Pawl and Grant on the Aloneness Argument: A Response


Tim Pawl and W. Matthews Grant—two philosophers whom I greatly admire and from whose work I have immensely benefitted and learned—have recently responded in the journal Religious Studies to my co-authored article with Ryan Mullins. I extend my utmost gratitude to Pawl and Grant for their engagement, and I aim to offer a cordial and thoughtful response in this post.

Here’s an outline of the post:

1 My current take on the Aloneness Argument

2 Comments on Pawl and Grant’s article

3 Bullets Bitten

            3.1 Nog Problem

            3.2 Non-negative existentials and vicious circularity

            3.3 Content Essentialism

4 Sketches towards new Aloneness Arguments

            4.1 TSB and the lonely world segment

            4.2 Others

5 Conclusion

Note #1: It’s finals season [i.e., it’s the end of semester], so I’m drowning in essays due and exams to study for. As such, please don’t expect me to be able to engage in extended back-and-forth in the coming weeks. 

Note #2: My blog will be moving to the blog portion of

! For the next few blog posts, though, I will be uploading them on both that website and the Majesty of Reason site. But the transition is underway, and soon my posts will be exclusively on

. 

1 My current take on the Aloneness Argument

My take on the Aloneness Argument (and the various, fascinating problems and dialectical avenues it raises) has been continually refined in light of new reflection and exploration. I never viewed the argument as decisive. As I explained in May 2020 in my video on the Aloneness Argument,

Is this decisive? Almost nothing in philosophy is decisive. No, I don’t claim this is decisive. It’s a tool for greater understanding and exploration. It’s really just an invitation to inquiry, an invitation to thinking about the ultimate nature of reality. I don’t claim to have settled the debate—once again, this is a tool. This is a tool for greater understanding and greater exploration. (



In line with this thinking, I was keen to emphasize, in my discussion with Zac from Adherent Apologetics this past June, that

This argument is not meant to be knock-down or anything like that. For most arguments in philosophy, there are going to be ways you can get out of certain premises. It might involve biting some bullets—some pretty strong bullets—but I don’t want to give people the impression that this is some insuperable, knock-down, decisive refutation that is irrefutable. We can put that kind of polemics to the side. Let’s just explore reality together, and let’s have the requisite intellectual humility to recognize that our arguments might not be infallible. (



I also explain therein my current take on the Aloneness Argument:

I don’t think anyone should use this argument as a weapon. I think there might be certain ways classical theists can respond, it’s just I think they’re gonna involve biting certain bullets. What I would argue is that there are lots of bullets the classical theist would have to bite in order to successfully get out of the Aloneness Argument. (



My current take, in other words, is that—strictly speaking—the classical theist can avert the Aloneness Argument without logical inconsistency. It’s just that the dialectical moves the classical theist must make to accomplish this raise the intellectual price tag of classical theism. Bullets will be bitten, and depending on one’s epistemic situation, such bullets will be very hard ones to bite. This, I think, is the best that most philosophical arguments can hope for.

With all this in mind, I have come to disagree with some of the framing in our

Aloneness Argument article

. In particular—and unfortunately—Mullins and I are somewhat unclear what, exactly, we took our argument to deliver in the article:

  • Is it a strict contradiction among the four theses?
  • Is it a difficulty/tension/worry/conflict among them [which is, perhaps, buttressed by plausible auxiliary theses]?
  • Or is it a problem for classical theism which, while technically [potentially] resolvable, will require bullets to bite or theoretical costs to accrue to CT?

Due to our ambiguity, there are aspects of our article supporting each disambiguation. In our abstract, we describe the argument twice as a ‘conflict’. We also use ‘conflict’ in our introduction and on p. 6. This supports the second disambiguation, (2). In our conclusion, however, we say ‘inconsistent’ and ‘inconsistency’, and we also say ‘consistency’ on p. 4. This supports the first disambiguation, (1).

But my current view, as I’ve explained, aligns with (3). To be sure, there are elements of article that support (3). For we often make explicit appeals to auxiliary claims that are independently plausible in their own right even though not internally contained (as explicit affirmations) within classical theism. (Consider, e.g., our appeal to never-existent things’ being unable to stand in relations and have properties; or consider our appeal to content essentialism; or consider our appeal to a ‘grounding objection’ to extrinsic knowledge in reply to Grant; or consider our points about the independent plausibility of intrinsic features differing across worlds as knowledge/belief/desire differs across worlds; and so on.) Whatever we make about the success of such independent appeals, their repeated presence in the article does support (3). But there is no denying that Mullins and I were not sufficiently clear which of (1)-(3) the Aloneness Argument was intended to deliver. My purpose here, then, is (i) to call attention to this unclarity and (ii) to remedy it by unequivocally espousing (3).

2 Comments on Pawl and Grant’s article

I won’t be offering exhaustive comments on Pawl and Grant’s article, but I will comment on some its main points.

One thing, though, before I start: by Pawl and Grant’s lights, the Aloneness Argument—despite its [purported] failure—“advances the discussion of classical theism” (p. 1). This alone is something worth celebrating—it shows that the argument, irrespective of its success, has served people. This alone is a significant kind of success. All too often we forget that arguments can serve people and advance discussions even if they don’t ultimately succeed. And this service and advancement is deeply valuable in its own right. To be sure, I disagree with Pawl and Grant that the argument ‘fails’;  as I will argue later, its avoidance requires the classical several to bite several (by-my-lights-quite-serious) bullets. But stopping to recognize value where its present helps us see treasures that would otherwise be missed.


On p. 4, Pawl and Grant write: “Notice that, on Schmid and Mullins’ accounting, both extrinsic predications and extrinsic features require that there be something outside the subject S of the predication or feature to which S relationally stands.”

This points to something I’ve wished I could change about our article for quite some time now. In particular, I think this account is (i) not the only account of extrinsics, (ii) a quite controversial account of extrinsics, and (iii) a false account of extrinsics. For some extrinsic properties can be had by things that are not accompanied by anything else. (Alternatively, we could say—if we wish to remain neutral on whether there are such properties—that some extrinsic predications are true of things that are not accompanied by anything else.)

Now, Mullins and I explicitly recognize this later in our article—in particular, in response to Objection One. Therein we distinguish between positive extrinsic properties/predications and negative extrinsic properties/predications. As we characterize them:

  • Positive extrinsic: a relation to some disjoint thing
    • Thus, a positive extrinsic property of S would be a relational property borne by S to something ad extra, whereas a positive extrinsic predication of S would be S’s truthfully satisfying a predicate that characterizes S as it connects to some disjoint thing
  • Negative extrinsic: A lack of relation to some disjoint thing
    • Thus, a negative extrinsic property of S would be S’s failing to bear a relational property to something ad extra, whereas a negative extrinsic predication of S would be S’s truthfully satisfying a predicate that characterizes S as it fails to connect to some disjoint thing

[Note that this is how Mullins and I characterize these. More on that anon.]

But there is no denying that our earlier portions of the article aren’t faithful to what we explicitly recognize late in the article. In other words, we made the following mistake: we recognize, later in the article, that some extrinsics don’t require the existence of outside/disjoint objects, and yet we characterize extrinsics (earlier in the article) in a way that requires the existence of outside/disjoint objects. If I could, I would re-write the earlier portion of the article to reflect this; but, unfortunately, that isn’t an option!

In our defense, we do recognize, in footnote 24, that “The proposed counter-example [involving an extrinsic property/predicate that doesn’t require something ad extra] is helpful, though, since it clarifies that our understanding/analysis of in/extrinsicality is restricted to positive features.” Thus, we clarify later in the article that our analysis is inapplicable to negative extrinsics, thereby rendering our account immune to the counterexamples in question. But we certainly should have changed the earlier portion of our article to reflect this restriction.


On p. 4, Pawl and Grant summarize their central dilemma for the Aloneness Argument: “We maintain that the Aloneness Argument fails either way ‘God’s knowledge’ is interpreted across the argument. If it is interpreted as a feature, then premise 5 would be rejected by proponents of classical theism and, moreover, results in the argument’s having contradictory premises. If it is interpreted as a predication, then premise 2 rests on an account of the requirements for extrinsic predication that is almost certainly false or, at the very least, not something to which any philosopher need feel committed.”

I think this central dilemma advances the discussion and genuinely helps clarify the Aloneness Argument. In particular, I think it helpfully prompts a slight modification thereof. To avoid the dilemma, we need only (i) modify premise (2) to quantify solely over positive [i.e., non-negative] extrinsics, and then (ii) argue that God’s knowledge (or God’s belief, or God’s desire, or God’s choice, whatever other divine mental or volitional state on which we might focus in the alone world) is not a negative extrinsic.

[Aside. I will not be pursuing the horn of the dilemma on which God’s knowledge is interpreted as a feature. Instead, I will pursue the horn on which God’s knowledge is interpreted as a predication. I should, then, address what Pawl and Grant say here:

It looks as if the inference at 9, ‘Possibly, God has an accident’, requires that line 6, from which it is inferred, be interpreted as talking about God’s knowledge as a feature. But line 6, understood to be talking about a feature, won’t follow from 4 and 5 unless God’s knowledge in those lines is taken to refer to features as well, and so on up the rest of the argument. (p. 4)

I think this, too, invites a very helpful clarification and slight modification of the Aloneness Argument. The inference at (9) does not require that line (6) be interpreted as talking about God’s knowledge as a feature so long as (7) and (8) are modified along the following lines:

7’. Whatever is predicated wholly intrinsically of S corresponds either to an essential feature of S or an accident of S.

8’. Nothing predicated contingently of God can correspond to an essential feature of God.

To me, it’s clear that there’s no loss of plausibility moving from (7) and (8) to (7’) and (8’), and the kinds of classical theists our argument targets well-nigh universally affirm both (7’) and (8’). (We could, in any case, simply drop (7), (8), (7’), and (8’) while simply adding that nothing can be predicated contingently and wholly intrinsically of God, which is part and parcel of the traditional DDS that we’re targeting in our article. Nothing of substance is lost for the Aloneness Argument. Introduced is only stylistic variation.) Since (6), under a predication reading, contingently and wholly intrinsically predicates something of God, (9) would follow without requiring a feature reading of (6).

End of aside.]


On p. 5, Pawl and Grant write: “But the demand on which the predication interpretation of this premise rests – that an extrinsic predication requires something outside the subject of that predication to which that subject relationally stands – is too strong. On our preferred view of extrinsic predications, they do not require an additional thing out there. Predications can be extrinsic based on whether or not the thing stands in relation to some further thing.”

I agree with Pawl and Grant here; a view of extrinsics on which they require disjoint objects is too strong and most likely false. As I explained earlier, Mullins and I should have modified our earlier discussion of extrinsics in light of what we say later in the paper in distinguishing between positive and negative extrinsics. The Aloneness Argument, however, doesn’t falter on this, since—as previously explained—we need only (i) modify premise (2) to quantify solely over positive [i.e., non-negative] extrinsics, and then (ii) argue that God’s knowledge (or God’s belief, or God’s desire, or God’s choice, whatever other divine mental or volitional state on which we might focus in the alone world—knowledge is inessential) is not a negative extrinsic. And even if we cannot force the classical theist to grant (ii) by their own lights, we can draw out the bullets bitten resulting from its denial. This, I think, is where the dialectic will proceed. [Once more, more on this anon.]

Because I agree with the central point of Pawl and Grant’s section beginning on p. 5 [concerning the whether-or-not view of extrinsicality and how it interacts with the original premise (2)], I won’t comment further on the section here. My response to the section is represented by the abovementioned modification of premise (2). [More precisely, my response encompasses (i) and (ii) above as well as a development of the bullets classical theists must bite if they wish to deny (ii).]

Let’s move on, then, to Pawl and Grant’s section “A reason to think that a simple God would know that he is alone”.


In this section, Pawl and Grant seek to “explain a simple God’s knowledge that he is alone in an alone world”, i.e., to explain or offer a positive account of “how it is that a simple God could know he is alone without such knowledge requiring God’s having an accidental feature” (p. 8).

It is crucial to see, first, that the Aloneness Argument concerns God’s knowledge of (alternatively: beliefs in, desires about, choices to actualize, etc.) contingent truths or facts generally. There is nothing special about God’s knowledge that he is alone. Given this, what we want is an account of how a simple God could have any contingent knowledge in an alone world. Of course if we simply presuppose that God could have contingent knowledge that he refrained from creating anything, we’ll be able to give an account of how God knows the contingent truth that follows therefrom [namely, that God exists alone]. But this is entirely uninteresting when it comes to offering a positive account of divinely simple knowledge in response to the Aloneness Argument, as the latter is concerned with God’s knowledge of anything contingent.

And yet Pawl and Grant’s positive account fails on this score. As they themselves seem to recognize, their account simply presupposes that God knows at least one contingent—namely, that God freely refrained from creating: “God would know that he is alone because he would know that nothing besides him can exist unless he creates something, and he would know that he is not creating anything” (p. 9, emphasis added).

More generally, Pawl and Grant’s account—if interpreted as an account of how God has any contingent knowledge in the alone world [which, I recognize, is not how they seem to characterize it—instead, they seem to characterize it as an account of how God knows that he is alone in the alone world; but, as I’ve explained, this is not the kind of account needed to offer an additional response to the Aloneness Argument]—is circular. Consider claim (14): “In all possible worlds, God knows the full extent of his activity” (p. 8).

Importantly, though, we need to ask what it is we’re referring to when we use ‘God’s activity’. To use terminology from the gloriously-mustached and unparalleledly-dressed Steven

Nemes (2020)

, we could understand this phrase either causally or effectually. If understood causally, then it refers to the absolutely necessary, simple, and ungrounded being of God—his necessary intrinsic act. But under this sense, the inference to God’s knowing that he exists alone simply doesn’t follow. For understood causally, this simply asserts that God knows his action as it necessarily is in all possible worlds. But this is categorically insufficient for knowing about the contingent truths/facts about the world, since God’s act (understood causally) is necessary and hence gives no indication or inkling of what is contingently true or obtaining.

But if we understand ‘God’s activity’ effectually, then it refers to the contingent effects themselves [insofar, of course, as they are brought about by God]. It refers, in other words, to the way contingent reality [or absence thereof] is. In that case, though, claim (14) is smuggling in the very thing for which we’re seeking an account. For understood effectually, claim (14) just says that God knows that there is an absence of contingent reality [insofar as this contingent absence is the indeterministic effect of God’s act]. But that’s precisely the contingent knowledge we’re supposed to be providing an account of. We’re supposed to be explaining the how-it-is-that-God-knows-contingencies-despite-being-simple, not merely presupposing that God knows this in giving such an account.


Pawl and Grant also write, in this section, that “God’s bringing about contingent objects and knowing that he is bringing them about might consist in relations to items extrinsic to God, as proponents of divine simplicity have proposed” (p. 9).

It’s not clear, though, how this is open to the proponent of the traditional DDS. In particular, it’s not clear how it is compatible with the doctrine of no real relations—something central to traditional articulations of classical theism and DDS. Prima facie, there’s tension between Pawl and Grant’s suggestion and such a doctrine, according to which God stands in no real relations with creatures. (And surely Pawl and Grant don’t want to say that the relations to which they appeal are merely logical relations that [very roughly] correspond simply to ways we conceive of things.) Surely many classical theists would revolt at the suggestions that God contingently stands in relations to creatures.

To be sure, there’s a difference between the predominant, what-we-might-call ‘contemporary analytic view’ of relations as polyadic properties that connect the relata in some way (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) the medieval view of relations as inherent monadic properties that ‘point towards’ the other relatum.


Still, classical theists typically want to deny that God has any properties whatsoever, monadic or polyadic.


(This doesn’t, of course, prevent us from truthfully predicating, say, ‘is omniscient’ of God.) Moreover, one wouldn’t want to say that a timeless God gains or loses polyadic properties as (say) a presentist creation changes and the truths change. For this would surely engender succession in the divine life—God goes from standing in R to not standing in R (or vice versa). Since nothing can stand in R and not stand in R simpliciter, we would have to divvy up the divine life in some way to avoid contradiction. (Or so it seems to me.)


For those curious to investigate the latter in more detail, see my professor

Jeff Brower’s SEP article





for some complexities and clarifications on this matter. But as Tomaszewski himself writes—in line with the explicit statements of boatloads of other classical theist scholars—“(15) God has the property of necessary existence. … Although, strictly speaking, DDS does not entail (15), since on DDS God doesn’t have any properties” (2019, p. 281).

Now let’s consider Pawl and Grant’s section “Objections and Replies”. They focus in particular on Objection One in our article and our rejoinders thereto. Pawl and Grant offer three responses to our first rejoinder: “What to make of this reply? There are at least three things to say concerning it. First, they again misunderstand Lewis’s view. Second, once Lewis’s view is properly understood, God’s knowledge that he is alone is, by Lewis’s definition, negative and extrinsic, contrary to what they claim. Third, this reply to their envisioned objection doesn’t bear on our objection to the Aloneness Argument” (p. 11). Pawl and Grant then write, in footnote 16, that “The first of these points assumes, of course, that when Schmid and Mullins define negative extrinsic properties as reporting absences, lacks, or failures of their subjects, they took themselves to be following Lewis. That that was their intention seems to us to be the natural reading of Schmid and Mullins’s text. But even if that was not their intention the second and third points hold.”

One thing seems right here, and it highlights an unclarity in our exposition. In particular, Pawl and Grant seem right that, probably, the most natural interpretation of what we say in the article is an attempt to follow Lewis’ own characterization of the distinction between positive and negative extrinsics. This, however, was not our intent. (It is certainly our fault, not the fault of Pawl and Grant, for being unclear here. I grant that what we say naturally lends itself to an interpretation on which we are attempting to characterize the distinction as Lewis does.) Instead, our intent was, first, simply to point out that counterexamples of the kind Objection One adduces—those crucially involving loneliness—were already dubbed in the literature ‘negative extrinsics’ by Lewis. We then intended [but failed to make clear such intent] to offer our own characterization of the distinction along precisely the lines that we specify in the article and then use our own characterization to respond to Objection One [regardless of what Lewis himself would make of our characterization or use thereof]. In particular, we intended to characterize the distinction as follows:

  • Positive extrinsic: a relation to some disjoint thing
    • Thus, a positive extrinsic property of S would be a relational property borne by S to something ad extra, whereas a positive extrinsic predication of S would be S’s truthfully satisfying a predicate that characterizes S as it connects to some disjoint thing
  • Negative extrinsic: A lack of relation to some disjoint thing
    • Thus, a negative extrinsic property of S would be S’s failing to bear a relational property to something ad extra, whereas a negative extrinsic predication of S would be S’s truthfully satisfying a predicate that characterizes S as it fails to connect to some disjoint thing

Given this newfound clarification, Pawl and Grant’s first and second responses are gutted of force. For, first, we did not intend [though we are at fault for offering a natural reading according to which we were intending] to characterize the distinction as Lewis does; and, second, the fact that Lewis’ characterization renders God’s knowledge in the alone world a negative extrinsic is neither her nor there given that we are not employing Lewis’ characterization. And, finally, Pawl and Grant’s third response rests on (what I termed) their ‘central dilemma’ for the aloneness argument, and I addressed that earlier.

Pawl and Grant do say something that, I think, gets to the heart of our disagreement. [Indeed, prior to reading Pawl and Grant’s article, someone voiced essentially the same point to me, and it was this response that led me to think that (i) there is a way for the classical theist to consistently avoid the Aloneness Argument, but that (ii) this way will involve biting some to-be-articulated bullets.] Pawl and Grant begin by articulating the following argument (p. 12):

18. If God’s contingent knowledge in the alone world is extrinsic, then it either consists in some failure/absence/lack of a relation to some disjoint thing, or else it consists in a relation to some disjoint thing.

19. God’s contingent knowledge in the alone world does not consist in a relation to something else.

20. God’s contingent knowledge in the alone world does not consist in some failure/ absence/lack.

21. So, God’s contingent knowledge in the alone world is not extrinsic. (from 18–20)

In response, Pawl and Grant write:

Notice that, if ‘God’s contingent knowledge’ means that positive item in virtue of which God knows that he is alone, then a proponent of our positive proposal from the previous section agrees with the conclusion, 21; for, on that proposal, the act by which God knows that he is alone is the divine substance, which is intrinsic, not extrinsic. Of course, on that proposal, whether God knows that he is alone by virtue of the divine substance depends on whether or not God is doing anything other than the activity that is the divine substance. If he were doing something other than the divine substance, this activity would consist in relations to items outside God. Thus, whether or not God knows that he is alone depends on whether or not God has or lacks relations to other things. Those conditions for whether or not ‘God knows that he is alone’ is true don’t, to our ear, translate to the claim that God’s knowledge that he is alone ‘consists in’ some failure, absence, or lack. But if someone insists that they do so translate, then we would reject premise 20, given that reading of the premise. (p. 12)

The view outlined here, I think, is the heart of the debate. Let’s call this view the ‘P&G View’. My response to the P&G View is captured in (i) and (ii) above: while it represents a logically coherent way out of the Aloneness Argument, it will require some hefty bullet-biting. But we must wait until section 3 to explore such bullets.

What, then, about Pawl and Grant’s response to our second rejoinder to Objection One? Therein Pawl and Grant (p. 13) reconstruct an argument implicitly contained in our paper:

22. God’s knowledge that he is alone has some reality (premise).

23. If God’s knowledge that he is alone has some reality, then if God is simple, then God’s knowledge that he is alone is identical to God (premise).

24. So, if God is simple, then God’s knowledge that he is alone is identical to God (from 22–23). 25. If God’s knowledge that he is alone is identical to God, then God’s knowledge that he is alone is necessary (premise).

26. God’s knowledge that he is alone is not necessary (premise). 27. Therefore, God is not simple. (from 24–26)

Pawl and Grant respond as follows:

We maintain that this version of the Aloneness Argument also fails. To see why, consider that such phrases as ‘S’s knowledge’ or ‘S’s belief’ are often ambiguous, since they can be used to refer both to S’s act/state of knowing or believing, and to that which S knows or believes. But the act/state by which S knows or believes some truth is not identical to that truth, nor need it have the same modality. For example, 2 + 2 = 4 is a necessary truth, but Mary’s act/state of knowing or believing it is contingent.

Once we distinguish between ‘God’s knowledge that he is alone’ understood as the act by which God knows and ‘God’s knowledge that he is alone’ understood as the truth known, we can see how a classical theist may respond to this variation of the Aloneness Argument. ‘God’s knowledge that he is alone’ when taken to refer to the act by which God knows that he is alone is identical to God and exists necessarily. But that which God knows – namely, that he is alone – is contingent; that is, the truth known is contingently true. We have already seen above how God could know the contingent truth that he is alone by the activity to which he is identical, which exists necessarily. The act by which God knows that he is alone is intrinsic and necessary; the truth known is contingent, and the predication ‘God knows that he is alone’ extrinsic, according to the whether-or not-view of extrinsicality. (p. 13)

This is, indeed, a coherent response that, if true, renders the argument from (22)-(26) unsuccessful. But the response also involves biting several bullets. For starters, it seems clear that the response will require the classical theist to accept the highly controversial claim that content essentialism is false.


The response affirms that God’s act of belief is necessary while the truth believed—i.e., the content of the belief—is only contingent. And this denies content essentialism.


This alone is an extremely significant result of the Aloneness Argument even if the Aloneness Argument doesn’t work. It raises the intellectual price tag of classical theism, and it seems hitherto uncountenanced—or, at least, hitherto underappreciated—in the literature.


Consider that (e.g.) Grant explicitly wishes to affirm both classical theism and content essentialism: “Unfortunately, this strategy… runs afoul of a proposition I find hard to give up, namely, Content Essentialism, the claim that beliefs, and states or acts of knowing, have their content essentially” (2012, p. 258). Avoiding the Aloneness Argument, it seems, will require that those (like Grant) who want to affirm both classical theism and content essentialism cannot have their cake and eat it too.


Second, given that content essentialism is herein denied, Pawl and Grant are vulnerable to what Ryan and I say in response to Objection Four. In particular, it seems like Pawl and Grant have only postponed (rather than removed) the problem of intrinsic contingency. For we must now ask about the locus of the content of God’s knowledge. It would seem that in the alone world, this content is either outside of God or it’s inside of God. But it cannot be outside of God in the alone world, for there is nothing outside of God in the alone world. But if it’s inside of God, then we seem saddled with contingency intrinsic to God (since it is granted, here, that the content is contingent




Content essentialism implies that “for any beliefs (or knowings) a and b, if a and b have different content, they are not the same belief (or knowing), and if a belief (or knowing) has a content p, there is no world in which the same belief (or knowing) exists without that content” (Grant 2012, p. 258). Now, as Pawl and Grant point out, terms like ‘beliefs’ and ‘knowings’ are ambiguous between the act of belief/knowing and the truth [or: proposition] believed/known. Content essentialism concerns the former sense and says, roughly, that the content of an act of belief/knowledge is essential thereto.


Where we understand ‘belief’ as ‘an act of believing’, here’s a deduction of the claim in the main text. If the content c [of some belief b] is contingent, and if content essentialism is true—such that the content of any belief is essential to said belief—then it strictly follows that b itself is contingent. For if x is essential to y, then y cannot exist without x. This is part of what it means to be essential. Socrates, for instance, cannot exist without his humanity. So, given content essentialism, it follows that b cannot exist without c. But then if c is possibly absent from reality, it thereby follows that b is likewise possibly absent from reality. For suppose that c is possibly absent from reality. Go to the world in which c fails to exist. Suppose, for reductio, that b exists in this world. Then, it’s simply false that b cannot exist without c. For b exists in this world, but c doesn’t. But then c, after all, is not essential to b, contrary to our supposition of content essentialism. Hence, content essentialism strictly entails that if the content of a belief is contingent, the belief itself is likewise contingent.


Content essentialism is often simply assumed in philosophical inquiry because it is taken to be either obvious or commonsensical. Thus, Marian David writes:

I believe that flies are insects. This belief of mine has the content that flies are insects. Now, if beliefs do not have their contents essentially, then this belief of mine, the belief that flies are insects, could have been the very same belief it is, even if it hadn’t had the content that flies are insects, that is, even if it hadn’t been the belief that flies are insects. That means, it might have been the very same belief it is, even if it had been the belief that flies are mammals, say, or the belief that apples are nice to eat. This sounds rather odd, which might suggest that my question is indeed not very deep, simply because it’s too obvious what the answer must be: beliefs do have their contents essentially. (David 2002, p. 104)

The (seemingly) common sense argument seems to stem from individuation: what else could individuate beliefs (tokens and types) except for their contents? In virtue of what are beliefs individuated? The natural answer, to many philosophers, is their content. Perhaps it is the commonsense nature of content essentialism that explains why many philosophers—including classical theist scholar W. Matthews Grant—are quite reluctant to give the thesis up.


It should be clear, for precisely the same reasons, that the P&G View also denies content essentialism.


Or, at least, some aspect of the content [e.g., its truth value, or its relations to divine mental acts/states] is contingent. Either way, we seem saddled with contingency whose locus is in God.

What about Pawl and Grant’s response to our third rejoinder to Objection One? Just as Pawl and Grant are very brief here [following the brevity of our original third rejoinder], I will be brief in response to Pawl and Grant. I won’t then, exhaustively examine and criticize everything they write by way of response. I do wish to comment, though, on what they say about the dialectical context of Grant’s response to the grounding objection to extrinsic models of divine knowledge.

The question about grounding that Grant takes up, then, was not about how God could be omniscient in the first place without varying intrinsic states. And simply to assert that God can’t be omniscient without such states is to beg the question against extrinsic models of divine cognition. (p. 15)

There are two issues with this. First, yes, the question about grounding that Grant takes up was not about how God could be omniscient in the first place without varying intrinsic states. But Mullins and I don’t say otherwise. Our point was simply that Grant’s proposed solution to the grounding problem that Grant does take up merely re-locates the problem of explaining or grounding the truths of different contingent predications of divine knowledge across worlds. The grounding problem, in other words, is shifted to how God could be omniscient in the first place given that there is no variance on God’s end across worlds (and hence nothing to ground or account for, on God’s end, differences in God’s knowledge across worlds). So, Mullins and I weren’t saying that the question about grounding Grant was trying to solve was about how God could be omniscient in the first place without varying intrinsic states. We were instead saying that Grant’s solution—if applied to the present context of contingent divine knowledge—doesn’t resolve but rather re-locates the grounding problem now as applied to God’s omniscience. We do not imply or suggest that the question Grant takes up was about how God could be omniscient in the first place without varying intrinsic states.

Second, I don’t think there’s any question-begging here. We are simply appealing to claims that are independently highly intuitively plausible. (At least, highly intuitively plausible by my lights, by Mullins’ lights, by the lights of many others who mount grounding objections to extrinsicalizing models, and by the lights of lots of others I’ve talked to in the course of discussing the Aloneness Argument with others.) To be sure, those committed to extrinsic models must reject those claims; but that’s the point. We aren’t simply asserting or even assuming the falsity of the extrinsic model; we are, instead, pointing out that it is committed to quite unintuitive claims. It is the intuitions that give us defeasible reason to reject the claims in question, and there’s nothing question-begging in that.


And, finally, Pawl and Grant comment on our desire-rendition of the Aloneness Argument.

A final objection from Schmid and Mullins holds that ‘(i) truths are such that God desires to know them, and (ii) one cannot change S’s desires merely by altering things wholly outside of and apart from S’ (ibid.). We find the initial premise of this objection puzzling. The object of desire is normally taken to be something the desirer does not yet possess. For God to desire to know some truth, then, would imply that God does not yet know it. With other classical theists, we deny that there are truths that God does not know. Perhaps Schmid and Mullins mean that God desires to know the truth, whatever that may be, whether God knows it already or not. Similarly, we might desire health even when we are healthy. If that’s the case, then it isn’t clear that God’s desire does have to change across worlds when altering things apart from him. In any world, that desire – the desire to know the truth – will be had by God. (p. 15)

This response strikes me as implausible. First—and to clarify—Mullins and I are concerned with desires for things one already has. I desire to flourish; I desire goodness; I desire knowledge; I desire virtue; and so on. But in each of these cases, I already possess the object of my desire [at least to some degree]. Second, I think it is quite clear that some of God’s desire(s) do have to vary across worlds when altering things apart from him. For instance, for any truth p, God desires to know that p is true. But truths vary across worlds, and hence God’s desires vary across worlds. Yes, God’s abstract desire to know the truth doesn’t vary across worlds. But God doesn’t merely have this abstract desire. God also has particular desires—desires (say) to know that (e.g.) Jesus redeemed humanity, to have a personal relationship with finite creatures, to bring token goods out of token evils, and so on. So yes, Pawl and Grant are right that God’s abstract desire to know the truth won’t vary across worlds. But this says nothing about God’s particular desires, and it is quite clear that those will, indeed, vary across worlds.

3 Bullets Bitten

The Aloneness Argument is valuable in part because the move classical theists need to avoid it—the move captured in the P&G View—saddles classical theism with hitherto un- or underappreciated bullets to bite.

3.1 Nog Problem

Consider a Non-omniscient God—Nog. Nog is qualitatively identical to the classical theistic God, except for the following: we stipulate that Nog doesn’t (and can’t) have any contingent knowledge. Nog knows all and only necessary truths. Nog is thoroughly uninfected by contingency, so much so that he is only aware of (and only knows) necessary things. He doesn’t know contingent things and, indeed, is incapable of knowing them. Other than that, though, Nog is pure, undifferentiated actuality; Nog is numerically identical to everything in Nog across all worlds, and Nog is absolutely simple. Indeed, Nog is qualitatively identical to the classical theistic God. In extramental (non-predicative, non-linguistic) reality, there is only the one, absolutely necessary, simple, ungrounded Nog. [I am obviously not claiming that Nog exists or is genuinely possible. It’s simply a thought experiment to help us draw out a theoretical cost accruing to classical theism in light of the P&G View.]

Now, what makes Nog different from the classical theistic God? What, in other words, explains their difference? The P&G View seems to debar any adequate answer.

Consider the classical-theistic-[CT]-God-alone-world and the Nog-alone-world. In extramental, non-linguistic, non-predicative reality, these two worlds are entirely identical. There is no difference between them. ‘Entitatively’ (as it were), there’s only the absolutely simple, necessary act in the alone worlds. This is true of the CT God, and the same is true of Nog. The differences between Nog and the CT God, when it comes to what is contingently true of each’s knowledge, are inexplicable—there is nothing in reality in virtue of which they are differentiated from one another with respect to contingent knowledge. For, in either world, there is no contingent act of knowledge [or even contingent content of knowledge] that obtains. The only difference is in our predications of contingent knowledge to the two beings. But there seems to be nothing to ground, explain, or account for such differences, since there is no contingency in reality to which the contingent knowledge or contingent content [or contingent desires, beliefs, choices, etc.] could correspond. And surely this is both (i) implausible in its own right, and (ii) points to a theoretical cost accruing to classical theism in virtue of being unable to explain, entitatively, the difference in these cases.

[Note: It won’t do to say that what explains the difference is that the CT God is omniscient while Nog isn’t, since (i) that is to describe, linguistically or predicatively, the difference between them, not to pinpoint that in virtue of which they’re different; and (ii) the very question at issue is whether the CT God counts as omniscient in light of the Nog example, and hence it seems question-begging to appeal to omniscience at this juncture. For more on this second point, see p. 10 of my article with Ryan Mullins in Religious Studies.]

Another, more mundane example to bring out the implausibility could focus on a world in which I, Joe, am alone. Suppose I fall asleep and then, per impossibile, come to be alone in the world while sleeping [suppose some freak metaphysical accident annihilated everything disjoint from me]. I think it’s clearly true that I don’t know that I am alone. But why?

It seems plausible that the reason I don’t have the relevant bit of knowledge here is plausibly because absolutely no feature concerning me or things within me has changed. The only thing that’s changed is what we’ve labeled, what we’ve predicatedNothing about the relevant positive ontological items—about my justifications, my beliefs, my relations to facts or propositions or truths, my acts of awareness, my reasons, or anything of this sort—has changed. And yet this is precisely what we must accept in the case of the classical theistic God—a mere ‘predicative’ difference. Nothing about God himself is different when we compare God-accompanied worlds and God-alone worlds; and, moreover, nothing about God and Nog themselves are different in their alone worlds, for there is no contingency at all in either world that could correspond to the purported contingent knowledge God possesses in the alone world.

[Again, note that it won’t do to blithely appeal to essential omniscience, here. For (i) this simply fails to pinpoint what it is in virtue of which the CT God gets to count as omniscient [and, in particular, gets to count as knowing contingent truths], and moreover (ii) the very question at issue is whether God can be omniscient (in particular, know contingent truths) if, indeed, absolutely no feature concerning God or things within God has changed when it comes to cross-world changes in God’s knowledge.]

As the Nog and Joe-alone-world examples are meant to illustrate, the P&G View—proffered to avert the Aloneness Argument—on which God’s contingent knowledge in the alone world corresponds to no contingent reality but instead corresponds to a purely necessary reality of which we make contingent predications just doesn’t seem sufficient to deliver God’s actually having contingent knowledge in the alone world.

3.2 Non-negative existentials and vicious circularity

A still further bullet the P&G View will saddle the classical theist with is the looming threat of  vicious circularity. For we must consider not only God’s knowledge in the alone world of negative existentials like ‘there does not exist an x distinct from me’ [i.e., ‘I exist alone’] but also, as Ryan and I point out in fn. 21, of contingent non-negative-existentials.

Consider: in the alone world, God knows that he freely and providentially chooses to refrain from creating. This is knowledge about God’s free choice, not about the absence of non-God stuff. It’s difficult, then, to see how this predication could be due to [explained in terms of; be true in virtue of or because of] the absence of relations between God and God’s potential creaturely companions.

The only way out of this problem is to say that God’s act is an act of freely choosing to refrain from creating because of the absence of creatures. In that way, we can explain the contingency of the contingently true predication that God knows <God freely chose to refrain from creating> in terms of the contingency of the contingently true predication that God’s freely chose to refrain from creating, and then—to avoid commitment to a contingent act accruing to God—we can explain the contingency of the contingently true predication that God freely chose to refrain from creating in terms of the contingent absence of creatures. And the latter doesn’t require any contingent positive ontological items to obtain/exist in the alone world.

But this way out of the problem seems viciously circular. For surely God’s free choice to refrain from creating isn’t a free choice to refrain from creating because of there being no creatures; rather, there are no creatures precisely because God’s act is a free choice to refrain from creating. The story offered in the P&Q View thus seems to get the order of wrong. Plausibly, it couldn’t be the case that God’s act counts as an act of freely choosing to refrain from creating in virtue of there being no creatures; rather, there are no creatures in virtue of God’s act being a free choice to refrain from bringing them into being.

The problem for the P&Q View, then, is as follows. Holding that contingent predications of knowledge to God in the alone world are true in virtue of the lack/absence of relations to creatures doesn’t account for God’s knowledge that isn’t about the absence of creatures but is instead about God’s free, providential choice to refrain from creating. The only way to avert this problem and retain the P&Q View, it seems, is to hold that contingent predications of free choice to God in the alone world are likewise true in virtue of the lack/absence of relations to creatures. But then we seem to get a vicious circle: God’s act is a free choice to refrain from creating because there are no creatures [cf. the previous sentence]; but yet there are no creatures because God’s act is a free choice to refrain from creating [a core commitment of theism, surely].

Leftow (2009) considers a similar circularity worry as applied to God’s act of will w. Of particular relevance at this juncture is an objection Leftow considers:

One might reply here by distinguishing the senses of ‘because’: in ‘there are creatures because God wills there to be,’ ‘because’ expresses something efficient-causal, while in ‘God wills there to be creatures because there are creatures’ it expresses a non-causal relation in virtue of which a predicate applies. (Ibid, p. 33)

Simply replace ‘there are creatures’ with ‘there are no creatures’ and ‘God wills there to be (creatures)’ with my ‘God wills [freely chooses] that there be no creatures’, and the objection equally targets the aforementioned challenge to the P&Q View. Here’s how Leftow responds to the objection:

But it’s not clear that these two explanations really cohere. If God’s causation accounts for creatures’ existence, then logically before the creatures exist, God’s volition has a character sufficient to account for their existence. If it does, then at that point and for that reason it is a willing of creatures: there is nothing left for an extrinsic relation to the creatures themselves to explain. (Ibid, p. 33)

By my lights, this response is eminently plausible. For God’s act to constitute an intentional act to actualize this world, surely the intentional directedness toward its specific contingent effect is on the side of the act itself. It is surely not grounded in or explained by the relevant effect, precisely because the intentional directedness is prior to and accounts for the effect in question. And for this reason, it is surely the character of the act itself which grounds or makes true its intentional directedness toward the relevant effect. And yet—as we’ve seen—this is debarred by the P&Q View, for the intentional directedness of God’s act as a choice to refrain from creating is only contingent (and hence extrinsic).

[It should be noted, moreover, that non-CTist views of God are able to circumvent this problem, since they can say God’s free choice to refrain from creating does not count as such in virtue of there being no creatures but instead in virtue of how it is intrinsically.]

3.3 Content Essentialism

Still further bullets the P&Q View requires the classical theist to bite derive from content essentialism. I have already covered these, though, at the end of section 2, and I shan’t repeat myself here. 🙂

4 Sketches towards new Aloneness Arguments

In this section, I want to sketch some new Aloneness Arguments. I’m not certain whether these succeed; they seem prima facie plausible to me, but I need to reflect much further to have a settled view thereon. I offer this section, then, as an experiment. Feel free to offer feedback on such arguments, as I’m all ears! [They represent a fitting end to this post, since they are immune to Pawl and Grant’s central dilemma and don’t rely on analyses of in/extrinsicality.]

4.1 TSB and the lonely world segment

Under classical theism, God creates ex nihilo. Traditionally, this is taken to entail (inter alia) that,  causally prior to creation, there is a state in which God alone exists. [NB: This causal priority is  obviously not a temporal priority under classical theism.]

At the end of this document in blue font are lots of scholarly citations on this commitment. I’ll be short and simply quote Brian Leftow here. Leftow explains that “before all else existed, God existed,  alone, or God and only God did not begin to exist” (Leftow 2012, p. 4). Leftow (2009) reiterates  this commitment, in the context of Aquinas, that there is “the initial state of things which is God  alone, causally prior to creating” (2009, p. 38). Leftow also writes that “we can give a neat  possible-worlds rendering of a modal scheme Thomas never put into possible-worlds terms. Let’s  depict all possible worlds as trees of alternate possibilities branching out of a causally first state of  things, which is God actually existing alone, causally though not temporally prior to creating”  (2009, p. 25). He continues: “God’s initial state is atemporal. … The first state of each tree after  God existing alone is the creation of an initial set of creatures” (2009, p. 26).

So, under classical theism, there is a causally initial state in which God and God alone exists. Let’s  call this lonely state PRIOR, since it is (causally) prior to creation.

Now, here’s a thesis that seems eminently plausible:

Truth Supervenes on Being (TSB): Truth supervenes on how things are. In other words,  there can be no change or difference in truth-value without some corresponding change or  difference in reality, i.e., in how things are.

Why believe TSB?

First, it seems obvious. Suppose in one world, ‘there are dogs’ is true, whereas in another world,  it is untrue. Surely, then, there must be some difference in reality across such worlds. And that’s  precisely what we find: in one world, there are these fluffy and cuddly puppers, whereas in the  other world, such puppers are absent.

Second, Koons (2021, p. 469) argues that TSB is a deeply Aristotelian principle: “Aristotelians  ought to be sympathetic to the TSB principle, since it is what motivates the reifying of accidents.  When some substance alters qualitatively or quantitatively, why suppose that some new accident  comes into being? Because truth must supervene on being. Moreover, the Aristotelian conception  of truth as correspondence provides support for the TSB principle. For a predication to be true is  for it to say of what is, that it is, or of what is not, that it is not. Hence, it seems that variation in  truth-value depends on what exists and how it is, which is precisely what TSB demands.”

Third, TSB seems a straightforward entailment of the Correspondence Theory of Truth. On this  motivation, Koons and Pickavance (2017, p. 44) write:

TSB also provides an illuminating and powerful explanation of the difference between ontological  and ideological differences between theories (cf. Koons and Pickavance (ibid)), and it also allows us to catch metaphysical cheaters (à la Merricks).

So, I take it that TSB is [plausibly] true. But how might this spell trouble for classical theism?

Let the actual causally initial world-segment be PRIOR@, and let another world w’s causally initial  world-segment be PRIORw, where w is a world in which God will create a very different cosmos  from the one he actually created.

Now, in PRIOR@, God knows what he will [in a causally posterior sense of ‘will’] contingently  create. And there are contingent differences in truths across PRIOR@ and PRIORw. For instance,  it is contingently true in PRIOR@ that God knows he will create some x that is not in w. And,  obviously enough, this is not true in PRIORw. But—per TSB—there can be no difference in truth value without some corresponding difference in being. Hence, there is some difference in being  across PRIOR@ and PRIORw. But if the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS) is true, then  everything in both PRIOR@ and PRIORw is necessary [since God and God alone exhausts reality  in the respective world-states, and there is nothing contingent in God under DDS], and hence there  can be no difference in being across them. So, DDS is false.

4.2 Others

For an exploration of other aloneness-style arguments, check out 3:38:15 to 4:07:21 of

this video

. 🙂

5 Conclusion

I’ll end by sincerely thanking Pawl and Grant for their wonderful engagement, careful analysis, and fruitful ideas. I also wish to thank anyone else with whom I’ve engaged concerning God’s aloneness, modal collapse, contingent divine knowledge, and so on. Finally, I hope this blog post has served you. 🙂

Author: Joe


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