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Process Theodicy and the Concept of Power

by Nelson Pike

Nelson Pike is professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine, Irvine, California. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 148-167, Vol. 12, Number 3, Fall, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If "X is omnipotent" means "X possesses the logical limit of power," I suspect that the view most in accord with what Whitehead says in his later writings on metaphysics and religion is that no being is omnipotent. Should we then conclude that the God of Process and Reality is something less than deity, i.e., something less than a suitable object of worship? Though there have been those who have simply announced that a being possessing less than the logical limit of power would not be worthy of worship, my own intuitions do not sustain this verdict nor have I yet encountered an argument that leads me to think it is right. But, given any system of thought in which God is portrayed as having something less than perfect power, at least one version of the traditional problem of evil will not arise within it.

Question: Is there logical conflict between the statements "God exists" and "evil exists"? Not if God has limited power. On this view, one could suppose that although God is perfectly good and thus would prefer a world devoid of evil, it is not within his power to bring such a world about. What is surprising, I think, is that some contemporary spokesmen for Whitehead’s metaphysical position fail to follow a route that would allow this straightforward comment on the existence of evil in the Process Universe. For example, in several of his writings on this topic, Charles Hartshorne strives to assure us that on his view (and on Whitehead’s as well) God’s power’ is without limit -- the "greatest possible."1 Following Hartshorne, this same theme predominates in part III of David Griffin’s God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy (GPE). But, of course, a return to the doctrine of divine omnipotence reintroduces the question posed above. Hartshorne and (following him) Griffin answer it negatively, maintaining that although God possesses the greatest possible power, his power is not sufficient to bring about a world containing no instances of evil. I should say at the outset that I find this position highly implausible. I also find the arguments used in its support to be quite ineffective. Still, for those of us who have labored in the past to straighten the conceptual kinks in the traditional problem of evil, the emergence of a new theodicy, worked out in something more than only cursory form, is an occasion of special interest. What makes the present occasion even more interesting is that the reasoning set forth by Griffin in support of the position originally advanced by Hartshorne turns importantly on a number of the more subtle features of the difficult, though foundational, metaphysical concept of power. A study of Griffin’s reflections on this topic thus brings the reader face to face with conceptual issues related to this concept that would be worthy of careful philosophical attention even had they no immediate bearing on the traditional problem of evil. Thus, in this paper, I want to examine Hartshorne and Griffin’s process theodicy. The focus will be on the arguments provided by Griffin in the source just mentioned.

1. Mackie on God and Evil.

Consider the following three propositions:

1. God exists -- and is omnipotent

2. God exists -- and is perfectly good

3. Evil exists.

According to J. L. Mackie in his well-known paper "Evil and Omnipotence" (Mind, 1955), these three propositions constitute an Inconsistent triad. This is to say that the conjunction of any two entails the negation of the third. Mackie adds that although this claim may not be immediately obvious, if we supplement the set with some "quasilogical" rules specifying logical relations between "good," "evil" and "omnipotent," its truth will become apparent. The rules needed are two in number, viz., (A) "Good is opposed to evil in such a way that a (perfectly) good being always eliminates evil if it can;" and (B) "There is no limit to what an omnipotent being can do." Rule B is meant to entail that it is within the power of an omnipotent being to eliminate all instances of evil. Mackie concludes: "From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible." Mackie then assumes that the world contains instances of evil, i.e., that proposition 3 is true. The upshot is that either proposition 1 or proposition 2 (or both) must be false. Since evil exists, God, as conceived in the Christian tradition, does not exist.

Look again at rule B. Why should we suppose that it is within the power of an omnipotent being to eliminate every instance of evil? Griffin points out that in company with a great many other contributors to the recent literature on the problem of evil, Mackie assumes that an omnipotent being is one who can bring about any state of affairs the description of which is logically consistent. Since all agree that a world devoid of evil is consistently describable, it is thus supposed that it is within the power of an omnipotent being to bring about a world devoid of evil. Griffin maintains that the analysis of "omnipotence" upon which this argument turns is not acceptable (GPE 262ff.). Suppose that a given state of affairs (S) is consistently describable. It does not follow that the statement "God brings about S" is consistent. Several kinds of counterexamples have been suggested in the literature. S. A. Graves points out that while it is possible that a certain individual (J) freely chooses to perform a certain action (A), it is not possible for God to bring it about that J freely chooses to do A. Were God to bring it about that J chooses to do A, J’s choice to do A would not count as free.2 Consider another kind of case proposed by Alvin Plantinga. It is logically possible that there be a state of affairs not brought about by God. But it is not logically possible for God to bring about a state of affairs not brought about by God (GOM 137). What these cases presumably show is that the analysis of "omnipotence" upon which Mackie’s challenge to traditional theism rests is not adequate. Mackie’s argument thus needs to be revised if it is to furnish a basis for further discussion.

Let’s then amend Mackie’s thinking about the concept of omnipotence to take account of the difficulties just uncovered. Instead of supposing that "X is omnipotent means it is within X’s power to bring about any consistently describable state of affairs," let’s agree that "X is omnipotent" means, instead, "it is within X’s power to bring about any state of affairs (S) where ‘X brings about S’ is consistent, i.e., where X’s bringing about S is logically possible."3 Given this revision, God might count as omnipotent even though he cannot bring it about that J freely chooses to do A and even though he cannot bring about a state of affairs not brought about by God. Mackie’s challenge can now be formulated so: since there is no contradiction in the claim that God brings about a world devoid of evil, if God is Omnipotent, it is within his power to do so. But since God is perfectly good, he would do so if he could. Evil exists in the world. It follows that God (being omnipotent and perfectly good) does not exist. This reformulation puts us in position to examine Griffin’s response to Mackie. The hinge of the reasoning consists in what Griffin (following Hartshorne) has to say about the concept of perfect power.

2. Griffin on Perfect Power

According to Griffin, a being counts as a "perfect reality" just in case it is a being "greater than which cannot be consistently thought." It is clear from the context in which this Anselmian formula is provided that Griffin means it to apply specifically and directly to the power such a being would have. The power possessed by a perfect being would be power "greater than which cannot be consistently thought" (GPE 273). This is perfect power. It is, as Griffin says elsewhere, "the greatest power it is conceivable (possible) for a being to have" (GPE 268), i.e., (in Hartshorne’s words) "absolutely maximal" or "the greatest possible" power. Hartshorne adds that as regards power, a being having perfect power "has no possible superior" (DR 138). Power at the logical limit seems clearly to be the message contained in these various remarks. However, with this much established, Griffin tells us that the question of real interest is "how much and/or what kind of power is it conceivable for a being to have ?" (GPE 268). The call here is for a more concrete determination of the general formula -- an identification of the amount and/or specific varieties of power a being would have to possess in order to count as having the logical limit of power. Various answers to this question are referred to by Griffin (and by Hartshorne) as "views" of omnipotence. I shall adopt this way of talking in what is to follow.

Griffin tells us that there must be a world and that anything qualifying as a world would have to contain a multiplicity of actual beings (GPE 279). Further, Griffin takes it to be a "metaphysical truth" that each actual being has power -- power to (partially) determine its own activities and power to (partially) determine the activities of others (GPE 267f.). It follows that there could not be a world that did not include a multiplicity of actual beings each of which possesses power of these two sorts. Griffin says:

The main point to be stressed here is that the fact that the world is composed of actualities with this two-fold power is not a contingent feature of our particular world. It exemplifies a metaphysical principle about reality: any world necessarily contains entities with this two-fold creativity. (GPE 278)

With this thought in mind, consider now the view of omnipotence that Griffin claims is presupposed in what he calls "traditional theodicy", and which he also thinks governs the reasoning in most of the contemporary, philosophical literature on the problem of evil (GPE 268,272). This is what Hartshorne labels the "monopolistic view" of omnipotence. Here, perfect power consists of "a monopolistic concentration of power -- the wielding by one agent of all the power there is or could be" (Hartshorne’s "Omnipotence essay). On the monopolistic view, if a being has perfect power, it has all the power. But, of course, given this way of understanding the logical limit of power, in a world containing an omnipotent being, if there were any other beings (as Griffin says there would have to be since all worlds contain a multiplicity of actual beings), they would possess no power at all. And since it is a "metaphysical truth" that all actual beings have at least some power, it follows (Griffin says) that it is "impossible," i.e., "not coherently conceivable" that there exists a being who is all-powerful, i.e., possesses all the power. The monopolistic view of omnipotence is utterly incoherent (GPE 268, 270, esp. 272).

How, then, shall we circumscribe the amount of and/or the variety of power that a being would have to have in order to count as the possessor of perfect power? If we rule out the idea that one being could have all the power, perhaps the answer is that although there must be a multiplicity of beings each of which has power to (partially) determine its own activities and to (partially) determine the activities of others, if one of them had perfect power, it would have power enough to completely overpower the others. This would be to say that whatever powers other beings might have, if a being had the logical limit of power, it would be capable of completely determining each of the activities of all of the others. Griffin rejects this second view of omnipotence along with the first. His argument centers on the following proposition which he refers to as "Premise X": "It is possible for one actual being’s condition to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself" (GPE 264). Subsequent discussion makes clear that included in an actual being’s "condition" are all of its activities. Premise X implies that all of the activities of a given being might be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself. Griffin argues that this entails that there could be beings whose activities are completely determinable by another and that this, in turn, entails that there could be beings that are completely devoid of power. We read:

For Premise X to be accepted, actual (in distinction from imaginary or ideal) entities would have to be completely determinable in all respects, by some being or beings other than themselves. In other words, they would be totally devoid of power -- power to determine themselves, even partially, and power to determine others, even partially. (GPE 266)

But as we already know, it is a "metaphysical truth" that actual beings have power. It follows that Premise X is deficient. It follows, further, that the view of omnipotence we are now considering is deficient as well. In fact, given the argument just reviewed, what we have been treating as an alternative to the monopolistic view of omnipotence really is not an alternative at all. If to be completely determinable by another is to be completely devoid of power (as Griffin claims), then if there exists a being having power sufficient to completely determine each of the activities of all other beings, the others have no power and thus it alone possesses whatever power is possessed by actual beings. The alleged alternative really reduces to the monopolistic view.

What we are left with, then, is what Hartshorne refers to as the "social view" of omnipotence. Vis-à-vis its relations with other beings, the greatest power a being could have is power to "influence" the partially self-determined activities of others. Power greater than this simply is not possible.4 But if this is true, then we can see where Mackie went wrong in the (revised) formulation of the problem of evil. He was supposing that if a being had perfect power, it would be capable of completely determining each of the activities of all other beings and thus would have power sufficient to bring about a world devoid of evil. But this presupposes the monopolistic view of omnipotence which is unintelligible. Given the only understanding of omnipotence that makes any sense (the social view), the conclusion is, rather, that not even an omnipotent being could completely determine the activities of other beings and thus guarantee a world lacking evil. Griffin says:

Even a being with perfect power cannot unilaterally bring about that which is impossible for one being unilaterally to effect. And it is impossible for one being unilaterally to effect the best state of affairs among other beings. In other words, one being cannot guarantee that the other beings will avoid evil. The possibility of genuine evil is necessary. (OPE 268f.)

He summarizes his position regarding the concept of perfect power and its implications for Mackie’s challenge as follows:

This position follows from the meaning of ‘‘world’’ as containing self-determining beings since it is not logically possible for one being completely to determine the activities of another entity that by definition has activity that is underived from any other being. Again, it may be that an omnipotent being might be successful in preventing all genuine evil in such a world (just as a father might be successful for fifteen years in preventing any fights between his children). But the omnipotent being cannot be the sufficient cause of that state of affairs, and hence cannot guarantee it; whether or not it occurs will be partly due to the worldly entities themselves. Hence, the actual presence of genuine evil in the world is no disproof of the existence of an omnipotent being who wants to prevent all genuine evil. (GPE 269)

Using "S" to stand for a world devoid of evil, Griffin seems here to be committed to the idea that while it is logically possible for S to exist, the statement "God (unilaterally) brings about S" is a logical contradiction. And this pulls a number of threads together. As regards the meaning of "X is omnipotent" (i.e., "X has perfect power"), the most general formula is "X possesses the logical limit of power." But this last can be further analyzed in accordance with the definition we arrived at under Griffin’s guidance in the first section of this essay. It can be rendered: "It is within X’s power to bring about any state of affairs (S) which is such that X’s bringing about S is logically possible." What the social view of omnipotence is telling us is that a world devoid of evil is not a possible value of S in that last mentioned formula. This is not because a world lacking evil is logically impossible. It is because if such a world were to come about, it could not be said to have been brought about by a single being capable only of influencing, rather than determining, the activities of others. It would be, at best, a joint-production. At least part of the cause would be the self-determined element contributed by the others.5 The upshot is that Mackie’s challenge to traditional Christian theism fails. Quasi-logical rule B is false.

3. The Argument Against the Standard View on Omnipotence

Chapter III of Hartshorne’s The Divine Relativity begins with the following sentences:

What troubles theologians have with the "attributes" of God! God, it seems, has all-power, absolute power. Does this mean that, since he has all the power, we have none; or that, since he does or can do everything, we do or need do nothing? And when we sin against God, does God himself "do" this? Of course (we are told) not exactly. Man has free will, and secondary causes are real as well as the primary cause. But what then is meant by all-powerful?

Although the concept of omnipotence used in traditional Christian literature is not a paradigm of clarity, the questions asked in this passage can only have resulted from a somewhat surprising misconstrual on Hartshorne’s part. With respect to marbles or pineapples, ownership is exclusive -- if I have them all, you have none. But power doesn’t work that way -- nor (so far as I know) has anyone prior to Hartshorne supposed that it does. I possess the power to shatter the glass sitting on my desk and so does my son. The fact that I possess that power does not mean that others do not possess it as well. Thus, when it is claimed in Christian theological texts that God is all-powerful, this is not meant to imply that God (in Hartshorne’s words) "has all the power." Being omnipotent, God has the power to shatter the glass, but so do I and so does my son. The so-called "monopolistic view" of omnipotence is of no real interest in the present discussion. If it is unintelligible (as Griffin and Hartshorne insist that it is), this will not count as a criticism of what Griffin calls "traditional theodicy,’ nor will it have any real bearing on the adequacy of various positions taken in the contemporary, philosophical literature on the problem of evil. However, I think that a great many classical as well as contemporary theologians and philosophers have supposed that if God is omnipotent, it is within his power to completely determine each of the activities of all other beings. In fact, I suspect that this idea concerning the power a being would have to have in order to count as the possessor of perfect power has been widely enough held to warrant being referred to as the "standard view" of omnipotence. And what is interesting here, I think, is that while the standard view of omnipotence does not appear to entail that beings other than God are devoid of power, it does entail that the exercise of power on the part of any finite being is importantly conditioned, i.e., it is contingent upon God’s willingness to refrain from exercising some power of his own. Thus, for example, if it is within my power to shatter the glass on my desk, the exercise of that power is contingent upon God’s willingness to refrain from exercising his power to keep the glass intact. According to the tradition, this point can be generalized for each of the activities of all finite agents. But, as we have seen, Griffin rejects the standard view -- it was the first (alleged) alternative to the monopolistic view that we considered in the preceding section. Griffin found it to be defective. In fact, given his reasoning, it reduces to the monopolistic view itself. Thus, I now want to look more closely at this part of the argument. If Griffin has really discovered a flaw in what lam calling the "standard view" of omnipotence, this would have important negative consequences for Christian theology generally and especially for the way in which it has dealt with the traditional problem of evil.

Let us go back to Premise X. So as to have it before us, I shall state it again:

It is possible for one actual being’s condition (including its activities) to be completely determined by a being or beings other than itself.

As should be clear from the foregoing account, Griffin’s argument against the standard view of omnipotence rests on the claim that Premise X is in some way deficient. But what species of deficiency is involved in this case? Griffin’s official (i.e., fully explicit) answer to this question is that Premise X is meaningless. But in addition to this official diagnosis, at least two others are hinted at in the text which are not only distinct from and incompatible with it, but are distinct from and incompatible with one another. The first is that Premise X is inconsistent, i.e., logically false. And the second is that Premise X is what I shall call "metaphysically false." Thus, if we are to probe Griffin’s thinking on this point with any pretense of completeness, we must examine each of these three theses in turn. That each is (as I say) distinct from and incompatible with each of the others will be argued as the discussion proceeds.

(1) Premise X is Meaningless: Griffin’s argument for this thesis is based on a theory of meaning that he claims to have taken from Bishop Berkeley. According to the theory, a term or phrase has meaning only if it can be assigned what Griffin calls a "ground" or "basis" in experience. Presupposing this as a condition of meaning, Griffin asks:

What reality could one point to that would supply the empirical basis for the meaning of "a powerless actuality?" This thing would have to be directly experienced as being devoid of power. I do not experience anything meeting these criteria that I would term an actuality. . . . [Again] the issue at hand is whether we experience anything that we might term an actual being devoid of power. I say that we do not. (GPE 266)

The function "X is a powerless actuality" is thus meaningless. But, as we have already noted, Griffin says that Premise X entails the existence of powerless actualities. To repeat the passage in which this claim is made:

For Premise X to be accepted, actual (in distinction from imaginary or ideal) entities would have to be totally determinable, in all respects, by some being or beings other than themselves. In other words, they would be totally devoid of power -- power to determine themselves, even partially, and power to determine others, even partially. (GPE 266)

Griffin concludes: "Accordingly, Premise X should be rejected not simply as false, but as meaningless" (GPE 267).

I have two comments to make about this argument, viz., (i) it rests on an ad hoc premise; and (ii) it is invalid. I shall elaborate each.

(i) Grant that a term or phrase has meaning only if it can be given some ground or basis in experience. Griffin assumes that "X is a powerless actuality" has meaning only if the thing (allegedly) referred to by this phrase can be directly experienced. Putting aside the question of whether we ever directly experience powerlessness in actual beings (and this question is not formulated precisely enough to permit of an answer), this requirement is much too strong to be adequate. Consider the term "point" as it is used in the discourse of pure geometry. We do not see or touch or in any other way directly experience that which is referred to by this term. What would it be to directly perceive a spatial position that has no dimension? Shall we then conclude that "point" is meaningless? Hardly. The conclusion is, rather, that this term has some other basis in experience or that (contrary to hypothesis) a term can have meaning even if it lacks an experiential ground. As a general remark, it is surprising to find a contemporary thinker relying on a theory of meaning as naively empirical as this. As Berkeley himself pointed out in several of his writings,6 and as the history of Logical Positivism during this century amply illustrates, no such theory could possibly pretend to capture the meaning of "meaning."

Let us stay for a moment longer with the question of whether "powerless actuality" might be assigned a basis or ground in experience even though (still assuming) no such thing is ever directly perceived. In the Principles of Natural Knowledge, Whitehead made a suggestion as regards the observational basis of the term "point" that might be of interest in the present discussion. Consider a series of concentric circles drawn with a compass on a sheet of paper. Starting with the largest (outside) member of the set and attending progressively inward to each of the others, via an act of extrapolation to the limit of the series, we can form the concept of the point. Here, "point" is given a basis in experience even though it does not refer to an item directly perceived.7 Perhaps this idea would work in the case of "powerless actuality" as well. Allow that we do not directly experience powerless actualities. Still, we do experience things having more or less power. The wave that I catch when riding my surfboard is experienced as having physical power that considerably exceeds that which I experience when touched on the shoulder by my eight-year-old daughter. Attending progressively through a series of actualities exhibiting less and less power, via an act of extrapolation to the limit of the series, perhaps I can arrive at the concept of a powerless actuality. Is this right? I don’t know. But it is not clear that it is wrong. So far, we have been given no reason to suppose that unless we directly experience things as powerless, "powerless actuality" can be given nothing in the way of an experiential basis.

(ii) If the function "X is a powerless actuality" is meaningless, then its negation is meaningless too. A negation sign in front of a meaningless string of symbols does not convert the whole into a meaningful statement. But Griffin claims that if "X" takes actual beings as values, the function "It is not the case that X is a powerless actuality" (i.e., "X is the possessor of power") is not only true, but a metaphysical truth. This cannot be right. Either Griffin’s metaphysical truth is meaningless, or the function "X is a powerless actuality" has meaning. Again, if "X is a powerless actuality" is meaningless, then "I experience a powerless actuality" is meaningless, and "I do not experience a powerless actuality" is meaningless too. But this cannot be. Griffin claims to be sure that he never experiences powerless actualities. It must be that he understands the phrase "powerless actuality" well enough to know what it is that he does not experience. Lastly, Griffin says that to affirm Premise X is to commit oneself to the claim that actual beings are completely determinable, and this (he says) is just another way of saying ("in other words") that there are powerless actualities. But if "X is a powerless actuality" and Premise X are meaningless, this line of reasoning is completely aborted. Assuming that it makes sense to suppose one can affirm a meaningless string of symbols, surely one cannot be said to have committed oneself to anything by so doing. And what shall we make of the idea that "there are powerless actualities" is just another way of saying ("in other words") that actual beings can be completely determinable? This could be true only if these two strings of symbols have the same meaning. This is precluded if the former has no meaning at all.

These last observations are preliminary to the point I now want to argue. What they show, I think, is that whatever may be the ultimate meaning-status of the function "X is a powerless actuality" and Premise X, Griffin is clearly supposing that they have some kind of surface meaning -- enough to permit an investigation of their logical connections to one another and to the claim that actual beings are completely determinable. In what is to follow, I shall assume this as well. My contention is that Premise X entails nothing whatsoever as regards the existence or nonexistence of powerless actualities.

Suppose there is a world containing two entities A and B. Suppose further that it is possible for A to completely determine all of the activities of B. Under these conditions we could say that B is completely determinable by A, but it would not follow that B is devoid of power to determine its own activities for itself. There are two cases to consider. (1) Suppose that it is possible for A to completely determine the activities of B. Now suppose that while A has the power to control the activities of B, A chooses not to exercise that power. B might then be left with power to determine its own activities for itself. Example: A father (A) allows his daughter (B) to move her own arm when it is within his power to restrain her. (2) Suppose that B possesses the power to determine its own activities for itself. Now suppose that B does not (perhaps chooses not to) exercise that power. A is then left to determine B’s activities for it. Example: A father (B) allows his daughter (A) to move his arm though it is within his power to move his arm for himself. From the claim that it is possible for one being’s activities to be completely determined by another (Premise X) it does not follow that the one in question is completely devoid of power. The distance between these claims is at least as ample as the distance between the concept of having power and the concept of exercising power.

Two conclusions are in order. First, what I am calling the "standard view" of omnipotence does not reduce to the monopolistic view. These two concepts would be equivalent only if beings that are completely determinable are necessarily beings that are devoid of power. As we have just seen, this claim is false. Secondly, since the standard view of omnipotence presupposes the possibility described in Premise X, if the latter were meaningless, that would be a source of embarrassment for partisans of the standard view. But that Premise X is meaningless has not been established. As I suggested earlier, and as we have just seen, Griffin’s effort so to establish rests on an ad hoc premise (i.e., "the function ‘X is a powerless actuality’ is meaningless"), and an invalid inference (from "B is determinable" to "B is devoid of power"). So far, the standard view does not appear to be in any serious trouble.

(2) Premise X is Logically False: Since meaningless strings of symbols cannot bear truth values, if Premise X is meaningless, it is not logically false, or if it is logically false, it is not meaningless. Thus the thesis now to be considered is clearly distinct from and incompatible with the first. Further, I suspect that it is this second thesis concerning the deficiency of Premise X upon which Griffin is really depending in his argument against the standard view of omnipotence. Look again at the long passage quoted at the end of the second section of this essay -- the one containing the summary of Griffin’s reply to Mackie (GPE 269). This is only one of many that might be cited in which this second thesis seems clearly to be underpinning the reasoning. However, since this thesis is not explicit in Griffin’s text, no argument is given in its support. Thus, I now want to offer an argument for its truth that is of my own construction. Though Griffin would no doubt find the conclusion attractive, I am not sure what portion of the reasoning he would accept.

Again, suppose there are two actual beings A and B. Allow that it is possible for A to completely determine all of the activities of B even in the case where B is making whatever effort it can to determine its own activities for itself. This last clause is added in order to strengthen Premise X. The strengthened version is presupposed by the basic idea at work in the standard view of omnipotence, viz., that if A is omnipotent, A has power sufficient to overpower whatever effort B may make to determine its own activities for itself. Now, if it is possible for A to completely determine all of the activities of B even in the case where B is making maximum effort to determine its activities for itself, then whether or not A does in fact do so, there is at least a possible world (W) in which A does just that. But consider the situation in W. B is making maximum effort to determine its own activities, and yet they are completely determined by A.

Principle P: If B makes whatever effort it can to do F and fails, B does not have the power to do F.

Assumption T: "Actual beings are possessors of twofold power is a necessary truth whose negation is contradictory.

It follows from Principle P that in W, B is completely lacking in self-determining power. Given Assumption T, it follows from this that in W, B is not an actual being. Put otherwise, it follows that the strengthened version of Premise X is contradictory. According to this premise, there is, e.g., a possible world containing two actualities in which the activities of one are completely determined by the other even in the case where the first is making maximum effort at self determination. But there is no such possible world. In any world containing a complete-determiner, whatever determinees there are will fail to qualify as actual beings. Thus Premise X is false. And since any false proposition of the form "It is (logically) possible that…" is contradictory, Premise X is logically false.

This argument for the deficiency of Premise X seems to me to be better than the one upon which Griffin explicitly relies in his text. If we take Principle P and Assumption T as premises in the proof, whether or not it is sound, it is at least valid. And note, if the conclusion of this argument is granted, the standard view of omnipotence will have to be dismissed as incoherent. Argument: Suppose again that A and B are actual beings and that A has power to completely determine the activities of B even when B is doing whatever it can to determine its own activities for itself. It must then be possible for A to exercise that power. While A might have powers that are not exercised, a power that could not be exercised (i.e., an unexercisable power) is no power at all. But if Premise X is logically false, no such power could be exercised. To suppose that it could would be to suppose it possible for A so to act as to actualize a state of affairs that is impossible. The conclusion is that the hypothesis is incoherent -- no being could have power enough to count as omnipotent on the standard view. Thus the question before us is whether the premises of the present argument for the deficiency of Premise X are true. I shall close this part of the discussion with two remarks addressed to this question.

(i) Consider the case in which I am making maximum effort to raise my arm but it is being held down by a person much stronger than I. Add that were I not constrained, I could move my arm at will. Shall we say that under these circumstances, I lack the power to raise my arm? Maybe we should say, instead, that I still possess the power to raise my arm but that in the circumstances I am prevented from exercising it. Though I think that both of these ways of describing the situation would be intelligible, the latter seems to me to underline an element in the picture that is smudged in the former, viz., that, although inhibited, I still have something that counts as arm-raising potential. I am not like a dead man or a rag doll. I am not completely, utterly, absolutely, unconditionally, etc. devoid of something that can be classified as the power to raise my arm. (If only that fool would let go of my arm, I would show you what I mean.) Now, consider the case of the omnipotent being who is determining the activities of another even though the other is making maximum effort to determine its own activities for itself. Is this a case of being completely powerless, or is it a case of possessing power but being prevented from exercising it? What we need here, I think, is some further information. How would it look if the omnipotent being were not exercising its power to completely determine the activities ofthe other? If under these conditions the other could determine its own activities for itself, some species of power should be assigned to it even in the inhibited state. As it stands, I think that Principle P is false. I also suspect that any variation on P that would be sufficient to sustain the argument given above would be false as well. Power is tenacious. It survives nonexercise, and it also survives overpower.

(ii) In Process and Reality, Whitehead maintained that the ultimate constituents of the universe are actual entities (also called "actual occasions") each of which possesses two-fold power of the sort described by Griffin. According to Whitehead, this theory was arrived at by "the method of descriptive generalization" and is to be thought of as a "working hypothesis" finally to be tested by reference to empirical fact (AI chapter 15). As regards the method of descriptive generalization, Whitehead compared it to the flight of an airplane. One begins with a restricted generalization descriptive of phenomena encountered in one field of inquiry (e.g., physics, physiology, psychology, etc.); one then (as he says) "makes a flight into the thin air of generalization" -- framing the description to cover all actualities -- finally landing again to see how the theory squares with observed fact in areas other than the one from which the inquiry began. The crucial test of the unrestricted generalization rests in the latter observations (PR chapter 1, section 2).8 My point is that throughout his discussion of methodology in metaphysics, Whitehead emphasized the empirical nature of the enterprise-especially the final test. His own theory concerning the nature of the ultimate constituents of the universe was not advanced under the banner of an a priori necessity. He offered it as a contingent generalization whose truth could be established (if at all) only by straightforward a posteriori procedures.

How, then, did Griffin come up with the idea that "actual beings are possessors of two-fold power" is true (as he says) "by definition" (GPE 269). Though this claim (or something like it) is required if the argument offered above is to work (Assumption T), there is nothing in Whitehead’s texts -- nor does Griffin offer any considerations of his own -- that would lead one to think it is true. Further, the claim itself seems to me to be implausible in the extreme. Two-fold power Includes the power of self-determination. Shall we then conclude that philosophers such as Descartes who thought that there are actual beings (material objects) that do not have such power, were simply confused on a point of semantics -- mistaken about the meaning of the phrase "actual being?" That would be preposterous. Whatever the substantive metaphysical facts may be concerning the powers possessed by actual beings, they will surely not be discovered simply by consulting definitions. Of course, one might always resort to metaphysics by fiat -- pure stipulation concerning the meaning of"actual being." But, then, one could hardly be surprised if nobody pays very serious attention. Though sometimes useful as tools, by themselves semantical inventions solve no philosophical problems.

(3) Premise X is Metaphysically False: In the paragraph directly following the one in which Premise X is first introduced, Griffin says:

Premise X, which speaks of actual beings, begins: "It is possible . . .". But what kind of possibility is at issue? This is not an issue that can be settled by logic alone. Rather it is a metaphysical issue. In fact, this is what many would consider the metaphysical issue par excellence, the difference between actuality and other types of "being" such as possibility. (GPE 265)

Exactly what the "metaphysical issue par excellence" is supposed to be is not made clear in this passage. Is the problem one of determining what kind of possibility it is that is affirmed in Premise X, or is it one of discovering the difference between actualities and possibilities? As it turns out, it is neither. Two paragraphs later, the metaphysical issue is identified as that of determining whether Premise X is true, i.e., whether the possibility affirmed in Premise X does or does not obtain. Of course, Griffin’s position is that it does not. The implication seems to be that his rejection of Premise X does not finally rest on the claim that it is meaningless or logically false but on the idea that it is unacceptable for metaphysical reasons. Though there is precious little on this topic to work with in the text, I now want to see if I can make this thesis clear.

First, let us agree that a state of affairs (S) counts as metaphysically impossible if it is precluded by certain substantive metaphysical principles that are true. The parallel here is with physical, psychological, economic, etc., impossibility. S counts as physically, psychologically, economically, etc., impossible, just in case it is precluded by certain physical, psychological, economic, etc., principles that are true. Allow that S is metaphysically possible if it is not metaphysically impossible. Secondly, just as a false proposition of the form "It is logically possible that is logically false, so let us say that a false proposition of the form, "It is metaphysically possible that . . ." is metaphysically false. Griffin s view seems to be that the kind of possibility at issue in Premise X is a metaphysical possibility and that the specific metaphysical possibility affirmed in that proposition does not, in fact, obtain. The claim is, then, that Premise X is metaphysically false, i.e., it asserts that a certain state of affairs is not precluded by substantive metaphysical principles that are true, when, in fact, it is. Given this as what I shall refer to below as Griffin’s "third position" concerning the deficiency of Premise X, I think it is clear that it is both distinct from and incompatible with each of the other two positions already examined. On this third position, Premise X has negative truth value and thus cannot be meaningless. But, on the other hand, the claim is not that Premise X is a false proposition of the form "It is logically possible that or that it is inconsistent on some other count. If it were, the metaphysical issue we are here considering (i.e., whether Premise X is true or false) could "be settled by logic alone," and this would be contrary to what Griffin tells us in the passage quoted above. On this last question, I think that the finished view all but explicit in Griffin’s remarks is as follows: There are possible worlds -- i.e., logically possible worlds -- in which the activities of some beings are completely determined by another. But these worlds are not metaphysically possible -- they are metaphysically impossible, i.e., their actuality is precluded by certain metaphysical principles that are true.

In the first section of this essay, in response to Griffin’s objections to the analysis of "X is omnipotent" presupposed in Mackie’s original challenge to Christian theism, we revised that analysis to read: "X is omnipotent means "It is within X’s power to bring about any state of affairs (S) where X’s bringing al)out S is logically possible." We have seen that Griffin at least appears to use this analysis when formulating his reply to Mackie’s challenge. However, if we now agree that Premise X is only metaphysically false (and not logically false), i.e., if we agree that it is only metaphysically impossible (and not logically impossible) for one being’s activities to be completely determined by another, given the analysis of "X is omnipotent" with which we have been working, there would be no apparent reason for supposing that it is not within the power of an omnipotent being to completely determine each of the activities of all other beings and thus to bring about a world devoid of evil. The fact that S is precluded by metaphysical principles provides no reason at all for supposing that X’s bringing about S is not logically possible. Thus, the problem with which we started is still with us. In the context of the discussion to this point, Griffin’s third position regarding the deficiency of Premise X simply does not address the issue.

What is needed, of course, is an adjustment in the context -- more specifically, a second revision in the analysis of "X is omnipotent." We must make a switch in the last clause of the first revision -- changing "X’s bringing about S is logically possible" to "X’s bringing about S is metaphysically possible." With this modification, X would count as omnipotent just in case it is within X’s power to bring about any state of affairs (S) where X’s bringing about S is metaphysically possible. Assuming this, and assuming as well that the metaphysical possibility affirmed in Premise X does not obtain, it follows that a being could be omnipotent even if it lacked power sufficient to determine each of the activities of all other beings and thus (Griffin would say) to bring about a world lacking evil. The third position is now harnessed to the plow. Given the two assumptions just isolated, it is at least making contact with the problem at hand.

As above, I shall conclude with two critical comments.

(1) Griffin tells us that the possessor of perfect power is a being having power "greater than which cannot be consistently thought," I.e., one having "the greatest power it is conceivable (possible) for a being to have." In the opening paragraph of the second section of this essay, I noted that the import of these descriptions (and some others therein recited) is that a being has perfect power only if it possesses the logical limit of power. This is what such phrases are used to convey both in the classical literature (Anselm) and in contemporary discussions of omnipotence and the problem of evil. To use them otherwise, without warning, would be obscuristic in the extreme. But now, under what conditions shall we say that a being possesses the logical limit of power? Most would agree that a being (X) counts as having such power if there is no possible world containing a being having greater power than X. This is to say that from the ascription of more power than is possessed by X, one can derive a logical contradiction. Now, consider the status of what is usually counted as a metaphysical principle. Such a principle is presumably descriptive of fact, however foundational. Though it may be supposed stronger (more binding, firmer, more important, or some such) than a mere physical law, it is still a substantive proposition whose negation is not contradictory and which is thus logically contingent. This is to say that however binding it may be, there are possible worlds in which it fails. Off hand, the conclusion would appear to be that a being having the logical limit of power would have power sufficient to bring about a state of affairs (S) even if S were precluded by a metaphysical principle. But, of course, this might be wrong. It might be that while it is logically possible that S obtain, one can derive a contradiction from the claim that some individual brings S about. Still, I should think that before endorsing the idea that the logical limit of power is restricted to power sufficient to bring about only what is metaphysically possible, we should want to be shown that such contradiction can, in fact, be derived. My point is that on the surface, at least, the analysis of "X is omnipotent" that goes with Griffin’s third position concerning the deficiency of Premise X does not capture the idea of perfect power as understood by Griffin and as generally understood in discussions of this topic. If Griffin is to make good a claim to the contrary, the burden is on him to derive the required contradiction and thus show that the analysis of "X is omnipotent" here being considered does not involve a slip to the concept of something less than perfect power.

(ii) Premise X is metaphysically false, i.e., there is no metaphysical possibility of the sort it affirms. This would be true only if the existence of beings whose activities are completely determined by a being or beings other than themselves is precluded by metaphysical principles that are true. But why should we agree that the metaphysical principle involved in this case is true? If we discount appeals that had relevance only when considering the claim that Premise X is meaningless or the claim that Premise X is logically false (i.e., Griffin’s appeal to the meaninglessness of "X is a powerless actuality" in the first case and to ‘the definition of "actual being" in the second case), Griffin’s text provides nothing in the way of support for the assertion that the metaphysical principle upon which he is relying is correct. The conclusion is that even were we to accept the analysis of "X is omnipotent" needed to make it even relevant, the major trouble with Griffin’s third position regarding the deficiency of Premise X would still have to be faced. What is needed is an argument -- some whisper of evidence -- that goes at least part of the way toward showing that Premise X is metaphysically false. Until that is supplied, there is probably no point in attending to any of the other problems that Griffin’s third position involves.

Since the discussion in this section has been complicated and since it constitutes the center of my reflections on Griffin’s argument for the process theodicy, perhaps a word of summary would be appropriate before it is brought to a close.

Griffin tells us that the existence of a being that is omnipotent on the so-called "monopolistic view" of omnipotence is "impossible," i.e., "not coherently conceivable." Since, for Griffin, what I have called the "standard view" of omnipotence is not distinguished from and, inflict (given one of his arguments) reduced to the monopolistic view, it, too, is incoherent and for the same reasons. Further, Griffin’s thinking as regards the incoherence involved has something to do with the idea that Premise X is deficient. Thus, focusing just on the argument against the standard view of omnipotence (since, I have argued, the monopolistic view is not the same and has no theological significance) what I have tried to do in this section is to discover what is wrong with Premise X and how its failure renders unacceptable the standard view of omnipotence. However, in addition to his official position regarding the deficiency of Premise X (that it is meaningless), Griffin’s arguments and remarks suggest at least two other ways of understanding the vagueries of this proposition. Thus, in the interest of completeness I have worked in turn with three quite independent critiques of Premise X, attempting in each case to assess its plausibility and to determine its connection (if any) with the claim that the standard view of omnipotence is incoherent. In the course of the discussion a number of interesting, important and in some cases, difficult topics intimately connected with the concept of power have been addressed. Among these I include the notion of having or possessing as it relates to power; the distinction between having and exercising power; the logical status of "unexercisable power ; and, perhaps most crucial of all in the context of traditional Christian thinking about omnipotence, issues hovering in and around the illusive concept of over-power. Still, as regards Griffin’s specific project, the results have been largely negative. So far as has been shown to the contrary, there is nothing wrong with Premise X and nothing wrong with the standard view of omnipotence. Of course, this is not to say that the standard view is acceptable. It is just to say that it has not been shown to be otherwise.

4. The Argument for the Social View of Omnipotence

Having found the monopolistic and thus (on his account) the standard view of omnipotence unintelligible, Griffin argues that a being having perfect power would have power only to "influence" the activities of others. The reply to Mackie is, then, quick in coming. A being having power only to influence the behavior of others could not unilaterally guarantee that the activities of others will not be evil or will not be such as to result in evil. While a world without evil is logically possible, no being -- not even an omnipotent being -- could unilaterally bring such a world about.

This final part of Griffin’s argument for the process theodicy turns on an assumption that he appears to have borrowed by Hartshorne, viz., that the so-called "social view" of omnipotence is the only alternative to the monopolistic (and thus to the standard) view.9 The critique of the latter thus established the former as (in Griffin’s words) "the only view that is coherent if one is talking about the power a being with the greatest conceivable amount of power could have over a created, i.e. an actual world" (GPE 269). But this conclusion can hardly stand without something more in the way of support. Backing away from the monopolistic and standard views, I should think that the first diminutive would be this: With respect to any finite being, an omnipotent being has power to completely determine some of its activities (e.g., its walking activities), but does not have power sufficient to completely determine all of its activities (e.g., not its talking activities). We might call this the "selective view" of omnipotence. And note, a being that is omnipotent on this selective view might exist even if Premise X turned out to be meaningless, logically false, or metaphysically false. Such a being could exist together with other beings even if not all of the activities of any of the latter could be completely determined by another. But, of course, if this alternative were to be accepted, it would not follow that an omnipotent being could not unilaterally bring about a world devoid of evil. What would remain to be argued is that the potential activities of other beings that are evil or that result in evil are not among those the omnipotent being could determine to the contrary. The final picture is not encouraging. Even had Griffin succeeded in showing that the standard view of omnipotence is incoherent (which he did not), rigor would require that yet another negative thesis be established, viz., that the selective view of omnipotence is unacceptable. I do not see how such a thesis could be successfully argued.

5. Epilogue

In chapter 96 of the Enchiridion, Augustine writes:

Nor can we doubt that God does well even in the permission of what is evil. For he permits it only in the justice of His judgment. And surely, all that is just is good. Although, therefore, evil, insofar as it is evil, is not a good; yet the fact that evil as well as good exists, is a good. For if it were not a good that evil exists, its existence would not be permitted by the omnipotent God, who, without doubt can as easily refuse to permit what He does not wish, as bring about what he does wish.

Applying the principle articulated in this passage to the special case of immoral actions performed by men and angels, in chapter 100 of the same text, Augustine says:

For as far as it relates to their own consciousness, these creatures did what God wished not to be done: but in view of God’s omnipotence, they could in no wise effect their purpose. For in the very fact that they acted in opposition to His will, His will concerning them was fulfilled. And hence it is that, "the works of the Lord are great, sought out according to his pleasure," because in a way unspeakably strange and wonderful, even what is done in opposition to His will does not defeat His will. For it would not be done did He not permit it (and, of course, His permission is not unwilling, but willing); nor would a Good Being permit evil to be done only that in His omnipotence He can turn evil into good.10

Although Augustine is speaking in this passage only about the actions of men and angels, I am sure he would readily extend the point to cover the activities of whatever other beings there are that are capable of (partially) determining their own activities (actual Occasions?). Augustine’s amazing message is that if God is omnipotent, then no matter how untoward the activities of finite agents may be, we must suppose that they are performed with God’s permission. Somehow or other (in a way "unspeakably strange and wonderful") all things that exist or occur (including such activities) contribute to the ultimate good. If they did not, God would not permit them to be. I have argued elsewhere that for all anyone has been able to show to the contrary, this theodicy is free of logical contradiction.11 But, of course, if it is not contradictory, then Mackie’s challenge to traditional Christian theism fails. If "God exists" and "evil exists" are logically incompatible, no explanation of evil in a theistic universe would be possible. Any such (alleged) justification would itself be contradictory. But note, Augustine’s way of handling the problem of evil is very different than Hartshorne’s and Griffin’s. For Augustine, since God is omnipotent, it is within his power to completely determine each of the activities of all other beings, and thus it is within his power to prevent all instances of evil. He does not do so only because the evil action of others are ingredients in the ultimate good. Griffin challenges the second of Mackie’s quasilogical rules. Augustine’s more promising approach is focused on Rule A. My point is that even though the process theodicy is not successful, process theology has other ways to go. Augustine’s solution to the problem of evil works (if it works at all) even if God is omnipotent. And as I mentioned at the very beginning of the discussion, the problem of evil is dismantled altogether once one shakes loose from the unlikely (and contra-Whiteheadian) idea that to be worthy of worship, a being must be omnipotent, i.e., must be the possessor of the logical limit of power.12

 

References

DR -- Charles Hartshorne. The Divine Relativity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

GOM -- Alvin Plantinga. God and Other Minds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.

GPE -- David Griffin. God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.

 

Notes

1 See Hartshorne’s article "Omnipotence" in An Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Vergilius Ferm (Philosophical Library, Inc., 1945), p. 545ff; and DR 138.

2 "On Evil and Omnipotence," Mind, 1956. This point is anticipated by Hartshorne in The Divine Relativity, p. 135. It is also emphasized by Alvin Plantinga in his recent writings on the free will defense, e.g., part A of God, Freedom and Evil (Harper Torchbooks, 1974).

3 This analysis is suggested by Plantinga in GOM 137.

4 This thesis is developed by Hartshorne in his article "Omnipotence" and in DR 134-42. It is further expanded by Griffin in the first half of chapter 18 of GPE.

5 It is at this point that the already obvious parallel between Griffin’s argument for process theodicy and Alvin Plantinga’s most recent effort to defend the free will theodicy becomes most apparent. Cf. Plantinga’s God, Freedom and Evil,. section A, subsections 4-6.

6 Cf. the Introduction to the Principles, no. par. 20, See also the Alciphron, Book VII (Jessop and Luce, III, pp. 290-97).

7 What I have just said is what I take to be the broad, intuitive idea behind Whitehead’s highly technical effort to expose the observational import of "point" via the method of extensive abstraction. See PNK, chapter 1, entitled "Meaning" (esp. p.5) for Whitehead’s account of the project undertaken in this volume. Then see part III, chapters 8-11 for the details of the definition of "point." My remarks here are based largely on what Whitehead says about "abstractive classes" in no. par. 30 of chapter 8, PNK 104-06.

8 The thesis advanced here is further developed and emphasized in subsequent sections of this chapter. See especially the penultimate paragraph.

9 Cf. Hartshorne’s article on "Omnipotence" and GPE 269f.

10 These two passages are taken from The Basic Writings of St. Augustine, ed. W. T. Gates (Random House, 1978) which, in turn, were taken from A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. Philip Schaff.

11 "Hume on Evil," Philosophical Review, 1964. See also Roderick Chisholm’s splendid and much more fully developed argument for the same conclusion in "The Defeat of Good and Evil," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association, (1968-69), 21-38.

12 I am grateful to my friend and colleague Rebecca Pentz for many suggestions, comments, and criticisms which were of great help to me in working out the argument of this essay.


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