Non-Being and Hartshorne’s Concept of God

by Houston Craighead

Houston Craighead is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Winthrop College, Rock Hill, South Carolina. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Texas in January, 1970, with Charles Hartshorne on his committee.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 9-24, Vol. 1, Number 1, Spring, 1971. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Hartshorne’s argument, if valid, is valid only if Hartshorne’s God exists, but Hartshorne fails to prove the existence of his God.

The concept of God provided in the writings of Charles Hartshorne is one of the most influential and widely discussed notions in contemporary philosophy of religion and theology. Not only is Hartshorne’s God significantly different from the traditional concept of God, but Hartshorne also provides a revised version of the ontological argument to prove this God’s existence.

In this paper I shall (1) briefly set forth this argument; (2) show that the argument, if it is valid, is valid only for a Hartshornean God; (3) argue that, since Hartshorne’s God does require that at least something (anything will do) contingent exists, the "new" ontological argument fails even for Hartshorne’s God, because it is logically possible that there should be nothing at all, total non-being.

I shall not spend much space setting forth the argument, as it is already well known. The clearest statement of it is, I think, found in a recent issue of The Review of Metaphysics. (4:291.94. For Hartshorne’s first symbolic statement of the argument see 10:51.) There Hartshorne sets the argument up as a tetralemma and proceeds to attempt to show the falsity of all but one of the lemmas. In a succeeding article (15:297-307) R. L. Purtill examines the argument and puts it into the symbolism of modal logic. As set up by Purtill, the tetralemma is as follows:

T1. A most perfect being exists, and must necessarily exist.

T2. A most perfect being does exist, but might possibly not exist.

T3. A most perfect being does not exist, but might possibly exist.

T4. A most perfect being does not exist, and could not possibly exist. (1 :297)

T2 and T3 are eliminated by the contention that the contingent mode of existence is a defect and, thus, could not apply to the concept of a perfect being. T4 is ruled out by the contention that God is at least possible -- he is not impossible, the concept of God is not meaninglessness or contradictory.

It is important, before giving the argument further consideration, to consider briefly the "logical types" objection. As we shall see, though Hartshorne’s view of God meets that objection, it also opens the door for another objection, which is even more serious.

The doctrine of logical types holds that predicates are of a different logical type than existence. If this is true, then how can perfection be both a predicate and include necessary existence? As Hartshorne says, "on the removal of this difficulty depends the fate of the argument." (10:63) This is the difficulty which is considered to have done away with the traditional argument. The trouble, though, says Hartshorne, is not in the argument but in the God it is arguing for.

To solve the problem, two things are required: (1) on the lowest logical level there must be a form of God as concrete, actual. This concrete state of God must be extrinsic to perfection as a predicate and yet be the concrete and contingent exemplification of perfection. (2) There must also be another form which is necessary to perfection, and, thus, intrinsic to it. It is, thus, like the predicate itself, abstract. (10:63)

If such a view of God can be found, and if we can find in our everyday experience a basis for the distinction being made, then the logical types objection will be met, because the distinction will then fall between two aspects or kinds of existence, not between property and existence in general or as such." Such a view, Hartshorne holds, is provided by his di-polar God. (10:63)

This is the view that God has two aspects: an abstract, necessary aspect, which is his essence, and a concrete, relative aspect, which changes in each moment and includes his accidents. in each moment God is his concrete aspect. But each moment is always characterized by his essence. This essence is perfection: perfect knowledge, perfect love, necessary existence. That God will always exist, know all there is to know, and love all there is to love, is necessary. God’s concrete reality, the actual states of his existence, includes just what he loves now, just what he knows now. This is contingent, relative.

All we need do here is point out that requirement (1) is met by the concrete and relative aspect of God and (2) is met by the abstract and changeless aspect. In other words, reference is made to the distinction between the concrete states of God and the abstract changeless nature which is inevitably exemplified in each of those states.

The basis in ordinary experience is relatively easy to find. As a human being, I shall probably exist tomorrow. If I do, I shall inevitably exist displaying all those abstract traits by virtue of which I am a human being. However, whether I exist tomorrow with a broken leg is much more specific and concrete and not at all essential to my existing as a human king. My existing as a human being tomorrow does not entail that I shall exist having a broken leg tomorrow. All my existing as a human being entails is that I exist in some concrete state or other displaying those abstract properties by virtue of which I am a human being, plus whatever other contingent properties that state includes. (10:63) Furthermore, there is even another distinction to be made. For a particular human being to exist is much more specific and concrete than simply for human beings to exist. "There are thus at least three levels of existence: the occurrence of certain actual states of individuals; the existence of certain individuals; the existence of certain kinds of individuals or of certain class properties." (10:63-64)

Thus, on this analysis, the conception of necessary existence need not deny the distinction between the concrete and abstract. What is being argued for is nor the necessity of some particular instance or state, but only the necessity of an (any) instance or state.

In this connection, Hartshorne does point out that in terms of ordinary cases there are two forms of contingency involved: (1) whether there is any concrete state of the abstract property at all; (2) whether, if there is, it is A, B, C,. . . N. In the case of Perfection, only (2) applies. Statement (1) is a matter of necessity. Perfection must be instanced in some concretum. Statement (2) is a matter of contingency. In just what concretum Perfection is instanced is a matter of indifference. (10:64) The existence of no particular state of perfection is implied by the ontological argument, only the existence of some state.

Thus, the claim is not that Perfection necessarily entails some particular concrete state. It is only that Perfection entails some concrete state. Since God in his abstract absoluteness is Perfection, to argue that Perfection must somehow be instanced (have a concrete state) is to argue that there must be some concrete state which is God-now.

What "has" the divine perfection is not the divine individuality, in its fixed, eternally identical character; for that is not an instance but is the divine perfection itself. It is the de facto states which "have" or instance perfection, rather than being it. (10:66)

Since such a view cannot possibly be defended on the classical view (which holds that God is in all ways absolute and has no relative states), Hartshorne is actually maintaining that the case for God’s necessary existence is made by holding that God is in some ways contingent! So, he claims, though the logical types objection is very powerful (and is devastating for classical theism), it is met by his di-polar concept of God.


Clearly Hartshorne has successfully avoided the fallacy of logical types. By explicating his "double aspect" view of God, Hartshorne has shown that he is not deriving the existence of any particular concrete being from a concept. Rather he is deriving the existence of some instance of Perfection. To say "God necessarily exists" is to say "Perfection is necessarily instanced." But, since Perfection is modally coincident, no particular set of circumstances is implied by its being instanced. It matters not what the universe contains, Perfection is still instanced. The existence of God requires only some concretum, no particular one.

Now the point I wish to raise is this: to exist other than abstractly (and abstract "existence" is not sufficient for the God of religion) an essence must be instanced in some concretum. Hartshorne himself admits this. But he claims that any concretum will suffice to instance God’s essence, Perfection. However, the point to see is that Hartshorne’s God does require at least something other than his own essence. Anything will do, but there must be something. If there were no concretum at all, Perfection could not be instanced; God could not exist. Hartshorne admits this:

It [Perfection] cannot depend upon anything else [in particular] for its own existence -- not that it could exist solitary, but its existence is entirely neutral as between alternatives of particular existence other than its own. (10:80, my italics) To be himself he [God] does not need this universe but only a universe and only contingently does he even contain this particular actual universe. The mere essence of God contains no universe. (5:1-2)

God is not viewed as a being that could exist in solitary independence.. (‘7:40)

Some other lives he must have. (3:164)

Thus, we see that the ontological argument proves the existence of God if and only if there is some actual, concrete state (any one will do) in which Perfection may be instanced. The ontological argument does not prove that there is any actual state. Hartshorne is quite clear about that. What is being proved is not a God who creates ex nihilo. Hartshorne’s God creates on the human analogy; he shapes that which is already given. In fact, it is only on this ground that Hartshorne says we can say literally of God that he creates. We, as humans, know the literal meaning of "create"; we take it to mean the shaping of some already given material. However, creatio ex nihilo is totally beyond our conception of creating, says Hartshorne. Hence, to say literally and meaningfully that God creates, we must exclude the notion of creatio ex nihilo.

That the human creator always has a given concrete actuality to work with does not of itself establish a difference between him and God, unless it be admitted as made out that there was a first moment of creation. For if not, then God, too, creates each stage of the world as successor to a preceding phase. Only a dubious Interpretation of an obscure parable, the book of Genesis, stands between us and this view. (8:30)

This does not mean that some universe antedates God -- "Everything that influences God has already been influenced by him" (8:30) -- but that God and some universe have always existed: "God exists" is logically equivalent to "Some universe exists." It thus becomes needful that Hartshorne show that "some universe exists" is necessarily true, for if the truth of that statement is contingent, then "God exists" is also only contingently true. The claim I am making is this: granted that Hartshorne has shown that the existence of any universe necessarily implies the existence of God, if the existence of any universe at all is contingent (i.e., if there might have been no universe at all), then the existence of God is, likewise, ultimately contingent.

Now, Hartshorne recognizes the distinction between conditional and absolute necessity.

I must make clear the difference between merely conditional necessity and absolute necessity. As von Wright has it, this last is the same as "necessity upon tautological conditions": not necessity assuming p. or necessity assuming not-p. but necessity, p or not-p. Since "p or not-p" must be true, it is meaningless to say, "q might be necessary but is not," when "necessary" is taken in the sense of "upon tautological conditions." This is the only sense at issue in connection with the ontological argument. The divine existence is by definition unconditioned, and its necessity can only be absolute, valid no matter what, or "given p or not-p." (10:53)

This quote from Hartshorne does show that he recognizes the distinction between absolute and conditional necessity. But it also indicates that Hartshorne does not (at least here) want to recognize that p can stand for the universe as a whole, not just some particular concrete state of the universe. Certainly, if we grant that p can stand for particular states only, then God exists, because not-p then stands simply for the non-existence of that particular state; and, on Harts-home’s view of God as modally coincident, no particular state is required for God’s existence. However, if we let p stand for the existence of the universe (this one and all others) as a whole, for all concreta, then the disjunction "p or not-p" becomes crucial for Hartshorne. For on this interpretation it does matter which of the disjuncts is true: p logically implies "God exists." Not-p logically implies "God does not exist." Hence it is not enough for Hartshorne to state "p or not p" implies "God exists," for this is dearly false where p stands for the universe as a whole. Hartshorne must argue, in this case, that p is true; and p is not a tautology. As Hartshorne himself says: "If an individual X could exist only thanks to the existence of certain other individuals, then unless these exist necessarily, X cannot be necessary. (10:75)

The burden of proof is on Hartshorne. To prove the necessary existence of God he must show that at least some universe necessarily exists. Hartshorne does in fact offer arguments for this. However, if those arguments can be refuted, it will be shown that Hartshorne has not proven God’s necessary existence. The refutation of Hartshorne’s arguments will not, of course, suffice to show that God does not necessarily exist -- but only that Hartshorne has failed to prove his case. That, I take it, would be sufficient to show that Hartshorne has not (yet) succeeded. However, the case against Hartshorne would be made even stronger if it could be shown not only that Hartshorne does not prove that some universe is necessary, but that he cannot prove it. In other words, if it can be shown that it is contingent that anything at all exists, then not only will the particular effort Hartshorne has made be refuted, but any further attempts would be ruled out a priori.

Inevitably, the modal question of "logical" and "real" possibility will arise. That is, when we claim, contra Hartshorne, that it is contingent that there be any concrete state at all, that it is possible for there to be no concrete states whatsoever, do we mean "real" or "logical" possibility? There is dispute over whether everything that is logically possible is "really" possible. Hume’s claim that logical and real possibility are distinguished only by a habit of the mind (we are not in the habit of seeing billiard balls vanish when struck by other billiard balls, so we do not think that is a "real" possibility) is not universally accepted. Hartshorne himself denies this. (6:601) However, we need not here concern ourselves with this distinction because logical possibility is all we need to establish.

Hartshorne argues that his God is logically necessary. He uses logical implication in his argument. We have shown that this is so if and only if it is also logically necessary that at least some concretum exists. Hence, if we can show that it is not logically necessary that at least some concretum exists we will have shown that Hartshorne’s God is not logically necessary. We shall take our definition of logical possibility from Hartshorne himself: "A described state of affairs is ‘logically possible’ if the description ‘makes sense’ and involves no contradictions" (6 :593) What Hartshorne means by "makes sense" is never clearly spelled out in his arguments. However, he seems to mean that such non’ contradictory statements as "there is a blurx and a glop" are not logically possible because they are pure nonsense. As we shall see, Hartshorne wants to argue that total non-being falls into this category. It is, he says, mere verbiage. We shall argue (1) that Hartshorne does not show that this is so and (2) that, as a matter of fact, it is not so.

As to Hartshorne’s second criterion for logical possibility, there is clearly nothing contradictory in the notion of all contingent beings ceasing to be. We shall spell this out further below. Meanwhile, when we speak of "possibility" in connection with the question of whether it is possible for there to be nothing at all, we mean "logical possibility."

In this regard, we shall proceed now to explicate Hartshorne’s arguments for the necessary existence of some universe and to show why the arguments are not successful. Then we shall further argue that it is in fact contingent that there be any concrete state at all rather than no concrete states at all. It will then be clear that it is impossible to argue validly for the necessary existence of the neoclassical God.

I find in Hartshorne’s writings six separate arguments for the necessity of there being at least some concretum, for the impossibility of there being no concretum at all, total nothingness.

(1) That absolute nothingness is absolutely unknowable. (10:72, 85. Cf. also 4:295.)

(2) That every true statement must contain some positive content, and, thus, "nothing exists" must be necessarily false. (10:86)

(3) That God himself insures the existence of some world. (11:183)

(4) An argument from psychological necessity. (3:157)

(5) That the statement "something necessarily exists" is not contradictory (3:108)

(6) That "nothing" is always "othering." (8:73)

I shall consider each argument in turn and show that each is insufficient to establish what Hartshorne needs.

(1) The first argument is couched in the following statement by Hartshorne:

The particular state in which perfection exists depends, to be sure, like all particular things, upon what else exists, but that there are some such states by definition cannot so depend. The "non-existence of perfect mind" is thus, by analytic necessity, absolutely unknowable by any mind whatever. Bit the absolutely unknowable is nothing. How could you know that it was something? (10:72. Cf. also 10:85-86, 282, 283. Cf. also 4:29g.)

This is probably Hartshorne’s strongest argument and it is the one to which, in the final analysis, he usually appeals. The argument briefly stated is: the real is that which can be known by at least some mind. Total nothingness, which would, by definition, entail the non-existence of everything (including minds), is, thus, not a possibility. The fallacy here seems apparent. Hartshorne has won the game by definition. He defines the real in terms of the knowable. (There is, of course, philosophical precedent for such; cf. Plato.)

Hartshorne’s reply would probably be that since, by definition, God is the perfect knower, and that means there is nothing he cannot know, then either total non-being is impossible or the notion of a perfect knower is nonsensical. (Hartshorne considers the second disjunct positivism.) However, I think a more careful scrutiny of the situation will reveal a bit more than is prima facie apparent. Hartshorne remarks many times that positive states of affairs are the only meaningful ones (see below). Can we not define the perfect knower as the one who can know any positive state? That would mean there is only one state that could not be known by the perfect knower -- total nothingness. Hartshorne would reply, presumably, that this is not perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge, he would claim, means knowledge of all possible states -- thus a completely negative state is not a possible state.

It is important to remember here that we need not argue that total nothingness is a possible state, only that Hartshorne has not shown that it is not a possible state. Now, I see no more difficulty in defining the perfect knower as one who can know all positive possible states but not the one totally negative possible state, than many theologians and philosophers would find with Hartshorne’s defining perfect knowledge such that it excludes knowledge of what will happen in the future. As Hartshorne says: "It is the only way to combine with’ out contradiction, the assertions: God knows all the truth, and, not all truths are necessary." (8:117-18. Cf. also 8:8. Cf. also 5:11.) Many traditionalists would claim that if God can know only the past and present but not the future (save in terms of possibilities -- not in terms of what will actually happen), then God does not have perfect knowledge. That is, they would accuse Hartshorne of denying that there can be perfect knowledge,

Hartshorne replies that if one demands that perfect knowledge include knowledge of exactly what the future will hold then he is denying the distinctive reality of freedom. In other words, if God knows exactly what the future will contain then the future is already exactly determined. Human freedom is on such a view, non-existent.

And what then becomes of the ideas of human responsibility and choice, and of the notion that some deeds ought not to have taken place? These are only the beginning of the absurdities into which the view thrusts us. . . . Would they not do better to take a fresh start (as indeed many have done) and admit that we have no good religious reason for positing the notion of providence as an absolute contriving of all events according to a completely detailed plan embracing all time? (8:23)

Thus, in order to make a place for freedom in the universe, Hartshorne denies that perfect knowledge must include knowledge of the future. One could always say to Hartshorne at this point that what he is really doing is denying that there can be perfect knowledge. One could say that he has simply redefined "perfect knowledge" in such a way as to make room in his system for both perfect knowledge and freedom.

The move I am attempting to make against Hartshorne here is precisely the same kind of move that he makes against traditionalism. I am claiming that perfect knowledge is a meaningful concept but that it need not include anything more than knowledge of all positive states, the ability to know all positive states when they occur, not the knowledge that they will occur just as they do before they occur. Thus, I want to maintain that total non-being cannot be ruled out as a possibility that perfect knowledge need not include ability to know all possible states but only all possible positive states. Hartshorne may claim that I have, thus, really denied that perfect knowledge is possible (since I am claiming that there is one possible state which it cannot include) and have taken a positivist position. But, for him to do so would be for him to take a position similar to that of the man described above who would claim that Hartshorne has really denied the possibility of perfect knowledge because Hartshorne says perfect knowledge does not include knowledge of the future.

What I am saying is this: if Hartshorne can redefine the notion of perfect knowledge in order to retain both that notion and another notion, freedom, then I can also redefine perfect knowledge to keep both it and a notion I claim is meaningful, the possibility that there might have been (and might yet be) nothing at all. If Hartshorne, from his point of view, wishes to call me a positivist then, from another point of view of perfect knowledge, he is himself open to the same charge. My own thoughts on the matter are that neither of us is a positivist. We are both trying to make rational space for everything that is real. Hartshorne, I think, is correct in saying that freedom and perfect knowledge, which includes knowledge of the future, are incompatible. He is also right in maintaining that freedom is real and that, therefore, perfect knowledge cannot (regardless of Thomist claims) include knowledge of the future. Likewise, I am correct in maintaining that the possibility of total non-being and perfect knowledge which includes all possible states, both positive and negative, are incompatible. I am furthermore correct in saying, then (after Hartshorne), that perfect knowledge need not include knowledge of all possible states but only knowledge of all possible positive states.

There is more yet to be said about this first argument of Hartshorne’s. Even if we did accept his dictum that the unknowable is the impossible, the question of the meaning of "knowable" would still have to be answered. Does "knowable" mean "directly knowable" or only "conceivable?"

If Hartshorne means directly knowable then he has ruled out many states which many people believe to have existed. Most people would hold that there once was (or at least could have been) a time when there were no minds, no knowers. Such a time would have been the universe before evolution of consciousness. Such a state, by definition, is not directly knowable. Hartshorne may reply that God would have known it. But that begs the question. He may also reply that, since panpsychism is the proper view of reality, a universe devoid of minds is the same as absolute nothingness. However, few philosophers are panpsychists; and if the ontological argument presupposes the validity of that view, then things are certainly much more complicated than they at first appeared. A case for panpsychism would have, in that case, to be made first.

The reason most persons would agree that a universe devoid of knowers is a possible state is because, although such a universe could never be known directly, it is conceivable; we can even meaningfully describe what would have to occur for such a universe to become actual; all minds would have to cease to be. Likewise, though total nothingness or no world at all is not a state which is directly knowable, it is conceivable; we can meaningfully describe the conditions requisite for its actualization: all particular beings would have to cease to be. Just as there is no contradiction involved in speaking of the absence of all minds (unless one is a panpsychist), because minds are contingent, there is no contradiction involved in speaking of the absence of all particular beings, because all particular beings are contingent.

Hartshorne may reply that I am merely denying that the notion of a necessary being is meaningful. I am doing that only in a limited sense. I am admitting that if it is necessary that there be any concrete states then it is necessary that God exists. This is all Hartshorne himself claims. What I am denying is that it is necessary that there be any concrete states -- at all! I am admitting all the necessity that Hartshorne’s ontological argument implies. The necessity I am denying is not that argued for by the ontological argument but, rather, that which must first be argued for to make the argument ultimately valid. The conclusion of the ontological argument is that if there are any concrete states whatever, then Perfection is actualized, God exists. I am contending that the antecedent of that hypothetical has not been shown to be necessarily true.

(2) Hartshorne’s second argument is stated as follows: "‘Nothing exists’ excludes everything positive and so must be false." (10:86) To call this an "argument" is probably a mistake because it is actually a denial. Hartshorne is maintaining that a statement cannot be true unless it describes a positive state. But there is only one totally negative state, viz., the absence of everything. Hence, Hartshorne is here simply stipulating that "nothing exists" is necessarily false.

(3) Hartshorne’s third argument contradicts the other things he says. Hartshorne here wants to maintain that God is the source of being in things: "Divine power is adequate both to insure that there be a world and to possess whatever world there is." (11:183) This is clearly contrary to Hartshorne’s view that God does not create ex nihilo. Hartshorne’s God is a being. (Cf. 2:7. Cf. also 9:152.) It is true that it is a unique and all inclusive being, but not being-itself, not that by virtue of which things are rather than are not. The being of things, Hartshorne must. admit, is inexplicable. Process for him is ultimate. Process simply is. As Whitehead puts it:

Both [God and the world] are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty. Either of them, God and the world, is the instrument of novelty for the other. (PR 529)

I read all of Hartshorne (with the exception of the one statement quoted above) to be in accord with this statement from Whitehead. On Hartshorne’s view, God includes the world, knows it, shapes it through his influence. But He does not give the universe its being. If Hartshorne does want to maintain that God is the source of being then he is going to run into the traditional problem of creatio ex nihilo (which he explicitly rejects -- as we have seen).

However, even if Hartshorne did seriously want to hold that view he would be committing a petitio: God exists necessarily if at least some concretum exists necessarily, and some concretum exists necessarily because God’s power insures it.

(4) I call Hartshorne’s fourth argument a "psychological" one.

I must politely decline to entertain the supposition that anyone, except in words, doubts the existence in nature of some factor which is incompatible with the eventual unrelieved catastrophe, and in relation to which our acts have their long. run fundamental meaning. (3:157)

I think that most people would admit that they hope for or would be very pleased if there were such a "factor" in nature. But to say that no one really "doubts" the existence of such a factor is merely autobiographical. I myself hope for such a factor, but have many very uncomfortable doubts that there is one. Philosophically, one need only point to Sartre. That most men desire such a "factor" and that some men do not doubt it, I do not question. But on the basis of my own experience and, unless we wish to say they are either deluded or liars, the words of others, I must say that there are those who seriously doubt the existence of such a "factor" -- even though Hartshorne may not.

(5) Hartshorne’s fifth argument is as follows:

It would be a contradiction to say that a certain accidental thing happens by necessity; but there is no contradiction in saying that it is necessary that some accidents or other should happen, that there should be accidents. (3:108)

Now it is true, as Hartshorne has shown, that if it can be established that a thing has the necessary mode of being then that thing either exists or fails to exist from necessity. Furthermore, if the thing in question is not an absurdity, if it does not necessarily fail to exist, as, for example, a round square does, then it necessarily exists. However, the very point at issue is whether the universe does have the necessary mode of being. If it does, then, since there clearly is a universe, it necessarily exists. That it exists proves that it is possible, and if a necessary thing is possible then it necessarily exists. That is what Hartshorne’s argument is about. But, if it is contingent that there be any universe at all then the fact that there is a universe does not imply that there is necessarily a universe.

Hartshorne claims that the statement "some concretum necessarily exists" is not contradictory when taken to mean simply any concretum at all. That the statement is not contradictory, though, does not make it true unless it can first be shown that the existence of some universe is a question of necessity to begin with. Hartshorne’s reply to this may be that, if it is admitted that "some concretum necessarily exists" is not contradictory, then it is a question of necessity. He would say this on the ground that the reason we would not make the same statement about any particular being, e.g., elephants or unicorns, is precisely because it is contradictory to assert of any particular being that it has the necessary mode of existence. The reason for this would be that we can conceive any particular being without conceiving it to exist; we can conceive their absence from concreteness, their lack of being.

If this is Hartshorne’s reply, then I would point out that he has not shown that we cannot conceive all possible universes as lacking concreteness, that we cannot conceive that there might have been (and may yet be) no universe at all. Thus, if Hartshorne’s statement " ‘some concretum necessarily exists’ is not contradictory" means that we cannot conceive that there might have been nothing at all, then he will have to argue that this is so. It has not been shown that it is any more necessary that there be any concretum at all than it is that there be any particular concretum. Hence, if it is contradictory, then, to assert of any particular concretum that it necessarily exists, it would seem to be likewise contradictory (until proven otherwise) to assert of all concreta that at least some of them must exist. The only necessity Hartshorne has shown with regard to ontological status is the conditional necessary status of God -- if some concretum exists, then God must exist.

(6) The sixth argument against the possibility of total non-being is the claim that negation always refers to "othering." (Cf. 10:282) The clearest explication of this argument is actually provided by William Reese in an article in the Hartshorne Festschrift. (16:311-23)

Reese’s claim in that article is that at no time whatsoever do we make reference to non-being as such. It is true, he says, that we make negative statements, but all of them can be handled on the model of "othering." Our denials, he says, are two in kind: denial in the predicate and denial in the subject. Denial in the predicate means simply that the predicate in question fails to apply to the subject in question, for example, "Socrates is not ill." However, the "not" here does not refer to non-being but refers to some other positive state which Socrates has. Thus, "Socrates is not ill" means "Socrates is well." The illness is replaced by something other. All cases of denial in the predicate may be handled in this fashion, Reese claims.

Denial in this subject, for example, "Socrates does not exist," is not so easily handled, but, says Reese, clear analysis can do the job. A denial in the subject means that one has a "mental construct" which has no counterpart in the outer world; one has an idea of Socrates but fails to be able to match it with anything "outside." The reference, thus, is not to non-being but to the fact that Socrates has only mental existence. He is "in the mind" but not in the world. Reese admits that he is assuming that all references are at least to mental constructs. However, he says, non-being refers to no mental construct at all.

The failure of a subject to exist, therefore, can be treated on the same terms as that same failure in the case of the predicate. Both are instances of Platonic "othering"; in the case of predicate denials the othering takes place between a term and its complement; in the case of denial in the subject the othering takes place between the world and a mental construct. In neither case does a reference to non-being occur. (16:318)

The claim that can be made on the basis of this is that we never refer to non-being in any of our negative judgments and, thus, we never refer to it at all. Thus, to speak of non-being is to speak of that which has no meaning to us.

However, although in the analysis of predicate denial ("Socrates is not ill" equals "Socrates is well") that which it denies (illness) is replaced by something else (health), Reese’s argument can be refuted by pointing out that in "Socrates does not exist" Socrates’ physical existence is not replaced by something else. Reese says "Socrates exists" really means "Socrates has both physical and mental existence." The denial of physical existence, therefore, is not to replace it with something (as health replaces sickness in "Socrates is not sick"), but to deny it altogether. Is this not a reference to non-being?

In any case, even if it could be shown that in ordinary language we make no reference to non-being, that would hardly mean that it is a meaningless notion. Ordinary usage is not always an adequate criterion for philosophical concepts. Thus, to show that in ordinary usage we never refer to non-being would not suffice to show that we could not refer to it at all.

The preceding discussion shows, I think, that Hartshorne has no convincing arguments for the necessary existence of at least some universe. This, in connection with our earlier analysis, shows that Hartshorne has not proven the necessary existence of God, but only the conditional necessity of God. This, I take it, is sufficient to reveal a basic inadequacy in Hartshorne’s efforts. However, as previously stated, the case can be made much stronger if it can be shown not only that Hartshorne has failed to prove the necessity of some universe, but that such necessity cannot be proved, because as a matter of fact it is contingent that there be any universe at all, it is logically possible for there to be no concretum. We shall now attempt to show that this is the case.

The first argument for the possibility that there might have been nothing at all is the sense of wonder and awe which strikes reflective persons when they consider the bare fact that there is a universe. This sense of amazement can be illustrated by quoting numerous philosophers from varying philosophical positions. A few examples should suffice here.

J. J. C. Smart states:

That anything should exist at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe. But whether other people feel this sort of awe, and whether they or I ought to is another question. I think we ought to. (P7:46)

Julian Huxley speaks of "the basic and universal mystery -- the mystery of existence in general. . . . Why does the world exist?" (13:107-08)

Norman Malcolm reports that

Wittgenstein once read a paper on ethics . . . in which he said that he sometimes had a certain experience which could best be described by saying that "when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist!’" (14:70)

Of course, for Heidegger . . . "Why are there essents, why is there anything at all, rather than nothing? Obviously this is the first of all questions, though not in a chronological sense." (12:1)

We could continue; the list could be much longer. The point is this: it is the case that many (most? all?) people are struck with wonder and amazement that there is any concretum at all, that there is any universe at all (not just this universe rather than another one). Now, let us ask about wonder and amazement. Are we ever struck with wonder and awe by things that are necessary? It is hardly amazing that triangles all have three sides, that bachelors are unmarried, that "all men are mortal and Socrates is a man" entails "Socrates is mortal." Necessities are things which are expected, predictable. The radical contingencies are what inspire a sense of awe and wonder: the fact that I exist at all, and the further fact that I am who I am; a "miraculous" recovery by someone who was given no chance to live; a sudden break in a stormy sky where the sun bursts through.

The point I am trying to make is this: on the basis of a prima facie examination of human experience, it would seem that there is a basic sense of wonder with regard to there being anything at all. This, in turn, would seem to indicate that it is not a necessity that there is a world at all, because human beings do not wonder at necessities; they wonder at the existence of the unexpected, the contingent. Now, I am not claiming that this alone establishes the contingency of existence. That would be premature. I am claiming, however, that a prima facie examination of a basic human experience at least seems to indicate such contingency.

The second point against Hartshorne’s claim that at least some universe necessarily exists is the fact that we can conceive that there might have been (and yet may be) nothing at all. If we admit that the conceivable is the logically possible (and, again, logical, not causal or scientific, or "real" possibility is all one needs to argue for here), then it follows from our ability to conceive that nothing at all may have existed, that it is not necessary that there be any universe at all. We cannot conceive a four sided triangle, a married bachelor, or an extentionless physical object (or a universe without God, if we understand Hartshorne correctly and grant that "perfection," in the way he has defined it, is meaningful), because a triangle necessarily has three sides, bachelors are necessarily unmarried, physical objects are necessarily extended, (and the existence of any universe necessarily entails the existence of God). Hence, if it were true that some world necessarily exists, we would not be able to conceive that there may well have been (and yet may be) no world at all.

Now I take it that Hartshorne would grant the truth of the hypothetical that "if it can be conceived that no universe may exist then it is not necessary that any universe exists." However, he would argue that it cannot be so conceived. The crux of the matter is whether it can be so conceived.

Now, if by "conceived" one means "imaged" then we must grant that total nothingness is not conceivable. Even to image total blackness (or whiteness) is still to image something. However, there is no need to identify conceiving with imaging. One cannot image a thousand-sided figure either. But the existence of such a figure is conceivable. One cannot image his own non-existence. But it hardly follows from that that one’s own non-existence is inconceivable to him. One need only state, in a non-contradictory and meaningful manner, the conditions requisite for producing such an occurrence to show that it is a possible occurrence.

It is easy enough to list the conditions requisite for a thousand-sided figure (but impossible to do so for a four-sided triangle) or for one’s own non-existence. Likewise, it is easy enough to list the conditions requisite for total nothingness: each thing which now exists would cease to exist and no thing would be replaced by anything else. Since everything that now exists is contingent (although God is contingent only on there being at least something), then each existing thing can be conceived not to exist. Likewise, there is no necessity in our replacing each thing with something else.

This can, perhaps, be made clearer by referring to what we know of familiar objects, for example, trees. We know all trees are contingent. Hence, we can conceive that each tree might cease to be and be replaced by nothing else. In the same manner, we know all beings to be contingent (except God, in his special sense) and, hence, we can conceive that each being might cease to be and be replaced by nothing else. If this is absurd, if the notion of absolute nothingness is mere verbiage, because it does not "make sense," then the notion of there being no trees is likewise absurd -- but clearly it is not.

Again, perhaps this is not sufficient. One may reply that the analogy between there being no trees and no concreta at all does not hold because in the case of the trees there would always be some "cause" by virtue of which the trees would disappear; there would be a blight or a scourge, they would wither and die, etc. On the other hand, there could be no cause by virtue of which all beings (or events) could cease to be, for if a being were the last being (or an event the last event) then either (1) it would have to be part of that being’s intrinsic nature to be the last being or (2) something else would have to destroy it, cause it to cease to be.

But, (1), we can form no consistent idea of a being (or event) whose intrinsic nature it is to be the last; and (2) if something else destroyed the being, then that something else would itself, still exist. Hence there would still be something; the event would not be the last.

Let us grant this disanalogy. However, if it can be shown that we can and do conceive of trees (or whatever) simply vanishing "into thin air" with no "cause" then it will be shown that a being or event could be the last by simply vanishing, with no "cause" "making" it do so. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this.

(1) Almost all so-called "magic tricks" are based on the assumption that we can conceive of things simply vanishing. When the magician pulls a rabbit out of an "empty" hat, we, of course, think there is some "trick" to it; the rabbit was somehow concealed in the hat beforehand. Likewise, when an egg is wrapped in a handkerchief and then has disappeared when the handkerchief is removed, we think the magician has it up his sleeve. However, and this is precisely the point, the whole "magic" or "mystery" of the show is predicated on the fact that we can conceive that the rabbit might just have appeared out of nothing and that the egg might just have vanished into nothing -- with no "cause," except the waving of a "magic" wand. The whole fun of it is just the lingering doubt in the back of our minds that perhaps the rabbit did just "appear" and the egg did just "vanish." Were it not for our ability to conceive this, magic acts would never have made a dime. And, if we can conceive an egg’s just vanishing, with no "cause," we can conceive that the same thing might occur with all contingent beings.

(2) The ability to conceive "causeless" (or spontaneous) creation is part and parcel of one of the two leading scientific cosmologies of the day, the "steady state theory.

Herman Bondi states:

The most remarkable feature of this theory is the process of continual creation. Owing to the expansion of the universe, the mean density of matter would appear to be diminishing all the time, contrary to the assumption that the system is unchanging. If we wish to remain true to our assumptions, therefore, we have no choice but to postulate that there is going on everywhere and at all times a continual creation of matter, the appearance of atoms of hydrogen out of nothing. (1 :42)1

Clearly, if we can conceive things simply coming to be out of nothing, for no "cause" or "reason," we can likewise conceive their vanishing into nothing for no cause or reason. Again, this is not to argue that things do happen in this way hut only that it is conceivable, logically possible -- it is not contradictory and it is not nonsense or mere verbiage. If it were no one would ever attend a magic show and the "steady state" theory would never have been conceived.

Hence, it is conceivable that everything may cease to be for no "cause" or "reason" It could just occur. Hence, it follows that it is not necessary that there be any universe at all. It then follows from this that it is not ultimately necessary that God should exist. For, as we have already shown, God necessarily exists if and only if at least some universe necessarily exists. Hence, Hartshorne not only has not proved God’s necessary existence, he cannot.

Further, if "necessary existence" must be part of the divine essence, and Hartshorne says it must, then Hartshorne’s concept of God cannot be an adequate concept of God.


1. Bondi, Herman. The Universe at Large. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960.

2. Hartshorne, Charles. A Natural Theology for Our Time. LaSalle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1967.

3. Hartshome, Charles. Mans Vision of God and the Logic of Theism. New York: Harper and Row, 1941. Reprinted by Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Press, 1964.

4. Hartshome, Charles. "Necessity." The Review of Metaphysics, 21 (December, 1967).

5. Hartshorne, Charles, and Reese, William L. Philosophers Speak of God. Chicago: Univsity of Chicago Press. 1953.

6. Hartshome, Charles. "Real Possibility." The Journal of Philosophy, 60 (October 10, 1963).

7. Hartshorne, Charles. Reality as Social Process. Glencue, Illinois The Free Press, 1953.

8. Hartshorne, Charles. The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

9. Hartshorne, Charles. "The God of Religion and the God of Philosophy." Talk of God. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, II. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1969.

10. Hartshorne, Charles. The Logic of Perfection and Other Essays in NeoClassical Metaphysics. LaSalle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1962.

11. Hartshorne, Charles. "Tillich’s Doctrine of God." The Theology of Paul Tillich. Edited by Charles W. Kegley and Rckert W. Bretall. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961.

12. Heidegger, Martin. Introduction to Metaphysics. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Garden City, New York: Doubleday 6’ Company, Inc. Anchor -Books, 1961.

13. Huxley, Julian. Essays of a Humanist. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.

14. Malcolm, Norman. Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.

15. Purtill, R. L. "Ontological Modalities." The Review of Metaphysics, 21 (December, 1967).

16. Reese, William L. "Non-Being and Negative Reference." Process and Divinity. Edited by William L. Reese and Eugene Freeman. LaSalle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1964.

17. Smart, J. J. C. "The Existence of God." New Essays in Philosophical Theology. Edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair Maclntyre. London: SCM Press, 1955.


1. Cf. also, William Rowe, "The Cosmological Argument and the Principle of Sufficient Reason," Man and World. 2 (1968), p. 28V "The difficulty with the view that the Principle [of Sufficient Reason] . . . is necessary is that we do seem able to conceive of things existing, or even of things coming into existence, without having to conceive of those things as having an explanation or cause. Unlike the proposition ‘Some red things are not colored,’ it does seem conceptually possible that something should exist and yet have no cause or explanation of its existence. As Hume remarks, "The separation, therefore, of the idea of a cause from that of a beginning of existence is plainly possible for the imagination, and consequently the actual separation of those objects is so far possible that it implies no contradiction nor absurdity, . . .’ Indeed, not only does the denial of the Principle seem to be possible, philosophers have held that the denial of the Principle is true. [For example, John Laird states:] ‘Many philosophers have maintained that it is not true that everything that exists, or even that everything that has a beginning, has a cause, that is to say, is an effect. The world, they say, contains ‘spontaneous,’ free, or uncaused and unoriginated events. In any case they assert very Positively that there is no way of proving that such uncaused events do not occur.’ " The quote from Hume is from his Treatise. Book I, pt. III section 3. The quote from Laird is from his Theism and Cosmology (New York: Philosophical Library, 1942), p. 95.