Monday, October 09, 2006

Incompatible Properties Arguments against Theism (Part 1)

Haven't posted much in awhile, but I thought I would do a short series of posts on a group of "incompatible properties" arguments against theism delineated by Theodore Drange. He presents the arguments here.

Basically, incompatible properties arguments against theism try to show that theism is false because the concept of God is in some way internally inconsistent, such that one or more of the attributes ascribed to God harbors a contradiction. I should mention that the ten arguments Drange gives are not the only arguments of this sort that have been offered, nor would I claim that they are the best such arguments. In fact I am going to critique some of Drange's arguments rather strongly.

Without further ado, here's Drange first argument:
The Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument (Version 1)

1. If God exists, then he is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. A perfect being can have no needs or wants.
4. If any being created the universe, then he must have had some need or want.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).
This argument is valid, but several of the premise require scrutiny. First, theists generally would not accept premise 2 because they don't think that God had to create. In other words, most theists hold that creation was a free act on God's part and that God could have refrained from creating at all, so premise 2 is false. This criticism is a relatively minor one, though, since the argument could easily be reformulated to avoid to problem (I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader).

Premise 3 also deserves scrutiny. Why think that 3 is true? The idea seems to be that any being that had needs or wants would ipso facto be lacking in some way, and consequently would be imperfect. That's a somewhat plausible line of thought, but it suffers from the conflation of "needs" and "wants". That a perfect being could not have "needs" seems hard to gainsay, but that a perfect being could not have "wants" is hardly obvious. There's an apparent tension in answering "Why did God create the universe?" with "because he needed to", but there's no apparent tension in answering with "because he wanted to". To fix the argument at this point one would have to argue that all wants stem from needs, but I don't see how to make out a plausible case for that point. Premise 3 is, therefore, rather weak.

Finally, premise 4 is not beyond question. It should probably be read as "if any being deliberately created the universe, then he must have had some need or want". That strikes me as plausible, though some theists might want to insist that God can neither have needs or wants, properly speaking, and thus that God's creation of the universe is not to be explained either in terms of God's needed to create or wanting to create but merely as expression of divine whim (thus, creation is a "whimsical" act). This seems more charitable that Drange's suggestion that creation would be "accidental" on God's part, but I would agree with him that the traditional theist position has generally been to say something stronger, namely, that creation was deliberate.

Drange offers a second argument under this rubric:
The Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument (Version 2)

1. If God exists, then he is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. If a being is perfect, then whatever he creates must be perfect.
4. But the universe is not perfect.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).
Similar comments apply to premise 2 as above, namely, it wrongly implies that God had to create, which most theists deny. But, again, that's only a minor criticism. The real crux of this version of the argument is premise 3. In the first place, there's an ambiguity in the notion of creation's "being" perfect. Does this mean merely that creation must start out as perfect, or does it mean the stronger claim that creation must also remain perfect? On the former reading, the inference from 3 and 4 to 5 is invalid. That the universe is not now perfect is not incompatible with the claim that God creates a world that is initially perfect, provided that the initial perfection of creation is compatible with subsequent departures from perfection. That this is plausible is shown by the possibility that a perfect initial creation could include morally free creatures who subsequently misuse that freedom to do evil. It appears, then, that Drange's argument requires the stronger reading of premise 3, namely, that creation must remain perfect. That reading makes the logic from 3 and 4 to 5 strong, but it also makes premise 3 implausible.

In the second place, it's not clear what it would mean for creation to be "perfect". Obviously, "perfect" can't mean the same thing in relation to creation that it does when used to describe God as "perfect". With respect to God, perfection entails things like having maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, necessary existence, and so forth. But we can't sensibly say that creation has those maximal great-making attributes, much less that it exists necessarily. What, then, does "perfect" mean with respect to creation? If it means that this world would be a hedonistic paradise for sentient creatures like us, then it's obvious that premise 4 is correct. But there's very little reason to think that a perfect God, if he creates, would be required to create a world that was "perfect" in that sense, in which case premise 3 looks extremely dubious. Indeed, why can't the theist simply say that creation was initially "perfect" in the sense that it was an ideal vehicle for accomplishing God's purposes for creation, whatever those happen to be? And if part of God's purpose for creation is to have an environment in which free creatures can learn to love God and each other and gradually develop the virtues needed for full enjoyment of the kingdom of God, then this world may still be a pretty darn good place overall despite the imperfections introduced by creaturely misuse of free will.

In short, the fundamental problem with this argument is that it's not easy to articulate a notion of the "perfection" of creation on which both premises 3 and 4 remain acceptable and the argument from 3 and 4 to 5 remains valid. Drange himself concedes as much when he writes that "There is a certain unclarity, and perhaps subjectivity, in the idea of 'perfection' which poses an obstacle to any sort of rigorous reasoning about the concept."

Conclusion: Neither version of the Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument is convincing.


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