Theism and Creatures Accidentally Created
June 24, 2008 — 14:39

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Divine Providence  Comments: 9

I’m thinking about whether it is possible that Swampman exists, where Swampman is a creature that is created by lightning which hits a swamp and the atoms just happen to arrange in to the exact arrangement of the atoms which constitute Donald Davidson (or some human). I’m also thinking about whether it is possible that Theodore exist, where Theodore is the accidental byproduct of a clumsy angel’s trying to create something else (like a statue).
Plantinga gives the following (he calls ‘inconclusive’) argument:

But if there is such a person as God, it is unlikely that it is possible that a being capable of belief and moral agency should just pop into existence, unintended and undesigned by God. According to the Christian tradition, only God can create beings capable of belief and moral agency; I am inclined to think this is right. But even if it isn’t, even if it is possible that God should delegate the task of creating such beings to some of his creatures, it still wouldn’t be possible that such a creature pop into existence unintended by God. (1995, PPR 55:2, p. 460)

I have a few questions. First, where in the Christian tradition does it say this?
Secondly, is it possible that a creature that is capable of belief and agency come into existence, and it is not intended by God?
Thirdly, is it possible that a creature that is capable of belief and agency come into existence, and it is not designed by God?
I take it that to design something takes a little more than intending its existence. The owners of Honda could intend for there to be the creation of more cars, but the engineers of Honda might have to design those cars. I also take it that some facts are unintended by God. I am a certain distance from an atom on your left cheek – it’s not obvious (and probably not the case) that God intended this fact to be the case. This is probably an unintended byproduct of other things God intended. Both of these points can be disputed.

  • This passage is the second strangest thing I’ve ever read from Plantinga.
    When I think about the debates about the compatibility of evolution with theism, I thought a standard line, if not the standard line, was that the theist can say that while we evolved the evolutionary process is guided. Of course, that suggests a picture on which a chain of events (perhaps one that is exceptionally unlikely to have occurred with an intentional agent setting up the conditions just right or intervening now and again) led to our existence. These natural events are the proximate cause. Divine agency is a distal cause. I don’t see how Plantinga’s view is consistent with this picture. It seems that on this view, divine agency cannot be some mere distal cause, for if the proximate cause were to occur and that cause could be constituted by purely natural elements, there would be nothing to rule out the possibility of a swampman.

    June 24, 2008 — 18:57
  • Robert Newsom

    I had always understood the “Standard” line in the same way that you do, and, like you, I am not sure that Plantinga’s position is consistent with it.
    I guess I don’t understand why Plantinga would want to press the idea that God can’t be “just” the distal cause of the universe, since insisting that God proximally causes everything to be as it is cuts off some very good solutions to the problem of evil, and, even if God is “only” the distal cause of all that there is, would we not have reason to love God nonetheless?

    June 25, 2008 — 9:58
  • Andrew, it’s an interesting question.
    I think it is fair to assume that nothing happens without God’s permission (even if he permits things he does not approve). I also think there is good reason to suppose that God would not permit a rational being to come into existence that had no possibility of participating in the ultimate goal of creation, that had no possibility of either sinless existence or redemption. In other words, although creatures are not perfect, there are certain things that would constitute design flaws so great that God should not permit them.
    If one is looking for reasons within the Christian tradition to hold this view, I would focus on the doctrine of creation. God is the creator of everything, and this means that everything has some role to play within God’s plan, even if rational beings are also given the option of resisting God’s will. God would not allow a being to come into existence who is not at home in his creation. To spell it out a bit further, God has a plan for his creation, and for every rational being, x, that is part of God’s creation, God has a plan for x. Furthermore, God would not permit the existence of a rational being, y, such that God has no plan for y.
    This line of thought leads to the same conclusion as Plantinga: God would not allow a being to pop into existence unintended.
    Incidentally, the works of Tolkien are relevant to this issue. As many readers will know, Tolkien speculated a lot about sub-creation, whereby humans are allowed to participate in God’s creative process. In ‘Leaf By Niggle’, the painter Niggle encounters, in Heaven, the tree that he spent his life trying to paint – not because the tree was there all along, but because God chose to give life to Niggle’s creation. When you write about Theodore, do you have Aule’s creation of dwarves in mind (in The Silmarillion?)

    June 27, 2008 — 10:08
  • Andrew Moon

    Clayton and Robert,
    I don’t see why God’s being a distal cause (if I understand what you mean by this term) of a being X at all implies that God didn’t intend for X to exist or God didn’t design X. If God began the process and intended for the outcome to have the existence of X, then it seems that God could have intended for X to exist. Furthermore, if God came up with the design for X and intended for X to have that design and he further began the process that would result in X, then it seems plausible to me that God would have also designed X. So I guess I don’t see how Plantinga’s view would be inconsistent with what the ‘standard line’ of how evolution and theism are compatible.

    June 27, 2008 — 11:31
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Ben,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Theodore is a creature that’s accidentally created as the byproduct of an angel in the debate between James Taylor and Plantinga in Phil. Studies 64: pp. 185-202. But I suppose Theodore is analogous to the scenario in your Tolkien reference. (I’ve never read this of Tolkien, but it sounds interesting.)
    Hmm, God might have a plan for any rational creature X, but not have been its designer. I think my Honda analogy applies here. I see your considerations as reason to think that, for any rational creature X, God intended for it to exist, but it’s still not clear to me that God had to have designed it.

    June 27, 2008 — 11:38
  • Andrew, thanks for the background about Theodore: certainly analogous to dwarves in The Silmarillion.
    As to whether there can be a creature that isn’t designed by God, I think that, for any creature, God has a plan for that creature, the plan is prior to the existence of the creature, and the creature cannot have a design flaw that makes the plan for that creature impossible (although perhaps the creature chooses to reject the plan).
    Let me take the analogy with Honda a stage further. The CEO of Honda plans to make environmentally-friendly cars. He asks the designer to design a car that will be very fuel-efficient. The designer does so. However, the designer overlooks the fact that it will take a huge amount of energy to produce the special alloy from which the car’s engine is made. Producing the car will undermine the CEO’s plan. The CEO of Honda might not realize this until it is too late, but God would be aware of such fundamental design flaws – flaws that undermine his plan for creation – and so refuse to allow production to proceed.
    So, my thinking would be, God can certainly delegate features of design to creatures. There might be a creature such that many aspects of its being were the result of the free choice of another creature, and that other creature could be termed the ‘designer’. However, the design would have taken place within parameters set by God, who has, so to speak, the final authority over the design of any creature.

    June 27, 2008 — 14:05
  • Andrew Moon

    Right, so some creatures could come into existence without having been designed by God (just like the cars have not been designed by the Honda CEO). However, no creature could come into existence not having been intended to exist by God. So if all this is possible (and hopefully plausibly possible), I wonder why Plantinga thought that the Christian tradition didn’t allow it? Maybe God, according to the Christian tradition, is jealous (in a certain sense) in that he wants to play a designing role in the creation of ALL his creatures. Not only that, but this is necessarily so. But this seems a bit strange.
    So it seems plausible to think that no creature could come into existence unintended by God, but it is quite possible for creatures to come into existence undesigned by God.

    June 27, 2008 — 21:37
  • I don’t see why God’s being a distal cause (if I understand what you mean by this term) of a being X at all implies that God didn’t intend for X to exist or God didn’t design X.
    It doesn’t. I took it that P’s point was that there could not be creatures with beliefs and the capacities necessary for moral agency unless they were designed. In saying that there were evolutionary processes that led from creatures that lacked these capacities to creatures with these capacities, it does not follow that this didn’t follow God’s intended plan. The point is that if we substract the intention while keeping the naturalistic processes fixed, we get the same outcome. Or, so it seems. You can deny that swampman is a possibility, but that looks a lot like denying that there could have been processes of the sort just described that were part of the causal chain that sufficed to take us from earlier stages in evolutionary development to the present. That’s to make God play a much more intimate role in the process than, say, just the first toppling domino.

    June 30, 2008 — 16:25
  • Andrew Moon

    Gotcha. What would be denied is that you could substract the intention while keeping the naturalistic processes in place. Consider Ben’s points (above) that for any creature that exists, God has intentions for that creature’s existence. I don’t think that’s crazy to think if theism is true. I actually think it’s plausible. Also, it’s not crazy (but perhaps not as plausible) to think that God had a hand in the designing of every creature.

    July 1, 2008 — 12:46