Critically evaluate Situation Ethics as an approach to making decisions about euthanasia. [40]

Situation Ethics: The New Morality is a book written by Joseph Fletcher, an American Episcopalian Moral Philosopher with a strong interest in medical ethics who lost his faith around the time the book was first published in 1964.  Like many Christians, Fletcher was concerned about the decline in moral standards and the growth of radical relativism which had let to genocide during WWII and was fuelling the sexual revolution and the collapse of family values in the 1960s.  Fletcher rejected such relativism for being antinomian and leading to chaos, as well as being unchristian.  Fletcher was influenced by Utilitarianism, the dominant, consequentialist approach to ethical-decision-making in the 1960s.  While it was a relativist ethic, decisions were made relative to an absolute, namely human happiness or pleasure.  While Fletcher (like many other Moral Philosophers) was critical of basic happiness or pleasure as the only desirable end, he liked the flexibility of Utilitarianism and its focus on making decisions situationally, as well as its respect for the individual moral-agent and their ability to make decisions for themselves rather than just following rules.  Fletcher was critical of the traditional, absolutist ethical systems employed by Christian Churches.  As he saw it, Roman Catholic Natural Law was guilty of legalism – being too focused on the letter of the law rather than its spirit and insufficiently focused on persons – to be truly a Christian Ethic.  Protestant Biblical Ethics were often similarly inflexible and based on narrow interpretations of ancient texts that neglected the most important ethical teaching in the Bible in Mark 2:28-32 – the need to love our neighbour as ourselves and therefore act out of agape, non-preferential humanitarian love.  For Fletcher, Christians and non-Christians alike should move forward and adopt a “new morality” which would make persons the focus, making decisions situationally and relative to agape-love.  This “new morality” is Situation Ethics.  As an approach to making personal decisions about Euthanasia it is a useful guide in countries where Euthanasia is legal, but it is not very useful for religious people or in countries where Euthanasia is illegal. 

Firstly, Fletcher characterises Situation Ethics as an approach which has four working principles – Pragmatism, Relativism, Positivism and Personalism.  The first working principle of Situation Ethics is pragmatism or practicality, so it is undeniable that the legal status of euthanasia will impact on any assessment of the usefulness of Situation Ethics as an approach to decision-making.  Where Euthanasia is illegal and where effective enforcement exists, people are not really free to make their own decisions situationally.  Personalism and relativism – putting people and agape-love first – will deter anybody from deciding to help somebody end their life if such help will probably result in prosecution and punishment.  Prosecution and punishment will not only affect the person convicted of course, but also their family, friends and wider society as well, so on this basis it would be difficult to argue that breaking a law against euthanasia could be situationally justified, except perhaps in the most extreme cases of suffering.  Of course, Fletcher believed that “sometimes you’ve gotta put your principles to one side and do the right thing” and he rejected the use of the words “always” and “never” in moral decision-making, but still cases in which stopping the suffering of one person but with the consequence of causing pretty intense suffering to somebody else, their family, their friends as well as burdening the tax-payer with the expense of a long prison-term, will be pretty rare.  Additionally, by encouraging individuals to think this through and make the decision for themselves when they are in the stress of the situation and when the law prohibits euthanasia anyway is far from helpful.  In the heat of the moment, people are liable to focus on immediate consequences and the persons in the room with them and to neglect longer-term consequences and people outside the room who will also be impacted.  In this way, situational decisions, however well-intentioned, are liable to be poor decisions even with respect of the agape-love they try to promote, and often result in more people suffering than would be the case if people just followed the law. Because of this, Situation Ethics is not very useful in countries where Euthanasia is illegal. 

Secondly, despite the fact that Situation Ethics makes decisions relative to agape-love and takes this as an end on the grounds of theological positivism and Christian faith, rather than any rational argument or evidence, Fletcher’s “new morality” has been roundly rejected by all the major Christian Churches.  Even before Fletcher wrote, Pope Pius XII condemned the idea that Christians should make decisions situationally, as individuals, in 1952.  The Pope pointed out that using the individual conscience to make a decision for oneself rather than deferring to the authority of the Church and its rules risked plunging that individual into sin, with its eternal consequences.  Again, in the heat of the moment people usually focus on immediate consequences and forget or downplay long-term consequences, including of course the fate of their eternal soul (and that of the person euthanatized of course).  Because of this, Situation Ethics represents a real threat to Christians in tempting them to make decisions when they are likely to make poor decisions with the most severe of consequences.  While St. Thomas Aquinas argued that Christians must prioritise following their consciences and so make decisions for themselves rather than mindlessly deferring to absolute rules, in practice he saw the conscience in terms of synderesis or practical reason, a faculty which needs to be trained if it is to make good decisions, perhaps especially in traumatic situations.  In a way, Fletcher agreed with Aquinas; while he rejected Aquinas focus on reason as the only appropriate basis for the conscience to operate upon, Fletcher did see conscience as a decision-making faculty and process rather than as the source of moral intuition.  As Fletcher wrote “there is no conscience, “conscience” is merely a word for our attempts to make decisions…”  Aquinas was only too aware of the human tendency to pursue apparent goods over real goods and so to fall into error with the best of intentions.  It was because of this that in 1956 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith banned Catholic institutions from teaching or even teaching about Situation Ethics.  Fletcher was more positive about the individual’s ability to make good decisions situationally, through their consciences, than was either Aquinas or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but perhaps he would have been well to be more cautious given the eternal consequences poor decisions have, at least for Christians using Situation Ethics.  Any suffering that people ease by making a situational decision in favour of euthanasia is after all, temporary… but for Christians the consequences probably will be eternal suffering.  Because of this, Situation Ethics is not a useful approach to making decisions about euthanasia for religious believers. 

Thirdly, taking the example of euthanasia, in 1994 Dr Cox decided to act situationally and help his suffering patient Lilian Boyes to die by giving her a lethal injection.  As it turned out, this decision ruined his career and his life and the resultant media-storm led to a tightening of UK monitoring of physicians and enforcement procedures in cases of suspected euthanasia, making it more difficult for doctors to ease the deaths of their patients.  While Dr Cox was prioritising Mrs Boyes and showing great agape-love for her and her family, he could not have predicted the consequences his decision would have for others, including himself and his own family.  This is a major weakness of Situation Ethics as well as other consequentialist approaches to moral decision-making. As Peter Singer admits, all consequentialist decision making depends on our ability to predict the consequences of our actions accurately (the Problem of Prediction)… and consequences are often, even usually, unpredictable.  Because of this, as a Consequentialist approach to making decisions about Euthanasia, Situation Ethics is of limited usefulness.  Despite this, in countries where euthanasia is legal – such as in Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands and in some Australian states – Situation Ethics might still be a useful guide when people are making decisions, whether about whether to request euthanasia or whether to help somebody to die.  This is because Situation Ethics encourages people to consider the persons involved in the decision ahead of their own principles and to focus on maximising agape-love rather than on the actions used to achieve this.  Where doctors might not wish to get involved in euthanasia on principle, Situation Ethics encourages them to consider each situation on its own merits and to prioritise the needs and wishes of their patients rather than sticking to “always” or “never” beliefs.  As Fletcher wrote “Situation Ethics keeps principles sternly in their place, in the role of advisors without veto-power…” (page 55) For Christian doctors, or for other Christians considering becoming involved in euthanasia, Situation Ethics encourages them to reflect on the two most important commandments (Mark 12:28-32) and to consider how their love for God relates to their love for neighbour and self.  As William Temple said – and as Fletcher would have agreed – “on freedom all spiritual life depends, and it is astonishing and terrifying that the Church has so often failed to understand that.”  Just as Jesus made decisions on the basis of persons, pragmatically and on the basis of agape-love… sometimes breaking laws, rules or norms in the process and sometimes sacrificing his own reputation to do so… so Situation Ethics encourages Christians to follow Jesus’ example and in the process helps them to develop spiritually and morally.  Of course, this is not to say that situational decisions will always or even often support euthanasia.  As Fletcher’s own examples show, the cases in which it is right to do something Christians would normally conceive of as wrong are rare and extreme.  Situation ethics would not, as Fletcher conceives it, endorse the wide-scaled legalisation of abortion or its use as a form of contraception… but it might support a doctor in terminating the pregnancy of a mentally ill teenager who had been raped.  Situation ethics would not, as Fletcher conceives it, endorse people killing themselves for no reason… but it might support a man in hastening his own inevitable death in order that his family suffers much less by his loss.  Because Situation Ethics encourages Christians to become active moral agents, it might be a useful guide in countries where euthanasia is legal.  However, the usefulness of Situation Ethics will depend a lot on the individual and the extent to which their conscience is developed and trained as a decision-making faculty.  It is probably fair to worry about the effects of using Situation Ethics in relation to issues like Euthanasia on any Christian – or indeed any person – who is unaccustomed to independent moral-decision making. 

In conclusion, as an approach to making personal decisions about Euthanasia Situation Ethics may be a useful guide in countries where Euthanasia is legal, but it is not very useful for Roman Catholics or those who believe in judgement and hell, or in countries where Euthanasia is illegal.  While Fletcher’s Situation Ethics was a sincere attempt to democratise Christian Ethics, perhaps Fletcher was too optimistic about peoples’ ability to cope with the responsibility he demands of them.  In relation to emotive, high-stakes issues like euthanasia most people are ill-equipped to predict consequences or weigh up consequences rationally and often make poor decisions as a result of Situation Ethics.  In these issues, a rules-based approach like Natural Law is more helpful to most people.   

Human freedom is not compatible with divine omniscience. Discuss [40]

The tension between divine omniscience and free-will matters because without free-will God becomes responsible for the consequences of human actions and cannot justly use evil and suffering to punish “sinful” choices, to deter people from sinning or to teach them to make better choices in future, falsifying the both the theodicies of St Irenaeus and St Augustine and making the logical problem of evil seemingly insurmountable.  Both Boethius and St Anselm acknowledged the apparent contradiction between believing that God has omniscience and that humans have free will, at least sufficient to make them morally responsible for the consequences of their actions.  In Book V Part III of The Consolations of Philosophy, Boethius wrote “if from eternity He foreknows not only what men will do, but also their designs and purposes, there can be no freedom of the will”.  In De Concordia 1.1 St. Anselm wrote “for it is necessary that the things foreknown by God be going to occur, whereas the things done by free choice occur without any necessity.”  Nevertheless, both Boethius and St. Anselm believed that they had succeeded in reconciling divine omniscience and human free will and in showing that there is no contradiction between them.  As St. Anselm wrote “the foreknowledge from which necessity follows and the freedom of choice from which necessity is absent are here seen (for one who rightly understands it) to be not at all incompatible.” Nevertheless, while Boethius and Anselm succeed in showing that there is no necessary contradiction between God’s omniscience and human freedom, they do so only by highlighting the limited meaning that words like omniscience have when applied to God to such an extent that by attempting to solve one challenge to religious belief, they open up another. 

Boethius approached the task of reconciling divine omniscience and human freedom by arguing that God’s knowledge is timeless and therefore while God knows what free beings do, this in no way causes their actions because there is no sense of temporal progression or causation within in God’s knowledge.  Boethius wrote “[God’s] eternity is the possession of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment… since God abides for ever in an eternal present, His knowledge, also transcending all movement of time, dwells in the simplicity of its own changeless present, and, embracing the whole infinite sweep of the past and of the future, contemplates all that falls within its simple cognition as if it were now taking place.“ (Book 5, Part VI) For God therefore, knowledge of what (for us in time) precedes a free choice, of the choice itself and of its consequences are all concurrent and there is no sense of process, of one thing leading to or causing another.  Further, God’s knowledge does not in itself precede what God knows, since God exists timelessly and the whole creation exists in the simple, changeless present to God.  Because God’s knowledge doesn’t in fact exist before what happens, God’s knowledge can’t be said to make what happens logically necessary.  As Boethius explains, God’s knowledge of what happens is not simply necessary, but rather conditionally necessary.  Just as my sight of the bus arriving at its stop at 3.14pm does not make the bus arrive at that time, so God’s sight of what happens in His eternal present depends on what happens and does not necessitate what happens or take away from the freedom of those people who make it happen.  Boethius’ attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience casts some doubt on the assumption that God’s knowledge of what, to us, is in the future causes what happens and so dilutes human freedom.  Nevertheless, in practice the difference between it being logically necessary that something will happen and being only contingently necessary that something will happen is more of a technical and less of a pastorally satisfying argument.  Christians believe that God is omnipotent as well as omniscient, so the fact that God knows that suffering happens and does nothing to stop it is the heart of the matter.  For the free-will defense to work as a defense of God’s goodness and justice in allowing suffering, God’s creation of free-beings must be justified by this being part of the best possible world and yet Boethius’ argument only serves to make this more difficult to believe.  If God created the world containing free-beings simultaneously with knowing all the suffering this action would cause, there is no way that human freedom can justify God in creating at all.  There was never a possibility that human freedom could exist without the holocaust or the sorts of gratuitous innocent child or animal suffering outlined in papers by William Rowe and Gregory S. Paul, so the idea that God is justly punishing human beings for misusing free-will seems void and the Christian salvation narrative falls flat.  While Schleiermacher, drawing on St. Paul’s argument in Romans 5, argued that God would be justified in causing us to fall into sin, evil and suffering because this facilitates and enlarges God’s gift of grace in saving us, as John Hick pointed out in Evil and the God of Love (1966), a doctor would not be so justified by causing injuries to patients because this facilitates and enlarges their actions in healing these same injuries.  In this way it seems that Boethius’ attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience, while interesting on a technical level, only serves to open Christian belief to further challenges. 

Secondly, as William Lane Craig explains in his article “St. Anselm on Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingency” (1986) St Anselm began by agreeing with Boethius, arguing that the proposition “If God foreknows something, necessarily this thing will occur” is logically equivalent to the proposition “If this thing will occur, necessarily it will occur.” Because the proposition contains an “if” the event is conditionally, not simply, necessary.  However, in his “De Concordia” St. Anselm went beyond Boethius with the result that he argued that God foreknowing that something will happen contingently (i.e. as a result of a free choice) actually ensures that human beings have a free choice rather than taking human freedom away.  As St Anselm wrote “Now, on the assumption that some action is going to occur without necessity, God foreknows this, since He foreknows all future events. And that which is foreknown by God is, necessarily, going to occur, as is foreknown. Therefore, it is necessary that something is going to occur without necessity. Hence, the foreknowledge from which necessity follows and the freedom of choice from which necessity is absent are here seen (for one who rightly understands it) to be not at all incompatible.”  Nevertheless, this argument is unconvincing because God’s timeless knowledge must be both of the fact that something happens contingently and of what actually happens.  To be meaningful, most people would demand that human freedom consists of being able to effect different outcomes – known as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities – but if God knows the outcome of a choice (whether or not that he also knows that that outcome is only contingently necessary) there is no alternate possibility, no freedom and no moral responsibility for that outcome.  Because God knows the outcome, that outcome will happen, whether or not it results from a choice that felt free.  Take an example; a person is offered a range of identical boxes and they are told that each contains something different.  They “freely” choose one box… but it then turns out that all the boxes contained the same thing, so the outcome of their action was in fact pre-determined.  Was the choice really a free choice?  Compatibilists like Harry Frankfurt try to argue that human freedom and moral responsibility do not in fact depend on the ability to effect different outcomes (the Principle of Alternate Possibilities).  Frankfurt uses the example of Jones, Smith and Black to show that Jones could still be free and morally responsible for shooting Smith even if Black had decided to make sure Smith died if Jones chickens out.  Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference between Frankfurt’s example and the case of human freedom and moral responsibility in relation to an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God; Black is not omnipotent, omniscient or omnibenevolent!  Black does not know what Jones will do or whether he will have to step in and shoot Smith… or even whether he will miss.  God, on the other hand, knows what Jones will do and what He will do and what will happen simultaneously as part of his timelessly simple knowledge of creation.  God is omnipotent and omniscient and needs to be omnibenevolent as well if freedom is going to work as a theodicy but because God, unlike Black, knows what Jones will “freely” choose, that Smith will die and what He will or won’t have to do to square those facts. Because there really are no alternate possibilities in God’s case (where there still are some in the case of Jones, Smith and Black) Human beings cannot be said to be morally responsible for what they do, leaving God’s goodness compromised.  It follows then that St. Anselm’s attempt to reconcile human freedom with divine omniscience, however sophisticated it is, gets us no closer to a resolution to this problem than did Boethius’. 

Nevertheless, using God’s eternity to reconcile omniscience and human freedom demands that God’s eternity is understood in the sense of God existing wholly simply, outside time, rather than eternally and aware of the passage of time as Theistic Personalists like Richard Swinburne would prefer.  As both Swinburne and Wolterstorff have argued, this model of God’s eternity is problematic because it renders God’s knowledge so different from human knowledge that it ceases to be recognizable as knowledge at all.  As Anthony Kenny observed, for a timeless eternal God, “my typing of this paper is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Again, on this view, the great fire of Rome is simultaneous with the whole of eternity. Therefore, while I type these very words, Nero fiddles heartlessly on.” (Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford, Clarendon Press) 1979, 38–9) If God really has no sense of progression or causation, then in what sense does he really know or better understand anything at all?  Swinburne points out that God can still have omniscience provided his knowledge extends to his knowing everything that it is logically possible that God can know.  If God exists timelessly-eternally, then what is logically possible for God to know is extremely limited, given that all sense of time as well as space must be removed.  Perhaps the best way to imagine it is that God’s knowledge of the universe can only extend to being aware of the singularity that gave rise to the Big Bang – within this infinitely small, infinitely dense particle the whole universe, all time and all space, all matter and all energy was contained, but in itself it would be far, far removed from the universe as it has ever existed since the beginning of time.  To use another analogy; a person’s genome is contained within the nucleus of a single cell, but knowing the genome is far removed from knowing the person (or people) the genetic instructions could give rise to.   If God’s attributes are so limited by his timeless-eternal nature, then the meaningfulness of religious language and of any religious claim about God is called into question.  Consequently, while Boethius and Anselm succeed in showing that there is no necessary contradiction between God’s omniscience and human freedom, they do so only by highlighting the limited meaning that words like omniscience have when applied to God to such an extent that by attempting to solve one challenge to religious belief, they open up another. 

Clearly, Classical Theists from Boethius through Anselm to Aquinas and later Thomists would disagree, arguing that seeing God’s eternity in terms of His existing timelessly and wholly simply is the only possible model of God.  A God who exists eternally in the sense of being everlasting and aware of the passage of the present moment cannot be said to be immutable, because even if God knows past present and future, if God’s knowledge is changed from being knowledge of the future into being knowledge of the present and then into being knowledge of the past by the passage of the present moment, then God’s knowledge is changed by and must depend on time to some extent.  While Classical Theists would accept that the content of religious claims such as “God is omniscient” is limited and certainly that the word knowledge cannot be used univocally, they deny that there is no content such claims.  St Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy attempted to demonstrate how claims about God contain meaning because concepts take their primary meaning in the being of God and only their secondary, analogical meaning from things in the world. For Classical Theists like Boethius and St Anselm then, using God’s timeless-eternity to reconcile divine omniscience and human freedom is rational and presents no insurmountable problems to religious believers.  Nevertheless, God’s immutability is hardly the most important attribute of God for Christians.  Immutability is in itself difficult to reconcile with Christian beliefs about the Fall, the Incarnation, the action of the Holy Spirit in the world and life after death.  As Nelson Pike pointed out, the scriptures are “unavoidably tensed” and so it is difficult to conceive of how they could retain the meaning and authority that Christian doctrines imbue them with while making so many claims about God that cannot be true if God is timelessly-eternal.  As Oscar Cullman observed in 1950 “in the biblical picture, God’s eternity is not qualitatively different from our temporality.” For Theistic Personalists like Richard Swinburne and Nicholas Wolterstorff, Scripture and the Good News that it contains must be the starting point for and not a potential embarrassment to Christian faith in an eternal, omniscient God.  It follows then that the attempt to use God’s eternity to reconcile God’s omniscience with human freedom comes at too high a price… and yet there is no other satisfactory way to reconcile God’s omniscience with human freedom.  Putting God as everlasting-in-time preserves God’s goodness – as well as essential Christian doctrines – but doing this in effect limits what God knows, compromising His omniscience and through that His omnipotence as well.  The passage of the present moment would at the very least change what God knows from future to present and present to past, making God’s knowledge depend on time, changable and not immutable or perfect. Arguing that God’s knowledge in time is further limited by logic, so that God can’t know the future insofar it is effected by free-choices compromises God’s knowledge even further. Realistically, what could God know about the future if all the ways in which free choices might effect that future are removed? In the nuclear age, God’s knowledge of the future couldn’t extend to knowing the world will exist tomorrow, and a God who doesn’t know whether tomorrow come is hardly more omniscient than I am! In the end it comes down to a choice – preserve God’s omniscience (and omnipotence) at the expense of human freedom, God’s goodness and essential Christian doctrines or preserve God’s goodness and essential Christian doctrines at the expense of his omniscience (and omnipotence).  There is no way to make logical sense of the “inconsistent triad” of Christian beliefs about God or to make human freedom compatible with God’s omniscience.

In conclusion, human freedom is not compatible with divine omniscience… unless freedom isn’t really freedom or omniscience isn’t really omniscience.  Indeed, there is no way to reconcile real freedom to effect alternate possibilities with timeless-eternal-omniscience, while everlasting-in-time omniscience is not really omniscience, because time at the very least changes what is known.  The implications of this are significant and show that there is no way to really resolve the logical problem of evil and that classical theodicies yield nothing.  Christians are left with an inconsistent set of beliefs about God, which they may well be willing to live with on an individual level… but which inconsistency can only cast doubt on the role of reason and philosophy in faith. 

Critically evaluate St Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil. (40)

The logical problem of evil was most famously expressed by David Hume when he wrote “Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent…”  The existence of evil seems to demonstrate that Christian faith rests on what Hume called “an inconsistent triad” of beliefs, namely that God exists and is omnipotent, God exists and is omnibenevolent and that Evil exists.  While writing many centuries before Hume, St Augustine repeatedly responded to this same problem and developed a complex, multi-layered theodicy.  While St. Augustine is best remembered for his free will defence, he also proposed that evil is a lack of good (privatio boni) and so not a positive part of God’s creation and reasoned that God allowing there to be privations of good is justified with reference to the principle of plenitude, in that they facilitate diversity in nature which is awe-inspiring and beautiful, pointing to the glory of God and the need to worship Him. Nevertheless, and despite the sophistication and importance of St. Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil, his attempt was not successful.

Focussing first on the free-will defence argument, St Augustine argued that evil results from the human misuse of free-will and is therefore our fault, not God’s.  God, being omnibenevolent, is beholden to create the best possible world and this, St Augustine reasons, contains free beings who can choose the good, rather than achieving it by design.  However, the freedom to choose the good necessarily entails the freedom to choose to sin, causing suffering to ourselves, other people and indeed the whole of creation as God, again being omnibenevolent and so just, is beholden to ensure that evil actions have evil results in order to deter people from choosing them again.  When human beings chose to sin, first corporately at the Fall in Genesis 3 in which all humanity was “seminally present” in Adam, and then as individuals, evil and suffering entered the world not by God’s design, but as a logically necessary consequence of God creating the best possible world. This argument is fraught with difficulties however.  Firstly, as JL Mackie asked in his famous essay “Evil and Omnipotence”, why could not an omnipotent God create a world containing free beings who always chose to do what is right?  Omnipotence suggests that ability to do anything, even (as Descartes reasoned) what seems logically impossible to us, such as making 2+2=5.  Secondly, even if (as St Thomas Aquinas argued) God’s creative action is timelessly simple and cannot, therefore, contain logical contradictions, why shouldn’t an omnipotent God create free beings whose poor choices have less severe consequences than they do in our world.  Is the holocaust a logically necessary consequence of God’s creation of the best possible world?  If it is, the meaning of omnipotence – and of best in the context of possible worlds – seems to be very far indeed from any meaning we can understand. Thirdly, such omnipotence and such a “best” possible world seems incompatible with God’s omnibenevolence; wouldn’t a good God have been better not to create at all than to have created a world in which the holocaust (and perhaps even worse examples of human depravity yet to come) was a logically necessary feature. Fourthly and finally, the whole idea of human beings having free will is inconsistent with the notion of divine omnipotence.  Ass Boethius acknowledged in the Consolations of Philosophy Book V, Omnipotence is usually understood to entail omniscience and, if God knows what we will choose before we choose it, our freedom is not meaningful.  Given that God has both the power to step in to prevent the consequences of our poor choices and the goodness that demands that he should, divine omniscience negates the free-will defence and means that this aspect of St. Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil is unsuccessful.

Moving on to consider St. Augustine’s suggestion that evil is “privatio boni” and therefore not a part of God’s creation for Him to be responsible for.  While defining evil as a privation has been popular through the history of the Church with Philosophers – St Thomas Aquinas also defined evil in this way – as John Hick pointed out, it is deeply unconvincing in a pastoral context.  To those afflicted by suffering saying that child cancer is not a positive part of God’s creation but only results from a justified instance of a lack of good things seems deeply inappropriate as well as being unconvincing.  Medicine has moved on since the 5th Century and we now know that much sickness is not caused by a lack of health but by pathogens which have a very real existence.  Why did an all-powerful, all-good God create coronaviruses, whose only purpose seems to be to infect beings in order to multiply themselves, whatever suffering that causes?  The standard response to this, pointing out that we are criticising God’s creation on the basis of our own perspective, not God’s, falls foul of the central Christian belief that God created the natural world for human beings.  If aspects of creation make it impossible for human beings to do as God commanded, “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it…” (Genesis 1:28) then this demands an explanation.  If God, being omnipotent and willing human beings to be good, created a world in which the conflicting purposes of organisms naturally and inevitably results in suffering then there is indeed a logical problem.  It is simply not possible to deny the existence of evil or reduce it to a lack of good when “nature is red in tooth and claw”.  In this respect as well, therefore, St. Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil is unsuccessful.

Moving on to St. Augustine’s claim that God allowing evil and the suffering it causes is justified with reference to the Principle of Plenitude, this aspect of his Theodicy is also unsuccessful.  St. Augustine claimed that God is justified in creating, even when creation necessarily involved privations (evil), each of which would cause intense suffering, because of the beauty of creation, which would point towards and express God’s own glory.  For St. Augustine, part of God’s goodness is the need to express his nature creatively, yet this implies a limitation on God.  If God is omnipotent, then why should God have the need to express his nature creatively… and even more so if that creative self-expression would inevitably lead to privations on the scale of the holocaust.  St Augustine also reasons that God’s creative self-expression, including its necessary privations, is justified because it points the human mind to the existence and glory of God.  Yet again, this implies that God has a need to be known, acknowledged, worshipped and glorified in a way that seems to undermine His omnipotence.  If God is omnipotent He must also be omniscient which, as St. Thomas Aquinas argues in Summa Theologica 1,14,2, includes having perfect self-knowledge such as that “God understands Himself through Himself”. If God knows himself perfectly, then why would he have any need to be known, acknowledged, worshipped and glorified by any created being?  In this respect as well, therefore, St. Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil is unsuccessful.

Of course, St Augustine’s theodicy has been enormously influential.  Today Alvin Plantinga’s “God, Freedom and Evil” draws heavily on all aspects of the Augustinian tradition to provide a way for believers to defend themselves against the “defeaters” levelled at faith by atheists.  Plantinga has adapted Augustine’s arguments to address common criticisms, such as by developing his argument for transworld depravity to show that suffering will result from God’s creation of free beings in any possible world without ever having to be part of God’s intention for any world. Nevertheless, despite the continued popularity of the Augustinian-type theodicy, it remains deeply problematic.  Plantinga’s argument still depends on God being both omnipotent and having to create free beings the consequences of whose actions cannot be limited.  He still reasons that God can be both omnipotent and omniscient and not be responsible for the consequences of human choices. He does not so much defeat Mackie’s criticisms of the Augustinian theodicy as deny them. 

In conclusion, St Augustine’s attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil is unsuccessful at every level.  His free will defence fails to reconcile God’s omnipotence with His omnibenevolence, his re-definition of evil as privatio boni fails to do justice to the real experience of evil and its effects in the world and his Principle of Plenitude implies that God, being omnipotent, is still limited.  Despite the fact that St. Augustine’s theodicy continues to inspire writers like Alvin Plantinga, philosophers of religion should look elsewhere if they want to make progress towards a resolution of the logical problem of evil.

Christians should not show favouritism or prioritize one group over another. Discuss. [40]

On first sight it seems that there is little to discuss here.  Showing favouritism seems opposed to treating people fairly and equally, as the Christian principle of the Sanctity of Human Life seems to demand. Famously, Jesus taught “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:32), suggesting that Christians should love all people equally and not prioritize one group over another, and his brother James clearly wrote “…believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism…” (James 2:1). Nevertheless, when in 1968 CELAM’s Medellin conference called for what in the same year Fr Pedro Arrupe had called a “preferential option for the poor,” many Christians responded, agreeing that Christian teaching on social justice demands that the Church should prioritize the poor.  Further, in recent months many Christians have supported the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which seeks to prioritize black lives now to address the fact that these lives have long been ignored.  On closer examination it seems that there is a lot to discuss here, not least because the ideas of favouritism and prioritizing one group over another have been conflated in the question, when in fact – as Stephen J Pope argued in 1993 – they are distinct.  In reality, it is true that Christians should not show favouritism, but that does not mean that they should not prioritize one group over another.

In his article “Proper and Improper Partiality and the Preferential Option for the Poor”[1] Stephen J Pope opened by acknowledging that “the preferential option for the poor has become a major theme in contemporary Catholic Ethics.”  The theme is often attributed to the influence of South American Liberation Theology from the late 1970s, but as Todd Walatka argued persuasively in 2015[2], the origins of the preferential option for the poor are really in Vatican II documents “Gaudiem et Spes” and “Lumen Gentium” (1965) and Pope Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio” (1967), which predate CELAM’s Medillin conference in 1968 and Gustavo Gutierrez’ “Towards a Theology of Liberation” (1971) and far predate the famous articulation of the concept in CELAM’s Puebla conference in 1979.   In this way, Christians have long argued for the poor to be prioritized as a group.  Indeed, there is good Biblical justification for prioritizing the poor.   Arguably, Jesus himself gave a preferential option to the poor and to sinners; he chose to become incarnate of an unmarried mother and to live as and with the poor.  In a society that saw wealth as a reward from God and misfortune, including poverty, as a sign of sin and God’s displeasure, he rebuked those who questioned his spending time with sinners, saying “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners…” Mark 2:17.  Of course, he might have meant that the righteous and, by implication in that society, the wealthy were in no need of his help as they would achieve salvation anyway, but in Mark 10: 23, 25 Jesus remarked “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”…  25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…” as if wealth is a barrier to salvation.  This suggests that God gives a “preferential option” to the poor, making it easier for them to enter His Kingdom.  Nevertheless, in Romans 2:11 St Paul teaches that “God shows no partiality” and in Galatians 3:28 confirms that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  How can it be that Jesus gave the poor a preferential option and taught that God made it easier for the poor to enter His Kingdom, while “all are one in Christ Jesus” and while “God shows no partiality”?  The answer is, of course, that there is a difference between giving the poor a preferential option and showing favouritism, treating the poor equitably and treating them with what Stephen J Pope calls “unjust partiality.” 

As Pope argues, “the preferential option, properly understood, refers to an expansion rather than a contraction of love and wisdom… this form of partiality must not be associated with those forms which encourage a disregard for fairness…”  In this way offering the poor a “preferential option” does not take away from the love God – or Christians – shows to others.  A parent does not love a child less by choosing to have another child; love is not a finite resource but expands to meet the need.  Further, no Christian who proposes giving the poor a preferential option proposes to treat other groups unjustly from now on.  Of course there will be those who perceive any measures taken to curtail their unjust privilege as unjust treatment, but is it unjust to stop a thief from enjoying the proceeds of their crimes? As Marx said, capitalism is theft because the capitalist relies on seizing the means of production and paying the workers less than he charges for their labour.  Even the father of free-market Capitalism Adam Smith agreed that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.[3]”  In this way, the rich are criminals and justice demands that they should not be allowed to enjoy the proceeds of their crimes with impunity.  Further, as Rawls pointed out “The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”[4]  Could those who would complain of the injustice of being deprived of unjust privilege say that they would choose for the unjustly privileged to go unchallenged if they did not know that they were so privileged?  As Gutierrez pointed out[5], the poor are in the vast majority, both now and through history.  They occupy the underside of history and have suffered in every possible way because of material deprivation.  Any theory of justice decided on behind a veil of ignorance could not accept Capitalism, because it is only to the advantage of a tiny and shrinking minority. Further, because Capitalism is structurally sinful it causes even to that minority to be dehumanised and distanced from God, both in this life and the next. Oligarchs and ultra-high-net-worth individuals might appear to benefit from Capitalism – and they certainly enjoy the supercars and mansions – but their property and investments force them to be complicit in the oppression of workers and the destruction of the environment and so ensures that so long as they remain rich, they cannot show agape or follow God’s commandments.  By challenging and even by stopping the continuation of a systemic injustice which has so long and so severely oppressed the poor the Christian does not show unjust favouritism, she works for justice – liberating the rich as well as the poor from the structural sin that is capitalism.

In addition, in Luke 6:20 Jesus taught “blessed are the poor”, continuing in verse 24 “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”   In this way Christians who commit to giving the poor a preferential option and so prioritizing the poor seem to do only what Jesus said that God would do.  Further, even if that is to misinterpret Jesus’ teaching about how God will treat the rich, unlike God whose relationship with the poor and other groups is timeless, the preferential option CELAM called for is time-bound and in response to millennia of injustice and oppression.  Where the poor have been given a worse and manifestly unfair option through all recorded human history, addressing this by committing to try to give them a preferential option now is not unfair or unjust.  Just as the Black Lives Matter movement draws attention to the value of black lives now and going forward in the context of addressing the effects of centuries of discrimination and oppression, the preferential option for the poor is a step towards – and only a step towards – combating injustice and not in itself a new injustice.  In calling for some sort of affirmative action to address injustice, Liberation Theology, Black Liberation Theology and other contextual theologies like feminist and Dalit theologies all draw on the thinking of John Rawls, who pointed out that injustice is done when we treat different groups with different needs differently.  He wrote: “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”[6] For Rawls, justice demands that institutions focus resources on those who have need, according to their needs, rather than sharing them out equally and giving to those who already have more than they need.  This echoes Marx’ mantra “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,”[7] a principle that was previously adopted by the Early Church, as described in Acts 4-5. In this way, by prioritizing the poor over wealthier groups, Christians treat all people equitably and so justly rather than equally and so unjustly.  To treat all people equally when some are, to quote George Orwell “more equal than others” is actually to prefer the rich and treat the already-privileged with favouritism. 

Of course, the title-quote does refer to prioritizing “one group over another” and it is true that this might imply what Pope called “unjust partiality” of the type which takes from one group in order to give to another.  If the title is so interpreted then it is fair to say that “Christians should not show favouritism or prioritize one group over another.”  St Thomas Aquinas taught that a good judge should not show any favouritism for or discrimination against the poor when passing sentence[8] and indeed, impartiality seems to be a condition of justice.  For example, Immanuel Kant taught that a “good will” must “treat humanity, whether in the person of yourself or another, always as an end and never as a means to an end,” suggesting that moral decisions should be made in respect of humanity without consideration of any particular characteristic, protected or otherwise.  Nevertheless, Rawls was strongly influenced by Kant and saw no necessary conflict between treating humanity always as an end in itself and demanding that the poor and disadvantaged are prioritized when it comes to resource-allocation. Not giving more to somebody who has enough is not the same as taking from them and so using them as a means to an end of improving conditions for those who lack.  It follows that Christians can prioritize the poor by treating them equitably, without acting unjustly with respect of the rich.

Having said that, those who call for a “preferential option for the poor” often call for the abolition of private property in the same breath, and this could reasonably be seen as using property owners as a means and not as an end in themselves. Kant distinguishes between negative and positive duties, arguing that a negative duty – not to do something evil – always trumps a positive duty – to help.  So, while not giving more to those who already have enough might be consistent with Kantian Ethics, taking from the rich would not be.  This implies that there should be a line for Christians when it comes to giving the poor a preferential option and so prioritizing them and that endorsing the wholesale abolition of private property would cross that line.  Nevertheless, Populorum Progressio confirms that for Catholics at least “the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional…” because “The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich” and “No one may appropriate surplus goods for their own use when others lack the bare necessities of life.” This relates to 1 John 3:17 “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” and to Jesus’ own reaction to the Rich Young Man in Mark 10, in asking why – if he has truly followed God’s commandments – he is still rich.  While Christians should stop short of supporting Marxist revolutions and a legal abolition of private property, that does not mean that Christians should passively accept the capitalist status quo and its concomitant injustices, including the grossly unequal distribution of private property, a large proportion of which was originally appropriated from what was held in common ownership and more would not have been possible without that appropriation. As CELAM affirmed in “A message to the peoples of Latin America” (1979) and as Jon Sobrino reminds us any “solidarity in faith must of necessity pass through solidarity with the poor.”[9]  Christians must choose; even while they should not endorse Marxist revolution, if they want to remain Christians they must divest themselves of their property and stand in solidarity with the poor.  Similarly, the Church must now become a “Church of the Poor” as Gutierrez put it, because there is no way for the Church to passively accept its own wealth and privilege because in doing so it implicitly endorses and seems to advocate for injustice. It follows that Christians should prioritize disadvantaged groups such as the poor and while they should not foment violent revolution as a means of abolishing private property, they should set a positive example, both individually and as a Church institution, in divesting themselves of the spoils of Capitalism as the necessary first step on a journey towards a fair and equitable redistribution of resources. 

So, in conclusion, Christians should not show favoritism in the sense of displaying what Pope calls unjust partiality, giving to one group by taking from other groups, but they still should – must – prioritize disadvantaged groups and show what Pope calls “just partiality” for them to the extent of sacrificing self to work for justice and their equitable treatment.  Jesus’ own example in doing this is one that Christians should follow.  Jesus chose to live poor, in solidarity with the poor, and sacrificed himself to change an oppressive, structurally sinful system which benefited nobody in a real and lasting sense.  In the same way Christians should accept his challenge to “pick up your cross and follow me,” giving all they have to the poor in the knowledge that – if not in the next life then in this one – this is the only way to build the Kingdom of God.


[1] Theological Studies, Vol 54, 1993

[2] Church as Sacrament: Gutiérrez and Sobrino as Interpreters of Lumen Gentium by Todd Walatka, published online by CUP in 2015 https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/horizons/article/abs/church-as-sacrament-gutierrez-and-sobrino-as-interpreters-of-lumen-gentium/512E3C124F371744588801B105E72C34

[3] An Inquiry into the Nature & Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol 1

[4] A Theory of Justice

[5] Towards a Theology of Liberation

[6] A Theory of Justice

[7] 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program

[8] ST 2-2, q. 63, a. 4, ad 3

[9] Jon Sobrino, 1985:37-38

“Kantian Ethics is the most useful approach to making decisions in Business.” Evaluate this statement. (40)

In 1997 Freeman and Evan published an article proposing a Kantian stakeholder theory of corporate responsibility, which was (from 1998) included in “Ethical Theory and Business”, the Cambridge University Press reference work in this area.  This article awakened interest in applying Kantian Ethics to business, using it to improve decision-making, broaden its ethical concern and counterbalance the superficial utilitarianism that had dominated discussions about business ethics in the later 20th Century.  Shortly afterwards in 1999, Norman E. Bowie, one of the editors of “Ethical Theory and Business”, published “Business Ethics: A Kantian perspective,” through which he argued that Kantian Ethics was indeed the most useful approach to making decisions in business.  Since then, a number of other writers have developed their own explorations of how Kant’s ethical principles might inform Business decision making and other scholars have criticised this approach. The major “Kantian Business Ethics: Critical Perspectives” edited by Arnold and Harris, which was published in 2012, outlines the debate.    In short, Norman E Bowie’s argument for a Kantian Approach to Business Ethics falls well short of addressing the true implications of Kant’s work for Business, preferring to characterise Kantian Ethics in simplistic terms as the demand that businesses should act consistently, considering the effect of actions on stakeholders and on the long-term reputation of the business.  While Kant would not disagree with the need for people to act consistently, consider the effect of their actions on those persons directly affected and on the precedent set to society in general, Kant’s philosophy raises deeper questions about the ability of a business to make moral decisions at all and about the morality of any person agreeing to be employed by a business and make decisions on its behalf which Norman E Bowie neglects.  Because of this, while it might be fair to say that Bowie’s ethical guidelines would be a useful way to approach making decisions in Business, it is a stretch to call these guidelines truly Kantian.  Kantian Ethics when properly understood, would be very far from a useful approach to making decisions in business.

In the first place, Bowie argues that a Kantian approach to decision-making demands that businesses act consistently, yet for Kant the Categorical Imperative is about more than mere consistency, it is about always doing what is universally right.  In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant recommended that people should “always act so that the maxim of your action should become, through your will, a universal law”… this has far wider implications than just choosing to do whatever you do consistently.  The categorical imperative demands that people choose to do only what they could rationally will for all other people to do, ignoring the particular detail of the situation.  When facing a decision about marketing a product, the Kantian should strip away the detail about the decision being made in the content of a business seeking to make a profit and focus on whether the maxim of the action is universalizable.  Kant famously argued that lying to a suspected axe-murderer to save the life of a friend was not universalizable, so it seems probable that he would argue that the exaggerations, selective use of information and misrepresentations that are the heart and soul of advertising could not be universalised.  Both lying to an axe murderer and lying about the efficacy of a face-cream or the healthiness of a yoghurt are based on the maxim of lying… which is not universalizable.   By deceiving the customer-base the business also uses persons as means to the end of making profit.  As Karl Marx observed “capitalism is theft”… the business marketing face-cream relies on using cheap ingredients and paying its workers a lot less than the product finally sells for.  The essence of marketing is in making the consumer believe that the product is worth more than it is.  In this way, Kantian Ethics demands far more than consistency of decision-makers and decisions in business are unlikely to be consistent with the demands of the categorical imperative.

In the second instance, Bowie argues that a Kantian approach to decision-making demands that businesses consider the impact of decisions on stakeholders.  Yet, Kant’s Practical Imperative, the formula of ends and means, demands much more of decision-makers.  In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant wrote “always act so that people, whether in the person of yourself or another, should be treated as ends in themselves and never as means to an end”.  Notice how Kant speaks of people, not stakeholders.  As Freeman and Evan suggested in their 1997 article, the stakeholders that a business should consider include shareholders, employees, customers and local community.  Even by this relatively generous definition, there are many people who do not count as stakeholders.  Further, Bowie makes little mention of the idea that Kant demands more of decision-makers than an impact assessment.  Treating a person as an end in themselves is not just minimising harm to them, it is about recognising that as a person they have inherent value equal to that of all other persons, including the decision maker.  The person living in the Maldives has the same value as the President of the Corporation and must, by Kant’s logic, be treated as an end in themselves.  If Kantian Ethics are taken seriously, there is no way a business could justify prioritising the short/medium term interests of its shareholders over the longer-term interests of its poorly paid employees or indeed the interests of the person in the Maldives in not having their home flooded by rising sea-levels which result from climate change.  In this way as well, Kantian Ethics demands far more than assessing impact on stakeholders; decisions in business are unlikely to be consistent with the demands of the categorical imperative.

Thirdly, although Bowie suggests that businesses should make decisions on the basis of Kantian principles, Kant’s writings reject the idea that a non-human agent can act morally.  As Matthew C Altman argued in 2007, a business is in itself neither free nor rational and cannot have a “good will” as Kant described it in the opening lines of the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.  Further, business decisions are made by people, who do have moral agency, but by people who are acting under the principle of limited liability.  For Kant, the idea that a person could sign an employment contract and so limit the extent to which they are morally responsible for their actions would be ridiculous.  For Kant, to be good a will must recognise its freedom and choose to follow the demands of reason anew in every individual moment.  Any action taken out of habit, fear, deference to authority etc, however good it may seem and whatever positive results it might yield, is in actuality an evil action and contaminates the will in a way that seems irreversible and which precludes the possibility of the eternal reward that reason makes us postulate.  By Kant’s understanding, the managers who make decisions on behalf of a business are – both in a moral sense and eternally – responsible for those decisions, whatever legal waiver might be in place.  Further, if a manager makes a decision because they have been trained to do so, out of fear for losing their job, because they have been instructed to do so or to conform with an agreed policy, their action is immoral and their will eternally damned regardless of whether the decision is in itself universalizable or compatible with treating persons as ends.  It seems that Kantian Ethics, when considered in its entirety, would not only make it impossible for a business to act ethically, but would also make it impossible for anybody to be employed by a business to make ethical decisions on its behalf.  In this way Kantian Ethics, when properly understood, is very far from a useful approach to making decisions in business.

In conclusion, Kantian Ethics is not the most useful approach to making decisions in business.  This is not to say that Bowie’s principles might not be a useful basis on which to make business decisions, but it is to say that it is a stretch to call these principles Kantian. 

Critically assess the belief that God is omnipotent. (40)

Omnipotence is a central attribute of the Christian God; as the Nicene Creed affirms

“we believe in One God, the Father, the Almighty…”

Nevertheless, Christians struggle to agree on precisely what it means.  Broadly, there are two approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence.  Classical Theists, including many Roman Catholic scholars, argue that God exists eternally in the sense of being outside time and space and so wholly simple.  By this definition, God’s omnipotence means that he caused everything, even time and space, to exist but it does not necessarily mean that God can act directly in time, such as by performing a miracle in response to prayer.  By contrast, Theistic Personalists reject the timeless-eternal model of God because it makes God too remote for most Christian doctrines and practices to make sense.  If God is wholly simple, how can he also exist in three persons?  If God is beyond time and space, how can he know when He is being worshipped or understand the contents of peoples’ hearts, let alone speak to or appear to people through mystical experiences?  As Nelson Pike observed, the actions of the God of the Bible are “unavoidably tensed”. For Theistic Personalists, including many Protestant Christians, God must be everlasting but within time.  This means that God has the power to act responsively and directly to change aspects of creation, but this comes at the price of making God’s understanding of the world and his actions depend on time and space and events within them, seemingly making him less than supremely powerful.  It is clear, therefore, that both approaches to understanding God’s omnipotence entail God’s power being limited in some way.  Either God’s power to act responsively in time is limited by God’s timeless nature, or God’s power is not supreme because his actions are bounded by time and dependent on events outside of God.  In this way the belief that God is omnipotent is incoherent.

Controversially, Rene Descartes argued that God’s supreme perfection entails omnipotence to the point whereby God could make 2+2=5 if He so wished, suggesting that God can do the logically impossible, such as by creating a stone too heavy for him to lift… and then lifting it anyway.  Descartes wrote, “God could have brought it about … that it was not true that twice four make eight” (Descartes 1984-1991: 2:294).  Nevertheless, even Descartes had to accept that God’s power is limited in the respect that God cannot lie or will his own non-existence.  Tacitly accepting St Anselm’s argument, He wrote to a correspondent “God does not have the faculty of taking away from himself his own existence.”  Later proponents of the Ontological Argument Leibniz and Ross both developed this point, arguing that God exists necessarily in any possible world.  Further, as well as not supporting God’s omnipotence entailing unlimited power, Descartes position suggests that the laws of logic and nature are arbitrary, raising questions about God’s goodness.  As Plato pointed out in Euthyphro and as Bertrand Russell later argued, a God who decides what is good and bad arbitrarily, going on to reward and punish people eternally for jumping or failing to jump through a meaningless moral hoop, is no better than a tyrant and certainly not worthy of worship.  In this way, believing that God’s omnipotence means that he can do the logically impossible is both incompatible with the Christian belief that God is all-good and incompatible with God’s supreme perfection.  This demonstrates that the belief that God is omnipotence is incoherent when defined in this timeless-eternal sense.

St Thomas Aquinas argued that God is eternal in the sense of being wholly simple and outside time.  In this way, God’s creative action must be single, limiting God’s power to what is actually possible, logically possible and compatible with God’s timeless nature.   Much as Descartes later did, Aquinas argued that God could not act in a way that conflicts with his God-like nature, such as by doing what is evil.  For Aquinas, God’s actions are also limited by what is possible in this world, so it is not possible for God to create a square circle or make 2+2=5 within this world. Because his creative act is timeless and so single and simple, God cannot do x and not x in the same timeless act of creation.  Nevertheless, Of course, Thomist scholars like Gerry Hughes SJ have reasoned that God’s omnipotence means that He could have created another world in which different logical rules apply, but only if such a world was consistent with what Richard Swinburne has called the Best Possible World Type. It would not be actually possible (consistent with God’s nature) to create a substandard world, so God’s power to create a world with different logical laws in which 2+2 could =5 depends on that world being equivalent to this in terms of fulfilling God’s purpose for it.  Aquinas’ argument is problematic in this respect.  How could God create more than one world if He is indeed timeless and spaceless?  Multiple acts of creation imply a separation in time and space that is inconsistent with God’s timeless nature, making it not actually possible for God to have created any other world.  In the end, Aquinas’ argument is no better than Descartes when it comes to defending God’s unlimited power.  For both Descartes and Aquinas then, God’s power is significantly constrained by His own nature, making the belief in omnipotence, when understood to mean having timeless-eternally unlimited power, uncoherent. 

Theistic Personalists such as Richard Swinburne, Brian Leftow and William Lane Craig have sought to make sense of the belief that God is omnipotent by arguing that God is everlasting in time.  They reject the Classical Theist argument that God can be timelessly eternal on the basis that such a God is inconsistent with the Bible and tenets of Christian doctrine like God existing in three persons or becoming incarnate and because, as Sir Anthony Kenny argued, the idea of God existing or acting in a timeless way is “radically incoherent” given that the matrix which makes existence and action possible is time.  The idea that God is everlasting in time is supported by the Bible, in verses such as

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary” Isaiah 40:28

In this case, God’s omnipotence entails being able to do everything that it is logically possible to do from a point in time.  As Swinburne wrote in 1973

“[God] is omnipotent at time t = if  [God] is able at t to bring about any state of affairs p such that it is consistent with the facts about what happened before t that, after t, [God] should bring about p…”

By this analysis, given the facts the go before the present moment t, in this moment God could not create a square circle or create a rock too heavy for him to lift and nor could God do something evil or act so as to bring about a worse result.  Also, God cannot change the past or, arguably, know the future outcome of free actions. Despite this, both Swinburne and Leftow argue that God is omnipotent.  They reject the claim that not being able to do something logically impossible or inconsistent with one’s nature is a real limitation on power.  Nobody thinks Donald Trump is not powerful because he cannot fly, give birth or make square circles!  By this definition, God being omnipotent entails him having power in much the same way as human beings have power, only to a much greater degree.  Nevertheless, surely this univocal interpretation of God’s omnipotence is unsatisfactory.  Not only does it seem to anthropomorphise God and sell short the belief that he is supremely powerful, but it is also inconsistent with the Bible, as in Isaiah 55:8

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

In this way as well, believing in an everlastingly omnipotent God is incoherent. 

Further, when it comes to an everlasting God in time, what evidence is there to support belief in the existence of a God who exists and acts like an invisible superman?  The arguments for God’s existence do nothing to support the existence of such a God and, if William James’ analysis of genuine mystical experience is to believed, neither do Religious Experiences.  It is true that the everlasting God of the Theistic Personalists makes far more sense of God’s actions as recorded in the Bible (if not all of God’s words) than does the eternal God of the Classical Theist tradition, but what is the rational basis for accepting the Bible as the primary, in fact almost the only, authority for the existence of such a God?   Given the insights of Biblical Criticism, it seems that having faith that God exists – and is omnipotent – on the basis of scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) cannot be rational.  Further, even if faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1, the Bible is inconsistent in what it suggests about God’s omnipotence.  In Genesis 2 God searches for a helper for Adam, trying out each animal before settling on making woman out of Adam’s rib… not even very competent!  Yet, in Matthew 19:26 Jesus affirms that “with God all things are possible.”  It seems that believing that God exists and is omnipotent in a way that is everlasting in time on the strength of the Bible is incoherent. 

In conclusion, believing that God is omnipotent remains a central part of Christian doctrine and yet is it an incoherent belief.  This demonstrates the extent to which faith is not a rational position to hold.  Of course, this makes little difference to those believers who understand faith to be non-propositional, constituting…

“confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Hebrews 11:1

Yet, for those looking for propositional faith, faith that is well supported by evidence and argument, the incoherence of omnipotence as a key attribute of God and its lack of compatibility with either God’s goodness or the Bible will make it difficult to remain a Christian. 

St. Anselm succeeded in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone. Discuss [40]

Most of the arguments for God’s existence start with observations of the natural world, concluding a posteriori, after the fact, that God’s existence is the most probable explanation of those observations.  As such, most arguments for God’s existence are inductive and so are subject to the problem of induction; even when these arguments are strong, they do not provide proof but only a high degree of probability. Their conclusions are always falsifiable if and when observations are found to be flawed or incomplete (and the premises of the argument thus shown to be untrue), as well as if and when a more probable explanation of these observations is suggested.  Because of the limitations of arguments for God’s existence that start with observations, St Anselm sought to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.  In his Monologion (1075-6) he proposed a deductive argument based on the grades of perfection in things, arguing that the existence of God as supreme perfection is contained within claims that other things are more or less perfect.  Nevertheless, Anselm’s argument was criticized by his predecessor as abbot of Bec, Lanfranc.  Lanfranc argued that Anselm had not succeeded in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone, because the premises in his argument depended on observations, even though they did contain his conclusion.  Because of Lanfranc’s criticism, Anselm determined to try to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone in the Prosologion (1078).  Anselm developed two novel a priori arguments in this work and he remained confident of his own success, despite criticisms leveled during his lifetime, writing…

“I BELIEVE that I have shown by an argument which is not weak, but sufficiently cogent, that in my former book I proved the real existence of a being than which a greater cannot be conceived; and I believe that this argument cannot be invalidated by the validity of any objection. For so great force does the signification of this reasoning contain in itself, that this being which is the subject of discussion, is of necessity, from the very fact that it is understood or conceived, proved also to exist in reality, and to be whatever we should believe of the divine substance.” Concluding words of Anselm’s “Responsio” to Gaunilo

Nevertheless, history has shown that St Anselm did not succeed in demonstrating God’s existence from reason alone. 

In the Prosologion Book II St Anselm presents a simple version of what Kant later termed an Ontological Argument from God’s existence.  He started by quoting Psalm 14:1 and claiming that atheists are fools because they accept that God is “that than which nothing greater conceived of” and claim that there is nothing by that definition that exists in reality, when existence is a perfection and so my definition a property of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of”.  For St. Anselm, if God only existed in the mind, it would always be possible to conceive of something greater, namely something that existed in reality, so existence in reality must be a property of God.  This argument was criticised by Gaunilo of Marmoutiers in his wittily titled “On behalf of the fool.” Gaunilo objected to St. Anselm’s claim that Atheists accept his definition of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.” He argued that people can recognise a word without forming an idea of what it refers to in their minds and that is particularly likely in the case of God, because it is a word which refers to something that is unlike any other thing and which is beyond most peoples’ experience.  Further, Gaunilo argued that it is possible to have in one’s minds all sorts of ideas of things which do not exist in reality.  He then used St Anselm’s own example of a painter and a painting to reason that the idea of something in the mind must always precede understanding that that idea also exists in reality.   St Anselm rejected Gaunilo’s points in his Responsio, arguing that if Atheists do indeed recognise the word God but not have any idea what it refers to then so much more are they fools!  Later, Descartes’ examples of triangles and valleys support St Anselm’s reasoning here – how could somebody claim to recognise the word triangle without understanding its essential predicate of three-sidedness?  St Anselm then reasoned that God is not like the idea of a unicorn or a Gruffalo, because unlike any other imaginary thing, the idea of God is of a being whose supreme nature logically contains existence in reality.  He hit back at Gaunilo, claiming he never intended his example of the painter and painting to be used in the way that Gaunilo used it.  Nevertheless and despite these responses, Gaunilo’s criticisms are effective.  Having ideas “in intellectu” for words to refer to depends on experience, on having ideas about similar things to draw on.  When an artist paints, they form an idea of what they want to paint in their minds that usually draws on experience before they then apply paint to the canvas and come to understand their painting as an object that now exists in reality as well as in the mind.  When an artist paints a triangle, they have experience of three-sided shapes to draw on and if not that, then some experience of shapes full stop.  However, if an Artist tried to paint God, they would have no comparable experience to draw on at all, so the idea of God in the artist’s mind would always be prior to and separate from the idea of God existing in reality.  Atheists have no experience of God and so the word “God” is just a sound, a sign without anything to point towards.  Later, St Thomas Aquinas agreed with Gaunilo.  While he accepted that God’s existence can be said to be self-evident and known through reason alone to somebody who really understands all that can possibly be known about the nature of God, Aquinas noted that in practice most people have little concept of what God is.  In Summa 1,2,1 Aquinas wrote: “Now because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us…— namely, by effects.”  In this way, St Anselm failed to demonstrate that Atheists are fools because God’s existence can be known from reason alone.

Further, a version of St Anselm’s argument in Proslogion II presented by Descartes was later criticised by Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell.  Persuasively, Kant pointed out that St Anselm and Descartes are wrong to claim that existence is a perfection.  Taking the example of a job interview, a candidate who exists is not more perfect than a candidate who does not, rather the application of the non-existent candidate is meaningless.  Superficially, it might seem that Kant is nitpicking.  A real chocolate cake, any real chocolate cake, will always be greater, more perfect, more tasty etc. than any imaginary chocolate cake, even an imaginary one with zero calories.  No less authorities than St Anselm and Descartes saw this as a matter of common sense.  Despite this, Kant’s point deserves deeper consideration.  In logic, following Aristotle, there are two kinds of predicates – accidental predicates and essential predicates.  Accidental predicates are properties that an object may or may not have – like cherries or cream in the case of a chocolate cake.  Essential predicates are properties that an object must have or not be that object – like chocolate-flavour in the case of a chocolate cake.  In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant argues that existence is neither an essential predicate of anything, nor really an accidental predicate.  Focusing for the moment on existence as an accidental predicate, existence cannot be seen as a quality that an object might or might not have in the same way that cherries or cream are qualities that a chocolate cake might or not have.  To explain this point, Bertrand Russell used the example of a claim such as “the present King of France is bald” – it seems like a meaningful claim and capable of being true or false, but in fact because there is no present king of France the claim is meaningless.  St Anselm implies that there is a scale of perfection, the idea of an imaginary God appearing lower down the scale, with Gods having more or less perfect attributes appearing alongside, with the real God at the top of the scale.  In fact real existence is a precondition of appearing on the scale and being capable of comparison.  Russell points out that when St Anselm defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” he begs the question and smuggles the existence of God as the object into the premises of his argument, reasoning that existence must de dicto be an accidental predicate of God.  If there is no “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” then predicating anything of it is meaningless.  St Anselm needs to establish the existence of God before his demonstration of God’s existence will work, so the argument could only ever succeed for a person who had reason to believe already, on other grounds.  For these reasons as well, St Anselm failed to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.

Perhaps aware of the shortcomings of his argument in Proslogion Book II, in the Proslogion Book III St Anselm had already presented a different type of Ontological Argument, reasoning that it is greater to exist necessarily than only contingently, so necessary existence is a property of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of.”  Here, St Anselm is arguing that existence is not just an accidental predicate of “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” but is actually an essential predicate of God, to use Descartes’ later example as three-sidedness is an essential predicate of being a triangle.  In his “On behalf of the fool” Gaunilo criticised this argument as well, trying to reduce it to absurdity by using the analogy of a perfect island.  Nobody but a fool would believe that an island exists simply because somebody says that it is a perfect island, so existence (necessary or otherwise) must be predicated of it.  In this last criticism, at least as applied to the argument presented in Proslogion III, Gaunilo fails to show that Anselm’s argument is flawed.  As St Anselm wrote in the Responsio:

“I promise confidently that if any man shall devise anything existing either in reality or in concept alone (except that than which a greater be conceived) to which he can adapt the sequence of my reasoning, I will discover that thing, and will give him his lost island, not to be lost again.”

St Anselm is right to remind Gaunilo that necessary existence cannot logically be said to be a property of islands, unicorns or gruffalos for that matter.  Such things exist within time and space, contingently.  No contingent existence can necessarily exist.  Only God, who is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” has and must by definition have the unique property of necessary existence.  Despite this, however, St Anselm assumes that the idea of necessary existence is possible.  Persuasively, Immanuel Kant argued that because all our possible knowledge is of contingently existing things, any claims about necessary existence are like a “cupola of judgement”.  For Kant, all existential claims must be synthetic, capable of being verified through sense-observations.  We simply cannot claim to know that anything necessarily exists, so St Anselm’s argument is speculative and must fail to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone.  Further, Kant argues that existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  He wrote:

“If, then, I try to conceive a being, as the highest reality (without any defect), the question still remains, whether it exists or not. For though in my concept there may be wanting nothing of the possible real content of a thing in general, something is wanting in its relation to my whole state of thinking, namely, that the knowledge of that object should be possible a posteriori also…”

Kant is effectively agreeing with Gaunilo, although supporting his argument rather better, in reasoning that existence is “out there” in the world of the senses and so incapable of being demonstrated analytically, through reason alone, and without reference to the senses.  Today, the vast majority of people would side with Kant and Gaunilo in their understanding of what it means to exist, and for this reason St Anselm failed to demonstrate God’s necessary existence from reason alone.

Nevertheless, after WWII Kant’s world-view started to be questioned and along with it his claims that all existential statements have to be synthetic and that existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  Perhaps drawing on those like Hegel who drew attention to cracks in the foundations of Kant’s critical philosophy early in the 19th Century, scholars such as Hartshorne and Quine pointed out how dogmatic Kant’s understanding of existence and meaning was.  For Hartshorne, Kant’s criticism of seeing existence as an accidental predicate is fair, but ignores the possibility that necessary existence could be an essential predicate of God and only God.  Hartshorne reasoned that either God’s existence is contingent (which it cannot be, by definition), or God’s existence is necessary and necessary existence is impossible or God’s existence is necessary and possible, in which case God exists.  Rejecting Kant’s limited world-view, Hartshorne argued that God’s necessary existence is not impossible, so God necessarily exists.  Of course, Hartshorne’s argument depends on his ability to reject the claim that necessary existence is an impossible concept.  JN Findlay strongly disagreed with Hartshorne on this point, arguing that by showing that God’s existence can’t be contingent and can only be necessary when necessary existence is impossible,

“it was indeed an ill day for Anselm when he hit upon his famous proof. For on that day he not only laid bare something that is of the essence of an adequate religious object, but also something that entails its necessary non-existence…’ [First published in Mind, April 1948] 

While others have agreed with and built on Hartshorne’s reasoning, including Norman Malcolm and later Alvin Plantinga, those who side with Hartshorne tend to be those who believe in God on other grounds.  Again, attempts to revive the Ontological Argument serve to show that Anselm failed to demonstrate the existence of God from reason alone to anybody who doesn’t already believe in God on other grounds.

In conclusion, St. Anselm’s arguments in the Proslogion fail to demonstrate the existence of God from reason alone.  Gaunilo, Kant and Russell among many other critics have shown how St. Anselm’s reasoning is problematic, firstly by showing how Atheists need not accept the first premise of the argument, that “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” and by undermining the whole attempt to demonstrate existence by analysing the concept of anything, and then by showing that existence is not a perfection or quality that can properly be accidentally predicated of anything and that necessary existence is impossible, because existence cannot be an essential predicate of anything.  That is not to say that St Anselm’s arguments have no value.  While they fail to demonstrate God’s existence from reason alone, for those who already believe in God – or at least for those who already reject Kant’s critical world view with its limitation on possible knowledge and meaningful claims – the arguments remain an important part of articulating their faith and revealing the nature of God.

Aquinas’ first cause argument successfully proves the existence of God. Discuss. (40)

Aquinas’ first cause argument is the second of his three versions of the Cosmological Argument, which form the first of his three ways to God in the first part of the Summa Theologica.  As a Cosmological Argument, Aquinas’ first cause argument starts from the observation of order, in this case causation, in the universe.  The word “Cosmological” derives from the Greek “Kosmos” which means both “order” and “universe”.  As Anthony Kenny[CV1]  explains, Aquinas relies on Aristotle’s theory of causation, as outlined in the Metaphysics Book IV.  Aristotle argued that all things in the universe have four causes, which can by understood in terms of the material, efficient, formal and final.  Material causes are the physical ingredients of things, efficient causes the agents that cause them to exist as they do, formal causes the definitions of things which make them what they are and the final cause to which things aim is their goal or telos and ultimately flourishing.  Focusing on efficient causation, Aquinas’ second way to God argues that everything in the universe is caused by one or more agents outside itself and nothing causes itself to exist.  If this is so then there is a problem – what was the first efficient cause.  An infinite chain of efficient causes makes no sense, because without a first cause nothing would exist.  Something cannot come out of nothing.  There must be a first efficient cause, but this must itself be uncaused, which makes it unlike any other thing.  The uncaused cause of the universe could then be said to be “neither something nor nothing” and, Aquinas concludes, this is what everybody calls God. As an inductive argument the conclusion of the Cosmological Argument, that God exists, is supported by observed premises which are falsifiable.  Because of this, Aquinas’ first cause argument cannot be said to prove God’s existence.  The problem of induction ensures that the most that the argument can be said to achieve is a very high degree of probability that its conclusions are, in fact, true[CV2] . Leaving the problem of induction and the issue of proof to one side: Aquinas’ first cause argument is still a convincing argument for the existence of God and, as William Lane Craig continues to argue, it is a useful means of defending the rationality of faith[CV3] . 

An immediate criticism of Aquinas’ argument is that it assumes that EVERYTHING in the universe is caused.  Although this claim is supported by Aristotle, it may be fair to suggest – as indeed JL Mackie did in “The Miracle of Theism” (1982[CV4] ) – that there may be things in the universe that are uncaused.  Indeed, Quantum Physics has concluded that there are sub-atomic particles that are in a sense uncaused. It could be that Aquinas’ first premise – that everything in the universe is caused – is untrue and if that is the case then the argument would fail. Nevertheless, it would be going too far to suggest that Physics has proven the existence of uncaused things in the universe.  Quantum particles could well be caused, for all we know, even though they appear not to be.  The most that Mackie’s criticism achieves is to show that Aquinas’ first premise must remain uncertain.  Although it seems likely on the basis of present experience that all things are caused, as Hume observed it is always possible that there are things in the universe that are uncaused and that these could explain the universe without recourse to God[CV5] . In this way, although Aquinas’ first cause argument is not entirely successful as an argument for God’s existence from observation, it is able to survive an obvious line of criticism.

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) Hume went on to suggest that the universe itself could be the uncaused cause of itself.  Russell made a similar point in his debate with Frederick Copleston[CV6] , suggesting that the universe should be seen as a “brute fact”.  This is certainly possible; Aquinas’ might be guilty of committing the fallacy of composition in reasoning that just because things within the universe need causes that the universe as a whole needs a cause.  Russell gave the analogy of mothers – just because all men have mothers doesn’t mean that the human race has a mother.  While Hume and Russell could well be right and the universe might be the cause of itself, this goes well beyond our experience.  It is just as difficult to theorise about the universe being self-causing as it is to theorise that it has an uncaused cause.  Neither conclusion can be drawn with any degree of confidence.  What does seem certain is that Aquinas is correct to reason that the universe must be explained in terms of something that is uncaused, whether that is within the universe, the universe itself – or God.  William Lane Craig[CV7] , in adapting the Cosmological Argument for modern Christian Apologetics, chooses to leave the argument at its first conclusion – that there must exist an uncaused causer.  He leaves it to Theologians to convince people that the uncaused cause is in fact “what everybody calls God” and it seems that his caution is sensible. Neither Aquinas’ first cause argument nor any other version of the Cosmological Argument can conclusively prove the existence of God, but the argument can point to the rationality of faith given the necessity for a cause for the universe which is unlike anything within our normal experience[CV8] .

Immanuel Kant advised such caution when in the Critique of Pure Reason he argued that the Cosmological Argument, like other inductive arguments for God’s existence, goes beyond the boundaries of what we can claim to know.  It is reasonable to observe that all things are caused and that there is a tension implicit in this which demands explanation – but it is not reasonable to draw conclusions about that explanation when they go beyond possible experience.  Perhaps this is where faith comes in; the first cause argument cannot successfully PROVE the existence of God, but it can point towards a mystery which is evident in the observed universe, a mystery which is suggestive of the existence of something supernatural if not of the God of Classical Theism.  As Hume pointed out, the first cause argument cannot claim to lead to the God of Christianity – even to a single God in fact – but limited as it is, the argument provides a useful defence for the believer[CV9] . 


 [CV1]Precise relevant detail and range of scholarly views

 [CV2]Acknowledging & engaging with the precise wording of the title – This also works to show the LIMITATIONS of the argument.

 [CV3]THESIS

 [CV4]Using a range of scholarly views.  This paragraph also serves as the COUNTERCLAIM, as it does cede some of the point that Mackie makes.

 [CV5]Evaluating the “maybe not everything has a cause” criticism, linking to the THESIS, justified, developed…

 [CV6]Range of scholarly views – again a bit of counterargument (balance) here, allowing that Hume and Russell have a point.

 [CV7]Range of scholarly views

 [CV8]Evaluating the fallacy of composition criticism and linking to the THESIS – justified, developed, sustained…

 [CV9]Drawing in Kant’s criticism & another of Hume’s in drawing the final CONCLUSION, which restates the THESIS – successful argument.  Builds step by step and is therefore convincing.

Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. Discuss (40)

Plato’s theory of the forms is developed in several different places.  Most famously, Plato describes the world of the forms and how it relates to the world of human experience through his Allegory of the Cave, found in Book VII of The Republic.  Here, Plato describes how human beings are like prisoners, trapped by the cave of sense-experience and how it is possible to escape – through reason – coming to the realization that Ultimate Reality is metaphysical in the world of the “forms.”  Elsewhere, Plato used the analogies of the Sun and the Divided Line to explain his theory differently, but nowhere did Plato provide any systematic account of or argument for the theory.  It seems that for Plato, a form is the essence of something, what makes it what it is.  It is what enables us to recognize what something we encounter is and what makes it possible to judge whether it is a good (or bad) example of its type.  The word “form” is also used to refer to the model which a mason used to ensure all his carvings were the same; it is the blueprint, the type, the design.  Unlike things that we encounter through our senses, the form is unchanging, perfect, complete and it is this which makes it more “real” than physical things in the ever-changing partial and imperfect world of the senses.  “The Platonic idealist,” said George Santayana, “is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests.”  However, Plato is not clear how many forms exist – is there a form of everything or only a few or even one ultimate form?  Further, Plato fails to argue for his position, preferring to describe a worldview using allegories and analogies.  Julia Annas observed that

Plato not only has no word for “theory”; he nowhere in his dialogues has an extended discussion of Forms in which he pulls together the different lines of thought about them and tries to assess the needs they meet and whether they succeed in meeting them” An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, p217 

While it has been enormously influential and while it does have intuitive appeal, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because of this lack of coherent argument. 

Further, nothing much seems to separate Plato’s theory of the forms from speculation.  As Aristotle pointed out in Metaphysics Book 1,

“… If, then, a man has the theory without the experience, and recognizes the universal but does not know the individual included in this, he will often fail” 

Plato’s focus on reason as the only source of wisdom – and his belief that sense-experience could actually mislead people – means that his theory is not supported by any observable evidence.  There is no way to see, hear, smell, taste or touch the forms and, while Plato would suggest that this is just the point, what then distinguishes Plato’s theory from baseless speculation?  Take flat-earth theory or young earth creationism.  It is, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, impossible to disprove the idea that the universe was created with all the appearance of age 5 minutes ago… or indeed something over 6000 years ago in a period of 6 days.  While this would raise serious questions over His goodness, a mischievous creator could well have planted “fossils” in rock strata and rigged the moon-landings to deceive credulous scientists and identify those few with unshakable blind faith in what goes against the evidence to elevate to their eternal reward.   In the same way – in the absence of the sort of freak-chance-escape Plato describes in his allegory – it is impossible to disprove Plato’s proposal that we exist in a shadowy prison of the senses and that ultimate reality exists beyond in some forever-unattainable world of the forms.  Plato even acknowledges how the revelation of such news would be received by those still in the cave. In the absence of supporting evidence – and when Plato’s theory seems to call for an active suspension of disbelief – how is it more credible than flat-earth theory or young earth creationism?  In this way as well, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing. 

Aristotle also criticized Plato for being inconsistent in his speculations; must there me a form of the yellow pencil with blunt lead and the form of my half-drunk cup of tea?  Why shouldn’t there be a form of evil, sin etc?  Also, what prevents there being an infinite regress of forms?  Plato himself acknowledged this as a problem for his theory in the dialogue Parmenides – in what Bertrand Russell in his “History of Western Philosophy” described as one of the most remarkable cases in history of self-criticism”.  Here,Plato seems to suggest that where things display a particular quality, such as greatness, there must be a form through which we perceive it to have this quality, a form of greatness through which to appreciate its greatness. The Form of greatness must be unchangeably perfect, supremely great as an example of greatness, but if the form of greatness is itself great, and thereby an example of greatness, there must be a separate form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of greatness… and another form through which we perceive the greatness of the form of the form of greatness and so on to infinity.  A similar problem was highlighted by Pelletier and Zalta in their 2003 article “How to Say Goodbye to the Third Man.”  They use the example of ‘Loveliness’: If all things lovely become such and acquire their loveliness by virtue of partaking in the respective Form of Loveliness, then they must themselves be ‘like’ that Form. Following from the “symmetry of likeness” it can be said that the Form must, then, be ‘like’ the objects which partake in it. If this is true, the Form of Loveliness and the lovely objects must resemble one another by virtue of a further Form, of which they both partake. This, again, continues ad infinitum, creating Forms interminably to explain the likeness of the Form to its instantiations.  Plato had no satisfactory answer to these problems, as Aristotle made clear in the Metaphysics, using the example of the third man.  In this way Plato’s theory of the forms is philosophically unconvincing. 

Nevertheless, George P Simmonds argues that Plato’s theory of the forms could survive Aristotle’s criticisms.  He points out that

the Third Man Argument relies too heavily on assumptions generated by a swift and unsophisticated interpretation of Plato’s thinking.”

And goes on to point out that far from being a sign that Plato was abandoning his theory of the forms, Plato’s inclusion of this line of criticism in Parmenides points to Plato’s confidence in his theory and in his students’ ability to see the weakness of this line of criticism. In particular, Simmonds takes issue with Aristotle’s assumption that Plato’s argument with respect of particular things also applies to the forms. Just because the greatness of things in the world necessitates the existence of a form of greatness through which we perceive that greatness, does not mean that the same applies in the world of the forms. Having said that, Simmonds’ defence of Plato fails to justify Plato in being inconsistent in his treatment of the forms or for failing to provide a systematic defence of his own work, so it goes only so far in making Plato’s theory more convincing.  

In conclusion, Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing because Plato fails to give a clear, consistent account of his theory.  While this conclusion it may be a little unfair to Plato, given that he lived nearly 2500 years ago and given the fragmentary nature of our records of his work, his theory is frequently presented as a philosophical argument today, and in this context it must be evaluated as such. Further, just because Plato’s theory of the forms is unconvincing does not mean it is not worthy of serious study and development into what may be far more convincing theories.  Indeed, Plato’s belief that ultimate reality is metaphysical is gaining popularity today through theories like the holographic universe and the simulated universe. 

Bibliography

Critically evaluate the view that religious experience is the best basis for belief in God. [40]

When compared with the classical arguments for God’s existence – Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological – Religious Experience might seem like the best basis for believing in God, because the God revealed through well-known experiences is more obviously what Pascal called “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” than the abstract “God of the Philosophers”.  In this way, Religious Experience would better support Religion or Classical Theism than the other arguments, which seem to support deism at best.  Nevertheless, on closer analysis Religious Experience does little more to support belief in the God of Religion, a personal deity, than the other arguments.  Because of this, coupled with the unique difficulties which beset Religious Experience as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is not the best – or even a good – basis for belief in God.

Firstly, as William James argued in his “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902) genuine religious experiences are ineffable and resist description in what Ramsey called “ordinary language”.  When somebody reports having “seen” the Virgin Mary or having “heard” the voice of God, the experience is not really like other sense-experiences through the eyes or ears.  Further, the object that people experience is not really personal.  As Otto argued, genuine religious experiences are of “the numinous”, “the Absolute” rather than any anthropomorphic being.  Stace concurred, arguing that genuine mystical experiences are of “an ultimate nonsensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate.” Happold agreed, arguing that genuine mysticism is characterized by a sense of love and union with all other beings which overcomes the anxiety we all feel at being separate and alone.  For James, Otto, Stace and Happold Religious Experiences point not towards the existence of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but to a “higher power” which, as James pointed out, need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self…” (Varieties of Religious Experience, Postscript) In this way, Religious Experience does not really serve to support belief in the God of Religion or even Classical Theism any more than the classical arguments do and so it is not the best basis for belief in such a God.

Secondly, Religious Experience is a weaker basis for belief in a “higher power” God than the classical arguments are.  This is because:

  1. Religious Experience is difficult to define.  While James, Otto and Stace recognize only solitary experiences, Richard Swinburne and Caroline Franks-Davis allow for corporate experiences as well.  While James, Otto and Stace suggest that all genuine experiences are beyond literal description, Swinburne and Franks-Davis allow for experiences which can be described using everyday language.  Because scholars differ about which experiences are possibly “authentic” and which are not, Religious Experience as a phenomenon is a less convincing basis of observation on which to build an inductive argument for God’s existence.  When compared with the Cosmological Argument, nobody questions Craig’s first premise “everything that begins to exist has a cause” even if they go on to criticize other premises or the conclusion of his argument. It follows that because of the difficulty in defining Religious Experience, is a weaker basis for an inductive argument for God’s existence than the classical arguments are
  2. As Swinburne points out, the argument from Religious Experience depends on assuming the Principles of Credulity and Testimony.  While it is far to say that the other arguments from observation also depend on the Principle of Credulity, Hume’s critique of Miracles in “An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” Section X (1758) fatally undermines the Principle of Testimony as it applies to reports of religious experiences.  It is always more likely that somebody has made a mistake than that their experience, which goes against the established laws of nature, is genuine.  While it is, as Hick pointed out, bad science to ignore such reports, it is, as James pointed out, impossible to exclude the possibility that the person reporting a religious experience is mistaken because credible physiological and/or psychological explanations exist to account for everything reported.  For examples, as James discusses in his chapter on Conversion Experiences, psychiatry might account for very many of these including those of St Paul (as a response to a moral crisis according to Leuba) and of St Augustine (as a delayed adolescent crisis according to Starbuck).  While St Paul or St Augustine might themselves be convinced that their experience was authentic and be justified in believing in their object, there is no necessity for other people to believe either in the authenticity of their experiences or in what they seem to refer to.  So, because testimony always lacks credibility, an inductive argument based on Religious Experience will be weaker than the classical arguments in establishing a basis for belief in God.
  3. Finally, as Swinburne points out, accepting accounts of Religious Experience as possibly genuine depends on prior probability.  If you are what James called a “medical materialist“, reports of religious experience would be their very nature incredible.  In this way, reports of will only be entertained as the basis for belief in anything by those who are already open to the existence of that thing and the argument from Religious Experience is shown to be circular and so not as persuasive as the other classical arguments.

Clearly, Swinburne would disagree and would argue that Religious Experience is a better basis for believing in God than the other inductive arguments.  In his “The Existence of God” (1979) he set out a cumulative argument for God’s existence which employed Bayes’ Theorem to assess the relative probabilities of God and natural causes as explanations of causation, order and purpose, beauty and morality in the universe.  None of these arguments is conclusive in itself, argued Swinburne.  It takes Religious Experience to tip the balance in favour of God’s existence and provide a basis for believing in God.  Nevertheless, Swinburne’s cumulative argument has been widely criticized, not least by Anthony Flew, who compared it with “ten leaky buckets”.  A lot of bad arguments, each of which fails to justify belief in God in itself, are together not significantly better than one bad argument and so fail to justify religious belief.  Further, Swinburne’s contention that Religious Experience is the strongest argument, the argument which tips the balance of probability in favour of God’s existence, seems odd given that it depends on prior probability and so has no force without the other arguments having already established that God is slightly more probable than the natural alternative.  To what extent can an argument which is circular in itself be the deciding factor?  If the other arguments succeed in justifying an openness to the existence of God without depending on Prior Probability or the Principle of Testimony, then surely they are better bases for belief in God than Religious Experience.  For Swinburne, Religious Experience is a better basis for belief in God than the other arguments from observation even though it depends on Prior Probability and the Principle of Testimony because, as he sees it, Religious Experiences support belief in the personal God of Religion.  However, as has already been established here, this is not necessarily the case.  On close analysis, for those who have had no experience themselves, Religious Experiences can support openness to the existence of a “higher power” at most.  By contrast, the cosmological argument supports belief in a necessarily single, all-powerful creator God and the teleological argument supports belief in an omni-benevolent intelligent designer God, at least when “good” is understood in the purely Aristotelian sense.  In this way, Religious Experience is a worse basis for belief in God than either of the cosmological or teleological arguments, even when it comes to believing in “the God of the Philosophers” with the classical attributes.

In conclusion, Religious Experience is very far from being the best basis for belief in God. On close analysis, reports of such experiences fail to justify anything more than an openness to a “higher power” which would not have to have any of the classical attributes of God.  It is as impossible to exclude naturalistic explanations for Religious Experiences as it is to exclude the possibility that they have been caused by God, so the question of what they point towards must remain open.  Further, as an argument for God’s existence, Religious Experience is beset by problems of definition, credibility of testimony and circularity.  It is certainly not the decisive factor in demonstrating the existence of God that Swinburne claims, but is a bucket that is more leaky than most.