A Polytheist Response to Gel

I originally composed a longer paper version of this post and intended to submit it for publication, but I do not think that is a fruitful use of my time any longer—I honestly don’t think it will be until I get letters next to my name. And I will! Eventually. Until then, I’ll fight the good fight through the means I have, such as this site. Enjoy this condensed version, then, of my response to Eric Gel’s argument for monotheism:


The notion of someone believing there are many things which are pure esse is surely unheard of, but not difficult to imagine. It is unheard of because the philosophical tradition which developed and utilizes concepts like ‘pure esse’ is historically and overwhelmingly committed to monotheism—the view, here, that there is exactly one thing which is pure esse. But imagine someone who takes himself to have had veridical religious experiences of different deities. Or suppose he accepts the testimony of others who have reported having had such encounters—and there is surely no shortage of such reports. However, in trying to understand the metaphysical nature of these deities or the role they play in the world, this individual becomes convinced of a more classical metaphysics. In fact, he becomes a classical theist. As such, he describes each God as being pure esse.

Call this person ‘Thomas’—clearly of no relation to Aquinas. What happens when Thomas is confronted with the arguments for monotheism in the tradition of metaphysics he has come to believe in? Consider one such recent articulation organized by Joseph Schmid (68), but originally given by Eric Gel (2021):

  1. For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, there would have to be some feature(s) that differentiate(s) each from the other(s).
  2. But nothing that is pure esse could have such differentiating features.
  3. So, there cannot be more than one thing that is pure esse. (1, 2)
  4. But whatever is purely actual is pure esse.
  5. So, there cannot be more than one purely actual thing. (3, 4)

The argument seems straightforwardly valid, and we can suppose for argument’s sake that all its premises are true. The question I want to ask is whether Thomas is or ought to be committed to all of the premises. That is, I want to know whether this is a dialectically successful argument, or one that should persuade someone who does not already endorse the conclusion to do so. Before considering each premise in turn, some criteria for dialectical success.

Dialectical success for a deductive argument, to put it bluntly, is a matter of reasoning validly from an interlocutor’s beliefs or commitments. The use of arguments here is thus not merely a tool for justifying one’s belief in the conclusion, but for persuading someone to change their mind about the conclusion. In order to do that, we present propositions for which they have some positive epistemic attitude toward (credence, certitude, belief, acceptance, commitment, etc.) and show that the conclusion follows from them. Logic, then, compels them to either change their mind about the conclusion, or about one or more of the premises. But if the interlocutor does not have any epistemic regard for one of the premises, then it is not her commitments the argument reasons from, but someone else’s, and the argument provides her with no reason to change her mind.

Minimally, then, we might say that a deductive argument is dialectically successful if (i) it is valid and (ii) its premises do not beg the question. There may be other conditions a deductive argument must meet to be “good” or “sound.” For example, the premises should also be true, and the argument should not be subject to parody. But our discussion need not consider these and will focus primarily on conditions (i) and (ii). With the relevant criteria in mind, then, let us consider each premise in turn.

  1. For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, there would have to be some feature(s) that differentiate(s) each from the other(s).

We can imagine without much difficulty that Thomas believes that in order for there to be two or more things, they must in some way differ from one another. In fact, this is borderline if not outright tautologous: if x and y are not identical then x and y are different. So let this concession be a matter of basic charity. But notice that this conceded proposition is not the same as premise (1), and that it is not so in very important respects. Premise (1) does not say merely that two or more things which are pure esse would have to differ from one another, but that they would have to differ from one another by ‘features’.

This addition might strike one as an odd one to make to Thomas, committed to a more classical approach to metaphysics and divinity as he is. For, as Gel says (2021, 3) “there is nothing outside pure being that could act, with respect to it, as a differentiating factor…” Why then should Thomas turn around and believe now that there would need to be such a factor for something that is pure being? If such a thing does not need external differentiating factors in order to be individuated in the first place when there is only one, why does it need such factors for it to be individuated when there are many?

But perhaps Thomas is not being asked to believe in a differentiating factor that is “outside” the pure esse. After all, premise (1) merely says that multiple pure esses would need some differentiating feature or other. In fact, in light of Gel’s remark that external differentiating features are off the table, it seems we must interpret premise (1) to mean that their non-identicality would have to involve internal differentiating features. The question then becomes what could this mean? If such features acted on the pure esse as if they were “outside” of it; or indeed distinct from it, they would not have distinguished themselves from the external features we have just ruled out. So, it seems, these internal features must just be the pure esse itself. This is in keeping with doctrines of divine simplicity so well known to be part of the classical theist project as well.

But then the proposal in premise (1) becomes that if there are multiple pure esses, they would have to be non-identical. That is to say, if x and y are not identical then x and y are different. So perhaps Thomas is or should be committed to premise (1) after all—so long as it is interpreted in light of other classical commitments, such as divine simplicity. Premise (1) then becomes something like this:

(1)*: For there to be more than one thing that is pure esse, they would have to have their own identities.

The idea of ‘identity’ here need not involve anything especially controversial. We simply need our terms and concepts to be able to pick out a pure esse in some way. So long as there is something answering to our references, even if only by analogy, there is something with the relevant sense of identity. It needs only some measure of unity, indivision, lest it be nothing at all. Indeed, without even this level of identity, there would be no God of monotheism.

2. But nothing that is pure esse could have such differentiating features.

In light of our analysis of premise (1), premise (2) now becomes deeply problematic: it equivocates with premise (1) over the term “differentiating features.” In (1), this term refers to internal features or to the pure esse itself; so that its identity or individuation is immediate rather than mediated; it is a se, as the classical metaphysicians might say, not ab alio. But (2) uses this term instead to refer to external differentiating features of the sort that Gel ruled out in his comment above; features outside what is pure being and which act on it. If premises (1) and (2) equivocate, the argument is formally invalid and offers Thomas no reason to change his mind. What are our options? The equivocation can be removed if the terms mean the same thing, and they can do so in only two ways given classical theism: either “differentiating features” refers to ‘internal’ features in both premises, or it refers to ‘external’ features in both premises.

Suppose we take the first option; the ‘internal feature’ option. In this case, we at least get premise (1) and so can fairly expect that Thomas is committed to it. But then what premise (2) says is that nothing that is pure esse could have identity. That is to say, there could not be anything that is pure esse. To the classical theist, and so someone like Thomas, this is materially equivalent to atheism. In this case, the argument immediately ceases to be a reasoning from propositions that Thomas accepts to a conclusion that he does not accept. That is, the argument immediately becomes dialectically unsuccessful. And of all things to reason with Thomas from, atheism would be a peculiarly strange one. Perhaps even stranger, however, would be for atheism to be asserted by someone of a similar metaphysical persuasion, such as a classical monotheist.

Suppose we take the second option instead then; the ‘external feature’ option. In this case, we no longer get premise (1). That is, we no longer reason from the belief of Thomas’ that two Gods would need to differ, but from the belief of someone else that Gods would need to differ by features. As such, the argument becomes dialectically unsuccessful right out of the gate. Recall that if Gods need to differ by features, then it is because they are not already individuated by the very fact of their being at all. Theirs would be a mediated identity, not one that is a se, but ab alio. In light of this result, it may be that on this option we at least get premise (2) for Thomas, since he thinks Gods could not have external features, but now, when combined with (1), it means there are no Gods. For, if a pure being’s identity is not a se, intrinsic, internal or some other relevant inherence, then it is of the sort that (2) tells us is impossible. As such, nothing is pure being.

Our analysis has uncovered a curious detail in classical monotheist thought, at least as represented by Gel’s argument—which even those moderately interested in the literature will know is a standard form of argument: God must be individuated or apprised of identity in some sense, and yet could not be so through the having of any features. That is, God must be individuated simply by the fact that he is at all: divine identity is not based on anything, but is intrinsically necessary, or a se. But, then, by parity of reason, should there be more than one God, they too, simply by virtue of being pure esse, would be inherently individuated and so consequently in no need of further means of differentiation. They would each have their own irreducible, divinely simple identities, and this would literally constitute their differentiation.

In light of these criticisms, Thomas can only accept (1) at the expense of (2), and (2) and the expense of (1): they are mutually exclusive, and so the argument is dead in the water, offering Thomas zero reason to change his mind about how many things are pure esse. Notice that this result did not follow from any argument for polytheism. Neither did it follow from any skepticism of the principle of indiscernibility, as Gel addresses in in his 2022. So it would not do to demand that the polytheist such as Thomas explain how there can be non-identical things with nothing more to themselves than the same essence ‘to be’ (2022, 6): their divine simplicity would never permit such an un-individualized, general thing in the first place, and so this demand would not only beg the question, but commit a category error.

Thomas’ rejection of this argument follows from little more than the internal tension of the monotheist argument itself. He did not have to provide any account of divine plurality to reject this argument, that is, it collapsed under its own weight. As for premise (4), it is incidental to the amount of beings that are pure esse, and so can be conceded for the sake of argument.


In conclusion, then, we found that the argument for monotheism satisfies the dialectical success criterion of logical validity only if it uses “differentiating features” in the same sense across premises (1) and (2). But in either sense available to it, this means asserting atheism, and so asks Thomas to endorse contradictory propositions. Maybe these propositions are not contradictory given someone else’s beliefs or commitments, but they are contradictory given Thomas’—the sort of person to whom this argument is relevant. As such, the argument reasons from someone else’s beliefs rather than from Thomas’ and we may conclude that as it is stated, it is not a dialectically successful argument and so provides polytheists such as Thomas with no reason to change their mind. It simply organizes and reports the beliefs of monotheists.

One final remark. The conversation between Oppy, Schmid, Gel and others, concerning how many beings are pure esse is a philosophical inquiry into the integrity of monotheism and so by direct extension of polytheism.

Curious, then, that no polytheist is involved.


Gel, 2021 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/how-many-and-why-a-question-for-graham-oppy-that-classical-theism-can-answer/6A02C937BB5E7CF12C70B5DC3D532CA9

Scmid, 2022 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/naturalism-classical-theism-and-first-causes/C8B373E5EA8C6AC0D386DD247AB92803

Gel, 2022 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/religious-studies/article/there-can-be-only-one-a-response-to-joseph-c-schmid/F05CFC25EB594A750B15C61BF6DE3281


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