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).↩︎