that, pace Buridan, an ass confronted with equally attractive bales of hay will go to one of them rather than die of indecision. (16-17)

Now, suppose we take A/E/H’s example of Satan cutting an apple into infinitely many pieces labeled by natural numbers. Eve may take whatever piece she wants. If she takes a finite amount of pieces, then she does not suffer. If she takes infinitely many of the pieces, then she is expelled from the garden. Her first priority is to stay in the garden and her second is to eat as many pieces as she can. Satan reasons she should eat the first apple because if she takes the first one, it is a finite number and she will not be thrown out of the garden. Even if she takes an infinite amount, she will still enjoy eating the pieces so she should definitely take apply #1. But Satan reasons the same way for #2, #3, ad infinitum. Of course if she accepts them all, she will be thrown out of the garden. Yet, as A/H/E have argued, the rational thing for Eve to do is to take a very large finite number of pieces.

Now, suppose in W5 Eve is the most rational human person in that world and the most rational she can get. In W5, she is put in the situation with Satan. She picks 4340 pieces although she could have picked 4341. Is she at fault? It seems that she is not. Could she be more rational if she picked 4341? Again, no. Is it possible that there is a more rational person than her? No. It seems that we cannot judge her degree of rationality by simply seeing how many pieces they picked. At the very least, we cannot judge whether there is a person more rational than her by simply looking at the choice she made. The reader can see how this can be applied to Rowe’s argument. Rowe argued that the Expressive Thesis, the goodness of an agent’s actions is expressive of the agent’s goodness, is related to B (pg. 100). However, because there are an infinite number of possible worlds, this gives us the ability to see that the expressive thesis cannot be applied to God creating a world. The expressive thesis, like the dominant option theory, might be applicable to finite choices, but not necessarily to infinite choices. For example, Billy and Sally see that there are an infinite number of people drowning. There is a machine where they can press a number and an angel would save them from drowning. The machine can only accept a finite number. Billy pressed 8245 and Sally 8643. But Billy is very much like St. Francis of Assisi and Sally is a known murderer. Here we see that Sally is not morally better than Billy because she saved more people. We cannot reduce moral goodness by the action of the person. So, if God creates W456 and He could have created a better world, He is not at fault for creating W456.


37 Responses

  1. (C) For any creatable world there is a better creatable world.


    The initial problem is that, taken at face value, (C) is false. Rowe cannot assume that there are “creatable worlds” in the sequence. If there were creatable worlds, then it would be possible that God creates one. But then there would be some world w at which it is true that God creates w, contrary to the conclusion Rowe wants. This is the main problem with Rowe’s argument. You’ve got to formulate the premises in a way that does not entail that God exists or that he creates (i.e. actualizes) any world at all. That’s not so easy, though I think it can be done.

  2. A “better” world in what sense? Morally better? What does it mean for one world to be morally better than another?

  3. Is A) verbatim the way Rowe says it? If so, I suggest that it needs improving. The premise can be taken to mean that an omnipotent, omniscience, and all-good God exists, and He necessarily creates, or such a God exists, and He happened to create. Just to be picky.

    B) is so ambiguous I have no idea where to begin. For now, I’ll just start with the following: in what sense is this alternative world “better?” Better morally? Better ordered? Better suited to God’s ultimate plan for the world? (Better for me?) There are several ways in which the world could be better which would not imply the consequent of B).

    Perhaps I’m more muddled than the argument itself, but several of the statements seem too ambiguous for me to feel comfortable affirming or denying them.

  4. Oops. Disregard the second paragraph. I thought I had deleted it from my draft, but apparently not.

  5. Mike,

    I agree with you!


    Well, A should be reconstructed differently. What Rowe really wants to say is that there necessarily exists an unsurpassable being..etc. A being can be perfect but surpassable.

    The other ideas that came to my mind were

    1) Worlds may be incommensurable. W1 has a lot of justice and W2 has a lot prudence. Which is better?

    2) One can grant that B is true, that it is possible that there is a being better than that being. But how is that incompatible with A? We can reply this way: it’s true that there may be a being better than God. But that would be God. So in W1 God is unsurpassable. Now, in W2 there is a being that is better than God. But that’s God. I think K. Kraay makes that point.

    3) It could be that A is wrong. God is contingent. Not contingent in the medieval sense, but contingent in the sense that there may be a possible world where God does not exist. But that doesn’t take anything away from God. God is still unsurpassable when it comes to benevolence, power, etc. It’s just that He does not exist in all possible worlds. The problem of this, of course, is if the principle of sufficient reason is true, then this has its problems.

  6. Wow, my last sentence is horrible in that post!

  7. Apolonio,

    Sorry, I don’t wish to be a pain here, I’m merely less than a dilettante seeking answers.

    Regarding your post ARE NON-CATHOLIC BLIND? I raised the issue of grace. I asked why it wasn’t addressed in the post. Your response was: “Grace does not work apart from us so the strengthening of our dispositions, of our virtues, is grace.” Unfortunately, as phrased, my question was woefully inadequate for inquiring what it is I wanted to learn. This made your response useless to me (my fault, not yours. Sometimes I hate cause and effect). For this reason I’ll ask the question in a more detailed way: “s there a legitimate Catholic Philosophy apart from Catholic Theology (Revelation)?

  8. Gentlemen:

    A few observations.

    1. (A) does not distinguish between being essentially relatively perfect and essentially absolutely perfect. It is at least possible that some created entities are, essentially, as perfect as entities of their kind can be, without its following that they are absolutely perfect, never mind essentially so. But as Apolonio implies, whatever counts as God must be “unsurpassable;” or, in St. Anselm’s terms, God must be “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Hence whatever counts as God must be essentially absolutely perfect. The interest of Rowe’s argument is that it suggests how one might argue there is no entity such that “none greater can be conceived,” in which case there is no God. But first one must get the relevant concept of God right, and I don’t think he quite does that.

    2. Evaluating (C) could also benefit from introducing a distinction. Aquinas argued that, given this world’s constituents, its composition is the best possible, and that the divine ratio allows nothing less. But that doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been a world containing different and better constituents; all it means is that, whatever world God might have created, its composition would be optimal given its constituents. That’s because, whatever world-constituents God creates, there are always others he might have created as well or instead—in which case the world composed out of them would be optimally composed. I explain all that more fully in my 1995 paper in The Thomist, linked on this blog at the “Selected Publications” page. It follows that there can be no such thing as a best possible world. I have maintained that conclusion for many years.

    3. Given what I’ve just said above, (B) is false for essentially the reason Apolonio gives.

  9. For what it’s worth, by ‘essentially perfect’ Rowe means essentially morally perfect. He does not mean a perfect specimen of its kind or as good as it’s kind gets. To be essentially morally perfect, in God’s case, Rowe means (though there are competing views) that it is true in any world in which God exists that God, in that world, is at least as good as any being that exists in any world. ‘At least as good as’ since he cannot be better than himself in other worlds.

  10. Mike:

    For what it’s worth, by ‘essentially perfect’ Rowe means essentially morally perfect.

    Rowe has been saying as much his whole career, but that’s not how the argument is formulated. In any case, and with Brian Davies and Herbert McCabe, I would argue that the notion of moral perfection is inapplicable to God in se, and to God as Creator, as distinct from the man Jesus Christ.

    It makes sense to say that God is essentially, absolutely, and perfectly good, where ‘good’, in good Aristotelian fashion, means intrinsically desirable. Nothing could count as God that is not intrinsically and unconditionally desirable. But it makes no sense to say that God is morally perfect, whether essentially or accidentally, relatively or absolutely. As Rowe implicitly recognizes, the notion of moral perfection is such that it is always conceivable that the subject thereof could fall short of it. For moral perfection requires the development of virtue in action, and God cannot be said to develop toward any state of perfection, else he would not be absolutely perfect and thus not be God. So God’s absolute perfection or goodness is not moral perfection. Unlike any creature, he always is as good as can be, and hence is always absolutely perfect.

    I would even go so far as to say that it is jejune to suppose that God’s goodness can be measured in terms of his willingness to actualize the best possible world he can. There is no such thing as a best possible world. Moreover, we have no way to specify a better possible world independently of the actual world. We can only conceive of the possibilities there are given what is actual. From that standpoint, it would at least make sense to suppose that the actual world could be better than it is; but of course, for any way the actual world might have been, or become, it is always conceivable that it could have been, or become, a tad better. So even supposing, further and per impossible, that’s God’s goodness could be measured in terms of his how far he’s willing to go in making the world better, there is no limit to how far he could go. I conclude that any attempt to measure God’s goodness in such terms either runs into the sand or posits a best possible world, and thus is fruitless.


  11. Alex Pruss discussed related issues here: http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2007/04/infinite-sequen.html

  12. I have no idea where you got the idea that it is a conceptual truth that S is morally perfect only if possibly S is not morally perfect or that it is a conceptual truth that S is moraly perfect only if S developed virtue in action. Neither of these is even close to a conceptual truth. All sorts of assumptions are necessary to arrive at a reasoned conclusion that these are even true (let alone necessarily so).

    You say: “it is “jejune” to suppose that God’s goodness can be measure in terms of his willingness to actualize the best world he can”. I wouldn’t say that “jejune” fairly describes Rowe or his contributions in this area. But that aside he never says that God’s goodness is measured by his willingness to do anything. What he does say is that, other things being equal, a being that does the morally better action A+ is better than a being that does A. That is a very reasonable thing to say, and it is exactly what we do say in our evaluations of moral agents. Now if Schmod actualizes the morally better world A+ (a world w with no gratuitous evil, say) and God actualizes A (a world w’ just like w except with some instances of gratuitous evil), and all else is equal, then it does look like Schmod is better than God. He’s right, it does look that way. A flat denial of this is no response.

    You say: “there is no best possible world”. It’s not obvious that there is no best possible world. Saying things like, well, all we need to do is conceive of our world with a few mora happy creatures of a few more virtuous creatures or the like, is unconvincing. People used to say that, obviously, there is no top speed for physical objects. Just take object o at speed t, sure it is possible that o travels t+n for some very small n. But the fact is that there is a top speed. There is a point at which an object cannot travel n/sec. faster for any small n.

    You say: “we can only conceive of the possibilities there are given what is actual”. I have no idea what that means. I can concieve of a world in which there are only alien (non-natural) properties and everytihng is composed of alien properties. What does such a world have to do with the actual world? Nothing. It shares nothing in common.

    You say: “so even supposing that God’s goodness could be measured . . . there’s no limit to how far he could go. I conclude that any attempt to measure God’s goodness in such terms either runs into sand or posits a best possible world and thus is fruitless.”

    I’m not sure what the runs into sand conclusion is. It looks like (but I’m guessing) you’re simply restating the problem here. According to the problem, there is no best world and God’s perfection depends on his actualizing the best world. It can appear an impossible problem and it can lead one to despair that efforts to respond are fruitless. But the fact is that the problem is solvable. When Rowe’s argument is spelled out, it is clear that he begs the question. His premises are consistent only if he assumes that an Anselmian perfect being is incoherent. If you’d like some references showing this, I’m happy to pass them along.

  13. Mike:

    The key to resolving all this lies in your concluding paragraph:

    When Rowe’s argument is spelled out, it is clear that he begs the question. His premises are consistent only if he assumes that an Anselmian perfect being is incoherent.

    I agree with that, even without the references you offer me. But I would further argue that, if the concept of an “Anselmian perfect being” is coherent, then assuming (uncontroversially) that such a being is God, it makes no sense to subject God to moral evaluation.

    That’s because subjecting a given agent’s actions to moral evaluation makes sense, as a procedure, only if it is at least conceivable that the actions be rightly evaluated negatively. But if the agent is such that one has sufficient conceptual grounds to deny that his actions could be rightly evaluated negatively, then one has sufficient antecedent reason to deny that the agent is subject to moral evaluation. An Anselmian perfect being is just such an agent.


  14. Dimbulb,

    My answer is…probably not. They do have different methods though and that’s what makes them their autonomy.

  15. I think that Rowe’s argument is completely dependent on an unchristian view of morality and creation. The operative metaphor used is that goodness is a quantitative quality–essentially a number–which is a property of universes, perhaps some sort of sum over the goodnesses of all the good stuff in our universe. This may be a useful moral approximation in certain circumstances (e.g. those in which utilitarians get the right answer), but I submit that it cannot be more then a metaphor and an approximation.

    Indeed, traditional theology says that God was not obliged to create a world at all, let alone one that is maximally “good”–because actually a universe has no intrinsic quality of goodness. Jesus says that no one is good but God alone (Mark 10:18). And St. Aquinas emphasizes that God is not only the First Cause but also the Final End of all creatures, so that they are only good in relation to God (Summa Theol. I Q4, 4; Summa Contra. Gent. III, ch. 17-20–see also Summa. Theol. I Q47, 3 “whether there is only one world” for his view on an argument very similar to Rowe’s, in which Aquinas says “the infinite is opposed to the notion of end” so that it cannot be mere physical plenitude that God wants). God does not add ANY goodness to the universe by creating, he only shares it with creatures. Thus God is not morally obligated to create because of his goodness, rather it is his love and grace that makes him share his goodness–the one goodness that there is–with things that are Nothing apart from him.

    Of course, there are some (otherwise possible) worlds which God necessarily does not create, because they reflect the One Good poorly and are therefore unbefitting. But our operative metaphor for creation should be more like that of an artist who creates whatever he wants for his own pleasure, rather than a wage-slave who is obliged to make the bottom line as large as possible or he gets fired. To say that God gets his goodness from creation is idolotry; no, it is the universe that gets its goodness from God. Unfortunately many people seem to confuse this idea with the horrible “divine command” theory of morality, and in avoiding the latter, they end up with a God that is all Alpha and no Omega.

  16. Aron:

    I think you’d love that article of mine in The Thomist which is pertinent to all this. See our “Selected Publications” page.


  17. Aron,

    But certainly some worlds are better than others. For example, W1 and W2 are similar except in W1, there is a child that is tortured. W2 is better. *If* God were to create, and He created W1, then is it not possible that there is a being better than him–that is, one who could have created W2.

  18. Even if there are many possible worlds better than another, the efficient cause of any and every world is the greatest good.

    We can therefore admit both that there are many possible better worlds that could have been created, and that God is the greatest good. See St. Thomas here:


    Rowe’s error, which is universal among atheists, is that he thinks that the goodness of the Creator is founded on a judgment of the goodness of creation. He makes this error because he speaks of “good” in a qualified sense. Primarily, good means that which is perfective as an end, and so the question of whether God is good is a question of whether God perfects as an end.

  19. One last note, if both of these possible worlds existed, then they must be caused by a common principle. God is one, and the supreme good, irrespective of the unity or multitude of worlds, and irrespective if some supposed multitude has better or less members. St. Thomas’s fourth way, form the degrees of perfection in things, concludes just fine if one postulates degrees of perfection/ goodness in worlds.

  20. a thomist,

    I don’t think that’s his error. I think it’s intuitive to say that a person’s action expresses one’s character.

  21. a thomist,

    I think Thomas’ fourth way is a bad argument. I don’t see why degree of goodness has to entail a perfect good. Take the indexical “tall.” There are degrees of tallness but there is no “tallest.”

    But again, one cannot assume that there is a perfect Being. Rowe’s argument does assume a creator, though. So, we see W2 actualized. But we can also see that the being could have actualized W3 which is much better. Surely it’s possible that there is a being who could have created W3.

  22. Apolonio:

    I’m confused by how you say there is no “tallest” or no “perfect” Being but seem willing to say there is a “best” world. Please help.

    As for the argument itself, I feel queasy about the idea of a POSSIBLE best world trumping the ACTUAL world God wills to create. And this for two reasons.

    First, while not intending in any way to degrade the hallowed truth that creation is good only in relation to God (or, indeed, AS relation to Him!), I say that part of any world’s goodness pertains to particular goods in it. If God wills the, if I may be so presumptuous, good of my existence, he recognizes that that willing entails a vast array of antecedent causes (yes, including free actions) which bring my existence about. So are we to imagine God is constantly just flipping through a catalog of possible great worlds, but can never make up His mind on which one, since every possible world, by virtue of being different from the others, necessarily precludes His willing certain particular goods in that world. Is God Buridan’s ass, in Rowe’s argument? By saying all this, I admit how much sympathy I have with Dr. Liccione’s paper on mystery and creation.

    Second, I see no reason whatsoever to accept this argument unless Rowe himself accepts the ontological argument (at which point I would have to revert from Rowe-induced atheism to Anselm-induced Catholicism!), since, logically, I fail to see a pertinent difference between the arguments. Indeed, Rowe’s best-world argument is perhaps atheism, as the antithesis of theism, at its finest and most arch. For it does nothing short of replacing God as “than than which nothing greater can be conceived” (quo maius cogitari non potest) with the world as that greatest conceivability. Indeed, on Rowe’s account, only by instantiating a sufficiently “best” world does God merit the term “good.” Could there be any more radical and perverse corruption of the Catholic Faith than this? Rowe’s argument amounts to a secular transmogrification of St. Anselm’s claim that an actual entity is better than any non-actual entity just by virtue of having the good of being (while the possibila lack that good). In the same way there is no logical necessity in admitting God’s existence, if you reject the ontological argument, I see no moral necessity in accepting the best-world arg. Both arguments compel us to “just see” the necessity of their proposals and, more or less, define those proposals into existence.

    [Here I think it becomes clear that a key weakness in St. Anselm’s argument was to confuse the derivative goodness of actual existents, by virtue of their share in God’s Being, with the absolute, existent goodness of God, which can not be good by virtue of having a share in God’s Being. He was, in a sense, using a creature-creator relation to try to ground the creator-creator relation. Or maybe this is just the brilliance of the argument, now that I think about it that way!]

    In any case, even if we leave aside the religious objections this argument engenders, I think Kant can just as easily be applied, in a bizarre way, to Rowe’s “best world”, as Kant applied himself to nullifying the ontological argument. By this I mean that, if one accepts the Kantian claim that, since existence is not a predicate, there is no predicable difference, and thus no preference, between an imaginary dollar bill and a real one, then one can see, perhaps, why it may just be incoherent to talk about “better” possible worlds. If, as Kant argued, nothing about thinking can really instantiate that than which nothing greater can be conceived for us, might not the same hold for God? Can God really “think up” a best possible world, short of instantiating the world He freely deems to “be good” by virtue of its relation to Himself and its own “aesthetic integrity”?


  23. elliot,

    I don’t think there is a best possible world. I was simply commenting on Aquinas’ fourth argument which I think is a bad one.

    However, I don’t think we appreciate Rowe’s argument enough. It is a good argument and we need to interact with it properly.

    As for your argument about a best possible world trumping this actual world. Certainly it is coherent to speak of this actual world as good while at the same time speaking of a possible world better than it, say, a world where Katrina didn’t happen.

    As for God just flipping possible worlds around and choosing whatever…What I argued in my post is that God can still be God although He created a world which is less good than another (if there are an infinite number of worlds). The reason why He chose this world rather than the better or any other world is a mystery. All one has to do is to show that it is acceptable for Him to do so. Hence, the difference between theodicy and defense.

  24. Apolonio said in response to thomist,

    I think it’s intuitive to say that a person’s action expresses one’s character.

    In context, this, I think, makes the confusion the thomist was pointing out: that you can’t conflate action and product of action. It is one thing to say that one’s actions must be the best actions; it is entirely different to say that what one makes with those actions must be the best products according to some list of good features of the product. (That philosophers don’t make the distinction in this context comes, I think, from reading too much Leibniz and not enough Malebranche, since Malebranche ripped apart Leibniz on this point in the seventeenth century.)

    Think of it in terms of a very simple example. I might write an essay that’s very bad, full of every mistake in the book, and give it to my class as an example. If we were naive, we might say that that shows that I’m a bad teacher. But, in fact, we know quite well in this case that no such conclusion can be drawn unless we know fairly clearly what I’m trying to do with the essay. For instance, I might be trying to show them things not to do. Thus the essay tells nothing about my teaching ability; it’s my purposes in making the essay that are relevant, not the essay itself.

    The argument, “W2 is better. *If* God were to create, and He created W1, then is it not possible that there is a being better than him–that is, one who could have created W2,” overlooks this fact. The possibility cannot be ruled out that, despite the fact that W2 is a better world than W1 in some sense, creating W2 may still be a less good action than creating W1. The only way to determine this is to know what purposes are in view in the first place.

  25. Apolonio,

    If that’s your problem with the Fourth Way, then you don’t have a problem. The argument is not “an argument about God from comparative and superlative adjectives”. St. Thomas expressly says it concerns “the more or less good, true, noble and other such like” things, which are all, in St. Thomas’s thought, transcendental perfections convertible with act and being (noble is a kind of good). Your example about tall and tallest is true, as is Dawkins’s claim about the “stinky and stinkyest”; but neither is relevant to the Fourth Way.

    I mention this not because I want to defend the Fourth Way, but because it actually is relevant to Rowe’s argument. He takes a more and less among existent things as proof that there is no greatest existent being, but the Fourth Way provides a direct rejection of this claim.

    And the heart of my objection is that Rowe simply doesn’t understand why we Thomists call God “good”, and I have yet to meet an atheist who did.

  26. One last point: St. Thomas does not limit the Fourth Way to “transcendental perfection” because the argument is not limited to these things. It’s difficult to lay out what sort of things the argument considers (St. Thomas holds that it applies to heat as well, and he might hold that it applies to speed, although i am unsure) but in order to make his case about God, the proof need only concern “the more and less in good, true, noble and other such like”. Is “heat” another “such like” as St. Thomas thought? I would argue it is, but even if it is not, the proof is unchanged.

  27. a thomist,

    With regards to the fourth way, I think we need a reason to see why something like tallness is not like goodness. I remember Alex Pruss has some interesting reformulation of Aquinas’ fourth way, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced.

    Or what about this: just as there is an infinite number of worlds, each world getting better and better, there is an infinite number of beings that just keeps getting better and better without there being the best.


    The action and the consequence of action is a very good distinction. But suppose you see that you can either do act A and act B. They are the same act but B has better consequence. But you did A anyway. I think it’s intuitive to say you could’ve been better.

  28. Hi, Apolonio,

    I’m not sure I understand your scenario. I take it that you mean that A and B are the same kind of act, with B having the better consequence. If so, this is ambiguous. Is the consequence of B ‘better’ in terms of the purposes of the act itself, or is it better in terms of some evaluation that does not take the purposes of the act into account?

    Suppose that the kind of act is building a fortress. And we have two fortresses, A and B, as a consequence of instance A and instance B of this kind of act. Now, the fortress you get from B may have lots of features that, taken on their own, are better than those in fortress A; for instance, fortress B may be a nicer place to live. But if the reason for building a fortress is to provide for defense in the case of invasion from the enemy, A still may be better suited to that than B. On the other hand, if we are building a fortress as a faithful replica for tourists, B might well be a much better fortress for that purpose, despite the fact that it is more poorly suited for the task of defending against invasion. And so on. We need to know the purposes of the act.

  29. brandon,

    If A and B are the same kind of act, I would think that the intention or “purpose” is the same; an action is the embodiment of an intention. So with regards with your example, I would consider those as two different kinds of acts.

    But suppose you build a fortress with the intention of defense. You built A and B. B can defend your family better. However, you built A. Which is better, the person who built A or B (remember that they are the same intention)?

  30. Apolonio,

    I think I may simply have been unintentionally misleading in putting the two right after the other; they were meant as distinct and contrasting examples, each with the same kind of act, and each with its own A and B.

    On your scenario: we still don’t know; we can’t infer anything about the builder’s character simply from the quality of the fortress for purposes of defense; the builder’s character is not judged by the quality of the product, but by the quality of his act, so it’s a question of the moral quality of the act of building a fortress for defense, itself. Knowing that the purpose is defense, though, we can say that if the end of defense is itself under the circumstances morally good, and there are no other ends in view, and the difference in quality is not simply a matter of ability, and B fulfills the end of defense more adequately than A, then B is the wiser choice, and to that extent the person who chooses B is better, because wiser. But that’s a lot of things we have to know that we can’t tell simply from looking at the fortress itself.

  31. Apolonio,

    Which one of these things is not like the other: good, true, noble, tall. St. Thomas gives a proof that he says is based on things like the first three. One would never suspect that “tall” belongs in the same set. It is more reasonable to say that you’re the one who has to give an argument for why the Fourth Way includes things like “tall”.

    Your second argument is that if there is an infinite number of goods with no first good, then the Fourth Way is false. This argument, summarized, is that if the Fourth Way is false then it is false!

    One cannot understand the Fourth Way apart from the critical role that causality is playing in it, and especially not apart from the chapter in the metaphysics that St. Thomas refers the reader to in the Fourth Way. St. Thomas, moreover, does not attempt to rigorously defend the causal principle “the most such in any order is the cause of all in that order”, even though one has to understand this axiom before coming to the Fourth Way. He expected his readers to have learned it in the 4-7 several years they spent systematically reading Aristotle. But if St. Thomas expected his readers to have this much background knowledge, chances are that we won’t come to any conclusions in a combox. Oh well. But I’m pressed for time and can’t respond. You can have the last word if you want. Good talking to you.

  32. Brandon,

    I don’t know. I think you’re biting the bullet there.

    a thomist,

    I agree about your assertion on causality and fourth way. However, the arguments I gave were

    1) Aquinas asserted that the degree of goodness, nobility, etc., demonstrates perfect goodness, etc. I responded by saying. Well, why believe that? Why can’t those concepts be like tallness? I don’t see how I have the burden of proof on that. Unless I see a reason why goodness is not like tallness, I don’t see why I should think they are different in the sense that one requires perfection and one doesn’t.

    In fact, I did give an argument why goodness is like tallness in that it doesn’t need perfection. I gave the possibility of being 1, being 2, ad infinitum. Has Aquinas ruled this out?

    2) I do know that causality plays a role in the fourth way. I have read his works on this and many commentaries on him. I’ve read Aristotle’s view on causality. I’m convinced Aquinas is an Aristotelian and some thomists have overplayed even the neo-platonic aspects of his work. That still does not show the fact that his argument is true. It’s simply not the best argument he gave. Stick with the third way.

  33. Apolonio,

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘biting the bullet’ in this context.

    You cannot tell from a canvas anything about the moral character of the painter unless you know what the painter was trying to do in painting it. Similarly, you can’t tell God’s character from the world created unless you know something about what God intends in creating it. You will find that in any attempt to found a judgment of God’s character from the world, assumptions are dragged in about precisely this. And it is the assumptions about what God would (or wouldn’t) intend in creating a world that do the real work of the inferences.

    So, simply given W1, which has such-and-such good features, and W2, which has such-and-such features, some of which are better in themselves than those in W1, we can’t tell anything about whether the creator of W2 would be better than the creator of W1 unless we already have an idea of the intentions, purposes, ends, involved in the creating.

  34. Apolonio:

    Perhaps you can consider the 4th way as a kind of antipode of the 3rd way. The 3rd way did not, for St. Thomas, have to do with the finitude (i.e., serial limit) of actions, but with the very ground of actions as being serially linked in any coherent manner.

    As you know, the dispute between him and St. Bonaventure was over the possibility of an eternal universe, not, of course, over the cause of the universe. So it seems to be the case between you and a thomist here.

    I think the 4th way is speaking much less about a quantifiable max and more about the coherence of attributes being graded in a coherent way. Just as it would not affect the cogency of the 3rd way to posit an eternal universe (backwards, as it were), so I think it would not affect the cogency of the 4th way to posit an eternal ascension of certain attributes (forwards, as it were).

    The 3rd way argues for a Cause of causation, regardless how “old” its history is, while the 4th way seems to be arguing for a Good of all goods (or, as a thomist put, a ‘perfective end’), regardless just how “high” the scale may go. It is, if I may, a transcendental cosmological argument, while the 3rd way is a metaphysical cosmological argument.

    Does this help? Cogitamus…

  35. Sorry if what I wrote just now seems to confuse the 1st way with the 3rd. I think the temporal/eternal point still holds (without merit), since the 3rd way is basically looking at the 1st way from the inside, and vice versa. The 3rd way is arguing for the coherence of contingency IN the series of effects as being rooted not only in the First Cause (argued for in the 1st way), but also, in turn, in the necessity of that First Cause. Taken together, the 5 ways are trying to provide a mosaic argument, on natural grounds, for the God Catholics worship, hence I sometimes blur them.


  36. It occurs to me to ask: Is Rowe’s argument importantly different from the first objection St. Thomas raises in ST I.2.3? To wit:

    “It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

    And does it escape from the reply given? To wit:

    “As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): ‘Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.’ This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

    I suppose it comes down to what one means by ‘gratuitous evil’, which, in turn, depends on whether we judge God by the apparent “quality” of His work as we see it now, or whether we include the temporary evils of the world as part of God’s larger wisdom and subvert our empirical complaints to our religious trust in God as the Only Good One. Indeed, I thought the whole premise of Heaven, as a total redemption of this world (and, as an attendant matter, Hell as a total destruction of evil), is that this world actually IS the best world, in that it is designed to become perfect in its heavenly mode.

  37. elliot,

    Nicholas Rescher actually believes that this is the best possible world too.

    But suppose that this is the best world. If God were to create, did He have a choice to create this rather than one less than it?

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