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Twins • Foundations of Islam • Designer Gods • Designer Christianity • An Omnipotent Being • Relative Impossibility • More on God
Star Letter (we liked this one!)
SIR: Let me introduce myself first, I am an engineer working in Guilin City, P.R.China. I am very interested in your magazine – Philosophy Now, one of the best known magazines in the world.
I wonder if you could kind enough to send me some sample copies of your magazine for the consideration of subscription? Thank you very much for your kind help.
GUILIN CITY, GUANGXI, P.R.CHINA.
SIR: So Richard Dawkins thinks of clones as identical twins and “nothing more”(Philosophy Now, Issue 23, p. 5)? I’ve always thought of identical twins as approximately the same age, so that they grow up together, from birth though childhood to adulthood, sharing the usual sort of sibling relationship, plus that indefinable extra that twins are said to have. Having one twin thirty-plus years older, being more in the position of a parent than a sibling, would obviously make a difference. I wouldn’t like to say exactly what difference, but clearly it is “something more”.
Foundations of Islam
SIR: In the article ‘It Was Islam That Did It’ Edward Ingram describes Islam as “a religion and culture founded by Muhammad”. As any GCSE student of Islam will be quick to tell you, Muhammad did not found a religion. For Muslims, Islam – the belief in the one God, Allah – has existed since there has been people to believe; i.e. with the ‘first man’ (Adam). Muhammad was a messenger; the ‘seal’ in a long line of prophets, not a ‘founder’.
ROY AHMAD JACKSON.
LECTURER, UNIVERSITY OF KENT.
SIR: To oppose the Argument from Design by arguing that there is not enough order in the world to justify it, as Nick McDonnell does (Issue No.23), would only be worthwhile if we knew of a specific amount of order which would prove Design if we could find it. Failing that condition, his argument is rather like someone saying that an orchestra gave a poor performance of a piece of music when he was unable to recognise a good one.
To discredit the order we do perceive, evolution is brought in to show that order arises ‘spontaneously’, subject to ‘operational rules’ which are equated with the laws of physics. However, this statement is self-contradictory. Either evolution is spontaneous, in which case the laws of physics will not be relevant; or evolution is determined by the laws of physics, in which case it cannot be spontaneous. The former alternative would bring us back to the old absurdity of the works of Shakespeare being produced by monkeys pounding typewriters, leaving us with the latter alternative, which would mean that evolution was just a more sophisticated idea of creation, making it useless for the purpose for which it was introduced here.
It is also argued that natural order is not meaningful because there is only one set of physical laws that could give rise to a world such as this, despite the fact that the contrary of this (ie. many possible sets of laws) would be taken to show that this world happened by accident. Same conclusion from contrary premises. Prejudice, perhaps?
Finally, the disorder which reigns in the realm of subatomic particles is offered as grounds for discounting even the order in the laws of physics. Well, Plato said the same thing about matter in the Timaeus, in a philosophy overflowing with cosmic Design.
DR ROBERT BOLTON
SIR: As a first time reader of your magazine I was disappointed to find the usual rude dismissal of Christianity,especially by Nick McDonnell. Let me take that as a challenge. My first point is that perhaps 1% of us are philosophically inclined, but Christianity has to be open for everyone. Christian explanations therefore tend to be diverse, traditional and respecting rather than denigrating simplicity. They don’t have to be.
As a sometime programmer myself, I would suggest to Nick that the feelings of a wasp-eaten caterpillar are his, not the caterpillar’s: the caterpillar doesn’t sense to the extent we do.
I agree the Argument from Design proves nothing - but then, following Hume and Popper, what does? It is in any case an argument, not a proof. What it draws attention to in the context of evolutionary theory is that if there is a God, he is not a mere craftsman but a programmer, making a pretty good job of design for autonomous systems. Omnipotence means all, not infinitely, powerful). Whether there is a God requires evidence, which no-one these days mentions. While many (perhaps most) Christians feel a need for certainty about this, the operative words are ‘faith’ and ‘word’ (the testimony of Jesus about God and the apostles etc about Jesus). Right from the beginning St Paul pointed out that “If Christ isn’t risen from the dead then our faith is in vain”. Pascal (of computing fame) gave what seems to me the best explanation of rational as against instinctive faith: we bet on the alternatives, taking into account the prizes.
The explanatory value of ‘God’ depends on one’s concept. Nick imagines an infinite regress: who designed the designer? Let us reduce this to a chain of arrows. Now let one arrow have the property that it refers sideways and the next that it refers to the arrow two back. One now has a circular argument and an end to the regress. God designs (ie knows and articulates) himself. The Christian God is a Trinity, tangibly expressed in terms of Father, Son and the love between them: the Holy Spirit.
MALVERN LINK, WORCS.
An Omnipotent Being
SIR: I have followed with interest the exchanges between your readers regarding concepts of God (Letters, Issue 22). I do think that philosophy of religion is an appropriate part of your magazine, if, for no other reason, because God has been among the topics reflected upon by most Western philosophers.
I have been especially interested in the exchanges about God as “an omnipotent being”, because that idea is a stumbling block for so many people who want to reconcile their spiritual inclinations with intelligent concepts about God. Unfortunately, some of the discussion in your magazine suggests a lack of knowledge about thinking developed by many philosophers of religion and theologians.
The phrase ‘an omnipotent being’ has been analyzed in two parts - ‘a being’, and ‘omnipotent’ or ‘all-powerful’. I’ll take each part in turn.
Although God is commonly described in the Judeo-Christian tradition as ‘a being’ or ‘a personal being’, those phrases demand a differentiation between the metaphorical or evocative language so common in religious practice and the less metaphorical, more exacting language that can be helpful in philosophy and theology. In this century, the theologian Paul Tillich was our primary reminder that even religious persons should remember that God is not a being alongside other beings. More precisely, religious God-talk, even when it metaphorically depicts a human-like God, is pointing instead toward the fundamental nature of being/existence itself as we relate to it meaningfully and ultimately.
This means that only metaphorically can we depict God as a separate kind of causation. A long line of Christian theologians have said that God acts in all creatures, according to their nature. (As the 2nd century Irenaeus poetically put it, “God sleeps in a stone, dreams in a flower, moves in an animal, and wakes in man.”) In response to remarks by Albert Einstein, Paul Tillich cautioned that removing the concept of omnipotence from this theological way of understanding (and making God a special, separate kind of causation) makes the concept “absurd and irreligious.”
Now to the words ‘omnipotent’ or ‘all-powerful’: It is true that laypersons generally think of those words as meanagainst ing the ability to do whatever you want. But few Christians theologians have interpreted the concept in that sense. In this century, the philosophical theologian Charles Hartshorne in particular has debunked such simplified concepts of omnipotence. He astutely observes that thinking of power as the ability to get whatever one wants is modelling power in the image of a tyrant.
Hartshorne points out that there are many other kinds of power. Such as the power of beauty to inspire awe. Or the power of love. Even our popular songs depict love as a promise to “never leave you,”not as the ability to prevent all undesirable events. The Bible frequently adopts this language of love, as, for example, when it says that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”To put it in more philosophical terms, the power of God (as love) can be understood to mean that no forces can separate us from contact with the fundamental nature of being/existence in which ultimate meaning is to be found.
Following Hartshorne's lead, we might also reflect upon the kinds of power displayed in a boxing match. True, there is the more obvious and celebrated power of being able to punch your opponent as he falls against the ropes. But a less obvious type of power is being demonstrated by that man against the ropes in his ability to survive despite receiving many punches. The latter power is, indeed, the kind celebrated in Christianity’s narratives of Jesus reigning in eternal power despite having been crucified.
It is one of the joys – and challenges – of philosophy not to take for granted the implications of even a word so seemingly obvious in meaning as ‘power’. The above analyses of the assumptions behind the meanings of common words are, at their best, not fancy footwork by theologians to buttress shaky religious beliefs. Instead, such analyses cut to the heart of our culture’s assumptions and values. By doing so, such analyses demonstrate philosophy of religion’s credentials as an appropriate part of philosophical discussion because they place philosophy of religion in a long tradition stretching back as far as that old iconoclast Socrates!
SIR: I would like to thank Antony Flew, Don Crewe and D.M. Sherwood for their thought-provoking responses to my letter (see Philosophy Now, Issues 22 and 23). I am, however, anxious to clarify a few points and to develop them further.
First, I do indeed hold the Theist view that God is all-powerful and allknowing. Yet, I also accept C.S. Lewis’s argument, made in The Problem of Pain, that even God cannot perform the impossible. I can resolve this apparent inconsistency by introducing an idea of my own: that there are two kinds of impossibility. ‘Relative Impossibility’ covers things which are only impossible in view of practical factors such as the physical limitations of a non-divine agent (e.g. a human or machine). ‘Absolute Impossibility’, on the other hand, covers those things which are profoundly, because conceptually, impossible. It is relatively impossible for a human to run at 800 mph, because nobody has muscles strong enough to produce such a level of performance. However, this feat is not absolutely impossible because in time humankind may evolve to such an extent that it becomes possible to run so quickly. It is, in contrast, absolutely impossible to run both in one direction and in the opposite direction simultaneously (discounting, of course, mere trickery, such as boarding a train and running one way whilst the train travels in the other). Therefore, my resolution to the problem of belief in an omniscient, omnipotent God who nevertheless is incapable of certain things is this: for God all things are possible, including the relatively impossible, but not the absolutely impossible.
I can now move on to a second point. I maintain, in spite of Antony Flew’s objections, that for God a perfect knowledge of the future is impossible in the absolute sense. Certainly, God can know “what is going to happen since He knows what He is going to make sure will actually happen.”However, this amounts to an incomplete knowledge of the future, not a perfect one. God knows what He is going to do, but still cannot be sure of everything that is yet to be, because He has given other agents, i.e. humans, Free Will (and Free Will, if it is to be truly free, cannot be God’s to anticipate with total accuracy).
Third, I understand D.M. Sherwood’s comment that “from Eternity there is no problem in observing the whole of time and in arranging matters providentially whilst respecting Free Will”to mean that somehow all time – past, present and future – is visible to God, so that it is possible for humans to make free choices which are nevertheless already known to God. But this notion is absurd, and an absolute impossibility, for it requires the past to co-exist with the future. Rather, I believe that God is eternal, but nevertheless time-bound. Eternity is the property of Time; Time is not the property of Eternity. (It may be that, as the Theory of Relativity suggests, time can, perhaps only seemingly, go forward more or less quickly according to one’s velocity, but that is another matter.)
Finally, Don Crewe contends that “if God can act and does not, he is not Good.”This argument must be rejected, for it denies that is within God’s power one day to rectify the evils that He presently permits as free agents exercise their wills. Certainly, there is no way for human justice to undo a terrible crime: hanging a murderer will not bring back his victim, nor will it end the grieving of the victim’s family. But what is lost to Man is not necessarily lost to God: surely it will be possible for God to repair the damage when He decides, at last, to impose His goodness on the universe. As it is written in Revelations, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”Yours wilfully,
More on God
SIR: Issue 23 was my first, but I already consider Philosophy Now a fine publication, and I’m glad I happened upon it. I hope responses from untrained philosophers like myself are welcome!
I must take issue with Nick McDonnell’s appeal to Darwinian orthodoxy as a ‘strong’ case against ‘design.’ Darwin’s faithful, like Richard Dawkins, have met a snag in recent years: irreducible complexity on a microbiological level for which the reigning theory of natural selection cannot account. For more information on this fascinating topic, see Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (published in the U.S. by Touchstone, 1996). Paley may not have known Darwinian evolutionary theory, but Darwin didn’t know biochemistry.
(Isn’t the etymological irony of the assertion “we know order because we know disorder”amusing? Should order now be called “undisorder”?)
I also offer a Thomistic correction of Don Crewe’s interpretation of “for God, all things are possible.”Crewe seems to think that Theists believe God can produce contradictions, like a triangle with more than 180 degrees, a square circle, or a married bachelor. In reality, Theists do not believe that at all. “The phrase, ‘God can do all things,’ is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are [absolutely] possible,”(Summa Theologica I.25.3). “Square circle”is meaningless, so it is not even a potential ‘thing’.