God and the Rock Paradox

One common objection (or jeer) held against theism is the objection that can be called “God and the rock.” The objection is generally posed as a question, running somewhere along the line of, “Can God create a rock so big that he himself can’t lift it?” The paradox is aimed at showing that an omnipotent being is logically impossible given that neither the affirmative nor the negative response safely preserves the omnipotence of God. A syllogistic form of the paradox can be written as follow:

A. Either the omnipotent God can or cannot create a rock that he can also himself lift.
B. If God can create a rock that God cannot lift, then there is a task which God could not perform, namely lifting the rock.
C. If God cannot create a rock that God cannot lift, then there is a task which the omnipotent God cannot perform, namely creating the rock of such poundage.
D. Thus, there is at least one task that the omnipotent God cannot do.
E. Conclusively, God is not omnipotent

The common apologetical response to this paradox is that the objection holds a logical contradiction insofar as the two tasks concerned, and being unable to perform a logically contradictory task is no limitation on God’s power because it is within God’s nature to follow an internal system of metaphysical consistency is part of His nature. While this view is held widely by brilliant philosophers, Kreeft, Swineburn, St. Thomas Aquinas to name a few, there are still some disputes as to its cogency, and Cartesian philosophy does not fancy this line of reasoning. While I do not think that the Cartesian line of thought in this matter to be intelligible, I will not venture a systemic criticism (although God can both exist and not exist can be the first line of such criticism).  That being said, there is no logical inconsistencies within the paradox itself and thus such an attempt at responding to the paradox by seeing it as a logical contradiction seems fruitless to me.

The problem seems to stem from premises B and C where the commitment to the premises as they stand seems to imply two different tasks which the omnipotent being cannot complete.  Yet, if we were to replace the premises with one that reads: “If God can create a stone, then God can lift it.”  The seeming problem with the premises vanishes with this replacement and we are left with a conclusion that does not negate the omnipotence of God.  Hence, the most plausible response to the “God and rock question”, it seems to me, is one that I encountered years ago by Wade Savage. Savage proposes that one can answer “no” to the question of God and the rock and is still not forced to forgo God’s omnipotence. Savage proposes that we take this argument in abilities to perform tasks and split them into two different persons in order to see that there is actually no problem in answering “no”.

Consider this example:

Let Jack be the one who can create rocks and Jill be the one to lift them. There are only two instances where it would be true to say that either Jack or Jill is limited in power.  Instance (i): Jack cannot create any rock heavier than 90 poundage, but Jill can lift rocks of any poundage.  In this instance, Jack can be said of as being limited in power because he cannot create a rock heavier than 90 poundage.  Instance (ii): Jack can create a rock of any poundage, but Jill is unable to lift any rock heavier than 90 poundage.  In this stance, Jill can be said as being limited in power because she cannot lift any rock heavier than 90 poundage.

Yet the same limitation cannot be said of Jack or Jill if Jack can create a rock of any poundage and Jill can lift any poundage.  In this instance (iii), any rock that Jack creates Jill can lift. If this is so, then one cannot conclude that there is any limitation within Jack’s power to create rocks since any rock of any poundage that he creates Jill can lift. Thus, to say that Jack cannot create a stone so heavy enough that Jill cannot lift is not a limitation on Jack’s power.  This is so because in this instance (iii) is completely different from the other instances (i) and (ii).  The limitation of Jack’s power is only an illusion produced by the word ‘cannot’, but, again, as I have pointed out above, this illusion vanishes when we rephrase it to “Jack can create any size rock and Jill can lift any rock that Jack creates”.

Thus, if we extend the above example to God and combine the two powers within God’s omnipotence as both the creator and lifter of the same rock, we find that the answer “no” to the central objection of the “God and the rock” paradox does not leave God limited in power.

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Destiny, Fate, Necessity And Freedom

The Ladies of Fate

My students are all teenagers, so they’re naturally exceptional at being preoccupied with romance and love.  Most of them buy into the idea of soul mates, destiny, and fate.  If anyone asks them, “Do you believe that you are destined to be with a certain person?” I can probably guarantee that their answers are almost always “Yes!”

But I don’t think that these ideas of fate and destiny are exclusive to the teenage belief.  I think a lot of us would like to say that we are destined to this or that, or that our fate is this or that.  Yet, if we just think through the natures of fate and destiny, we would realize that we can’t really say that we are destined or fated, at least not in the strict sense of what those terms mean.  For if we say that we are fated or destined to a certain end, we can’t possibly make a case for our freedom in acting this way or that way.  There is a wonderfully written dialogue between Cyniscus and Zues by Lucian of Samosata that illustrates this point.  In the conversation, Cyniscus poses several questions that point to the internal conflict between the notion of fate and freedom, even the freedom of the gods.

If, Cyniscus suggests, every human being and god is subject to the threads weaved by the Fates, then why ought human persons offer sacrifices to the gods at all since they seem to also be “slaves” of the Fates?  In fact, Cyniscus tells Zues that it seems to be better to be a human since our slavery to the Fates end at death, while the slavery of the gods, who are immortal, is everlasting.  Cyniscus then observes that it is more sensible for us to offer the sacrifices to the Fates instead of the gods since the Fates seem to be the ones in charge.  Accordingly, if all our actions are weaved by the strings of the Fates, then what justfies Minos in rewarding the good and punishing the bad?  

These questions cannot be ignored by those who believe in fate and destiny since, by their very definitions, the two notions suggest that our actions are among the particular events that inevitably come about because of the necessity of fate.  Thus, we are no more justified in punishing the criminal than rewarding the philanthropist.

Perhaps we mean something different when we say that we are destined or fated for this or that, but then what is it that we mean?  Can we speak of destiny and fate while preserving our freedom to act in such a way that we can say that there is genuine freedom in our choices? Some things to think about to begin the week =)

Have a blessed Monday, friends.

Freewill And God’s Co-Causation Part III

Having established that God is the cause that holds the rational agent in existence, it is now necessary to see to it that God’s causing and co-causation insofar as He is the Prime Creator of the will does not necessitate His determination of the will.  The will is moved by an intrinsic principle belonging to the agent, viz. the intellect.[1]  This movement of the intellect towards truth and goodness directs the will because the will aims at goodness.  But the will cannot be said of as being moved by the agent if it is moved by God.  Therefore it is necessary to conclude that the will is moved by the agent and not by God:

As Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv) “it belongs to Divine providence, not to destroy but to preserve the nature of things.” Wherefore it moves all things in accordance with their conditions; so that from necessary causes through the Divine motion, effects follow of necessity; but from contingent causes, effects follow contingently. Since, therefore, the will is an active principle, not determinate to one thing, but having an indifferent relation to many things, God so moves it, that He does not determine it of necessity to one thing, but its movement remains contingent and not necessary, except in those things to which it is moved naturally.[2]

The human will is free insofar as every act that the human person wills is a voluntary act—even acts that are under coercion.  Aquinas argues that there are two types of acts: the voluntary and the involuntary.[3]  Acts which are involuntary are intrinsic to the thing itself but are not willed by the agent since there is a lack of recognition of the good as object of the will (be this rational or irrational).[4]  On the other hand, the willing of an act is voluntary since the agent recognizes the good as known.[5]  In the human agent, the good as known directs the action voluntarily.  But voluntary does not entail freedom, for, as Aquinas notes, freedom is the object of the will and can only be understood in light of reason.

It is necessary here to consider an objection to the nature of the will as I have proposed here.  If, as argued above, the will is free and necessitated by a natural telos (end) to the Good as the intellect apprehends it, then it would mean that the will is not free to act insofar as it must act towards the ultimate Good in the face of the ultimate Good.  In this way the will, while arguably freed from the coercion of God’s will, is still necessitated by its natural inclination.  And if such a position is true then we must consider that in God’s creation of the will and its telos as such entails that God acts in the will immediately, thus negating its freedom.

The objection seems reasonable at first glance, but is invalidated at closer considerations of the objective and subjective dimensions of the will.  Aquinas writes in his reply to the seventh objection in question six in De Malo:

An active principle moves necessarily only when it overcomes the power of the passive principle.  But since the will is in potency to the good universally, no good overcomes the power of the will as necessarily moving it, except that which is good according to every consideration, and this is the perfect or complete good alone, i.e., happiness, which the will cannot will, that is, in such a way that it will the opposite; nevertheless the will can actually not will happiness because the will can turn away, i.e., avoid thinking about happiness inasmuch as the will moves the intellect to its act, and to this extent neither does the will necessarily will happiness itself, just as a person would not necessarily become warm if he could repel heat from himself when he willed.[6]

The distinction made here, and what Aquinas points to, is the particularity of the goods of the soul.  Where the objective aspect of voluntary act is the reality of the good toward which the desire of the will is inclined, the subjective dimension is the possession of such reality.  As Aquinas writes, the will is directed towards a universal good, but such goods are participations and consequently are particular.  As such, the reflective power of the intellect on the good [as particular] allows for the will to reconsider even the perfect good.

Another consideration of the freedom of the will as being caused by God only in the manner that he is the immediate cause of the agent’s being arises from the argument of evil actions.  According to Aquinas, the will is the faculty of love and desire which acts directly at the apprehension of the intellect.  The intellect, however, may at times mistake a non-good as a good.[7]  The apprehension which belongs internally to the agent is itself auto-causing, thus it is not God which is the source of this mistake.  Further, God cannot be said of as sinning for “someone is the cause of sin in two ways: in one way because he himself sins, in another way because he causes another to sin.  Neither of which can belong to God.”[8]  In the first way, God cannot be said as sinning because of the attribution of His nature free from the defect which sin requires for its existence.[9]  In the second way God cannot cause other to sin since sin is essentially the turning away from the calling to the ultimate end which is all-good.  Yet, God is the very End towards which the will is called.  Therefore, it violates the law of noncontradiction that one is both the cause of goodness and sin at the same time.

Conclusively, it seems that while human actions have as their authors both God and the human subject, the human subject acts freely.  From what has been said in the past three posts, God is said as the cause of human acts only insofar as He is the reason for the human author’s existence at any given time—contrary to Durandus’ objection.  As the cause and the One to keep the human agent’s being in existence, God is attributed with the human act, but this does not mean that he himself is the actor.  For one can speak of co-causality in two ways.  In the first, co-causation can be said of as two actors causing a certain effect in which without either one of the actors the effect cannot take place.  For example, let us consider two men who are carrying a casket.  The two are co-causes in the effect of the casket being moved, and without either one, the casket cannot move in the same way as it is moving when the two are carrying it.  In the second way, co-causation can happen in the sense that one’s being is dependent upon the other directly and simultaneously that any act one does is attributed to the other as well.  Consider for example an imperfect analogy of a human agent and a machine that is necessary to keep him living.  We can attribute the human agent’s actions to the machine only insofar as without the machine the person would cease to live and therefore no actions are possible.  Yet the human person’s actions are not dictated by the machine, but by the person himself.  It is in this latter sense that God is said as an immediate cause in human actions for it is He whom the human person is dependent on for his existence at any given time.


[1] Summa Theologiae, II, 1, 9, a1, Corpus

[2] Summa Theologiae, II, 1, 10, a4, Corpus

[3] Summa Theologiae, II, 2, 6, a1, Corpus

[4] Ibid. if a thing has no knowledge of the end, even though it have an intrinsic principle of action or movement, nevertheless the principle of acting or being moved for an end is not in that thing, but in something else, by which the principle of its action towards an end is not in that thing, but in something else, by which the principle of its action towards an end is imprinted on it.

[5] Ibid. But those things which have a knowledge of the end are said to move themselves because there is in them a principle by which they not only act but also act for an end. And consequently, since both are from an intrinsic principle, to wit, that they act and that they act for an end, the movements of such things are said to be voluntary: for the word “voluntary” implies that their movements and acts are from their own inclination.

[6] De Malo, 244

[7] This is evident in Aquinas noting that evil does not have a per se cause since no one aims at committing evil.

[8] De Malo, 104

[9] The existence of sin is not ontological per se but is only in contrast to the lack of goodness in the action itself or is an accidental effect of the action.

Freewill And God’s Co-Causation Part II

In the last post, I opened up a reflection regarding an agent’s freewill and the question of whether or not an agent’s action is fully and completely free given that God exists in the agent most intimately and therefore ought to be said as being a co-actor in any given action.  In this post, I would like to briefly examine what it means to say freedom and what is the nature of the will.

In my opinion, St. Augustine’s definition of freedom which is presented by Thomas Williams in Williams’ translation of On Free Choice of the Will is sufficient for the current reflection.  As regards to the will, I will present Aquinas’ position since I also think that his understanding of the will is excellent and quite sufficient.

Augustine argues that freedom can be understood in many different senses.  The three categories in which he places these different senses of freedom are physical, metaphysical, and autonomous.[1]  Physical freedom “involves the absent of restraints.”[2]  In other words, physical freedom is the freedom which allows the subject to act with nothing to hinder his actions.  On the other hand, metaphysical freedom is “the freedom to choose in a way that is not determined by anything outside my control.”[3]  The third type of freedom is autonomy.  Williams point out that for Augustine freedom of autonomy is the freedom that the subject has over himself without someone directing him to act as such; it is the freedom perceived as “I am my own boss.”  These three understandings of freedom together make up the synthesized understanding of freedom when we approach the will.  It should also be noted that this is the understanding and definition of freedom which is considered when freedom is mentioned in the rest of this reflection and its series.

With regards to the will, Aquinas defines it as a rational appetite and therefore requires reason for its operation.[4]  Aquinas notes that the will is moved by both the rational agent and also God.  Natural things have natural tendencies which are moved without judgment, e.g. a rock always moves downward.  Yet there are also things which act with judgment but also necessitated by a natural tendency, e.g., a deer will run as soon as it sees a tiger.  There is a third type of action which is free of natural necessities and uses judgment of the intellect; this is what Aquinas calls the will.  He argues that the will, because it is a power belonging to the rational appetite caused by God, is caused therefore by Him.[5]  Concomitantly, the will can also be argued as being caused by God because of its teleological tendency towards the Good as instilled by God.[6]

[1] Augustine (Williams) XI

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Summa Theologiae, II, 2, 6, a2, rep. obj. 1

[5] Summa Theologiae, II, 1, 9, a6, Corpus; note, however, that the will is caused by God does not mean that He is its immediate mover.

[6] Ibid.

 

Freewill And God’s Co-Causation Part I

A question came up the other day in class about the nature of morality, consequences, and responsibility.  A student asserted that we are guided by divine providence and in that sense seem to be predetermined to certain actions.  Our conversation led to an interesting observation: if God is in all of us, then is He not also the cause of our actions?  In these next blog posts, I want to see if I could come to an answer for this question.

First I think it is helpful to note that in order for an act to be subjected to moral scrutiny and judgment, it must necessarily be free.  In other words, actions of a moral kind cannot be condemned or commended if they are performed under coercion or out of ignorance.  The drunken man’s murdering action is of a less degree of seriousness—less because drunkenness does not alleviate the ignorance and the decision to get drunk in the first place—than that of a man who murdered purposefully and with premeditated contemplation.  Yet, what our original question seems to indicate is that all human actions have as its author two causes: the human subject and God.  From what I know, several positions exist in coming to answer this question..  Among these different positions are the theological determinists/compatibilists and their counterpart, the theological incompatibilists.  I find the theological incompatibilists’ position quite attractive.

I think it is worthwhile to note that the problem we’re trying to work through seems to suggest that God is the immediate cause of all actions of creatures because it has been said that God is in the creature most intimately.  Aquinas holds that God is in all things most intimately since He is their Cause of existence.  Aquinas does make the careful distinction that God is not in creatures and things as part of their substance or accidents; rather, God is in creatures as the agent which holds them in existence and therefore is in them most intimately.[1]

If Aquinas is indeed correct in his argument that God is in every creature intimately and is therefore the cause of their actions, then would this not take away from the freedom of rational creatures who thinks they are acting freely?  This would also mean that if God is the cause of all the of the creature’s movements then the creature is passive in the action itself and thus to speak of morality is absurd.   The question and criticism must not go unnoticed since it also denies free will on the part of the rational agent in that all actions are cause by God.  If the criticism is indeed correct then any discussion at all about the merits and morality of the rational creature’s actions is superfluous and meaningless.

This problem is considered by Durandus de Saint Pourcain.  Durandus argues that God is the immediate cause of every action of the creature but that this does not take away from the freedom of the creature at all.  Durandus first considers the argument that God is the immediate cause for an action because he is the cause of being.  Durandus lays out the objection as such: if God is the cause of being of a creature and the actions which flow from the creature flows from its very being, then it logically follows that God is the immediate cause of such actions.[2]  However, as Durandus is quick to point out, this conclusion is false in that it concludes on a faulty assumption.  To say that God is the cause of the being does not entail necessarily that actions by that being are caused by God.  Yet, as we shall see, Durandus’ conclusion based on this objection is also problematic.

Beyond Science

I insist that in general there are two categories of truth: subjective or objective.  Subjective truth is not necessarily true universally such as when someone insists that for them it is true that God exists: “I believe that God exists.”  On the other hand, objective truth is something that is universally true regardless of personal belief, e.g. “God exists.”  There are different methods to validate the veracity of these truths, but modernity has seemingly eliminated all other methods as hokum, opting instead for a purely scientific methodological approach.  The scientific method to validating truth is useful but cannot be said as the sole method.  In other words, to insist that things are only true if they are scientifically verifiable is absurd.

There are two reasons that make the demand for all truths to be subjected to scientific investigations absurd.  The first arises from the competence of the discipline of science and its object of study.  Scientific data are those which are observable in the physical universe (observational access may require some use of technological apparatus) in some controlled environment.  However, there are things that science cannot study, viz. things that are immaterial.  Consider for one moment the concept of God.  According to our understanding, God, by definition, is perfect, immutable, and therefore must be immaterial since to be material is to be subjected to potency—to potentially to become more or less perfect—and therefore God cannot exist in a physical form.  Because God does not exist in a physical form, it cannot be demanded that He subjects Himself to empirical verification since the demand for a non-empirical entity to subject itself to empirical verification is a self-contradictory demand.  The belief that something exists outside a system cannot be disproved by observing the behavior of that system.  Just as a fish would not be able to disprove its human owner’s existence by observing the waves and lighting of the tank, humans cannot disprove of God’s existence simply because we cannot observe him with even our most powerful and complex apparatus.

The second reason arises from a logical inconsistency in the demand itself.  The demand that all truths be verified by scientific investigations holds in itself an implied truth, namely that the only truths that can be said to be true are those which science has verified as such.  In other words, the demand holds that any truth must be scientifically verifiable.  Yet, the truth of the demand—that all things are true if they are scientifically provable—is not scientifically provable.  This is to say that the physical sciences cannot prove that the only acceptable truths are those that have undergone scientific investigations.  Such a truth, if it exists at all, is a priori and is presupposed.  Yet, such an a priori truth belongs mainly and essentially to the philosophical discipline and not the scientific discipline.

Since truth is beyond empirical verification, it is therefore abstract and categorical in being.  Truth is categorical in this sense insofar as it can be labeled as ontological or logical, i.e. that which exists extramentally or only in the mind.[1]  Yet, these truths are nevertheless alike in some sense because they have some sort of “being.”  Being-as-such is being considered in its totality and in general—it is being qua being.  When the mind grasps a thing or concept—either that which has actual existence or that which has existence only in the mind—being is grasped as both limited and unlimited.  It is grasped as limited in the thing or concept which the mind conceives and apprehends, but being is grasped also as unlimited as the horizon against which the limited being is placed in contrast (this is a Rahnerian concept understood by his supernatural existential).  Such apprehension of the truth of being can only be approached with a science which moves beyond mere empirical considerations and mere rational considerations.  Therefore, this apprehension must come from a science which considers that very first act of a thing, i.e. its existence, in order to place it in context of the totality of the real.  Such a science is called the science of metaphysics, and, if we are to have a clear understanding of the unlimited horizon of being against which limited being is in contrast, we need to know what being is and the modes in which being is known.  We need, therefore, to turn to metaphysics for help in apprehending the nature and intelligibility of being.

In short, our Catholic faith does not reject the invaluable aid that the sciences provide in coming to know truths, but it does realize that the sciences is one among the many methods of doing so.


[1] Ontological truths encompass empirical truths including those which the scientific discipline provides, but it does not limit itself to simply that since ontological truths move beyond the empirical to the immaterial, e.g. the human soul, angels, and God.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Ah the age old causal question of the precedence in existence of the chicken and the egg. Evolution theories aside, I turn now to Aristotelian metaphysics to solve this little puzzle. Note also that for the sake of convenience of not having to type out “chicken egg” every time, I will just use “egg” to mean “chicken egg.”

The problem should be stated that a chicken egg must be produced by a chicken, yet it is from chicken eggs that chickens come forth. However, this causal series cannot go ad infinitum, thus one has to be before the other. Aristotelian metaphysics seems to suggest that it is the chicken that precedes the egg in existence.

First and foremost, we need to understand the difference between potency and act in Aristotelian metaphysics. Potency: that which has the potential to become actualized; act: that which is. Further, Aristotle maintains that thoughts of actuality and potency can only go in this direction, i.e. actuality before potency, and not the opposite direction, i.e. potency before act, for the thought of something potentially becoming actualized as something else means that the thing actualized must first be known.

Accordingly, the egg cannot have come before the chicken because the egg is only potentially chicken whereas the chicken is actually chicken. One cannot have thought of the egg as becoming chicken unless one knows chicken in the first place.

Thus, that which has a potential to become a specific something presupposes that there is that actual specific thing for it to become. Therefore, in order for a chicken egg to become a chicken there must be chicken in the first place; for one cannot claim an egg to be a chicken egg unless one knows what a chicken is in the first place. To do so without knowing is both unimaginable and unintelligible. Conclusively, the chicken came before the egg