Theistic Notebook

February 18, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 1

Filed under: Notes — David P @ 3:56 am
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Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionMurray and Rea begin by narrowing their scope to Western monotheistic religious traditions, which aligns with their primary goal “to provide a properly representative introduction to the field of philosophy of religion as it has developed in English-speaking countries over the past fifty years…”

An important distinction is drawn between “God” as a proper name and “God” as a title (i.e., referring to the President of the United States versus Ronald Reagan). Philosophical theologians are more interested in the latter.  “On the other hand, if and when ‘God’ is used as a title, we can learn quite a lot about what God is or would be like simply by unpacking our concept of the role associated with the term ‘God.'”  The next three chapters will be mainly concerned with unpacking our concept of God by discussing the divine attributes.

Perfect-being theology
If God is the most perfect being, then he has “the greatest possible array of great-making properties.”[1]  Broadly speaking, there are extrinsic and intrinsic great-making properties.  For example, muscularity is an extrinsic great-making property because it depends on external factors.  Perhaps for a marathon runner this wouldn’t be desirable, but for a lumberjack it would.

How are great-making properties determined?  Often by appealing to our  fundamental intuitions.  This parallels how we evaluate moral theories: we intuitively deem it wrong to torture a baby for fun.  However, there can be disagreement over intuition; furthermore. even after we come up with a list (or more precisely, a set) of great-making properties, some of them may not be compossible.  Parsing out the divine attributes and the relations among them has been a fruitful and engaging task for philosophical theologians.  Given some set of divine attributes: what problems arise or what conflicts need to be resolved?

Omnipotence: perfect power
“God’s power explains and entails that God creates all that there is, sustains it in existence, and confers on those things the powers and limitations that they have.”   The infamous “paradox of the stone” calls into question the conceptual coherence of omnipotence.  Can God create a stone so big that he cannot lift it?  Some theists respond that omnipotence extends only to that which is logically possible, and thus this paradox presents no problems for omnipotence because the allegedly rock is impossible.  Not even God can make square triangles, married bachelors, or rocks too big for his lifting abilities.  Another theistic response to the stone paradox is to draw a distinction between God’s lifting powers and his making powers.  If God’s lifting and making powers are both unbounded, then the paradox seems to dissolve.

Assuming a simple definition of omnipotence (as the ability to actualize any logically possible state of affairs) is coherent, how does it relate to other things we know about?  Omnipotence certainly appears to clash with human freedom.  Think about what you had for lunch yesterday; could you have chosen otherwise?  If a different choice was logically possible, then this appears to limit God’s ability to actualize any logically possible state of affairs, assuming he wished to actualize the state of affairs in which your freely chose to have a different lunch menu.  Human freedom aside, omnipotence and perfect goodness appear incompatible as divine attributes.  If God’s nature is to do good, how could it be true that God can do anything; after all, it is logically possible to do evil?  More specifically, if God is impeccable (unable to sin), then doesn’t this limit what he can do?  Denying impeccability is one solution, but then philosophical theologians are left with a different problem: a perfect being who cannot sin seems better than a perfect being who merely doesn’t sin.  Other theists maintain that God is able but unwilling to perform acts that are evil, much like we are able to swing an axe but unwilling to do so when someone’s arm is underneath.  In that sense, perfect goodness doesn’t degrade omnipotence, and we have preserved God’s perfect goodness as more than mere accident.

Creation and Providence
Divine concurrence holds that God is involved in bringing about each and every event–perhaps what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “In God we live, and move, and have our being.”  Some prominent positions on divine concurrence:

  1. God must make a causal contribution to every creaturely act, in order for him to perfectly know the future (Aquinas).
  2. Divine concurrence is necessary, otherwise his (free) creatures could thwart his plans or goals.
  3. Causation involves new things or properties coming into existence, so God must be the ultimate source of all new being.

There are difficulties here for philosophers to work out or at least clarify.  Two wills are at odds: God’s and man’s.  Are they jointly sufficient and individually necessary to bring about some states of affairs?  Problematically, if God’s causal contribution is not sufficient, we run the risk of free human agents thwarting God’s intentions.  The relationship between divine providence and human free is one of the most perplexing issues in the philosophy of religion.

Maximal Benevolence – which possible world should God create?
Theists believe God to be maximally benevolent (perfectly good).  Some problems with this have already been discussed, but this argument claims that God lacked freedom in creation because of his good nature.  He must create the best possible world.

  1. God is omniscient and thus aware of all the possible worlds he can create.
  2. God is perfectly and unsurpassibly good and unfailingly drawn to do that which is best.
  3. Free agents can will an action that is less than the best only if they either fail to understand what is genuinely best, or fall prey to a weakness of will, thus choosing contrary to what they know to be best.
  4. God is susceptible neither to ignorance of the best nor weakness of the will.
  5. Therefore, God cannot do anything less than the best.
  6. Since our world exists, either it is the best world, or it is one among other worlds that are tied for best.
  7. To have morally significant freedom, one must be able to choose among alternatives of differing moral quality.
  8. If our world is best, God could not refrain from creating it and is thus not free in creating it.
  9. If our world is tied for best, God could not choose among worlds of differing moral quality and thus would lack morally signficant freedom in creating.
  10. Thus God lacked morally significant freedom in creating.

Aquinas denied premise 6, arguing that there is no single best world but instead a series of increasingly better worlds ad infinitum.  So how might God choose from these infinite worlds?  No matter which world he chooses, there could always be a better world; consequently, some philosophers (such as William Rowe) have concluded that God is a morally surpassable creator.[2]  However, others have disputed Rowe’s claim that a better possible world implies a better possible creator.[3]  Finally, some theists attempt to solve this problem by denying altogether that God is obligated to create the best possible world.

1 Thomas Morris, The Concept of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 35.
2 William Rowe, “The Problem of Divine Perfection and Freedom,” in Eleonore Stump (ed.), Reasoned Faith (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).
3 Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder, “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World,” in Faith and Philosophy 11:2, pp. 260-8.


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