I am writing this as a response to an older article on the attributes of God. There are really two arguments given, one labeled against the Christian God specifically and one against an omniscient God in general. I will critique the two arguments in the order in which they are presented in the original article, entitled “A Possible Disproof of God’s Existence.”
(1) If God exists, then God is necessarily omnipotent and necessarily triune
(2) If God is necessarily omnipotent, then God necessarily can bring about any logically possible state of affairs
(3) If God necessarily can bring about any logically possible state of affairs, then God necessarily can bring about a state of affairs that is brought about by a being that is not necessarily triune
(4) If God necessarily can bring about a state of affairs that is brought about by a being that is not necessarily triune, then God is not necessarily triune
(5) Therefore, God does not and cannot exist.
This can be a difficult argument to understand, and it is imperative to understand what the atheist is saying here. The first premise is what, typically, a Christian philosopher will claim. The second premise is an attempted definition of omnipotence, which is to say that it is “bringing about any logically possible state of affairs.” The third premise is important. It postulates that a being that is not necessarily triune (read: any of us) can bring about a logically possible state of affairs, and that this itself is a logically possible state of affairs. Hence, God necessarily can bring that about. But notice the problem: in premise 4, it is the case that the one “bringing about” the state of affairs is not necessarily triune, but God is the one bringing about the state of affairs. Hence, God is not necessarily triune. Hence, the Christian God does not and cannot exist.
The good news is that there are a number of insurmountable (I think) problems with this argument. First, we should start with the definition of omnipotence. I think that (2) is false. While this may shock some people, I would ask you to think of would counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are the sorts of statements that describe what free creatures would freely choose to do or not do given fully-specified circumstances. Consider that it is logically possible that “If Randy finds himself in C, then he freely beats his wife,” where C is the actual world up until five minutes from now. I could do it, but it’s hardly true to say, “If Randy were to find himself in C, then he would freely beat his wife”! Given the truth of some counterfactuals to the exclusion of their negations, some logically possible states of affairs are not feasible for God to “actualize” (this term shall be considered a synonym for “bring about” unless and until I am corrected). So unless some other outside argument is offered for why there are no would-counterfactuals or something defeating this objection, I think (2) stands as clearly false. In that case, the conclusion does not follow. So what is needed is something like:
2*. If God is necessarily omnipotent, then God necessarily can bring about any logically possible state of affairs that is feasible.
Let’s compare that now with (3). When we do, we see the argument is clearly logically invalid, for the antecedent of (3) does not match the antecedent of (2*). So let’s change (3) to:
3*. If God necessarily can bring about any logically possible state of affairs that is feasible, then God necessarily can bring about a state of affairs that is brought about by a being that is not necessarily triune.
What about (3*)? It is valid, but is the premise actually true? I think not. Assuming a univocal sense for the terms “bring about” and “brought about” it does not seem to be true that such a consequent is actually a state of affairs feasible for God to bring about. After all, since (4) alleges that it follows that God both is and is not necessarily triune, and such a state of affairs is not feasible for God to create. That is, there is no possible world that God may actualize that reflects the propositional content. Hence, (3*) is also false.
Now let’s compare this with (4). This premise is valid but since all of the other steps fail, the conclusion does not follow. It seems we have ample reason to reject the argument. However, even more problems remain.
Next, even if we grant the definition of omnipotence the argument claims (though I am loathe to do so), I think the argument is still incorrect. Premises of this type take the form “if P, then Q,” where P stands for the content of the antecedent (the “if” part) and Q stands for the content of the consequent (the “then” part). The first premise would look like this:
P Q R
If God exists, then God is necessarily omnipotent and necessarily triune.
In that case, the entire argument looks like:
1. If P, then Q & R.
2. If Q, then S.
3. If S, then T.
4. If T, then not-R.
5. Therefore, necessarily not-P.
In this case, even granting (2), I maintain that (3) is false when “bring about” and “brought about” are taken in a univocal, rather than equivocal, sense. For “God brings it about that some act X is brought about by a not-necessarily triune being,” which is just the same as saying “God brings it about that some act X is brought about by not-God,” which is itself not a logically possible state of affairs.
This also commits a subtle move that I think is worth exploring: In (2), we have the claim that God can bring about any logically possible state of affairs. So, in (3), we are supposedly given some. But what we are really given is a second-order type of proposition or state of affairs. It is not something like “the state of affairs being Jenny goes to the lake at six o’clock,” but rather “the state of affairs being the state of affairs brought about by X” (where X is understood to be not-necessarily triune). This is quite like saying “it is true that it is true that P,” and should not be compared as exactly identical to first –order propositions, such as “it is true that P.” I think it is clear (2) is describing “first-order” states of affairs, while (3) is describing “second-order” states of affairs. But in that case, there are too many terms, and hence the argument’s move from (2) to (3) is fallacious.
Even if we brush this aside, and declare the terms “bring about” and “brought about” to be equivocal, problems remain. For what exactly do we mean by “bring about” for God and “brought about” for a non-triune being? Do we mean “strong actualization” for God and “weak actualization” for man; or do we mean “primary cause” for God and “secondary cause for man”? If we do, then the argument does not follow. Why? Since there are different kinds of causation, there’s no reason God could not be the primary cause for a state of affairs that some regular Joe caused secondarily. To illustrate using the terms, consider (2-4) again:
2. If Q, then God can S.
3. If God can S, then God can S that is not-R.
4. If God can S that is not-R, then God is not-R.
This is just not so.
Finally, I see a parallel between the modality used in this argument and the one used in the problem of the stone. In the latter, Swartz believes the well-known “modal fallacy” is being employed, and I can’t help but suspect it may be in play here as well. He claims that there are actually two arguments thrust together in an “unholy amalgam.”
The arguments are as follows (reading G=God is necessarily omnipotent and necessarily triune and B=God brings about a logically possible state of affairs brought about by a non-necessarily triune being).
7. Necessarily-B entails not-G.
8. Therefore, G entails not-G.
9. Therefore, not-G.
The problem is that (7) is false, as we have seen. The true premise is something more like:
7*. B entails not-G.
That is to say, only if God actually brings it about, per the definition of omnipotence given in (2), a state of affairs that is brought about by a non-necessarily triune being is the entailment that “God is necessarily omnipotent and necessarily triune” false. But what is odd is that Swartz maintains even this true premise isn’t enough to get us a valid argument. As he points out, to make the argument valid, one would have to give us the truth of:
in order to get the conclusion found in (9). But in that case, it is true that so long as God refrains from doing this action, then there’s simply no problem. In other words, the argument commits the modal fallacy. So we see there are a variety of good reasons to reject the argument.
As to the argument against God in general, it looks similar. So similar, in fact, I shall not reproduce it here. Literally every objection lodged against the first argument may be lodged against the second. In short, this argument fails, and no one should be troubled by it.
 Norman Swartz, “The Modal Fallacy,” http://www.sfu.ca/~swartz/modal_fallacy.htm#omnipotence, accessed
August 26, 2011.
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