Virtual Colloquium: Sam Cowling and Wesley D. Cray, “How to be Omnipresent”
October 28, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 10
Today’s colloquium paper is “How to be Omnipresent” by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. Dr. Cowling received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He has published papers on a variety of topics in metaphysics, and his first monograph, Abstract Entities (Routledge) is scheduled to be released on March 1. It’s available for pre-order now! Sam Cowling
Wesley Cray Dr. Cray received his PhD from the Ohio State University in 2012 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Texas Christian University. His work on philosophy of religion has previously appeared in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, and his work on the metaphyiscs of art objects has appeared in a variety of journals, including Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and Contemporary Aesthetics.

How to be Omnipresent

Sam Cowling and Wesley D. Cray

Thanks to Kenny Pearce and everyone else here at the Prosblogion. We are Sam Cowling (Denison University; and Wesley Cray (Texas Christian University;, and we’re excited to be a part of the new Prosbloglion Virtual Colloquium series. Today, we’re presenting the penultimate draft of our paper, “How to Be Omnipresent,” which we’re happy to say is forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly.

Though the topic of omnipresence itself is perhaps one most naturally located within philosophy of religion, we hope that the paper is of interest to metaphysicians more generally—especially those who are invested in questions about occupation and location. We also think it has the potential to lead into neat discussions about abstract entities. And even among philosophers of religion, we hope that the paper will be of interest to those working outside of the constraints of philosophy of Western, monotheistic religion. Discussions of omnipresence do, of course, show up in other religious traditions—and we take it to be a virtue of our account that it stretches across (and even outside of) traditions, rather than remaining bound to any particular tradition.

Anyway, we develop and defend a new account of omnipresence, which, we argue, is preferable to more familiar views, such as the Occupation View  (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it occupies every region) and the Dependence View  (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it can exert its will or power at every region). Our view, which we call the Existential View, takes an entity to be omnipresent iff it exists at every region.

Consider a version of necessitism along the lines of the views endorsed by Williamson and Linsky & Zalta. On such a view, the stock of entities is modally invariant, with all entities existing at all worlds. Despite enjoying necessary existence, (many or most) entities are only contingently concrete. When not concrete, they exist as abstract entities. We take it that these entities occupy regions only while concrete. For any world w, they still exist at w while abstract, even though they don’t occupy any region at w. So, the existence facts are separable from the occupation facts. We can make parallel comments and observations about the temporal case, looking to versions of permanentism.

In developing the Existential View, we repurpose the machinery of necessitism and permanentism and explore a spatial analog. If necessitism and permanentism are coherent—and we think they are—then, again, existence facts are separable from occupation facts. Now, just apply that to the spatial case: an entity might exist at a spatial (or spatiotemporal) region without occupying that region. An omnipresent entity is just an entity that exists at all regions, regardless of which regions, if any, it occupies.

On necessitism and permanentism, the stock of all entities is modally or temporally invariant, respectively. We don’t want to go that far in the spatial case. Instead, we take omnipresence to be a metaphysically distinctive feature, rather than one enjoyed by all entities. In fact, we take it to be an open question whether any entity actually enjoys omnipresence in the sense we develop. But we do think that it is metaphysically possible that an entity be omnipresent, and, by our lights, it’s good to have a account of what that means.

We call our view the Existential View because we tie existence to quantification, a la Quine. We might say that an entity exists at a world iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that world. Likewise, we might say that an entity exists at a time iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that time. By extension, we find it natural to go on to say that an entity exists at a region iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that region. To be omnipresent, then, is to be within the scope of the existential quantifier, regardless of regional restriction.

The biconditionals above are certainly not meant to offer reductive analyses. We leave it as an open question whether existence-at-aworld/time/region is something that can be reduced to more basic notions or whether it itself should be taken as basic. But even if we opt for the latter approach, the Existential View is still informative: an entity’s status as omnipresent depends, not on facts about its power or on facts about which regions it occupies, but on facts about where it exists. Omnipresent entities exist everywhere, even if they have no power or will or no regions that they occupy.

So, that’s the idea. In the paper, we go into more detail in developing the account, and give reasons why one might prefer it over the Occupation and Dependence Views. We also defend against a few objections. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity to try to defend it against a few more in the comments section here. We’re looking forward to the discussion!

The complete paper is available here. Discussion welcome below!

  • Sam & Wesley,

    A very engaging paper, superdooper. I relate to this from having mystical experiences of the “religious” kind. Let me jump in at this paragraph:

    “Beyond positing non-concrete active volcanoes at your house, there is another reason to
    reject the full-blown spatial analogue of permanentism and necessitism: such a view would
    make all entities omnipresent, thereby negating the claim that omnipresence is a metaphysically
    distinctive property. We are inclined to think that, in saying that Ben is omnipresent, we are
    saying something truly noteworthy about Ben, rather than something trivially true of all

    Let’s say that Ben is like Sam, Wesley, Rus, and the dinosaurs, such that we do not want to make the mistake of over-extending the definition of omnipresence, that, as with the case of the physical universe, there are or possibly are some other thing or somethings worth considering as omnipresent that we want to get at, and we don’t want it mucked up by considering, at least for the initial moment of consideration, the flying squirrels we also call Wesley or the fly zebras we’d called Sam.

    I’ll note and quote here your sentence that I refer to when calling forth the universe: After all, the former view, along with some auxiliary mereological assumptions guarantees, that, necessarily, there is an omnipresent entity: the universe.

    Who or what sustains our physical universe? Let’s be specific and give this the female name Benna (instead of being specifically Christian and using Jesus, God, or Holy Spirit). Note that before I referred specifically to the physical universe. Some people call Benna “The Universe”, such as when saying that the Universe took care of me or some group on such-and-so need or issue — as if Benna did something. Or when we say, “Take that thought out of the Universe,” as if (or as when) speaking something, even thinking something, changes the course of the obliging or interacting Benna — as if Benna might do something.

    Benna, in all her omnipresence, as the creator, necessarily contains the universe and the multitudes and the potentialities. In this sense, all the Sams and Wesleys, mammalian or not, the flying kind or not, are within her and therefore omnipresent. If this is unbelievable to some people, that would be understandable, so we need to break this down. We need to get back to the physical universe only, for the sake of definition(s).

    If only the physical universe exists, then Benna-the-Omnipresent in any extra-physical sense, does not, yet she is still omnipresent. She is the physical universe, which is everything. You would need to believe that the physical universe was self-created and is self-sustaining to hold to this.

    That said, a spiritualist can still abide by this physicalist’s definition of omnipresence, by saying that what we could be meaning by “presence” is that which is perceived to be physically present in the apparitionally physical universe.

    It may seem that I am dabbling in two definitions of “omnipresence”, when in fact it has been three. The first realm of omnipresence, in which we can all at least suppose-in if not believe-in, is the physical universe: Benna the Physically Omnipresent. The second definition is Benna the Spiritually Omnipresent, the constant Creator and Sustainor of each moment at each point of the universe, thus the Physically Omnipresent as well, who can mystically avail herself to those who then become mystics at any given moment. The third is to say that therefore, if Benna contains and is everything everywhere as creator and sustainor, then everything exists everywhere — just not physically apparent. Around this time of year, we can think of the masked spirits of elsewhere, going door to door, knocking and begging.

    October 28, 2016 — 13:34
    • Sam Cowling

      Thanks, Rus! Two quick questions to help us think about your remarks. You say “She [Benna] is the physical universe.” Taken one way, that would ensure omnipresence by way of identity, which I guess we didn’t have in mind. You also raise some points about physicalism. Are you thinking something we’ve said requires that we take on board a commitment to physicalism?

      October 29, 2016 — 15:05
  • I found this paper very interesting, and I really like the level of awareness you show of other contexts in which omnipresence claims might be made, beyond Abrahamic religion. I worry, however, about a pitfall of this generic approach. In each of these contexts, there are certain reasons or concerns behind the claim of omnipresence, and they might not be the same in each case. As a result, we might not want to give the same account of what’s meant by ‘omnipresence’ in all of these contexts. For instance, think of a passage like Psalm 139:7-12: “Where can I go to escape Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I live at the eastern horizon [or] settle at the western limits, even there Your hand will lead me; Your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will become night’ – even the darkness is not dark to You. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to You.” This sounds a lot like what you call the Dependence View. So I guess what I’m wondering is, granting that your view is one way of giving content to the notion of omnipresence, is there reason for affirming omnipresence in your sense in any of the contexts in question? It seems to me that the Dependence View meets the needs of Abrahamic religion. Do you disagree? Or do you think the answer is different in some of the other contexts you mention?

    October 29, 2016 — 4:46
    • Wesley Cray

      Hi Kenny,

      Thanks a lot for the question. We think that accepting the Existential View of omnipresence is the best way to make sense of claims like (1) “whatever is most divine—whether it be God or Brahman—is omnipresent,” or (2) “if God exists, then God is omnipresent, and abstracta like numbers might be, too.” Being able to avail ourselves of a univocal notion of omnipresence really helps out with claims like these, we think.

      But, in accepting the Existential View, we don’t mean to say that no entity could be “omnipresent” in the senses offered by either the Occupation or the Dependence Views. So, we could account for the sorts of considerations you raise, we think, by saying that the Abrahamic God’s omnipresence is, at bottom, Existential omnipresence, but that omnipresence is augmented with the ability to exert will or power at each region. So, we could still account for claims like (1) and (2) and take the question of what sorts of things omnipresent entities can do at particular regions to be a separate one.

      October 29, 2016 — 15:06
      • Hi Wesley,

        I guess I can buy your claim about (1) and (2) in an appropriate (lack of) context. For instance, an agnostic who does not have any particular religious tradition or substantive theology in mind who utters these claims might be best construed the way you suggest. My worry is that, given the actual motivation for omnipresence within Abrahamic religion, someone for whom an Abrahamic sort of deity is the relevant possibility would be better interpreted as having something more like the Dependence View in mind when she asserts that (or wonders if) God is omnipresent. (By ‘an Abrahamic sort of deity’ I do not mean the sort of deity Abraham—if he existed—believed in, or the sort of deity Abraham is portrayed as believing in in either the Bible or the Quran; I mean the basic conception of God shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.) It might also be that, given the specific motivation for claims about the omnipresence of Brahman omnipresence gets some other interpretation when that is the relevant possibility. (I don’t know enough about Eastern religion/philosophy to say.) But if there was some tradition-independent motivation for asserting that (or wondering if) the divine (exists and) is omnipresent, then perhaps your view would be the best account of what’s going on there.

        I guess my main worry is methodological: I worry about attempts to analyze an assertion without attending to the motivation for that assertion.

        October 29, 2016 — 15:18
        • Wesley Cray

          Thanks, Kenny—I think I’m more clear about the issue you’re raising now.

          Here’s how we approach the issue. You might think that omnipresence is a metaphysically interesting property, and start to wonder what it would be for an entity—any entity—to instantiate it. This is why we initially raise the question about a rather generic entity, Ben. (No offense, Ben.)

          Beyond that, we think there are interesting reasons to think that numbers (and perhaps other abstracta) might be omnipresent (though we’re not really in position to defend that here). But what, then, is this metaphysically interesting property that might be instantiated by numbers? We think our account gives a nice answer to that question.

          After thinking about whether numbers might be omnipresent, we consider sentences like (2). Again, it would be nice, given sentences like (2), to have a univocal account. So, that’s where we ended up.

          You suggest that someone who takes an Abrahamic deity to be the relevant sort of possible deity would be better served by the Dependence View. Do you think, though, that we do violence to the tradition by asserting that that deity enjoys some property like omnipresence-plus, which is omnipresence in the existential sense alongside the additional ability to exert will or power at all regions?

          October 30, 2016 — 11:51
          • That’s a helpful clarification. I don’t see any reason why an Abrahamic theist should deny that God is omnipresent in your sense. My doubts are only about whether your analysis is a good gloss on what such a theist might mean by asserting ‘God is omnipresent’.

            October 30, 2016 — 11:58
  • Hi Sam,

    Yes, I did not make those connections clear.

    You say in the pdf, “We are inclined to think that, in saying that Ben is omnipresent, we are
    saying something truly noteworthy about Ben, rather than something trivially true of all

    Surely, if all things are omnipresent, the noteworthy thing about Ben could not then be his omnipresence, but, say, being the force behind all that is present all the time, and this appeals to me more, as there is not “merely” a physical universe.

    So to your comment, “You say ‘She [Benna] is the physical universe.’ Taken one way, that would ensure omnipresence by way of identity, which I guess we didn’t have in mind” ~~ This is what would make Ben the Almighty or the Most High Benna, merely the physical universe of universes, with a definition of universe being that it is all that is physical (even all that is outside that which some scientists would label as “our” universe). If the Most High Benna is this entirety of physical universe(s) only, then there is only that which is physical, with all its physical phenomena and laws, that which can be studied in science classes, and those physicalities that will forever be outside human ken.

    If Ben the Almighty is more than this, and instead is that which creates and sustains the mere physical universe at every point all the time, then we have a mysterious, quite possibly mystical/spiritual force, present at each point and moment. This is a case that fulfills the Existential View, as you say, “the Existential View, takes an entity to be omnipresent iff it exists at every region.”

    Your second question, “Are you thinking something we’ve said requires that we take on board a commitment to physicalism?”

    Then, no.

    October 29, 2016 — 18:56
  • Sam and Wesley,

    I read your paper with dedicated interest. I was eager to learn how to be omnipresent—a timely trick for Halloween. Alas, I was sorely disappointed. Shame on me; I should’ve expected trick, not treat, from Sam!

    Okay. Neat paper. I have just one worry/question:

    You say: “following Quine, we assume that talk about what exists and talk about what there is are interchangeable and that both are properly regimented in terms of existential quantification.” I think this is a pretty standard gloss of Quine on what exists. But wouldn’t following Quine mean regimenting talk of what exists in terms of *the value of the variables* bounded by your existential quantifier? In that case, I’m having trouble understanding the meaning of your final statement of the Existence View: “an entity x is omnipresent if and only, for any region r, x is within the domain of the existential quantifier when restricted to r”. Taking the details of Quine seriously, I see that you could mean:

    (a) x is omnipresent if and only if, for any region r, x is required as the value of some variable bounded by the existential quantifier when restricted to r.


    (b) x is omnipresent if and only if, for any region r, x is a possible value of some variable bounded by the existential quantifier when restricted to r.

    But both seem problematic. The problem with (a), on one hand, is that it seems clearly false. I make claims, restricted to region some r (say, my office), which have no need for God as a value for any bounded variables. The problem with (b), on the other hand, is that we now need an account of what makes something a “possible value of a variable” in that region—(b) doesn’t seem like a statement relying on primitive and unanalyzable bedrock—and it is hard to find an account that doesn’t lead us back into talk of what occupies that region.

    My general question, then, is as follows: once we move away from the Quinean gloss and into his more careful connection between existence and the value of bounded variables, what exactly do you want to say about omnipresence?

    Thanks for sharing the work and fielding all these questions!

    October 30, 2016 — 22:22
    • Sam

      Hi, Luis! Your disappointment is understandable. (We’ll start working an instructional video for those aspiring for omnipresence.)

      Your concern about the proper Quinean regimentation of the view is a really interesting. I fear I’m not going to have too much that’s useful to say in this regard. Part of the appeal of invoking the Quinean gloss was to ward of a Meinongian reading that would bifurcate the relevant notions, but, as you note, there’s a larger space of options then we acknowledge for a canonical Quinean formulation. At first glance, I suspect we’re sympathetic to something like option (a) and we incline to say that, if something is omnipresent, it *is* required as a value of a variable in claims quantifying over your office. That said, we owe some story about what to say in cases of explicitly restricted quantification over regions–e.g., if God is omnipresent and Wes says “For all non-divine things in region R…” Without a patch for these sorts of cases, I suspect we’re going to get pushed away from being able to use a fully fledged Quinean ontology in describing the view–i.e., we’d have to state the view canonically using “existence” talk rather than via quantification and variables. In any case, I’ll give this a more serious think and see if I can come up with something more useful. Thanks again for the useful comment, though!

      October 31, 2016 — 9:28
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