Thursday, October 22, 2009

Clarkian confusions

In his final years, Gordon Clark staked out a number of increasingly eccentric positions. Perhaps this represents his intellectual development. Or perhaps he always held these views.

It’s a pity because, in some respects, he was a very useful Reformed apologist. Unfortunately, all the good stuff he did tends to lend specious credibility to some of his lapses in judgment. To take a few examples:

“One may wonder whether the truths of mathematics, unlike the truths of history, are infinite in number. Each year some brilliant professor adds one or two more. Theorems seem to be possible without end. Then would not omniscience make God infinite? There are two replies. First, if the theorems are infinite in number, neither God nor man could know them, for with respect to infinite there is no all’ to be known. Infinite has no last term, and God’s knowledge would be as incomplete as man,” The Incarnation, 61-62.

“It is a delicate question whether God’s knowledge is infinite in the English sense of the world. If it were, God’s knowledge would be incomplete, if not unsystematic…If God’s knowledge were infinite, there would always be an extra item beyond the last,” The Atonement, 130n1.”

i) The basic problem with this objection is that it fails to distinguish between a potential and actual infinite. Yet Cantor demonstrated the possibility of an actual infinite. The infinite as a given totality.

ii) In addition, Clark’s definition is infected with spatial and temporal metaphors. The notion that an infinite that has no “last term,” because there’d always be an extra item “beyond the last,” takes the notion of an infinite “series” too literally. It seems to equate the process of counting (from one to infinity) with the internal structure of the infinite. But that confuses an abstract object with a concrete process.

The infinite is not something that literally grows. It doesn’t literally “go on and on.” That’s a figurative way to depict the infinite. A way of making it easier for us to conceive of something a bit beyond our grasp. But we shouldn’t confuse metaphors with reality.

iii) We should also keep in mind that the term “infinite,” especially in application to God, can mean more than one thing. It can be used as a synonym for a being who is not conditioned by the vicissitudes time, space, or other contingencies.

“[When we] consider the will of God, we are apt to think or subconsciously suppose that God makes decisions. He willed to create, he willed, after some deliberation, to save some, and so on. Though we may not say so out loud, we suppose that God was puzzled: He could create or he could refuse to create; he could or could ruse to save some; and if he decided to save some, he could use any means imaginable…This seems to me to be logically inconsistent, for if it relieves God of indecision on the last point, it pictures him as indecisive on the prior points, and assigns to him a relatively momentary act of choice. This makes God a temporal creature, or if not a creature, at least a temporal being” The Atonement, 129.

i) What’s ironic about this allegation is not the subconscious assumption which Clark gratuitously imputes to Hodge, but the Clark’s own subconscious assumption. Clark is simply taking for granted, without any supporting argument, that the notion of divine choice or divine decision implies a psychological process or interval of time.

But why should we assume such a thing? If God is timeless, then there was never a time when God was undecided. Clark is failing to distinguish between the incidental features of human decision-making with the fundamental notions of having or making choices. Making choices is subjective, while having choices is objective.

ii) Having choices has reference to opportunities. Alternate courses of action. And that can be independent of decision-making in the sense that such opportunities might exist quite apart from the existence or deliberation of any particular agent. The existence of an objective opportunity doesn’t ipso facto depend on the subjective process of decision-making.

Suppose a student has been accepted to Harvard and Oxford alike. He has those two choices. And if he has those two choices, he can choose between them (barring some impediment). But Harvard and Oxford aren’t contingent on his decision-making process. They’d get along just fine without him.

I don’t say this to say that choices bear the same relationship to God. Just that we need to distinguish between what it means to make a choice and what it means to have a choice. One of flaws in Clark’s argument is his confusion of the two.

iii) And the fact that human decision-making involves a psychological process doesn’t mean that time is an essential feature of choosing or resolving on a particular outcome.

In any comparison between God and man, we need to make due allowance for the discontinuities as well as continuities between the two. We have to compare the two at the appropriate level of abstraction.

In the subjective sense, a choice is simply an intention or purpose to do something. That, of itself, doesn’t imply any prior state of indecision.

“First, it is not true that the Father could choose to create or choose not to create. God did not have, from eternity, a blank mind, undecided as to whether to create or not. God’s mind is, or better, includes the idea of this particular cosmos, with Abraham, David, and Jesus at particular points in time,” The Trinity, 111.

A number of problems with this objection:

i) It commits the same conceptual confusion I noted before, by illicitly intruding the notion of a temporal or psychological process into divine choice.

ii) And it bundles that error with another error by assuming that if God chose between two or more possible outcomes, then God had a “blank” mind. It’s a mystery to me how Clark can even begin to draw that inference.

In the nature of the case, an agent can’t choose between two or more alternatives if his mind is blank. To the contrary, he could only make that choice in case his mind is cognizant of the various possibilities. He has to have something on his mind to do that. A blank mind is a nonstarter.

iii) It’s true that God’s mind includes the idea of the actual world. Did anyone deny that?

But that’s hardly all it includes. God’s mind also includes the idea of various unexemplified possibilities. Includes the idea of hypothetical or counterfactual scenarios.

a) For one thing, God himself has cast certain issues in hypothetical or counterfactual terms. Just consider the very different consequences of obedience and disobedience in Deut 28. God has to have an idea of what each hypothetical outcome amounts to.

b) Likewise, human beings have an imaginative faculty. And God has an idea of whatever we have in mind. God is hardly ignorant of human ideas.

c) Moreover, not all possibilities are compossible. Go back to Deut 28. These two opposing outcomes cannot be simultaneously realized. Therefore, the actual world can’t exemplify both outcomes. For whichever outcome is actual, there must be a possible world which represents the unexemplified alternative.

“It there had been a God who might not have created, he would not have been the God described in the Bible,” ibid. 111.

i) God is the source of all possible worlds, whether exemplified or unexemplified. They all inhere in his nature or will. So, yes, he’s the same God across all possible worlds.

ii) To take an example, if in one possible world, Brad has a haircut on Tuesday, whereas, in another possible world, Brad has a haircut on Friday, would we say they can’t be the same individual?

iii) To take another example, suppose a novelist writes himself into one of his novels. The author is a character in his own novel.

And suppose he composes another novel, with a different setting, in which, once again, he’s a character.

Is he the same person in both novels? That’s equivocal. He’s not the same character in both novels, but he’s the same author.

iv) In a tautological sense, it’s true that if God hadn’t made our world, then he wouldn’t be the God described in the Bible. But that’s misleading. The differential factor isn’t the presence or absence of God, but the presence or absence of the world.

In the nature of the case, a description of God in reference to our world is a world-indexed property. If God hadn’t made our world, then our world wouldn’t be a descriptor for God. But that doesn’t mean he’d cease to be the very same God.

If Laurence Olivier stars in Macbeth rather than King Lear, then he wouldn’t be the same actor described in some production of King Lear–since, ex hypothesi, he didn’t act in King Lear. But to change the setting (Macbeth instead of King Lear) doesn’t mean he’s not the same actor qua actor. Just that he’s not the same actor qua acting. Same actor, different role. To play a different part doesn’t make you a different individual.

“On this view of things no other conditions than the actual conditions are possible. This is not ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ as Leibniz claimed: It is the only possible world, as Spinoza claimed. Any other world, on this view, can be imagined only by failing to see that it contains a logical contradiction or impossibility…Since God’s mind is immutable, since his decree is eternal, it follows that no other world than this is possible or imaginable,” 118-19.

This piggybacks on some of Clark’s previous confusions while introducing some new confusions:

i) It seems to equivocate on the meaning of possibility. It conflates what is feasible with what is conceivable. But these are distinct and separable ideas.

ii) To say that no other world than ours is even imaginable is simply absurd. We can all imagine variations on this world. We do so on a regular basis. And some individuals, like philosophers and fiction writers, make a career of doing that very thing.

iii) Clark also seems to be utterly clueless about the metaphysical basis of possible worlds. He’s very selective in what divine attributes he appeals to. By possible worlds are generated (as it were) by the conjunction of two divine attributes: omniscience and omnipotence.

A possible world is a way of expressing what an omnipotent God could possibly do. And since not all possibilities are compossible, there’s more than one possible thing an omnipotent God could possibly do.

Possible worlds are generated (as it were) by the application of divine omniscience to divine omnipotence. God knows what God can do. And what he can do outstrips any finite set of effects.

Does Clark seriously think that God couldn’t give Absalom dandruff or bald spots? Is it metaphysically necessary that every day be a good hair day for Absalom? Is it not within God’s power to do a single thing differently? Is God incapable of even imagining a different outcome?

I think Clark’s basic problem is that he suffered from intellectual isolation. As a result, his thinking becomes more erratic as time goes on.


  1. Well, from where I sit, "comfortably", oh no!, :0) I believe God has dealt with this whole infinite business this way, ah, take it or leave it, but it is what it is, this way:::>

    Rev 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
    Rev 22:2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    Want infinite? Ok, there's infinite and eternal, "....flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb...".

    One, Dr. J Sidlow Baxter said of creatures, us, humans, that God created us thinking in one direction only, forward.

    Oh, ok, think then backwards and see how far into eternity your mind will let you go?

    Oh, ok, now start from there and think into the future and ask this question: " how is it that everyone who dies "goes before you" into eternity?


  2. Just for fun, while speaking of infinity, a line of infinite length can be contained in a finite area (e.g., a Koch snowflake, based off the Koch curve). More accurately stated, the Koch snowflake has a finite area, but the perimeter of that snowflake has infinite length.

  3. Interesting read. Couple of questions:

    i) You wrote, “Yet Cantor demonstrated the possibility of an actual infinite.” For the uninitiated, how did Cantor demonstrate the possibility of an actual infinite?

    ii) Generally speaking, at what point does a flawed understanding of God become the worship of a false god?


  4. He used the diagonal argument, where you can always generate a different irrational number. Say that you written down all the irrational numbers. You can write down a different number that is not on the list.

    Interesting read. Couple of questions:

    "For the uninitiated, how did Cantor demonstrate the possibility of an actual infinite?"

    His diagonal proof.

    "Generally speaking, at what point does a flawed understanding of God become the worship of a false god?"

    One can cross that line from different angles. Ultimately, God only knows the answer to that question. But the better part of wisdom is to leave ourselves a wide margin for error.