Sunday, November 26, 2017

Divine contrivance

John Stuart Mill is commonly regarded as the greatest English philosopher of the 19C. Among other things, he wrote a lengthy attack on the Christian faith. It's useful to respond to high-level atheist thinkers, since that's the best they've got. I'll comment on this objection, from Three Essays on Religion:

It is not too much to say that every indication of Design in the Kosmos is so much evidence against the Omnipotence of the Designer. For what is meant by Design? Contrivance: the adaptation of means to an end. But the necessity for contrivance—the need of employing means—is a consequence of the limitation of power. Who would have recourse to means if to attain his end his mere word was sufficient? The very idea of means implies that the means have an efficacy which the direct action of the being who employs them has not. Otherwise they are not means, but an incumbrance. A man does not use machinery to move his arms. If he did, it could only be when paralysis had deprived him of the power of moving them by volition. But if the employment of contrivance is in itself a sign of limited power, how much more so is the careful and skilful choice of contrivances? Can any wisdom be shown in the selection of means, when the means have no efficacy but what is given them by the will of him who employs them, and when his will could have bestowed the same efficacy on any other means? Wisdom and contrivance are shown in overcoming difficulties, and there is no room for them in a Being for whom no difficulties exist. The evidences, therefore, of Natural Theology distinctly imply that the author of the Kosmos worked under limitations; that he was obliged to adapt himself to conditions independent of his will, and to attain his ends by such arrangements as those conditions admitted of.

If it be said, that an Omnipotent Creator, though under no necessity of employing contrivances such as man must use, thought fit to do so in order to leave traces by which man might recognize his creative hand, the answer is that this equally supposes a limit to his omnipotence. For if it was his will that men should know that they themselves and the world are his work, he, being omnipotent, had only to will that they should be aware of it. Ingenious men have sought for reasons why God might choose to leave his existence so far a matter of doubt that men should not be under an absolute necessity of knowing it, as they are of knowing that three and two make five. These imagined reasons are very unfortunate specimens of casuistry; but even did we admit their validity, they are of no avail on the supposition of omnipotence, since if it did not please God to implant in man a complete conviction of his existence, nothing hindered him from making the conviction fall short of completeness by any margin he chose to leave.

Several problems with his argument:

i) It's not a question of divine limitations but human limitations. For instance, we can't relate to God on his level, so if he wants to relate to humans, he must come down to our level. Even an omnipotent being can't relate to his creatures on his own level, for the elementary reason that we're not on his level, and we can't be on his level. The asymmetry is intrinsic to the ontological difference between an omniscient God and finite creatures. 

ii) In addition, while an omnipotent being can produce many effects directly, some effects involve nested relationships, where the end-result must be mediated by some intervening situation. For instance, even an omnipotent being can't forgive sin unless there's sin to forgive. Omnipotence can't skip over the sin part to go straight to forgiveness. That would be nonsensical. 

iii) These conditions aren't independent of his will, for God created these conditions. God is not obliged to make rational creatures, and he's not obliged to communicate with rational creatures, but if he chooses to do so, then he must adapt his revelation to our level of comprehension. And that would be the case even if divine revelation was innate. 

iv) However, Mill's objections do have some purchase on freewill theism, where human agency is independent of God. In that case, God must work around these intractable hinderances as best he can. The deity of freewill theism is akin to Zeus's relation to the Fates. He can only operate within the parameters of what the Fates decree. 

v) But over and above those considerations, Mill seems to think an omnipotent God must be an efficiency freak, as if the best way to achieve a goal is always by the shortest route. Yet that's like saying, why watch movie, watch a play by Shakespeare, read a novel, read narrative poetry–when you can cut to the chase by reading a plot synopsis? You can get basic information on one page without all the extraneous details! But that misses the point. It's not about getting to the destination as fast as possible, but taking in the scenery along the way. 

Not that God needs that, but it's for the benefit of his creatures. And it won't suffice to say God could endow them with innate knowledge, for there's a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. For creatures, the experience is worthwhile. And that's not reducible to abstract propositional knowledge. 

1 comment:

  1. Mill shows here the foolishness of a person who literally does not understand teleology. Take, for example, the eye. Suppose that God wanted to make a physical creature who had the kind of experiences that we call visual experiences. It is purely senseless to say that God, being omnipotent, would not use *means* to bring about the *end* of creaturely seeing. What has omnipotence to do with the matter? Mill's entire idea that means-end rationality is incompatible with omniscience shows a kind of willful idiocy about the nature of means-end adequation in nature. The idea of the Christian who believes that God created the world is that God wanted to make physical beings of a certain type with certain predictable sensory experiences--experiences that will happen when the creature behaves in certain ways, vis a vis his environment, but will be different if he behaves in other ways, allowing the creature to explore his own environment and gain knowledge via these predictable experiences. Granted the goal of making those types of beings having those kinds of experiences, the eye is an excellent way to bring about that goal. How would omnipotence make it otherwise? One could argue that God could have made all physical creatures with ESP conveying sensory experience, but even then, in order to bring about the goal of the creatures' ability to learn about their environment in a predictable way, God would have had to make up, as it were, a type of ESP software that would produce particular visual experiences predictably under some conditions but not others. In other words, the means-end rationality would simply be transferred to the instantiation of the ESP software in the creature. It wouldn't disappear.

    Mill's whole idea that means-end rationality is a sign of lack of power is wrong from the get-go.