Jun 19, 2008

Creation Redefined: Implications

The previous post was concerned with creatio ex materia, or creation from preexisting stuff. This is relevant to the Problem of Evil because ex nihilo creation—creation from absolute nothing—makes God the Ultimate source of evil: all things came from Him and hence He and He alone is responsible for both the good and evil in the universe.

This post lays some groundwork for another aspect of the Problem of Evil, God’s omnipotence. In a nutshell, the issue is this: if God is capable of doing all things and does not prevent evil, how can He be loving or good? I feel the key to this question lies in what God is capable of doing, so here I will ask questions about the scope of possibilities regarding God’s interaction with the universe.

To start off, we recognize that there are apparent laws that govern the universe, at least physically speaking. One man of God taught that this extends to spiritual matters as well, saying there are “laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” In other words, there is an ordered framework of laws for eternal existences (And I am not referring to just those laws we've discovered so-far; we can make the assumption also that the laws of nature could entail a lot more than we understand at this point). In any case, we must ask, does God supersede these laws, or does He work within them? Can He break them? Can He do anything that we can think of (or that He can think of), or are there limits beyond the logical impossibilities?

For example, can God make the stuff into whatever He wants? Can He make a proton act like an electron or give a photon mass? I don't know. But if He couldn't, would that make God any less powerful? As I will explain, for me the answer is no. God would not be less able to save us, to create worlds, to do His work. But it would make the absolutist form of omnipotence in need of redefinition.

At this point, I realize that some people cringe at altering perfect absolutist omnipotence: all things that are logically possible are possible. When I first read the idea that God can’t do everything, I shuddered. How could you trust or worship a being that couldn’t do everything logically possible?

Before I explain this I want to be clear on one issue and will not budge: irrevocably God's power is great enough to accomplish His purposes. Also, I recognize there are a variety of opinions on this matter; I do not wish to offend, but I want to try to explain this idea. I am aware that many readers may not agree with this, but I submit it for the sake of open-mindedness.

Returning to our discussion, we realize that most agree there are some things which God cannot do. Much of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world supports the notion that God cannot lie: this is one thing that is logically possible, but not possible for God (see Heb 6:18 for one Christian example). Whether or not He is unable to lie or it is a self-imposed restriction, He cannot do it—and that’s a good thing, I think we’ll agree.

So, we see that at times it appears better for God to abstain from even some logically possible actions. There are two possibilities to evaluate: 1) Are there other actions that, while being logically possible, God avoids in order bring about some greater good? Or 2) are there actions that He does not undertake because somehow, given His higher laws, they are not actually logically possible?

A simple, but hopefully helpful analogy follows: suppose God had all power in the universe to do anything logically possible, except make neon-green giraffes. Would that make Him any less powerful? Would it make Him any less venerable? For me, God and the world wouldn't change at all: we would still have complete confidence in Him and His power. In all points that make God our God—the reasons why a relationship or knowledge of Him would be important—dismantling absolutist omnipotence for an omnipotence that works within an environment, pragmatically does not diminish God in any way. (We’d each have to answer these questions; for my part, I hope it wouldn't make a difference: it would be similar to thinking less of George Washington for having wooden teeth—his wooden teeth had no bearing on the measure of his greatness.)

But now imagine instead that there were actually a law we didn’t know about, which governed preexisting entities: the Law of Colored Giraffes. This law states it is physically impossible in this Universe to have a neon-green giraffe. Now we look again at God's omnipotence: God can now do everything possible in the Universe, and is therefore omnipotent. Hence, our understanding of what laws God follows informs our understanding of the definition of omnipotence. And this can have bearing on the Problem of Evil as we look at the degree to which God is free or willing to interrupt, override, or alter our decisions that cause pain to others.

For the more scientifically musing reader, I've included some of my own musings on some of these thoughts in the first comment. The views there are only my musings, which views could change on whims, but perhaps they may provide a little food for thought.


Mikha'el said...

As musings, I include just some comments. These thoughts may not even represent my own beliefs, but I find them interesting.
If God used pre-existing materials, we can safely assume that those materials were subject to some kind of physical law that maintained and maintains them in their states. I prefer to assume that these eternal laws are the laws that science is trying to discover. I will rest with these assumptions: I recognize that it is possible in theory that God could have manufactured physical laws into what we observe, but I will only present my view at this junction. I welcome more ideas. I believe that God encourages us to discover what He knows and understands, and that physical laws and science are worth studying because they lead to that kind of knowledge.
This leads to another assumption that I would like to make: anything that interacts with the physical world is physical also—anything that exerts a force, changes a frequency, redirects energy. If God interacts with the physical world, it is my presupposition that He is in at least some part physical. I will leave it at this point for the reader to decide what physical manifestation(s) God has: matter, energy, multidimensionality or whatever interacts with the physical world. Don't worry too much about this detail: there are plenty of unknowns out there that can interact with our physical world— undiscovered sub-atomic particles, hyperdimensional anomalies, dark matter, dark energy, anti-matter properties, spacetime abnormalities, brane inversions, etc—things that we know extremely little about that interact with our world, according to great scientific minds of the day. I have no qualms with accepting that there are extreme uncertainties, unknowns, inexplicabilities, and undiscoverables within our universe, but I respect those who aren't comfortable with these chaotic observations—Einstein was one who felt uncomfortable with quantum mechanics, like many, many scientists that are leery of String Theory. Nevertheless, scientists readily agree that we have only discovered a minute fraction of the physical universe.
My point in saying all of that is: just because God chooses not to be empirically verifiable, doesn't make Him magical, and doesn't make Him immaterial. I prefer to think that anything that interacts with our physical world is indeed physical.
People speak of a sense of spirituality. We recognize that there is much spirituality chalked up to psychology, for indeed, there is much that is happening within the synapses of our brains and chemical reactions of our bodies. But is there anything else influencing those synapses besides what we've discovered already? Most definitely. The studies of psychology, endocrinology, and neuroscience would be seriously undermined if we had decided we'd discovered everything that made us tick and how and why it did it. There is plenty of room for open-mindedness.
This leads me to my last assumption, which builds from the previous one. Most believers of various religions believe that they have a spirit or something inside of them, something that leaves when we die, something that exists after this life, something that is the substance of ghosts, something that can communicate with the Divine, etc. Since we are under the assumption that God is real, we will also assume that there is something spirit-like about us.
Most associate this spirit to be immaterial and magical and inherently supernatural. Why? Why can it not be material and physical and natural? I will assume that this spirit does interact with our bodies that we experience or feel it, and is therefore physical. And as I mentioned in the previous post, if it is physical, it has always been around and will always be around.
There was a man of God who taught that everything was physical and that there was no entity that was non-physical, a teaching that resonated with me. He taught that "all spirit is matter, but it is more fine", and he did so in the days where the idea of something being smaller than an atom was unheard of—no electrons, to say nothing of photons, leptons, or the Higgs boson. If we accept that this man could have received this information from God, he would have had no ability, no vocabulary to describe what he learned. In other words, spirit is a physical entity, not outside of all space and time, and matter being "fine" would only refer to something distinct from early understanding of atoms.
Why, then, haven't we discovered such physical properties? Something that interacts with us daily or inside of us or part of us? Why haven't we discovered some realm of physics that allows for the "supernatural" things of believers? It sounds like a cop-out for someone who wants to handily place their belief in something supernatural like God into the gaping holes of the unknown physical universe.
I acknowledge how convenient this may seem, and some may cite Bertrand Russell's china pot analogy as a critique—you can believe in anything as long as it is not contestable by science. But if the assumption that God is real and loves us is true, then these physical parameters come from one strand of logic that I have presented. If the assumption that God is not real is true, then these are just mere logical loopholes where science just can't address. Taking sides on our first assumption already justifies our conclusion: if we assume God doesn't exist, it's all ludicrous; if we assume He does, it's reasonable. We cannot conclude solely off of science whether or not God can exist.
Wouldn't we have run across some more "fine" physical entity by now? Surely we have enough science to prove that possibility false. The answer is no. First I cite the tachyon. Second, I cite neutrinos: these are particles that, as you read this sentence, billions of them will pass through your head. Ubiquitously filling the universe, it was not until 26 years after its hypothesis, trying to detect it, that it was discovered, only to discover later that there are multiple flavors of neutrino and more proposed kinds of neutrino that have not yet been discovered. (It is fascinating to think that we are now using our detection abilities from neutrinos to look into space by pointing our receptors into the ground.)
These neutrinos were discovered by hypothesizing where we thought they should be and by performing experiments to validate this hypothesis. Let's just say for analogy that spirit is something in this universe and it is composed of subatomic particles. If we are going to be looking for a subatomic particle, we're going to need a place to look for it and some way to test it. If spiritual matter exists and doesn't participate in the laboratory experiments that we have conducted and will conduct, we will not know where to look nor what reactions would take place, and such particles would remain undiscovered indefinitely. I am not suggesting that spiritual matter would have to be a subatomic particle, but rather, if it exists, we would have no means and no method and no motivation to detect such an entity.
We have built this framework: that God organized all things from pre-existing matter, and that even things that are spiritual, whatever they may be, would come from pre-existing physical entities. These pre-existing eternal entities are subject to some kind of environment or law that sustains their existence. Now the question is did God break physical law in His interaction, or did He guide it? Or did He use a different law than what we know? A few hundred years ago it was common knowledge that if you suspended a ton of steel in air it would fall to the ground and if you put a ton of steel in water it would sink to the bottom: science says so. But advancements in technology using other principles in physics make such action possible. I believe that there is no need for God to supercede natural laws of physics if there are principles that allow Him to accomplish His purposes.

Anonymous said...

What are you thoughts on WHY God lets somethings happen? For example, why do some children in the world have to suffer extreme hunger to the point of eventual starvation? Why do some children have to be sexually, physcially, or emotionally abused; abandoned, neglected or otherwise hurt by someone else's choices? Why would he command us to multiple and replenish the earth and then make it so some cannot conceive, others are desperately ill the entire pregnancy, miscarry, have a stillborn, have a tubal pregnancy, or a premature baby and others that did not want to become pregnant in the first place have a relatively easy pregnancy, and then deliver a healthy, full term baby? Why, when we are trying to do everything he asks, do we not seemingly receive those blessings that we are desperately seeking and praying for? Are you saying that it is possible that God CANNOT grant such blessings, or prevent such things from happening? And why do others seems so obviously blessed when it is known they are delaying having a family, or not following other commandments? I understand this world is not about instant gratification for righteousness, but then sometimes I wonder, why was I SO good my entire life if others did whatever they wanted and now are in the same position I am? It is probably obvious that I am having a struggle in my own life and am looking for answers to these questions? Is it simply that I must trust fully and completely in God that he is omnipotent and allows things to happen or not happen for His divine purposes? Why is it that at times we can feel so abandoned and on our own with our tribulations? Are these things allowed to happen or not happen simply for us to 'learn' something? Doesn't seem completely unfair for someone to suffer in order for another person to 'learn' something? Anyway, I was just wondering your thoughts on that seeing as your faith seems so much greater than mine at the moment.

Mikha'el said...

Dear Anonymous,
Forgive me for the late response. Your questions are some of the most probing for many believers in God. Truly, educated and uneducated believers in God alike have to ask if this reality can be compatible with a loving God. Thank you for your thoughtful questions.

Many have offered answers to these questions and other questions in the past. I know that some have been able to present ideas that resonate with portions of the population. I know that many others have been unsatisfied with their answers. It is always seems that it is those who are not in the midst of an extreme challenge are saying that God is loving. Indeed, as the quip goes, when you lose your job, the unemployment rate is not 5.5%; it is 100%. When we are suffering, at least for me, the thoughtful words of others have done little to quench the grief. I must confess that I have directed the blame for my pain at God. "Didn't You know this was going to happen? Why didn't You stop this?" Indeed, to have a Benefactor that has taken care of problems in the past seemingly turn His back on us without warning can lead to despair.

These questions probe deep into hearts. Am I saying that it is possible that God cannot grant such blessings or prevent such things from happening? All I can say is that God, for whatever reason, sees not fit that He intervene at every moment. I open the door that perhaps there are times where He won’t, lest He bring about something worse in the eternal long-run, or can’t, given the natures of eternal existences. I believe that agency is one of those things that He won’t—or can’t—commandeer.

Imagine if the removal of the agency from an individual, like the lying example I mentioned in my post, was something God was not going to do: He, for whatever reason will not force people's decisions, thoughts, or beliefs. For many of the problems of suffering of children and abuse, human agency might be responsible, and for God, perhaps the preservation of that agency is more important, for whatever reason. But the end result, what can be gained from using agency, is far greater than any suffering that could be endured by a mortal in one lifetime. I don’t presume to say that somehow all suffering is means for that end. But there is solace in understanding that at least some of the pain may be helping or honing us. And there is also solace in knowing that God is not necessarily responsible for all things.

But what of our pain here, now? Is there no balm in Gilead? What about the insurmountable biological problems and physical suffering and death? Indeed, the situation looks bleak if all we can see is what is immediately before us. Truly, we cannot grasp what it means to have an eternal life after this one. But if there weren’t a life after this, there would be no resolution to all the accidents, genetic deviations, natural disasters, illnesses, and other pains that infect this life.

Because of the viewpoint of an eternal existence, often times we look to suffering as means to an end. I recognize that, without the belief in a meaningful afterlife and before-life, the suffering of this life seems to be ends in and of itself—in other words, pointless. So naturally, even with this nobler, purposeful view of meaning beyond this mortality, the immediate hurt lingers. Why must we suffer? On man of God, paraphrasing another who was asked why man is often alone and sad, taught that our “divine destiny requires individual experience and practice in learning ‘to act as an independent being’--to see what we will do, whether we will be ‘for God or not’--and in developing our own resources. Such experiences will teach us to be ‘righteous in the dark--to be a friend of God’”

To be righteous in the dark. What a phrase. When there doesn’t seem to be any light, any alleviation, why do we keep believing? It can be so hard to have the perspective of the clergyman John Newman, who wrote, “Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom, …The night is dark, and I am far from home; lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.” Oftentimes, I feel that I more personally relate to the second stanza: “I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path…! I loved the garish day, and…pride ruled my will.” How often, when we feel that it is darkness around us, it is because we were so used to light? More often it seems that with God’s absence we feel betrayed, no longer with His help—not that the universe has been utterly void of help. I have noticed that we often feel that how He is treating us now is different than how He was treating us before. I have personally seen that emotion evolve into other things, such as He was never there.

The feeling of being ignored, or of having conflicting experiences in our search for God, or of having problems that breach our previous knowledge can be the most devastating of all human emotion. We put all of our trust in Someone who can’t help us? Why all these conflicts? If He loves us so much, why can’t He prevent all suffering? If one truly wanting to do whatever God would have them do has their way hedged up, why would God not allow them to do it?

I personally have asked similar questions: if this is what He wants, why isn’t He letting me do it, or why isn’t He giving it to me? For me, there has been a gradual unfolding, however painfully slowly, of the Pauline phrase, “[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.” In the hardest or most confusing times, though we may not understand all, if we choose to trust Him, His strength will become manifest—but those hardest times often may not come until we’ve trusted in Him already, consistently fervently in hard times already. It is after the trial—usually a trial that stretches whatever faith we have—that peace comes. In a recent conversation with a friend I said, “If [a trial or suffering] makes intrinsic sense, we are only relying on our brains' computing power. If it is beyond our brains' computing power, it doesn't make sense to us, it seems impossible, that is usually where I find the greatest opportunity for growth.” If God is interested in faith, opportunities to grow in it will come at the very edge of our own brain power.

An ancient Jewish prophet observed: “And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” The Lord passed by, and this prophet recognized Him. Even though there was wind “[breaking] in pieces the rocks before [Him]”, God was not in the destructive forces that whirled about. For reasons unknown to us, there may be a number of natural, physical, biological, sociological, or psychological needs before us seem like God must be involved. But sometimes He’s only in the “still, small” assurances that, though we may not understand now, the faith and trust put in Him will allow for endless possibilities.

As an end thought, I believe that there are things God can’t do. I believe it is impossible to organize a Universe without opposition. I believe, personally, that an infinitely loving God is hurt and saddened infinitely when one of us whom He loves betrays Him or never wants to have anything to do with Him. I believe if it is not easy for God, it doesn’t follow that it must be easy for us. Those are some of my thoughts, and I take responsibility for the things said therein.

Dear Anonymous, I invite your further response. I want you to feel that you can express how you feel and not be disregarded. If anything I said didn’t make sense or only complicated things, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification; I sometimes type things that I don’t mean. Thank you for your insights.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mikha'el for taking the time to address my concerns. My own personal struggle has gotten somewhat better recently, though not completely resolved. I find it much easier now as you mentioned, "after" the trial of my faith to feel the mercy and grace of God. I feel as though the fact I survived thru this trial is surely evidence that God had been by my side. I certainly have remaining issues to work out in my mind over this matter but I have faith and hope that in the 'end' somehow it will all make sense. I truly know that God loves us, I just don't understand the reason for some of the horrific suffering and perhaps never will. I guess the point is to have sufficient faith to surrender to the will of God with complete confidence that He is truly all knowing, all powerful, and loving. That He can see the end result and it will have been worth it in the end. Like having a child. Worth all the throwing up, all the discomfort and pain of an incredibly long pregnancy, worth all the pain of labor. I don't think any parent, particularly mother, would ever say it wasn't worth all that to bring a child into the world. I know God suffers as we suffer. His heart is broken when ours is broken, and he is ever mindful of every person that is struggling. How He responds or doesn't respond is up to His infinite wisdom as God. I am certainly ashamed of having such feelings of blame and anger toward God. And embarassed at my weakness and lack of faith in the lonely darkness. I just kept praying in my heart "help thou my unbelief". If God would not or could not relieve my suffering I knew he would grant me the strength to endure it. And so I have, with renewed faith and gratitude to God.

Anonymous said...


Here's a wierd connection for you. I was watching the newer batman movie last night (the dark knight) and was intrigued by the joker. His quest seems to be to try and prove that mankind, deep down, is a wild animal and afraid and violent when pushed to extremes. He says that "people are only as good as the world allows them to be." The phrase 'righteous in the dark' reminds me that 1) the joker was mistaken and 2) the 'dark' can be the times when it is most important to be righteous.