Theistic Critiques of Atheism, Part 3January 5, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Yesterday we looked at Dr. William Lane Craig’s rather remarkable suggestion that we ought not to expect to have any more evidence of God’s existence than we do because we ought to assume that God would only provide valid evidence to those who, in His foreknowledge, are certain to respond to this evidence by becoming Christians. Dr. Craig was not entirely clear as to why we ought to make this particular assumption, nor did he explain why a deliberate suppression of vital information on God’s part should count as a flaw in the reasoning of atheists. Nor are these the least of the flaws in what we might call the Presumption of Selective Magical Infallibility—the assumption that God necessarily intervenes with just the right magic to ensure that True Believers (and only True Believers) are divinely protected against being wrong about the Gospel. But we ought to leave our criticism at that for now, because you could write a modestly-sized book about all the errors, inconsistencies, and distortions explicit or implicit in that one.
Dr. Craig next turns to the problem of the coherence of theism, or lack thereof. He admits that this has been a problem historically, and says that, for example, it was not until about 25 years ago that someone thought up a definition of “omnipotence” that was sufficiently reduced in scope that a genuine deity might reasonably be said to possess the attribute. He then lays out for us the process of reduction, which is rather fascinating to watch.
He starts with the philosophical foundations for what follows.
The difficulty with theism, it was said, was not merely that there are no good arguments for the existence of God, but, more fundamentally, that the notion of God is incoherent.
This anti-theistic critique has evoked a prodigious literature devoted to the philosophical analysis of the concept of God. Two controls have tended to guide this inquiry into the divine nature: Scripture and Perfect Being theology. For thinkers in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Anselmian conception of God as the greatest conceivable being or most perfect being has guided philosophical speculation on the raw data of Scripture, so that God’s biblical attributes are to be conceived in ways that would serve to exalt God’s greatness. Since the concept of God is underdetermined by the biblical data and since what constitutes a “great-making” property is to some degree debatable, philosophers working within the Judaeo-Christian tradition enjoy considerable latitude in formulating a philosophically coherent and biblically faithful doctrine of God. Theists thus find that anti-theistic critiques of certain conceptions of God can actually be quite helpful in formulating a more adequate conception.
There’s a philosopher’s paradise for you: the evidence does not constrain one to adopt any particular conclusion, and therefore you are free to imagine whatever conclusion you like. How exciting! When the actual facts are “underdetermined” and all that really counts is your imagination, then you really can construct an argument out of pure speculation.
There’s a rather fundamental flaw in this foundation, however, in that Anselm’s “greatest possible being” is Reality itself (which happens to be my God, not Craig’s), because any attribute which exists in God must also exist in Reality, or it is not a real attribute. God, therefore, is either part of Reality, in which case He is a lesser being than Reality, since He is only a part of it, or else He is Reality, in which case He is Alethea, which is my God. Or of course all His attributes lack the essential element of real being, in which case none of His attributes are “great-making,” since they are merely deceits and falsehoods, and falsehoods do not make one great.
But I digress. Craig’s claim is that the “underdetermined” nature of the Scriptural claims about God means that theologians can be tremendously flexible in crafting responses designed to meet specific skeptical objections. The problem with this flexibility is that truth is consistent with itself, which means that all these “flexible” responses have to fit all the other responses, and the real-world data as well. Flexibility is the philosopher’s snare, because it allows for some very clever-sounding point solutions that you can work on for years and build entire careers on, and that still fail in the broader context because you end up cutting material out of one sleeve to patch a hole in the other. For example, let’s look at his argument for omniscience.
Should it turn out that certain notions like omnipotence or omniscience are inherently paradoxical under certain definitions, that no being could have all powers, say, or know all truths, this conclusion, while of considerable academic interest, would in the end be of little theological significance, since what God cannot do or know on such accounts is so recondite that no incompatibility is thereby demonstrated with the God described in the Bible.
In fact, however, a coherent doctrine of God’s attributes can be formulated. Take omnipotence, for example. This attribute stubbornly resisted adequate formulation until Flint and Freddoso’s analysis published in 1983. A key insight into the concept of omnipotence is that it should be defined in terms of the ability to actualize certain states of affairs, rather than in terms of raw power. Thus, omnipotence should not be understood as power which is unlimited in its quantity or variety. If we understand omnipotence in terms of ability to actualize states of affairs, then it is no attenuation of God’s omnipotence that He cannot make a stone too heavy for Him to lift, for, given that God is essentially omnipotent, “a stone too heavy for God to lift” describes as logically impossible a state of affairs as does “a square triangle” and thus describes nothing at all.
Interestingly, Craig takes the same approach as Vox Day: he resolves the inherent contradictions in “omnipotence” by defining down the concept so that it encompasses less power. Omnipotence does not mean that God can do literally anything, or that He has unlimited power, it merely means that God can do, well, whatever God can do. (“Spider pig, spider pig, does whatever a spiderpig does…”) In particular, God does not have the power to interfere with someone else’s free will, and He cannot change the past (thus proving Himself to be bound by Time just like the rest of us). Fasten your seatbelts, though, because Craig is going to impress us all with some really fancy analytical stuff.
Shall we say, then, that an agent S is omnipotent if and only if S can actualize any state of affairs which is broadly logically possible? No, for certain states of affairs may be logically possible but due to the passage of time may no longer be possible to actualize. Let us call past states of affairs which are not indirectly actualizable by someone later in time the “hard” past. Shall we say, then, that an agent S is omnipotent at a time t if and only if S can at t actualize any state of affairs which is broadly logically possible for someone sharing the same hard past with S to actualize at t ? It seems not. For counterfactuals about free actions raise a further problem. One has control over counterfactuals about one’s own free decisions but not over counterfactuals about the free decisions of others. That implies that an adequate definition of omnipotence cannot require S to be able to actualize states of affairs described by counterfactuals about the free decisions of other agents, for that would be to demand the logically impossible of S. Shall we say, then, that S is omnipotent at a time t if and only if S can at t actualize any state of affairs which is broadly logically possible for S to actualize, given the same hard past at t and the same true counterfactuals about free acts of others? This seems almost right. But it is open to the complaint that if S is essentially incapable of any particular action, no matter how trivial, than S‘s inability to perform that action does not count against his omnipotence. Therefore we need to broaden the definition so as to require S to perform any action which any agent in his situation could perform. The following analysis would seem satisfactory: S is omnipotent at a time t if and only if S can at t actualize any state of affairs which is not described by counterfactuals about the free acts of others and which is broadly logically possible for someone to actualize, given the same hard past at t and the same true counterfactuals about free acts of others. Such an analysis successfully sets the parameters of God’s omnipotence without imposing any non-logical limit on His power.
A “counterfactual,” in case that’s not a term you use every day, refers to a proposition of the form “If A were true, then B would be true also.” For example, “If Gore had become President in 2000, we would not have invaded Iraq.” The argument itself may be valid, and the conclusion may be true relative to the premise, but the premise itself is not what actually happened in the real world. What Craig is saying is that someone is “omnipotent” if he/she/it/they are capable of bringing about any action or set of conditions that do not contradict the free will of others and that would be possible for any other entity to bring about in the same situation, given the same “hard past.”
Of course, that brings the definition of “omnipotent” down to the level of arguably applying to virtually anyone. I can do whatever God could do in my situation, because if God used any powers that I do not have access to, then He’s not really in my situation, because part of my situation is that I lack those powers. Craig has dispensed with the problems of omnipotence by injecting the concept of “any possible state of affairs” into the definition of what God can do. This gives theologians an “out” by making the definition of omnipotence dependent on how you define what it means for a state of affairs to be “possible,” and then not really defining what “possible” is. He gives a list of specific exceptions for states that are presumably not possible, like changing the past or interfering with the free will of others, but he doesn’t really give a clear principle for what guarantees that a state of affairs will be possible. “Omnipotent” becomes a grand-sounding term with no specific, non-contingent definition.
Essentially, what he’s doing here is to use his philosophical flexibility to address certain specific objections that have been pointed out by skeptics. He’s trying to dodge the significance of these objections, and I’ll give him full marks for working up an elaborate and sophisticated rationalization for ducking the issue. But as I said before, flexibility is the philosopher’s snare—yes, he’s worked out a reasonably rational response to “Can God create an immovable object?” and “Why doesn’t God just make us all believe?” but he’s also come up with a definition of omnipotence that fails to exclude the possibility that God could lie, murder, rape, deceive, and otherwise perform evil and sinful actions. You might raise the defense that God’s moral nature makes it impossible for Him to do these things, but Craig’s own argument states, “we need to broaden the definition so as to require S to perform any action which any agent in his situation could perform.” If we, as free agents, can sin, then God is not omnipotent unless He can sin also.
Remember, we’re not talking about observing God’s omnipotence and drawing our understanding of its nature by the characteristics that it actually manifests. No, we’re talking about a bunch of really bright guys sitting around speculating, and building, through iterative interactions with skeptical critics, a mental proposition that provides the best answer they can think up so far. We’re talking about a definition that is coming from the thoughts and imaginations of men, who are trying to build a coherent doctrine out of speculation plus a small collection of “underdetermined” remarks in an ancient collection of books.
Truth is consistent with itself. You can make elaborate, single-point rationalizations that cover one particular hole in your faulty theology, but if you are defending a proposition that is not true, covering one hole is merely going to expose or create another. Brilliant theologians and philsophers like Dr. Craig get away with their sophistries by building rationalizations that are so grandiose and complicated that they soak up all of your attention and leave little room for one to step back and consider them in the context of the greater whole. But when you do, the inconsistencies are still there, and the more elaborate the patch, the more certain we can be of the hole underneath.