Every so often, I come across a book that confirms an idea I arrived at independently, which is probably why I enjoyed Helm’s chapter on Divine Freedom in his Eternal God as much as I did. When I wrote this post several months ago, I wasn’t aware that Helm had written such strikingly similar arguments. Since he answers a few objections to the idea God’s choice to instantiate this world was necessary which, at the time, I had not considered, I thought I would post them. But firstly, here is how he frames the discussion:
Granted that no one or nothing could coerce such a choice, and that all such choices would be the product of God’s supremely excellent nature, is an eternal God free to choose between or among alternative possible outcomes? And if he is not free to choose between such outcomes does this matter? …does it make sense to suppose that there are alternative equally optimific (or equally reasonable in some other way) outcomes between which God may choose? If not, does this matter? (pg. 172)
Why are these questions important? Well, how one answers them will indicate what position he would hold on divine timelessness, determinism, omniscience, and, by extension, broader topics like epistemology and soteriology. Throughout his chapter, Helm chiefly relies on the first reason I provided in my post for believing that God’s instantiation of this world was necessary (or as Helm will put it, that God “had to” choose what He did); viz. that any reason for God’s choosing to instantiate a possible world implies it:
If God is supremely good then he could only choose those possible outcomes, instantiate those possible worlds, which are consistent with his having this character, since to act inconsistently is a defect which God could not have. And since God is supremely good it must be supposed that God chooses from all possible worlds that world which is the best, the best of all possible worlds, since to suppose that he might choose a world which was less than the best is to suppose that he might do something which was inconsistent with his supremely good nature. (pg. 172)
So God’s choice of the universe may be contingent in the sense that there are coherent alternative universes which God is powerful enough to have instantiated had he possessed an adequate reason to do so. This argument does not depend on the idea of God choosing between equally optimific outcomes, which would appear to make God’s instantiation of any universe an act of pure reasonless will. Rather the argument is that God’s freedom consists in the rationality of his choice, in his having a good reason for what he instantiates, not in his having no reason. (pg. 178)
Elsewhere, Helm states God can also be said to be free “because he acts in accordance with his supremely excellent nature without coercion or hindrance” (pg. 174). On the same page, he knocks down the following argument:
…the further objection that in choosing God is somehow constricted or constrained in his freedom is a curious one. There seems to be a species of metaphysical delusion at work in the advancing of such an objection. For the objection supposes that it would be some sort of disability to have a supremely wise and good nature and to ‘have to’ act in accordance with it. How much finer and freer, the objection implies, to have a nature which would allow the choosing of what is vile and wretched!
With all this said, I would like to make one clarification to something Helm says about the implications of multiple “optimific” worlds:
If we suppose that [God’s actualizing one of a number of co-optimific goals] makes sense, on what grounds could God decide in favour of one rather than another? Clearly, not by reference to their character. There seem to be two alternatives; either he chooses on the basis of some accidental feature of one alternative lacked by all the others, a feature not related to optimificity, or he chooses as a result of pure whimsy. Neither of these alternatives is very appealing. (pg. 180)
While it is to Helm’s credit that he finds neither appealing, I would and have argued they are not really alternatives at all; in both cases God would choose “as a result of pure whimsy.” What I mean is that if the “accidental feature” according to which God chose to instantiate this world is appealed to as a reason for God’s choice, then the feature turns out to be not so accidental after all. It’s essential, as, in fact, it would set this world apart as that so-called possible world which is most optimific. But in this case, we are back to the supposition that there is only one optimific world, a world which God “had to” instantiate. On the other hand, if the “accidental feature” does not function as a reason for God’s choice – that is, if it wasn’t necessary for God to have chosen this world for the reason that said feature was exclusive to it – then actually, this is no different than the position that God’s choice was arbitrary.
Helm summarizes the chapter thus far very well when he writes:
So far I have defended the contingency of the universe on the grounds that it is the outcome of God’s reasonable choice, against the view of Aquinas, recently endorsed by Stump and Kretzmann, that contingency results from choice among equally optimific outcomes.
But did not God have to choose reasonably? And if he did does this not put paid to his freedom and to the universe’s contingency? In a sense, yes. But the language ofhaving to does not imply constraint in this case. God had to because of who he is and that he did choose is the ultimate explanation of what takes place. Thus to say that God had to is to say that no further explanation of what takes place is possible than that it seemed good to the eternal God that these things should be so. (pg. 181)
Helm notes that this position is not Spinozan, because Spinoza would have said that what exists is “not as the outcome of a divine choice…” (pg. 183), essentially because “Spinoza denies both intelligence and will to God…” (pg. 182). Helm also denies Spinoza’s “metaphysical monism” (cf. pgs. 180, 185-186) and then provides another quick summary of where we stand at this point in the chapter:
The power that creatures have is derived from God, but it is not immediately from God. According to theism I write these words as a result of physical and mental powers given and maintained by God. But this does not imply that it is God who is writing these words…
So far we have maintained that the actual universe is contingent; that God chooses it in accordance with his own nature, and not because it is one of a number of equally optimific alternatives; and that this is a markedly different position from that of Spinoza. (pg. 186)
Now, in the comment section of my post on the necessity of this world, it was argued that such would make creation consubstantial with God. Helm replies:
Certainly the idea of the universe is in the mind of God. But to suppose that the creation is a whole or a part of God would be to suppose that to talk about creation is to talk about God. But this is manifestly unsatisfactory. If Jones disobeys God there are two individuals related. To suppose that in such a situation God really disobeys himself, or that the disobedience is only apparent, would be to maintain something altogether different.
So there is a sense in which a theist (as opposed to a Spinozist) holds that the universe is necessary in only a qualified sense. For according to theism the universe comes about as a result of God’s will, the will of an agent, though an agent who is not, and necessarily not, ever undecided what to do. God is necessarily good, but he is not necessarily good as a result of a decision or an act. The necessary goodness of God is not the result of God’s agency. (pg. 187)
The reply to this objection also affords Helm to finish his chapter with a fine answer to the objection that God is not self-sufficient if he “had to” create as He did:
If God is self-sufficient does he need to create? In one sense, obviously not. If a country is self-sufficient it does not need to import goods. But an individual may be self-sufficient in the sense that nothing else is necessary for that individual’s existence and yet he may wish to act or communicate himself, though not because he has a psychological need or deficiency, or some other defect of existence or character such that he has to communicate or create. To want to do something may be a sign not of weakness by of strength, not of deficiency but of fullness. So that it seems perfectly consistent with the fact that God does not need anything that he nevertheless wishes to have other beings and creates in accordance with these wishes. And it would be a perverse piece of argumentation which attempted to qualify this by saying, ‘Ah, yes, but this means that God needs to wish to create.’ This is rather like the claim that all human actions are selfish. There is a sense, a perfectly trivial sense, in which all human actions are selfish, in the sense that all such action is the action of the self who performs it. But there is a non-trivial sense in which what a person does is selfish because it is at the expense of the legitimate interests of others. In the same way there is a trivial sense in which it might be said, from the very fact that God has created the universe and you and me in it, that God needs you and me. Otherwise why would he have created us? But there is another sense in which he clearly did not need you and me, in the sense in which neither you nor I are necessary for God’s being God. We may be pretty important people but it would be taking things a bit too far to suppose that our non-existence would result in God’s non-existence as well. Although the language may seem rather extravagant to our ears, Jonathan Edwards is expressing a perfectly consistent and intelligible position when he writes that ‘a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world’. (pgs. 193-194)
Creation is metaphysically contingent on God, not the other way around. Who God is is not derived from but is rather the precondition for creation. That God had to create or that God created necessarily is not to be explained in terms external to God but rather in terms of who God is or, equivalently, that it was according to His good pleasure to create. And that is just natural: Jonathan Edwards also correctly noted that individuals choose what which they most strongly desire or please. That such would apply to God as well as men does not suggest God is not meaningfully free, nor is it not a blurring of the Creator-creature distinction: “It is perfectly consistent with the basic theistic distinction between the creator and the creature to suppose that the actual universe should be the only possible universe” (pg. 188). Just the opposite: it is a stamp of reassurance that while rationally independent, God is personal rather than some Spinozan, abstract principle: “What God actualizes in timeless eternal fashion is not by logic but by his own nature” (pg. 187). In our creaturely capacity, we only know what God reveals to us. Hence, it may be that we cannot understand why no other world was possible. But that doesn’t imply there is no answer or that we cannot learn the answer:
About many of such possibilities regarding the future we are now able to say that for all we know they may come to pass. They represent present epistemic possibilities and logical possibilities. But if we were to know everything, or more than we do, then we would see that these possibilities are only abstract. They do not represent real possibilities and never did. The thought that they did was the product of our ignorance. (pgs. 188-189)
I appreciate Helm’s book as a whole, but this chapter was genius. He makes many other observations in it, in particular by relating each of these points to time[lessness]. But that would go beyond the scope of this post.