Sunday, September 15, 2013

How to undermine Absolutism—A Focus on Methodology and Potential Pitfalls

From Guest Blogger, Danny W.

Before I tried to come up with a refutation to the core absolutist tenet (i.e., God can do anything), I needed to understand why our class had such a hard time wrestling with a counterargument. It’s tricky to refute absolutism, but why? The nature of the absolutist “argument” reaches the conclusion that God can do everything. A necessary outcropping of such a conclusion leads the absolutist to contend that God is not constrained by logical possibility; God can bring about conditions that yield a logical contradiction (i.e., the square-circle). Despite the attempts to pose logical arguments against the absolutist, many philosophers fail to say anything that damages the absolutist’s view about God’s absolute omnipotence. The following general exchange is common: (1) the anti-absolutist lays out a deductive argument which identifies a logical contradiction in the metaphysical reality hypothesized by the existence of the absolutely omnipotent God; (2) the absolutist concedes that such logical contradictions can indeed exist if brought about by an absolutely powerful God; (3) the absolutist argument seems to remain completely intact and the anti-absolutist seems to be out of rational ammunition.

Originally, I felt an inkling of despair when it seemed that the absolutist had effectively torpedoed the logical techniques that philosophers cling to as the only viable methodology for argumentation. The absolutist conception of God’s omnipotence—namely, that he can bring about every (il)logically conceivable state of affairs—creates a metaphysical space which houses both logical proceedings and those which contradict logic (e.g., three is greater than seven). We’re not used to having this “illogical realm” have any significant metaphysical value—and in everyday life it seems that it obviously does not (e.g., we have always experienced the fact that 3 marbles is necessarily less than 7 marbles)—however, it is undeniably “in existence” for the absolutist insofar as God has the luxury of bringing about logical contradictions. Fine, it reeks of ivory-towerism, but you have to play the absolutists game and concede (for the time being) that God has the power to do the logically impossible. For this very reason, we cannot attempt to sway the absolutist by highlighting logical contradictions after we grant the assumption that God can do what is logically possible and impossible; the absolutist’s theorized metaphysical space permits all of that!

Once we accept this fact, we can start to think about the best method for refuting the absolutist claim. Have no fear, logical reasoning hasn’t been invalidated in any way; the critic of absolutism simply needs to resist the conditioned tendency to strive for a logical inconsistency in the absolutist’s metaphysical account—such tactics, as we have seen, will not win over the absolutist. 

The optimal refutation—which holds traction despite the absolutist’s willingness to permit logical inconsistencies—seems to first grant the assumption that God can do anything (the logical and illogical) and then follows such an assumption with an argument that doesn’t have a logical contradiction. It would seem that the best maneuver to counter the absolutist claim is to show why a God operating “only within logic” is supremely powerful, and specifically why such a God is more powerful than the God that can do “anything”—having the power to do both logical and illogical actions.

And this is exactly the route that Louis Groarke takes in his paper, Reconsidering Absolute Omnipotence. Groarke’s thesis is identical to that put forth by Aquinas—among other philosophers. The thesis goes: if God is omnipotent (i.e., possesses most possible power), He must possess logical omnipotence rather than absolute omnipotence. Groarke makes his argument with three subsidiary arguments:

Argument I. “Power means being able to act”
Argument II. “Power is a function of will”
Argument III. “God’s will cannot be separated from his nature”

Argument I suggests that action—what I assume means the ability or potential to act—is a necessary condition for an agent possessing power. Consequently, Groarke seems to suggest that degree of action (or the potential to act) is directly correlated to amount of power. Thus, Groarke is making the implicit argument that one should not measure power in terms of bare possibility; we should peg power to action only. From the absolutist conception of God, He can act and not act. Thus, the absolutist God exhibits inaction and lacks power whenever He does not act.

I might not be capturing the nuanced shades of Groarke’s argument I, but it seems like the absolutist would easily dismiss the assumption that power is necessarily defined by action. I can imagine the absolutist would hold to their repetitive mantra that God’s power is absolute, and that having the potential to both act and not act (and even execute both options simultaneously) is the ultimate expression of power. Additionally, I would assume that the logically constrained God, who can act or not act (just not simultaneously) still has moments of inaction when He is not demonstrating power. There does not seem to be any discrepancy between the possibility of acting and the respective power exercised by our logical and absolute God. The absolutist appears to remain unscathed.

Arguments II and III focus on God’s will necessarily being constrained only by his nature—if there was an external constraint on God’s will, He would not be omnipotent. So, Groarke now characterizes power as a function of will—namely, an agent is more powerful if they act in perfect accordance with their own will. For example, if God wants to act logically but fails to act in such a manner (e.g., he makes squircles), then he is not being powerful in any sense of Groarke’s new definition. Thus, the argument is that the absolutely omnipotent God is defying his natural will—specifically, He is not always acting according to reason and logical parameters—and consequently lacks power.

This argument seems to be more convincing at first blush, but serious limitations exist for arguments II and III. Groarke’s argument heavily relies on the assumption that God’s will is constrained only by something within God’s nature; it also relies on the assumption that rationality is a necessary attribute of God’s nature which controls will. However, is God necessarily a rational being, as Groarke claims? Under the context of the Anselmian (Perfect Being) theology, is it fair to say that God must be rational? On one hand, it would seem that we could allow our evaluation of what is perfect to necessarily include rationality. Is rational art better than irrational art, which seems to lack a coherent message? Is a rational person more desirable than an irrational person? I’m not sure, how do we make evaluative claims about beings based purely on embodied or exercised rationality. Things seem to get muddy quickly; isn’t our ability to judge what is better or best based on some social context or anthropocentric justification? It seems like attributing rationality to God’s nature or essence is a derivative of our observations about our reality—which seems to be logically constructed. But, must God be rational to be perfect? Thus, securing the assumption that God is necessarily logical (or at least that His will is contained by logic) is the major area of the argument that needs to be fleshed out before any serious consideration can be given to Groarke’s attempt at refuting absolutism.

My aim with this post is to provide a dialectic which focuses on methods for refuting the claim that God is absolutely omnipotent. It is clear that finding logical contradictions in the metaphysical reality permitted by the absolutist seems a useless direction to travel. I like where Groarke is headed; he turns his attention towards connections between God’s nature, will, actions, and how these variables connect to an agent’s power. He wrestles with definitions and relationships (e.g., the relationship between God’s will and nature). I’m not sure if these tactics fall prey to the absolutist’s acceptance of logical contradictions; that might be a good spot to start the discussion. If any of this interests you, it might help to read over the latter portion of Groarke’s paper (link posted by Jesse Steinberg on blog) and see if I adequately captured the intentions of each argument. What are some other limitations to Groarke’s argument that need to be fleshed out or fortified? Can we work with elements of Groarke’s argument, and is he using a better method for refuting absolute divine omnipotence? Feel free to join the discussion; getting multiple perspectives is always a great way to better digest these complex ideas!


Joshua Adams said...

I think that these arguments unfortunately do fall prey to the absolutists throwing out the window of logic. Once again these arguments create a logical contradiction that God has to act in a certain way, and if he doesn't then he creates a logical contradiction. I know that this isn't really an argument but I keep going to back to the fact that the reason I see the absolutist argument as bad in the end is it's power to convince people. The number of absolutists out there are small and this is because they cannot rationally satisfy anyone who is trying to explain God. Human's are by nature rational creatures and we look for explanation for the way things are that we can understand. Having this God can do anything notion is not satisfying, because if it is true then we cannot grasp who he is or everything he can do. This is unsatisfying to most people which is why absolutism is not commonly held. I know this isn't really an argument against absolutism, but I do see it as a major flaw with the view.

Natalie North said...

One option would be make God look bad and contrary to the absolutist’s general perception of God if they allow for logic to be violated. For example, in the conception of God’s will there are two logical options: God wills something to happen or he wills it not to happen. The absolutist would contend that he wills both at the same time, so we must also accept that. We must think about the characteristics we attribute to God, and the fact that we have refuted logical parameters for God’s behavior. Then take this conception into action. Consider that if God wills something both to happen and not to happen, and he takes both actions, then he is acting against what he willed. We have accepted that God does not have to act within the parameters of logic traditional in philosophy, so there is no flaw in that part. However, acting contrary to what one wills shows an apparent lack of perfection. An absolutist could maintain their claims that God is totally omnipotent, able to do anything. However, a God who could act contrary to its own will does not seem to warrant worship. The only motivation to follow this kind of God seems to be out of fear.

Another option would be to force them to answer difficult questions in which they might try to rely on logic or put limitations on God. For example, ask them to account for why there is so much evil in the world if their absolutist God could do anything, including stop the evil. My first thought is: why would they want to? Why would someone want to claim that their God could do anything, including the most evil and terrible acts they could imagine or allowing those acts to continue when He could stop them? The attempt to reconcile evil in the world with the existence of God is called theodicy. One way to attempt to refute the absolutist would be to challenge them to create a theodicy without taking any powers away from God and without relying on any logical argument. If they are unable to do so, they may have to concede that there is a flaw in some part of their conception of God.

It seems to me that the hardest way to attempt to refute absolutism is when someone is only arguing absolutism in abstract or as a devil's advocate who does not actually believe what he or she are saying. While someone who believes in God tries to argue in favor of it keeping in mind their faith, they will notice that attempting to say that God can do all the things, which they must claim he can under the absolutist view, they will notice stark contradictions. They will encounter that they are attributing to God powers in the absolutist views that they do not actually believe, but they are merely afraid to allow the person refuting the power of God to get a foot in the door in the argument because they fear where that might lead.

Chase Tarrier said...

I find arguments II and III of Groarke's writing compelling, although not entirely fleshed out, as the guest blogger here has pointed out. However, that does not preclude the possibility of their potential in refuting the absolutist. When we discuss the notion of God being limited by his own will, it seems there is already an opening for the absolutist to put forth his standard reply, namely, that God actually COULD do both what he wills, and not what he wills (whatever that means). To limit God in his action to only what he wills falls into yet another attempt to put logical constraints on an illogical God. Let us instead claim that whatever God does or does not do (whether these actions and inactions are simultaneous or not), that is God's will. In this sense, God's will is always congruent with his action, but he is not limited by that will. His will by definition IS his action and vice versa. Whether it is logical or not, I see no way that God's will can be separate from his action for as he is truly omnipotent, whatever his will puts forth, necessarily must be so.
The problem still stands, however, that for arguments II and III to make sense, God needs to have a need or desire for rationality over rationality, and there is no evidence to suggest such a claim. I think that the best direction to move in for an attempt to pull God's will back towards the logical is to appeal to the traditional Anselmian view of God as perfectly divine. God must have all the divine attributes to the most perfect degree. It seems to me that an appeal to this notion of perfection could be used to put forth that rationality is more perfect than irrationality and as God has omnipotence to a perfect degree, he must be rational. Obviously there needs to be an argument to support the notion that rationality is more perfect than irrationality in a broad sense, but perhaps this is one way to enforce the idea that God's own nature is what would force him to act within the realm of logic.
Perhaps one place to begin this argument is with the notion of perfection as an attribute that entails complete action, and noncompetition between God's powers. I haven't fully thought out this argument but its the seed of a possible paper topic. Also I apologize for the fact that this blog comment came after 7 pm on Sunday! anyhow, the absolutists confound and frustrate me, but I am still determined to undermine their thinking.

Anonymous said...

When making these types of arguments with (e.g., conditions that yield a logical contradiction), use a logical contradiction and reduce it to its simplest form ( e.g., True = False ). This is known as an absurdity - or that which some, but not most, consider the idea of God to be.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating discussion.

Is a rational being more perfect than a being that has the option of being both rational and irrational? It sounds (on first blush) like the latter being (the one that can be both) has more power than the former since such a being has an additional realm of power and action. But is this really the case?

Consider the notion of ‘rationality’ a bit more deeply. People have the power (and too often exercise that power) to act irrationally. But what exactly does this mean? It seems to mean that they can (and do) behave in ways that conflict with their stated goals and knowledge. For example, I want to be healthy and I know that eating too much sugar is not conducive to my health. Yet, in the face of this, I indulge in eating ice cream six times a day, etc. (Oddly, this sort of ‘irrationality’ is considered a human frailty!) However, in this sense of ‘irrationality,’ there is a kind of power and action that is additional to the power we all have to behave rationally. So, given this notion of ‘irrationality,’ a being that had such a power would be more powerful that a being that was precluded from behaving irrationally. So, in this sense, God, it seems, should be able to behave irrationally as this would represent an additional power to that of the power to act rationally. And we might grant that God has the power to act irrationally in this sense. But it does not follow from this that God has the power to do something that is a logical contradiction.

Another possible sense of “irrational’ occurs when people believe a contradiction and behave in a variety of ways that demonstrate that they do. There are many interesting examples of this. For example, a person might believe (ignorantly) that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the square of the other two sides, but deny that the square of the other two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. Such an ‘irrational’ being demonstrates the power to be irrational. But, does God have such a power? It seems not to be the case as such a power requires ignorance which is precluded as an attribute of God due to his possession of omniscience.

Your thoughts?