God, concepts of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

4. Limits of perfect-being theology

Duns Scotus’ gloss on Boethius’ axiom calls God the greatest being conceivable without contradiction (On the First Principle, 4.65) (see Duns Scotus, J. §§7–11). So perhaps Duns Scotus saw a question Leibniz (§3) was to raise explicitly: what if some values of F are incompatible? What if nothing can have all values of F? Perfect-being theology replies: if so, God has a set of compatible attributes S which does not include all values of F, such that nothing can be greater than a thing with all members of S. This raises another question. Suppose that there is such a set. There may also be a second set T such that nothing can be greater than a thing with all members of T, but either an S-God would be just as great as a T-God or an S-God would be neither greater than, less great than nor as great as a T-God. What then? Perfect-being theology can say that God has any attributes common to S and T and can try to decide between S and T on further grounds, but may have to settle for saying that God has either S or T. There is no guarantee that perfect-being theology alone can fill out the concept of God.

The metaphysics one brings to perfect-being theology affects one’s conclusions. The Stoics agreed with Christians that being an agent is a perfection. But the Stoics thought that only material things can act. They inferred that God must be material and so must be the most perfect material thing, the cosmos. Being perfect is being maximally good, and so thinkers’ intuitions about what is perfect can differ and be as hard to reconcile as their intuitions about what is good. But perfect-being theology yields divergent results when those who do it do not share intuitions about what it is to be perfect. Anselm, a Christian, thought that a perfect being must be all-knowing (Proslogion, ch. 6). But Alcinous, a second-century Platonist, held that all God’s ideas are ‘eternal and perfect’ and therefore denied that God has ideas – or therefore knowledge – of disease, artefacts, dirt or individuals as such (The Handbook of Platonism, 9.2, 7; 11.27–31). Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd too seem to have thought that a perfect being has some but not all knowledge – that there is knowledge that is not good, so that God is more perfect without it (see Ibn Rushd §2). It is not clear that perfect-being theology can adjudicate such differences. So while it may help one work out one’s own concept of God, perfect-being theology may have less promise as an avenue of theological agreement. This might in turn cast doubt on perfect-being theology’s ability to give theological beliefs warrant.

Some theists reject perfect-being theology. Plotinus held with Plato that goodness is ‘superior to being’ (Republic VI, 509b). He thus refused to use perfect-being theology to explicate his view of the truly ultimate God, the One or Good; Plotinus’ ‘perfect being’ is his second, subordinate god, Nous, the divine mind. For Plotinus, then, being truly ultimate is incompatible with being the subject of perfect-being theology. Theists who hold that God is utterly ineffable or entirely beyond our conceptual grasp doubt that perfect-being theology’s development of human concepts of perfection can really explicate God’s nature. As one’s concept of perfection reflects one’s concept of goodness, theists in the tradition of Augustine and Calvin (§§2–3), who emphasize the corrupting effects of sin on the human power to judge what is good, find perfect-being theology radically unreliable. Freudian views of religious belief can also question perfect-being theology, for it can look like explicit, conscious wish-fulfilment: is it not a way of ascribing to God a ‘wish list’ of perfections? Finally, those who criticize the ontological argument for God’s existence may also criticize perfect-being theology. For perfect-being theology underwrote the ontological argument in Anselm and Descartes (§6), and its connection with that argument is not accidental. Perfect-being theology claims in effect that in God’s case, ‘ought’ implies ‘is’, and one thing God ought to be is existent.

Citing this article:
Leftow, Brian. Limits of perfect-being theology. God, concepts of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K030-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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