Friday, May 6, 2011

God's (In)Excellence?

Alvin Plantinga has proposed that a being is maximally excellent if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good. I would almost have to agree, except, what in goodness name is omnipotence? Unlimited power, right? A being that can do anything it chooses. That's interesting. So what does excellence have to do with it? Surely excellence is a quality where you excel at something. You can do something very, very, very well.

If you can do it maximally well, you can do it without any problems at all. I couldn't help but examine what that means. Without any problems. If you will it, it will be. Right there, right then. Unusual. Magical one might say. Miraculous. At close scrutiny, examination of maximal excellence lead me into absurdity, reinforcing yet again my strong agnosticism. Time came to mind. Time, that unidirectional and irreversible principle of being. Surely an omnipotent being is in full and complete control of time.

Would it not be that a maximally excellent being is one who can do everything at the same time? That is to say, for a maximally excellent being, the existence of time aught to be irrelevant. Surely, if I can complete a test in 1 second without any errors, I will be considered more excellent than someone who takes a whole day. Now if I can complete it in 0 seconds, I must certainly be maximally excellent. You cannot get any better than that.

So if God is maximally excellent, then God will have completed all things without ever having done anything, since nothing can be done in no time. If nothing can be done in no time, then how did God do anything? Put differently, if everything is done at the same time, including its final destruction, which must be considered part of the task at hand (i.e. the doing of everything), it's as if nothing was ever done.

But if God is maximally excellent than surely God did something. Because if I do nothing that is required of me in my test in a whole day, then I will surely have failed the test. Unless, of course, I am given an infinite amount of time to complete the test. But if it takes me infinite time to complete the test, how can I be said to be excellent?

Hence God cannot be maximally excellent if God is maximally excellent.

You can replace maximally excellent with an other such combination of adjectives and nouns. Perfectly skilled, most awesome doer, whatever you want. Anything that implies a maximality of great workmanship. It makes no difference. Why would God act in time at all unless God is constrained to work in time? And if God is constrained in time, then God is not unlimited. So I'm left to ask, what other limits does God have? Of course, you could say that all this is not a test, nothing is required of God. But that leaves me wondering what the difference is between God and the principle of indeterminate existence.

Platinga's definition of maximal excellence contains itself a constraint on that which God does. Goodness is required. This, by inference, is Plantinga's creative test for God. Not having read his whole oeuvre, I don't exactly know what Plantinga means by good. But since its an axiom of his modal ontological proof, it aught to be clear prima facie. So let me rephrase it in an attempt to understand it. I think good can be thought of that which is to be desired. But what is ultimately to be desired? Can only an omnipotent being know? Is this omnipotent being bound, again, by some terms of goodness?

Again, time, comes to mind. It can rephrased in an age old question. Why would God act in time, if time implies a transition from what is not desired? With other words, time implies suffering. Why not instantaneously create that which is desired, the good? Plantinga has a response for this. His argument essentially boils down to that there are certain worlds God cannot create, one of them is a world of free agents where the agents are not fallible. Since a world with free agents is better than a world with no agents, God is forced to create a world that contains evil. Again, I'm left asking what other constraints are imposed on this supposed omnipotent yet omnibenevolent being?

So Plantinga concedes that God is constrained. Is this what we are doing when we perform empirical tests, discovering the laws imposed on God? That is, we are discovering God's Constraints. So is there a being greater than God, one that includes both God and God's Constraints? Or is this what God is? God's Constraints and the randomly creative impulse that initially makes anything but ultimately only certain things possible within such constraints? Is God evolution and its prerequisites for variability and selection? Are we part of the process of determining goodness?


Hasan Sonmez said...

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful the Beneficent

I must take issue with some of the points raised in this entry.

Plantiga is completely wrong in concluding that God is constrained by anything. What God determines is good, is, by definition, good. If this was not so, then there would be no absolute good, and every contradicting idea of "good" would be equally valid, and you would be left in a world where there essentially is no real good (which is where an atheist would find himself).

When we are confronted with the existence of the universe, and the fact that at some point it must have come into being from nothing (or rather that it is continuously coming into being from nothing), it is necessary to postulate the existence of Something, completely transcendent of time—and also transcendent of everything else—Which is doing the creating. The "principle of indeterminate existence" is not a viable candidate for this pre-eternal Existence since it is reliant on the existence of many other things to operate (i.e. viability, unviability, probability, etc). You need to postulate the existence of a Being far greater than a mere principle, with creative power, will, and knowledge, Who is not subject to time or space (or anything else, for that matter, having created everything) in His will, knowledge, and power.

I see no other possibility other than an omnipotent Being possessed of will, utterly transcendent of time and space, Who brought contingent being from nothingness.

And that is, of course, what is called in English "God", or more precisely (from Arabic) "Allah", meaning The One God, Who has no co-sharers of any sort.

The length of time it takes a being to accomplish something does not determine the level of it's excellence. Indeed, Allah's excellence is established, even exalted, in the eons of time He has created in His wisdom. He created time out of pure nothingness and has absolute control and knowledge of it.

If He wished, He could have refrained from creating us at all, or created us instantaneously in Heaven or Hell (the final infinite abodes for humanity), but in His wisdom, he created this world as a test for us, and as a means to draw near to Him for those so inclined.

And a test here means a test for our benefit, not for His. He is not waiting for anything to happen to see how it turns out. As mentioned above, He utterly transcends time, and as such is perfectly aware of all that is, was, and is to be. But from our own point of view, we cannot help but have free will, functioning in time, hence the validity of the test.

He wished to create us here, in this universe, living in time. There is no contradiction in that.

An agnostic is different from an atheist in so far as he also gives equal credence to the possibility that God does exist. Therefore, my suggestion to an agnostic would be (apart from understanding the above rational discourse) to attempt the following thought experiment: assume for a moment that God really and truly does exist, and that He is All-aware and All-powerful and Beneficent. Now ask Him in all sincerity to show you clearly, in a way that you cannot doubt, that He really does exist. Then see how things unfold.

Ever at your service,

Hasan Sonmez

Dreas said...

Hasan, in all fairness to Plantinga, as I understand it he does not actually claim that God must create anything at all. I was the one who used the words "forced to". But that was my interpretation of Plantinga's claim that a world with significantly free creatures is more valuable than one with no free creatures at all. Given this, I assumed God would want to create the most valuable world of all, which is why I phrased it as God is forced to do so and so.

Plantinga might simply be saying that if and only if God wants to create a world of free agents, he must create a world with evil. A world where agents cannot do the wrong thing, is not a free world. Freedom is logically incompatible with the necessity to do the right thing. If we do what we do necessarily, then we are not free. This is what is known as an incompatiblist view. And I fully agree with the idea that determinism is incompatible with Free Will.

If there is only one action that can follow, how can we be right (since nothing can be wrong)? I assume that Plantinga believes that if there are multiple possible actions, it is obvious that not all actions can be equally good. You can try to fit a square shape into a round hole of similar size as much as you wish. I assume evil is something like doing the worst possible thing. I haven't looked into Plantinga's understanding of evil. However, it would seem logically inconsistent to have a world were you can NOT err (i.e. do that which does not reasonably follow), and yet claim the existence of Free Will.

So, in my interpretation, it would seem fair to say that Plantinga does imply God is bound by some fundamentals of logic. And assuming God wills something into existence, God can only will into existence that which makes sense. But he might actually be saying that only that which God wills into existence and is in fact meaningful will make sense. Like you, he does indeed assert God's omnipotence, which is logically inconsistent with placing any limitations on the Almighty's creativity. Since Plantinga seems like a very clever man, I would have to surmise in the end that he probably means the latter (only that which is logically meaningful will be sensible).

But from our perspective, does it make any difference whatsoever? All those wonderful things God might have created that would make no sense to us, what in goodness name are they? Nonsense, no? What point is there to assert that God has the capacity to will nonsense into existence?