How Should I Be A Sceptic -- paradoxes and contradictions

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

I am "sorry to say" this [i.e. that an intentional fostering of contradiction for purposes of religious piety has happened in many religions--including in Christianity], because contradictions deny reality. A theist who turns to contradictions to generate feelings of awe about God, or (worse) proposes that God and contradictions must necessarily go hand in hand (perhaps because he is working with the requirement of a faith/reason disparity), implicitly denies God's reality.

Sceptics just love this! Who can blame them? It plays right into their hands! I am certain some sceptics have become unbelievers precisely because they perceived this problem, and were subsequently told (by otherwise well-meaning theists) that this was the way it had to be. These particular sceptics (in another vicious irony, and no fault to them) learned their lesson quite well: these theists testify against the reality of the very Person they want people to believe exists and operates in our lives and world!

Furthermore, such a strategy of linking God (in His own character and characteristics) inextricably with contradictions denies the testimony of Judeo-Christian Scripture itself. The Psalmists tell us that God is 'emeth', or true; and the connotations of that word imply rock-bottom reliability, stability, permanence, trustworthiness. The same word would be used to describe a pail that can be trusted to hold water, or the awe-inspiring solidness of a mountain. But the water-holding pail and the mountain, are not representatives of an abstract, self-contradictory reality! (Certainly they would not have been to the ancient Jews.)

Granted, there could be some paradoxical features of their reality: sling that pail at a sufficient speed parallel to the ground and the water won't necessarily fall out; yet hold it stationary at the same angle, and the water is lost. But such a paradox points to a real (although undiscovered) feature of the relationship between the pail and the water; it is not really a contradiction.

[Footnote: I will clarify here that I am talking about properties of fundamental reality; not about properties of a set of writings. The question of contradictions has equal pertinence to atheism’s truth, if atheism is true instead of theism; or any other worldview for that matter. I make this point in various ways throughout the book.]

Let me strengthen the point I am trying to make by turning now to the sceptical side of the aisle. Theists claim that God must be omnipotent by virtue of the fact that (if He exists) all other things depend upon Him. We theists believe He is (as I will explain more fully later) the Final Fact; rather like physical Nature must be the Final Fact if philosophical naturalism is true.

'Very well then,' a simple atheist may snicker. 'Can God create a boulder too heavy for Him to lift?'

A simple theist may not know the answer to this; but the educated theist (and the educated atheist) should know the correct answer, which is "No."

'Hah!' exclaims the simple atheist. 'I thought you said He could do anything! So much for His omnipotence!'

Let us examine this classic situation for a moment. The characteristic in question is God's omnipotence--His total power. The test-case involves two clauses welded into one English sentence.

Clause 1: Can God create any boulder? Given His omnipotence and in lieu of other considerations (for instance the method or methods He chooses for creation) the answer would be "Yes".

Clause 2: Can any boulder be too heavy for God to lift? Given His omnipotence, this answer must be No, because otherwise it would demonstrate that God (even if powerful) is not the final, ultimate power. Something not Himself can still trump Him. (Presumably in this case it would be the natural laws related to mass and inertia.)

The facetiously simple atheist has welded these two clauses together through English grammar into one question. But given God's omnipotence, the second clause is a non-issue: there can be no existent boulder that is too heavy for an omnipotent God to lift. This leaves the first clause perfectly true: God can create any boulder. A boulder too heavy for an omnipotent God to lift is not 'any real boulder' by definition of omnipotence. Such a boulder cannot in actuality exist, given the preliminary assumption this simple atheist wishes to attack--and that assumption must be given for purposes of argument, since what the (too-simple) atheist wants to do here is show that even if it is given, absurdity follows. But since the too-heavy boulder cannot exist when given the premise of an omnipotent God for sake of discussion, no real bar to God's power would follow.

Put more simply, our atheist here is asking the theist if God really does and really does not have ultimate power. The proper answer is "No"; not out of blind reverence for God's status, and (this should be stressed) not even out of a belief that God exists, but because two absolutely mutually exclusive clauses (with respect to their own definitions) cannot both reflect even a hypothetical reality simply by combining them with English grammar. The state in question cannot exist; therefore the problem in question cannot exist; therefore the purported problem is no bar to God's omnipotence (should He exist and be omnipotent--this can be merely a hypothesis for the sake of argument. I am not arguing here for either God’s existence or for God’s omnipotence.) Six cannot equal sixteen, presuming both properties are exclusive.

Notice, however, that last qualification: presuming both properties are (by definition) exclusive. Six can be part of sixteen; there are 2-3/4 sixes in sixteen. But the absolute total is sixteen; the absolute total of the set cannot be both six and sixteen at once. The proposed contradiction, by virtue of the properties of the ideas used in it, does not describe any possible reality.

This is why I reject the concept that believing and promoting God's existence and characteristics requires intentionally promoting necessary (and actual) contradictions. Such fanciful confabulations tell us nothing about God, and a requirement that God must nevertheless exhibit them is a tacit statement that God does not exist.

I am a Christian; I testify that God exists and has certain characteristics. I will not recourse to intentional contradictions as any kind of element of God's necessary reality; otherwise I would be defending the existence of a God Whose existence I would be simultaneously denying! But neither would I recourse to intentional contradictions, to build and defend a belief in God's non-existence. Intentionally fostering contradictions is improper in deciding what to believe to be true, in any case and in any direction.

Now let me present another (and very important) variation of my point. Our facetiously simple atheist (the educated atheists should not present this sort of problem) has, in a sense, asked us if God can trump everything and yet be trumped Himself. If he holds strictly to his paradigm, this answer must be 'No'. Now let us change the conditions a bit.

‘Can God create a boulder that He chooses not to lift?’ The answer (hypothetical or otherwise) is 'Yes'. No contradiction is involved. Given the starting presumption (an omnipotent God), both conditions are quite possible. God can create a boulder. God can choose not to lift the boulder. Put them together and no absurdity follows. Obviously, this provides no bar to God's omnipotence; not because it is an impossible-to-exist set of conditions confabulated out of English grammar, but because neither proposition interferes with the other nor interferes with the given presumption.

Let us apply this to a common paradox (note my use of that word): God is omnipotent, yet some of His creations can do things He would prefer they not do. Is this a contradiction?

It could be, depending on some hidden addendums to that second clause. If I proposed that any of God's creations can 'sin' (for short) in a sense that there is absolutely nothing God can do to stop them, then I would have proposed a contradiction; and consequently my proposition (one way or another) must not accurately reflect a real situation.

But if those creatures can 'sin' because God has chosen to restrict how far He will influence their lives, giving them derivative autonomy, then it is not a contradiction. They can 'trump' God because (in this case) He chooses not to do a particular thing (or set of things) to them. Similarly, God can create a boulder and then choose not to lift it.

A full discussion on this situation must wait until the proper chapters on ethics (in Section Four [which I have already mostly posted up as entries on the Cadre Journal, starting here]); my point is that (as far as this particular statement goes) God's omnipotence meets no bar and both situations could be true simultaneously. The situation is a paradox: it looks like a contradiction, taking the given data at face value, but is resolved by factoring in other conditions--ones which we might have discovered in this instance (by whatever means), but which we need not necessarily have ever discovered. Our lack, or even outright inability, to discover the linking condition set would not abrogate the actual existence of both conditions (should we in fact discover them). We might instead discover quite thoroughly why we cannot go further (for what it's worth, I think we can go quite a ways further in the metaphysics of ethics), and that would be real and useful knowledge about something related to the question at hand.

But there are sets of propositions which, by virtue of their given properties, cannot both be simultaneously true. Once these sets are identified, we need not wait to see if new data turns up. We can be sure that a pure contradiction does not directly reflect an existent state of affairs. (Aside from the existence and character of grammatic rules, perhaps...) The question would then turn to the following issues:

a.) Is the combined proposition in fact a pure contradiction?


b.) How can we modify one proposition or the other (perhaps by introducing a new factor) so that the statement becomes something other than a contradiction?

A large amount of theology (and atheology!) consists of resolving apparent discrepancies in theories and statements about God, so that the truth will be left over. In the case of the atheologians, the discrepancies are resolved by concluding (or admitting) that God does not exist! This strategy is, in principle, a sound one--provided it can actually be accomplished. But obviously such a strategy affirms, rather than prevents, the attempt to positively answer questions one way or the other.

I suspect that some attempts by theists to necessarily fuse contradictions to theology, stem from the wish for a position that not only defeats assailants, but that assailants cannot even attempt to assail!

But such wishful thinking is harmful; it encourages scepticism rather than belief, and even encourages some sceptics to try the same tactic! Some atheistic and agnostic philosophers also use the 'mystical' sense of awe surrounding contradictions to imply they are somehow touching reality more clearly. And their positions are equally unassailable; leaving both types of contradictionists gesturing blindly in their respective foxholes, building walls of denial and assertion. At the very best, such advocates can offer no good reasons that I should not continue.

Quite a lot of this chapter seems to point to God being (or require God to be) a particular entity with particular characteristics (if, of course, He exists at all), not an abstract generality: in other words, that abstract generalities are not primarily real. In a sense, God's reality (if we are going to be serious about our stated beliefs) repels by default any attempt at requiring Him to be unreal.

Yet strangely enough, there are philosophies and religions which reject this tautology much more overtly than the contradictionists (who may only be doing it by accident, thinking they are rendering honor to God in this fashion). Necessary Contradiction can very easily lead to these other ideas, and in fact has done so in our human history. (It is certainly no bar to heresy!)

But perhaps these other, more clearly abstract philosophies are in fact correct. So I will turn now to consider whether God could possibly have any particular characteristics to discover.

[Next time: generalities and metaphysical analysis]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


Popular posts from this blog

How Many Children in Bethlehem Did Herod Kill?

Where did Jesus say "It is better to give than receive?"

The Bogus Gandhi Quote

Discussing Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Revamping and New Articles at the CADRE Site

Exodus 22:18 - Are Followers of God to Kill Witches?

A Botched Abortion Shows the Lies of Pro-Choice Proponents

Jewish writings and a change in the Temple at the time of the Death of Jesus

Tillich, part 2: What does it mean to say "God is Being Itself?"

The Folded Napkin Legend