Theological Epistemology

by Bound_up1 min read4th May 201516 comments


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Does anyone know of an apparently defensible response to the following question?

How does a theist distinguish by any imaginable experience between an omnipotent and loving Being, and an omnipotent Being that just wants you to believe it is loving?

Or, if you prefer:

Out of all potential omnipotent beings that want you to believe that they are loving, what observation can distinguish those which actually are loving?



Also, are any of you aware of another who has posed this question?

EDIT: I'm confused at the apparent disapproval of many. Is it because the question refers to religion?

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If an omnipotent being wants you to believe something that isn't true, and is willing to use its omnipotence to convince you of the truth of that untruth, then there is nothing you can do about it. There is no observation that suffices to prove that an omnipotent being is telling the truth, as a malevolent omnipotence could make you believe literally anything - that you observed any given observation - or didn't, or that impossible things make sense, or sensible things are impossible.

This is one of a larger class of questions where one answer means that you are unable to assume the truth of your own knowledge. There is nothing you can do with any of them except smile at your own limitedness, and make the assumption that the self-defeating answer is wrong.

Or accept that the self-defeating answer may well be right, but that it's veracity doesn't affect any decision.

There is some confusion here. Asking Less Wrong flavored questions using theological terms generally requires misusing the terms. This is unfortunate, because these questions are really interesting, but most us don't have the requisite understanding of theology to do it well (including myself obviously(although, I venture that I might know more than most(#nesting))). So, my answer will be really disappointing.

In the monotheistic theology of Islam (represented by Al-Farabi), Judaism (represented by Maimonides), and, Christianity (represented by Thomas Aquinas), when it is said that God is omnipotent, they are saying God is not lacking in power, not that God can actually will to do any particular action whatsoever. In this way God is restrained. For example, God cannot create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it because that is not a logical possibility. Or as a mathematician once said, "Nonsense is nonsense, even if you say it about God."

To your question about a loving God's possibility to deceive. This is a tough question because it is several in one. Can God deceive, can God's nature be learned about through observation of the created universe, and can God deceive about his nature? The first two questions are contested within each faith tradition, the third question (which I think is most relevant here) third is not disputed by the three philosophers. They all would say, "No."

I'm going to summarize a really long arguments the best I can: since God is a self-caused simple being (having no parts and lacking in no quality), his intellect (it's an operation) can only be directed toward Truth and his will (it's his other operation) can only be directed toward the Good (which is love).

This argument requires that we agree that Truth and Goodness have a primary level of existence, whereas falsity and evil exist contingently on the existence of truth and goodness. Since God has no parts, he cannot be oriented towards the composite essences of falsity and evil.

This is definitely an unsatisfying solution for most of us. The major problem for us approaching Theological Epistemology, as I see it, is that we have to start by explaining what metaphysics we are willing to accept and what we aren't.

Despite the way the question is phrased, it's not really "can God deceive about his nature", the question is "can some other being, who resembles God but has a different nature, deceive you into thinking he has the first type of nature". It doesn't sound like those religious answers you describe are addressing that question.

I appreciate your summary of these religions' ideas on the question.

I do think the God's rock question could be answered in theory; it seems to ask whether God's power for creation exceeds his power to apply force. If we're allowing some kind of limits, I don't know that these powers would end up perfectly equal.

That aside, I want to clarify my question. I thank you again for providing what sound like somewhat technical, somewhat mysterious explanations, but in any case genuine religious teachings, especially since I could buy believers buying them.

To my mind, these answers answer not. In the best-case scenario, that these spokesmen are inspired by some other being, that being has told them that it has these qualities which keep it from deceiving.

Surely, these data are as suspect as all originating from an omnipotent being that claims to embody love. If it wants you to believe it does, it's hardly out of character to provide at least some semblance of support for its preferred conclusion.

And of course, if both a loving and a deceiving omnipotent being would provide such, its presence is not evidence for either over the other.

In the best-case scenario, these spokesmen are able to come to the conclusion that God is not lacking in power and is incapable of deception using just logic and natural philosophy, aka science. Revelation isn't knowledge in the same way that philosophy and science provide knowledge. Revelation is knowledge gained by an act of the will, i.e, you just assent to it. The other types of knowledge are gained by human reason through the senses.

Many people throughout theological history have thought they could not only prove the existence of God, but also prove he has those qualities which we generally associate with God, like omnipresence, simplicity, and goodness. Many of these arguments do prove something, but generally not something we would consider a loving, personal God. For that you generally need a Holy Writ and Divine Inspiration.

In theological epistemology there is a logical impossibility for the Supreme Being to do something heinous. If the source of the inspiration is indeed God, you will not need to doubt its truth (you'd just do that assent thing). But what if the inspiration isn't from God, but a very powerful, invisible, and ineffable being that seems similar? Now we're cooking with oil. How would we know? Could you tell the difference?

Here's a digression.

Imagine a voice comes to you and says, "I want you to be the Father of my people. You will have a son even though your wife is wicked old." Then you discover that your wife is pregnant. You have a son! Later the voice comes again and says, "Kill your only-begotten son, even though you love him, in my name." When you go to kill your son, an angel of the same God stops you at the last moment, and your faith that the voice was not evil is vindicated (supposedly).

This is the ancient story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham is the Father of all three monotheistic traditions today. Why did Abraham think the one God was speaking to him and not some demon? How is it that God can make what seems an unethical command? This is the subject of Kierkegaard's book, Fear and Trembling.

End of digression.

I think at a practical level, we have to reject the type of skepticism you are proposing. If we did live in such a world, there would be very little, if any, reliability in inductive reasoning, and we would have to radically doubt all knowledge that wasn't either tautological or reducible to non-contradiction. Imagine if the Abrahamic God did exist but wasn't God, just a powerful, deceiving spirit who has been working in the world, pretending to love it this entire time.

If observation is tampered with, you can't know for certain. If it isn't tampered with, you might accept something like, "there is an act of love which a pretending God couldn't fake." Choose your Schelling-point for true love vs. seeming love and go from there.

[-][anonymous]6y 4

Oh, they are far more tricky than that. At least the Edward Feser type Scholastics. They just define love as whatever god does.

Basically, the logic is that to love someone is not to wish that they get what they want to get, but to wish that they get what is actually good for them. What is actually good for them is what is in accordance with their natural goal, telos, and this does not even contradict common sense much, to the Scholastic the natural goal of horses is to run fast, eat grass, mate etc. and yes, indeed if we wanted to build a horse heaven it would be huge grassland for long runs. So so far it even checks out for the common-sense observer.

Then they just say natural goals are determined by god and QED.

Scholastics say a true god cannot be unloving by definition, in any logically conceivable universe, because it would imply he does not want what he wants (helping beings to reach natural goals he himself determined) In other words, they think the map / language logic is something superior to reality.

You know of Edward Feser! God, I hate that guy (pun intended). If I didn't respect books so much, I would have torn many pages out of The Last Superstition. His expression of Scholasticism is absurdly simplistic. But you lay out what Feser would say very well. I don't find him an accurate expositor of Aquinas at all; he's ridiculously uncomfortable with ambiguity and so makes his arguments by fudging definitions and appealing to intuition. He's the opposite of a decent scholastic.

I would venture to say that the majority of medieval scholars don't do what Feser does with definitions. But Feser is afraid of secularism in a way I don't think medieval intellectuals were. Does that jive with your understanding of this stuff? I think the argument you made would be made today but would not have been accepted in the 13th C. on the grounds that although God is the source of the natural goals for different species, it does not follow that he personally loves particulars (Avicenna didn't even think God could know particulars).

I'm sorry we're talking about Scholasticism on LW...

[-][anonymous]6y 2

I am not sorry, they were smart guys, although AFAIK misusing it (justifying what they believed anyway), nevertheless if I would see the Summa Theologiae as a fantasy novel and ignore for a second that it is meant to be true, then it would be the most largest, most consistent, most logical fantasy universe ever created, really Tolkien having nothing it. Strictly as tour de force, as a showing off of sheer brilliance, it is respectable. Aquinas was a rare genius.

Unfortunately he was sitting deep in a world, culture, and organization and role, where the only possible outcome was justifying the Bible.

That is way of looking at the Summa made me chuckle. Aquinas was a theologian and did his duty toward the Church, I suppose. I tend to be very sympathetic towards certain medieval philosophers whom I believe didn't use their intelligence disingenuously. Peter Abelard wrote his entire ethics and metaphysics without any reference to religion as did certain other Jewish and Muslim philosophers who were in the business of showing how flimsy the arguments of others philosophers were, even if those arguments came to similar conclusions about the existence of God or the eternity of the universe. In Medieval Paris theological issues were left to theologians and philosophical issues to the Arts faculty. The Church and University exhorted people to stay within their respective fields and failure to do so would put one in danger of censure. Its an interesting tidbit.

what observation can distinguish those which actually are loving?

I think, evidence that the universe was designed with some degree of attention to our well-being. If the universe is unexpectedly kind to us, or if we are especially well taken care of, would be evidence of a loving God.

I'm conflicted about which universe we're in. Things could certainly be worse, but it's also not very good. Is life more tolerable to us than we'd expect by random chance?

But for sure, just look at outcome. It only muddles to consider intention for three reasons:

(1) it is the outcome that we're concerned with, "pretending" versus "sincere" has no meaning if there's no distinguishing effect on observation

(2) asking about pretending is really asking about whether the evidence could be 'tricking' us; it is always a possibility that the evidence leads us to the wrong conclusion with some probability, or that induction over time doesn't apply

(2) even if the creator is non-sentient, we can still ask if the universe is 'us-loving' or not

How does a theist distinguish by any imaginable experience between an omnipotent and loving Being, and an omnipotent Being that just wants you to believe it is loving?

How do you distinguish between a loving person and an actor who wants to appear loving? Well, you wait for the actor to trip up. If the actor is exceptionally good, you'll probably have to wait a long time. If the actor is infinitely good, you can't tell the difference.

If you just have some kind of preference that the actor (or god) has a particular mental state, then a loving God could act like a non-loving God, and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. It would make no practical difference to you beyond your preference for the entity's invisible mental state.

But asking "how could we tell if God is really loving?" may not mean that. You're not being asked to distinguish between "loving God" and "God that acts loving". Rather, you're being asked to distinguish between "loving God" and "God that doesn't act loving, but is called loving". The two would act in different ways, so the question of good acting doesn't come up.

In other words, if someone claims 'this is the type of thing that would be done by a loving God', how do you determine whether that claim is correct? If someone tells you that God gives people cancer out of love, can you respond "a truly loving God wouldn't give people cancer"?

"Omnipotent" means the Being can do whatever she wants to do. If she wants you to believe she's loving, by definition she can and you can't do anything about that.

Is it because the question refers to religion?

I would guess so. Note that on LW you can easily use "an omnipotent Being" and "an AI" as synonyms X-)

If a being is able to perform a service to you that you are unable to recognise as being a service, there is no way to know whether a given act is a service or disservice.

Kids might think that their parents hate them for ruining their fun of running under cars.

That is while it might be somewhat easier to detect whether a omnipotent being regards you as you would regard someone you love it would be considerably harder to discern whether a limited powered being treats you as best of your interest as understood by them if you don't know how they understand you.

That argument applies to evil powered beings too. If you are unable to recognize a disservice, you also have no way to know when an act is a service or a disservice. The consequence of this is that you can't criticize God's actions on the grounds that they seem evil to humans--but you can't praise them on the grounds that they seem good to humans, either. Maybe he's really evil, wants to harm us, and you just don't understand how what he does goes against your interests.