Philosophy

God’s Omnipotence and Free Will

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on the claimed compatibility of belief in a good, all-powerful God, and the presence of evil in the world. It was massively simplified, and probably didn’t do justice to the complexities involved. Nor did it really try to engage with any counter-arguments. The following is a small step towards rectifying that situation. It concerns the counter-claim that God, being all-powerful, should be able to create people who are truly free, but who always choose to do good. The issue turns on the definition of divine omnipotence, with critics of the free will defence arguing that such a definition would have to include the ability to create what is contradictory – including free people who always choose to do the “right thing”. Written in the style of an informal essay-cum-letter to a fictional interlocutor, the piece attempts to grapple with these rejoinders. 

Dear Jim,

You’ve raised an interesting issue in regards to the apparent clash between God’s omnipotence and the notion that there cannot exist people who always freely choose to pursue the Good – chief of which is, I suppose, confession of God’s lordship. You seem to be suggesting that an omnipotent God should be able to create such a reality – i.e. people who always freely choose him, and goodness in general (however defined). What might be characterised as “forced free choice” is sometimes used to argue that God should be able to create the sorts of people who will simply choose him – always and indubitably, without exception. You seem to suggest that anything less presents us with a contradictory picture of God: able, on the one hand, to create things out of nothing, unconstrained by the limits of his creation; and, on the other, “limited” by the fact that he apparently cannot create individuals who are both free and incapable of rejecting him or goodness. There are several reasons why I do not think this argument works.

To begin, I do not think that you quite realize the gravity of what you’re suggesting. One might call it illogical. I, however, think it’s much worse than that: an utter nonsense might be the best way to characterise your suggestion (please know that I am not trying to be derogatory in using the word “nonsense”). Forced free choice, just like a round square or a married bachelor, is an incoherent concept. It’s not so much that God cannot break some rule that would otherwise allow him to create such a state of affairs; it’s that such a state is completely bereft of meaning, and to that extent, cannot exist. There can be no rule to break, precisely because incoherent states are devoid of the intelligibility required to make any such rule meaningful in the first place. They are characterised by a fundamental privation of meaning. Indeed, they are completely void of sense. Speaking metaphorically, incoherent states are to reality what black holes are to light: absolute negation.

It will not do to suggest that an omnipotent God should simply be able to perform such feats. I think you’re trading on a very simplistic definition of the term, in any case. Omnipotence does not simply mean doing whatever one wants. A better starting place would be to suggest that God, being the source of all there is, is also the foundation for all acts of power (or potency) we observe in our world. We witness all sorts of expressions of power, even on a daily basis: the power of thought; the power to walk; the power to create fire; the power to melt a substance, changing it from a solid to a liquid; and so forth. Underlying all these contingent instances of potency is God. He is the ultimate ground, and guarantor, of whatever power is exhibited in this world. Hence, we employ the word “omnipotent” (omni = all + potent = power). Now, I’m not saying that God’s power doesn’t go beyond what we observe in this world; it certainly would, and is therefore absolute and maximal. It is not as if God is powerful only in relation to “this” material world.[1] As the ultimate form of existence, his power is unsurpassable. All I am saying is that omnipotence primarily deals with divine potency in relation to our world, given that it’s our primary reference point (we can speculate on the creation of other worlds, but that remains a vague project). Added to this is God’s unbounded nature, or the fact that he faces none of the constraints that both his sentient and non-sentient creations – bound as they are by the material realm in which they live – face. As a result, whilst the power/potency of material things is derived (for example, a man can plant a tree in the garden, but that power rests upon the functionality of his muscles, his internal constitution, the absence of disease, the integrity of his atomic structure, the presence of gravity and other fundamental forces that maintain that integrity, the presence of raw materials conducive to his intended goal), God’s is inherent and completely within himself. There is no lag between his decision to do something and its being done; nor does he require effort to bring something into being. It is immediate and self-caused, underlying all other manifestations of power we experience and see within the material realm.

Incidentally, I would suggest that the Bible comes fairly close to certain elements of this understanding of omnipotence. Actually, it’s probably true to say that the biblical authors, not being terribly interested in abstract philosophizing about the divine nature, were content to conclude from the works of nature that God was simply “all-powerful”. To put it another way, God is seen in Scripture as “almighty”, or maximally powerful, with the created world functioning as Exhibit “A” for that claim. The Bible simply doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting upon what God’s power might mean in an abstract sense. And, despite claims that it doesn’t place limits on God’s abilities (depending on how one thinks of “limits”), the truth is actually the opposite. Hebrews 6:18, for instance, states quite clearly that it is impossible for God to lie. Or what about James 1:13, which says that God “cannot be tempted”? According to your conception of omnipotence, these would count as substantive constraints upon divine power. But what would it mean to say that God “could” commit wrong? What would it mean to say that God is “capable” of lying? Mendacity, in particular, is a neat example of why it is God is “unable” to do certain things. The act of deception, false testimony, and the like, is, in many respects, the opposite of truth. Classical understandings of God conceive of him, not merely as eminently truthful, or as the repository of all truth (though these things are so), but as the paradigm of truth. It is what he is in himself. As such, God could not do anything that contradicts his own, essential truthfulness, any more than a truthful statement could be false. In any case, the aforementioned states are hardly befitting the perfect nature of the Deity. However, my point here is to suggest that the Bible, contrary to the assertions of some, does in fact place “boundaries” (if they can be called that) around God’s nature. It simply will not do to maintain the notion that the Bible offers up some unconstrained conceptualisation of God’s power – even to the point of implicitly endorsing incoherence.

Back, then, to what I said about self-contradictory states of affairs and positive attributes in my first substantive paragraph. It is quite wrong-headed to suggest that God’s claimed omnipotence is inconsistent if he cannot create such states. Because they are negative states (precisely because they are characterised by lack – i.e. of meaning and coherency), it is not correct to say that God lacks power if he “cannot” bring them into being. There is no such thing as an inability to do something that has no – can have no – positive meaning; as such, God is not hitting his head on some kind of metaphysical “ceiling”, beyond which he cannot go. To take a similar, though not identical, example: blindness. Now, blindness, unlike some of the self-contradictory examples I have given, is a perfectly intelligible state. I mean, there are people who lack the power of sight. But where there is a connection between these two examples is precisely this concept of “lack”. Blindness is characterised by a lack of sight, whilst an incoherent state is characterised by a lack of meaning. Both are, in a sense, parasitic upon what we would take as foundational, positive states (in that blindness, for example, isn’t really intelligible apart from a certain knowledge of what it means to see). Now, I have no problem suggesting that God’s omnipotence is not impugned simply because he lacks the “power” of blindness, because it is not really a power at all. Similarly, and for this reason, I do not think that the “inability” to make real an incoherency – whether a blind person who can see, a bachelor who has a wife, or a free person who only has one course of action open to him – casts doubt on God’s supreme power.[2]

I would go further and suggest that any such ability, even if it were possible, would represent some degree of incoherency within the very nature of God himself – meaning, of course, that such a concept (as with every other example of incoherency) collapses in on itself. How so? Well, for an incoherent state to be possible, it has to be extant somewhere, with its grounding in something else. In other words, it cannot possess existence independently of God, if indeed God is considered as ultimate. Its potential reality, then, must “reside”, if you like, in the divine mind, for it is the divine mind that guarantees and grounds the possible existence of anything at all. Moreover, the idea of an incoherency is closely related to the “framework” of reality; to that extent, it is intimately related to the character of God. Unlike, say, a blade of grass, a car, or even something conceptual like love (which are mere features of reality), talk of incoherencies, etc. concerns the very structures which give rise to such features in the first place. To argue for the existence of a married bachelor is actually to make a comment on what reality, at its most fundamental, should, or could, be like – and the fundamentals of reality bring us fairly close to their Author (at least, more so than the various phenomena that rely upon them). However, if reality itself can be incoherent, we may ask whether there is, in fact, some kind of incoherency within the divine nature. This appears to be untenable. We have to ask ourselves, then, whether those states render God utterly nonsensical. Is it possible for self-contradictions to exist within such a being? Moreover, what are we to make of the idea that God, possessing the kind of omnipotence for which you have argued, should be able transform his own nature into something that is self-contradictory? The problem, at this point, becomes particularly sharp. Should God be able to render himself both existent and non-existent at the same time? Should he be able to erase his memory? Should he be able to create a world in which he is powerless? There is no reason to think that your rather eccentric definition of omnipotence, should it be true, cannot be applied to God himself; it has to, if such a definition is to be upheld consistently. If it is true, though, I’m afraid that we move into the realm of the absurd.

Furthermore, if your original suggestion holds, then it would also be possible to argue that God is both limited and unlimited; that he is both omnipotent and constrained in his power. It negates the very point you are attempting to make, since on your account of things, two mutually contradictory states can exist simultaneously in the one space. So in undermining God’s omnipotence, you’re actually upholding it. Arguing in this manner means that God can both fail and satisfy your semantic demands. Similarly, if incoherent states are possible – or that God, if he truly is omnipotent, should be able to create them – it would be correspondingly possible to argue for God’s existence, even if atheists have demonstrated conclusively that it is not the case. For if self-contradictions are possible, then we could have no problem with God’s simultaneous existence and demonstrated non-existence. Thus, the non-believer’s case is actually wounded.

But I digress. Let us assume for a moment that such states are possible, and that it does not threaten the integrity of the divine nature. Why would God create incoherent states within this realm? If reality could ever be self-contradictory, what does that mean for our actions, for our pursuits? What would it mean for our quest for knowledge, if reality did not possess a fundamental coherency that was open to investigation? What would it mean for all our moral efforts, if an action could simultaneously be classed as moral and immoral? Why should we trust anything we seem to observe or experience if reality possesses such inherent ambiguity? Imagine, for example, that rape can be both righteous and wicked at the same time. What would it mean for us to make any kind of judgment upon it, if there are no stable reference points to anchor such judgments? Coming to any conclusions regarding any action, according to any criteria, and developing a coherent account of the world around us, would be rendered impossible. This is true, not only for moral truths, but for physical truths also. The possibility of incoherent states (to say nothing of their actuality; there’s no reason to think that God might not have created them in other realms, aside from the notion of “forced free choice” upon which your argument hangs) would make it impossible to draw any conclusions about, say, physical reality. The scientific project would, in principle, be a non-starter. Even your current efforts to critique the notion of an omnipotent God implicitly rely on an acceptance of coherency. Making an argument, forming chains of reasoning – indeed, discovering the richness of the external world, and developing systems of thought and behaviour based on those discoveries – cannot proceed without it. I would argue, then, that even if God were “able” to do the things you suggest, there are important moral reasons for him not doing so.

It seems to me that the concept of “forced free will” (or however one might choose to characterise it) is something that not even an omnipotent God could do. Due to the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe that your argument has been successful in pointing out a flaw in the characterisation of God as all-powerful. And, even if God were capable, and the ability to create incoherent states were an inescapable part of the divine nature, I’m not sure that we would do well to argue for them.

Thank you for your enquiries. I do not claim to be especially gifted in this area, but I have tried to deal honestly with the issues involved. Even if I haven’t convinced you, I hope you can at least understand that my failure was a sincere one.

Regards,

Scott.


[1] When I speak of “world”, I am using it in a very broad sense to denote the reality within which we exist.

[2] I suppose it could be suggested that if blindness, even if it is characterised by “lack”, can exist, then there is no reason why incoherent states (also distinguished by what they lack) should also be able to exist. If God can cause blindness (which the Bible indicates) why, then, can he not create a married bachelor or a free person who is imprisoned? There are a couple of things that I would say to this. First, the relationship between God’s agency and blindness is not as direct as one might assume. It is true that he is able to cause it, but I think it better to conceive of this process in a more layered manner. For example, God might create a flash of light, so bright that someone is blinded by it. Or he might introduce a virus into a person’s system that eats away at that individual’s retina, thus having the same effect (remember, this is just a hypothetical example). Thus, his actions might lead, inexorably, to blindness in a person, but he himself does not create blindness in the same sense that he might create other things that possess a positive existence. Blindness is not a part of God in the same way that, say, life is, and so whatever relationship there is between God and such a state, it should be seen as indirect. Second, even though blindness and incoherent states might share the same “quality” (if I can call it that) of lack, they are very different beasts. I say more about that in the next paragraph.

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The “Ethics” of Fourth-Trimester Abortions

I work in organisations that care for, and support, some the most vulnerable people in our society – those with a disability, and those with a serious mental illness. As such, I have the good fortune of being able to routinely witness some fine examples of human nobility. Nevertheless, there are moments when I am shaken out of my reverie and reminded that all is not well (to say the least) with our culture.

One such moment occurred a couple of weeks ago, when I perused an article in The Age newspaper (Henrietta Cook, “Abortion Paper Led to Death Threats”, March 2nd, 2012). As many of you are aware, the story concerned outraged responses to an academic paper arguing for what the authors termed “post-birth abortions” – in other words, infanticide (perhaps the authors momentarily realised the savagery of their suggestion. Hence, the euphemism “post-birth abortions”). It was, I must admit, the sort of read that made my stomach churn. Here were two “ethicists”, Francesca Minerva and Alberto Giubilini (hereafter, G & M), arguing for the legitimacy of the killing of infants if they became an “unbearable burden” to their families. What’s more, their arguments were published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Medical Ethics (“After-birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, 23rd February, 2012). It’s difficult to articulate the horror one experiences when confronted with the sober reality, the monstrous nadir, of our moral undoing. Claims that this was simply a theoretical discussion, not meant for a general audience, are, I would argue, beside the point. The fact that they were suggested in a mainstream intellectual forum forces me to come to grips with, not only the ethical decrepitude of the principal authors, but also the present nature and future trajectory of our culture – a culture that has enabled such views to be aired and sponsored.

It is of course tempting at this juncture to lean on Leon Kass’ notion of “the wisdom of repugnance”, and leave it at that: some ideas are so intuitively abhorrent that opposition to them needs no defence. I sympathise deeply with that response, to be sure. This particular idea, that newborns can be killed in certain circumstances (something I shall interrogate below), is a legitimate target for such revulsion. Indeed, to suggest such a course of action is to offend our deepest, most basic sense of right and wrong. But to simply rest on an inarticulate sense of moral outrage is, I believe, inadequate. No view, regardless of how demonstrably evil it may appear, should be espoused with impunity. If for no other reason than to expose philosophical fallacies and academic depravity, I shall attempt to engage with the ideas, assumptions and premises that underlie G & M’s argument.

Our ethicists commence their piece by suggesting that, in some cases, the birth of a child may be intrinsically unbearable for the mother. Later, they suggest that some children constitute an “unbearable burden” for families and society. Given that society already permits abortion within the womb, G & M argue that the same conditions ought to apply to newborns. This, they seek to defend on the grounds that newborns and foetuses are not persons, and should therefore be treated similarly when questions of abortion arise.

Leaving aside the authors’ conception of personhood for a moment, it is clear that G & M begin their paper with a tenuous, nay completely unsupportable, premise. Their argument that there are certain instances where the birth of a child is intrinsically unbearable – not because of disability or deformity, but because the act of giving birth to, and raising, a child is itself unbearable – is unwarranted. Now, there are some things in this life that truly deserve to be described as such: a man attempting to uphold a 15-tonne container is, according to basic science, engaging in an unbearable act. But having a child cannot be seen as unbearable prior to doing so. No one can predict with certainty that doing so will present an impossible task for the prospective parent(s), even after a few days or weeks. How can it be argued that raising a child will present an insufferable burden for those who have the responsibility of doing so? That is what the word “unbearable” suggests – an absolute certainty about the nature of a situation.

The problem is that one cannot posses this level of knowledge prior to, or just after, the birth of a child. We are historical creatures, bound by time and the flow of events. What may seem to be unbearable at a certain point will not necessarily be so days, weeks or years down the track. As William M. Briggs, a professor at Cornell University, has remarked, “since [the] birth and…subsequent care of a child is a contingent event, we cannot claim that any birth and rearing is unbearable in advance” (“Academics – Who Else? – Call for the Killing of Babies”, 28th February, 2012). Moreover, making this kind of prediction groundlessly assumes that the reality of an impossibly burdensome newborn is an exclusive one. In other words, the notion of the “unbearable” implicitly suggests that a newborn could be nothing else but a burden – and an insufferable one – to its parents. According to this view, it could not, at the same time, be a joy, a challenge, an enriching experience and an embodied example of the gift of life. Most people reading this will likely agree that such a view is demonstrably false. And so, we see that G & M have already built their argument on a fallacious assumption.

Even more serious is the inconsistent case G & M try to mount in order to reduce the moral status of newborns. Our authors argue that a child just born is on the same moral plane as a foetus, largely because neither can be called persons. G & M ground this assertion in a certain conception of personhood – namely, that one first has to have the ability to formulate aims and appreciate life. Only then can one be called a person and have a moral right to the life they possess. What one notices, however, is that G & M themselves appear to be confused about the essential nature of a newborn baby. For instance, in developing their argument for the non-personhood of newborns (and therefore, the lack of harm done to them if they are intentionally deprived of life), our authors suggest that they are “not persons in a morally relevant sense”. I’m not sure if what they wrote was a slip of the tongue (or pen, or keyboard), but they still grudgingly admit that, in some sense, a newborn is a person. According to G & M, a newborn child may not be a “person” in relevant moral terms, but they cannot escape using that word to describe it. Perhaps our authors still have an incipient awareness that a human baby is a person; indeed, to use that word is to make an implicit declaration about the subject in question. Maybe G & M, on some level, still recognize this.

In any case, I’m unsure at this stage how to interpret their statement regarding newborns, personhood and moral relevance. Do they mean to argue that a newborn is a person, but in a morally irrelevant sense? If so, what does that signify? If their definition of personhood is the sine qua non of the concept, then a newborn child is no person at all. Indeed, I think this is what they mean by “morally relevant”. Nevertheless, their inability to escape the fact that a newborn is in some sense a person is reflected in their compulsion to use the word. Later, however, G & M make a startling admission: if someone asked them if they would had been harmed if their parents had decided to kill them as newborns (or foetuses), they would have replied “no”. And why? Because there would have been “no one” in existence to be harmed. It’s difficult to reconcile this concession with the abstract definition they offered earlier. And, apart from a chilling statement of self-condemnation (or an example of perverse courage, depending on how you look at it), the authors seem to be unaware of a very important fact: the newborn baby is hardly “no one”; it is very much “someone”, even if G & M have trouble unambiguously affirming its personhood. It is patently absurd to describe a crying, writhing infant as “no one”, as if no one existed. Of course, our authors would have to admit that something does “exist” – but if not a person, then what? How would one categorise a newborn if not to use the concept of personhood to describe it? It seems that our authors are ignoring embodied evidence that, at the very least, weakens (further) their strident claims.

Nevertheless, G & M insist that a newborn is not a person, and that to deprive it of life does not constitute harm. However, their confused argument does touch – briefly – on a fundamental issue that forces them into such an inconsistent view of a post-natal baby. Whilst denying it the status of personhood, our ethicists admit that it is hard to determine exactly when a human baby becomes a person. That is precisely correct. Personhood is not a static concept, and it would appear to be a notoriously difficult task for an external observer to definitively state when an individual “becomes” a person. No matter: our enlightened pair skate over this minor detail on their way to a confident affirmation of the newborn’s non-personhood. One is left agog at G & M’s seeming insouciance in the face of life-and-death issues. They largely ignore the crux of the issue – namely, the apparent moment someone enters the realm of personhood – which leaves their argument in tatters. If it is so difficult “to determine when a subject starts or ceases to be a ‘person’”, is it wise to make such bold assertions about its moral rights (or lack thereof)? It appears that G & M have condemned their argument with their very own hands.

Here, we reach the heart of the matter – and the centre of the debate between advocates of abortion and those who venerably oppose it. G & M, perhaps unwittingly, have given us a glimpse of the basic philosophical problem: just when does a human subject become a person? Of what does personhood consist? Our ethicists would argue that one becomes a person upon attaining some measure of value for life, and an ability to formulate aims. Personhood as a concept and personhood as an epochal stage of human development are, for our authors, indissolubly linked. But again, I would argue that they are working with a deficient definition of the person. Implicit in their argument that newborns are non-persons is the idea that one has to have actualised all the attributes of personhood in order to possess the rights thereof. Yet this ignores the unfolding nature of the concept. Personhood is, I submit, an emergent phenomenon. Now, as a Christian, I believe that the creation of human life results in a person from the moment of conception. However, it is also true to say that this does not become apparent at one moment in time, fully formed. From the moment of conception – and on, through all the stages of life until death – a person is a cascading genesis of human development. A foetus and a newborn are potential persons, in that they contain within themselves the seeds of their own individuality. Now, G & M explicitly eschew the notion of “potential personhood”. But why? Why should their static, actualised version win out over a philosophical model that seems to fit better with “facts on the ground” (so to speak)? A newly born infant (or a foetus) may not have highly developed goals, or a sophisticated appreciation of the value of life. But the capacity for developing those goals, and appreciating life is intrinsic to the newborn. It is not something that is imposed, externally. It resides within the individual, and emerges, gradually, over time. Moreover, it continues to develop over an individual’s life course. It could be said, then, that the project of personhood is an unfinished one. G & M concede that the moment of personhood (as they define it) is hard to determine. And so it is, if one adopts the narrow, actualised conception upon which our ethicists seem to rely.

In suggesting that a newborn is not harmed if deprived of life because it does not count as a person (according to their narrow conception), our authors fail to appreciate the intimate connection between the post-natal infant and the more developed individual. They ignore the fact that the two are inextricably linked – if I were not an infant, for example, I would not be here now. That much is absurdly obvious, but the value G & M ascribe to existing persons is based in part on qualities that were already present, though not yet actualised, in the infant (and even the foetus). Again, they may appeal to the non-actualisation of qualities as a way of arguing their case. I would argue, however, that there is something decidedly curious about arguing for the value of so-called “actualised” persons, over-against newborns, when the two are developmentally inseparable. In writing about the unborn (though the quote is equally relevant when concerning newborns), Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith writes that they are “…actively disposed to develop into a mature version of [themselves], though never ceasing to be the same being” (emphasis mine). Despite the many and varied changes a person undergoes throughout his life; despite the unfolding nature of existential reflection he might experience; despite the historical perspective he will eventually develop: he is still bound to his earlier, infant self. That is why there is nothing odd, for example, about referring to myself at the age of two weeks as “me” or “I”. Suggesting that no harm is done to a newborn, and that it can therefore be killed, inadvertently devalues and relativises the more mature life that grows organically from it.

Even if G & M’s definition of personhood were accurate in an exclusive sense, how do they know that newborns fail to meet the relevant criteria? For instance, how do they know that a post-natal infant has no aims? Now, it’s true that an individual at this stage of life does not possess the more sophisticated aims that one might attribute to someone older. A newborn obviously does not dream to be a professor or an astronaut, to write music or to work with disabled children (how can it, when any hope of formulating goals supposedly worthy of the right to life is snuffed out by our authors’ suggestion?). Nonetheless, we can say that it most certainly does have aims of a more basic nature. A newborn aims to eat, to sleep, to be close to its parents, to experience love and intimacy, and to absorb whatever information it can about the world around it. One might even say that a newborn is actively developing towards the point at which it is able to self-reflect and actualize its appreciation for life. These are plainly goals, and though the newborn may not be able to articulate them, they deeply challenge one particular dimension of G & M’s conception of personhood.

Chillingly, personhood, as defined by our authors, risks sliding down the so-called “slippery slope”. Now, it’s true that many progressives hate the slippery slope argument. And, of course, it’s difficult to argue on the basis of something that hasn’t happened (yet). Still, in addition to representing the latter stages of one slippery slope, G & M’s paper stands at the head of another. It opens up the possibility that not just newborns, but also others who don’t fit their definition of personhood, are theoretically liable to their recommendations. If it’s so difficult to pin down the moment of personhood, how long does the pre-personhood stage of human development last? Two weeks? Two months? Two years? What about people who are profoundly disabled intellectually? Those with late-stage Alzheimer’s? Those in a coma who may never emerge? What about people who simply don’t think a lot about their lives, and what they mean? (OK, that was more in jest). These categories of individuals evidently fall outside the authors’ philosophical zone of personhood. Can they be deprived of life if they become a burden to their families and society? This line of reasoning may appear extreme, but once the absolute right to life is removed, then there is no logical reason to stop. Indeed, the authors argue something rather similar, in that they justify the notion of post-birth abortions on the current reality of pre-natal abortions. My rhetorical questions above simply extend the horrific logic further.

G & M’s paper, awful as it is, represents the final stage of a cold, logical process. The authors argue that this debate has been raging for several decades, and in this they are correct. The question of personhood – or its commencement, at least – has been debated with alacrity and vehemence as a consequence of organised advocacy of abortion. Once the attribution of personhood to the foetus was challenged, it was only a matter of time before the boundaries of the concept, along with the rights that went with it, were pushed further out. More to the point, once the objective moral status of the foetus (grounded in the “concrete” distinction between life and non-life, before and after conception) was abandoned, any demarcation between person and non-person was always going to seem arbitrary. Our authors have, in some ways, exposed that arbitrariness. But they have also offered us a ghastly utilitarian ethic that coldly pits the interests of the family against the needs of our society’s most vulnerable members.

*   *   *

To conclude: one wonders whether, in the words of columnist Barney Zwartz, our authors are “…allow[ing] thuggish thinking to smuggle in the desired conclusions of the premise” (“Killing Inconvenient Infants, The Age, March 7th, 2012). Indeed, our authors seem intent on reducing the moral status of newborns in order to uphold a brutish recommendation. Whether this is certainly the case is ultimately unanswerable. What is not unanswerable is the question of what this paper reveals about the present state of Western culture. Most people are bound to feel some sense of moral outrage if confronted with these suggestions, and rightly so. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also feel some collective sense of shame. Although the reasons for cultural, social and philosophical shifts are sometimes difficult to delineate, I would argue that this paper also represents a particularly extreme example of what happens when a society loses hold of certain perspectives that once underpinned the nobility of human dignity and value. In this case, it is the Judeo-Christian notion of the imago dei that has been lost – or rather, spurned. It is clear that the absolute dignity of life, whether in the womb or just beyond it, has been founded upon the metaphysics of Judeo-Christian thought. It is equally clear that we have lost that mooring, to our own detriment.

But our predicament is one of our own making. The fact that such thoughts and ideas could be entertained in a serious journal of ethics ought to compel us to reflect upon what we have done – or failed to do – to prevent our society reaching such a point. Ideas do not develop within a vacuum; rather, they constitute the climax of historical and philosophical processes that take place within, and between, societies. As some ideas are lost or rejected, others take their place, offering us a culmination of incremental trends. The idea that it might be morally justifiable to kill a newborn is one such culmination. It has had its genesis over many years of thought and reflection – not just in the rarefied arenas of academia, but also on the ground, in the street and in the home. We are complicit in the emergence of this particular idea, because we have failed to arrest the trajectory of a culture that has led to its promulgation and dissemination. And for that, we should be ashamed.

On Floods and Faith (Part One)

Suffering is, unfortunately, a part of life. Whether it is the loss of a parent to cancer, or the break-up of a long marriage, people endure hardships with tragic consistency. Recent events this year have reinforced this truism, as the country has witnessed the desperate plight of many tens of thousands of people in the state of Queensland. Entire towns have, it seems, been swept away by the fury of nature. The ferocity of these floods has been breathtaking, as has the widespread destruction. As if that weren’t enough, the state has been battered by cyclonic storms that have devastated livelihoods with ease. These disasters are indeed reminders that suffering is an ever-present part of life, which for some undermines belief in God’s existence. It is to this issue that I want to speak, using the Queensland disasters as a springboard.

In later posts, I will provide a particular Christian interpretation of disaster and suffering, including what we have seen recently. Right now, however, I wish to interrogate the non-believer’s response to such suffering and hardship, perhaps creating intellectual room for a Christian perspective to take its place. Indeed, it is important to provide some sort of apologetic, albeit a partial one, since such a disaster may prove ripe for the spiritual sceptic (I should point out that when I speak of spiritual sceptics or non-believers, I am referring to people who are, at the very least, sceptical of God’s existence. I am not yet referring to non-Christians). Even in the face of such destruction and loss, the church does have something to say as it seeks to respond. That may be news to some, but the Christian story does supply meaning to an otherwise meaningless situation. Although non-believers may declare that the Queensland floods (or any other event, such as the Christchurch earthquake, that occasions pain and suffering) prove that God does not exist, or that the persistence of belief in God despite such a tragedy is absurd, I would ask people to consider the alternative for a moment.

Without God, these tragedies are nothing but the consequences of the blind, impersonal forces of nature. We may be able to offer immediate causes for what happened. We can, for example, talk about the heavy rains and the aberrant weather patterns that caused the floods in Queensland. We can talk about the persistent failure by state governments to build dams that would control and manage the flow of rivers in the region. We could even talk about the green ideology that has (perhaps) exerted some influence over the reluctance to build such structures. These are all viable reasons for what, in the instance of Queensland’s tragedy, occurred. And yet none of them can provide a deep – one might even say existential – reason for this or any other disaster. Like all natural calamities, the Queensland floods and storms have shown us that, in the final analysis, man is at the mercy of nature. What is more, whilst the non-believer might derive some sense of satisfaction from facing what they think is the cold, hard reality of the world, their perspective does little to offer meaning in the midst of human misery. To them, this simply happened; one can talk about why it happened, but that question cannot be pressed too far. At the end of the day, the atheist or non-believer can only admit that such things simply happen. Events are merely brute facts, without ultimate intelligibility. If the universe is the product of blind chance, then its various goings-on cannot thereby possess meaning. They simply are. According to the non-believer’s scheme, events (both good and ill) do nothing more than occur. They do not mean anything, for they happen within a purposeless universe that has come into being without reason.

This is all the atheist or non-believer can offer when a tragedy strikes. If they follow their philosophical presuppositions far enough, then they have to admit that disasters such as the ones we have witnessed recently do not bear meaning. The cosmos does not possess any overarching structure, or goal-oriented significance, whilst the occurrences contained therein cannot be explained in terms of anything greater – or deeper – than the brute fact of their existence. That has to be conceded. To be sure, this does not mean that the existence of God is thereby proved. But when the atheist or non-believer scoffs at the attempt to shore up belief in God during a time such as this, one has to ask whether the interpretation he (or she) offers is any more satisfactory. All they can say is that such a calamity has occurred; nothing more, nothing less (without over-anticipating what I want to say below, to even call an event a “calamity” would be stretching the interpretation of the event, since that implies an attempt to explain the inexplicable according to moral categories that have no place within a purposeless universe). Mere happenstance is all that remains.

Such reasoning flies in the face of the persistent human need to ascribe and construct meaning. Humans are driven by a need to interpret things according a certain purpose, to view events and happenings through an interpretive grid. This is no fleeting, transient whim; it is instead a deep-rooted yearning, leading us to bestow order upon chaos and to discover purpose for our lives and the world at large. The atheist’s assumption that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” (to paraphrase Richard Dawkins) jars horribly with this human need to find meaning. How does a purposeless universe give rise – without forethought or planning – to beings that are driven, enlivened and animated by purpose? That is a particularly vexatious question, and comes with even greater urgency when a disaster like the Queensland floods befalls a segment of humanity. The search for meaning at a time like this is particularly acute, and the atheist cannot offer anything substantial. He is forced to admit that there is no reason for what has happened, just as there is no reason for why anything happens. That can only darken the existential void in which people of calamity often find themselves.

At the same time, the non-believer cannot escape the other logical implications of his worldview. If there is no purpose to the cosmos; and if it is just the random movement of molecules and particles; then one cannot speak of good and evil, joy and suffering, in any meaningful sense. The reductionism of atheism – which necessarily embraces a materialist outlook on life – becomes obvious when its proponents assign cause to purely physical factors. The notion of transcendence is completely anathema to such a worldview. What this means is that any talk of morals, ethics, or events that either enrich or diminish life, is disingenuous from a materialist point of view. All is simply the random shifting of atoms. The death of a loved one – or, in this case, the devastation of floods and cyclones – cannot be ascribed any more meaning than one might ascribe to the particles under a microscope. Similarly, to speak of morals is specious, since the objective foundation upon which any robust conception of morality must rest does not exist. If the universe does not care, then why should we? Why should we care about the deaths of people swept away by a torrent of water? Why should we recoil in horror when we see the carnage wrought on a South Sudanese village by government-backed militia? These things, broken down to their constituent parts according to a materialist, atheistic worldview, are nothing more than the outward manifestations of inward physical occurrences. There is nothing beyond the biological, and the biological does not work according to a greater scheme – moral or otherwise. It simply is. So, if we take the Queensland floods as an example, the non-believing perspective cannot even discuss such a calamity using moral categories, since those moral categories cannot fit into the purely physicalist account of tragedy and suffering. The biological is ultimate, and moral discussion – which relies on some notion of objectivity or transcendent framework to maintain coherency – is without basis.

Again, I must remind people that all of this in no way automatically validates the Christian, or even merely theistic, worldview. But it does show up the atheistic view for what it is. Further – and this is closely aligned with my point just above – the non-believer’s case against God, which he bases upon the supposed contradiction between God’s goodness and the presence of evil, becomes incoherent once one follows that atheistic view through to its logical conclusion. How can one speak of the contradiction between the claimed goodness of God and the persistence of evil when one’s own worldview has no room for transcendent moral categories? Surely the worldview in question subverts the specific claims made against God whenever disaster or tragedy strikes, for one cannot squeeze out objective morality on the one hand and use it to score a philosophical (or atheological) point on the other. Of course, the atheist may claim that he does adhere to the notion of objective morality. But why? Why, if the cosmos that gave rise to humanity is actually blind and morally indifferent, should those very same beings be committed to such an outlook? I leave that question for readers to ponder.

None of this will be of comfort to people who have seen and experienced tragedy, pain, suffering and hardship. I don’t expect that to be the case. What will comfort them are wise pastoral counsel and the persistence of sacrificial love. However, my aim here is to engage with the various philosophical and ideological interpretations that use such events to deny God’s reality. I will continue to do so over the next few posts.

UPDATE

Recently, I took part in an online  discussion, where I used some of these arguments to critique the atheist’s position, including the rather unsatisfying account of morality (as I see it, anyway). Indeed, my argument there – that the biological reductionism and naturalistic conception of humanity that seems to be part-and-parcel of an atheistic worldview – was much the same as the one I have used here. Anyway, I was accused of attacking a straw man by offering this characterisation of atheists’ views on humanity. My inerlocutor told me that when it comes to humanity, morality and the rest, atheists’ views are as diverse as their fingerprints. That may be, but two things suggest that the strawman may have become a real one after all: the logical (and, I would say, inescapable) implications of a naturalistic conception of the world and humanity; and the fact that atheists have said exactly what I have said in my characterisation of humans as, at base, a collection of atomic particles. 

First, if one is going to commit oneself to a naturalistic worlview (which goes hand-in-hand with atheism) then it becomes exceedingly difficult to suggest that humanity is, in the final analysis, anything more than an amalgamation of physical parts. My interlocutor that day said he was much more than a “collection of atoms” (yes, I know, a rather pithy line on my part). He said that he was that, but that he was also a thinking, feeling individual with loves, desires, hopes and dreams. But if humans are to be reduced to their constituent parts – which means one’s atomic “kit” – then I am not sure how those parts can end up constituting, not just a physcial entity (eg. a human being), but one that is able to think, feel, love and apply meaning to his/her existence. I mean, how did my online discussion partner become the thinking, feeling empatheitc indvidual he believes himself to be? Mere physicality (which is what we are reduced to in a naturalistic view of the world) is not enough. Random mutation, natural selection and deep time alone could not have produced atomic structures that go beyond their physical paramaters in this way. In other words, if (according to naturalism), our “essence” is really no different to that of other, even non-sentient, physcial structures, I wonder how those physical structures could make the transition from things that merely “existed” to sentient beings that are able to confer upon the world meaning and significance. As much as atheists try to claim otherwise, I can’t see how one can escape this reductionist thinking, or the problems associated with it. 

The philosopher John F. Haught, in talking about critical intelliegence as a problem for naturalism, poses a question along similar lines (Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science):

“…is the essentially mindless, purposeless, self-originating, self-enclosed universe of scientific naturalism large enough to house your own critical intelligence?”       

As far as I can see, this is an inescapable question for the atheist (and therefore, naturalist), based on the indissoluble connection between atheism and a naturalistic conception of humanity. We could take this further, and suggest that the very mindlessness posited by a naturalistic account of the universe (where all is the product of the essential purposelessness of natural selection) should make one quite suspicious of one’s own thinking. If one’s thoughts are the result of random atomic occurrences (and nothing more), should one place supreme confidence in one’s capacity to understand the world and interpret it coherently? The fact that we do, and are able to provide some account of the world that is commensurate with reality suggests that there is more going on in our minds than just the product of mindless evolutionary processes. Further, efforts to develop a moral account of human behaviour – indeed, a moral “grid”, if you like – seem to suggest that humans are more than the accidental products of an ultimately mindless, amoral universe. In any case, this reductionsim seems to be inherent within naturalism, and protests to the contrary will not do.

Second, a number of atheist academic, both past and present, have expressed their views on humanity in terms that are quite close to my own (admittedly pithy) characterisation. Here’s Betrand Russell, the now deceased British atheist, describing human beings:

“…the result of accidental collocations of atoms” (Russell, Why I am not a Christian).

Or Stephen Jay Gould:

“If the history of life teaches us any lesson, it is that human beings arose as…a kind of glorious cosmic accident resulting from the catenation of thousands of improbable events” (quote taken from John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists?).

Or what about Richard Dawkins, writing in his book, The Selfish Gene?:

“[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots…they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”

As far as I can see, the “strawman,” of which my interlocutor spoke, is very much alive. 

This all has implications for moral reasoning. If the universe is essentially purposeless, and we are inextricably bound up with the universe and its ultimate nature, then on what shall we base an account of morality? More than that, why should we even speak about morality as if it had something to do with an objective standard of the good? And it’s not just believers in God who are aksing these questions. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper spoke about Peter Singer, the Australian atheist philosopher, and his struggles with providing a robust foundation for moral decisions. In it, he said that his previous confidence in utilitarian thinking has now been shaken, and he is more and more inclined towards a moral objectivity (Mark Vernon, “Without Beflief in Moral Truths, How Can We Care About Climate Change?”, May 25th, 2011). He’s no closer to God, but as the article says, “Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” A bold claim, but I think that God provides a strong foundation for confidence in an objective moral ontology.