Category Archives: God

Short Article 14: Prayer, Providence, and Natural Disasters

As hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean, Cuba, and the US, many religious people took to prayer. The typical internet atheist retort went something like: “Really? You’re praying to the God who didn’t see fit to stop the hurricane in the first place?” Or, “If hurricanes are part of God’s providential ordering of things, why bother to pray for those caught up in one?” The point appears to be that it’s stupid or pointless to pray for God to help people, since if God really wanted to He could easily have swept the hurricane from existence altogether.

To my mind there is little substance to this complaint. The atheist here appears to be operating under some assumption such as:

 

(A) If a being – S – causes some event – C – then S cannot rightly or rationally or justifiably be appealed to for help by those affected by C.

 

The problem with this assumption is that it is flat-out false and we can easily think of a whole host of cases where it fails to apply. For instance, suppose my son goes to school one day to join his class. When seated the teacher presents them with an incredibly difficult sheet of mathematics problems, invites them to work through it, and then sits at her desk reading some Bertrand Russell. In this scenario, would it be silly or pointless for one of the pupils to approach the teacher for assistance, despite the fact that the teacher is wholly responsible for the pupils’ predicament? Not only would it not be unjustifiable or silly, but it would make winsome sense to do so, and in fact might be part of the reason for the exercise in the first place. Perhaps the teacher is seeking to illustrate a more general lesson to the class beyond pure mathematics. Perhaps she is testing their ability to cope in the face of a seemingly intractable problem. Or perhaps she wants to teach them the importance of seeking assistance from those who can offer it. It matters not what the purpose is – and I’m not trying to say God sends hurricanes to teach us things – I’m simply illustrating that just because S causes C doesn’t mean those affected by C cannot rightly appeal to S for assistance – in other words, that the hidden assumption in the atheist’s complaint does not hold.

In the face of natural disasters, Christians (and presumably those of many other faiths) will resort to the spiritual discipline of prayer, despite knowing that such an event has occurred only within the providence of God who either directly caused it or permitted it to occur. However, I can’t see any reason to suppose that praying is therefore pointless, (though someone could think it is pointless on totally different grounds). The critic seems to understand God’s providence in fatalistic terms: God has ordained everything to happen as it does, therefore there is nothing we can do about it by prayer or any other means. This is a common understanding of providence at the popular level, but it’s wholly lacking in nuance, (not to mention involving an overly narrow view of prayer).

It isn’t my intention to explicate a doctrine of divine providence here, but rather to point out that since the assumption behind this complaint is false, the atheist owes us an argument as to why it’s unjustifiable or absurd to say that although God causes or permits some event He can still be appealed to by those affected by it. To put it another way: what reason is there for thinking that if God has some purpose in allowing C to occur then He cannot also have a purpose in assisting someone in C in response to prayer?

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article 13: Can God Change His Mind?

In Christendom God has typically been regarded as “immutable.” Sometimes this is defined as “unchangeable,” other times as “unchanging.” The former conception is a much stronger one than the latter, for the former means that God cannot change in some respect, not just that he simply doesn’t change. Of course, those who adhere to the stronger conception of immutability are careful to nuance the definition. They don’t think God is frozen into immobility and unable to act in the world. Instead, they typically mean that God doesn’t change in a number of crucial ways. For example, God’s existence doesn’t change: he has always and will always exist (“From everlasting to everlasting thou art God,” as the Biblical writer puts it). Further, God is considered to be unchangeable with respect to His character. His moral character of loving-kindness, grace, faithfulness and mercy never changes, and thus He can be relied upon by all who trust Him.

In a recent Twitter poll I asked “Can God Change His Mind?” 53% of respondents said “No, and I think they are right.

Many Christians might be tempted to think God does indeed change His mind, since salvation history includes a number of episodes in which it seems that God does precisely that. In fact, He is even said to “repent” of some action and change his course. If we are to take these passages at face value then it seems that we must affirm that God changes His mind.

However, I think we have good grounds for resisting that conclusion. One of the best-attested attributes of God through the Bible is His omniscience, and it is this attribute that should give pause for thought with respect to how we think of God’s immutability. God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing. He has complete knowledge of the past, present, and future. There isn’t a true proposition He fails to believe, and He believes no false proposition. Now, think of what happens when we change our mind about something. We change our mind whenever we come to be in some new epistemic situation. Perhaps we come to learn some new fact. Or perhaps upon reflecting on the things we do know we come to see certain connections between them that we didn’t see before. Further, our depth of moral insight might develop in such a way that we come see some action as wrong or not as good as some other action. This is fairly typical for beings such as we are, limited in intelligence, depth of insight, and moral development. However, it seems to me that an omniscient being wouldn’t have any cause to change His mind. He already knows all the facts. He already knows how things will pan out in the future. There’s nothing lacking in His cognitive situation that could bring about a change of mind. If a being knows that X is going to happen, then the being will have taken X into account already.

Passages describing God as changing His mind are anthropomorphic: human ways of describing relations to God and attempts to make sense of what He is doing. These passages are not theological treatises and we shouldn’t expect rigorous philosophical precision from them. They are stories of people as they wrestle with and attempt to understand their experiences of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As such the stories simply give a human perspective on what God is doing. Take, for example, the classic case of Hezekiah, in which it seems on the face of it that God changed His mind in response to prayer to allow Hezekiah to live for a while longer. It only seems this way from our point of view. God always knew Hezekiah would pray for his life to be extended, and already knew what He was going to do. From God’s point of view there isn’t any change at all, though from Hezekiah’s standpoint it seems that God relents and give him 15 more years.

Some readers may be uncomfortable with my saying that such passages do not mean to describe God literally. However, God is regularly described (particularly in the Old Testament) in ways that clearly aren’t meant to be taken at face value. He doesn’t really have eyes, ears, legs; nor does He breathe out smoke while riding on clouds. Biblical literalism would lead us to an incredibly distorted concept of God indeed, and we should resist it where necessary (and it’s often necessary!).

In this case, literalism should be resisted, unless we are prepared to sacrifice God’s omniscience.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (6): Can God Create any Logically Possible World?

God’s omnipotence is a tricky beast to define, and very often the notion of logical possibility is used in defining it. In a recent discussion concerning the problem of evil I was asked which of two premises I rejected – that God, since he’s omnipotent, can do anything logically possible, or that God should remove suffering if it’s logically possible to do so. I reject both, but was specifically asked to say why I reject the former. This short article is an expanded explanation of what I said in response.

It is my contention that there are states of affairs which, though they be logically possible, are such that God cannot bring them about. Before I offer the two examples I gave it might be useful to be clear about what a logically possible world (LPW) actually is. As I understand and use the term a LPW is a complete description of reality as it could be. Take the set of all propositions that might or might not obtain, eg: A, B, C, D, E….n. A LPW will be a state of affairs in which every single one of these propositions – or their denial – obtains. So, one possible world would be:

A, B, -C, D, E, etc.

Or

-A, B, -C, D, -E, etc

But we could not have:

-A, B, -B, C, -D, E, etc,

Because this contains a logical contradiction by trying to include both B and –B.

To take a concrete example: I have a son who is 10 years old. However, in some other LPW I have no son, but three daughters. There is no LPW in which I have a son and don’t have a son at the same time.

With this brief sketch of LPWs in mind, let’s look at my examples:

(1) Libertarian Free Will (LFW)

If human beings have LFW then there are LPWs God cannot bring about. Take, for instance, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Christ. There is a LPW in which Judas, under certain conditions, chooses to betray Christ, and another in which he chooses to remain faithful. In either case we will have a complete description of reality. The former LPW contains the proposition “Judas betrayed Jesus” whilst the latter contains the proposition “Judas did not betray Jesus.” However, (if human beings have LFW) which of these worlds becomes actual is not up to God. It’s up to Judas. Under these precise circumstances Judas chose to betray Jesus, but he really could have chosen not to betray. God couldn’t force him to act freely in either direction; this was Judas’s move as a free agent. Calling the former world PW(B) and the latter PW(-B) we can say that PW(B) was actualisable but PW(-B) was not. So, God could not actualise PW(-B), despite the fact that it is a LPW. This distinction between logically possible and actualisable is subtle but significant, and sadly the two are often conflated.

(2) Temporal Creation

My second example doesn’t require LFW. Take any two universes God could create: U-X and U-Y. Let’s say further than He desires to create two different universes, one after the other. There are two kinds of LPWs here:

(i) PW-Y1 – in which God creates U-Y first and then U-X,

Or

(ii) PW-X1 – in which God creates U-X and then U-Y.

Now, both of these worlds are LPWs, that is they are complete descriptions of reality in which every proposition is either affirmed or denied. However, God can only create one of them. If he chooses PW-Y1 then he cannot create PW-X1. They exclude each other, and yet both are LPWs.

Now, it might be objected (and in fact during my previously mentioned discussion it actually was) that PW-Y1 and PW-X1 are only LPWs before God creates anything. In other words, once God chooses to create PW-X1 then PW-Y1 is no longer a LPW. This is incorrect and blurs again the subtle distinction between actualisable worlds and logically possible worlds. PW-Y1 remains a LPW. It remains a complete description of reality. It’s represents a way reality really could have been. However, it is no longer actualisable.

It seems to me then that definitions of omnipotence that rely on the notion of logical possibility can’t be quite right since it seems clear enough (to my mind anyway!) that there are LPWs that even an omnipotent being couldn’t create. This also means that arguments against God’s existence – such as some versions of the problem of evil – which rely on the notion that God can do anything logically possible are flawed and need to be revised or abandoned.

Stephen J. Graham

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What Would Convince You to Abandon Theism?

In his essay “Theology and Falsification”, Antony Flew asks: “What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?” The context of the question is Flew’s contention that no matter what evidence comes their way theists will perform all manner of theological gymnastics rather than give up their belief. This, reckoned Flew, meant that their assertions concerning God were meaningless – they suffer “death by a thousand qualifications.” I’ve always thought Flew quite unfair to theists in this essay, but I find his question a fascinating one and so thought I’d give my own brief answer to it.

Firstly, it’s important to ask why a person believes in God in the first place. Someone might well believe God exists because of, say, a combination of the fine-tuning argument and the Kalam cosmological argument. Presumably if such a person was persuaded by good reason that both arguments are unsound then they would give up their theism. If they didn’t then it would seem that their belief wasn’t really based on such arguments after all. In any event, in cases like this there seems to be a fairly clear answer to Flew’s question. However, if theism isn’t so clearly based on some particular argument or group of arguments then the situation is much more complicated.

Whilst I believe that there are several arguments which clearly and strongly favour theism over atheism (in particular the contingency cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and the anthropological argument from the nature of human beings as free, moral, conscious, rational persons), I can’t honestly say my theism rests on any of them. Should each of these arguments be defeated my theism wouldn’t necessarily crumble, (though it might weaken to the extent that these arguments offer some degree of confirmation). So, why do I believe in God? What does ground my theism? To be honest, I don’t really know. The common wisdom is that human beings arrive at their beliefs after a process of rational thought. Each of us, so the story goes, examines the various live options vying for our assent and weigh the evidence, discarding what doesn’t measure up, and accepting what does. It’s like a man wandering around a supermarket. He picks up various items and, after making a decision, either puts them back on the shelf or puts them into the trolley for the check-out. I don’t think belief primarily works this way. Believing this or that is typically a more passive exercise than the supermarket model. To a great extent we simply find ourselves with certain beliefs, or forming certain beliefs under specific circumstances. Our minds – the beliefs we hold as well as the processes we go through to arrive at them – are conditioned by many factors largely beyond our direct control: culture, society, upbringing, peer pressure, psychological make-up, character, temperament, desires, and all manner of accidents of life. These processes are whizzing away in our minds forming beliefs, and removing others, and often quite apart from our rational awareness. We thus find ourselves with all manner of beliefs without trying: I had boiled eggs for breakfast, my son is 9 years old, the earth is round, the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, Leibniz believed the world was the best possible, trafficking of human beings for sex against their will is immoral, Jupiter has 67 moons. Some beliefs are based on memory, some on testimony; others are based on perceptual experience or a sense of right and wrong that is difficult to define. We can of course challenge these beliefs. My friend might tell me that he remembers an astronomer telling him Jupiter has 63 moons. This might prompt me to check the matter out and adjust my belief if necessary.

Let’s then apply this to my theism. For whatever reason, I find myself with belief in God. The existence of God seems obvious to me as I contemplate the universe and reflect on life. Perhaps this is due to what Calvin called a “sensus divinitatis,” or perhaps it is due to the “internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Atheists might prefer to think of it as little more than a psychological quirk at best, or at worst a delusion. Whatever the cause, my theism is there as a fundamental part of my noetic structure, and a crucial part of how I make sense of the world around me. It isn’t very easy to spell out the circumstances under which I might give up my theism. However, there are a few candidates for defeaters.

Firstly, if someone produced a convincing argument that the concept of God was incoherent, then that would be the most likely case which would cause me to abandon theism. There have been a few attempts in the history of philosophy to produce such an argument, but none has as yet come close. However, if anyone succeeded then I suspect my noetic apparatus would respond by abandoning theism.

Secondly, and particularly in relation to my theism being specifically Christian, should historians ever show that Jesus did not in fact exist, or that the resurrection was a cooked up myth (perhaps by finding conclusive historical documents of some sort) then I would abandon specifically Christian theism. Since Christianity makes a number of unique historical claims, it is always open to historical disproof.

These two are the surest cases under which my beliefs about God would not survive, but there are other instances which might well threaten my theism. For instance, suppose I suffer a catastrophic illness, or witness a close family relative going through such trauma. This could well dissolve my theism. I don’t mean that I would give up my belief in such circumstances because I think that under them the problem of evil would suddenly appear cogent. I’m simply observing that under such circumstances many people have lost their belief in God, and that it isn’t implausible to think that the same could happen to me. Of course, it could equally happen that under such circumstances my belief would end up much more steadfast and sure. How could we ever know how our minds would respond under such life-changing circumstances?

I have already alluded to the fact that beliefs can be modified or ditched in the light of evidence and rational scrutiny. However, this is easier with respect to some beliefs than others. Let’s compare belief in God with the belief that Jupiter has 67 moons. Belief in God has a certain feature that beliefs such as “Jupiter has 67 moons” do not have. Philosophers call this feature the “depth of ingression.” This is the degree to which a belief can be given up without significant reverberations throughout the rest of our noetic structure. Some beliefs are central, others peripheral. Whether or not Jupiter has 67 moons doesn’t matter much. I could give it up without any further noetic consequences. Belief in God is not typically like that. It occupies a far more central place. My theism colours – or even determines – what I believe about many other (incredibly important) things: moral value, freedom, the nature of humankind, or what a good life is, to name just a few. In fact, belief in God can occupy such a central place that it becomes a normative belief – part of the standard by which we measure other beliefs. So, take the following anti-theistic argument from evil:

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

A theist who entertains this argument might very well doubt premise (2) simply because “God exists” + (1) have so much warrant for them that (2) cannot be seriously considered. Of course, this doesn’t mean belief in God can never be overturned, for it could be by an argument which contains premises with at least as much warrant as theism. What it does mean is that it’s very easy to see why giving up one belief is a more complex affair than giving up another, and that it isn’t always easy to spell out the circumstances under which we would reject a belief the origin of which is exceedingly complex, and which occupies a central place in our noetic structure. Those who lose their belief in God tend to undergo a “paradigm shift,” a huge change in their noetic structure that often takes either a life-changing event (like a catastrophic illness), or a long time (as we see from deconversion stories) to take effect.

In my case, whilst there are circumstances in which I can imagine losing my belief in God, I suspect it is highly unlikely that I ever will.

Stephen J. Graham

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God’s Permission of Suffering: A Response to Eleonore Stump

Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump objects to Peter van Inwagen’s proposed theodicy because under the terms of that theodicy God would inflict or permit some person, S, to undergo some instance of suffering, without their permission, and purely for the benefit of some other person or group of people, Y (call this “involuntary altruistic suffering”). This is an objection I’ve heard from the lips of a few philosophical atheists also.

What are we to make of it? Better still, how do we turn such an observation into an actual objection? Precisely what is wrong with God inflicting or permitting S to undergo involuntary altruistic suffering? (I am assuming here that it is possible for some person to suffer purely for the benefit of someone else. This might be disputed by some who hold that suffering always brings about – or at least has the potential for – benefit to the sufferer, either directly or indirectly. I’m also ignoring the suggestion that S is better off in a world where S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering than in some other possible world).

Stump’s objection is that God would be in breach of a moral principle like:

“It is wrong to allow something bad to happen to X – without X’s permission – In order to secure some benefit for others (and no benefit for X).”

As much as I respect Stump as a philosopher, this principle strikes me as clearly wrong, at least if we hold it as a universal principle. It is all too easy to think of counter-examples. Van Inwagen himself lists a few general types of case where such a moral principle wouldn’t hold, for example:

1. When the agent is in a position of lawful authority over X and the others in the question. For instance, if a citizen returns to his home country from a region where a killer disease has been rampant, aren’t the authorities perfectly entitled to keep him or her in quarantine before being free to mingle with fellow citizens?

2. When the good to be gained by the others is considerably greater than the evil suffered by X.

3. When there is no way to achieve the good for the others except by X suffering (or someone else equal to X).

Imagine I’m a train driver and I’ve just been informed that a man has been tied to the tracks by a psychopathic serial killer. There isn’t time to pull the breaks. I can either run over the man or I could re-direct the train onto an abandoned line that leads off a cliff, killing all the passengers on board. I choose to inflict pain and suffering on the man (and his friends and relatives), without their permission, and purely for the benefit of others. Have I acted wrongly? Clearly not, I should think.

Perhaps, you might protest, although this is a case where there is no explicit permission given, permission could be rationally implied or inferred. How so? Well, arguably whilst the man does not consent to die, he would almost certainly agree with the decision to end his life if he was making the decision as a neutral observer.

This raises a very interesting point. We might say that if the man could objectively weigh the big picture he would consent to the infliction of the suffering. In other words, if the man was to make the decision from behind a “veil of ignorance” – not knowing that the person tied to the tracks is himself – he would almost certainly choose the action the train driver chooses. But if this is so it seems to me that the objection to God acting in a way such that S undergoes involuntary altruistic suffering is fatally undermined. It seems that there is little objection to God permitting or causing suffering to S for the good of Y if the suffering is taken on voluntarily, as in the case of Jesus Christ. Moreover, even if S is not in a position to choose to accept the suffering, God – being omniscient – knows that if S were in a position to make such a decision S would accept the suffering that comes his way. In this case too there doesn’t seem to be much that’s objectionable in causing or permitting S to suffer for the benefit of Y. But, what if S is able to make such a decision and would not choose to suffer? Well, again, God knows that such unwillingness is due to ignorance. If S knew all the facts of the situation – and perhaps if S had all the right affections – then S would accept the suffering. Again, I’m not sure there is an objection here. The point is that God sees the big picture, and weighs it perfectly objectively. So, arguably in inflicting suffering on S (or permitting such suffering) He is acting in a way S would agree with if S had the big picture God has.

So, if there is to be an objection that God violates some moral principle or other we require a coherent statement of the principle and a decent argument that it passes the “counter-example” test. I don’t think Stump has achieved that.

Stephen J. Graham

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Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham

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God, Hell & Philosophical Zombies

Justin Schieber, co-host at Reasonable Doubts, has tentatively offered a rather novel argument against God recently (Schieber has informed me that the argument is not original to him. He heard it briefly mentioned in an unknown podcast a few years ago and it got him thinking about how to formalise it). Schieber hasn’t developed his argument at any length, but helpfully provided this quick summary:

“If God is omniscient, he knows which persons would freely reject him if he were to create them as well as which persons would freely choose him if he were to create them.

If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, he would surely have created those who he knows would freely choose Him. However, God could have created Philosophical Zombies (Characters who look and act in identical ways to free creatures but lacking souls/internal mental lives) to play the roles of those he knew would reject him had he actually created them.

If he did, Hell would contain no conscious torment of persons. Heaven would contain only those who God knew would freely choose him. Those who God knew would freely reject him would never have been created.

In such a story, Free Will and Perfect Justice are preserved.”

Preliminaries

The concept of a philosophical zombie might be a new and unusual one to some readers. Philosophical zombies are a famous part of philosophical thought experiments in the philosophy of mind. A philosophical zombie is exactly the same as a human being but lacks consciousness. They are not self-aware. They do not have thoughts, sensations, inner mental lives, or an awareness of personhood. However, they act just like any human does. They will form sentences, walk to work, sit at a computer, eat lunch, talk to taxi drivers, and tell jokes. They are effectively lumps of flesh acting a certain way but with no conscious life.

Now, not all philosophers believe the concept is a coherent one. I disagree with this and agree with comments made by Schieber in a Twitter conversation that it is easily within God’s power to make lumps of flesh look and act like humans whilst lacking any consciousness or inner mental life.

So, let’s unpack Schieber’s argument a bit further. Obviously his argument doesn’t apply to all brands of Christian theism. For instance, the open theist needn’t be much concerned by it since he or she will hold that God does not in fact know the future choices of free agents. Nor will the Christian pluralist – John Hick, for instance – be greatly disturbed since on his view God will eventually win everyone over to salvation. Furthermore, annihilationists – such as John Wenham or John Stott – will not be massively perturbed either since unbelievers will simply go out of existence.

Thus, Schieber’s argument need only concern Christians who believe (1) That God does in fact know the future choices of free agents; and (2), that unbelievers will live eternally outside of God’s presence – in Hell, however we choose to conceive of it.

In response to Schieber let’s grant:

1. God is omniscient and knows how any free person that He could create will act in any circumstances in which He might wish to create that person.

2. God is omnipotent and could have created as philosophical zombies those He knows will freely reject Him.

3. The ultimately unrepentant will live eternally outside of God’s presence.

Response to Schieber

It seems to me that there are certain assumptions underlying Schieber’s argument:

1. That in creating actual people God knows will reject salvation, God is in some way wronging them or doing them an injustice.

2. Sending ultimately impenitent unbelievers to Hell for eternity is unjust, and thus a bad thing.

3. A world with no Hell is better than a world with a Hell.

I don’t think Schieber’s argument works unless these assumptions – or others very much like them – are granted. I will argue that all are, in fact, false.

What the hell is Hell?

Let’s begin with the concept of Hell. Schieber refers to Hell as eternal conscious torment. At the popular level this idea raises images of people being burned in flames for all eternity, or perhaps tormented by demons as depicted in medieval art. However, this conception of Hell is not one which you’ll find frequently amongst theologians. Christian philosopher JP Moreland states categorically: “God doesn’t torture people in hell.” I have neither time nor space to explicate a full doctrine of Hell here. The precise nature of Hell is not spelled out in the Bible. Rather what we find are a number of different images and pictures pointing towards it rather than spelling out its precise nature. In the literature on Hell theologians tend to be in agreement on one thing: Hell is fundamentally a separation from God.

In orthodox Christianity God is the creator: a generous, loving being who wishes the best for his creatures. God’s purpose and will for us is that we should relate to and love Him. To this end God has created us with a degree of freedom – to seek, find and honour God, or to go our own way. How this pans out in each individual’s life is beyond my ability to say.

Now, I detect two differing understandings within orthodox Christian views of Hell as the eternal destiny of the unrepentant and I want to discuss both in light of Scheiber’s argument.

(1) The self-inflicted view, represented by Peter Kreeft and CS Lewis.

(2) The retributive view, represented by William Lane Craig.

Kreeft views Hell primarily in terms of a self-separation from God by the individual. He argues that the existence of Hell actually follows from the existence of Heaven and free will – as a place for those who freely reject heaven.

The central point made by Kreeft is best put in his own words: “. . . heaven and hell may be the very same objective place – namely God’s love, experienced oppositely by opposite souls. . . The fires of hell may be made of the very love of God, experienced as torture by those who hate him: the very light of God’s truth, hated and fled from in vain by those who love darkness.” Kreeft appears to think that the damned could turn and be saved but they choose not to. They refuse God forever, and therefore – as Sartre once remarked – the door of Hell is locked from the inside. This same point is wonderfully made by CS Lewis in his allegorical story The Great Divorce. In this book he pictures people who live in Hell (depicted as a grey, colourless, and comparatively insubstantial world – not a fiery torture chamber) going on a journey to heaven, but hardly any of them choose to stay despite the pleadings of the saints. The core point is that God allows free creatures – out of respect for their autonomy and human dignity – to separate themselves from Him if they choose. Thus, the damned choose Hell, and Hell’s existence stands as a testimony to the dignity of human moral freedom.

William Lane Craig on the other hand sees hell primarily in terms of retributive punishment inflicted on the unrepentant by God because of their sin rather than primarily as a state the damned themselves choose to remain in. Responding to the argument that any sin only deserves a finite punishment Craig points out that the damned very likely continue to sin: “Insofar as the inhabitants of hell continue to hate God and reject him, they continue to sin and so accrue to themselves more guilt and more punishment. In a real sense then hell is self-perpetuating.” (I should point out that Craig disputes the notion that sin cannot rightly receive an infinite punishment. He argues that rejecting Christ is a sin of a different order altogether, one of infinite gravity and proportion and therefore believes the case can indeed be made for an infinite punishment for sin). The central point here is that if the punishment of obstinate, unrepentant sinners is just then the existence of Hell is just, and not therefore an evil.

Through Hell and Back

We return then to Schieber after our brief excursus through hell.

Take two possible worlds: Zombixia and EarthWorld. Zombixia is identical to EarthWorld in all respects except that those who God knows will reject him are created as philosophical zombies – not as real people – and thus will not go to Hell for eternity. Is Zombixia preferable?

I think our brief discussion of Hell allows us to see that Schieber’s argument does not show that Zombixia would be preferable or that EarthWorld is somehow defective by comparison to it. In fact I think a reasonable case can be made for why EarthWorld is to be preferred.

On both the Kreeft and Craig models of eternal Hell God wills the salvation of every single person and every single person is such that they have sufficient opportunity to accept salvation. All can be saved. On the molinist model that I suspect Scheiber has in mind when he offers this argument, whilst it is the case that God knows that some person X will not accept salvation, it is the case that X remains free to accept salvation or reject it. The circumstances are “freedom permitting,” even though God knows that X will freely reject him. But X has the opportunity to be saved, he really can be saved, but he chooses not to be. That he has this opportunity is a great good – one that would be missing from Zombixia.

On the Kreeft model X freely separates himself from God, and his eternal destiny is thus the upholding of his dignity as a free moral agent. In effect God respects X as a person and grants him his will. CS Lewis once said that there are two kinds of people: those who say to God “thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God therefore doesn’t wrong the unrepentant by creating them; he grants them dignity, respects their will, and upholds their personhood. These are goods pertaining to EarthWorld that are missing from Zombixia.

Alternatively, on the Craig model X is punished by God for his sin. But, this punishment is just, particularly if X continues sinning, continues in his God-rejecting unrepentant course. Now, are we to think this is bad? I don’t think so unless we are prepared to defend the notion that punishment is inherently bad. Sure, it might be bad for X but does that mean that God shouldn’t have made X as a real person? Why should God allow those who freely reject salvation to have some sort of veto power over his creative activity? He creates them as real persons, gives them real opportunity for salvation, but X squanders the opportunity. I don’t see an injustice here that Zombixia lacks by comparison. On Craig’s model no one will be in hell except by their own moral guilt and choice to reject salvation. In Zombixia God has effectively allowed the ultimately unrepentant veto power over his creative will, and to limit the number of people over which he can extend his love and offer of salvation.

Moreover, there appears to be something of very significant moral value lacking in Zombixia. Say Billy Bob is a philanthropist who spends large amounts of time and money helping turbulent Tom, destitute Dick and homeless Harry. But Tom, Dick & Harry are not in fact real people in Zombixia. They cannot truly appreciate Billy Bob’s actions; nor do those actions really accomplish anything of moral worth in the lives of Tom, Dick & Harry. Not so in EarthWorld. It seems to me that there is therefore a clear value and purpose inherent to moral actions in EarthWorld that is lacking in Zombixia.

So, it seems to me that whichever model we advocate (I prefer a modified form of Kreeft over Craig, with the hope that John Hick is right!), EarthWorld and Zombixia each preserve free will and perfect justice. However EarthWorld has values that Zombixia does not and, indeed, cannot have. EarthWorld is a real world, with real significance. There’s no pretense here. There are real choices to be made, and crucially real opportunities for every person to come to salvation. Human dignity and moral autonomy are respected in EarthWorld in a way that they aren’t in Zombixia. X truly can be saved in EarthWorld, but has no such opportunity in Zombixia. It therefore seems to me that God has reason to create the former over the latter.

Stephen J Graham

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Theodicy & The Book of Job

With its belief in the omnipotence and perfect goodness of God the problem of evil is particularly acute for Christian theism, and it therefore makes sense to inquire what resources might be found within that tradition for dealing with this problem. In this article I want to look at the Bible, and specifically at the book of Job. The book of Job is the sort of book that must be read in its entirety. Proof-text from Job at your peril!

The first thing to notice is that Job is not a work of analytic philosophy. It’s a story. It doesn’t give us 5 point deductive argument defending the existence of God in the face of evil and suffering. Instead Job is a narrative, cleverly woven together to give us a lens through which to view the evils and sufferings we face.

The story is of a righteous man who suffers, and, in his own eyes, suffers unjustly. The main portion of the book is taken up by cycles of debate between Job and his three friends – Eliphaz, Zophur, and Bildad (and later on Elihu). The theological background of the book is vital. Israelites believed that God was almighty and perfectly just; and no one was wholly innocent in His eyes. The prevailing theodicy was simple: our suffering is a measure of our guilt before God. If you were righteous you enjoyed God’s blessing. If you were not, you didn’t; you suffered to some extent in accordance with your unrighteousness. This theology undergirds numerous utterances of the various characters. Thus, for example, we find Eliphas saying, “Should not your piety be your confidence and your blameless ways your hope? Who being innocent has ever perished?”[Job 4:6].

But the book of Job throws up a problem: Job was righteous (though not without sin) and yet suffered greatly. The orthodox theology has broken down. For Job’s friends the theology holds true, and they therefore conclude that Job’s sin before God must be great. Job, who also adheres to this theology, believes he is righteous and therefore holds out for God to vindicate him. Theology has collided with human experience, and God has become an enigma in the eyes on the suffering righteous.

Some theologians believe that one of the purposes of Job is to refute this theology, but that is inaccurate. The purpose is to show that while it may be true that God often rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked (see the cycles of sin-punishment-repentance-deliverance in the book of Judges for an illustration of this theology at work), this isn’t always or necessarily the case. Of course, it could be the case – and could even generally be the case – that this is how God operates, but the theology is not universal: sometimes the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The world is not such that you always reap what you sow.

Elihu, who is introduced later in the book, has a slightly different take on things. While he holds to the traditional theology he takes it in a slightly different direction. Job is a sinner, like everyone else. However, rather than his suffering being a punishment for wrong Elihu seems to see the suffering as a warning of future judgment. Suffering, for Elihu, becomes God’s way to attract Job’s attention towards the sin in his life that needs to be dealt with in order to save his soul. Thus conceived the suffering of Job is actually a part of God’s love and redemptive plan. Christian theism certainly contains a theme to this effect, a theme which was highlighted by CS Lewis when he referred to pain as “[God’s] megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But, as with the aforementioned theology, we know that while this may well be true on many occasions, it isn’t the case with Job’s situation here.

Towards the end of the book Yahweh finally makes an appearance. We might at this point expect an explanation from God but He never actually gives one. Yahweh appeals simply to his omniscience, suggesting that Job’s complaints are made from a position of ignorance: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?. . . Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!”[Job 38: 2, 4-6]. And on and on Yahweh peppers Job with such questions. Yahweh’s speeches imply that Job should trust God to do the right thing. In other words, if Job knows God is almighty, just and omniscient then Job should accept that God knows what he is doing and is doing the right thing, even though Job has no idea what is going on. Job comes to accept this divine chastening: “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”[Job 42:2-3]

Notice that Yahweh never actually tells Job what the reader knows. In this instance God has been challenged by “the satan” – “the accuser” – and this challenge has massive ramifications for the God-man relationship, a relationship which the satan seeks to destroy. God delights in Job and boasts of Job’s righteousness. In response the satan makes his challenge: Job’s righteousness is in fact evil and purely self-serving; he is righteous and loyal only because he enjoys the blessings of God. God takes delight in Job’s righteousness but the satan challenges that Job’s righteousness is really devoid of all integrity, and that if God would let him break the link between righteousness and blessing then Job will be exposed as the sinner he is and God will be shown as a fool for delighting in Job. There is a lot at stake: if the satan is right then he will have succeeded in driving a wedge between God and man Elmer Smick writes, “It is the adversary’s ultimate challenge. For if the godliness of the righteous man in whom God delights can be shown to be the worst of all sins, then a chasm of alienation stands between them that cannot be bridged.”

God then steps up to the challenge so as He and Job may be vindicated and the satan silenced. The lesson seems to be that the righteousness of man is of such importance that God values it above all else, and thus suffering in this case has deep meaning and value. Job has to endure because God is interested in freely given love and loyalty and to prove that people would still love and be loyal no matter what happened to them. God perhaps desires to prove that He is worthy of love and loyalty in Himself and not because of the positive rewards He gives.

But God never explains any of this to Job, and we could only speculate as to why that is. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Job remained righteous and loyal and, in the end, needed no explanation. As a righteous man God’s presence was all Job needed – not a theological or philosophical answer. Or perhaps the point is that God is not under some obligation to explain his dealings with us. But whatever the answer is there is a more general point to make, since the reason for Job’s suffering is not intended to be an explanation for why everyone suffers.

The more general point of the book is to show that from our perspective as we live our lives – like Job and his friends – we have a severely limited view of reality. Job and his friends have simply a man’s eye view of things. But the reader of the book is given a God’s eye view from the start. Job and his friends are “inside” the story; the reader is “outside,” and privy to information that is hidden from the main characters in the dispute. We get to see a glimpse of a person struggling to understand their suffering, while also knowing the reason why they are suffering. With a God’s eye view we know that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than any character realizes. From a man’s eye view God is an enigma and it’s easy to feel injustice, or sense a lack of purpose behind our suffering, or even offer crass explanations why such and such happens. But, with a God’s eye view there is a clear purpose and reason that often isn’t clear.

The book of Job is written primarily for the people of God who are suffering. It’s a reminder that suffering isn’t necessarily tied to sin (thus suffering need not be compounded by guilt). Further, it’s a reminder that for those who believe in the greatness and goodness of God there is no suffering over which God is not in control. Most crucially it’s a reminder that we only see a small piece of reality and thus it’s difficult to draw conclusions such as “some evil in the world is gratuitous,” or “there is no reason for much pain and suffering that occurs,” or “an omnipotent and perfectly good God would not allow such suffering to happen.” To confidently draw these conclusions we need precisely what we do not have: A God’s eye view. How do we know – indeed, how could we know – that some level of suffering is the threshold beyond which a perfectly good God would step in? How does our lack of knowledge about the purposes of some instance of suffering justify a leap to the conclusion that it has no purpose?

And, indeed, those who trust that God is perfectly good and all powerful have grounds to hold that whilst we may not see any good purpose there must ultimately be one if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists. That, it seems to me, is the underlying message of the Book of Job.

Stephen J. Graham

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This is an article that I had originally intended to send for publication, but I just don’t like it enough yet! Any comments or suggestions for improvements will be welcomed!
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Leibniz’s Best Possible World

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THIS IS A WORKING DRAFT OF AN ESSAY IN PROGRESS. IT’S MUCH LONGER THAN THE TYPICAL BLOG POST, BUT I’LL BE REFERRING TO IT IN THE NEXT COUPLE OF POSTS.
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Karth Barth accused Leibniz of having no serious interest in the problem of evil. Barth was wrong about many things, and such is the case here also. The problem of evil was of concern to Leibniz from his youth, and his thinking on the problem culminated in his influential work, “Theodicy.”

The central thesis of Leibniz’s work is the notion that the world in which we live is the best possible world (BPW). The concept of the BPW is a slippery one, often left ill-defined as if those who use it expect their listeners to instinctively know what it means. Unfortunately it is used differently by different thinkers, and, as we will see, criticisms of one understanding do not necessarily apply to others. According to Leibniz the BPW is that state of affairs – or combination of possibilities – which allows the maximization of being, in terms of both quantity and quality. His idea here has echoes of Neo-Platonism’s so called “principle of plenitude;”in creating God intends to manifest his goodness beyond the bounds of his own being, and such purposes are best served by creating a rich variety of finite beings, as opposed to a mere quantitative maximum of the same sort of being: “To multiply one and the same thing only would be superfluity, and poverty too. . . to eat nothing but partridges, to drink only Hungarian or Shiraz wine – would one call that reason?

In developing his notion of the BPW Leibniz also points out that while X, Y, Z might be individually possible, they may not be “compossible” – capable of existing in the same reality. For instance, it’s possible for Dodos to exist in the year 2014 and it’s possible that Dodos be extinct by 2014. But we can’t have one reality in which Dodos exist in 2014 and are extinct in 2014. One excludes the other. So, God must choose which set of coherent possibilities to actualize. Leibniz pictures an infinite number of possible universes present as ideas in God’s mind: W1…Wn. These universes exhaust all possibilities, such that any change in W1 would render it identical to, say, W2. From surveying each possible universe God applied his creative power to bring one into existence. The combination of God’s omnipotence, perfect understanding, and perfect goodness leads him to choose the best world.

It is Leibniz’s notion of compossibility – or noncompossibility – that means that whilst God chooses the BPW, this world still contains a great deal of evil. God’s creative activity is thus limited by inherent compatibility issues. There are, however, countless possibilities from which God can choose. He compares them – perfections and imperfections, weaknesses and strengths, goods and evils – and then in His wisdom chooses the best “in order to satisfy goodness completely.”

So, God surveys all the possible worlds he could make: W1 to Wn. According to Leibniz God knows these possible worlds exhaustively, including all the free decisions of any beings he could create in whatever circumstances he chooses to create them. Moreover, God sees each world as a completed whole. So, in terms of the idea of our own world in the divine mind, He knew about the Fall and its corrupting effects, about the redemption of Christ, and about the choices of each person which leads them to either salvation or damnation. God doesn’t determine these choices; He simply decrees the existence of this world and its entire history.

Here we meet the first common criticism of Leibniz: that the universe is just as rigidly determined as Spinoza’s, despite Leibniz’s protestations to the contrary. In fact, Charles Werner accuses Leibniz of presenting us with “a perfect and devastating image of necessity.” After all, in Leibniz’s scheme, God has decreed a complete sequence of events; what room then for human freedom?

This criticism is much too hasty, as Leibniz’s view needn’t exclude genuine free will. If – as many philosophers of religion think – God has so-called “middle knowledge,” then He knows what any creature He might create would do under any set of circumstances in which God might place him. These circumstances are “freedom-permitting” circumstances. For example, under the particular circumstances God knew that Peter would freely deny Christ three times. God’s knowing this does not, however, make the actions any less free – even in the libertarian sense. So, when our world was considered in its totality in the divine mind, this included all the free actions of free agents within it. God does not determine the agents to act as they do, but rather He knows how they will freely act in the circumstances in which they find themselves.

On the Leibnizian view we notice that evil is unavoidable. Evil – for Leibniz – is very real, though always a privation of something good. No matter what form evils come in – whether metaphysical evils in terms of finitude and imperfection, physical evils in terms of pain and suffering, or moral evils in terms of human sins – they are part of the BPW by virtue of being inter-connected with certain goods. Leibniz here agrees with Augustine that the universe as a whole is good despite containing elements that, when considered in isolation, are bad: “Not only does [God] derive from [evils] greater goods, but he finds them connected with the greatest goods of all those that are possible: so that it would be a fault not to permit them.”

Leibniz thus approves of the ancient hymn which translates as “O fortunate sin that merits such and so great a redeemer,” to illustrate this principle, and writes: “all the evils of the world contribute, in ways which generally we cannot now trace, to the character of the whole as the best of all possible universes.” But, what about tiny evils? Couldn’t we do away with even just one of them and so make a better world than this? Leibniz answers: “if the smallest evil that comes to pass in the world were missing in it, it would no longer be this world; which, with nothing omitted and all allowance made, was found best by the Creator who chose it.”

It’s crucial to understand that Leibniz does not think we can derive the conclusion that this is the BPW simply by reflecting on how it appears to us. This, reckons Leibniz, would be impossible: “For can I know and can I present infinities to you and compare them together?” We have no way to know what the BPW is, except in so far as we might arrive at this conclusion by reflection on the existence of a perfectly good creator. Being perfectly good (and omnipotent) means that – having freely chosen to create (as an expression of over-flowing goodness creatively expressing itself to creatures) – God will create the best possible world: “supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best.” Leibniz, then, would be utterly unimpressed by recent atheistic arguments which attempt to show that God does not exist because this is not the best possible world. Leibniz was all too aware that he wasn’t nearly omniscient enough to draw such a conclusion!

This brings us to another criticism of Leibniz’s position: the coherence, or lack thereof, of the concept of “best possible world.”

Certain theologians, following Aquinas, have argued that the “best possible world” is by definition unrealizable – like the fastest possible speed. Charles Journet argued that regardless of what world God makes he could always make a better one, and thus: “To demand that God, to be above reproach, must make the best of all possible worlds is to demand him to make what is not feasible, and to give existence to something absurd.”

It seems to me that Journet has failed to grasp the sense in which Leibniz uses the term. Following the Thomist tradition Journet holds that there is a scale of possible universes from non-being to God, but that this scale contains an infinity of steps, and that between any two universes there is always the possibility of another. This means that no matter what universe God creates there is always the possibility of there being one that is better but still less than God. If the Thomist tradition is correct then the concept of the best possible world is indeed incoherent, since there cannot be a best possible world in the sense of a closest approximation to perfection within an infinite series of such approximations.

However, this is not how Leibniz uses the term. Leibniz agreed that there could well be an unlimited range of possible worlds; however there is one which – though not particularly close to the level of God – is such as to be the most superior compossible system, in so far as it best satisfies some given criterion of excellence. Thus, Journet’s criticism misfires.

Journet then levels a second criticism at Leibniz, one with which many other commentators concur. Journet accuses Leibniz of effectively denying God’s omnipotence, and setting up a form of dualism. According to Leibniz, once God has freely chosen to create he is limited by fixed possibilities and compossibilities, and therefore even in the BPW there may well be a lot of evil. And since He is limited in these ways, God is not omnipotent.

To my mind accusing Leibniz of denying God’s omnipotence or advocating a dualist solution to the problem of evil is quite unfair. Philosophers of religion have typically argued that there are certain things which God logically cannot do. God cannot create a world in which it always rains everywhere and in which it never rains anywhere. Moreover, there are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent God cannot create. For example, it’s possible under the conditions he finds himself in that Judas not betray Christ. But God can’t create a world with exactly those conditions in which Judas does not betray Christ, because Judas will freely choose to betray Christ under those circumstances. Such a world is not feasible for God to create despite its being a possible world.

Some critics go further and accuse Leibniz’s system of being one that leaves us without hope. Why? Well, if this is the best possible world then there is no hope of improvement. Arthur Lovejoy writes, “It was possible to hope that in the fullness of time the Devil might be put under foot, and believers in revealed religion were assured that he would be; but logical necessities are eternal, and the evils which arise from them must therefore be perpetual.” Or, as Voltaire’s Candide asks in a spirit of hopelessness: “Si c’est ici le meilleur des mondes possible, que sont donc les autres?” (“If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?”)

This, however, represents an unduly wooden interpretation of Leibniz. This is best illustrated by differentiating between two other concepts: a static view of the world and a dynamic view of the world. The static view treats the world like a picture – existing all at once, such that if this is the BPW then there can never be any improvement. The picture is as good as it’s ever going to be. However, this view totally ignores the time dimension to existence. By contrast, the dynamic view treats the world more like a drama, moving across time. In fact, the best possible drama might start off incredibly boring, but such boredom may well be setting the foundation for later scenes of the play. After scene one should I despair that because this is the “best possible play” that it therefore can’t get any better? Not at all! The same holds for Leibniz’s concept of the BPW. With this dynamic view we can see that the BPW can improve as time goes on. The world today can be a better place than it was yesterday and yet it would still be true that the world is the BPW. When we say “best possible world” we are referring to the entire state of affairs: past, present and future. Moreover, some evils might be necessary in the early stages of this world but that does not mean they will be perpetual. It’s perfectly plausible and consistent with Leibniz’s theodicy to suggest that perhaps part of the reason why this world is the BPW is precisely because evil is not going to last forever; and of course Christianity does indeed envisage a future in which this becomes a reality.

And thus the criticisms of Lovejoy and Voltaire fail. Once we adopt the dynamic view there is no reason at all why the best possible world could not be such that it is better at time t2 than it was at t1.

Admittedly this notion of a dynamic view of the universe is not explicit in Leibniz. When he speaks of the universe as the BPW he is referring to its adequacy – as a complex whole – as an expression of the overflowing creativity of God. As such the criticism of Leibniz above is understandable, since arguably he may have thought that the universe at t2 could not in any way be better than it was at t1. At both times, for Leibniz, the world perfectly reflects God’s goodness. However, as I have argued, his view can be easily interpreted, or at least modified, in precisely the way I have outlined.

Such criticisms further expose the need to carefully define what “best possible world” means. The BPW, as I have said, is certainly a slippery concept and often different thinkers mean different things when they use the term. Some, with Leibniz, understand the term along the lines of the universe’s being the best expression of the overflowing goodness and creativity of God. Others – particularly modern atheist critics – use the term in an ontological sense to mean a world containing only “perfect” types of being. However, on the back of the dynamic view outlined above we can find another understanding of the term, one which fits neatly within an orthodox Christian view. This understanding we might call “instrumental,” and recognizes that it’s impossible to make any claims about what would be the best possible world aside from dealing with the prior question of what God is trying to achieve through creation. What are God’s purposes?

This then brings us to the question of why God created the world. We need not disagree with Leibniz that the world is the expression of the overflowing creativity of God who desires to communicate his being beyond Himself. However, on the Christian understanding of God there is more to creation than that. In fact it seems that whether or not this is the BPW ultimately depends on a prior question: why did God create us and place us in the sort of world in which we find ourselves? The BPW, then, is that state of affairs which best serves the purposes that God wishes to fulfill through it. The early church father Irenaeus seemed to think along such lines (though not in any kind of systematic way). Put simply, Irenaeus thought that man is an unfinished creature – not created in perfection, as Augustinian theologians often suggest. Human beings – as autonomous moral agents – must be developed. The world then is the “vale of soul-making,” a place built for this process, a place in which human beings can exercise and grow in virtues, but by necessity also a place where vices and real evils exist.

I will expand on this Irenaean idea in a later essay, but for now we notice what this exposes about the nature of the real divide between theists and atheists when it comes to the notion of “best possible world.” Atheists and agnostics – represented philosophically by the likes of Hume, Mill and Russell – tend to assume that if an omnipotent and perfectly good being exists then its purpose is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the creatures it creates. The BPW will therefore be that which works best to this end. Since this world is almost certainly not that kind of world, then God almost certainly does not exist. By contrast the Christian view is not at all like this. The highest good in Christianity is the knowledge of God – not the maximization of earthly pleasure. In other words the world is designed as an environment for the development of finite persons, and in this world they have real and significant freedom to engage in real and significant acts of good or evil.

This brings us back to Leibniz: how do we know that this is the BPW? For Leibniz, as we have seen, there is a reasonable answer: because it is the creation of an omnipotent, perfectly good God. For the atheist, how do we know that if an omnipotent, perfectly good God exists that He would create a better world than this one? I don’t see how the atheist can answer that question. It requires knowing that there is a world which is better than this one. But how can we know a thing like that? To paraphrase Leibniz: Can the atheist know and can he present infinities to us and compare them together? Most atheist arguments here take the form “If God existed he would/would not do this or that.” Unfortunately this amounts to little more than crass presumption, as if such a being might have the same values, goals and purposes as a modern day atheist, and no higher level of insight into reality. Such arguments would have been regarded as sheer folly by Leibniz, and rightly so.

It seems to me that Leibniz was certainly on to something in his central notion that we live in the best possible world. Even Christian philosophers who claim to reject Leibniz end up affirming his core thesis in some shape or form. For instance, in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick rejects Leibniz’s position, and yet his own position strikes me as inherently Leibnizian, with the exception that he defines “best” in more explicitly instrumental terms. Others make a similar move, implicitly accepting that if God exists with the attributes Christianity claims He possesses, then in some sense this must be the best possible world. And so they should, since if an omnipotent and perfectly good God exists and has a purpose for his creation it would be inexplicable why He didn’t create the world that would be best suited for achieving it.

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Filed under Atheism, God, Leibniz, Problem of Evil, Theism

Lego & Philosophy

Most of my philosophical teaching and learning occurs in all-adult contexts. But the past few months I’ve discovered how wonderful a tool Lego is for firing the philosophical imaginations and musings of kids. I’ll illustrate a few simple examples from my own experience of playing with my 7 year old son, who’s played with nothing but Lego for about 9 months now – mostly Lego Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Fine by me! (My nickname for my son is “Mo Chara” which is Irish for “my friend.”)

Lego has presented quite a few lead-ins to philosophical thought. Here are four examples of conversations I’ve had with Mo Chara.

1. Creation

This is probably the most obvious connection. When we play with Lego we are the gods of the Lego world. Nothing gets built but at our hands. Here is a pile of bricks. Here is another pile of bricks, this time in the form of a house. How did that happen? Did mummy empty the box and the bricks by chance came out already built into a house? Nope, reckons Mo Chara. That must’ve been built by someone. Does this concept transfer over to the universe itself? Is the universe the sort of thing we look at and draw similar conclusions about? Mo Chara thinks the answer to that question is fairly obvious. This isn’t surprising since there is psychological research which shows that – contrary to the typical Internet Atheist claims that children are born atheists – children readily and naturally attribute all manner of phenomena to agency, as if such an intuition is hard-wired.

2. Personal Identity

What is a person? What makes me me and you you? If you lose a leg are you still you or just partly you? If we take Darth Vader’s head and swap it with Darth Maul’s head which one is Darth Vader and which one is Darth Maul? Likewise, if my brain goes into your body and vice versa, then which one is me and which one is you? Mo Chara’s current solution is that neither Darth Vader nor Darth Maul exist any longer; we have simply created two new creatures: Darth Mader and Darth Vaul.

3. Providence & Freedom

In discussion with a “strong” Calvinist I once parodied his view of God’s providence over the world by comparing it to my providence over the Lego world. The orcs kidnap elves because I make them do so. Dwarves wipe out orcs at my command. When I call out the storm troopers they cometh from the east and the west. When I send Yoda into battle, into battle does he go. When I command Saruman’s Uruk Hai to attack Rivendell, the trees crash like the mighty cedars of Lebanon. It all happens because I make it happen. So, what room then for responsibility? Are the orcs responsible for what they do? Aren’t we unjust to have them punished by Gandalf? Mo Chara disagrees with me on this point. He seems to think that while the orcs only do what they do because we make them do it; they are bad by nature and would do bad things anyway. So, punish away Gandalf. Thy judgment is just.

4. Ownership & Property

I built a cave out of Lego bricks last week. Do I own the cave? Well, the bricks weren’t mine to begin with. But, then again, the fact that the cave now exists is due to my time and effort spent in developing it. Does that give me ownership rights over the cave? We live in a world full of natural resources. Who owns those resources and why? I confess to being a tad put out when Mo Chara pulled my cave to bits to build a pyramid without so much as a by your leave. “I own the Lego, because it’s in my toy room.” “But I bought the Lego and the room is in the house.” “Shut up Daddy. It’s mine!” Well, you can’t expect them to be philosophical all the time!

But it’s all good…the conversations aren’t forced…it’s part of the fun…who’d have thought Lego could turn out to be so philosophically friendly? If only you could construct a worldview out of it.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Free Will, God, Lego