The Argument from Degrees of Perfection

This is the fourth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

We notice around us things that vary in certain ways. A shade of color, for example, can be lighter or darker than another, a freshly baked apple pie is hotter than one taken out of the oven hours before; the life of a person who gives and receives love is better than the life of one who does not.

So we arrange some things in terms of more and less. And when we do, we naturally think of them on a scale approaching most and least. For example, we think of the lighter as approaching the brightness of pure white, and the darker as approaching the opacity of pitch black. This means that we think of them at various “distances” from the extremes, and as possessing, in degrees of “more” or “less,” what the extremes possess in full measure.

Sometimes it is the literal distance from an extreme that makes all the difference between “more” and “less.” For example, things are more or less hot when they are more or less distant from a source of heat. The source communicates to those things the quality of heat they possess in greater or lesser measure. This means that the degree of heat they possess is caused by a source outside of them.

Now when we think of the goodness of things, part of what we mean relates to what they are simply as beings. We believe, for example, that a relatively stable and permanent way of being is better than one that is fleeting and precarious. Why? Because we apprehend at a deep (but not always conscious) level that being is the source and condition of all value; finally and ultimately, being is better than nonbeing. And so we recognize the inherent superiority of all those ways of being that expand possibilities, free us from the constricting confines of matter, and allow us to share in, enrich and be enriched by, the being of other things. In other words, we all recognize that intelligent being is better than unintelligent being; that a being able to give and receive love is better than one that cannot; that our way of being is better, richer and fuller than that of a stone, a flower, an earthworm, an ant, or even a baby seal.

But if these degrees of perfection pertain to being and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a “best,” a source and real standard of all the perfections that we recognize belong to us as beings.
This absolutely perfect being—the “Being of all beings,” “the Perfection of all perfections”—is God.

Question 1: The argument assumes a real “better.” But aren’t all our judgments of comparative value merely subjective?

Reply: The very asking of this question answers it. For the questioner would not have asked it unless he or she thought it really better to do so than not, and really better to find the true answer than not. You can speak subjectivism but you cannot live it.

The first thing that came to mind after reading this argument was Absolute Zero. Scientists have discovered the point at which there is absolutely no heat, but have not found an upper limit to how much heat there can be. In other words, there is no such thing as “perfectly hot” because something could always be hotter (although, in all likelihood, there is probably some upper limit, such as the molecules moving at the speed of light). In addition, it simply isn’t factual to say that the source of heat for the sun is something outside the sun, just as a for instance.

The next (related) thing I thought of was ice cream. (To be fair, I think about ice cream a lot, so this isn’t very unusual.) Specifically, I don’t need to think there is some Sweetest Thing Ever in order to tell that ice cream is sweeter than broccoli. Indeed, if someone were to say that I must have in mind a Sweetest Thing Ever, or be referencing the existence of such a thing, merely because I point out ice cream is sweeter than broccoli, that would be obviously ridiculous. Such a person might argue that ice cream is sweeter because it has more sugar, and therefore sugar is the Sweetest Thing Ever which causes all sweetness. However, it is easy to point out that sweetness can be caused by non-sugar.

This argument from degrees of perfection seems exactly the same as the argument for the Sweetest Thing Ever to me. I can know that putting together a puzzle makes for a better afternoon than falling off of a roof and breaking a leg without having in mind some Ultimately Fun and Perfectly Perfect Afternoon.

Indeed, when one thinks about numbers, the entire argument breaks down. We can say “5 is greater than 2”, but there is no “Biggest Number Ever”. There can’t be, because we could always add 1.

Further, while asking a question does indicate that the questioner thinks it is better to know the answer than not (or feels otherwise obliged to ask), that doesn’t indicate whether it actually WAS. For instance, even if I think chocolate really is truly better than vanilla, that doesn’t indicate that opinion is anything but subjective (also, I happen to like chocolate and vanilla about equally well). But the logic presented here says it does!

“But if these degrees of perfection pertain to being and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a “best,” a source and real standard of all the perfections that we recognize belong to us as beings.”

This is nothing more than a non sequitur. Why must there be a best? Why does it have to be a being? Why does there have to be a standard? Ants are better than humans by the criteria of proportional strength, so by what criteria are humans objectively better than non-humans? Why are we assuming “being is caused in finite creatures”? All animals exist because of evolution, and abiogenesis, though not yet 100% proven, means even the very first living things were not caused by anything but natural processes.

“The argument assumes a real “better.” But aren’t all our judgments of comparative value merely subjective?”

This isn’t even the question I have about the argument, as I’ve demonstrated. I actually don’t think all judgments of comparative value are subjective, because we can measure things like heat objectively. However, we don’t have an objective measurement for which flavor of ice cream is better. We can invent one, but it is arbitrary and largely based on whatever things the person making the criteria happens to like. In this argument, there is no indication for what criteria are being used to judge why humans are better, why that criteria is objective, or if it is the type of criteria that can be reasonably expected to have an upper limit. As we see on the number line, some things simply don’t.

The answer doesn’t actually respond to the question, because it entirely fails to show that judgments of comparative value are objective; it just asserts that they are by saying the asker thinks they are. Words have meanings, and that’s not what “objective” means. Indeed, all the answer does is point out that asking the question is making a value comparison. Our disposition to make lots of value comparisons doesn’t make them objective! “Steam is hotter than ice” is an objective comparison; it will be true no matter who makes it. “Chocolate is better than vanilla” is a subjective comparison; some people like vanilla more, some people like chocolate more, some like both equally, and probably some people exist who like neither. “I’d rather know the answer to this question than not” is much closer to the latter, for someone else would not ask the same question. None of this shows that the comparisons provided in this argument are objective, and we don’t know enough about them to answer that question.

Finally, even if this argument actually could show that a god exists, that god could not be the god of the Bible. Why? Because Yahweh clearly demonstrates that he cannot show love as well as I can. He orders, or at least allows the record to show that he orders, genocides and torture. He allows Job to be tortured so he can win a bet, and the only consolation he gives Job is “I’M GOD, so deal.” I wrote at great length of Yahweh’s atrocities in the Bible recently, but I encourage you to go read the Old Testament and try to come up with a good reason for a perfectly loving being to allow Jepthah to kill his child, order genocide including infants, demand sacrifice, and do or at least allow himself to be described as doing all the other things Yahweh does. I’m quite confident you simply can’t.

4 thoughts on “The Argument from Degrees of Perfection

  1. Wonderfully analyzed. I immediately thought of the Sun, as well, when I saw the author’s “heat source” analogy.

    The author seems to have a very Platonic idea of philosophical universals. This was cutting edge stuff when Plato set it to paper, 2300 years ago, but there’s been quite a bit of work done on that area of philosophy, since. The author either ignores or is ignorant of this work.

    1. Thank you.

      He probably ignores that work in philosophy, as Peter Kreeft is a philosopher by profession whose job is to prove Catholicism, to the best of my knowledge.

  2. WordPress just ate a very long and complicated comment I typed and I’m very angry.

    Let me give you the tl;dr version.

    Metaphors used in argument depend on empiricism or physical observation; doesn’t work to put them in realms where they haven’t been shown to exist. Brain constructs models with physical sensations, but these models don’t necessarily correspond to reality, and sensation is subjective. My blue could be your green even if our eyes absorb same wavelength of light; recent studies imply “color” doesn’t exist independently of brain. Brain constructs colors to make sense of wavelengths of light.

    It was a lot of more complex than that and much more detailed, but I’m not retyping it all.

    1. Sorry WordPress did that to you :/ Technology can be very annoying sometimes!

      I think I understand the gist of what you’re saying. That’s just one of the problems in this argument, as I hope I’ve shown. The more I look into these arguments, the more I find that most of them have not just multiple problems, but multiple layers of problems, no matter how quickly they are stated. This one in particular is so bad that it can’t even be put into premises and conclusion!

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