Friday, 22 February 2013

Does God constrain-himself, of is God constrained-by reality?

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There seems to be a choice between a God who constrains-himself; and a God who is constrained-by reality.

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These two set-ups would generate identical observable phenomena - so the choice between is metaphysical.

And there is a big difference!

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A God who chooses not to 'lift a finger' to alleviate suffering is a very different proposition from a God would tries his hardest to alleviate that suffering, but is (at least for the time being) thwarted by some intervening factor.

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Both views have uncomfortable consequences.


If God is omnipotent he is responsible for everything; if an omnipotent God is good then everything is good, ultimately; including the worst thing you can imagine - and something worse than you can imagine.

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If God is not omnipotent, then we can imagine a wholly-good and wholly-helpful deity, but - despite his unmatched power, qualitatively greater than any other power - a God who cannot always achieve his goals immediately, here and now.

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In particular, we get a God who cannot, instantly and by fiat, undo the evil of sin; but must instead undo the evil of sin by indirect and roundabout means.

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For example, a God who can only undo the evil of sin via sending his only-begotten son to be born as a sinless Man, to live, to die, and to be resurrected and ascend to Heaven.

And by this means to establish that all Men who are born and die may recapitulate this trajectory, and be resurrected, cleansed of sin and perfected, and join God's Son in Heaven.

This is just the kind of indirect and roundabout thing a non-omnipotent God would have to do... 


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25 comments:

  1. Mr. Charlton,

    You might find this article interesting:

    https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Dialogue_V35N01_75.pdf

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  2. It isn't any more possible for God to remove the evil of sin by fiat, i.e., cancelling the effects of free actions by free creatures, than for him to make square circles or perfectly red blueness. Free will is either both or nothing.

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  3. @Sn - that sounds like nonsense - but maybe I misunderstand? Are you saying that an omnipotent God could not reduce pain?

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  4. The Continental Op22 February 2013 at 21:41

    The problem of pain and suffering has tormented (ha ha) us for a long time.

    Job went into the "heart of darkness" of pain and suffering, and wondered about the injustice of it all. Job 38-40 is God's answer: If you were Me, you could understand.

    Yes, we want to understand, but we cannot.

    But, but, but...let me try a little. I think God has self-constrained himself somehow, in a way beyond our understanding, and the world is under Satan's immediate dominion; after all, he was able to offer the kingdoms of the world to Jesus. Daniel 10:13 has an interesting story where the archangel Michael is detained by the prince of the kingdom of Persia, which is why help to Daniel was delayed.

    Imagine--this is highly speculative--that in the creation, the angel Satan was given some kind of charge of the earth. God will not revoke that charge--he promised, or something, so he is committed to it--so even when Satan went bad, he got to keep his charge.

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  5. I don't believe sin itself is evil. It merely constitutes the rebellion of the part from the whole. Sin is the un-doing. Evil is not a created thing. The Son is the means of turning the intellect towards God by reigning in desire and passion. By creating, God undoes the undoing, rather brilliantly and wholly Good.

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  6. A rephrasing suggestion:
    "This is just the kind of indirect and roundabout thing" a God who will not force his omnipotence on his children "would have to do..."

    Incidentally, I found this in the Catechism: "God is the Father Almighty, whose fatherhood and power shed light on one another: God reveals his fatherly omnipotence by the way he takes care of our needs; by the filial adoption that he gives us..." (#270)

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  7. I'm hesitant to go into detail about this theological difficulty at the moment; it seems to be the sort of thing that requires a carefully-thought-out essay, or even series of essays!

    It's odd that Bruce is following a sort of mirror image of the way that I came to Christianity.

    Namely, Bruce's Christianity is leading him to question the common understanding of the problem of evil; he's become dissatisfied with the solutions typically presented.

    On the other hand, I was attempting to formulate an anti-modern metaphysics, and unexpectedly came up with a personally satisfying solution to the problem of evil which removed a major intellectual obstacle I'd put up blocking me from considering Christianity. How unexpected....

    (And indeed, the removal of that obstacle was very welcome. Experiential evidence I'd had suggested the reality of demons and purposive evil, and not having something to balance that out was a "buzz kill", as I think I put it inelegantly to someone.)

    In that sense the difficulties expressed on this blog recently seem to me bemusing. On the other hand, the original metaphysical premises that made Christianity seem reasonable to me, are the same premises that lead me to wildly heterodox views on a number of points, producing difficulties other people don't seem to have.

    So instead of the problem of evil I have a number of other, more abstract and less urgent problems.

    (The metaphysics in question is not terribly original, of course; merely a dualistic idea of Chaos and Cosmos, with a very careful attempt to think through the implications of this idea.)

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  8. I think an omni-potent God could create free-will and so by necessity not always intervene. As sons we should learn and chose to love Him.

    Also, for free-will to truly function He must allow for "the fall" to our current state and for real unmitigated suffering to exist in nature.

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  9. KRISTOR SAYS: Expanding on what Steve Nicoloso has said:

    The apparent difficulty you notice, Bruce, is analogous in form to the old chestnut, "If God is omnipotent, then shouldn't he be able to create a stone that he cannot lift?"

    No; he shouldn't. This is like asking, "shouldn't God have the power to do x, and have it be the opposite of x?" You can string the words together, but they make no sense; the question is not coherent.

    This is of course far more difficult to see with evil than with stones. It goes like this: "Doesn't God have the power to create free entities that are different from him and that have no power to do anything other than his will for the optimum?" No. Such a creature is a contradiction in terms.

    If a creature is not able to do anything other than God's will, it is not a free and disparate being, but a mere feature of God himself. This is pantheism.

    If on the other hand a creature is free, then *by definition* it is able to take more than one course, and so to err from God's way. And only such free creatures could be disparate things from God. If you want a universe where there are other things than God, you need freedom; and with freedom comes risk of error.

    There being only one optimum path, and an infinite number of suboptimal - i.e., more or less erroneous - alternatives, the likelihood of suboptimality is virtually infinite.

    Why couldn't God just undo the evil his creatures have done, hey presto? To undo the act of a thing is to undo its facticity. If you delete from being the act that I do this moment, you delete from being the me of this moment, and replace it with another. So, the only way God could delete from the world the evil his creatures have done would be to delete those creatures, to make it as if they had never been.

    But this God cannot do either, for just the same sort of reason that he cannot create a stone that he cannot lift. His omniscience knows that we exist; to make it as if we had never been, he would (among other things) have to delete bits of what he eternally knows. And this would be to make himself less than God. The notion makes no sense.

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  10. @Kristor. I disagree that the problem of pain is the kind of 'logical paradox' you describe.

    Rather, it is an experiential paradox.

    I think these comments show that in practice anyone who posits an omnipotent God is immediately required to start listing all kinds of self-imposed constraints, and then second order constraints which prevent the Omnipotent God from dealing with the results of those first Constraints, and so on.

    All of these merely kick the can down the road - because God is still setting up a situation which he knows for sure (because he is also omniscient) will end up inflicting pain. Why start down that path?

    I certainly acknowledge that the free will and independent agency of Men is crucial to the plan - and it is in this respect that humans are already-gods (lower case g); it is this attribute which makes sense of our adoption as Sons of God and co-heirs with Christ: that we are already gods with free will and independent agency enables us to be purified, perfected and adopted.

    But a consequence of this is that the free will and independent agency of Men is a constraint upon God.

    Now, you argue here that all such constraints upon God are logical - but I think that is an inference from your prior metaphysical decision. I don't think it can be inferred from experience, nor from Scripture (although it can be read into it, it is consistent with it).

    I am saying that a constrained-God is equally consistent with experience and Scripture; and that this metaphysical set-up has significant explanatory advantages.

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  11. I suspect that Blaise Pascal's vision was something akin to what I am saying when he wrote: "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars..."

    I think Pascal meant that infinite abstractions such as omnipotence had previously prevented him from living in a relationship with God.

    If even a mathematician of great genius such as Pascal found that abstract infinites poisoned his faith - if, in fact, Pascal could not 'deal with' abstract infinites without being deflected from faith - then maybe we should be wary of building our own faith upon them.

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  12. I wonder if the problem of evil arises from a misunderstanding:

    We seem to asume, that there is a perfect existence, cleansed of all suffering and pain, that we can jump into in an instant.

    But what if the path (that might, and often does, lead through pain) is a necessary part of salvation itself?

    Could it then be, that we simply think of the pain we feel right here and right now as evil, because we have not the power and wisdom to recognize how it fits into a larger picture - and might even be necessary to avoid greater evils?

    To be free from all pain and suffering, I think, is a vision, the goal. Getting there is bound to be a process full of suffering and woe.

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  13. @TR - I think you are falling into the trap of treating pain abstractly.

    If you have ever sat with somebody suffering from Psychotic Depression, you know that the human capacity for suffering is extreme and as real as anything else in the world.

    I can easily see why God would want humans to have the capacity for normal misery - but the months and months of near-total torture of psychotic depression?

    Human beings have been built such that some suffer the overwhelming existential despair of psychotic depression - that is a fact that needs accounting for; not explaining away.

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  14. Sorry my previous post was just repeating what you had gone over with others. I did not read your other entries yet, hopefully this may contribute better:

    Do you not agree with the notion of "the fall"? It appears to be a key ingredient of the Christian story to explaining our state of suffering. It would explain humans as responsible, not God, for choosing a world where overwhelming pain and suffering is a possibility.

    A world where all our senses are numbed to pain but not pleasure seems very abstract and unreal. The more sensitive you are to pain, the higher also your capacity for joy/pleasure. We know satiation by hunger.

    Finally, I don't think creation was made for man! Man was made for creation, but given a special place. Modern mans error is partly in attempting total material dominion over creation. We were sheltered, but somehow and somewhere chose to participate in the full breadth of creation and all that it entails.

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  15. @GG - I can't see that the Fall makes a fundamental difference. In this context to blame the Fall for present suffering sounds like punishing remote ancestral choice with open-ended and multiple vicarious torture.

    My sense is that the absolute abstractions such as omnipotence have become a massive problem to Christianity as secular states have emerged. When whole societies were Christian, the defects in theology could be compensated by the state.

    But when the state is indifferent to, or at war with, Christianity, then distorting and absolute doctrines have an uncompensated effect - or else just get abandoned.

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  16. I think the importance of ancestors and family has become far, far too diminished in our thought.

    God has said he punishes not just individuals, but people for multiple generations.

    And isn't that how it works in the real world? Aren't our ancestors actions directly responsible for our entire life's context (genetics, social position, economics, religion, etc.)? Our decisions are built entirely on what was given.

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  17. "I think Pascal meant that infinite abstractions such as omnipotence had previously prevented him from living in a relationship with God."

    But that's our problem, not God's. What does this have to do with the truth about Him?

    Also, how does a God that is not the plenitude of being and goodness itself, but is rather very good and very powerful answer all of the infinite regress problems? Or are these problems simply nonsense?

    Maybe the problem is with the use of "infinite" when we don't rally mean infinite. If God is *infinitely* powerful and good the world could not be made perfect. If it were and *infinitely* powerful and good go could make it better, but this is a contradiction in terms when you realize that good *just is* God. There can't be more goodness than himself. So what we really mean is God is the primary cause of all change, and the source of all power. Thus from our perspective He is *all powerful* and *all good*.

    Could He have made a better world than ours? I have no idea. I lean toward this being somehow a self-contradictory statement. Since there is no other God there are no other possible worlds. Since this (and, of course, the world to come) is the world God created and since God is the source of goodness itself, I'm not sure it makes any sense to talk of a better world.

    I realize this is rambling and confused. This is what happens when you do theology off the top of your head. I'm going to post it anyway.

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  18. @GG - I take your point, but I just feel that OS is potentially a red herring in this discussion.

    @josh - I have said before that all theologies fall into incoherence or abstraction when pushed and pushed; either to a monism or endless regress. It is the upfront level which matters most, then that the justification for the upfront level does not subvert desired behaviour.

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  19. I'm sorry if I missed your thought on this, as it has such depth and I usually end up going off-topic in trying to understand -

    You seem opposed to "mystery" as an explanation, but at the same time recognize all theology falls short. So in that, do you actually accept the mystery, that humans can never fully comprehend God, but in practice and explanation seek something clear and fully comprehensible by the everyman?

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  20. @GG - "You seem opposed to "mystery" as an explanation"

    A couple of years ago I would have said that these things are a indeed a mystery, but they were comprehended by those of advanced holiness (Saints and those close to sainthood), who could provide instruction and teaching for the rest of us. This was the case until some decades ago - but there are no such people now.

    I think this makes a very great difference, it means that much which was possible in the past is no longer possible.

    And I think it means that we can no longer regard mystery in the same way as was previously possible - because nobody alive understands the mystery it becomes a blank, unusable (and dangerous if used - because it becomes a screen onto which we can project anything).

    We can only use what we fully understand - or be instructed by those of higher understanding.

    Therefore, I think we need to rework a lot of what was usable in the past to bring it down to our current level of comprehension.

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  21. Thanks!

    That makes sense, it follows your other general critiques of moderns trying to improve inherited institutions they no longer understands.

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  22. I disagree that the problem of pain is the kind of 'logical paradox' you describe.

    But I wasn’t saying it was a logical paradox. I was saying that it was *not* a logical paradox, when properly understood. Pain and evil under the omnipotence of God seem to be paradoxical only if we err about what we can coherently mean by “omnipotent.” Once we get our meanings straight, the apparent paradoxes disappear.

    … in practice anyone who posits an omnipotent God is immediately required to start listing all kinds of self-imposed constraints, and then second order constraints which prevent the Omnipotent God from dealing with the results of those first Constraints, and so on.

    The “constraints” you here notice are just aspects of the proper definition of “omnipotence.” Omnipotence simply *can’t* mean, “the power to do anything whatsoever.” It is not coherent to think "[x and –x] is doable," in any state of affairs whatsoever. Likewise, it is not coherent to think that a world that is free and impervious to sin and error can be created; the freedom and the imperviousness to sin and error are in logical contradiction. Thus the “unconstrained” version of “omnipotence” is just nonsense.

    But a consequence of this is that the free will and independent agency of Men is a constraint upon God.

    It is God’s own Nature that is a constraint upon God. E.g., God has not the power to commit suicide, or to become nothing but a creature, or to do evil or utter falsehoods, or to forget, or to undo what he has done. That these limitations on his options, which arise from his mere definiteness – from the fact that he is one thing, God, rather than another – are, not defects of his power or capacity, but aspects of its perfection. These limits do not constrain him from acts that he could otherwise do, because the acts are things that a being such as he simply cannot do, cannot do in principle; there is no way he could remain himself, and also do them; so, there is no way that he, himself, under any circumstances whatever, could otherwise do them; there is no such “otherwise” out there.

    Now, you argue here that all such constraints upon God are logical - but I think that is an inference from your prior metaphysical decision. I don't think it can be inferred from experience, nor from Scripture (although it can be read into it, it is consistent with it).

    I am saying that a constrained-God is equally consistent with experience and Scripture; and that this metaphysical set-up has significant explanatory advantages.


    If a metaphysical decision seems to commit you to paradox, it is either mistaken or misunderstood. I am pretty sure that my logico-metaphysical theodicy avoids paradox, and that, as you say, it can be read into – i.e., that it agrees with – Scripture and experience. And it is a theodicy under which God is indeed constrained by the logical constraints upon what it can coherently mean to say of a being that it is omnipotent.

    But if by “constrained God” you mean a “God who is not really omnipotent,” then I think you do run into conflict with Scripture, which insists that God is both alpha and omega, the Almighty source of all being, and thus omnipotent.

    Under the theodicy I suggest, God *is* really omnipotent, *and* his omnipotence is constrained by the bounds of logic – which is to say, by the bounds of the Divine Nature.

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  23. [4] Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”[5] He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.[6] He was amazed at their lack of faith.

    New Testament scripture also suggests God, as Jesus, was constrained in power. Specifically by the faith of those around him.

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  24. @ George Goerlich: Just so. If God's omnipotence were not constrained by facts or logic, as I have argued that it must be in order to be coherently conceivable, then he could easily solve the problem of man's sinfulness by just making us all want to stop sinning right away. But this brings the problem with the idea of unconstrained omnipotence into sharp relief: if God *forced* us to want to be virtuous, then the wanting would not be really ours, at all.

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