Friday, January 27, 2012

Omnipotence, Suicide, Counterpossibles, and Aseity

Here's a question I'm toying with: Can an omnipotent being commit suicide? It seems to me that it could, at least in one sense:

1. If God were to attempt to commit suicide, he would (or might) succeed.

Richard Swinburne seems to agree (cf. his The Coherence of Theism). But if that's right, then it seems to me that no being -- not even a theistic God -- could be inherently indestructible. But if not, then there can be no being that is inherently metaphysically necessary.

Here's a half-baked objection and reply:

Objection: A theistic god is by definition essentially morally perfect. Therefore, while God could commit suicide (in virtue of his essential omnipotence), there is no possible world in which he would do so (in virtue of his essential moral perfection). The objection therefore depends on the thesis that there are non-trivially true counterpossibles, viz., (1).  But there are no non-trivially true counterpossibles; so, the objection fails.

Reply: I disagree. First, I seriously doubt that moral perfection precludes suicide. But more importantly, I think there are non-trivially true counterpossibles (e.g., (1)).  But at the very least, such a criticism is controversial, as accounts of non-trivially true counterpossibles are all the rage at the moment, and many philosophers who study such things (theist and non-theist alike, fwiw) accept the existence of non-trivially true counterpossibles. As such, one would like to see a good reason to think that all such accounts are bound to fail before one accepts the objection. Pending a case, (1) seems to indicate that while there may be something intrinsic to God's nature qua morally perfect being that prevents his non-existence (via suicide), there is nothing intrinsic to God's nature qua aseity, considered in itself, that prevents his non-existence. For given God's omnipotence, it seems to follow that he can annihilate himself. But if that's right, then it casts doubt on the thesis that a substance (e.g., God), qua type of substance, could be metaphysically necessary merely in virtue of its self-existence. Or in other words, the "stuff" of God's being, so to speak, isn't inherently indestructible. And if not, it's not inherently metaphysically necessary.



3 comments:

exapologist said...

(Whoops -- I accidentally deleted TaiChi's comment. Sorry about that! Here is TaiChi's original comment:

I'm not quite sure what 'inherently' means here. But suppose 'inherently indestructible' is a property which some X has iff (i) in no possible world where X exists is X destroyed, and (ii) that (i)'s being true can be derived a priori from the nature of X. Then, since God is by nature morally perfect, and (let's assume) this means that God would not annihilate himself in any possible world, it seems that God is inherently indestructible, since one can supposedly derive his not being destroyed in any possible world from his nature (which includes this moral perfection*). Would you have an objection to this sort of definition, which leaves aside consideration of counterpossibles?

* Actually, to get this we'd have to say that God would no more let himself be annihilated by any other being than annihilate himself, but a theist will presume this as well.

But if [an omnipotent being can commit suicide], then it seems to me that no being -- not even a theistic God -- could be inherently indestructible. But if not, then there can be no inherently indestructible being, in which case there could be no being that is inherently metaphysically necessary.

You've probably already posted on this, but what is the argument that inherent indestructibility entails inherent metaphysical necessity? Why couldn't there be some X which is such that (i) in no possible world where X exists at a time is X destroyed at some other time, and (ii) there is at least one possible world where X does not exist at any time?

exapologist said...

Hi TaiChi,

Great questions. As to the first: I'm trying to capture the elusive "in virtue of" relation with my use of "inherently". I agree with a number of philosophers that such a relation is too fine-grained to be captured in terms of possible worlds. And it seems to me that my counterpossible (1) brings out the fact that even if there is no possible world in which God is annihilated, this fact obtains not in virtue of the type of substance he is -- i.e., he's not composed of intrinsically indestructible stuff --, but rather in virtue of his moral nature.

As to your second question: I find this issue fascinating, and I've been wondering about my claim as well. On other occasions I've criticized Leibnizian cosmological arguments on the grounds that contingent independent beings are epistemically possible. And at least one construal of my notion of a contingent independent being satisfies your account of an indestructible being. So your point is well-taken.

Relatedly, I'd like to say that, on reflection, it does seem to me that it's epistemically possible for a divine being to be metaphysically necessary, and yet destroyed at a possible world.

Thus, say that a world stub is some initial temporal segment of a possible world (whether beginningless or not). Then we might say that a god (an uncreated, metaphysically independent being) is metaphysically necessary only if it exists in at least the world stub of every possible world. Such an account thus allows that a metaphysically necessary divine being could go out of existence at some time downstream of the world stub of some possible world (say it commits suicide, or is annihilated by some other omnipotent being).

TaiChi said...

Hi Ex,

And it seems to me that my counterpossible (1) brings out the fact that even if there is no possible world in which God is annihilated, this fact obtains not in virtue of the type of substance he is -- i.e., he's not composed of intrinsically indestructible stuff --, but rather in virtue of his moral nature.

Okay, I think you're right. But I wonder how things go if the theist endorses both God's inherent omnipotence, and his inherent destructibility. It seems to me that the theist could then endorse the 'lite' version of your (1)..

(A) If God were to attempt to commit suicide, he would possibly succeed.

..as well as the counterpossible..

(B) If God were to attempt to commit suicide, he would possibly fail.

Of course, to do this, the theist would have to take the position that the closest counterpossible world in which (A) is true is as similar to the actual world as the closest counterpossible world in which (B) is true - otherwise one of the two propositions would be true but not the other. Such a theist would have to hold that a barely destructible God (i.e. a God that can only be destroyed by himself) is as similar to God in actuality as a barely non-omnipotent God (i.e. a God who can do anything except commit suicide). Since it's not clear that this view is untenable*, it's not clear that the theist can't assert both God's omnipotence and his inherent indestructibility.

* (If it could be argued that indestructibility derived from omnipotence, then this would put (A) ahead of (B) in terms of similarity to the actual world. I'm not sure there's such an argument, though.)

As to your second question: I find this issue fascinating, and I've been wondering about my claim as well. On other occasions I've criticized Leibnizian cosmological arguments on the grounds that contingent independent beings are epistemically possible.

I've read some of these posts, and I think it's a sound criticism. I wondered whether I'd missed a post where you subsequently changed your mind.
I guess though, you're really setting up a choice for the theist here: if you can show that no being is inherently indestructible, then the theist either has to give up God's metaphysical necessity (if he thinks a metaphysically necessary being must be inherently indestructible), or the theist has to accept your criticism of the cosmological argument. Either way, it's a gain.

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