Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Absolutist Conception of Omnipotence

According to absolutists like Descartes (and more recently Nick Trakakis), an omnipotent being is able to do anything, including things that are logically impossible. As we discussed in class, most philosophers take this view to be false and dismiss it as implausible.  However, it's difficult to find an argument that is dialectically persuasive.  What I mean by this is that the sorts of criticisms of absolutism that are typically provided rely on certain basic assumptions about the status of logic and argumentation, but these assumptions are not shared by the absolutist.  So there's no way to "get your foot in the door," as it were.  I wonder what readers of this blog think about absolutism and how, if at all, one might go about undermining it.

For an interesting take on this debate, you might find this article by Louis Groarke interesting.


Michael Dean Hebert said...

The ironic thing about the absolutists' position is that you often find them appealing to logic to argue the irrelevance of logic when discussing God's omnipotence. It's a dialectic nightmare at best. I think if I ever meet an absolutist 'in the wild,' in order to maintain my sanity I will have to deal with them as I might deal with the solipsist or a perfect skeptic and simply refrain from arguing. As someone who loves a good argument, I admit that this angle is highly dissatisfying and I'm open to suggestion on how one might handle any of the imagined encounters. I simply cannot imagine how to even begin.

Z. said...

Though I find the absolutist viewpoint unsatisfying and, frankly, annoying, I believe there is a coherent objection from absolutists involving logical realism. From our discussion in class and discussions with absolutists outside of class, it seems to me that many/most absolutists objections/arguments stem from a denial of the theses of logical realism.

According to Michael Resnik's article "Against Logical Realism" the theses are as follows: "There is a fact of the matter of whether something is a logical truth, a logical inconsistency or logically implies something else ... [and] that such facts (or the truth-values of such claims) are independent of us, our psychological make-up, our linguistic conventions and inferential practices" (Resnik, Michael D. "Against Logical Realism." History and Philosophy of logic 20. 3-4 (1999): 181-94. Taylor and Francis Online. 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 09 Sept. 2013). It seems like an absolutist is most likely to take issue with the second thesis.

Though I haven't had much time to follow this train of thought, I suspect that assuming logical realism is false (by assuming the second thesis given is false) might lead to problems for absolutists' views of the divine (e.g. something contradicting omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc. that an absolutist might want to defend in the first place); if this is correct, it would be possible to refute absolutism with a reductio in most cases. In short, maybe forcing the absolutist to give up something more important than anti-realism about logic to defend absolutism might force her to reevaluate her position. Otherwise, I have no idea.

isaac scott said...

I think it is very hard to argue through logic that god is not omnipotent to an absolutist who believes that god can create/be things outside of logic. The only way I can see maybe weakening a belief such as this is to show an absolutist what harmful consequences come about when you put a belief like this into action (if there are any). An example of this could perhaps be that we cannot trust the promises that god makes with humans in holy texts because, even if god breaks those promises (wiping out humans with a flood) He can make it so that the promise was not broken. This wouldn't break with an omnibenevolent view since an absolutist view of omnibenevolence is that what is good/correct is just whatever god does, necessarily. This may force an absolutist to give up his conception of omnipotence or maybe another conception of god... Maybe?

Danny Witt said...

I just added a long post about absolutism and still feel confused—isn’t philosophy fun? There is a semblance of logic in the absolutist argument:

1. If God has absolute power, He can do anything.
2. God has absolute power.
Conclusion. God must be able to bring about logically impossible states of affair (e.g., create a square circle).

Perhaps thinking about this argument in spelled out premises could open up an angle for refuting the absolutist’s conclusion. It’s easy to get bogged down thinking about refuting this conclusion based on the assertion that God can do “anything” if he’s all powerful. It might help to focus on the antecedent: “God has absolute power”. I assume we derive premise 2 from the Anselmian conception of a God as a perfect being. I still struggle with the Perfect Being Theory, though.

I can conceptualize absolutely perfect power to bring any state of affairs into being. Theists will allege that this is a necessary attribute of God, among the other infinite perfect attributes predicated on God. But don’t we need to guarantee the existence of a subject before we logically predicate certain characteristics to that subject—God in this instance. Or, does the definition of God necessarily include perfect power, in an analytic sense? Even if that is the case, a God still might not exist. It seems like this argument simply starts with the assumption that God exists, and then marches forward to define his attributes and abilities. It doesn’t seem like any of the theist arguments really discuss arguments about the necessity of God actually existing; they seem to assume he exists and use this assumption (and the common definition of God) to hammer down the attributes he apparently has a priori.

Does this confuse other people? Perhaps I was thinking for some reason that these arguments had more robust claims about God’s existence, but I’m starting to realize that these arguments are focused on divine attributes. Should we be concerned about these “existence” arguments that we’re not focusing on in the class?

Maimuna said...

Just as a side note, I would be interested in discussing the functions/purposes of religion. It is one thing to debate about whether God can or cannot do x, but I feel it does not really bring us to a better understanding about religion. I would like to discuss such questions as , do we need religion any more? OR is it really the "opium of the masses"? Does religion guide people to morality, or is there a notion of morality that was conceived outside of religion? For what purpose does religion in its various forms exist?

Andrea Manthei said...

Like many comments before me, I find absolutist viewpoint of god and omnipotence unsatisfying and frustrating. “God can do anything and everything because (s)he is outside of logic.” A few theists I’ve talked to in the past have explained their answer a little further that other people find this reply as unsatisfying because they cannot “comprehend the greatness of god’s knowledge and power”. And that “logic is something of human mind design and to try to fit god into something of a lesser mind (humans), cannot be done.” So statements like that advise us to just accept that god is outside of laws and rules that human minds have created. And what sets us apart from god is our limited knowledge, compared to his ultimate knowledge.
I’m still left unsatisfied by this response, but absolutists cannot easily be budged from their stance. I think its maybe even more frustrating when absolutists use logic in every other argument, until it comes to god. I also don’t like the idea of blind faith. I would find it difficult to put blind faith in all-powerful; all knowing being that could be inconsistent in actions. But followers would just explain everything that “well god is all-knowing and all-powerful, we don’t question what (s)he does because we don’t have the same kind of knowledge and wisdom.” Why limit your creations’ knowledge potential? Where and when did god draw the line of limit for human knowledge?

Stoehr said...

I feel as though arguing against an absolutist is like trying to disprove the existence of God to a person of faith. There is no means by which we can logically prove, or disprove, the existence of a being like the Abrahamic conception of God, so our efforts would be futile. I agree with Michael Dean's take that the best way to engage with the absolutist is to simply not argue, for even with a logical line of reasoning, they have a way to get around the non-absolutist's argument.

Andrew Josten said...

How do we undermine absolutism? How do we make an absolutist into a non-absolutist? This is an even more difficult task than attempting to convert a strongly theistic, but logic respecting, person into an atheist, agnostic, or deist.
Obviously logical analysis of the powers that a god has on the absolutist view is out the window. Another approach might be to use what might be called a social consequence argument, or other social tactics.
An example of a social consequence argument:
1. If you are an absolutist, you must give up logic and rational discourse with other people. You must essentially give up all rules of thinking and determining if something is true, except for the claim “god x can do anything.” By being an absolutist, you are leaving the intellectual community.
2. You don’t want to face these consequences of being an absolutist.
3. Therefore, it’s in your interests not to be an absolutist.
This argument will not change their mind if they value the absolutist doctrine more than not facing the consequences of holding the absolutist doctrine.

An example of a social tactic, which attacks absolutism by attacking theism, and suggests that it is ridiculous to make claims to know that unobservable/supernatural beings have certain properties, like omnipotence:
Mock the absolutist view by claiming that the tooth fairy is omnipotent. Sample dialogue:
Absolutist: God x can do anything, even draw a square circle.
Non-absolutist: No, actually the tooth fairy is the only being that is omnipotent.
A: The tooth fairy is just a mythical character. There is no evidence that it exists, and if there were, there is no evidence that it is omnipotent.
N: Actually, that’s the case for god x. He is mythical. The tooth fairy is real, and omnipotent. It says so in this old book that’s full of false claims, but I trust anyway.
A: Oh I get your point. Claims about supernatural unobservable beings are all unsupported nonsense, including claims about god x and his omnipotence and the tooth fairy and her omnipotence. Thanks for showing me that. Now I’m going to be an atheist.

David Harms said...

My concern with Absolutism is the lack of attention to the human perception of God. It seems the understanding of logic, the abilities of God, and the nature of His existence seem like concepts too 'big' or maybe even too 'abstract' for the human intellect to process or ever approach. If God's power/knowledge is infinite in a sense that it is has been known/executed/designed since the dawn of time, these abilities seem to break logical sense as we come to see it, that including the grey area of 'free will.' By breaking these logical human boundaries, we are left with a lack of clarity regarding the caliber and functionality of God's power. It seems the Absolutist has won in their own mindset, for when they engage in questioning that ultimately allows them to end with, "Because God can.." However, how can this be an answer? By not understanding the power and capacity of God's abilities, the Absolutist wins their argument? It seems as though an Absolutist fights by using logic until an unexplainable happening is surfaced, and at that time, the philosophical argument changes into a discrepancy of religion, and faith takes over the Absolutist's perception. This transition in discourse makes clear that an Absolutist is willing to accept a hit in understanding and knowledge because they are backed by their religious faith. If either side suggests that God's knowledge/power is beyond human capacity, the Absolutist has the advantage in accepting this hit, for it seems to support their claim. To enter a debate with an Absolutist is a task with no compromise.

Will Psilos said...

It seems to me that at its root this debate has to be about logic, rather than about God, as a few people have indicated above. The absolutist is committed to an ironically Nietzschean notion of logic - it is only a human construction with no claims to absolute truth. This notion of logic is certainly a problem for anyone attempting to make objective arguments, since it precludes them from happening (at least through logic, but logic's the only game in town with regard to objectivity). So, as with any impasse between those who take there to be objective grounds for argument and those who don't, there is no argument that can end it. However, it does seem that if a person who doesn't take logic to be objectively true uses logic in their arguments (or even takes the effort to make careful arguments), then there is some sort of major confusion going on, and maybe that's enough to give proponents of logic the upper hand.

Rashad said...

This blog sums up the absolutist perspective on the omnipotence of God. There is no way to undermine the absolutist’s way of thinking. They hold firm to the belief that God is not bound by logic and rational thinking. I remember when we discussed ways to counter argue during class. My partner and I could not think of anything for this very reason. In one regard the absolutist is correct. For those who truly do believe God exists outside of logic, God truly can do anything. For me, logic and rational thinking is a human quality. When we hold God to the standard of logic and ration, we are holding him to our own way of thinking and understanding. Because God is more than we can ever conceive and exists outside of what we believe, God can do anything- imagined and unimagined. Muslim Sufis understood this concept of God outside of our thinking and comprehension very well. If one were to read the poetry of Rumi, one would find this concept being stressed. In Rumi’s poem about “Ocean Love,” Rumi is alluding to how God is like the vast never ending ocean and we are like a molecule or maybe even a fish at that. How God is so much bigger and beyond us. We will never understand God with our “rational and logical” thinking. It is unfortunate that this is the only way we can conceive God, but that is why there is faith; things unseen, unheard, unthought. That is one way can understand God. God can do anything with such thinking; thinking outside logic and rationale.

Anonymous said...

Given the idea that God can do ANYTHING, how about just pointing out that a logical contradiction does not represent anything that can be done or NOT done?

That is, there is nothing that can be done or not done corresponding to the description "square circle," "ten feet tall and eleven feet tall, "red all over and blue all over," etc. Since a contradiction does not describe any state of affairs, the fact that God cannot do what is contradictory does not represent any limitation on God's power as there is nothing corresponding to such a limitation.

Anonymous said...

If you think about it, what the logician is tasking God to do, to prove his omnipotence, is to demonstrate he can negate anything - including himself! Get me a bucket.

Anonymous said...

I mean, what if God could negate himself without really negating himself. What if he could negate that?

Anonymous said...

Defiance of logic is an attribute of omnipotence.
God is omnipotent.
If defiance of logic is an attribute of omnipotence, God cannot will it inconceivable nor impossible.
God has willed defiance of logic inconceivable and impossible.
Therefore defiance of logic is not an attribute of omnipotence.

Natalie N said...

I know my argument has probably been made innumerable times by people who want to believe in the Anselmian conception of God while maintaining rational thought, or at least avoiding the most incomprehensible kinds of absolutist claims (by that, I mean examples like God can make a ball that is both solid blue and not solid blue at the same time"). The attempt is not intended to refute the absolutist, which you would agree seems pretty impossible, but it is an attempt to make absolutist claims unnecessary (in particular those regarding God's omnipotence). I'm not convinced that this argument is true, but I think it's worth locating the flaws in it and refining it further to see what it could develop into. I'd like to see the irrefutable proof that God doesn't exist before I totally give up hope. This is an attempt to defend God's omnipotence as a logical concept. My approach seems reasonable (I think), although it requires that you accept the definition of sin as “violating God’s will”. If God were to commit a sin, then it would not be acting against himself. The definition of a sin precludes God from doing it, so if God does it, it is not a sin. For God to sin is a logical impossibility. It is not possible for any omnipotent being to act against itself because an omnipotent being could not be forced to do anything, since this is contradictory to being omnipotent. Therefore, to commit the act, they must actively and willfully do so, which would not be acting against their own will. This leads to the conclusion that God cannot will to sin (violate God’s will) because this is a logical impossibility/obvious contradiction, since it would mean that God both wills it to not happen and wills it to happen at the same time (sin and not sin).