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apologetics, arguments for God, Book Reviews, philosophy, the ontological argument

God and Necessity

Logical necessity is one of the most interesting concepts within philosophy, in my opinion. What does it mean, for example, to say something is necessary? Can anything have necessary existence? It doesn’t take long for questions like these to come into play when thinking about the God of classical theism. This is what makes the concept so interesting to me.

Not so long ago, I read and reviewed the book The Nature of Necessity by Alvin Plantinga. I honestly must say I highly underrated it on my “Relevance” Criterion. I constantly find myself opening the book and paging through it in order to clarify some concept. It was a truly monumental work which outlayed the foundations of what the concept of “necessity” means within logic. Further, it presented Plantinga’s now famous (at least in the  corner of the philosophical world I’m interested in) “Victorious Modal” Ontological Argument for the existence of God. But Plantinga only dedicated a chapter to these questions of what logical necessity means in terms of theism.

I have just finished reading God and Necessity by Dr. Stephen E. Parrish (though when he wrote it, he didn’t have the “Dr.” part!). This book finally explores quite fully what necessity has to do with the concept of God. It is to this work and the ideas therein that I now turn. Any citations are from the book unless otherwise noted.

The idea that God exists necessarily is obviously an important one. But it must be maintained that this is not held in a question-begging fashion. Rather, the idea is that if God exists, God exists necessarily (9). Why is this important? If one were to simply say that God exists necessarily, it seems that one is begging the question in theisms favor. But this is not the case. Rather, theists are defending the view that if it is the case that God exists, then God exists necessarily. It is this kind of subtle but important point that God and Necessity excels in pointing out. They aren’t the central point of the work, but they are welcome additions.

If God exists, it is argued, then God exists of de re or ontological necessity rather than de dicto necessity (21). I have written about these concepts before, but I will briefly reiterate the definitions of these terms:

De dicto necessity is: “a matter of a proposition’s being necessarily true”

While de re necessity is: “an object’s having a property essentially or necessarily” (The Nature of Necessity Plantinga, V)

Thus, if God exists, then it could not be otherwise. Parrish states “God, if he is the LNG [logically necessary God], exists in all possible worlds and is eternal, independent, omniscient and omnipotent, etc. in all of the worlds. It is because of this concept that the factually necessary God (FNG), as Parrish describes it, cannot be the Greatest Possible Being (GPB), for the FNG is only necessary in one or some possible worlds, while the LNG is necessary in all possible worlds and unchanging (26). Further, the FNG could exist in worlds in which it were not the GPB in that world, so it can clearly not be the GPB, for one could conceive of a being that existed in more (or all) possible worlds and was the GPB in all of these.

Thus, God must be conceived of as the LNG. But some, such as Hume, have objected that God cannot be logically necessary, for we can conceive of God not existing. This objection quite obviously misses the point (49).  For it is necessarily true that “2+2=4.” But we could certainly (mistakenly) hold that, say, “2+2=5.” Just ask any 3 or 4 year old some kind of logically true mathematical equation and you may get a wrong answer. Does this mean that these things are not necessarily true? Obviously not. Thus, just being able to conceive of it not being the case that a necessarily true proposition is true does not actually mean it is not necessarily true (50). “One can, and often does, conceive of necessary truths as being false” (51), but this does not make them false. This is generally a misconception I continually see in debate. When considering the laws of logic, something simply is regardless of whether or not anyone believes it to be the case. Things that are logically necessary simply are no matter what anyone thinks about them. The only way to argue against something that is being held as necessarily true is to show that there is some contradiction in holding this truth (56).

Another excellent point that Parrish makes is the concept of different kinds of existence. Often, a debate can derail because different kinds of existence are being discussed. He defines:

A-existence: something exists extra-mentally in the actual world

P-existence: something exists in any way (including mentally)

N-existence: something exists in every possible world (60)

It is a sign of a well-argued book if it can change a mind about an important issue. I have been operating under a kind of dichotomy in which I generally grant that God operates logically for the sake of argument, but don’t actually believe that, for example, the law of noncontradiction applies to God. God and Necessity changed my mind on this stance, and I now agree that God does operate logically and that logic is synthetically necessary to his being. One reason for this is Parrish’s discussion of Norman Geisler writing on this subject, “[O]ntologically, the laws of logic are dependent on God for their existence” (47). But it is across pages 72-79 that I became convinced. I don’t want to type out all of it here, but I will state the main points that convinced me. “For any object x, where x is intrinsically unknowable [i.e. it is a logical contradiction], then x is meaningless… Nothing whatsoever can be said about it (77).” I think this was possibly the turning point. For let us try to imagine some kind of thing that, on my old view (that God could do anything including make contradictions true) is possible. Let us imagine God could make a square circle. But just examining this concept, one can see that it literally means nothing at all. Other contradictions suffer the same problem. Finally, in closing his refutation of accomodationalism (that God can do contradictions and every logically possible thing), Parrish states, “This is not a limitation, for anything that God [as the GPB] could not do is nothing (79).” This tightly argued section was a simply fantastic refutation of a view that I have held throughout my philosophical explorations of theism.

The next section is quite important, the ontological argument. Two versions are given. The first is Plantinga’s victorious modal version:

1. The proposition there is a maximally great being is possible in the broadly logical sense
2. There is a possible world in which there is a maximally great being
3. Necessarily, a being with maximal greatness would be necessarily existent and would have (at least) omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection essentially
4. What is necessary does not vary from possible world to possible world
5. Therefore, a being that is necessarily existent and essentially omniscient, omnipotent and wholly good exists (Generally from “God, Freedom, and Evil” or “The Nature of Necessity”)

And the second is Parrish’s version:

1. The concept of the GPB is coherent (and thus broadly logically possible)
2. Necessarily, a being who is the GPB is necessarily existent, and would have (at least) omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection essentially.
3. If the concept of the GPB is coherent, then it exists in all possible worlds.
4. But if it exists in all possible worlds, then it exists in the actual world.
5. The GPB exists (82)

I again unfortunately don’t have the space or time to write out the wonderful defenses of this argument in the book, so I will highlight key points. Parrish starts with a refutation of the various parodies of the ontological argument. I have addressed these elsewhere and so will let this point stand.

The main point Parrish makes with the ontological argument is this: “When considering the GPB, the only way this object could fail to exist is through internal incoherence. The GPB cannot, by definition, fail to exist by chance or because his existence was prevented by some other being or beings (105).”

Another excellent point Parrish makes is about the GPB’s omni-benevolence, a point I have debated at some length. Parrish states, “[H]ow can there be some objective standard of good and evil to judge the being which, by definition, is the source of everything else (98)?” Further, “[T]here is no autonomous standard of ethics by which he might be judged (98).” There is more there, of course, but these two points were quite enlightening on this point that I myself have had some problems clarifying: why believe the GPB is all-good? Well, the GPB simply would be the standard of good and evil, so there would be no way by which to judge that the GPB is evil. Simply put, the GPB would be the standard and therefore would have no standard which could in turn judge the GPB.

Next, Parrish investigates the cosmological and teleological arguments. I’m not going to write much on this section, not because I didn’t think it was valuable, but because it is mostly a set up for Parrish’s main argument, that which he terms the “Transcendental Argument.” Parrish points out that everyone has some kind of “probability structure” from which they judge various propositions. Thus, someone who is a non-theist will believe that the probability of God’s existence is quite low, while a theist will most likely believe quite the opposite. Because of these probability structures, it is hard to fairly examine evidence from either viewpoint (generally 145 and following). I’d like to point out that Parrish’s discussion of plausibility/possibility structures is similar to Michael C. Rea’s own discussion of “Research Programs” in World Without Design (which I discussed here).

Thus, Parrish advances the “Transcendental Argument” which is, in my own terms, the argument that God’s existence is necessary prior to any kind of logical thought whatsoever. Basically, Parrish states that there are three possibilities for the existence of the universe: Brute Fact (that everything is chance), Necessary Universe (our universe exists necessarily), and Necessary Deity (183). There are worldviews that combine aspects of some or all of these, but essentially any worldview can be reduced to these beliefs. Parrish argues that the universe cannot be brute fact, because there is no way to explain for everything in our universe not continually fluctuating (i.e. if everything is chance, why are things not popping into and out of existence at random). He argues against the Necessary Universe by pointing out some contradictions in this structure, including that those who hold to objectivism commit a kind of de dicto de re fallacy, equating what should simply be de dicto necessity with de re necessity. Finally, Parrish sums it all up by pointing to the GPB as argued earlier as being the only possible explanation for our universe. This is a very bare-bones summing up of his argument, but there really is no way to sum it up in any small fashion that does it justice. As with most philosophical works, it must be judged as a whole, not by taking single parts out and critiquing them. The arguments contained in God and Necessity build off of each other throughout the book, and culminate in the conclusion that in order for their to be any kind of rational thought at all, God, as outlined in Classical Theism, must exist (279).

Now that I’ve essentially outlined the contents of the book, I will review it below:

God and Necessity by Dr. Stephen E. Parrish is one of those books that is definitely exactly what the title says it is: a defense of classical theism that applies logical necessity to the concept of God.

Dr. Parrish argues for the concept of God as the Greatest Possible Being (GPB). Because of this concept of God, one can draw a number of conclusions, including God’s omnipotence, omniscience, omni-benevolence, etc. Dr. Parrish argues conclusively against the concept of a Factually Necessary God (FNG) as opposed to a Logically Necessary God (LNG) being the GPB. The FNG exists in many worlds as the GPB, but not in all possible worlds. Only the LNG exists in all possible worlds as the GPB.

He follows this with a form of the ontological argument unique to the work. Instead of grounding his version of the ontological argument on the premise that “Possibly, the GPB exists in some possible world” as most modal versions of the argument do, Parrish starts with “The concept of the GPB is coherent (82).” In this way, he avoids the problem that some versions of the argument don’t address, which is that someone could simply deny that it is possible that the GPB exists in any possible world. Thus, Parrish’s version is strengthened, for he bases it on concept of the GPB rather than on the modality of the GPB.

In each chapter, Parrish fairly presents counter-arguments and refutes them. His argumentation is always clear and as concise as possible. I would compare his style of arguing with Plantinga’s in that they both have a very clear flow of their book from start to finish, with each point building on the last throughout the work. Further, Parrish injects a touch of humor here and there in his work.

My one criticism is that sometimes, in his efforts to refute as many counter-arguments as possible, Parrish dismisses them a little too easily. This was particularly evident in his discussion of the compatibility of omniscience with incompatibilist (I believe this is equivalent to libertarian) free will. I would love to see his style of systematic argumentation applied to this issue. Despite this, this discussion really wasn’t all that relevant to the rest of his work, which may be part of the reason he didn’t dwell on it.

After presenting the case for the ontological argument, Parrish discusses the teleological and cosmological arguments, concluding that they may hold weight depending on one’s own plausbility structure. This point is quite interesting: everyone has his or her own plausibility structure from which he or she judges everything, including other plausibility structures. Thus, an argument like the teleological argument may hold some weight in one struture, but not as much in another.

Because of this, Parrish presents what he calls the “Transcendental Argument.” This argument, in my own words, essentially states that God’s existence is necessary for any kind of logical thought. The rest of the book focuses on this argument. Essentially, Parrish argues for this by presenting three possibilities for the universe: Brute Fact (the universe is chance), Necessary Universe (the universe exists for intrinsic reasons), and Necessary Deity (the universe exists because of an external, necessary being). He refutes the first two worldviews and provides support for the Necessary Deity (the GPB). This constitutes about half the book and is extremely useful, not just for its applicability in regards to the argument Parrish is making, but in that it helps refute various alternatives to theism.

God and Necessity is a philosophical masterpiece. It has a broad scope, it is tightly argued, and it is extremely relevant. Despite very few minor flaws, Dr. Stephen E. Parrish’s book, God and Necessity is an essential part of any Christian apologist’s library.

——–

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

12 thoughts on “God and Necessity

  1. Buy the book and help Dr. Parrish get more bricks to build a castle as I believe he told my class a few years ago.

    Posted by Open2Truth | November 15, 2009, 10:51 PM
  2. Good stuff. Thanks for the post.

    Posted by Michael Graham | November 16, 2009, 8:33 PM
  3. Hi there, thank you for the excellent review. I am currently reading the 1997 printing of the book, and it is filled with typos. I wonder if you read the later printing? If so, did they correct the typos in this edition? Thanks!

    Posted by Jarvis | July 18, 2011, 2:19 PM
  4. I have heard good reviews of his book. It seems very tight. What are the main objections from atheistic critics, and if there aren’t many substantive ones, are his arguments among the best there are for the existence of God?

    Posted by Anonymous | October 21, 2014, 7:30 AM
    • There are any number of objections from critics to Plantinga’s work, and not just from atheists. Plantinga’s ontological argument, I think, is the strongest formulation of that argument. His primary argument, as made in “Warranted Christian Belief” is much more contentious. I personally think that the cosmological argument, the argument from religious experience, and the teleological argument are more convincing.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 21, 2014, 9:11 AM
      • What I meant was Parrish’s book God and Necessity and his argument. So far, I haven’t seen a serious argument against him, but then, I have only looked at internet comments! With regards to Plantinga, I take it that most objections to his ontological argument are based on misunderstanding, or the need to resort to such philosophical technicalities. Is that right?

        Posted by Anonymous | October 21, 2014, 4:58 PM
      • Oh my goodness I’m sorry. I was looking at this on my phone and got “God and Necessity” confused with “The Nature of Necessity.”

        Parrish’s version of the ontological argument is also extremely strong, but the strength of his book is in putting forth a kind of transcendental argument which asserts we cannot even have knowledge without something like the greatest possible being. This type of argument tends to generate any number of responses, but I know of no major scholarly interaction with Parrish’s argument.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 21, 2014, 6:29 PM
      • Wow, so if a God-skeptic says he/she has read everything and doesn’t see any compelling arguments, you could suggest this book then, and see what objections might arise?

        Posted by Anonymous | October 21, 2014, 9:32 PM

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