Friday, January 13, 2023

Humility and the existence of God

Here’s a valid argument:

  1. Humility is an appropriate attitude for everyone.

  2. For highly accomplished individuals, humility is only an appropriate attitude if God exists.

  3. Some individuals are highly accomplished.

  4. So, God exists.

Premise (1) is controversial. The ancient Greeks would have denied it. But I think the reason they denied it is that they didn’t have the examples that the Christian tradition does, highly attractive examples examples of accomplished lives of great humility.

Here’s the thought behind premise (2). If there is no God, then highly accomplished individuals have much to brag about. Many of their accomplishments are primarily theirs.

Premise (3) is obvious.

Here’s another way to think about it. Given (1) and (3), we need an explanation of how it is that humility is an appropriate attitude for a highly accomplished individual. Classical theism’s doctrine of participation provides such an explanation: all the efforts and all the accomplishments are not truly theirs but a participation in God’s perfection.


Wesley C said...

1) I think the participationism explanation is problematic, since by that same logic one could maybe deny one truly possesses being or goodness or value; one could even deny one causes anything at all, concluding occasionalism. But we do have our own being & goodness, so it's not the divine being & goodness in us, per Aquinas.

2) In fact, there's a real sense in which our actions & thereby accomplishments are uniquely our own in a way they aren't God's precisely because our actions are rooted in our secondary causality, which is distinct from God's causality. And secondary causality being distinct from primary causality, the causal responsibility for secondary causal acts is in the creature, since the primary causality of God in sustaining our actions in existence only determins them insofar as they exist, but we determine them insofar as whether we cause them to occur (the occurrence of them is distinct from their basic existence) and what we cause to occur.

3) Additionally, there may be a difference between bragging and general pride - some moral theology manuals seem to suggest being proud of one's accomplishments isn't sinful, because that's distinct from bragging morally. And one can't be proud of things one doesn't truly possess or cause in some way.

Of course, other sources say any form of pride is sinful, so this isn't a clear issue it seems - but if one did take the route that some forms of pride ARE morally okay, then this makes the thesis we don't possess anything, whether being or our actions, unlikely.

Walter Van den Acker said...

This seems question-begging. It's not because highly accomplished individuals have a lot to brag about that they can brag about everything.

Suppose you think this is a great argument, you certainly have reason to brag about it, but even if there is no God, you also have reason to be humble, because you may have been the first to come up with this particular argument, but you could only have built a successful argument because of your education, because of what you have studied, read, even the way your parents raised you.
Nothing we do is exclusively our own accomplishment.
Now if you don't agree with this, you don't have grounds for premise (1), because if something really is your own accomplishment, humililty is not appropriate because there is nothing wrong with being proud of what you have accomplished.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Good point.

I propose to revise premise 2 to read:
2*. There are some highly accomplished individuals such that for them humility is an appropriate attitude only if God exists.

Then we don't even need premise 3.

To respond to your point, now, I suggest that we think of highly accomplished individuals who did not have many of the kinds of advantages you list, and who were hindered in various ways (e.g., by racism, sexism, poverty, war, etc.). While no doubt everyone got some help from other humans, in some cases a realistic appraisal of the degree of that help, especially when combined with the degree to which fellow humans hindered the individual, will not suffice for humility to be appropriate *if* God does not exist.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"by that same logic one could maybe deny one truly possesses being or goodness or value"

There is precedent for saying something like that. "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:8).

There has got to be a sense, and a very important one, in which what Jesus says is true. But there is also a sense in which we are good--but only good-by-participation.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I have already answered this in my first reply. For the individuals you describe, humililty is not appropriate.

Wesley C. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wesley C. said...

@Alex I think an important nuance here is that in this specific view of participation, goodness-by-participation isn't actually true or intrinsic goodness. But this is problematic because we do have other verses affirming the true goodness of creatures, such as Genesis 1 explicitly affirms this, as does 1 Timothy 4 (first four verses on marriage & food) and Matthew 10 (sparrows).

The main problem would be that this view of participationism wouldn't just make it impossible to take pride or "brag" about something we did (which I can concede is wrong), but that it also makes it impossible to actually say we are good or have value as well. In the same manner & for the same reasons we can't take pride in or brag about our actions, we also can't affirm we are good, or have being, and this seems to be a big problem with that specific account.

And it's also important to point out that Scripture often uses hyperbolic negation or hyperbolic merism - God for example in Jeremiah 7:22 apparently denies He ever commanded the Hebrews to do sacrifice, yet that's not a literal negation but a hyperbolic one to point out that loving God is more important - rhetorically DENYING one thing to point out the greater importance of another, without intending to truly deny the importance of the secondary. Same thing with loving Christ & hating one's parents - intentionally hyperbolic contrasts that actually convey a hierarchy of love, but not pure exclusivity.

So basing a very specific view of participationism (because not all models of participationism would agree that we aren't actually truly good) on a phrase that is likely using intentional rhetorical hyperbole is more speculative than solid.

Odis said...

This only seems to work if there is no other plausible account (that doesn't involve God) of why humility is an appropriate attitude for high achievers.

I could probably think up many reasons. Here's a shallow one: humility is socially rewarded and makes you more likable, so it allows you to achieve even more in the long run than if you displayed arrogance. This explanation would even predict that you'd see a correlation between displays of humility and level of accomplishment, something that comports with my observations.

Now even if my proposed account is somehow faulty, I would expect there to be many plausible reasons not involving God for why humility is appropriate even/especially for high achievers.

Therefore, I think premise 2 is on shaky ground.

Alexander R Pruss said...

This explains why humility might be beneficial, but not why it would be appropriate. I don't have a full analysis of what the appropriateness conditions for humility about an accomplishment are, but I think it's got something to do with the accomplishment not being really yours.

KamiGN said...

It has not been demonstrated that humility is appropriate for everyone, on the contrary, it can be argued that for some and in some situations, humility is harmful.
On the contrary, however, if we define humility as a notion of ourselves according to what we really are, we can say that humility is appropriate for everyone in the sense that it is natural to man, since the goal of intelligence is to know the truth .
As for the second premise, a subjective or sentimental notion as to whether or not there is God is not enough to demonstrate that there is a God, any more than it would demonstrate the existence of the Great Flying Spaghetti Monster.
As for the third, it contradicts the second in a certain way, since it assumes that all realized individuals need God for this, while the second asserts that only some realized individuals have the conception that humility is only appropriate if there is God.
Having refuted the premises, the corollary is contested.

Odis said...

That's a good point on the distinction between something being beneficial vs. appropriate. I definitely see the force in this argument a bit more clearly now.

Here's another naturalistic account, taking your "it's not really your accomplishment" account as inspiration:

I believe genetics (and other luck-based factors) cannot be ruled out as important causal factors in one's level of success. Therefore, humility is appropriate due to the uncertainty in attributing causes of success.

To be arrogant about high achievement would only be appropriate if one could know for a fact that they would have achieved highly regardless of factors outside of their control. But I cannot imagine a scenario where that level of certainty would be warranted.