The Little Onion

In a previous post I discussed the philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife, and ended with a parable from Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion. I was asked what I thought would have happened if she hadn’t kicked out, shaking off the hangers-on, and whether it would conflict with traditional notions of afterlife reward and punishment.

I think the first thing to say is that in the Christian tradition we can never talk about simply ‘my’ salvation – it is always our salvation – so the old woman was wrong to think that she could be justified in kicking the others off – she is not the one to decide how God might work with that one good action of hers – or rather if she does set herself up as the arbiter of that she will be sinning – and equally our bad actions have consequences that we cannot foresee. I think this can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil’, and I think this is a key part of what Father Zosima means when he says of man:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.” (The Brothers Karamazov 4.1.2)

Certainly this was also Von Balthasar’s view. It is our salvation not my salvation – it is also our sin, not other’s sin – which is a temptation we all know well, to point the finger of blame – in fact Zosima goes further even than this:

“make yourself responsible for all the sins of men […] by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” (6.3.g)

If we do not take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged, for as ye mete out, in the same measure it will be meted to you” and keep constant vigil on our thoughts, we will end up cooperating with evil. It is not enough just to follow the laws. This interconnectedness of all humans on the moral level is taught by all the great saints and mystics, as well as by Christ himself.

What does this mean then for the old woman? She could have brought people out of hell with her one little onion. The fact that she did not remain still and started selfishly kicking indicates that if you spend a lifetime nourishing mean-spirited habits, those habits will eat into any spark of goodness and grace that you have offered in your life, such that, whilst that single act of generosity would be enough to save not just one but many, it would be overcome by the darkness of habitual sin – such is the gravity of accumulated vice – or karma as it is known in the East.

Looking in more depth at the kicking out at the hangers on – I think this act of violence was as Rowan Williams says “the determination to distinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted”.

Because the giving of the one small onion, even in its finitude and apparent paltriness as a moral action, nonetheless reflected the absolute gratuity of the universe as gift, it was strong enough to pull out many when received back as gift from the angel.

But the old habitual ‘instrumental mentality’ takes over, and as soon as the old woman makes the decision about what can or cannot be granted to the other, the fragility of that same gift in relation to freedom is revealed.

To end with some more from Rowan Williams:

“Because all of them [the issues that arise in Dostoevsky’s fiction] are in one way or another grounded in the question of what we owe to each other, they are all of them connected to the problem of lack of depth [what Charles Taylor calls the ‘buffered self’] and the instrumental mentality which flows from this. Owing something to another is a recognition that what my relation with that other properly involves cannot be reduced to what I decide, to what I choose to “grant” to the other. And the inexpressible or inexhaustible hinterland of the other is precisely what exceeds my choice and has no need of my license.

For Dostoevsky one of the characteristic motives in planned violence, individual or political, is the determination to extinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted. And the contemporary cultural scene is one which strongly suggests that there is more than one style of violence directed against these rebel dimensions in humanity: to take the most obvious example, the global economy works on the assumption that local solidarities and patterns of shared meaning are all accidental to the fundamental practice of human beings in the world, which is the unrestricted exchange of commodity and currency. All particulars are levelled or assimilated to each other on the principle that everything has an exchange value that can be clearly determined. And the principle is applied equally to objects and to practices and skills: hence it becomes possible to quantify quite strictly the value of activities that were formerly regarded as given meaning by their intrinsic human worthwhileness, and surrounded accordingly by informal cultures and disciplines. The point at which the activity of nursing the sick can be expressed in terms of a producer supplying a customer is the point at which the culture of nursing the sick begins to disappear. It is replaced by contractual negotiations of power between the two interests represented, producer or supplier and consumer: whose will is going to be secured and protected? What do I need to concede in negotiation so as to secure the maximum amount of liberty for my future choices? And when such contracts cease to be satisfactory, there is no relation left; the other has ceased to be properly instrumental to my will and can be safely discarded.”

What does it mean to be you?

Interesting short video here on the nature of identity. Asking prominent philosophers and scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and others what they are. The general answer is a physicalist or materialist one, unsurprisingly as the video has been uploaded by Julian Baggini, a prominent atheist and physicalist philosopher, and memes seem to be a part of the explanation. Take for instance Dennett’s answer:

“What I am is a consortium of memes that have taken domicile in my brain that control the teams of neural agents that compose my brain to get them to work together to control my body, to keep track of my beliefs and desires, and to further my projects”

Of course, the question of identity has a long history in religion and philosophy. 2500 years ago the Buddha came to the conclusion that there was no abiding permanent self, that ‘I’ am a collection of aggregates (or skandhas in sanskrit) which are things like feeling, mental formations, and sensations, however these have no essence in themselves. David Hume came to similar conclusions when he applied his method of skepticism to his own experience: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception” (Treatise,

Gilbert Ryle thought that it was good to have a common-sense view of the self, and that people who claim there is a soul are guilty of an error of thinking – mistaking the functioning of the whole thing for a separate entity. This is a popular view – Baggini states a form of it here in his H2O example.

So how far does the idea that we are not an abiding self, but rather a process or stream of experiences, constantly changing, lead us to have to accept physicalist or materialist accounts of the world? This question interests me. It seems to me that there is an assumption in the modern ‘meme’ account of identity that because we can find no underlying permanent basis for identity beyond the functioning of processes that are based in brain and body, that we then have to accept the view that the brain and body are what we ‘really’ are.  Ryle was not himself a materialist, so clearly didn’t think that this account of self had to be part of a materialist worldview (although it is hard to say what worldview Ryle really had!). And Keith Ward, in his book More Than Matter, shows that although reductive materialism is the current prevailing orthodoxy, there is no logical reason why, just because ‘I’ means a collection of processes without a central essence, that therefore mind is nothing but a physical phenomenon seen from a subjective viewpoint, and therefore really illusory:

“A Cartesian hangover from Aristotle was the notion of substance, an enduring substratum that could contain various changing properties. For many philosophers, this was slowly replaced by the idea of process, of a flowing succession of properties, located in space and time… The idea of strict numerical identity was replaced by the idea of a succession of properties, “identity” being largely a matter of degree and convenience…In modern science, questions of identity are often treated as matters for conventional decision, upon which nothing much turns. With personal and mental lives, however, the idea of identity becomes morally important. It matters to me whether tomorrow I will remember the plans I made yesterday and be able to continue them or whether I will take over the plans of someone else and pass them on to another person in turn. “This is just what I planned to do ” is very different from “This is what he would have wanted me to do”. It is the chain of privately accessible experiences and actions, thoughts and intentions, that makes the difference. When one and only one person can have such private access then I could reasonably say that the same personal subject of experience and action continues to exist. The sense of being one and the same continuing subject of many experiences and acts is important to a person. That I think is what Descartes meant by a mental substance. For that reason there is little or no substantial difference between being a mental substance and being a process of of privately accessible, temporally flowing events and acts. That is just what being a mental substance is. 

So, although we are chains of mental events or processes, because we privately experience the continuity of that chain in our sense of self, regardless of the actual discontinuity of one event from the next, that is what counts as our identity. But Dennett would say that this sense of continuity is actually illusory and is better described as the action of memes within my perceptual and experiential field. There is really no me as I think of it.

I think Ward is saying that if that is an illusion it is one that we can’t act without having, and that any reasonable explanation of human actions would have to take into account this very illusion as part of the explanation. In other words if we do think we can explain human actions wholly in terms of memes we are missing an important element of the equation.

Assess the claim that the universe provides no evidence for the existence of an omnipotent God. (35)

Here is my attempt at doing the Jan 2012 A2 question on omnipotence. I did it cold with no notes in 45 mins and you can tell!

Edit: I will be adding my own revisions to this essay in bold soon to show what I think I should have included. In the meantime, if you’re interested, there is a good discussion of omnipotence in chapter 13 of the Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy. Oh, and if I had to give this essay a grade I reckon it’s a C as it stands! I really feel sorry for you A Level students – it’s really hard to do anything in 45 minutes!

A posteriori arguments from the universe or its features to God often claim that God needs to be omnipotent to guarantee the particular nature of the universe that we live in but how true is this? Surely to provide many of these features you don not need an all-powerful God, simply a very powerful one? For instance Kant argues that God is needed to guarantee the summum bonum and punishment or reward in the afterlife, but it has been noted that a very powerful angel might be able to provide the same thing.

Before we can assess this we need to be aware of the different ways in which omnipotence is defined. The classical definition as formulated by Aquinas says that God is all-powerful meaning that he can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This solves many of the problems that people such as Dawkins have claimed make omnipotence incoherent. For instance, Dawkins said that it had not escaped atheist’s notice that if God knew that he was going to intervene in the future history of the world (because of his omniscience) then he was not free to refrain from doing so, which constrained his omnipotence. Of course, this seems to be a problem unless a full understanding of God’s character as eternal and simple is grasped.

The key is in the words ‘logically possible’ – Aquinas argues that God can do everything it is logically possible to do but not the logically impossible because this would be self-contradictory. He says that for instance he cannot change the past, because it is logically impossible for something both to have happened and not to have happened at the same time. Even God cannot make this contradiction true. This applies also to Dawkins’ problem – God cannot logically both decide and not decide to do something at the same time.

Others like Descartes claim that this is too great a restraint on God and that he can do both the logically possible and impossible, so he can make a square circle for example. Thirdly and finally, Kenny argues that omnipotence is an expression of the great power of God, but doesn’t necessarily see this as meaning he can do anything.

When we come to the question of whether the universe provides any evidence for any of these kinds of omnipotence we have a difficult task. There seem to be no reasons to particularly favour the first two kinds of omnipotence – the existence of evil and suffering in the universe seems to particularly imply that any design we find is flawed, and therefore that if there was a designer he may not have been able to prevent these flaws (especially if we believe he also is omnibenevolent).

On the other hand the sheer existence of the whole of space-time as the universe might need explaining (as eg. Copleston thought), in which case it seems illogical to argue that the creator of that was not omnipotent – after all, this being would have to be radically free of space and time itself, and thus would be so unlike us or anything else in the universe that it would surely need to be omnipotent?

Many would argue that the concept of God’s omnipotence is not so much a logical consequence of evidence from the universe but that it logically follows from the concept of God itself – they would thus be using a priori arguments like the ontological argument where God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. If we accept this as the definition of God, they argue, then we need to accept that God is omnipotent in the classical sense.

In conclusion the evidence from the universe to a classically omnipotent God would seem to be very thin – rather we might need to accept Kenny’s definition and say that if there is a creator of the universe he might need to be only very powerful, and say that in the form of life of our faith, claims for omnipotence of God are expressions of our beliefs as a network that ties together different elements of our lives – in the religious language game, God’s omnipotence plays a meaningful role not subject to questions of truth and falsity from the standpoint of objective evidence. But in doing this we may be guilty of Flew’s ‘death by a thousand qualifications’.

After doing this I suddenly remembered miracles and religious experience as well as Biblical notions of God as a good creator! This shows how important it is to revise all the topics as many times at A2 it is the connections across topics – the synoptic element – that really counts, and a question on the nature of God is going to rely on these connections. So here’s what I would add:

Some religious believers would maintain that miracles are evidence of an omnipotent God, as scripture in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is seen as the unfolding  revelation of God through His intervention in history, specifically displaying his power over evil and the ultimate triumph of good. God is not merely as powerful as Satan – goodness is not on the same level as evil – love conquers all. Miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus to life or the granting of Hannah’s prayer for a child are all seen as the omnipotent power of God’s love. In the Christian tradition it is paradoxically Christ’s sacrificial death and suffering that guarantees this omnipotence.

Vardy claims this is another definition of omnipotence – as the irresistible power of God’s love – and uses St Teresa’s words – “Christ has no hands now on earth but ours” to show that an omnipotent God may still work through selfless acts of love by humans. So omnipotence does not refer to the acts of a creator god but to the inherent power of humans to love selflessly. This would be a revisionary view and it is open to the question of how closely it fits in with the beliefs of Christians – do we want to limit God’s action only to the work he does through us?

The other problem is whether it can be claimed that because scripture says in many places that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe (eg. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’) this counts as evidence – many argue that scripture is propositional revelation and that such statements are literal descriptions. However, this assumes a faith standpoint and would not seem to be verifiable outside of this context.

Dawkin’s dilemma given at the beginning is also not as easily solvable as I said:

It appears that God could not choose to do an action because the notion of choice is fundamentally one of time implying a time before and after the action. It is not easy to see how God could choose timelessly – surely God is compelled by God’s own nature to act necessarily? This appears to be a logical problem with God’s omnipotence as he would be constrained from acting freely. This limit set on omnipotence would be another challenge to the idea of omnipotence as classically understood and might be decisive in any attempt to decide from evidence whether God is omnipotent.

Finally theists might argue that the only evidence needed for God’s omnipotence is his ability to make his presence felt personally to people through religious experience. For instance Rudolf Otto talked of the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ in which God manifests himself to people as an awe-inspiring and terrifying experience, thus demonstrating his majesty and power. This might lead many to conclude that these displays of power show his omnipotence in a direct sense.

However, as Freud, Feuerbach amongst others have shown, religious experiences like these may be products of the mind, projections of neurotic contents and so have physiological or psychological bases. In conclusion, it seems unlikely that any of these pieces of ‘evidence’ constitute strong enough evidence for God as omnipotent.

The Nature of God – Omniscience

The Problem – if God knows what I’m going to do in the future I am not free to choose. Often stated as something like “If God knows I’m going to have muesli for breakfast tomorrow morning I’m not free to have toast.”

One answer, going back to Boethius is given here by C S Lewis:

[in a discussion of how man can have Free Will if God is omniscient]

“Strictly speaking, He never foresees; He simply sees. Your ‘future’ is only an area, and only for us a special area, of His infinite Now. He sees (not remembers) your yesterday’s acts because yesterday is still ‘there’ for Him; he sees (not foresees) your tomorrow’s acts because He is already in tomorrow. As a human spectator, by watching my present act, does not at all infringe its freedom, so I am none the less free to act as I choose in the future because God, in that future (His present) watches me acting.”

Omniscience question from Jan 2010 – with mark scheme

Critically assess the philosophical problems raised by the belief that God is Omniscient. [35]
Candidates may begin by placing this particular aspect of beliefs about God within the general discussion about God’s attributes, briefly discussing the context of believing in a God who is Omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
They may then go on to explore the meaning of omniscience, discussing what it might mean to know everything, possibly unpacking the biblical notion of God being intimately involved throughout His creation, having limitless knowledge of all that exists within and because of his creative act.
Credit may be given to those candidates who use this question to discuss the problem of evil provided their discussion is put forward in the context of ‘omniscience’ and is not just a general problem of evil response.
They may then raise questions form a number of philosophical positions; for example the may discuss the status of future knowledge within this understanding of God’s attributes. Some may make use of their knowledge of Boethius and talk of Gods knowledge not being future but being eternally present.
Others may raise question of what it might mean for humans to be genuinely free in a philosophical sense if God knows all we are doing and all that we will do.
Some candidates may evaluate this concept by exploring what kind of knowledge God can be said to have; unpacking some of the philosophical ideas present in any discussion of God’s knowledge such as the idea of knowing eternally.
Others may look at the idea that if God knows how we will behave in any given situation and that he does not stop us from acting immorally should he not in fact be held at least partly responsible for our actions.
This may lead some to assess the extent to which believers can hold the view that they are free agent before God as some would argue that god’s foreknowledge holds within it aspects of predestination.
Any valid and relevant approach should be given credit provided the assessments are justified and not just asserted.

Dr Manhattan and Free Will

Watchmen is a graphic novel by the author Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons. It has been turned into a film by Zack Snyder, and frequently makes lists of greatest works of literature. In the book there is a character called Doctor Manhattan, a human who has been transformed into a super-being by an accident in a laboratory, and has power over physical reality to the extent that he can destroy and recreate atoms. He also sees into the future because his perspective is such that he sees all of past present and future as a single moment.

Powers such as these have traditionally been associated with God in the theistic traditions. But what interests us in particular is his attitude to free will and choice. Because he knows intimately the very atomic structure of everything he also knows the causal conditions by which things occur, and the things that happen are shown by him in the book to be inescapable. This belief that everything is causally determined through previous events is called determinism, and is usually seen as contradicting beliefs in free will.

The problem of free will and determinism

Some very useful articles from the New York Times on free will. This is an area at the basis of much of the Year 13 Philosophy and Ethics course.

More general Philosophy here:

About Galen Strawson: