Monday, January 29, 2018

The Christian theory of everything

Recently, there was a high-level discussion on metaphysics and philosophical methodology between Christian Josh Rasmussen and atheist Graham Oppy:

I'll comment on a few things. 

1. On possible worlds, Oppy said:

Every alternative to the way that things actually are, [where] things could have gone that's different from the way they actually went, shares some initial history with the way that things actually went and diverges from it because chances play out differently. So every possible world shares some initial part with the actual world. 

The only way that we get alternative possibilities…is through chance. Chances play out differently.

Consider two worlds with the same history up to a certain point, then one world goes one way and another world goes another way. A fork or branch…develops down the track. explanation for why God has different creative intentions for this or that world…or you can appeal to some earlier difference to explain it.

Several issues:

i) On the secular view he sketches, all possible worlds are variations on the actual world. Possible worlds are in some sense derived from the actual world. 

One deficiency with his analysis is that when we contemplate possible worlds, our frame of reference is necessarily limited by human imagination and the world we experience. But that's a provincial benchmark. There's no presumption that some possible worlds aren't radically different from human experience or the limitations of human imagination. Where one possible world has no initial history in common with another possible world. 

ii) Consider a Christian ontology in which possible worlds are divine ideas. On that model, worlds aren't derived from other worlds, but from God's infinite imagination. What possible worlds share in common is not the actual world, per se, but the mind of God, as their constitutive source. 

iii) There's some ambiguity when Christians talk about the actual world. In one sense that will include God. In one sense, God is in the actual world. 

But in another sense, the actual world originates in the mind of God, as one of many possible worlds. Creation is distinct from God. A spatiotemporal objectification of his exemplary idea. We might define the actual world as God plus creation. 

iv) Whether or not chance is the only way to get alternate timelines from a secular standpoint, that's not the only way from a Christian standpoint. Rather, the source of alternate possibilities is God's imagination. God is able to conceive of infinitely many different world histories. These are like stories. Stories with alternate plot developments. Possible worlds are fictional stories in God's mind. 

By contrast, the actual world is where God turns one of his imaginative scenarios into something physical, with conscious agents, time, and causality. 

v) In principle, God isn't constrained to choose between different possible timelines. Presumably, God has the ability to create a multiverse, if he so desired. 

2. Commenting on Josh's "perfect foundation" paradigm, Oppy said:

Where does the imperfection get in and why? It's the nature of perfection to be opposed to imperfection.

I don't think there's a puzzle about how imperfection can originate from a perfect being or perfect foundation. Part of what it means to be a perfect being is having the ability to imagine all possibilities. A perfect being (God) has a self-concept. That's maximal greatness. 

But he will also have the necessary ability to conceive of every variation, every alternative. In a sense, these will be less than he is. But the greater or greatest must have the capacity to have ideas about lesser states and lesser beings. That includes moral imperfections as well as innocent limitations.

At that mental level, imperfections are inherent in a perfect being, not in the sense that the perfect being is imperfect, but his mind contains infinitely many concepts of alternate scenarios. How could he be a perfect being if he was unable to entertain concepts of entities other than himself? 

In that sense, imperfections already exist as ideas about lesser beings and lesser states. Timeless, divine ideas.

And that's inevitable, given a perfect being. A perfect mind. An infinite mind. 

There's then the distinction between a mental mode of subsistence and an extramental mode of subsistence. But if it's consistent with a perfect being for imperfection to exist conceptually, is it inconsistent with a perfect being to objectify some of his concepts in real time, space, and (in some cases) consciousness finite beings? 

What God has done is to instantiate some of his exemplary ideas. In that sense, the origin of imperfection is straightforward. From ideal to real. 

The issue is what question he's really asking. 

i) Is it a metaphysical question? How can imperfection originate from perfection in the sense of how perfection can be the basis or ultimate source of imperfection? Or how that relation can be "fitting"?

If so, then I think my response answers that question.

ii) Is it a causal/how to? question? If perfection is the initial state, how can imperfection come into being? How can perfection cause imperfection?

If that's the question, then the answer concerns God's ability to instantiate possible worlds, and so on. But I doubt that's his question.

iii) Is it an ethical question? How can perfection permit imperfection? How is the existence of imperfection consistent with perfection? If so, that's a variation on the problem of evil. 

In this case, the issue seems to be whether there's some morally significantly difference between God having an idea of imperfection and God realizing his idea. 

iv) Consider a director who has an idea of a villain or the idea of a plot with a some atrocity. Compare that to the director filming what's in his head. 

Does that involve a moral change by shifting from the idea to an extramental exemplification thereof? 

Not that I can see. If the director is sympathetic to the villain, then that would be morally defection even if he never translated his idea into film.

If, on the other hand, the director depicts the villain as blameworthy, then I don't see a change in moral valuation as we shift from idea to film.

Moreover, so long as it stays in his head, no one else can benefit from his moral insight. 

v) Of course, one morally significant difference is that merely possible "conceptual" people can't actually suffer. Like fictional characters, they lack consciousness. So the question is whether God (perfection) is wronging them by turning his idea (of imperfection) into a real person.

Yet we can flip that around. By the same token, merely possible "conceptual" people can't actually experience good, so there's a tradeoff. Should no one experience good so that no one will suffer? Should however many people be denied the opportunity to experience good to prevent anyone from having to experience physical and/or psychological pain? That's an antinatalistic ethic.

vi) In addition, consider the comic curve in classical drama, where the initial state is good. Then there's the tragic downfall. But that may instill enlightenment, so the final state is superior to the initial state. That's like:

perfection>imperfection>higher perfection

where, to achieve a second-order good, events must pass through something bad. So it's not a choice between two linear alternatives:




Rather, it can begin with lesser "perfection", followed imperfection as an intervening stage leading to greater perfection.

Even at a human level, the creative process in art, music, and fiction can begin with something good, but as the creative artist gains additional experience and expertise, it just gets better until he produces his masterpieces. There's also the cliche that great art often requires suffering. 

vii) Or consider the oak in the acorn. There's nothing imperfect about the oak in seed form. Yet there's something greater about a full-grown oak tree. 

3. Finally, there was a discussion of simplicity. 

i) Christian metaphysics is parsimonious in the sense that a single agent (God) can be the basis for everything else. For concrete and abstract objects alike. All that complexity traces back to one ultimate transcendent source. 

ii) By contrast, naturalism is typically reductionistic, where complexity is the result of something physically or temporally elementary. Where complexity develops over time from something simpler. Where complex objects are composed of smaller elements. Where there's greater complexity at higher scales of magnitude. In naturalism, complexity involves a bottom-up process, but in Christian theism, complexity involves a top-down process. 

iii) But there's also the question of whether God is simple. To take a comparison, is the Mandelbrot set simple or complex? As an abstract object, it's mereologically simple in the sense that it has no spatiotemporal "parts" or subdivisions. Yet it's recursively complex in terms of infinite self-similarity. 

iv) According to Christian theology, God is a Trinity. One way to classify the Trinity is a type of symmetry. There are different kinds of symmetries. In the case of mirror symmetries, there's one-to-one correspondence, yet these are nonsuperimpossible images due to chirality. The Trinity is like that. There's one-to-one correspondence between Father, Son, and Spirit, yet an irreducible distinction remains. 

Although internally complex, a symmetry is incomposite. Half a symmetry is not a symmetry. According to Christian metaphysics, reality bottoms out with something indecomposably complex. 


  1. I never studied philosophy formally, but it seems to me that Oppy can only draw on his observations of this world, and attempt to apply it to other possible worlds. No matter the world, it is bound to our limited understanding. So how much time should be spent on this type of reasoning? I don't know. I always wonder about it!

    1. i) Our ability to contemplate hypothetical situations is something that sets us apart from animals. It's important to moral and rational deliberation and decision-making.

      In addition, regret ("if only…") is an aspect of repentance.

      ii) The question is what grounds hypotheticals and counterfactuals. It can't be the actual world since counterfactuals refer to scenarios that didn't happen in the actual world.

      So that devolves into possible worlds. That's useful from a Christian apologetic standpoint, because it's easy to ground possible worlds in Christian theism, whereas naturalism lacks the same metaphysical resources.

      iii) Moreover, it's useful for theodicy. The argument from evil involves a comparison with a better world than the actual world. But time-travel stories illustrate the law of unintended consequences. Is there a better world? Or does that involve tradeoffs?

    2. Thanks Steve - I like your response, and it helped. Maybe I'm just extra tired today, and losing patience! I always appreciate your contribution, Steve!