(Attempts at) "Faith seeking understanding."

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Friday, October 22, 2010

A reply to Brandon on "How Free is God's Will?"

First of all, my apologies to Brandon for the long delay in my response. As one can probably tell, I haven’t had many ideas lately that I thought were worthy of sharing at Philosophical Pontifications, and as I doubt that I will anytime soon, I decided to wait to reply until I started  blogging here.
Now, for those who haven’t read the relevant posts, my original post is here and Brandon’s reply is here. The gist of Brandon’s reply is this:

“I think the argument is falling victim to an ambiguity about what is meant when we say, "Y is explained by X's existence." On the one hand, we could mean that Y is explained by the bare fact of X's existence: from the proposition "X exists" we can directly infer (either defeasibly or indefeasibly) "Y exists (or occurs)." However, if we think about how we talk about causal explanation, we virtually never talk about causal explanations in such a way as to mean this. If I say, "The trash is gone because there is a trash collector," I am not saying that from "This person that is the trash collector exists" I can infer "The trash is gone." I am saying instead that "The trash is gone" can be explained given that there is a trash collector who takes away the trash; the one explains the other because from "The trash is gone" I can reasonably conclude "The trash collector did the sort of thing that makes it to be the case that the trash be gone." What explains here is not mere fact of existence but the fact that the existent thing is engaging in a particular kind of action; in other words, what explains is not simply that something exists but that it exists in a particular causal role.

Likewise here. When someone says, "The existence of order in the universe can be explained by God's existence," they aren't saying that you can infer anything from God's existence, but that you can explain the explanandum if there is something that exists in the right kind of explaining role, e.g., God. Thus the advocate of the teleological argument is saying that the order and life-friendliness of the universe can be explained if something, namely God, does a particular sort of thing, which requires, of course, that God exist, not that the order and life-friendliness of the universe can be explained simply by an appeal to God's existence.”
I agree with Brandon that in virtually all cases where we say something of the form “Y is explained by X’s existence” we do not mean that Y is explained by the bare existence of X. Normally, we think that Y is explained by reference to the fact that X engages in certain kinds of action and/or that X exemplifies certain properties. Furthermore, we normally think that X could have existed but failed to engage in those actions or to exemplify those properties, and thus that X could have existed without explaining Y. However—and this is a point that I really should have thought to address in my original post—we have reason to think that the distinction Brandon makes does not apply to God as traditionally conceived.
Traditionally, it has been thought that God’s nature or “essence” is identical to God’s existence—as are all of God’s attributes and/or properties. Thus, God just is his own Omniscience, Omnipotence, Goodness, Wisdom, Mercy, etc. (This doctrine is known as “Divine Simplicity”) That being so, God cannot have any attribute in one possible world that He fails to have in others. Nor, it would seem, could God engage in any actions in one possible word that He does not engage in in others. God does not have any contingent attributes, nor does God engage in any contingent actions. If that’s right, I think the distinction that Brandon wants to make collapses in the case of God.
One way to try to avoid this problem would be to give a kind of “externalist” account of God’s actions. One might say that God counts as performing an action in one world and not in another, not because God is intrinsically different in those worlds, but simply because the outcome that is the effect of God’s action obtains in the one world and not the other.
 To illustrate, suppose that a certain area has suffered a long drought, and one of its inhabitants, Jones, prays for rain. God can either will it to rain, or will it not to rain. The question is: What is the difference between God’s willing it to rain and God’s willing it not to rain? There is certainly a difference in the results: in one case it rains, and in the other it doesn’t. But what is the difference with respect to God?  According to the view under consideration, there is no difference, because God is wholly simple, and thus identical to His attributes. So there is nothing about God which could account for the different results in the two cases, for God’s nature is precisely the same in each. If one nevertheless insists that God “wills” something different in the two cases, one must admit that God’s will is not supervinient on God’s nature, for God’s will can vary across possible worlds although His nature never does.
 From the above it follows that God’s will and God’s nature are distinct, and hence that God’s will is not an attribute of God. What then can it mean to say that God wills something? Nothing, I think, except that God exists and it happens. If God did not exist, it could not be true that God wills it. And if God exists and that “something” did not happen, it also could not be true that God wills it, because God is omnipotent: Whatever He wills is the case. This notion of God’s willing something is a tenuous one, but if we still wish to say, e.g., that God wills it to rain, I cannot think of any more appropriate situation to say so than when it rains.
However, it seems to me that this externalist account gets things backwards. According to it, God’s will has nothing to do with God’s nature, for God’s will differs in different worlds although God’s nature remains the same no matter what is the case. If this view is right, it would thus seem more accurate to say that God wills something in virtue of its happening than that something happens in virtue of God’s willing it. God’s “answering Jones’s prayer”, if He does, amounts to no more than that Jones prayed for rain, that God exists, and that it rained. In general, to say that God answers prayers amounts to no more than that God exists and that—sometimes—what people pray for comes to pass. Whether true or false, the externalist account of God’s actions doesn’t seem very pious.  In any event, it if it is true, we cannot say that God affects the world in any substantive sense, nor, consequently, that God’s character or actions explain why the world is the way it is. So we could not say, for example, that “…the order and life-friendliness of the universe can be explained if something, namely God, does a particular sort of thing”, God doesn’t really do anything to bring about the order and life friendliness of the universe. God exists, and the universe is ordered and life-friendly, but we cannot appeal to the fact that God contingently has any attributes in order to truly explain those effects.
But I’m convinced that most theists would want to say that “…the order and life-friendliness of the universe can be explained if something, namely God, does a particular sort of thing”, or something close to it. There are two ways in which they might proceed: First, they could give up on the orthodox doctrine of Divine Simplicity, and say that God’s nature varies from world to world. If God wills it to rain in one worl and not in another, that is because he contingently has some attribute(s) in each world that he fails to have in the other. In that case, Brandon’s criticisms of my argument would be sound. Second, they could accept Divine Simplicity and adopt the view, which I have sketched in an earlier post at Philosophical Pontifications, that although God necessarily wills whatever He wills, a great many of the things He wills are conditionals, such as “If Scott freely chooses to do A, x will follow”, and “If Scott freely chooses to do B, y will follow”, and that God leaves Scott’s choice between A and B unsettled. On this view God could still will, both necessarily and unconditionally, that the universe be ordered and life-friendly, while leaving it unsettled in what particular way it will be ordered and life-friendly. On this supposition God explains the order and life-friendliness of the universe, but  God’s will would not be completely free, at least not in a libertarian sense—indeed, since God wills whatever He wills necessarily, His will would be completely unfree from a libertarian point of view.
Now, I suppose one could hold the necessitarian view and maintain that God leaves it unsettled whether the universe is to be ordered and life-friendly or not. In that case, neither God’s existence nor God’s nature would explain why the actual world is ordered and life-friendly, for God’s existence and His nature are the same in every possible world, and on this supposition they are compatible with an infinite number of worlds that are disordered and/or hostile to life. On this view God is both unfree and unexplanatory, and while a theist could accept it, I cannot see why they would want to. I will accordingly set this option aside.
Thus the theist, as I see things, has three main options: First, they could accept the externalist account of God’s actions, which would presumably preserve God’s freedom, at the cost of committing them to hold that God could not explain why the world is the way it is in any substantive sense. Second, they could reject Divine Simplicity and hold that God is both free and explanatory, but in doing so they would be giving up a long-held orthodox belief. Thirdly, they could maintain that God is explanatory but unfree in a libertarian sense, because God’s will is the same in every possible world—a position which, as it involves the idea that God could not create a world that is disordered and/or hostile to life, is also unorthodox by traditional standards. All three of these options have their pros and cons, and things are not as simple as I implied in my original post. Nevertheless, I think the belief that God has libertarian free will and the belief that God explains the order and life-friendliness of the universe do not sit easily together, unless one is prepared to jettison Divine Simplicity.