Richard Swinburne’s A priori Trinity, Hegel, and the limits Perfect Being Theology

Richard Swinburne has an argument were he lays out an A priori argument for the trinity, in other words he attempts to prove the trinity outside of any revelation. The argument (taken from an article summarizing the it) goes something like this:

1. “our complex and orderly universe derived its being from a single personal source of being, possessed of all perfection.”

2. “perfection includes perfect love”, for “love is a supreme good.”

3. “Love involves sharing, giving to the other what of one’s own is good for him and receiving from the other what of his is good for one; and love involves co-operating with another to benefit third parties. This latter is crucial for worth while love.”

The argument continues but for my purpose we can stop here, but needless to say from here the argument posits that if God is to be perfectly loving he must be multi personal. It seems here that the argument has taken a page from Saint Anselm’s “greatest possible being” theology. The idea here is that we can learn about God (In Saint Anselm’s case we prove God’s existence) Simply by thinking about what a greatest possible being, or a perfect being would be like, what being such a being would entail. From that we can get attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, eternity and perhaps omnibenevolence or immutability and so on. Among those attributes, Richard Swinburne argues, is love, perfect love, and given that love must be shared we must posit a multiple person God.

In examining the argument, we can take a look at the kind of things we can learn from perfect being theology. Let’s take for example omnipotence and omniscience, the 2 most famous of the omni’s. Omnipotence is God’s power to do anything, any thing logically possible he can do, nothing outside himself can prevent him from doing something, but what does it mean to do something? Well it means to affect something, power is the ability to change things, the presumption here is that there is something to affect, something to change. In order to have omnipotence or in fact any potency at all, there needs to be something external to yourself to affect change in. The same goes with omniscience, it means to know all things that can be known, the assumption here is that there are things which exist which can be known outside of one’s self. Awareness is always awareness of something, to know anything means that there is something out there to know.

One might say in reply that you can know yourself, or have self control, which is a form of power. However knowing yourself is really just having knowledge of how you interact with other things and how other things affect you. Likewise, Self control is really just the power to control the power you have to affect change in other things, and sometimes restrain that power. Both examples necessitate the existence of an external world.

I would argue that all the attributes one can posit using a “perfect being” theological method would necessitate the existence of a creation. God is omnipotent because he has the power to do whatever he wants inside creation, or even to create or destroy, but it only makes sense to talk about God’s omnipotence within the context of creation. The same with omniscience, he knows everything, but everything is creation since he created everything, all things are created by God, thus omniscience can only be talked about in the context of creation. We can continue going down all the attributes, change only makes sense in relation to something else, so there goes immutability, omnipresence necessitates that there be something to be present in, and so on and so forth.

So now we get to perfect love. Is God perfectly loving, yes, but again, that only makes sense within the context of his creation, of course the bible says God is love, but I would go even further and say God can really only be talked about as being God within the context of his creation. At this point I’d like to steal a quote from Hegel in Part One of the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences: The Logic :

All doubts and admonitions, which might be brought against beginning the science with abstract empty being, will disappear if we only perceive what a beginning naturally implies. It is possible to define being as ‘I = I’, as ‘Absolute Indifference’ or Identity, and so on. Where it is felt necessary to begin either with what is absolutely certain, i.e. certainty of oneself, or with a definition or intuition of the absolute truth, these and other forms of the kind may be looked on as if they must be the first. But each of these forms contains a mediation, and hence cannot be the real first: for all mediation implies advance made from a first on to a second, and proceeding from something different. If I = I, or even the intellectual intuition, are really taken to mean no more than the first, they are in this mere immediacy identical with being: while conversely, pure being, if abstract no longer, but including in it mediation, is pure thought or intuition.

And further on:

The true state of the case is rather as follows. Being, as Being, is nothing fixed or ultimate: it yields to dialectic and sinks into its opposite, which, also taken immediately, is Nothing. After all, the point is that Being is the pure Thought; whatever else you may begin with (the I = I, the absolute indifference, or God himself), you begin with a figure of materialized conception, not a product of thought; and that, so far as its thought-content is concerned, such beginning is merely Being. But this mere Being, as it is mere abstraction, is therefore the absolutely negative: which, in a similarly immediate aspect, is just Nothing.

Hegel is almost impossible to follow (at least for me), but the point he makes here is a very important one. Pure being, pure consciousness, or the Absolute, is really impossible to think about without positing something else, a mediation, so ultimately what you’re left with is a mere abstraction, really nothing at all.

Given that I would argue that it’s pointless to talk about about God in himself, i.e. God as God completely alienated from his creation. Hegel also explains:

Because Essence is Being-in-self, it is essential only to the extent that it has in itself its negative, i.e. reference to another, or mediation. Consequently, it has the unessential as its own proper seeming (reflection) in itself. But in seeming or mediation there is distinction involved: and since what is distinguished (as distinguished from identity out of which it arises, and in which it is not, or lies as seeming) receives itself the form of identity, the semblance is still not in the mode of Being, or of self-related immediacy.

So when we talk about what is essential to God, or what God’s attributes are, they would only make sense in distinguishing God from something else, i.e. God’s creation. So Swinburne’s argument about God being perfect love and thus necessitating a plurality of Being never gets off the ground, because it assumes we can even talk about God completely apart from his creation, which we cannot.

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Richard Swinburne’s A priori Trinity, Hegel, and the limits Perfect Being Theology

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