An Argument for the View that God has a Sense of Humor
Does God have a sense of humor? Here is one argument to think that he does. Let us start with the following uncontroversial premise:
(1) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for human beings.
This does not seem to need much by way of defense: surely, ceteris paribus, we prefer someone with a sense of humor over someone without a sense of humor. In fact, when asked what we deem most important in relationships with other persons, the attribute of humor is usually in the top five. The second premise is as follows:
(2) For any property P, if P is a good-making property for entity X and P is intrinsically good, then for any entity Y that can have P, P will be a good-making property for Y.
Let me point out two important features of this premise. First, it says that if something is a good-making property for X, then it is a good-making property for Y if Y can have that property. The following example illustrates the relevance of this restriction. It is good for a building to be hurricane-resistant. However, since God is an immaterial being, it would be ridiculous to think that God is hurricane-resistant. God does not even have all good-making properties that humans have. Being a fast swimmer is a good-making property, but, of course, God is not a fast swimmer—nor is he a slow or an average one; he is simply not a swimmer at all, given that he does not have a body. That some property P (say, being hurricane-resistant or being a good swimmer) is a good property for one thing X (say, a building or a human being) does not mean that it is also a good-making property for some other thing Y (say, God). Only if Y can have that property is it good-making for Y.
A second important feature of (2) is that it is restricted to properties that are intrinsically good. It is a matter of philosophical debate precisely how we are to spell out what it is for goodness to be intrinsic rather than instrumental, but it seems the following will do for our purposes: something is intrinsically good if it is good in itself or for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. It is good that the water in my cup is fluid, but merely because I want to drink it. It is, therefore, merely instrumentally good. However, the beauty of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride or the courage of a fireman who attempts to save someone’s life by risking his own life are intrinsically good, because they are good in themselves and for their own sake.
The third premise is:
(3) Having a sense of humor is a property that is intrinsically good.
To have a sense of humor seems to be a property that is intrinsically rather than (merely) instrumentally good. To have a sense of humor is good in itself or for its own sake, not merely because it is a means to something else. Among the things that are usually considered to be intrinsically good are happiness, beatitude, contentment, and pleasures and satisfactions of certain kinds. To be amused seems to be one of the pleasures and satisfactions that are intrinsically good, for it seems that if someone is amused at something and there is nothing morally wrong about that, then that is a good thing in itself: it need not serve any further purpose in order to be good.
From (1) through (3) it follows that:
(4) If God can have a sense of humor, then having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise is:
(5) God can have a sense of humor.
I return to this premise below. (4) and (5) together allow us to infer that:
(6) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise says that:
(7) If having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God, he has that property.
And from (6) and (7) we conclude that:
(8) God has the property of having a sense of humor.
Let me now defend the two premises not yet discussed. The reason to embrace (7) is that God is perfect in all regards. This is not to say that God will have any good-making property that he could have. It is, presumably, a good-making property of God that he has actualized the actual world. Assuming that God was free in actualizing this possible world, he could have actualized another possible world, and if he had done so, he would have exemplified the good-making property of having actualized that possible world. But God cannot actualize this possible world and another possible world. Hence, God will not have all good-making properties that he could have. With the property of having a sense of humor, things are different, though. There seems no property or set of properties that God contingently exemplifies, such as having actualized this possible world or having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that rules out his having a sense of humor.
This leaves us with (5), which says that God can have a sense of humor. Is this true? Well, I see no reason to think that it conflicts with God’s omniscience. And I cannot think of a good reason to think that it would be ruled about by God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, or any other properties that are traditionally ascribed to God as essential properties that he has. There seems to be nothing in the nature of being amused or having the disposition to be amused that is ruled out by God’s nature. Thus, for all we know, God can have a sense of humor.
It follows from the argument that God has a sense of humor.
Aquinas notes that some analyses of omnipotence have a serious problem: they reduce the apparently substantive claim “God is omnipotent” to the trivial claim that God “can do all that He is able to do.” Now, perhaps it is true that to be omnipotent is to be able to do everything God is able to do (or at least that omnipotence entails this), but this is hardly an illuminating analysis.
In several places in his Anselmian Explorations, Thomas Morris defends the view that the Anselmian God is the ‘delimiter of possibilities.’ This view has been endorsed by other Anselmians, and I am inclined to it myself. What Morris means by it is that many apparently conceivable worlds are in fact impossible precisely because it is impossible that God should permit them. God exists necessarily, and no world can be actual except by God’s permission. Hence if God’s character (or whatever) prevents him from permitting a state of affairs, then that state of affairs is not genuinely possible.
When this view is combined with a result theory of omnipotence, Aquinas’s worry recurs.
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:
All of the extant definitions of omnipotence are missing what seems to me to be an important ingredient. A typical definition says something like: “God can do anything that’s logically possible.” But that’s not quite enough. One needs to specify that God can do everything effortlessly. This is an easy emendation, of course, but an important one.
The first and third arguments use S5. I will leave filling in the steps in the arguments as an exercise (maybe not so easy in the case of A) for the reader, though I can help out as needed.
Argument A (in a paper I have in Szatkowski’s forthcoming anthology on ontological arguments):
- Necessarily, if a property B is limiting, so is any property A that entails B.
- Necessarily, if a property B is limiting, its negation is not limiting.
- Possibly lacking existence is limiting.
- Possibly lacking omniscience is limiting.
- Possibly lacking omnipotence is limiting.
- Possibly lacking perfect goodness is limiting.
- Possibly not being creator of everything else is limiting.
- It is not possible that x is a creator of y while y is a creator of x.
- So, there exists a necessary being that is essentially omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good and creator of everything else. This being has every property that it would be limiting to possibly-lack.
- Every first-order truth is knowable.
- The conjunction of all basic first-order truths exists and is a first-order truth.
- If all the basic first-order truths of a world w1 hold at a world w2, then w2=w1.
- Necessarily, if someone knows p, then p is true.
- So, there actually is a being that knows the conjunction of all basic first-order truths.
I don’t have an account of “basic”. Perhaps fundamental will do. I am thinking of “basic” here as a placeholder for a notion that makes (11) and (12) true.
- Possibly, an unlimited being exists.
- Necessarily, for every proposition q that is possibly true, there is a state of affairs p(q) such that p(q) grounds the possibility of q.
- Necessarily, if s grounds the possibility of x not existing or the possibility of x being limited, then s limits x.
- Necessarily, nothing limits an unlimited being.
- So, there is an unlimited being.
Let E (for ‘election’) be the proposition which says de re of each person who will in fact be saved that he or she will be saved. That is, E is the longest conjunction of the form ‘John will be saved, and Mary will be saved, and Lois will be saved…’ which is true. Let R (for ‘reprobation’) be the proposition which says de re of each person who will in fact be damned that he or she will be damned.
The doctrine of predestination is the doctrine that God, from eternity, has issued an efficacious decree of election – that is, God, from eternity, effectively chose that E should be true. The doctrine of double predestination states that in addition to the decree of election, God also issued a decree of reprobation – that is, in addition to effectively choosing that E should be true, God effectively chose that R should be true.
Double predestination is much more contentious among Christians than predestination (although predestination is not entirely uncontroversial – for instance, open theists will have to deny it). Many Christians would rather have single predestination, holding that all people are, on their own, bound for hell, and God intervenes to save those he wishes to save, and just leaves the rest alone.
In his Philosophical Theology (1969), James F. Ross proposes the following analysis of omnipotence:
S is omnipotent if and only if for every logically contingent state of affairs, p, whether p or ~p is the case is logically equivalent to the effective choice, by S, that p or that ~p (respectively). (p. 211)
This analysis appears to have the consequence that, if God is omnipotent, then double predestination is true. Both E and R are true contingent propositions, so if God is omnipotent then God effectively chooses that the corresponding states of affairs should be the case.
I remember encountering as an undergrad the notion (Mackie?) that moral properties were “queer.” Then I remember reading some stuff in Phil Mind about “ectoplasm” and “spook stuff” with attributions of mental substance as “spooky.” I don’t know where this nonsense got started, but I was surprised “real” philosophers would play this kind of card. It is nothing less than a cop out. I once asked a famous atheist why he didn’t believe in God, and he said because it was just “weird” and compared it to belief in numbers. Not acceptable. We’re stuck with the weird. Peter van Inwagen is eloquent on this: that we face a choice among mysteries, not a choice between mystery and something else (actually I said that, but he inspired me to say it).
The famous Stone Paradox asks, ‘can an omnipotent being make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?’ A simpler question, and one which I think makes the issues clearer, is, ‘can an omnipotent being fail?’
If a being can fail, then there is something that being doesn’t have the power to do, namely, whatever it is it can fail to do. If a being can’t fail, then there is something it doesn’t have the power to do, namely, to fail.
Now, we sometimes have chancy powers/abilities, as, for instance, in J. L. Austin’s famous example, the power to sink a putt from a certain distance. The possibility of failure is compatible with this sort of power. However, surely when we ascribe omnipotence to God, we don’t mean to say that he has chancy powers of this sort; we mean that he has infallible powers. In fact, I would claim, in ascribing omnipotence to God, part of what we mean is precisely that he can’t fail to do anything he tries to do. (This isn’t all we mean; to avoid some counterexamples, we need some conditions about what he can try to do. In an as-yet-unpublished paper, Alexander Pruss and I argue that this additional condition is perfect freedom of will.)
Call the following property ‘act-omnipotence’:
S is act-omnipotent =df. S can perform a token of any logically possible action-type
We can turn the above reasoning into an argument that act-omnipotence is inconsistent with omnipotence:
- If a being can fail, that being is not omnipotent.
- If a being cannot fail, that being is not act-omnipotent.
- Every being either can fail or cannot fail.
- No being is both omnipotent and act-omnipotent.
In my last post, I discussed Sobel’s proposal that, since the Stone Paradox shows essential omnipotence to be incoherent, the traditional God, since he would have his properties essentially, would have essential ONSLIP, or only necessarily self-limited power, but that this would not amount to omnipotence. Here I want to propose an alternative account of omnipotence, an attribute worthy of that name and which would be had essentially. First, however, we must distinguish power from freedom. To be omnipotent is to be all powerful. God is also supposed to be free in his exercise of power, and this creates a number of problems, some of which were discussed on my personal blog at the beginning of this series. I take it that the relevant type of power, the kind that agents have, is simply the ability to do what one wants, or to bring about one’s ends, whereas freedom is something more complicated. This immediately suggests the following definition of omnipotence:
S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p.
To prevent any ambiguities, here it is in symbols:
S is omnipotent =df. □∀p[(p is a proposition & S wills that p) -> p]
So an omnipotent being’s will would always be fulfilled as a matter of logical necessity. Now that’s power! Furthermore, omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.
Here are some interesting features/consequences of this definition:
- The definition follows Alexander Pruss‘s suggestion on the earlier post that omnipotence be construed as having to do with the range of states of affairs God can bring about.
- If the value of S substituted into the sentence (e.g. ‘God’) is a rigid designator, and the necessity is interpreted as being of the ‘broadly logical’ type, then omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.
- The conditional in the definition is intended to be a material conditional. As a result, if there are any necessarily false propositions (and there are), then the definition entails, by the Distribution Axiom of modal logic, that, necessarily, those propositions are not willed by an omnipotent being. That is, □~(2+2=5) and God’s omnipotence (as defined) jointly entail □~(God wills that 2+2=5).
- The definition entails that an omnipotent being’s higher-order volitions (if any) are satisfied, which is thought by some (e.g. Frankfurt) to be important for freedom. That is, if God wills to will what is good, then (necessarily) he wills what is good.
But you might be worried about something (at least if you are not a Humean about causation and/or abilities): what if S wills only things that come about because S’s will is conformed to reality, rather than reality being conformed to S’s will? It is not clear that this is coherent: some philosophers think that the difference between belief and propositional desire/volition is the ‘direction of fit’ – that is, we try to conform our beliefs to the world, but we try to conform the world to our desires. If a being’s (so-called) ‘desires’ were actually conformed to the world, rather than vice versa, they might turn out not to be desires at all, but rather beliefs. But in case this response doesn’t work, we can easily modify the formula:
S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p because S wills it
Now, cashing out the ‘because’ might be tough, but if we are non-Humean enough to care about the problem, then presumably we are non-Humean enough to think that some sense can be given to ‘because’ here.
I cannot see that omnipotence, defined this way, generates any paradoxes by itself. Certainly it is unaffected by Sobel’s objections. It may, however, have complicated interactions with other divine attributes, especially freedom (there are things that God can’t will). The current definition looks like it plays nice with compatibilism, but it is not so clear that it plays nice with libertarianism.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.]
After considering arguments for the existence of God, Sobel has a brief interlude on the divine attributes, before going on to arguments against the existence of God. Chapter 9 concerns omnipotence and the famous Stone Paradox. Sobel defines omnipotence (roughly) as the ability to do anything that can be done. (He improves this basic definition in a few ways, but these need not concern us.) The Stone Paradox, Sobel rightly recognizes, is no real problem for omnipotence as such, for if a being can do anything that can be done, then that being can take away some of the powers it has, just as I can take away some of the powers that I have. As a result, there is no problem with an omnipotent being creating a stone it can’t lift; it is simply that it must lay aside its omnipotence in the process. However, as this analysis shows, essential omnipotence is something else altogether, and this points to a more general problem: the God of the religious tradition has essential properties (in fact, it is most common, historically, for theologians to hold that he has all of his properties essentially). But then there are things I can do that God can’t, such as making myself less knowledgeable. (Of course, God could make me less knowledgeable; what he couldn’t do is make himself less knowledgeable.) Sobel comes up with a proposal for a coherent understanding of the feature the theologians want to attribute to God, but denies that this feature is properly described as ‘omnipotence’. In this post I will discuss Sobel’s proposal. In the next post, I will make a proposal of my own, and argue that it is sensible to call the feature I identify ‘omnipotence.’
Sobel says that although nothing could be essentially omnipotent, a being could possess a feature Sobel calls ‘only necessarily self-limited power’ (ONSLIP). This is the property of being such that:
[one is] capable of each task t that it is logically possible that some being should do, which is such that (i) for each attribute, if any, that x has essentially, x’s performing t is consistent with its having this attribute … and (ii) if x has necessary everlasting existence, then performing t is consistent with its continuing to exist. (p. 365)
In other words, God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature. This is, I think, the sort of thing the theologians have in mind. However, as Sobel points out, a being might have this feature and not be anything like omnipotent. To use his example, a being might be “essentially incapable of creating something from nothing” (ibid.), and so be an ONSLIP without having that power. So Sobel is right that the property of being an ONSLIP ought not to be called ‘omnipotence’ (or ‘almightiness’). I wonder, however, if perhaps we might get an omnipotence “worth the name” by specifying the sorts of attributes the being can have essentially. For instance, an ONSLIP who essentially possesses all positive properties (if we can get a decent understanding of ‘positive’ in this context) is not going to seem limited to us in the way an ONSLIP who is essentially incapable of creating something from nothing does.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]