omnipotence

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Does good always eliminate evil?

michael-binds-satan-william-blakeOne of the key components of the composition of the problem of evil (at least its logical variety)* is the notion that good will eliminate evil. The late J.L. Mackie put it this way:

A wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being. (Mackie, 150, cited below)

Simply put, this statement and any like it seem fairly obviously false if made without any rather major qualifications. After all, it seems clear that the total elimination of evil is not actually a logically necessary end for a good being, even an all-good, all-powerful being.

C. Stephen Evans presented a case to show that Mackie’s statement (and those like it) are simply mistaken. He noted that the principle that good must eliminate evil seems to be blatantly false without a number of qualifications. He argued that there are some evils which good beings will allow in order to bring about a greater good. The analogy he used was that of parents not allowing their children to ride in automobiles. After all, this would ensure that they would never be involved in the evil of a car crash, but surely it would also prevent greater goods of interaction with friends, learning to drive and the responsibility that comes with, and more (127). However, Evans was quick to note that a deity is by no means directly analogous to a human parent. The resources God would have to prevent evil are infinitely greater than that of a human parent.

In the case of God, however, God cannot bring about the logically impossible. Rather than going for a full-on theodicy (an account of why evils exist), Evans argued that certain goods are impossible to achieve without some evil. Thus, courage necessitates some kind of suffering (128). He did not argue that this notion alone provides a comprehensive theodicy; but for our purposes it is enough. It seems clear that the notion that good must eliminate evil is not only unsupported by argument (it is an a priori assumption), but also patently false. That is, we have evidence that at least some evil must be allowed in order for some good to be brought about.

I want to be clear about my thesis in this post: I am not claiming to have a comprehensive explanation for all evil everywhere. My claim is rather that good does not, by necessity, eliminate evil. That’s all. I believe that I have established this thesis. If so, then Mackie’s argument (and those like it) fail.

*The logical problem of evil is basically an argument that there is a contradiction in theistic belief related to God’s power and goodness and the existence of evil.

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Sources

C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Reason & Religion) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998).

J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (New York: Oxford, 1982).

SDG.

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Talk About God: Does It Mean Anything?

Can we talk about God in meaningful ways? When we say things like “God is loving”, what do we mean? Is it somehow literal? Can talk about God be literal?

These questions, and many others like them are often asked within philosophy of religion. These types of questions may initially seem trivial. Christians may see such questions and think, “Well, obviously we can speak of God meaningfully! The Bible speaks of God constantly, and it has meaning, so clearly such talk has meaning!” There are, however, some rather strong objections to such notions.

Take the statement “God is wise.” What does this mean? Compare it to the statement “Socrates is wise.” Do we mean “God is wise” to mean the same thing as “Socrates is wise?” Perhaps, but clearly God’s wisdom is infinite, while Socrates’ wisdom is finite. Can the two things really be analogically or literally compared? Clearly we don’t mean that God is wise in literally the same sense as we mean Socrates is wise. The content, level, etc. of God’s wisdom is infinitely more/higher/etc. than that of Socrates. Such is one way to put the objection to human language’s ability to refer to the divine (Basinger, 245 [citing an argument from Frederick Ferre]).

These questions are quite basic to theism. If we can’t talk about God in meaningful ways, then assertions such as “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior” are, quite literally, meaningless. Thus, it is essential for the theist to provide a defense for the belief that God can be referred to not just analogically, but also literally.

Interestingly, for a time, many theists asserted that we could refer to God only (or at least primarily) in analogical ways. They were able to defend an ability to refer to God utilizing analogies by acknowledging a “proper proportionality” usage of analogy. On this view (utilizing the example above), we mean both God is wise and Socrates is wise in terms of proportion to their properties and attributes. Thus, when we say “God is wise” we mean infinitely so, but with Socrates we only mean finite wisdom (Basinger, 244).

This sounds plausible, but it may not actually solve the problem. William P. Alston (who uses the term metaphor instead of analogy) argues that within metaphorical (analogical) talk about God, there is indeed some kind of literal application of terms to God. This is because:

1) When utilizing a metaphor (or analogy), the subject must be similar in some way or another to the exemplar such that the subject can be a useful model of the latter (Alston, 27). For example, if we were to say that x is y, that means that x is, in some way, like y. If we say “God is my rock”, that means that God is, in some way, like a rock (28).

2) If it is possible to form a concept of P, then it is possible to utilize language to talk about P (28). For any concept we can have, we are able to somehow utilize language to discuss that concept. The same is true. We can have a concept of God (even if it is horribly mistaken or if God isn’t real)–which means we can use language to talk about God.

But what about literal talk about God? Can we refer to God in literal ways? Take a well-known example: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” בראשׁית ברא אלהים את השׁמים ואת הארץ

This seems to be claiming something about God. He literally created the heavens and the earth. But can it really mean anything literally? Rather than trying to prove that such talk is literal, Alston sets out to show that there are no barriers to the claim that they are indeed literal terms (39 ff). Incorporeality, for example, is not a barrier to God’s literal actions because the concept of action doesn’t have anything that necessitates a physical body in order to perform action. Rather, action is defined as bringing about change by an act of will, decision, or intention (72).

He asserts that when claims are made about actions performed by God, they can be referred to as “basic actions.” A basic action is an action which is not performed by performing some other action (Alston, 55). In other words, if a young man moves a load of dirt from one place to another, this is not a basic action, for this movement is caused by the young man’s motion of his arms and legs (and so on). But, argues Alston, for God, many actions could be basic actions. God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, etc. mean that for any action God wishes to perform, it could be basic (61). Not only that, but God could still choose to operate indirectly. Alston uses the example of God utilizing Cyrus to bring about freedom for the Israelites as an example of God’s using indirect action (62).

Thus, it seems that there aren’t any specific reasons to deny that God can indeed be referred to literally in action predicates. Similarly, if we can refer to God metaphorically with some kind of literal meaning, it seems as though we can know in some sense what it would mean to say that “God is loving.”

Another strong objection to human language and God is the idea of the infinite (briefly described above). If God is infinite, so the claim goes, then humans can’t know or talk about Him in meaningful ways. We can’t access the infinite. It seems to me as though analogical/metaphorical talk about God is one way to solve this issue (as above). But there are other reasons to think this fails as an objection. The primary reason, as I see it, is that God’s infinite attributes can be seen simply as properties. But it is indeed true that for any property, P, and any being, x, x either has P or ~P. So if God has omnipotence (P), it follows that we humans either have P or ~P (clearly the latter). However, if this is true, then the same objection to the infinite would apply to humanity, for ~P in this case is an infinite property.

This leads to another answer to such an objection. Perhaps omnipotence isn’t a property so much as something which entails a set of properties–specifically, the ability to do anything logically possible. This then assigns God an infinite list of properties, composed of phrases like, “Being able to bring it about that x.” This initially seems problematic, but then, by the rule set out above, we humans would also have either these properties or their denials. Thus, we have an infinite set of properties as well, most of which will be negative (for we are able to bring about some things). Thus, the argument falls apart on these grounds as well. It doesn’t matter if God conceptually or actually has infinite properties–this in no way forms a barrier to talking about or knowing God, because for any property God has, we humans have either that same property or its complement. Thus, we would also be infinite either positively or negatively.

Therefore, it seems to be quite clearly the case that we can indeed talk about God literally, metaphorically, and meaningfully. Not only do the objections to such talk fail, but there are also good reasons to think that we can indeed talk about God in such ways.

Sources:

Alston, William P. Divine Nature and Human Language: Essays in Philosophical Theology. Cornell. 1989.

Basinger, Hasker, et al. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford. 2009.

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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.

Omniscience, Necessity, and Human Freedom

I’m continually frustrated when the concept of freedom of the will comes up among people, even in Christian circles, because it seems that inevitably people start to deny that freedom of the will is incompatible with the God of Classical Theism. I am a firm believer in human freedom of the will and I believe it is fully compatible with omniscience. (Though I do not deny that our human will is corrupted by the fall into sin and that salvation is the act of God, not a work of man… These things are most certainly true.)

Generally the objection is something like this: If God knows everything and is all-powerful, then everything is pre-determined.

I still have not seen any solid argument for why this should be the case whatsoever. The key, as I understand it, is the connection between foreknowledge and causation.

I don’t see any reason to believe that if a being that is omnipotent and omniscient knows that x will happen, that being somehow causes or determines that x must happen. Why should this be the case? Simply knowing with certainty what will happen in the future does not somehow mean that this being has somehow made a causal link between its knowledge and the future, rather, it just means that this being knows what any other being is going to do.

What connection is there between knowledge of an event in the future and determining it? I’d like any kind of analytic argument to try to deny that human freedom and omniscience are compatible.

I’ve argued elsewhere that these concepts are compatible, and I’d like to make this point more clear now.

Take “P” to mean “God [in Classical Theism–i.e. omniscient, omnipotent, etc.] knows in advance that some event, x, will happen”

Take “Q” to mean “some event, x, will happen”

1. □(P⊃Q)

2. P

3. Therefore, Q

I wanted to draw it in symbolic logic to make my point as clear as possible. It is necessarily true that if God knows x will happen, then x will happen. But then if one takes these terms, God knowing x will happen only means that x will happen, not that x will happen necessarily. Certainly, God’s foreknowledge of an event means that that event will happen, but it does not mean that the event could not have happened otherwise. If an event happens necessarily, that means the event could not have happened otherwise, but God’s foreknowledge of an event doesn’t somehow transfer necessity to the event, it only means that the event will happen. It could have been otherwise, in which case, God’s knowledge would have been different. The problem many people make is that they try to make the syllogism:

1. □(P⊃Q)

2. P

3. Therefore, □Q

This is actually an invalid argument. The only thing that follows from □(P⊃Q) is that, “necessarily, if P then Q,” not “if P, then, necessarily Q.”

It is true that “necessarily, if God knows that some event, x, will happen, then some event, x, will happen”… but then it doesn’t follow from this that some event, x, happens necessarily. Thus, the event x is not predetermined simply by God’s foreknowledge of an event.

The objection is sometimes simply put forward as: Necessarily, God cannot error in his knowledge. If God knows some event x, will happen, then x will happen. Therefore, necessarily, x will happen.

Take P and Q as above

Take R to be “God cannot error in his knowledge”

1. □R

2. P⊃Q

3. Q

Again, this simply is an unsound and invalid argument. Simply stating that □R doesn’t show that for every event x that God knows, □x. It simply means that □R. R does not have a causal link to x (or Q above). It is true that □R on Classical Theism, but this does not mean that □Q or □P. There must be some argument to make P or Q necessary in order for there to be some kind of predetermined future, and I have no idea how an argument like that might go.There are ways that I can think of to formulate it, but it involves simply assuming that □R means that □P or □Q, so it would then be question-begging.

Perhaps I could take an example. Let’s say that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow (and I do hope I will, I don’t like missing classes!). God knows in advance that I’m going to go to classes tomorrow. His knowledge of this event means that it will happen, but it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t choose to stay in and sleep for a while, or play my new copy of Final Fantasy XIII, or do something more useless with my time. If I chose to, say, play Final Fantasy XIII (a strong temptation!), then God simply would have known that I would play FFXIII. His knowledge does not determine the outcome, His knowledge is simply of the outcome.

I’m open to hearing any analytic argument that manages to show how necessity can be transferred to events simply by God’s knowledge of them, but I’m skeptical as to the prospects of whether it can be done.

This argument can be seen in William Lane Craig’s writings like The Only Wise God and also in his podcast episodes on the doctrine of God.

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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.

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