Divine Power, Alternate Possibilities, and Necessary Frankfurt Cases
November 30, 2012 — 18:56

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 19

Much of the difficulty in analyzing the notion of power comes from the various limitations of creaturely power: our powers come and go, and they are not infallible (sometimes we have the power or ability to do something, and nevertheless fail to do it when we try). These are the sorts of cases which derailed conditional analyses of power. However, an omnipotent being would have none of these limitations. In our paper, Alexander Pruss and I exploited this fact to develop an analysis of omnipotence, or unlimited power, without the need for a prior analysis of power. This approach has the advantage of allowing us to understand omnipotence without first solving the puzzles about power. A disadvantage, however, is that it does answer all of the questions of the form “does God have the power to…” (which I take to be equivalent to “can God…” on the most usual meaning of the latter in these sorts of questions). Indeed, without an analysis of power, our account does not answer any questions of that form. What it does do is tell us enough about what an omnipotent being would be like that if we did have an analysis of power we would presumably be able to give the correct answer to each such question and explain why these are the correct answers.
One such question which is of particular interest is, “does God have the power to do evil?” According to the Pearce-Pruss theory, the claim that God is omnipotent entails the following two claims:

(1) If God were to will that he should do evil, he would intentionally bring it about that he does evil.
(2) God, being perfectly free, is free in choosing whether to do evil.

(Since we don’t have an analysis of God’s perfect freedom, we don’t have an official, precise formulation for condition (2), but surely perfect freedom implies freedom in all of one’s choices.)
Now we want to add the following:

(3) It is impossible that God should do evil.

(1) and (3) imply:

(4) It is impossible that God should will that he should do evil.

We argue that this is consistent with (2) if the impossibility follows from God’s character and/or choices in the (as yet unspecified) right way.
Now, the question I want to ask is, given this situation, can God do evil? That is, does God have the power or ability to do evil?
The following principle is extremely plausible:

(5) If any agent S has the power to perform an act A, then possibly S does A.

In other words, power implies possibility.
Erik Wielenberg denies this principle precisely because he holds that God would have power to do evil despite lacking the possibility of doing evil. I have argued that Thomas Reid rejected (5) on the same grounds.
As I said, (5) seems extremely plausible to me. In fact, until recently I thought that the case of God was the only conceivable grounds for questioning it. The other day, Abelard Podgorski, one of my colleagues at USC, suggested to me that the principle might also be violated by a being who was necessarily in a Frankfurt case.
Now, Frankfurt meant his case to show that an individual could be morally responsible (and, indeed, free) despite being unable (i.e. lacking the power) to do otherwise. However, an alternative interpretation of this case is that the individual has the power or ability to do otherwise, but it is not possible, in the present circumstance, that she successfully exercise it. One might think that one of the reasons it makes sense to ascribe the power to the individual in question is that there are other circumstances in which she might very well exercise it. But what if no circumstances in which the individual might exercise the power were possible? Could it still be ascribed to her?
Say ‘S is necessarily Frankfurted with respect to Aing’ (‘NF(S, A)’ for short) iff:

(i) S deliberates about whether to A
(ii) In every possible world where S is about to choose to A, some other agent intervenes to prevent S’s doing A
(iii) In (at least) some worlds the following counterpossible conditional holds: if, per impossibile S should choose A and no intervention should occur, then S would do A.

The intuition is supposed to be that such an S might count as having the power to A, despite the fact that, due to some other agent’s intervention in every possible world, it is not possible that S do A.
Now, my first thought was this. Suppose we simply accept the following conditional:

(6) If NF(S, A), then S has the power to do A despite lacking the possibility of doing A.

This would entail the falsity of (5) only if it were possible that NF(S, A). After all, it is true that if 2+2=5, then 2+2≠4, but it does not follow from this that possibly 2+2≠4. Furthermore, it surely seems implausible that anyone is necessarily Frankfurted.
But wait! Here is an argument that we ourselves are necessarily Frankfurted with respect to certain actions. Most theists agree that there are some conceivable states of affairs so bad that it is not possible that God permits them. But if God exists and is omnipotent necessarily, then, necessarily, nothing happens unless God permits it. Thus the states of affairs which are too bad to be permitted by God turn out to be impossible (despite being perfectly conceivable). For instance, perhaps it is impossible that every sentient being suffer excruciating pain beginning now and continuing through all eternity.
Now consider this: a being’s freely refraining from producing some great evil is a good state of affairs, not an evil one. But if Frankfurt cases are compatible with freedom, then perhaps it is possible that God brings it about that some creatures are in Frankfurt cases with respect to producing states of affairs so evil that God cannot allow them to be produced. For instance, perhaps there is a possible world in which, at this moment in history, I am standing in front of a button and I know that if I push the button every sentient being will suffer excruciating pain beginning now for the rest of eternity. It is not possible that God permit me to push the button (unless he prevents the button from having its effect), but if Frankfurt cases are compatible with freedom, then perhaps it is possible for me to be in that situation. If so, then I am necessarily Frankfurted with respect to causing every sentient being to suffer excruciating pain for the rest of eternity (and so, presumably, is everyone else).
I do have the intuition that in the worlds where God does not intervene I am free to push the button (and cause the resulting suffering), and that I have the power to push the button (and cause the suffering). Of course, all my powers are subject to overriding by God, so perhaps it makes no difference to my having a power if, necessarily, God always overrides it.
We can, of course, insert the ‘flicker of freedom’ strategy, and insist that there is some alternative course of action I am free to do and have the power to do, but deny that that action is causing the suffering. In fact, it seems plausible that possibly God allows me to push the button and then blocks its effect. It’s an important part of Frankfurt’s original case that the intervenor prevents the choice rather than the resulting action. Perhaps no possible being is necessarily Frankfurted with respect to choosing a course of action. At any rate, this idea about necessary Frankfurt cases seems to me to cast further doubt on (5).
(cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

  • Jacob

    In order for there to be a counterpossible world in which (ii) obtains and S is God, such a world must contain a being which is, at least for the time being, more powerful than God. I think God’s omnipotence is dispositional, such that He can limit it for a time if desired, so that isn’t a problem for me. But I could imagine someone quibbling that a supposed world containing an omnipotent being whose intention can be thwarted is not a possible world.

    December 1, 2012 — 20:21
  • Kenny Pearce

    Jacob – I am not trying to say that God might be necessarily Frankfurted with respect to any action. I think this is clearly impossible.

    December 1, 2012 — 21:35
  • Kenny:
    “The intuition is supposed to be that such an S might count as having the power to A, despite the fact that, due to some other agent’s intervention in every possible world, it is not possible that S do A.”
    I have the intuition that S might count as freely refraining from Aing, but it seems to me that S doesn’t have the power to A, precisely because she doesn’t have the power to overcome the intervention of the other agents.
    This suggests to me that one might be able to freely do something without having the power to do otherwise. And that seems right to me, too.
    But I am inclined to think one can’t freely choose something if one doesn’t have the power to refrain from so choosing.
    It’s harder to run the divine prevention case for choosing, because it’s not clear that God could prevent one from choosing to A, except by preventing one from choosing whether to A (though the Molinist and Thomis have a story to tell here).

    December 1, 2012 — 22:49
  • Jacob

    So you think it is necessarily possible that God could limit his power for a period of time?

    December 3, 2012 — 10:39
  • Kenny Pearce

    Jacob – I don’t understand. In standard modal logics, whatever is possible is necessarily possible. I deny that it is possible that God’s power should be limited.

    December 3, 2012 — 11:01
  • Matt H

    Hi Kenny,
    I don’t find (5) that plausible. I also don’t think you need anything as elaborate as Frankfurt cases to show this. Suppose Leibniz is right and this is the best possible world and God creates it necessarily. Suppose also that in this world there is an individual who has great natural talent at writing, but in fact he never puts pen to paper and spends his days as a cobbler. It is surely still true that this chap has the ‘power’ or ‘ability’ to be a great novelist, it is simply necessarily unexercised. So intuitively (5) is false?

    December 4, 2012 — 8:18
  • Kenny Pearce

    Matt – Perhaps if the cobbler situation were actual, then the cobbler would nevertheless have the power in question, but, as I observed in the post, this only entails the falsity of (5) if the cobbler scenario is possible. Since necessarily there is more than one possible world, the cobbler scenario is not possible.

    December 4, 2012 — 10:33
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    The idea that omnipotence has nothing to do with the concept of “power” has an excellent pedigree. So, St Augustine in his “City of God” writes “God is called omnipotent on account of His doing what He wills”. That understanding strikes me as overwhelmingly plausible, for God’s condition certainly cannot be any less, and it makes no sense to think that it is anything more. God’s will is ontologically basic and is not restricted by anything, not even by logic. So all of reality conforms with logic precisely because God wants it to be so.
    But if is true that God’s condition is not limited by our concept of “power” then, it seems to me, all questions of the form “has God the power to do X?” or, equivalently, “can God do X?” are incoherent. The only valid question is “does God wants X?”. I am inclined to think that not even the question “why does God want X?” makes any sense. Observe that the answer “because X is the best” does not add anything for “God wanting X”, and “X being the best” refer to the same fact, namely how God is.

    December 5, 2012 — 6:58
  • Paul

    What about a case like this: Tim time travels 55 years into the past. When he steps out of the time machine, he sees a man about to rape a woman. However, unbeknownst to Tim, that man is his Grandfather—and Tim’s Dad is the result of this (immoral) act. Enter a grandfather paradox: Tim can’t stop Grandpa, because then Tim wouldn’t be there to stop Grandpa. But it seems Tim does have the power to stop Grandpa, but this doesn’t seem possible, hence it tells against (5). Of course, (5) could remain in tact by denying causal loops like this, or denying the possibility of time travel, etc. But I assume there may be *someone* who holds to (5) and thinks the above scenario is possible, so this story might at least undermine (5) for him.

    December 5, 2012 — 9:15
  • John Alexander

    “(5) If any agent S has the power to perform an act A, then possibly S does A.”
    If S is actually doing A then how is it possible that S is doing A? If S has the power to eat broccoli then it is possible that S will eat broccoli, but it is also possible that S will not eat broccoli. If S is doing x then it seem to be impossible that S is not doing x (at least in the PW where S is doing x). If this is so then should not (5) be If any agent S has the power to perform an act A, then possibly S will do A.
    If God has the power to do evil then it is possible that God will do evil, but it does not follow that He will do evil. Now it may be the case that God, being God, will never do evil, but this does not mean that He does not have the power or the opportunity to do evil. It simply means He chooses never to do evil.
    This probably has nothing to do with your overall argument, I am simply trying to get clear about this point.

    December 5, 2012 — 9:31
  • Kenny Pearce

    Danielos – “God’s will is ontologically basic and is not restricted by anything, not even by logic. So all of reality conforms with logic precisely because God wants it to be so.” This might be pretty plausible, if you add that God’s willing that reality conform to logic follows necessarily from his character, and that God has such character necessarily. If this is not added, so that God simply chooses the laws of logic arbitrarily, I cannot see that there is anything to be said in favor of such an extreme form of voluntarism.
    Paul – Yes, it did occur to me that the Grandfather Paradox could be relevant here. Lewis holds that (in one sense of ‘can’) Tim can kill Grandfather, so this commits him to the denial of (5) for at least one sense of ‘can’ (for which there are presumably corresponding senses of ‘power’, ‘ability’, etc.). However, Vihvelin argues, on the basis of a principle like (5), that Tim cannot kill Grandfather, despite the favorable circumstances (this despite the fact that Vihvelin, like Lewis, is a comaptibilist). So, as you say, there may be someone who is moved to reject (5) on the basis of time travel cases, but many others have unclear or clashing intuitions, and some even seem to have the direct contrary intuition.
    John – (5) states a necessary but insufficient condition of power, and is intended to be a timeless use of the present tense. More explicitly, if S has the power to do A, then there is some possible world in which, at some time, S does A. Your future-tensed principle is a strict strengthening of this principle, so you presumably agree that the original principle states a necessary but insufficient condition.
    Traditionally, theists have believed that it is impossible that God should do evil. This has given rise to a number of problems, and of course one solution to these problems is to reject the assumption. I think, however, that the problems can be solved without resorting to this tactic.

    December 5, 2012 — 12:10
  • If Tim can kill Grandfather, then a circularity in the order of explanation occurs. Tim’s decision not to exercise the power to Grandfather is then explanatorily prior to Grandfather’s living, and of course Grandfather’s living is explanatorily prior to Tim’s decision, since it’s prior to Tim’s existence. If circles in the order of explanation are impossible, then time travel is only possible in scenarios where there is no possibility of affecting your history. Maybe you can only travel into the past by changing your matter so that it can’t affect ordinary matter, or maybe you can only travel into those spatial locations in the past which are not in your history (backward light cone?).

    December 6, 2012 — 8:38
  • Nice quote from Augustine. But that only gives efficaciousness of the divine will, which isn’t the same as omnipotence. Suppose that I have a very unfree will, and the only thing I can possibly will is to scratch my back, and yet my will is essentially effiacious. Then whatever I will is do, but I am not omnipotent because my will is limited. So we need to add to the Augustine account the claim that an omnipotent being’s will is perfectly free, or something like that.

    December 6, 2012 — 8:56
  • Kenny Pearce

    Alex – The circular explanation point is an interesting one. I don’t think either Lewis or Vihvelin discusses it. But that would show that Tim having the power involves some kind of contradiction or absurdity even if he doesn’t exercise it, and this without appealing to (5).
    I suppose Lewis would say, however, that the other sense of ‘can’ comes into play. On Lewis’s view there is an ambiguity between the ‘has what it takes’ sense of ‘can’ and some more metaphysically robust sense (not that there is any sense of ‘can’ which is very metaphysically robust for a Humean like Lewis). Since it turns out to be logically impossible that Tim kill Grandfather, the reason Tim didn’t kill Grandfather is because that would be a logical absurdity. I wonder if this observation would somehow mitigate the circular explanation problem, but my thoughts on this point are not yet fully worked out.

    December 6, 2012 — 9:57
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Kenny: Knowing how elegant and useful logic is I am inclined to believe that God’s willing that reality conform to logic does follow necessarily from God’s character. But even if it isn’t so, that would change nothing in my argument which is that God’s will is foundational even in relation to logic. (And, I trust we agree, it’s not the case that unless a particular choice follows necessarily from one’s character it is arbitrary.) Finally, clearly, God has God’s character necessarily, for a being without God’s character is not God.
    Now the fact that we ourselves are personal beings gives us direct insights into the personal nature of God. So even though I agree that (2) and (4) are consistent, I find that (5) is false, and demonstrably so. For example I have the power to right now comment on your post by heaping verbal abuse on you, but it is not possible that I will choose to exercise that power. I know and I can authoritatively state that in any possible world in which somebody looking like me (or even being physically identical to me) right now chooses to comment by heaping verbal abuse on you, that person is not me. More generally, to use modal logic while arguing about persons is a difficult project, for one must take into account what a person’s character *makes* impossible. (Thus one should perhaps distinguish between three levels of possibility: what’s logically possible, what’s metaphysically possible, and what’s personally possible. God willed creation to be such that only what is both logically, metaphysically, and personally possible may become actual.)
    Of course apart from such cases, there are many other cases where it is possible (indeed not at all improbable) that I will exercise my power to choose evil. Such is my current character. But in God’s condition this is never possible. Thus there is no contradiction, or even conceptual tension, between the propositions “it is not possible that God will choose evil” and “God is free – or has the power – to choose evil”.

    December 6, 2012 — 12:41
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex, it seems to me that “omnipotence” refers to the efficaciousness of God’s will. Please observe that St Augustine says that *God* is called omnipotent on account of God doing what God wills – from which it does not follow that we should call omnipotent any dimwitted fellow who also does what she wills.
    Theists believe that what’s metaphysically ultimate has a personal nature (i.e. is not less than a person) and has some personal properties such as being all-good, omniscient, and omnipotent. That being theists call “God”. This far everybody agrees. Now some people disagree about how we should understand God’s all-goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence. And based on particular definitions people argue about conceptual conflicts and paradoxes. I find that St Augustine’s definition that God’s omnipotence means that God does what God wants 1) is very simple and understandable, 2) sits very naturally with St Anselm’s general definition of God as that which nothing greater can be conceived, and 3) is impervious to atheologian arguments about incoherence and paradoxes I know of. Moreover, it strongly suggests what seems to me to be a very good definition of omniscience, namely that God knows what God wants to know.

    December 6, 2012 — 13:03
  • Kenny:
    Lewis, of course, is going to be a Humean about causal powers. There is not much reason for a Humean to be worried about causal circles

    December 7, 2012 — 9:41
  • Dianelos:
    That’s true, but then the concept of omnipotence isn’t just about doing what one wills–the other divine attributes somehow get involved. And so more needs to be said.

    December 7, 2012 — 9:43
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex, since personhood is an ontological unity (or “simple” in the scholastic sense), it is only natural that the foundational concepts about personhood are interrelated. Indeed I happen to believe that the Christian concept of the Trinity does not only refer to God’s nature, but to personal nature in general. Thus we can understand better God’s Trinitarian nature by considering our own personal condition. While at the same time being careful to distinguish which properties of our condition are intrinsic properties of personhood, and which are transient properties of our imperfect personal state.
    Kenny, I think that voluntarism is basically right in that will is ontologically foundational. Will realizes the active hypostasis of personhood, and thus, in Christian terms, perfect will (i.e. God’s will) should be identified with Christ. In contrast, intellect is not ontologically foundational, it seems to me. Rather, the intellect is a property of an imperfect personal condition. Through thought and reason we overcome the cognitive limitations we are born with to approach truth. (More specifically, the intellect, among other causes, moves us to contemplate truth, and love moves us to merge with truth.) But truth is the very nature of God, and thus God does not need thought or reasoning to arrive at truth – indeed even to speak of “God arriving at truth” is incoherent. It is I think a false projection from our own imperfect condition to visualize God “thinking” about which reality to create, or about how to interact with it. There is no conceptual gap or ontological mechanism between God’s will and creation, nor between God’s will and knowledge.

    December 15, 2012 — 2:03
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