Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Violations of Remotion II

The principle of remotion, again, is approximately:

(R) God is known only by causal inference from effects, in such a way as not to fall under a genus.

Another good example of an argument in analytic philosophy of religion that appears to violate remotion is given by certain accounts of the 'problem of hell'. Take the version in Rangland's good IEP article on the philosophical implications of hell:

(1) An omniperfect God would not damn anyone to hell without having a morally sufficient reason (that is, a very good reason based on moral considerations) to do so.
(2) It is not possible for God to have a morally sufficient reason to damn anyone.
(3) Therefore, it is not possible for God to damn anyone to hell.

Nothing about this, on its own, need violate (R), but we can ask why one would think (1) true (most responses to this argument concern (2); but it's (1) that interests us here because it's clearly about God). And if we look at Rangland's summary of the common reason, it raises all sorts of warning flags if we are wondering whether it violates remotion:

The argument’s first premise seems to follow from the nature of the relevant divine attributes. To say that a being is morally perfect is (in part) to say that such a being would not want any suffering to occur unless there were a morally sufficient reason for it to occur. God’s omnipotence and omniscience imply that God has knowledge and power sufficient to ensure that things happen only if God wants them to happen. So it seems that a perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being would not allow suffering – particularly of the extreme sort associated with damnation – unless there was a very good moral justification for allowing it.

So we are dealing with very strong modalities here -- if we justify the first premise in this way we seem to be taking (1) to be a necessary truth about the actually existing God, assuming any actually existing God exists; and indeed, if we don't take (1) to be a necessary truths, we could evade getting the conclusion (3) in a number of ways. There is no sign of any causal inference that specifically gets us to saying God is 'omniperfect' (which is glossed as 'necessarily perfect in goodness') in precisely the sense required by the argument. The premises can't be merely stipulative if it's to be any kind of actual problem at all. It seems to require that the attributes in question are part of the real definition of God's actual nature. There's no smoking gun, strictly speaking, but without an actual causal inference actually fixing the meaning of the key terms of the argument, there appears to be no other ways to get the strong premise required to yield the strong conclusion.

To know (1), we have to know a lot about God, or about what God must be. If this knowledge is not precisely fixed by a causal inference to the attributes in question, it violates remotion. And while a causal inference might possibly be provided, the premise is still so strong that we'd have to check that the causal inference didn't involve doing anything that treats God as if we were capable of defining the divine nature itself, which is to put it under a genus. Modalities this strong require a powerful foundation; the causal inference that leads us to attribute 'omniperfection' to God would have to be a very good one to get us modalities this strong without assuming that the inference is giving us 'omniperfection' as one defining characteristic of the divine nature itself. Rangland doesn't give us any such causal inference, or any causal inference at all, that God is 'necessarily perfect in goodness' in precisely that sense required by the argument, for the obvious reason that the sources he is summarizing don't generally do so.

As I noted before, there are quite a few views on which remotion is not a concern -- the inconsistency with remotion is deliberate. Most perfect being theology is based on assumptions inconsistent with remotion, for instance. So in that sense one can find plenty of respectable work done that violates remotion. But it is important, I think, to recognize that remotion is an immensely important division here, and that arguments don't easily move across the divide. Arguments from the non-remotion regions have to be taken apart and reconstructed entirely on the basis of the appropriate kinds of causal inference if they are to have any purchase in the remotion regions of philosophical theology.


  1. I really appreciate these two posts. It's a nice analysis of the difficulties, and much more respectful than I would be about it. I find it very difficult not to confront this issue with exasperation or just resigned dismissal.

    It would be interesting to see a fully modern defense of the way of remotion and why it is necessary.

  2. branemrys11:31 AM

    It would be tricky. Even formulating it in modern terms is difficult, given the sheer divergence of views on causation and how we know (or don't know) the natures of things.

  3. James Chastek12:50 PM

    Explaining Contemporary thought in its own terms might be impossible, but this series is very good at pointing out just how different Analytic thought is from classical theism. For St. Thomas, almost everything one says about God is a commentary on the Cosmological Argument (his argument for God's goodness, for instance, rests on God being an efficient cause). The other classical tradition is the apophatic one, which is always eager to explain how inadequate our attempts to predicate things of God are. Neither of these approaches are remotely descriptive of Analytic theology: I've been bothered for years by how they view proofs for God's existence as having no direct connection to what we say about him, and how they never seem to feel the need to eliminate anything peculiar to finite being from the words they say of God. One can just say God is " self" or "a person" or "morally perfect" without taking seriously the idea that we might have to remove a good deal of what we take as essential to those words when said of God.

  4. Now you're both just convincing me I should remain a grumpy old man about it. :)

  5. Timotheos6:57 PM

    Perhaps we should just refer to the Analytic way of speaking about God as being derived from casual inferences... ;)

  6. I'm an amateur and terribly confused: What can we know about God's goodness, and how does it apply to things like hell and evil? Could God create a world and then damn every single person he created? Could he damn a person for utterly arbitrary reasons? Could he send down earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes every day just for amusement?

    Are there any constraints on God's actions we can come up without violating the principle of remotion?

  7. branemrys9:37 PM

    The point of the post is methodological; it doesn't address the truth or falsity of any of the conclusions, nor the premises from which they come.

    If we have no causal reasons for attributing goodness to God, anything we say on the subject violates remotion; if we do have causal reasons for attributing goodness to God, and they do not require treating God as falling under a genus, then any answer that we give to the question can only be answered in light of the causal reasons with which we began. So it all depends on one's reasons for attributing goodness to God. This will obviously vary considerably, and people who don't start with the same reasons won't be able to get the same answers, even if it looks like they do.


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