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Today’s post is by SASHA guest contributor, Tara Schlotzhauer.
While I may be an atheist, I have many real life friends and acquaintances whom are religious; given that I live in middle of the Bible Belt of Missouri, the religion of choice is Christianity. Thus, it is not surprising that on a daily basis that I see at least one status on Facebook invoking some sort of help from God or thanks to God. At times, they are actually what I would consider legitimate concerns to pray for such as when a loved one is very sick or even dying. While I don’t agree with pray, I understand their need to let people know and the need to invoke good thinking towards them in this time of need.
However, more often than not, I come across a Facebook status where the person is praying for something that I would think is totally inappropriate to ask of God. For example, in the last couple of months, I have seen the following prays: asking for their football team to win the Superbowl/playoffs, asking for a big enough tax return to be able to buy a new Xbox 360/TV, asking for someone to be motivated to take their work shift so they don’t have to work, asking for God to send them someone to love and whom will love them, asking for their parents to buy them a new computer for their birthday, asking for the Supreme Court to overturn a court case where separation of church and state was upheld, etc.
As superficial and silly as I find all of these, I read a status from last night and a follow up this morning by a young high school girl that finally motivated me to write this post and share:
That’s right. A young high school girl spent all weekend not doing her homework (I know from reading other statuses regarding her weekend plans) and prayed for snow (that had already been predicted for days) to cancel classes. Then, when said predicted snow happens and classes are cancelled, she thanks God for the snow day and says this is why she is a Christian. This is also the same girl who, on Friday, posted about how many times she has dropped her phone over the course of the day (twice being in a toilet) but that God must be looking out for her because her phone still works…
I also do not know what is worse: the trivial prayer request or the number of people who liked the statuses (which I take to be agreement or approval).
While I cannot articulately express my frustration over the lack of thought by some Christians regarding the power of prayer, I can relate a great story I heard from another skeptic this past weekend at Reasonfest in Lawrence, KS.
While discussing the power of prayer with a friend who happen to be a preacher, the gentlemen gave the example of how prayer works in our lives by telling of how, a few weeks back, his wife lost her keys and was running late so she prayed for God to help her find her keys and, after a moment, peace surrounded her, she found them. My friend replied to this “touching story of prayer in action” by asking the question: So in order for prayer to work, you have to really mean it and pray really hard? Does that mean that all the families who pray for their family members of cancer did not pray hard enough? Does that mean all the starving children all over the world who prayed to God or had others praying for them did not really mean it? Or was it that God was too busy helping your wife find her car keys to help someone else who really needed his help for something more serious?
Take a moment to re-read that story to let it all sink in.
Scary enough on its own is how often, when I ask Christians why God will answer silly prayers or help people in trivial ways but does nothing about suffering the world, I get to hear these words: “God works in mysterious ways. As mere mortals, we can’t understand his reasoning or his plan but we have to trust in the Lord.”
I’m going to call BS on this. If there is a God and part of his plan includes pain, suffering, starving children, and people dying from horrible diseases, you can count me out. However, the more logical answer is that is either God is not real or, if he is real, is not all powerful or does not take an active hand in the world.
Tara Schlotzhauer is a graduate of the University of Central Missouri with a Bachelor of Science in Photography and her Master of Science in Technology. She is the Secretary of Central Skeptics at the University of Central Missouri and works with her boyfriend and fellow SASHA guest blogger Brandon Christen running the Warrensburg, MO chapter of Recovering from Religion.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
One of our members recently posted a link to a great website, The Fallacy Files, on our facebook wall. I did some browsing, and stumbled upon a modal logic fallacy: the modal scope fallacy. I did some more clicking, and ended up reading Professor Norman Swartz’ article on the modal scope fallacy. In it, he claims that the argument against god’s omnipotence based on the immovable stone commits the modal scope fallacy. This is one of my favorite arguments, so I decided to take a closer peek. It turns out that Swartz’s analysis is a bit too coarse-grained, representing “god is omnipotent” as ‘G’, and “god creates an immovable stone” as ‘M’. I thought this might be a nice opportunity to show what modal logicians do. I will give a more precise analysis of the argument, find out that Swartz’s analysis holds, and then show why under the assumption that god is a necessary being, the argument holds, just as Swartz speculates. This will bore and disappoint many of you.
I’ll start with Swartz’s analysis of the argument. He says:
God is omnipotent, i.e. God can do anything which is logically possible. Making a stone which is so heavy that it cannot be moved is logically possible. Therefore God, being omnipotent, can make a stone so heavy that it cannot be moved. But if God makes a stone so heavy that it cannot be moved, then God cannot move it. But if God cannot move that stone, then there is something God cannot do, and hence God is not omnipotent. Thus if God is omnipotent, then God is not omnipotent. But any property which implies its contradictory is self-contradictory. Thus the very notion of God’s (or anyone’s) being omnipotent is logically impossible (self-contradictory).
The argument, as presented just above, is an unholy amalgam of two different arguments, one valid, the other invalid. The valid argument is this (where “G” = “God is omnipotent” and “M” = “God makes an immovable stone”):
Although the immediately preceding argument is valid, its second premise is false. The true premise is used in this next argument, but this next argument is invalid:
To derive ~G from the latter pair of premises, one would have to add the further premise, M. But so long as M is false, the conclusion ~G remains underivable. God, thus, remains omnipotent provided that God does nothing, e.g. making an immovable stone, which destroys His/Her omnipotence.
(Question: What if God is omnipotent – as some have argued – of logical necessity and exists necessarily, i.e. in every possible world? The answer, I’m pretty sure, is that, under these conditions, God’s making a stone so heavy that God cannot move it is a logical impossibility.)
He says the second premise of the valid argument is false. The premise says, “if it is possible for god to create an immovable stone, then god is not omnipotent.” As the English version of the argument indicates (I’ve emboldened the sentence), god’s lack of omnipotence follows from his actually making an immovable stone. The beginning of that sentence is not “If god can make…”, but “If god makes…” This is a big difference, modally. It is like the difference between “If one can murder his father, then one deserves punishment” versus “If one murders his father, then one deserves punishment.” We need god’s omnipotence to be destroyed by the possibility of making an immovable stone, and so far the above argument does not establish that.
Upon reading Swartz’s analysis thus far, I felt the skeptical beast inside me awaken and grumble. I doubted that his analysis was correct, but I recognized that everything else he had said so far in the article seemed correct. I had a good reason to believe what he said. So, I suspended my belief that the argument was valid, and decided to look at it more closely. Two things immediately jumped out at me as requiring closer analysis. First, the notion of an agent’s ability to do things can be analyzed with a system of action logic, called STIT. STIT stands for Sees To It That. It is a logical operator that connects an agent to a sentence, representing the idea that when an agent does something, he makes sure that some sentences are true. For example, when I walk my dogs, I see to it that the sentence, “Sasha and Gypsy are walking outside” is true. We can let the symbol W express that sentence. So, to logically represent my walking the dogs, we can say [seth STIT: W]. Now, STIT logic represents ability like this: [seth STIT: W]; this says ‘seth has the ability to see to it that sasha and gypsy are walking outside.’ With the tools of STIT logic, we can more precisely analyze the parts of the argument that deal with god’s ability to do things. But before we dig in, there is another element to the logic I must explain. That is the second thing that jumped out at me.
To say that god is omnipotent is to say that god can do anything. Some want to qualify this with “… that is logically possible.” I will ignore this qualification. The important thing to recognize is that the claim “god can do anything” requires first order predicate logic, not merely propositional logic. Predicate logic allows us to express things like “All men are mortal,” and “Some people suck” mathematically, and it comes to us compliments of Frege and Russell. Predicate logic lets us generalize over claims about all things and some things. Because “god can do anything” makes a claim that generalizes over all things, we need predicate logic for a precise analysis. The symbols ‘x’ say “for all x’, and the symbols ‘x’ say “there exists an x’ or ‘for some x’. Now we can combine STIT logic and predicate logic to say ‘god is omnipotent’:
1. x[g STIT: x].
In english: For all x, god has the ability to see to it that x. So, x is a variable that can express any sentence. At this point, the “logically possible” qualification might insist that x not be a self-contradiction, but I will just take it for granted that x is self-consistent. To represent ‘god can make an immovable stone,’ I’ll first convert it to the long english version of the logicese: ‘god has the ability to see to it that there exists a stone such that nothing can see to it that the stone moves.’ Let Sy = ‘y is a stone’ and My = ‘y moves’. Then we have the following:
2. [g STIT: y(Sy & ~z([z STIT: My]))].
This is ‘god can make an immovable stone’ in predicate STIT logic. Suppose statement (1) is true, that god is omnipotent. It follows, then, that (2) is true, that god can make an immovable stone. In order for (2) to be true, there must be some possible world in which god does create an immovable stone. That’s what it means for something to be possible. We’ll call that possible world ‘U’. At possible world U, god creates an immovable stone. Now, U may not be the actual world, in which case god does not actually create an immovable stone. This is why Swartz’s analysis makes the argument invalid. However, at world U, god does create an immovable stone, meaning at U the sentence [g STIT: y(Sy & ~z[z STIT: My])] is true. So, y(Sy & ~z[z STIT: My]) is also true at U, meaning that at U, there exists an immovable stone, we’ll call it ‘s’. So, at U, ~z[z STIT: Ms] is true, meaning ‘nothing can see to it that the stone moves.’ Logically equivalent to this, we can say z~[z STIT: Ms]. For all z, z cannot see to it that the stone moves. But, we can let z = g, because z is just a universally generalized variable. So, ~[g STIT: Ms]. At U, it is not possible that god sees to it that the stone moves.
To say that something is not possible is to say that it is necessarily false. So, ~[g STIT: Ms]; necessarily, god doesn’t see to it that the stone moves. This means, in all possible worlds, including U, god doesn’t see to it that the stone moves: ~[g STIT: Ms]. In Swartz’s analysis, god remains omnipotent in the actual world as long as he doesn’t create the immovable stone. We see now that if he creates the immovable stone, then he can’t move it, but his inability to move it does not follow from his ability to create it. So, in no possible world does he move the immovable stone, but so long as he doesn’t create the immovable stone in the actual world, it does not threaten his omnipotence in the actual world. At U, however, god is not omnipotent.
In order to get a contradiction with (1), we need ~[g STIT: Ms] true in the actual world. So far, we haven’t established that. All we have at the actual world is that ~[g STIT: Ms]; god doesn’t move the immovable stone (because there isn’t one to move). So far, the argument is still invalid for the same reasons Swartz says! Imagine my disappointment! However, this defense rests on a crucial suppression: (1) is not necessarily true. This means, that there are some possible worlds, like U, at which god is not omnipotent. So, in order for the argument against god’s omnipotence to be invalid, one must admit that god is not necessarily omnipotent! This is a surprising result, which most theists would want to deny. Because, they want the following to be true: x[g STIT: x]. Necessarily, god is omnipotent.
1*. x[g STIT: x].
If we suppose (1*) is true, then by the exact same reasoning as before, we will wind up with ~[g STIT: Ms] at world U. But now, because (1*) is a necessary truth, we also have [g STIT: Ms] at U. [g STIT: Ms] and ~[g STIT: Ms] contradict each other. So, (1*) is false. Now, most theists think god is a necessary being that exists in all possible worlds, and that by definition god is omnipotent. However, we just showed that god is not necessarily omnipotent. So, if god is omnipotent by definition, then god does not necessarily exist, that is, god possibly doesn’t exist. I am content with this result, because it undermines a crucial claim the theist wants to make, but I would rather make the move from possible non-existence to actual non-existence. Unfortunately, the argument against god’s omnipotence can show only that s/he’s not necessarily omnipotent. So, if god is omnipotent by definition, then god is not a necessary being, which means god possibly doesn’t exist. That’s pretty neat.
This week’s posts
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- Buying CAFO products is bad, mmm-kay, Part 1: youtu.be/s8C9ajXYZOI?a via @YouTube 2 weeks ago
- Buying CAFO products is bad, mmm-kay, Part 2: youtu.be/NGrCwXW084U?a via @YouTube 3 weeks ago
- About to get started at Speaker's Circle. Come out and help us #DefendDissent 4 weeks ago
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