Ontological Pantheism

Descartes’s God is pantheism; a reductio ad absurdum of his ontology
2009-11-092014-07-11 finished certainty: unlikely importance: 2

In Med­i­ta­tion 3 of , Descartes demon­strates the exis­tence of God in sev­eral ways. One is a vari­ant on the for God’s exis­tence:

  1. "But per­haps the being upon whom I am depen­dent is not God, and I have been pro­duced…by some causes less per­fect than Deity. This can­not be: …it is per­fectly evi­dent that there must at least be as much real­ity in the cause as in its effect; and accord­ing­ly, since I am a think­ing thing and pos­sess in myself an idea of God, what­ever in the end be the cause of my exis­tence, it must of neces­sity be admit­ted that it is like­wise a think­ing being, and that it pos­sesses in itself the idea and all the per­fec­tions I attribute to Deity. Then it may again be inquired whether this cause owes its ori­gin and exis­tence to itself, or to some other cause. For if it be self­-ex­is­tent, it fol­lows, from what I have before laid down, that this cause is God; for, since it pos­sesses the per­fec­tion of self­-ex­is­tence, it must like­wise, with­out doubt, have the power of actu­ally pos­sess­ing every per­fec­tion of which it has the idea–in other words, all the per­fec­tions I con­ceive to belong to God. But if it owe its exis­tence to another cause than itself, we demand again, for a sim­i­lar rea­son, whether this sec­ond cause exists of itself or through some oth­er, until, from stage to stage, we at length arrive at an ulti­mate cause, which will be God.
  2. And it is quite man­i­fest that in this mat­ter there can be no infi­nite regress of caus­es…"1


We might try to refor­mu­late this as:

  1. a being can only pro­duce beings less per­fect than itself.
  2. Noth­ing­ness has no qual­ity or ‘per­fec­tion’ at all, oth­er­wise it would be some­thing.
  3. By 1 & 2, ex nihilo nihil fit. If some­thing came from Noth­ing, a being (Noth­ing) would have pro­duced some­thing more per­fect than itself since any­thing is more per­fect than Noth­ing.
  4. Any being was cre­ated by a more per­fect being, since it could not have been cre­ated by a less per­fect being.
  5. If a being was cre­ated by a more per­fect being (but not all-per­fec­t), then that cre­ator must have itself been cre­ated by a still more per­fect being.
  6. Thus, given a being, we know it is either all-per­fect, or there is a more per­fect being.
  7. So there is either an infi­nite regress of more per­fect beings, or it ter­mi­nates in what­ever has all per­fec­tion­s—­God.

The dis­junc­tion depends on there being any being at all. So any being at all implies a God; although it does not prove there is an actual hier­ar­chy between that being and God, since God could have cre­ated the lesser being directly rather than through a chain of cre­ators.

Descartes’s has already proven that there exists at least one being (one­self, what­ever one might actu­ally be). So we can infer God.

Existence as a predicate or perfection

Of course, we do need to make a few assump­tions:

  • per­fec­tion includes exis­tence
  • a more per­fect being has the super­set of its cre­ation’s per­fec­tions (it must have all the per­fec­tions of its cre­ation and then some).

We need the for­mer assump­tion to prove that the ‘chain of being’, the induc­tion upwards to God, does­n’t just arbi­trar­ily stop some­where with a being that just exists for no rea­son or arose out of Noth­ing.

And we need the lat­ter assump­tion because oth­er­wise we can point to real-­world exam­ples where cre­ations are more per­fect than their cre­ators—lowlife par­ents who raise a pil­lar of the com­mu­ni­ty, a pro­gram­mer who devel­ops a chess grand­mas­ter, and so on. If we say that one or two prop­er­ties is enough, then the chess pro­gram is more per­fect than the pro­gram­mer! This seems wrong.

The reductio: we can’t exist

Hav­ing granted both of these assump­tions, our proof of God goes through. And I think some­thing else goes through as well—a proof that either we are (a part of) God or that we do not exist.

Remem­ber we said that exis­tence is a per­fec­tion, and also that a supe­rior being has the super­set of its cre­ations’ per­fec­tions.


What is a per­fec­tion? Well, either you have a cer­tain prop­er­ty, or you don’t. It’s more per­fect to be in pos­ses­sion of much money than none; more per­fect to have good health than to lack it. So an imper­fec­tion is a lack of some­thing. (Some­what like the Augus­tin­ian con­cep­tion of evil: a lack of good­ness.)

Now, if exis­tence is a per­fec­tion, then the exis­tence of you or me poses no prob­lem. We are imper­fect because we lack all prop­er­ties of exis­tence in the uni­verse except in the lit­tle spots we call our bod­ies. We lack the many per­fec­tions of being present in such-and-­such a loca­tion. Our imper­fec­tions largely over­lap except in the 2 loca­tion-per­fec­tions we have —I am imper­fect & not present in Aus­tralia while you are imper­fect & not present in the USA.

Presence as Perfection

But what of our cre­ator? It is sup­posed to have all of our per­fec­tions; the union of your per­fec­tions and my per­fec­tions include being present in Aus­tralia & being present in the United States (since as we have said, exis­tence is a per­fec­tion and surely loca­tion is part of it).

And being a more per­fect being, it likely exists in other places as well. It will exist in my A-lo­ca­tion and your U-lo­ca­tion, but China as well. But if it does­n’t? Well, either it is all-per­fect (in which case it must be in C-lo­ca­tion) or it has a more per­fect cre­ator; the cre­ator’s cre­ator is either in C-lo­ca­tion, all-per­fect (and thus in C-lo­ca­tion), or has a more per­fect cre­ator… Obvi­ously by induc­tion, there must be a being with the per­fec­tion of being in A, B, and C-lo­ca­tion.

And this same argu­ment applies no mat­ter what actual loca­tion we sub­sti­tute in for ‘C-lo­ca­tion’. Let’s imag­ine we do that for all loca­tions in the uni­verse, wind­ing up with an entity which may be the all-per­fect ‘God’; we’ll call it ‘Dog’.

Why exclusive presence/being?

In gen­er­al, we ought to think that more per­fect beings will exclu­sively ‘be’ in loca­tions. Con­sider this exhaus­tive dis­junc­tion: either a more per­fect being can

  1. coex­ist with a lesser being in a loca­tion; or
  2. be evicted or excluded from that lesser being’s loca­tion; or
  3. evict/exclude the lesser being.

Now, #2 is obvi­ously wrong for both the pro­po­nent and oppo­nent of the onto­log­i­cal argu­ment. It is an absurd inver­sion of the power one expects a more per­fect being to wield by its very def­i­n­i­tion, and it leads to a reduc­tio of its own: that the per­fect being can­not exist (be­cause in every pos­si­ble loca­tion there is some lesser being or Noth­ing­ness, which by #2 would exclude/evict the greater being; and hav­ing nowhere it could be, the greater being would not be at all).

Pos­si­bil­ity #3 lets this reduc­tio go through, as it leads to the con­clu­sion that God (the most per­fect being) excludes all other beings. So one does not wish to accept it.

But #1 may not help either. It leads to prob­lems with the idea of per­fec­tion and prop­er­ties.

How can Dog exist where I exist? Surely it’s either some­thing exists at a loca­tion or noth­ing does, not some mashed-up mix­ture of me and Dog. How could a more per­fect being and a less per­fect being coex­ist? If I and Dog are really the same thing at this loca­tion, isn’t Dog being low­ered and con­t­a­m­i­nated by my imper­fec­tions, my lack­ings? And if he does­n’t exist where I do, then how is he the more per­fect being, the one pos­sess­ing all my properties/perfections, that we defined Dog as being? Does he have some sort of IOU from me, promis­ing him my loca­tion when I die?

In all these sug­ges­tions, it seems that this ‘simul­ta­ne­ous pos­ses­sion’ of a loca­tion involves some sort of bizarre treat­ment of being & loca­tion, or not the same loca­tion at all. We might say, if the most per­fect being has all prop­er­ties, then why does­n’t it have mine and why aren’t all prop­er­ties man­i­fested in all loca­tions? One flaw in a dia­mond means it is no longer ‘flaw­less’, though the crack­—the void—be ever so small. One vac­uum in the uni­verse would seem to be a lack of any being, every pos­si­ble prop­erty unique to that loca­tion (of being exactly 100.1 miles away from the Sears Tower and also the Chrysler build­ing, say) going unex­pressed, being nonex­is­tent. Dis­junct #1 is a real bul­let to bite, as com­pared to #3, which makes per­fect intu­itive sense.

Planar escape-hatch

But let’s say Dog exists on some other plane of being which is still con­nected in some way.

We can imag­ine a per­fec­tion or prop­erty of a being exist­ing at both where I am and Dog’s loca­tion (eg. imag­ine I am at A-lo­ca­tion but not spir­i­tu­ally at A’-lo­ca­tion, and vice versa for Dog).

Now, either Dog has this prop­erty or not. If he does, then we’re back at the prob­lem of co-ex­is­tence. If he does not, then he is not all-per­fect and so must have a cre­ator as well, and by the same rea­son­ing we showed that Dog is every­where, we know there must be some being with all the prop­er­ties Dog and I have, and also the prop­erty of being in both places; we’ll call him ‘Odg’.

Odg can’t squeeze through

How can Odg exist mate­ri­ally where I am but still be dif­fer­ent from me? If he shares the same mat­ter with me, then isn’t that imper­fect? It is less pow­er­ful to share con­trol than to have exclu­sive con­trol. A cor­po­rate pres­i­dent who owns 100% of the com­pany is more pow­er­ful and more per­fectly in con­trol than a pres­i­dent who owns 1% or 50%. How would Odg be sat­is­fied with shar­ing space with me? Need­ing to seems rather imper­fect.

So either Dog or Odg will exist at this loca­tion instead of me: they will exclu­sively inhabit the loca­tion. If they do not, then don’t they lack the prop­erty of exclu­sively inhab­it­ing the loca­tion? If they let me hang around, aren’t they allow­ing imper­fect lit­tle pock­ets of Noth­ing to rid­dle their space?

By the same log­ic, every loca­tion must be inhab­ited by a more per­fect being; if it was­n’t some­where, then that would be a defect, an absence, a noth­ing­ness.


So either we are part of that being, or we don’t exist. We clearly do exist, and we also clearly are not omnipresent gods (and we can’t argue that we might not know, for lack­ing knowl­edge would be an imper­fec­tion…).

So Descartes’s proof does­n’t work. We reject both parts of the con­clud­ing dis­junc­tion, but since our reduc­tio seems per­fectly log­i­cal, we must then reject one of the premis­es. The premise that exis­tence is a per­fec­tion is the most dubi­ous one.

Constructive counterargument

If we negate the key premise of the onto­log­i­cal argu­ment, and say that exis­tence is not a per­fec­tion or prop­er­ty, then we can account for our exis­tence. If exis­tence is not a prop­er­ty, then we can­not say Noth­ing is all imper­fec­tions. It is just as plau­si­bly all per­fec­tions, or per­haps nei­ther.

So we lose our rea­son for think­ing that only noth­ing­ness can come from noth­ing. If some­thing can come from noth­ing, then we instantly allow for the sequence of lesser beings pro­gres­sively evolv­ing and attain­ing more per­fec­tions, cul­mi­nat­ing in our­selves. It is in our power to cre­ate a more per­fect being; there’s no need for awk­ward denials that our cre­ations must be infe­rior to our­selves or that they were really cre­ated by some higher power & not us.

One might ask why a par­tic­u­lar some­thing came from Noth­ing. Why that thing and not the other pos­si­bil­i­ties? Why not every­thing? Per­haps every­thing was cre­at­ed. It is com­pat­i­ble with our obser­va­tions, by the Anthropic prin­ci­ple: if Noth­ing pro­duces every pos­si­ble thing, then there will be humans observ­ing all human-­com­pat­i­ble uni­vers­es, and ours is such a uni­verse. (Ask­ing why we observe this human-­com­pat­i­ble uni­verse rather than a sim­i­lar one would then be like ask­ing why 2 comes after 1, and not after 3.)

So this account avoids the issues of ever more per­fect beings, dis­solves the onto­log­i­cal argu­ment in one of the old­est accept­able ways (de­vised by Kan­t), and also adheres to all our obser­va­tions; unfor­tu­nately for Descartes, his proof of God must be reject­ed.

  1. Trans­lated by John Veitch (1901).↩︎