I’ve been studying some works of the Neoplatonists, a group of philosophers active in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. Their most important “big idea” of significance to the history of philosophy and theology was that all things ultimately originate from a single source, called “The One”, τὸ ἐν (to hen) in Greek. A key figure in this movement was Plotinus, who lived from 204 to 271 A.D. In his book The Enneads he said:
Δεῖ μὲν γάρ τι πρὸ πάντων εἶναι – ἁπλοῦν τοῦτο
“Standing before all things, there must exist a Simplex”
(Plotinus, The Enneads, 5.4.1)
Εἴ τι ἔστι μετὰ τὸ πρῶτον, ἀνάγκη ἐξ ἐκείνου εἶναι ἢ εὐθὺς ἢ τὴν ἀναγωγὴν ἐπ᾽ ἐκεῖνο διὰ τῶν μεταξὺ ἔχειν, καὶ τάξιν εἶναι δευτέρων καὶ τρίτων, τοῦ μὲν ἐπὶ τὸ πρῶτον τοῦ δευτέρου ἀναγομένου, τοῦ δὲ τρίτου ἐπὶ τὸ δεύτερον.
“Anything existing after The First must necessarily arise from that First, whether immediately or as tracing back to it through intervenients; there must be an order of secondaries and tertiaries, in which any second is to be referred to The First, any third to the second.”
(Plotinus, The Enneads, 5.4.1)
This idea of there being a single originating source for all things had important affinities with Christian monotheism, whose early form was contemporary with Neoplatonism in the Greco-Roman world. Neoplatonists believe in “The One”, a single source underlying all things. Jews and Christians, and later Muslims, believe in one God, who is the source of all things and sustains all things. There is significant theoretical overlap. And interestingly enough, Neoplatonist philosophy provided important technical and conceptual intellectual resources that Christian theologians could draw on as Christian theology and Christian thought came to be quite highly developed. It was actually in the context of Christian philosophy that I came across an interesting argument for “The One”, the argument that I want to share in this episode.
This exact presentation of the argument is from Edward Feser , a Catholic philosopher. He calls this a Neoplatonic argument for the existence of God. Not because it’s taken verbatim from any particular Neoplatonist in history. But because it draws on important Neoplatonist ideas, particularly of “The One”, or what Feser calls “the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause”.
Before sharing the argument I’ll go over a few of the concepts involved. One of the terms in the argument is that the things of our experience are composite. That they are composite means that they are composed of parts. This is the concept that will drive the argument. The key Neoplatonist conclusion will be in the 9th term of the argument, that the existence of each of the things or our experience presupposes an absolutely simple or noncomposite cause. This is “The One”. The terms following this then get into the nature of this absolutely simple and noncomposite cause.
Another important term in the argument, the 22nd term, is that everything is one of 4 kinds of things:
1. A mind
2. A mental content
3. A material entity
4. An abstract entity
Feser gets this idea from William F. Vallicella . This premise isn’t explained in the argument below but it’s an interesting idea and something I want to study in more detail.
Another point to note is that to extend this argument for “The One” into an argument for God, in terms 36 and 37 of the argument Feser defines God as one having the following attributes:
- simple or noncomposite
- a mind or intellect
- the uncaused ultimate cause of everything other than itself
- purely actual
- fully good
In the course of the argument Feser gives reasons why “The One” must possess these attributes. These attributes are consistent with those God is understood to have in classical theism. But it is also worth noting that God as described in the Bible and in Christian doctrine has additional attributes that are not covered in this argument. For example, being the same God who made a covenant with Israel and who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, the argument makes a case for theism generally, not for Judiasm, Christianity, Islam, or any theistic religion in particular.
I don’t think there’s any contradiction between the attributes described for God in this argument and the attributes of the God of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth. But demonstrating that the two are equivalent requires additional steps that this argument does not cover.
So now the argument:
- The things of our experience are composite.
- A composite exists at any moment only insofar as its parts are combined at that moment.
- This composition of parts requires a concurrent cause.
- So, any composite has a cause of its existence at any moment at which it exists.
- So, each of the things of our experience has a cause at any moment at which it exists.
- If the cause of a composite thing’s existence at any moment is itself composite, then it will in turn require a cause of its own existence at that moment.
- The regress of causes this entails is hierarchical in nature, and such a regress must have a first member.
- Only something absolutely simple or noncomposite could be the first member of such a series.
- So, the existence of each of the things of our experience presupposes an absolutely simple or noncomposite cause.
- In order for there to be more than absolutely one simple or noncomposite cause, each would have to have some differentiating feature that the others lacked.
- But for a cause to have such a feature would be for it to have parts, in which case it would not really be simple or noncomposite.
- So, no absolutely simple or noncomposite cause can have such a differentiating feature.
- So, there cannot be more than one absolutely simple or noncomposite cause.
- If the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause were changeable, then it would have parts which it gains or loses–which, being simple or non-composite, it does not have.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause is changeless or immutable.
- If the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause had a beginning or an end, it would have parts which could either be combined or broken apart.
- So, since it has no such parts, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause is beginningless and endless.
- Whatever is immutable, beginningless, and endless is eternal.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause is eternal.
- If something is caused, then it has parts which need to be combined.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause, since it has no parts, is uncaused.
- Everything is either a mind, or a mental content, or a material entity, or an abstract entity.
- An abstract entity is causally inert.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause, since it is not causally inert, it is not an abstract entity.
- A material entity has parts and is changeable.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause, since it is without parts and changeless, is not a material entity.
- A mental content presupposes the existence of a mind, and so cannot be the ultimate cause of anything.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause, being the ultimate cause of things, cannot be a mental content.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause must be a mind.
- Since the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause is unique, everything other than it is composite.
- Every composite has the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause as its ultimate cause.
- So, the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause is the ultimate cause of everything other than itself.
- If the absolutely simple or noncomposite cause had potentialities as well as actualities, it would have parts.
- So, since it has no parts, it must have no potentialities but be purely actual.
- A purely actual cause must be perfect, omnipotent, fully good, and omniscient.
- So, there exists a cause which is simple or noncomposite, unique, immutable, eternal, immaterial, a mind or intellect, the uncaused ultimate cause of everything other than itself, purely actual, perfect, omnipotent, fully good, and omniscient.
- But for there to be such a cause is just what it is for God to exist.
- So, God exists.
There’s a lot to say about this argument, especially about objections to it. But here I just wanted to share it, as something I came across and found interesting. I will say for it though that I actually do find it quite persuasive.
1. Edward Feser. Five Proofs of the Existence of God. 2017
2. William F. Vallicella. A Paradigm Theory of Existence: Onto-Theology Vindicated. 2002. p. 255