August 18, 2010

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Divine Freedom and Worship

This is the first substantive post in my discussion of Sobel's Logic and Theism. The first chapter of Sobel's book focuses on the question of what people disagree about when they disagree about whether God exists. There are a lot of interesting metaphysical and linguistic issues here, like the meaningfulness of negative singular existentials, but this is all really preliminary to the real purpose of evaluating beliefs in God and the reasons for them, so, although these issues are interesting, I'm going to keep discussion of them to a minimum, and focus on what I take to be the first interesting argument against a certain type of belief in God.

So to summarize and oversimplify the relevant parts of the linguistic discussion, Sobel takes it that a being is a god (with a small 'g') if and only if that being ought to be worshiped. 'God' (with a capital 'G') is a proper name which either refers to the one true (small 'g') god, or perhaps the best god, or else fails to refer. What the atheist, as Sobel sees him, is arguing for is that the name 'God' fails to refer, because nothing deserves to be worshiped. (Of course, more needs to be said about the relevant conception of 'worship', and Sobel does say more, but I'm going to gloss over this.)

Now many religious believers hold that:

(A) God ought to be worshiped because (as the hymn says) "He has done great things".

And many theologians and theistic philosophers argue that:
(B) God is essentially perfectly good. That is, necessarily, if God exists, he always does the morally right thing.

The first argument I want to address is one which Sobel attributes to Richard Price, and which argues that (A) and (B) are inconsistent. Sobel uses the following two examples as 'intuition pumps:'
Contrast your regard for a person you believe to be constitutionally incapable of telling lies (it might be something complicated to do with his brain) with that for a person you think can lie with the rest of us but, as a matter of principle, and determination to do the right thing, never does. Consider the 'chemistry' of the comic relief of a largely tragic old circus movie delivered with the lines: "I can't short-change the customers[.] It has something to do with the lengths of my fingers" (p. 21).

The argument, I think, is supposed to go something like this:
  1. An entity is praiseworthy for doing the right thing only if that entity is morally responsible for the action in question.

  2. An entity is morally responsible for an action only if the entity was free to perform a different action.

  3. God is essentially perfectly good.

  4. Therefore,
  5. God is not free to do anything other than the right thing. (From 3)

  6. Therefore,
  7. God is not praiseworthy for always doing the right thing. (From 1, 2 and 4)

Now, only on certain conceptions of freedom will (2) be plausible, and only on certain conceptions of freedom will (4) follow from (3). Specifically, (4) follows from (3) straightforwardly only on a libertarian conception of freedom - if (3) is true, then it is logically impossible for God to do anything wrong. This will entail that God is not free to do the wrong thing only if being free to do the wrong thing requires that it is possible for you to do the wrong thing. But many philosophers would deny this. Of course, you could stipulate that, in (4), you mean 'free' in the libertarian sense, but then many philosophers will deny (2). But the argument would seem to show at least that the following form an inconsistent triad:
(A) God ought to be worshiped because (as the hymn says) "He has done great things".
(B) God is essentially perfectly good. That is, necessarily, if God exists, he always does the morally right thing.
(C) Moral responsibility requires libertarian free will.

Now, my own views on freedom are currently in flux (fortunately, it is one of the things I will be studying this semester), but I'm pretty confident about the following two claims:

(CD) An important factor in freedom and responsibility is some sort of counterfactual dependence.
(CP) There are some non-vacuously true counterpossibles.

Let me explain each of these. Counterfactual dependence means, essentially, that in certain relevant counterfactual situations, typically counterfactuals in which you will differently, the event wouldn't have occurred. The simplest view is that I am morally responsible for φing if and only if, if I had not willed to φ (or: if I had willed not to φ), I wouldn't have φed. Now, the Frankfurt cases show that this simplistic view can't be right. However, God can't very well get into a Frankfurt case so, depending on what the right analysis of freedom in general is, this might (or might not) be a harmless simplification in the divine case.

A counterpossible is a counterfactual that describes what would happen in a situation which is impossible. For instance, here are two counterpossibles:

(a) If there was a round square, it would be round.
(b) If there was a round square, pigs would fly.

Now, some people hold that, because of contradiction explosion, all counterpossibles are vacuously true. However, I think it's just obvious that (a) has a very different status from (b). (a), I take it, is true in some non-vacuous way. In addition to the obvious difference between (a) and (b), Trenton Merricks, in his book Objects and Persons, argues that if there are no non-vacuously true counterpossibles, then most of the arguments we use in metaphysics are nonsense. That's because metaphysicians usually disagree about things which, if true, are necessarily true. They then say, "if your view were correct ..." and go on to describe some unsavory consequences. In fact, if Sobel agrees that the Anselmian God, if he exists, exists necessarily then, unless there are non-vacuously true counterfactuals, he can't really talk about what the world would be like if the Anselmian God existed.

Now where does this get us? Well, consider this sentence:

(E) If God willed to do evil, he would do evil.

If (B) is true, then (E) is a counterpossible. However, if there are non-vacuously true counterpossibles, and (E) is one, then God's doing good might satisfy (CD). Furthermore, if there are non-vacuously true counterpossibles, then (E) probably is one, since God is omnipotent, so whatever he wills happens.

Now, I haven't identified precisely what sort of counterfactual dependence is important to freedom and responsibility, nor have I specified exactly how it is important to freedom and responsibility. This is because I don't know. But if I'm right that (CD) is true, and that (E) is non-vacuously true, then I have reason not to be persuaded by the Price-Sobel argument against the conjunction of (A) and (B).

Posted by Kenny at August 18, 2010 7:51 PM
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