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Friday, September 21, 2012

C.S. Lewis was inconsistent...

In fact, many theologians were and are inconsistent in the very same way that Lewis was. For my master’s work at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, I am writing a thesis on omnipotence and the Trinity. The major premise in my thesis is the identification of what I perceive to be a theological inconsistency between conceptions of omnipotence and conceptions of the Trinity. What I mean by this is that many theologians when talking about supposed paradoxes of omnipotence, something like, “can God create a stone too heavy to lift,” appeal to a certain conception of God. That is, many theologians will say that God cannot do the intrinsically impossible. In fact, in the Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says precisely that:
His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.
Moreover, Lewis and others maintain that this is decidedly not a limitation on what God can do because the intrinsically impossible are not actions at all! They are, as Lewis describes, non-actions. However, what I have observed is that these same theologians, I imagine unknowingly, will shift gears, so to speak, when discussing the theological implications of the Trinity. I will discuss this a bit more as we go along.

In my thesis, I will identify two categorical understandings of omnipotence: the Cartesian formulation and the Thomistic formulation. The Cartesian formulation insists that God is absolutely omnipotent, inasmuch as whatever can be phrased as an action (and perhaps even that which cannot) is necessarily possible for God to do, even that which is logically impossible. Rene Descartes famously argued that all truths are contingent truths. What this translates to is that all things we perceive as being true no matter what, things like 2 + 2 = 4 or that things cannot be both true and false in the same way at the same time, are actually ONLY true because God has made it that way. That is to say, these truths are contingent, or depend upon the prior action of God. Quite to the contrary, on the other hand, Thomas Aquinas favored a more limited and epistemically accessible alternative. This alternative insists omnipotence is characterized by having the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs.

At this point, it will be helpful to clarify what it is I mean by epistemically accessible. Here it may be helpful for you to picture a traditional target with a bull’s-eye. Now we can take the circumference of this target and multiply it by the radius squared, this, of course, will give us the entire value of the targets surface area. Imagine that this finite surface area represents the entire range of possible knowledge, that is, it represents the entire field of that which we could ever possibly know. The bull’s-eye and the areas near it represent things we know very well and are, perhaps, very easily known. The closer we get to the outer edges of this target, the more difficult, nebulous, and complicated this knowledge becomes. Now, outside of this target area entirely is an infinite range of knowledge that is impossible for us to know (at least in this lifetime). This means that things can be logically possible, like the existence of another universe where bananas grow on vines, but also completely inscrutable, meaning it is completely outside of our ability to know. So when I refer to something as epistemically accessible, I mean that this is something we can know. Similarly, when I say something is epistemically inaccessible, I mean that this is something that is inscrutable—completely outside of the area of possible knowledge.

Here is where I begin to identify a sort of epistemic inconsistency between the aforesaid doctrine of omnipotence and understandings of the Trinity. Lewis characterized the sort of ineffable nature of the Trinity in this way:

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple and rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God's dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.
Now it seems clear that Lewis, in defending the cogency of the doctrine of the Trinity, appeals to areas outside of our epistemic access. This is clearly seen in his assertion that because of our dimensional limitations we simply “cannot imagine” or “fully conceive a Being like that.”

Descartes said it like this:

It is easy to dispel this difficulty by considering that the power of God cannot have any limits, and that our mind is finite and so created as to be able to conceive as possible things which God has wished to be in fact possible, but not to be able to conceive as possible things which God could have made possible, but which he has in fact wished to make impossible.
Lewis seemingly makes similar claims in his fictional work too, though here he is defending God’s ability to do miracles. One of the characters in the third book of Lewis’ space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, answers a question regarding God’s alleged breaking of natural laws in a very similar fashion:
It is not contrary to the laws of nature…You are quite right. The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident. 
To be fair, Descartes and Lewis may not be saying precisely the same thing. Descartes maintains that the laws are as they are because God has made them as such, while Lewis maintains that our human capability to discern the laws is extremely limited by our epistemic access. What Lewis does is he supposes that we have these sorts of local generalizations of reality that may or may not accord with God’s true laws—laws that are in this human state of existence outside of our epistemic area of access. The practical outcome, however, is virtually without difference. Thus, the reason that the Trinity is not intrinsically impossible is because, according to Lewis, it actually accords perfectly with the true laws of the universe that exist outside of our epistemically accessible region. What follows is the idea that, even though some states of affairs seemingly defy our local generalizations of reality, they actually have not defied true natural laws. Descartes said something eerily similar when he maintained that:
In general we can assert that God can do everything that is beyond our grasp but not that he cannot do what is beyond our grasp. It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power.
So while Lewis may be in many respects advocating something different than the Cartesian formulation, its theological and philosophical ramifications are virtually the same. The inconsistency that I see is that Lewis appeals to epistemically accessible natural laws to defend the idea that God cannot do intrinsically impossible things—a perfectly sane, Thomistic approach to the problems of omnipotence. However, in his defense of the Trinity, he appeals to epistemically inaccessible natural laws in order to prevent the Trinity from being intrinsically impossible.

The problem here can be laid out clearly. In Lewis’ defense of God’s omnipotence he asserts two premises to reach an obvious conclusion:

(1) God cannot do the intrinsically impossible according known natural laws.
(2) Actions posited in certain omnipotence paradoxes are intrinsically impossible according to known natural laws.
However, in his defense of the cogency and coherency of the Trinity, Lewis asserts two different premises:
(3) God can only do the intrinsically possible according to unknown and unknowable natural laws.
(4) The Trinity is possible according to unknown and unknowable natural laws.
The problem here is pretty clear. The major premises (1) and (3) are not compatible and cannot be true simultaneously. That it is to say, the Trinity is intrinsically impossible according to known natural laws, contra (1). Similarly, the only reason that God cannot, say, create a rock too heavy to lift, is because it is intrinsically impossible according to our known natural laws. However, what if these logical laws are only local generalizations and only a faint look at ultimate reality, a reality where entities contradict on occasion and, if the occasion is right, are both true and false simultaneously. That is to say, his appeal to a sort of 4th dimension and its incumbent epistemic inaccessibly renders his Thomistic approach to omnipotence without force.

The real question becomes, is there a way of maintaining a Thomistic understanding of omnipotence without undermining the mystery of the Trinity? I actually don't think there is, but perhaps research will change my mind.