Mormon Philosopher’s objection to Omnipotence

A Mormon Philosopher named Blake T. Ostler writes the following in response to a critique of the inadequacy of the Mormon conception of God given by Francis J. Beckwith and Stephen E. Parrish in their book The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis.

The authors argue that God can do anything, provided that (1) doing it is logically possible and (2) doing it is consistent with God’s basic attributes. However, even the authors cannot consistently adopt this notion of omnipotence. For example, God cannot bring about my free acts, although the fact that I bring about my free acts is (1) logically possible and (2) consistent with God’s attributes. Thus the authors’ notion of omnipotence is not adequate.
~The Mormon Concept of God: A Philosophical Analysis

I’d like to offer some thoughts. First of all, the second criterion proposed by Beckwith and Parrish just rehearses the first one, since it is not logically possible for God to act contrary to his basic attributes, precisely because they are not contingent, but logically necessary (God could not himself have been otherwise than he is). For instance, there is no logically possible world where God could cause himself to cease to exist, precisely because God’s essence involves existence. His essence is identical in all logically possible worlds at/in which he exists (which, for a Theist, is all of them).

Concerning my free acts – God cannot ‘do’ them precisely because they are not God’s acts at all. This is just a grammatical-semantic confusion. God is not properly the nominative noun in the sentence with the verb ‘to do’ in such cases as are to be brought up. Notice how slippery the language of the argument is, it begins with God ‘doing’, and ends with an objection about God not ‘bringing about’. God cannot do something which can only be done by some being other than God, such as a decision which some moral agency with categorical free will has to freely make.

However, God can certainly bring it about that I act freely (for instance by creating me as a libertarian-free creature), though he cannot bring it about which way I will freely act (unless subjunctive counterfactuals of creaturely freedom have truth values, which I believe they do not), except perhaps by ensuring that in all the nearest possible worlds, given the counterfactuals at those worlds, I will most likely freely act in such-and-such a way.

Though it remains logically possible for me to freely act in X way, it is not logically possible for God to make me freely act in X way. God can bring it about that I act freely in X way by being part of the whole causal story for my acting in X way. God can do anything which is logically possible. Objections such as “well, a world of free creatures all of whom always freely choose not to sin is logically possible, so why couldn’t God do that?” fail entirely to understand that such a thing is not something God can do because it isn’t something God can do. It is no objection to the claim that God can do all of that which is logically possible [where he is the do-er].

This objection, as most others, seems to come down to a linguistic confusion.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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6 Responses to Mormon Philosopher’s objection to Omnipotence

  1. Seraphim says:

    Nice post, Tyler. I tend to take up the project of thoroughly critiquing Ostler’s arguments against traditional Christianity withing the next few weeks on my own blog. I like what you have to say here. I think you hit the nail on the head in recognizing the linguistic confusion that plagues Ostler’s arguments. He seems to misunderstand what is meant by “omnipotence” and “timeless” as they are used by classical theists. Once again, good thoughts.

  2. “First of all, the second criterion proposed by Beckwith and Parrish just rehearses the first one, since it is not logically possible for God to act contrary to his basic attributes, precisely because they are not contingent, but logically necessary (God could not himself have been otherwise than he is).”

    1) Could God have been the sort of person who made a universe exactly like ours, but with the addition of three pigeons on London Bridge this afternoon? Could God have been the sort of person to create a universe without carbon-based life, or the sort of person to more often or less often intervene in the universe miraculously?

    2) What is the objectively verifiable evidence for your answer to (1)?

    3) Can humans “act contrary to their basic attributes”? If your answer is yes, then why doesn’t this mean Yahweh is not omnipotent, since we can do something he can’t? If your answer is no, then in what sense do we have libertarian free will?

    • Hi there Staircaseghost, still hoping you take me up on my offer to speak more directly if you’re up for it, someday.

      1) I was careful to say that God could not be essentially different from how he is, and could not act against that essence. He could have created any number of worlds which it would have been consistent with that essence to create.

      2) You’re sure you’re not a kind of positivist somewhere under the skin? Really sure? Not even a logical empiricist?

      We don’t need verifiable evidence beyond the linguistic evidence I presented (that the noun ‘God’ is not the nominative connected with the verb ‘to do’). What kind of verifiable evidence do you think we ought to expect in such a case – could you give us an example?

      3) Human beings cannot act contrary to their natures, no. However, of course, our natures currently do allow us to act in good and evil ways, and our natures do include a capacity to freely decide which to do. The notion of human nature I am using here is thus perhaps wider than the notion which the naturalist might have in mind. I am referring to the essence of the human being, which will include a spiritual component. Human beings can by nature act freely, and their nature does not determine which way they will in fact act.

      • Hi there Staircaseghost, still hoping you take me up on my offer to speak more directly if you’re up for it, someday.

        While appreciate the gesture, I can’t imagine how that would place either of us in a greater epistemic position. Untimed written exchanges without preset limits are the only protection the anti-apologist has against a Gish Gallops, against quote mines, and against ambiguous and vague declamations that take three times as long to unravel as they do to state. I hasten to add that your style doesn’t tend towards those particular protestant practices, and this redounds to your credit.

        Do you ever wonder why apologetics bloggers are still pissing and moaning about Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig, but have never, to my knowledge, complained about Craig’s refusal to engage in written debate?

        1) I was careful to say that God could not be essentially different from how he is, and could not act against that essence. He could have created any number of worlds which it would have been consistent with that essence to create.

        “Any number of worlds” does not answer my question. Could he have created the specific worlds I asked about? “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable answer. As a rule, I never mock or ridicule honest ignorance. It’s when people pretend to know things they could not possibly be in a position to know that my dudgeon shifts into high gear.

        And forgive me, but this style of idle, speculative metaphysics divorced from any kind of reality check in experience really does strike me as playing tennis without a net, a game with no rules. Is the Mormon conception of God “adequate”? Adequate for what?

        The discussion about the nature of the gods strikes me more like two people pushing the stylus around on a Ouija board — two rival ideomotor effects struggling to spit out their preferred pareidoliac result, while simultaneously trying not to look like that’s all they’re doing. Beyond bare noncontradiction and consonance with one’s predetermined dogmatic formulations, I don’t see any criteria of “adequacy”, the way I clearly see them for studies of whether smoking causes cancer, or whether it will rain tomorrow.

        “2) You’re sure you’re not a kind of positivist somewhere under the skin? Really sure? Not even a logical empiricist?”

        Are you sure you’re not someone who doesn’t feel obligated to present ID when withdrawing money from your bank account, because demanding evidence is something only a follower of the discredited creed of positivism would do?

        “We don’t need verifiable evidence beyond the linguistic evidence I presented (that the noun ‘God’ is not the nominative connected with the verb ‘to do’). What kind of verifiable evidence do you think we ought to expect in such a case – could you give us an example?”

        You’re looking at words when you should be looking at the world, since, after all, you are ultimately making claims about the latter. Feynman has an absolutely beautiful line on this.

        I have good empirical evidence driving my probability estimates of Stephen Hawking running today’s L.A. marathon, of my friend’s third attempt to quit smoking in the last two years, and of Paul Ryan advocating single-payer national health care in his next speech. All of these are derived from my observation-driven models of these persons’ nature.

        The world is overflowing with texts purporting to describe the historical behavior of God or gods, including, if I’m not mistaken, the one associated with your own faith. So I don’t see how it is in any way absurd to ask for more of the same or similar evidence to back up your claims.

        Assuming you do not wish to change your answer to #1 to “I don’t know,” again I ask you what evidence you have that would persuade a neutral third party that your proclamations of what Yahweh would or would not do have any basis in reality, as opposed to idle speculation? Keep in mind that my ultimate target here is the epistemic legitimacy of the entire discourse, not anyone’s specific position within it.

        “3) Human beings cannot act contrary to their natures, no. However, of course, our natures currently do allow us to act in good and evil ways, and our natures do include a capacity to freely decide which to do. The notion of human nature I am using here is thus perhaps wider than the notion which the naturalist might have in mind. I am referring to the essence of the human being, which will include a spiritual component. Human beings can by nature act freely, and their nature does not determine which way they will in fact act.”

        Somewhere in the middle there you do indeed appear to claim that humans can do something (act in good or evil ways) that Yahweh cannot, so the question about omnipotence stands. But do you not see the clear contradiction between your first and final sentences here? Initially I am told there is a constraint on the set of possible observations, then Lucy yanks the football away and I am told there are no restrictions at all! Which is it? Are future states of human random or nonrandom with respect to prior states?

  3. Interesting, I actually feel just the opposite: that written debates are often the only ways for honest apologists to defend themselves against “a Gish Gallops, against quote mines, and against ambiguous and vague declamations that take three times as long to unravel as they do to state.” However, I still feel, in our particular case, that we’d get more insight into each other’s perspectives if we spoke directly and casually (not for the sake of debate, but for the sake of understanding, since I feel as though most of what you write is either confused, or has mistaken me for saying something which I am not saying, and it would be easier to clear that up and for us to learn from each other, or at least for me to learn from you, if we could speak to each other directly). All that to say, the offer stands perpetually extended.

    In response to what you say concerning 1), I would just reiterate that God could not actualize a world where a free decision must be taken by another, even though he can bring it about, in a weak and indirect sense, by being part of the whole causal story of that world. The doctrine of providence makes me want to say something stronger theologically at this point, but whatever I would add by way of theological excursus would not conflict with what I have just said, so I think I can leave it at that for our purposes.

    In response to what you say concerning 2), I would reiterate that empiricism, as I see it, is the problem. We ought to prefer rationalism to empiricism. I think we can demonstrate that some things are true quite apart from any appeal to the empirical evidence, and I think requiring the constraint of empirical evidence to prove that somebody is in error when they are putting together arguments which are grammatically confused is itself just confused.

    In response to what you say concerning 3), human choices are neither random nor determined, but are self-determining acts. God cannot do an action such as “Bill going to the supermarket” because God is not the actor in that sentence at all. Can I do things God cannot do? Yes, of course I can. For instance, if God gives me free will to choose to love him or not, I can really choose to love him, or choose not to, and either of these choices are choices which God cannot choose (as though he were standing in my place – he cannot choose that I will freely choose to love him). I can also sin, and God cannot sin, since to sin does is not to act contrary to human nature, but it is to act contrary to the divine nature. I see no problem here.

    • “In response to what you say concerning 1), I would just reiterate that God could not actualize a world where a free decision must be taken by another, even though he can bring it about, in a weak and indirect sense, by being part of the whole causal story of that world.

      Assuming that the concepts of “actualizing” and “in-world (libertarian) freedom” are even coherent (spoiler alert: they’re not), this is just another purely logical constraint. But what I asked was whether Yahweh’s nature constrains him to choose only this world, or whether one with slightly more pigeons was in the running, or ones without carbon-based life, or ones where miracles are slightly more common or less common than they actually are. I am looking for any kind of observational constraint whatsoever beyond naked logical noncontradiction. This is precisely Oerter’s point, and as far as I can see, you are confirming it in spades.

      Philosophergod is infinitely unconstrained and therefore infinitely useless as a model of our experience; debating the merits of two rival infinitely useless models is therefore itself useless.

      You will notice that unlike the positivists I do not say such talk is meaningless, although it is obviously empirically meaningless. I simply say it is functionless, apart from the emotive rush one gets by “giving props to the man upstairs, as my sect interprets him”. But that is a function better achieved through music or poetry, rather than some kind of quasi-science that mimics the trappings of actual inquiry into the nature of things.

      There is nothing inherent in religious discourse that says it has to be this way. Pretty much every religion trading in entities other than this blasphemy of Philosophergod actually puts its neck out with some sort of road-meeting-rubber predictions about what we would or wouldn’t see. Hurricanes to punish gay days at Disneyworld. A plague holding back the Greek fleet because Agamemnon slew a sacred animal of Artemis.

      “In response to what you say concerning 2), I would reiterate that empiricism, as I see it, is the problem. We ought to prefer rationalism to empiricism. I think we can demonstrate that some things are true quite apart from any appeal to the empirical evidence, and I think requiring the constraint of empirical evidence to prove that somebody is in error when they are putting together arguments which are grammatically confused is itself just confused.”

      But what you are attacking here is not empiricism, but the very idea that anyone should be beholden to evidence at all!

      You can see there are zero problems with supplying evidence for what Stephen Hawking or Paul Ryan will or will not probably do. This is not “dogmatic adherence to the discredited doctrine of positivism”. This is ordinary, innocuous, plain-vanilla evaluation of how specific persons will behave, and every one of us performs it every day, all the time. Why the double standard?

      In response to what you say concerning 3), human choices are neither random nor determined, but are self-determining acts.

      But this by definition a contradiction. “Randomness with respect to” is a purely formal notion with a precise definition in mathematics, and admits only of degrees, not of disjunction. It is completely ontologically neutral, and applies to our models of the data.

      At the limiting case of “completely random with respect to”, the system state at time T+1 bears no predictable relation to the system state at time T, for all values of T, and is therefore incompressible data i.e. additional Kolmogorov complexity for your string. At the opposite limiting case of “completely determined with respect to”, the latter states are derivable by means of some function from the former states, and hence are compressible by means of clever reduced descriptions.

      At each point in between, there is only a question of probability. Prior system states more strongly or more weakly entail future system states. People’s turn signals strongly entail (substantially raise the probability of) their turning in that direction. Having a beautiful coworker weakly entails (just slightly raises the probability of) a person having an affair. It is literally gibberish (not in the positivist sense, but in the ordinary, everyday sense) to say an act was “self-determined” given the definition of determined as probabilistic degrees of formal entailment in a model. Either you give your children a good education and moral upbringing because you think this raises the probability they will behave in certain ways in the future, or you are wasting your time. Either the football coach your university hired will increase the likelihood of your team altering its behavior so as to win the championship, or they are throwing a million dollars down the tubes.

      To the extent you say your claims about what gods would or wouldn’t do are purely a priori, you are saying those actions are completely determined i.e. formally entailed by the system’s prior states. Remember when I said that if god is necessary and his choices are necessary then this world and everything in it is necessary, therefore there are no contingent facts? Bingo.

      Once again: other than bare logical noncontradiction, what are the specific constraints on Yahweh’s choices, or do any even exist? More importantly, how do you know?

      “I can also sin, and God cannot sin, since to sin does is not to act contrary to human nature, but it is to act contrary to the divine nature. I see no problem here.”

      The problem is in the apparent breakdown of the definition of “omni” in the word “omnipotent”. My understanding is that “omni” means “all”. Suppose someone were to say to you, “God cannot raise a corpse from the grave after three days, because that is ‘contrary to his nature’.” Or that he cannot pick the winner of next year’s superbowl. Or create life from non-life. I think any sane person would take that to mean god is not omnipotent. The limit of the reductio is to imagine that god’s actions are constrained solely to the ability to lift very small rocks on the third moon of Pluto, and nothing else, because any other action would be “contrary to his nature”. But hey, he’s still “all-powerful”, right, since he can still do every noncontradictory thing that is consistent with his “nature”…

      And prima facie, of course an omnipotent god can sin. I’m imagining him doing it right now. I’m imagining him doing all kinds of reprehensible things. The scriptures of the world’s religions are loaded with any number of such nightmare scenarios. Now, sometimes apologists, when defending OT atrocities, will explicitly claim something along the lines of “we are God’s creation and therefore he can do literally anything to us he pleases”. That’s one way for me to skin the cat. Another way is to say (honestly) that since I can conceive of him sinning and this is not obviously contradictory or incoherent, then my conception is epistemically on all fours with your conception, and so we need evidence (there’s that word again) to pull the two hypotheses apart. I can supply you with evidence for why I believe the person I’m setting you up with on a blind date is a generally very good person, or for why my sister’s stalker who has a restraining order out against him is generally a very awful person. But for some reason, when I ask for evidence that god is a nice person (never mind the breathtakingly extraordinary claim that he is the Nicest Bestest Guy There Ever Was) suddenly I am accused of dogmatic “empiricism” and “positivism”.

      Yet a final way would be to point out that thin normative judgments are noncognitive or expressive, and therefore do not univocally fix descriptive content. So when you say you will never see the gods “committing sin” you are not constraining expectations of their future behavior in your model, but only constraining how you will feel about whatever actions the gods happen to take. So your model is 100% powerless to tell us whether God would or wouldn’t punish gay pride parades with hurricanes, or order someone to sacrifice their firstborn son — whatever the observation is, you are making an existential and psychological commitment to take the emotive attitude towards that observation that you think it’s A-OK. The Lord hath given me a full quiver, philosophically speaking.

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