classical theism

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Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations of Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”

The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.

Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!

Fine Tuning

The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.

What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.

Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:

“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].

“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”

The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?

God Exists… but?

It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.

God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).

So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).

Now what?

Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?

Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.

So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.

Other Issues

I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy.  For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife).  I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…

Conclusion

Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.

Links

I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.

What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.

Our Spooky Universe– I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.

Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)

Source

Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Mormonism and God: A Philosophical Challenge to Mormonism

Central to discussions about God is the very concept of God itself. What does one mean when they refer to “God”? Suppose one is debating about the existence of God and in the course of that debate, one finds out that the other, when using the term “God” is thinking of a contingent, powerful but limited, and embodied deity; yet the other person has been trying to argue for the God of classical theism–infinite in power, wisdom, love, etc., omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, transcendent, and the like. Clearly, there is a difference over who “God” is. Now talk about God can be meaningful between these two because they can choose to use “God” as a title, similar to that of “King” (this is suggested by Paul Moser in The Evidence for God, 22ff).

That said, for this post I will not assume that “God” refers exclusively to the God of classical theism. Rather, I’m going to turn to the Mormon concept of God and examine its coherence. If Mormonism’s concept of God is incoherent, then Mormonism faces a serious philosophical challenge. (As has been argued elsewhere, coherence is a central test of a religion’s truth claims.)

It is important to note that there is no single “Mormon concept of God.” As with Christianity, there is an array of beliefs about specific attributes of God. Thus, for this post, I’ll focus on just two concepts of deity within Mormonism.


Monarchotheism (Also Known as Henotheism)

Explication

Stephen Parrish and Carl Mosser take Mormon teaching to expound the concept of God known as Monarchotheism, “the theory that there is more than one God, but one God is clearly preeminent among the gods; in effect, he is the monarch or ruler of all the gods” (Parrish and Mosser, 195, cited below). This concept of God is embodied (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith cited in P+M, 201). Furthermore, this God is contingent, the organizer of a world that was originally chaos, and one of many gods (Ibid, 201). Furthermore, Joseph Smith himself taught that this “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man…” (TPJS 345, cited in P+M, 202).

Critique

There are many difficulties with this Mormon concept of God. Perhaps most crucial is the inclusion of contingency in the concept of God. If God is contingent, then it does indeed beg the question “Who Made God?” Consider this against classical theism, which holds that God exists necessarily. Classical theists can respond to this question by simply saying, “No one made God, because God, as necessarily existent, never came into being.” Yet Mormons who hold God is contingent must answer this question.

That’s not the only difficulty with God as contingent either, for holding that God is contingent removes several of the reasons to believe that such a deity exists. Consider one of the classical arguments for the existence of God: that contingent things have all come into being, so there must be something which has always existed in order to terminate the infinite regress. Of course, if this deity which terminates the regress is, itself, contingent, then one must continue the regress to the next step. Thus, this Mormon concept of God provides no grounding for the universe itself.

Further, this Mormon concept of deity has no way to ground objective morals. While Mormons tend to hold that God is all good/omnibenevolent, they have no way to ground this goodness in God Himself. Rather, because God is contingent, there must exist some measure by which God is judged, and so one is left with all the difficulties of grounding morality without God. If, instead, morality is still to be based upon God, then it could only really be some form of extreme occamism/voluntarism–whereby things are moral just because God says so. The difficulties with such a view are extreme.

Of course, once more classical theism can explicate objective morality by grounding them in the nature of God. Because God is necessarily the greatest possible being, God is necessarily the source of all goodness, and therefore the grounds of morality are found in God.

Finally, there is the question of the problem of evil. Classical theism has a number of answers to this problem, but none of them are effective upon a monarchotheistic view of God. First, because there can be no grounding for objective morality on Mormonism, there remains the difficulty of explaining how actions could truly be evil to begin with (Parrish and Mosser, 215, see similar difficulties with naturalism here). Second, because evil is part of the universe and God himself is part of the eternal universe, evil can be seen as a natural part of the order of the cosmos (ibid, 215). Third, and most poignantly, because God is contingent and part of the universe, it seems that there is great difficulty with the notion that God would one day overcome evil. Because evil is part of the universe, and has therefore existed eternally rather than as a corruption of the goodness of nature, it seems that there is no way to finally overcome evil. Thus, the problem of evil is exacerbated exponentially on Mormonism (ibid, 216).

So, to sum up, monarchotheism appears to be one plausible interpretation of the Mormon concept of God. This concept is expounded by Joseph Smith in his Teachings and is also found in various theological works of Mormons (cf. McMurrin, Theological Foundations; Ostler, “Mormon Concept of God”; Paulsen, “Comparative Coherency”–these are noted in P+M, 457). However, this concept has been shown to be riddled with difficulties. It cannot explain many of the central features of our world, such as the existence of objective morality. Furthermore, it undermines reasons to believe in the existence of a God. Finally, this Mormon concept of God fails to even explain the existence of the universe itself. Thus, it seems to me this concept of deity is incoherence.

Polytheism

So much for Monarchotheism. But what about other Mormon concepts of God? There is one other concept which is attested in Brigham Young’s writings along with other Mormon writers. This view can fairly be referred to as polytheism.

Explication

Once more we find that the eternal existence of the universe is central to this view of Mormonism. Matter is eternal. God the Father organized the universe, but at least some laws of nature are outside of god’s control (see the discussion in  Francis Beckwith and Stephen Parrish, See the Gods Fall, 99ff, cited fully below).

Furthermore, the notion that there are innumerable contingent “primal intelligences” is central to this Mormon concept of god (P+M, 201; Beckwith and Parrish, 101). That there is more than one god is attested in the Pearl of Great Price, particularly Abraham 4-5. This Mormon concept has the gods positioned to move “primal intelligences along the path to godhood” (Beckwith and Parrish, 114). Among these gods are other gods which were once humans, including God the Father. Brigham Young wrote, “our Father in Heaven was begotten on a previous heavenly world by His Father, and again, He was begotten by a still more ancient Father, and so on…” (Brigham Young, The Seer, 132, quoted in Beckwith and Parrish, 106).

The rest of this concept is similar to the Monarchotheistic view, although rather than God the Father being a “monarch” over the others, he is more like one of many. As already stated, he is just one of a string of “Fathers.”

Critique

The logic of the Mormon polytheistic concept of God entails that there is an infinite number of gods. To see this, it must be noted that each god him/herself was helped on the path to godhood by another god. There is, therefore, an infinite regress of gods, each aided on his/her path to godhood by a previous god. There is no termination in this series. Now because this entails an actually infinite collection of gods, the Mormon polytheistic concept of deity must deal with all the paradoxes which come with actually existing infinities (for some problems with the actual infinite search “infinite” and check out the problems Craig points out in his Q+A’s section).

Now, polytheistic Mormonism would also seem to have to deal with all the difficulties of Monarchotheism, for this concept also carries with it the contingency of deity and eternity of the world.

Finally, it seems polytheistic Mormonism has a difficulty at its heart–namely the infinite regress of deity. While on Monarchotheism, the infinite regress was merely hinted at (and still extremely problematic), polytheistic Mormonism has infinite regress at its heart and soul. Each god relies upon a former god, which itself relies upon a former god, forever. Certainly, this is an incoherence at the core of this concept of deity, for it provides no explanation for the existence of the gods, nor does it explain the existence of the universe. Polytheistic Mormonism, it seems, fares even worse than its Monarchotheistic counterpart.

Addendum: The “Standard Works” and Classical Theism

It is worth noting that those who wish to adhere to a strict “Standard Works only” approach to Mormonism may object to the critiques I’ve given above. The reason being that in the Standard Works, it seems like a view much closer to classical theism is expounded. For example, God is referred to as “Lord God Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:5 [and “Lord Omnipotent” in 3:17-18]; Mosiah 5:2). Further, God’s infinite goodness and mercy are affirmed (Mosiah 28:4, Moroni 8:3, 2 Nephi 1:10).

It is indeed the case that were one to only operate from this explication, one might come to believe in a God very similar to classical theism. There are three responses I would offer: first, I’d be very happy to welcome any others who do affirm mere classical theism. In that case, I’d like to discuss the finer points of differences between Christianity and Mormonism.

However, I think it is the case that many who object by showing a Standard Works reading of Mormonism do not themselves hold to a “Standard Works only” belief. Any who holds that, for example, humans can be exalted to godhood must accept the implication that God the Father would therefore be contingent, and would then most likely fall into one of the categories listed above. Second, I already noted how in Abraham 4 and 5 it seems quite apparent there are many “Gods” (any who disagree, feel free to simply read the Pearl of Great Price, Abraham 4… literally any verse between 5-31; it explicitly states “the ‘Gods'”). Because classical theism holds that there is only one who can occupy the title “God,” this places even the Standard Works alone reading outside the realm of orthodoxy regarding classical theism.

Finally, I’ve already quoted Brigham Young and Joseph Smith in other writings outside the “Standard Works” both affirming that God the Father is an exalted man and that God the Father was preceded by another Father. If Mormonism is to be conceived in a form akin to classical theism, Mormons must reject these writings, and with it discredit their prophets.

Conclusions

Central to the Mormon faith is God, just as God is central to any theistic religion. Yet, as has been seen, two of the major explications of the Mormon concept of deity fall victim to insurmountable philosophical problems.   The third, closer to classical theism, must contend with the fact that other Mormon writings (and indeed, even the Pearl of Great Price) are contrary to their position. The fact that Momonism’s concept of God is incoherent strikes a major blow to the truth claims of the Mormon faith. Without coherence in that which is central to the religion: God, the entire theological system falls apart.

Links/Sources

Check out other posts in my series on Mormonism:

The Book of Mormon: Introduction and Importance– This post is pretty self descriptive.

Genetic Evidence and the Book of Mormon: Did any Native Americans come from the Middle East?– Argues that the Native Americans are not Middle Eastern in ancestry. Because the Book of Mormon claims they are, the Book of Mormon is false.

Sources

Stephen Parrish with Carl Mosser, “A Tale of Two Theisms” in The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement ed. Beckwith et. al, 193-218 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).

Francis Beckwith and Stephen Parrish, See the Gods Fall: Four Rivals to Christianity (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997).

[I have edited this post to put back in several references to Mormon scriptures that I initially omitted for length. Further, I modified it to make more clear the difference between “finite” in mathematical terms and “contingent” in philosophical meaning.]

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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