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!