191. A Divine Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence

In earlier posts I briefly presented both St. Augustine’s (see here) and Leibniz’s (see here) arguments for God from eternal truth. Since I find this underrepresented approach to demonstrating God’s existence both fascinating and promising, I decided to present my own Augustine-Leibniz inspired divine conceptualist argument for consideration. This is a “conceptualist” argument since its strength revolves around seeing propositions as thoughts. It is “divine” since it seeks to establish propositions as divine thoughts. By no means am I claiming originality in this general approach: I have been influenced by Greg Welty, James Anderson, Edward Feser, Alexander Pruss, Quentin Smith, William Lane Craig, Brian Leftow, and others. But I think my particular formulation of the argument has some virtues. After presenting the argument, I offer some brief comments on the more perplexing and/or controversial premises for clarification. I close with an overview of some benefits that might accompany a successful defense of the argument. The following is, despite its excessive length (feel free to just read the argument!), only a sketch and is very much a work in progress. So I welcome any comments or criticisms.

A Divine Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence from Necessary Truth 

Premise 1: There are necessary truths (for example, 2+2=4, cats are mammals, triangles have three sides) which are omnitemporally true (true at all times) in all possible worlds.

Premise 2: Truth is a property of propositions which are inherently intentional, that is, they are about whether some state of affairs obtains or not.

Premise 3: Inherently intentional propositions are best understood as thoughts.

Premise 4: Thoughts require a mind.

Premise 5: So necessary truths exist as thoughts of a mind or minds.

Premise 6: A necessary being is not dependent on anything else for its existence and can’t fail to exist.

Premise 7: A contingent being is dependent on something else for its existence and could have failed to exist.

Premise 8: Necessarily true propositions are thoughts of a contingent being(s) and/or a necessary being(s).

Premise 9: There were circumstances, such as the state of our universe before life developed, in which contingent beings with minds capable of forming propositions did not exist.

Premise 10: So necessarily true propositions, which are omnitemporally true in all possible worlds including our own, cannot be thoughts of contingent beings.

Premise 11: So there must be either a necessary being or necessary beings whose thoughts account for necessarily true propositions.

Premise 12: A necessarily existing mind, being independent, would be purely actual (without potentials).

Premise 13: There cannot be more than one purely actual being. 

Premise 14: So there is one necessary, fully actual being whose thoughts account for necessary truths. 

Premise 15: A being with no potentials would, besides being the ground for necessary truths, be at least omniscient, omnipotent, and all good.

Premise 16: A necessarily existing being with thoughts that is omniscient, omnipotent, and all good is best referred to as God.

Conclusion: Therefore God exists.

Comments on Premise 1

Those of us who believe in truth typically maintain certain truths are contingent which means they are, to use possible world semantics, true in some worlds and false in others. For example, the sentence ‘Dwight Goodyear was born in 1970’ expresses a true proposition about me that is only contingently true since we can easily imagine possible worlds where I was never born. But aren’t there also necessary truths that are true in all possible worlds like ‘2+2=4’ and ‘triangles have three sides’? And aren’t these truths omnitemporally true or true at all times? (see here for my post on the omnitemporality of truth). It seems intuitively obvious to many, including myself, that there are. And necessary truths are integral to modal logic or that branch of logic that studies the deductive properties of expressions that refer to, among other things, necessity and possibility. Nonetheless, some argue there are no necessary truths and therefore the premise remains controversial. I offer some reasons in defense of necessary truths here.

Comments on Premises 2-4

Our natural language uses the word ‘true’ as a description of something: true statements, true sentences, true beliefs, true intentions, and so on. So it seems plausible that if there are necessary truths then there exist entities that have the property of being true. If we choose to move forward and seek out truth-bearers, then we quickly discover one popular answer in the philosophical community: propositions.

One plausible view of propositions starts by recognizing that they are intentional or about something. And this “aboutness” makes them the proper bearers of true and falsity insofar as truth claims are obviously about things. For example, the sentence ‘Augustine believed in eternal truths’ expresses in English a proposition which is about Augustine and can therefore be true or false. This inclusion of intentionality, following Franz Brentano who argued that all intentional phenomena are mental, would plausibly imply that propositions are thoughts of a mind. Paul M. Gould and Richard M. Davis elaborate:

“And just as there cannot be thoughts without a thinker, ideas (which are nothing but materials for thinking) cannot exist apart from the minds that have them. But then what better explanation could there be for the orderly arrangement of ideas than the mental activity of thinkers? The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that the things properly said to be true or false (propositions) actually result from mental activity –from the joining or separating of ideas….Thus it follows straight away that propositions are mental effects. For propositions have parts, those parts and best construed as ideas, and their being properly related (that is “fitted into” truth claims) requires a mental arranger.” (See Beyond the Control of God, ed. Gould, p. 58)

This view of propositions is called conceptualism which Quentin Smith defines as follows: “Conceptualism with respect to propositions is the theory that it is necessarily the case that propositions are effects of mental causes.” (Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 38). Conceptualism is to be distinguished from other views that maintain propositions are sentences, abstract entities, or beliefs. Specific sentences, unlike the propositions expressed by them, are not intentional insofar as they are arrangements of non-intentional material like ink, lead, pixels, etc. As such, they cannot be true or false. They are simply the physical means by which we express intrinsically intentional thoughts. Abstract entities (e.g., numbers and sentence types) are usually understood to be non-mental. As a result they are also not about anything and thus cannot be true or false. Beliefs are surely mental in nature and thus may look like promising candidates for being truth-bearers. But beliefs are attitudes towards propositions rather than being the bearers of truth and falsity themselves (if I believe 2+2=4 I have an affirmative attitude towards the proposition 2+2=4).

Comments on Premises 6 and 7

Premises 6 and 7 offer definitions: a necessary being is not dependent on anything else for its existence; a contingent being is a dependent on something else for its existence. Here we are not talking about a logically necessary being but a factually necessary one. Richard Taylor, in his book Metaphysics (Prentice Hall, 1992), offers a helpful elaboration:

“A being that depends for its existence upon nothing but itself and is in this sense self-caused, can equally be described as a necessary being; that is to say, a being that is not contingent, and hence not perishable. For in the case of anything that exists by its own nature and is dependent upon nothing else, it is impossible that it should not exist, which is equivalent to saying that it is necessary. Many persons have professed to find the gravest difficulties in this concept, too, but that is partly because it has been confused with other notions. If it makes sense to speak of anything as an impossible being, or something that by its very nature does not exist, then it is hard to see why the idea of a necessary being, or something that in its very nature exists, should not be just as comprehensible. And, of course, we have not the slightest difficulty in speaking of something, such as a square circle or a formless body, as an impossible being. And if it makes sense to speak of something as being perishable, contingent, and dependent upon something other than itself for its existence, as it surely does, then there seems to be no difficulty in thinking of something as imperishable and dependent upon something other than itself for its existence.” (107-108)

Comments on Premise 12

Premise 12 states that a necessarily existing mind would be purely actual. This is plausible since if it was partially potential then it would lose its necessary or independent existence in at least three ways: (1) its existence would be dependent upon the existence of its potential/actual parts thus making it contingent; (2) it would be composite and this composite would require a cause upon which it would be dependent making its existence contingent; and (3) it would be dependent upon external factors for the actualization of its potentials making it contingent upon them.

Comments on Premise 13

Premise 13 states there cannot be more than one purely actual being. Why is this the case? Here are four reasons: (1) To distinguish one purely actual being from another would require that they be different. But how can one purely actual being be different from another? Each of the so-called different beings, since they lack nothing and have no unrealized potentials, would have the same properties and thus be the same being in accordance with Leibniz’s Law (if, for every property F, if object x has F if and only if object y has F, then x is identical to y). (2) To distinguish between two fully actual beings requires that one being has something that another doesn’t have and this requires that they have parts. But then such beings wouldn’t be fully actual because they wouldn’t exist necessarily: their existence would be contingent on the existence of their parts. (3) If there were more than one purely actual being then the same class of necessarily true propositions would exist in each of those minds. After all each of these beings, not lacking anything, would know all the truth there is to know. But this multitude of classes would undermine the objectivity of truth which requires that for every proposition humans think there is only one such proposition (e.g., the Pythagorean Theorem). And (4) we should also note that it is simpler to posit one purely actual mind rather than many thus satisfying the principle of parsimony (entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity).

Comments on Premise 14

Premise 14 asserts there is one necessary, fully actual being whose thoughts account for necessary truths. If this is the case then the necessarily true propositions expressed by humans are really God’s thoughts or, to be more accurate, God’s thinkings.  In his book Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds (Continuum, 2011) Alexander Pruss elaborates: “the same token thinking cannot be engaged in by a different being from the one who is engaging in it – you can think the same kind of thought I am thinking, but my act of thinking is essentially mine. If propositions are thinkings, then any necessarily existent proposition will have to, thus, be a thinking by a necessary being, and if God is the only necessary being, then it will have to be one of God’s thinkings. On orthodox views of propositions, all propositions are necessarily existent, and it is in any case plausible that at least the necessarily true propositions should exist necessarily. Thus, if the propositions are thinkings, they can only be God’s thinkings….” (209). Our thoughts are not identical to God’s particular thinkings or thought tokens; rather, when we think, express, or have attitudes towards God’s thinkings we access those thinkings and our contingent modes of access become our particular thought tokens. Greg Welty puts it nicely: “Our mental tokens think God’s thoughts after Him, because they are attitudes to His thoughts (whether we are aware of this or not). The contents of our mental tokens are the (adverbially characterized) contents of divine mental tokens” (Beyond the Control of God, p. 187).

Comments on Premise 15

A necessarily existing, independent being with no potentials would lack no power and so would be capable of doing everything logically possible for it to do; would lack no knowledge of things it can possibly know including contingent as well as necessarily true propositions; and, if being bad or evil is a privation or deficiency of goodness, then this being, having no potentials, deficiencies, or privations, would be all good (for my three post series about the privation theory of evil go here; the second post in the series deals with objections to the theory and the third offers reasons to embrace the theory).

Of course the nature of badness and evil, not to mention omnipotence and omniscience, is a complicated subject and thus this premise is bound to be controversial and will require an extensive defense. In any case, the definition of God as stated in the premise, while minimal in its formulation, seems acceptable. To be sure, other divine attributes can be deduced from those offered here such as eternity and simplicity. But for my purposes this formation seems sufficient.

A Rationally Acceptable Argument for Some

My divine conceptualist argument is obviously not a rationally compelling proof whose premises will be accepted by all rational persons upon consideration. The premises, while they introduce sensible ideas, definitions, and principles, are nonetheless quite controversial at times. And many other objections can be raised about the nature of God’s mind, how his thoughts differ from ours, and how we relate to his ideas. But despite the many challenges this argument faces, I think it has the potential to be rationally acceptable given a more thorough defense of the premises. Quentin Smith defines rational acceptability as follows:

“An argument A for a thesis T is rationally acceptable (an no more) to x if and only if (1) A is not a rationally compelling F proof of T and there is no is no rationally compelling proof of not-T, (2) A appears sound to x even after x has considered possible objections to A and considered A’s relations to other relevant arguments which he accepts or rejects, and (3) x is rational with respect to A” (Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 47). 

Benefits

Here is a brief overview of some of the benefits that may come to those who find the argument rationally acceptable (this overview roughly follows Greg Welty’s essay “Theistic Conceptual Realism” in Beyond the Control of God, ed. Gould).

(1) We can make sense of the intuition that there are necessarily and contingently true propositions that are unchanging. In his dialogue On Free Choice of the Will (Macmillan, 1964) St. Augustine wrote: “If truth were equal to our minds, it would be subject to change. Our minds sometimes see more and sometimes less, and because of this we acknowledge that they are mutable. Truth, remaining in itself, does not gain anything when we see it, or lose anything when we do not see it” (p. 67). If true propositions were to reside in our changing minds then truth would change which is absurd: our estimations of the truth change, not the truth itself. But, as Augustine pointed out, if truth resides in God’s mind then it can be as eternal as God.

(2) We can account for how truth is something that exists independently of us which we discover rather than create: propositions are God’s thinkings which exist independent of human minds.

(3) We can make sense of the intuition that there are indeed an infinite number of truths. After all, God’s mind is omniscient and would know, for example, an infinite number of necessarily true mathematical propositions.

(4) We can understand how necessary truths can be relevant to us and our world: God intends that they apply since God made this world and made us in his image.

(5) We can understand how we can discover the same propositions which seems to be required if we are going to have objective truth and avoid the pitfalls of relativism. After all, God is unique and God’s thinkings are unique as well.

(6) We can understand how there is an interrelated system of propositions since all truth is interrelated in God’s unique mind. As Leibniz put it in On the Ultimate Origination of Things: [I]t [the ultimate source for the reality of eternal truths] can be sought in but one source, because of the interconnection among all these things [necessary truths]” (Hackett, 45).

(7) Lastly, we can avoid having to posit, as a contemporary Platonist must, an infinite number of abstract entities to account for the infinite plenitude of truths independent of human minds. This is a boon for at least three reasons. First, abstract entities, as we have seen, don’t have intentionality and thus cannot be true or false insofar as they are not about anything at all. Second, how can we be causally connected to necessary truths if they are abstract entities with no causal efficacy? As Paul Benacerraf nicely put it: “To Platonism, necessary truths’ ontology is independent of thought and language and causally inert. As inert, it cannot affect us; as independent of thought and language, our access to these is not access to it. So we have no good account of how we could know necessary truths if they have Platonic ontologies: we can have an acceptable modal epistemology only by sacrificing Platonism” (see the second edition of Philosophy of Mathematics, edited by Benacerraf and Putnam, pp. 403-420). And third, by positing one God with an infinite number of ideas we can reduce the number of ontological kinds to which we are committed. For example, instead of having minds, bodies, and abstract objects in our world view we can just have minds and bodies. So even if, somehow, one could make sense of abstract entities as causal agents with intentionality, we could still argue that divine conceptualism is preferable since simplicity is widely embraced as a desirable property of any explanation.


  1. Hello Mr. Goodyear, have you heard of William Lane Craig’s objections to divine conceptualism? He goes over them in his lecture “Cadbury Lectures 2015. 3: ‘Anti-Platonic Realism’ by Professor William Lane Craig.”
    It begins at 20:23 if you are interested. The main objections are the objections that God would have first-person thoughts which would lead to the existence of private propositions and that God’s thoughts would be “about” propositions and so could not be identical to propositions. The latter is more troubling. I myself want to identify properties, propositions, and numbers as divine exemplars, but the objection that His thoughts could only be “about” those things and so could not “be” those things troubles me. Any thoughts (no pun intended).

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Jacob

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I agree that the objections you raise are difficult to deal with. I encountered them a while back when I read Craig’s God Over All and they are the objections I had in mind when I wrote that “many other objections can be raised about the nature of God’s mind, how his thoughts differ from ours, and how we relate to his ideas.” Apparently Professor Welty’s responses to Craig’s objections in chapter five of God Over All will be published in the Winter issue of Philosophia Christi due out soon. I am looking forward to that issue for sure. In the meantime, here a few thoughts, more suggestive than convincing, that might help a bit:

      (1) You write: “God would have first-person thoughts which would lead to the existence of private propositions.” This certainly seems sensible if we take human minds as our model for God’s mind and our relation to it. But perhaps we can access the content of God’s thinkings themselves due to God’s revelation, divine illumination, love, the imago dei, and so on. If God is infinite and we are made in his image then I suppose we can expect there to be some disanalogies, however mysterious, between our relationship to his mind and our relationships to other humans. Presumably we can’t experience God’s thoughts as God experiences them, i.e., from a first person perspective. But isn’t it possible that what is known subjectively by God can be known objectively from our perspective? We wouldn’t see from God’s first-person perspective; rather, we would come to know the content of certain divine thoughts. This leads to your second point.

      (2) You write: “God’s thoughts would be “about” propositions and so could not be identical to propositions.” But must this be the case as well? According to divine conceptualism, when we think true propositions we think about some of God’s thinkings. But must we then maintain that God’s thinkings must be separate from the propositions he thinks? Why can’t we say that some of God’s thinkings just ARE propositions? For God, a proposition is a thought; for us, a proposition is the content of a divine thought. Again, perhaps we should accept some disanologies and not tie our understanding of God too tightly to our modes of cognition. For example, Brain Leftow, in his book God and Necessity, writes:

      “But someone who grants that mental events represent the world does not automatically commit to there being things which are their representations of the world. In saying that God has concepts, the most I commit myself to is that there is in God some underlying reality making it apt to speak of concept-possession.” (302)

      And,

      “If so, we are free to hold that while there are contentful mental events in God, there are not items which are their contents. Rather, God causes mental events, and we can speak fictionally of them by saying that He creatively generates a range of representations. In us, what licenses talk of concept-possession is often entirely dispositional: I have the concept of a kangaroo but rarely use it. The reality behind talk of divine concept-possession may be just God’s having certain powers. But it probably involved more. Perfect-being considerations suggest that God is never unaware of anything He knows – that all His knowledge is occurrent, not dispositional. If this is so, every ‘divine concept’ is always in use in some divine mental event. I suggest then that in the final analysis, the ontology behind talk of divine concepts is in terms of divine mental events and powers. So my move is to replace abstract modal ontology with one of divine mental events and powers.” (303)

      If something like this is right then perhaps we could maintain that God’s propositions are really just God’s powers/mental events which are inseparable from their content. Our experiences of concept possession, propositional attitudes, etc. might not be the best model to use when thinking about God’s mind (on the other hand, we don’t want to lose our hold on the traditional view of propositions too much lest divine conceptualism and its emphasis on propositions get infected with too much obscurity and equivocation).

      We might also bring in Aristotle’s account of God as thought thinking thought (Metaphysics Lambda, 1075a). He first notes that “thinking and to be an object of thought are not the same.” But then he asks: “Or is not that in some cases knowledge and its object are the same?” He then goes on to answer: “Thought and the object of thought are not different in the case of things that have not matter, the divine thought and its object will be the same, i.e. the thinking will be one with the object of its thought.”

      Anyway, just a few ideas. Feel free to let me know what you think…

  2. Jacob on

    Sorry it’s taken so long to reply! I appreciate these thoughts greatly. I will also be looking forward to Welty’s responses to Dr. Craig. I have also been thinking about getting Welty’s book on “theistic conceptual realism.” When you bring up points about things in God being inseparable it reminds me of another criticism of Craig’s. He says that universals cannot be divine ideas because the ideas would be particulars which defeats the whole purpose of them being universals. But this objection begs the question against divine simplicity, which I hold to. It seems you adhere to divine simplicity too given your use of God as purely actual in your premises. Do you think divine simplicity could solve other objections to divine conceptualism other than Craig’s “ideas are particulars” objection? Very knowledgeable people on this topic like you are usually too busy to interact with a lowly commenter, so thanks for interacting!

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hello again Jacob! Thanks for the follow up. And no worries about causing me any trouble: I have more leisure now since I am teaching all my classes remotely for the rest of the Spring semester.

      I recently got Greg Welty’s paper which responds to Craig’s criticisms and it helped me a lot. Definitely check it out. Here is a link to purchase the paper:

      https://www.pdcnet.org/pc/content/pc_2019_0021_0002_0255_0266

      I not sure divine simplicity implies there can’t be a plurality of conceptual parts. For example, a Leibnizian monad is simple insofar as it is not an aggregate but nonetheless has a multiplicity of perceptions. And a spinning top, as Socrates points out at Republic 436e1, has an axis and circumference as conceptual parts rather than aggregative parts. Perhaps God is immaterial and simple but nonetheless has a set of conceptual parts which feature in propositions and worlds. But I have an open mind about it and find the whole topic very perplexing. My perplexity leads me to take Craig’s objection concerning universals seriously.

      In his new response to Craig, Welty admits that his TCR hasn’t offered a theory of properties or universals at all: only possible worlds and propositions. Presumably we would think of properties as concepts in God’s mind. But if “all concepts have to offer, metaphysically speaking, is intentionality, then can they play the role of properties?” He then offers some suggestions about how a TCR might proceed. In doing so, he writes “perhaps some combination of divine powers and ideas working in tandem, as Aquinas seems to suggest in his doctrine of exemplar causality, is the most fruitful way forward, since on a theistic doctrine of creation, it is not possible for any concrete object distinct from God to exist, except as the realization of of a divine idea by way of a divine power.” This does sound promising. But he admits that “more work needs to be done by theistic conceptualists to meet the challenge of showing how antirealism at the divine level does not preclude and may even require the need for realism at the creaturely level…”

      My work in this direction currently entails following a path revealed to me by reading Richard Mohr’s work on Plato (see his excellent book God and Forms in Plato). Mohr argues that Plato’s Forms are not what we think of as abstract objects, species, universals, and so on; rather, they are particular individuals with which the eye of the soul can, under certain conditions, become acquainted: knowing a Form is like coming to recognize a person, a “knowing who”, rather than a “knowing that” or “knowing how” (see pp. 250-253). If we agree that TCR implies that God’s ideas are particular things (thereby following Leibniz’s nominalism and maybe even Plato’s as well!) then maybe a closer reading of Plato’s notion of Form can help. Maybe the way is open to have particular divine ideas which can be accessed with the soul’s eye via a divine illumination. For example, we can all access the unique Pythagorean formula – a true individual if you will – and this immaterial, objective reference can then function as a universal for us despite being a particular thing in God.

      Interestingly, Mohr argues that our access to these individual ideas, since they are really individuals, would be best understood in terms of aesthetic experience rather than conceptual analysis: “Relations between Forms lead the mind’s eye from one From to the next in the way that the parts of a well-composed painting lead the eye around the canvass” (250). As a result one does not “automatically “get” a form that is necessarily related to a Form that one already knows. Rather, the Forms hint at or suggest or point to each other” (250). He gives the example from Plato’s Phaedrus of coming to recollect the Form of Beauty and then coming to see the Form of moderation next to it.

      Something seems right about this approach and it appears to work with Welty’s suggestion that we utilize divine ideas and power (perhaps Augustinian divine illumination which has its similarities to Plato’s Form of the Good) in tandem. In any case, I think there is really something here but I have yet to work it all through.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.