Advaita Vedānta, Alasdair MacIntyre, Aristotle, Christine Korsgaard, law, obligation, Plato, Śaṅkara, theodicy, Thomas Aquinas
In my previous discussion of Christine Korsgaard’s prologue to The Sources of Normativity, I left out one significant feature of the story she tells of Western philosophy. This is the reason – related to the basic account of excellence of obligation – why Christianity proved philosophically more powerful than Greek thought.
On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.
But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already? We normally think of theodicy – the problem of suffering and responses to it – as primarily a problem for Abrahamic traditions. If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil). But broaden the question a bit – make it “the problem of bad” – and it appears elsewhere too. For Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.
And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation. The ethics of excellence, in Plato and Aristotle, remains teleological: things naturally tend toward perfection. But if this is so, how do we account for people’s all too evident imperfection? Aristotle tells us that a person who is well brought up will tend toward excellence; but what of those of us who aren’t? Korsgaard claims that Aristotle doesn’t say very much about them, but notes that he does say they require law – thus possibly laying the seeds for the fusion of Greek thought with Jewish law in Christianity. Alasdair MacIntyre, I think, would suggest that Aristotle’s teleology as it stood was rooted in the Greek polis, where standards of excellence were largely agreed on and socially embedded; in such a situation, most people would be well brought up. But as the polis fragmented into empire, the well-brought-up began to seem like exceptions rather than rules. And so with Greek and Roman empire we enter a world where law and obligation, rather than excellence, are the fundamental moral concepts – to the point where even a committed Aristotelian like Thomas Aquinas will express ethics above all in terms of natural law. (This story of the transition from Greece to Christianity, I think, parallels the one I have attributed to James Doull.)
Korsgaard, as I noted last time, comes out of this story noting that the modern world is more like the Christian than the Greek in a most fundamental respect. Since we see matter and not form as the most fundamental reality, we no longer see goodness and value at the heart of things. And so we can no longer accept an Aristotelian account on which things (including people) tend naturally toward their perfection; people, on a modern scientific metaphysics as well as a Christian one, are fundamentally fallen, flawed, imperfect.
Still, the Christian world, like the Greek, remains laden with value, with God’s goodness at its very heart. And so the problem of badness and imperfection – already a problem in Plato and Aristotle, at least on Korsgaard’s account – becomes even bigger in Christianity than it did with the Greeks. I really don’t think monotheists ever successfully resolved the problem of suffering, to the point that if an omnipotent God or creator God existed I still wouldn’t think we should put our faith in him.
A world without value at its core is the world generally suggested by modern natural science, with the hypothesis of God the creator refuted by the evidence. But as I noted before, it is also the world suggested by Buddhism, at least before the doctrine of Buddha-nature complicates the picture. The world just is; it is indifferent to our suffering, and it’s up to us to do something about that suffering. Still, the Buddhist view does raise questions about how value comes to exist in the first place. Why is suffering bad, or why is it experienced as bad? How can that badness, that fact that something is wrong with suffering and we should do something about it, come to be, if goodness and badness are not somehow fundamental to the nature of reality? One might go so far as to say that Buddhists and scientists face a problem of good.
I am one who believes that Kant’s moral philosophy is the beating heart of his work. One could indeed perhaps make a case that the “problem of value” (good or bad) has been one of the driving engines of philosophy and its permutations from the beginning, and remains to this day (and of necessity) “unsolved.” In fact I have long thought that the Buddha left this conundrum unaddressed — I think he even acknowledges as much — since there is not, nor can there be, in Buddhism (as far as I can see) any satisfactory account of how dukkha ever “got started.” We can’t hold this against Buddhism, such an account being one of the great unattainables; but I think the desire for it is a constant, and a decisive hinge between great traditions and movements. This is yet another reason why Nietzsche remains one of the unsurpassed minds, a thinker whose work will never go out of date (no matter what fashion does): he made a heroic effort to face the question: ARE there values, yes or no?
Amod Lele said:
I would agree, there can’t be a Buddhist account of how dukkha “got started” – that would be an obvious candidate for the “questions that tend not to edification.” However. I think it’s dangerous to reduce this sort of question to a question of origin or beginning. That’s the approach that reduces the powerful and important “First Explanation argument for God’s existence to a trivial and useless “First Cause” argument. In any serious theodicy or related position, it must be understood that time is itself part of ignorance, part of dukkha, part of God’s creation. To speak of beginning is at the very best misleading, because it suggests a “before.” (While I am far from an expert on physics, I believe that physicists have come to a similar conclusion: it is meaningless to speak of “before the Big Bang,” because the Big Bang created time itself.)
And so I would say Buddhism still does need an account of value; it needs to say why suffering is bad to begin with. They often tend to bat the question away, as when Śāntideva says “If you ask why suffering should be prevented, no one disputes that!” But people do indeed dispute it, now if not then – Nietzsche is a great example.
“For Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, in which reality is pure knowledge, it’s a conundrum to think how there can be so much ignorance.”
I don’t understand why this is a conundrum (although I am not familiar with this philosophical school). If a philosophy has a concept of a primordial wisdom that is uncreated, then couldn’t the holder of that wisdom choose to ignore truth and vest power in something that is created or illusory? Otherwise, liberation wouldn’t be liberation, would it (if we couldn’t choose to close our eyes).
There is a great poem by Gregory Corso called “Power” and one of the lines in it is: “The Angels are not as powerful as looking and then not looking.” It seems to me that ignorance, in the sense of illusion, is like that. It sees before it doesn’t see. And that is why in these schools there is a path and an idea that ignorance is a created thing that can be cleared away.
I agree that asking in terms of causes risks trivializing the issue; but what I had in mind was (I think) something closer to your inquiry — how could anyone have fallen into suffering at all? The problem is more or less the same in the Christian understanding of the Fall, and many theologians have emphasized that even asking how the Fall could have happened is already to try (presumptuously, is the implication) to put oneself outside the circumstance one asks about. Bonhoeffer, for instance, I believe takes this line quite explicitly. There is in a certain sense no satisfactory explanation for the Fall in Christian theology: this is where our discourse stops. (It’s the same with the Buddha’s refusal of the un-edifying questions.) I have to admit, there’s a part of me that rather likes this way of just biting the bullet.
It is interesting that it is not Christianity per se but its Gnostic competition that makes current the question Pothen to kakon? (Though one might argue that Plato faces a more or less isomorphic problem when he tries to trace the origin of falsehood, the proton pseudos). For the Judaism of the Tanakh, the question seems to have been the more practical one: Why do the wicked prosper? The question of the existence of the wicked or of wickedness doesn’t seem to have arisen in the Bible.
Certainly later Christian tradition, like Buddhism, accounts for evil partially in terms of ignorance; but it does not try to explain ignorance itself. (It does describe it, and likewise other vices, e.g. pride or lust or anger, as the going-wrong of various faculties of the human soul, but the going-wrong itself is always referred back to just the misuse of human freedom, and this is properly unfathomable — as indeed is human freedom itself.
Skholiast: “Certainly later Christian tradition, like Buddhism, accounts for evil partially in terms of ignorance; but it does not try to explain ignorance itself.”
Well, ignorance is an epistemic evil and cannot be explained merely in terms of other evils such as vices. In fact, a good case can be made along Socratic lines for the view that vices have their roots in ignorance.
Any being who is not omnipotent and omniscient will necessarily be ignorant of some truths. If it is logically impossible for God to create another omnipotent and omniscient being, then God can create only beings lesser than herself in power and knowledge.
This implies that, if God creates other beings at all, they must necessarily be ignorant of some truths. And if vices stem from ignorance, then any created being must necessarily fall into the grip of some vice or another. And if suffering stems from ignorance, then any created being must necessarily be subject to suffering.
This means that no being can reasonably hope to overcome all ignorance, vices, or, suffering unless it becomes omnipotent and omniscient.
It also means that God is fully responsible for ignorance, vices, and the ensuing suffering because he knows that these are the inevitable consequences of creating any being.
Skholiast: “(It does describe it, and likewise other vices, e.g. pride or lust or anger, as the going-wrong of various faculties of the human soul, but the going-wrong itself is always referred back to just the misuse of human freedom, and this is properly unfathomable — as indeed is human freedom itself.”
We have a limited form of free-will, limited by our constitutional or inherent ignorance,inherent in us because we are not omnipotent or omniscient. Hence, we “misuse” that free-will. There’s nothing “unfathomable” about all this.
What seems “unfathomable” is that God (assuming she exists) should (mis)use her free-will to create beings who will necessarily be limited in knowledge and power and hence necessarily be subject to ignorance and the ensuing suffering.
“This means that no being can reasonably hope to overcome all ignorance, vices, or, suffering unless it becomes omnipotent and omniscient.”
Since I have argued that it is logically impossible for there to be more than one omnipotent and omniscient being, this entails that it is logically impossible for any being created by God to overcome ignorance, vice, and suffering completely because it can only overcome all ignorance, vice, and suffering by becoming omnipotent and omniscient and it is logically impossible for it to become omnipotent and omniscient if God exists.
So, if my premises are accepted, I think we are left with the stunning conclusion that if an omnipotent and omniscient being exists, it is logically impossible for any other being to achieve salvation, liberation, or enlightenment if these are construed in terms of the absence or overcoming of all ignorance, vice, and suffering.
I think even if we reject the premise of God’s existence, we are left, on the grounds of my other premises, that it is virtually impossible for any non-omnipotent and non-omniscient being to overcome all ignorance, vice, and suffering. This, in its turn, casts serious doubt on the reasonableness of the pursuit of enlightenment or liberation construed in terms of transcending or overcoming or escaping from all ignorance, vice or moral imperfection, and suffering.
Amod: “On Korsgaard’s account of Greek metaphysics (à la Plato and Aristotle), goodness is a feature of reality, one more fundamental in a sense than the particular physical objects that appear before us. Perfect form is more real than imperfect matter. This is true whether, with Plato, those forms exist in a world apart from matter, or, with Aristotle, they exist within matter as its potential and telos.”
The claim that “goodness is a feature of reality” follows neither from Plato’s theory of forms nor Aristotle’s. Clearly, for Plato, there are two orders of reality, the world of particular objects and the world of forms. The world of particular objects is evanescent, imperfect, and a dim reflection of the world of forms. Hence, one can’t expect goodness to be a given and enduring feature of this shadowy world.
Further, Plato’s project of social transformation in The Republic obviously presupposes that the (social) world is imperfect and requires the would-be Philosopher-sage to acquire understanding of the world of forms in order to carry out the project of the Republic successfully.
According to Aristotle’s theory of forms, potentiality and telos are distinct from actuality. So, it does not follow that goodness is an actual feature of reality.
Amod: “But if that’s the case, Korsgaard notes, then the logical question is: why aren’t things perfect already…”
If that is Korsgaard’s question, it is far from logical when the premises do not imply it.
Amod: “If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, it’s hard to see how there can be suffering in the world (though it’s less hard to see how there can be evil).”
I have shown in another post that evil and suffering are inevitable given the lack of omnipotence and omniscience which is a necessary characteristic of all beings created by God. I am assuming that it is logically impossible for there to be two omnipotent beings. Since omniscience is logically dependent on omnipotence, it follows that there cannot be two omniscient beings. Hence, it is logically impossible for God to create another omnipotent and omniscient being.
So, if God exists and she chooses to create other beings, those beings must necessarily lack omnipotence and omniscience, and, therefore, must necessarily be afflicted with ignorance, the root cause of evil and suffering. So, beings created by God must necessarily be subject to suffering and evil.
So, if God exists, the sensible question to ask is not “Why are beings created by God subject to suffering and evil?”, but rather “Why does God create other beings knowing that they must necessarily be subject to ignorance, evil, and suffering?”.
Amod: “The ethics of excellence, in Plato and Aristotle, remains teleological: things naturally tend toward perfection. But if this is so, how do we account for people’s all too evident imperfection?”
“things naturally tending toward perfection” implies that things do not start out being perfect. Otherwise, there would no “tending toward perfection”. So, in actuality things are imperfect. The questions then are : What is a thing’s (ideal state of)perfection? How does it become perfect?
Further, for Aristotle, the division between actuality and potentiality implies imperfection. Hence, all things of which this division holds true are imperfect. Hence, God, or the Supreme Cause,the only being who lacks this division, is the only perfect being or Actus Purus.
Amod: “And Korsgaard seems to provocatively suggest that the Christians were better equipped to handle the problem than the Greeks – connecting to her account of how an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation.”
Well, Korsgaard better take another look at the history of Christianity and its gradual dominance in the Western world. The growing power of the Catholic Church and its arsenal of barbarous punitive measures offer more than adequate explanation of how and why an ethics of excellence was superseded by an ethics of obligation at least in the institutions of learning in Europe.
Amod: “A world without value at its core is the world generally suggested by modern natural science..”
What does “value” mean here? If it means “moral value”, then it is true that science has shown that the operations of nature are not governed by moral values. Obviously, this is because the objects and forces of nature do not have consciousness or the kind of consciousness we associate with moral self-direction.
But it does not follow that science has shown that there are no operations or activities or processes or events tending toward and governed by moral value in our universe for the obvious reason that human beings exist, have moral consciousness, and are a solid part of this universe.
So, it is simply false that science could possibly show that there are no moral values at all in the universe as long as there are human beings in it who have moral consciousness.
Amod: “Why is suffering bad, or why is it experienced as bad?”
We are just those kinds of beings, by virtue of our neurophysiology, who generally flinch from and avoid pain and relish and seek pleasure.
As to why we react in that way to pain (which in some form is the defining feature of all suffering)and pleasure, I think that the ultimate explanation lies in our biology or neurophysiology (aspects of which we share with other species) in the just the way an ultimate explanation of why we perceive the world in the way we do rests on that same biology or neurophysiology.
michael reidy said:
The question why suffering is a bad thing seems not unlike asking why toothache is a bad thing. One could answer that the optimal functioning of teeth demands that gums be sound, that enamel be intact and that those cavities where sweets gather be not there.((privatio boni of teeth)) There is a feeling that suffering is not part of the design and that true operation of our nature would guarantee the end of suffering. Viewed from a religious perspective the inevitability of suffering is regarded as an indication of our fallen condition or the toils of maya or dukkha. In that view suffering is a sign that something is wrong and requires attention. Analysis of evil into natural and moral and suffering into emotional and physical is useful in that it breaks the big problem into more manageable units.
Finally you have to deal with it. The believer is acting from a base of the goodness of God otherwise he would not be a believer. Various strategies are employed to incorporate that suffering, rank injustice let us say, at the hands of a good god; in different ways by the different religions. Given the manner of death of Christ this is a marked part of Christianity. There is expiation, redemptive suffering and offering it up for the holy souls in purgatory. Buddhists will take the suffering of others upon themselves. I am thinking of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. There is the expiative aspect of karma’s cosmic justice. To ask why is there suffering may seem in those systems like asking; why is there weather?
In short the insurmountable barrier to faith in a good God exists for those who do not have faith and how that faith is achieved is one of the chief mysteries of grace. James’ Varieties contains many examples. The mourner’s bench is a commodious article of furniture.
I believe I have shown that our subjection to some form of ignorance, vice, and suffering is an inevitable consequence of the fact that we are lacking in omniscience and omnipotence.
So, all religious dreams, whether Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or Islamic, or whatever, of escape, transcendence, or overcoming of ALL ignorance, vice or moral imperfection, and suffering is just a delusion.
The theistic appeal to the “Grace” of God to lift us out of all ignorance, vice, and suffering is, on my account, like asking God to make a square circle. The only way God, granting that he would have the benevolence to want to do it, can lift us out of all ignorance, vice, and suffering is to transform us into omnipotent and omniscient beings, and, that, I have also shown, is logically impossible.
The conclusion that all finite beings (= non-omnipotent and non-omniscient beings)will always remain subject to some form of ignorance, vice, and suffering remains with us even if we reject theism.
So, the sooner we give up the delusive quest for overcoming all ignorance, vice, and suffering in our lives and accept, for one, the Gita’s arguably best sage advice not to fight against or grieve over what is inevitable, the better it is for us!
“So, the sooner we give up the delusive quest for overcoming all ignorance, vice, and suffering in our lives and accept, for one, the Gita’s arguably best sage advice not to fight against or grieve over what is inevitable, the better it is for us!”
This does not entail, of course, that we should not strive to overcome or transcend particular forms ignorance, vice, and suffering. What it entails, again, is that projects such as the Buddhist quest for Nirvana or “enlightenment”, or the Vedantic quest for “liberation”, are delusive since they posit and presuppose a state or condition attainable by human beings in which there is no ignorance, vice, or suffering.
Michael Reidy: “the insurmountable barrier to faith in a good God”
Yes, there is an insurmountable barrier here even if you believe in the existence of God to start with. The barrier comes into being the moment you see that God has created all of us, or allowed us to come into existence by way of the process of evolution, knowing fully that we will always be subject to ignorance, vice, and suffering given that we are necessarily bereft of omnipotence and omniscience. Now why would a good God do that?
We could argue, therefore, that God’s creation of other beings is a supreme act of moral evil!
michael reidy said:
I convict you of an Irish bull. Having surmounted I cannot be unable to surmount. From within the compound, as it were, things look different. One no longer has a perspective that is limited to the single life/incarnation, there is access to other meaning. If you don’t believe your suffering doesn’t stop and that may also be true if you do but it at least has a meaning.
Hopefully, something doesn’t turn into “Irish bull” merely by decree!
What’s your rational response to the argument I have given to show that God, even if she exists, is guilty of moral evil in bringing about the existence of beings who are necessarily finite and, hence, necessarily subject to ignorance, vice, and suffering?
You may wish or hope that an all-loving being exists, but a wish or hope maketh not reality except in the land of “Irish Bull”!
michael reidy said:
Whether one can be inside and outside the compound at one and the same time is an interesting question. Part of rationality is dealing with imponderables and undecidables. Indecision is even a creative state to be in albeit uncomfortable. What is to be avoided is the yearning for ‘fixities and definites’ and surely there is nothing more deadly that the signed and sealed solution. How then does one deal with the dilemma that you propose particularly if it occurs when one is already a believer. Two chief strategies propose themselves, the fatalistic and the agonistic. I like this Linux Puppy distro that brings my old computer to life but it’s not very good with PDFs. I decide to live with it. I tell myself that there is no such thing as a ‘light’ PDF reader that is a good one. End of metaphor. Well, I think you might say, the dilemma explodes the original thesis which is true only if the original thesis was a rational one which it isn’t in many respects. What is clear and obvious to you is not persuasive to the believer who has had certain intimations and confirmations. He moves between surrender and struggle and his God never allows him to settle.
In fact, just to echo one element of Michael’s rejoinder, there are many elements of various religious traditions which explicitly speak of the saint as participating in the divine life– sometimes (depending on the tradition) to the point of unity. (This always gives onto a dimension of experience which is somehow outside time, and so (one could argue) evades certain empirical rejoinders like, “Well, if you’re so One with God, how come you’re not everywhere at once?” or for that matter, “Cast yourself down from this building!”) The point here is just that these traditions have anticipated the claim that to be free of ignorance is to be divine. I recognize that you think these traditions are incoherent and convicted of such on other grounds as well; I am only pointing out that they do seem to have seen your point. But they are left with an experience that is stronger than the syllogism. You are of course free to explain that experience away on different grounds. At some point the logical thing to do is to move the conversation on to other matters.
(I don’t of course mean that this moment has come, or that once come, it remains in force forever.)
You beg the question of the coherence of the claim that someone has “become one” with the “Divine”. That has priority over the issue of “proof” of such claims in terms being able to do this or that as a result of their “oneness with the Divine”.
Further, you evade the logical implications of the cardinal point that there cannot be two omnipotent and omniscient beings. This means that even if you grant that claims of “union with the divine” is intelligible, it can never follow from those claims that an individual has become omnipotent and omniscient not as a matter of improbability but as a matter of logical impossibility.
And that, in its turn, entails that, regardless of any number of “unions with the divine” or experiences of “enlightenment” or “liberation”, all human beings, and any being other than God, will always be subject to some form of ignorance, vice, and suffering.
And if you accept that to bring about a world in which individuals will always remain subject to some form of ignorance, vice, and suffering is a moral evil, you must accept that God is guilty of moral evil in bringing about the existence of other individuals.
“Creation”, then, is an act of moral evil if it includes the existence of individuals!
My “daimon” compels me to consider other perspectives.
Suppose it is logically possible for there to be a plurality of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent beings (of course, there is nothing incoherent in the supposition of a plurality of omnibenevolent beings.) or God-beings.
It follows, given the truth that only an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being is free of ignorance, vice, and suffering, that only the attainment of this status of God-being can eliminate all ignorance, vice, and suffering. Of course, it also eliminates all limitations and impediments such as death, disease, etc.
It would also follow that even if there is just one such God-being existing now, it would, because of its omnibenevolence, seek to assist other beings subject to ignorance, vice, and suffering, to attain this state of God-being and become free of ignorance, vice, and suffering and all limitations and impediments resulting from them.
These other beings would be able to attain this status of God-being only by attuning themselves to this God-being since it alone possesses the key to the transcendence or overcoming of ignorance, vice, and suffering.
The challenge, therefore, is to inquire into two momentous issues:
a) Is it coherent to suppose that a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings can exist?
b) Is it probable that at an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being exists?
What I have argued and shown is that, contrary to the theistic religious traditions, an affirmative answer to (b) will not entail that human beings, or any being other than God, can attain a state free from ignorance, vice, and suffering.
In other words, I proffer the radical and revolutionary claim that the existence of God does not in itself guarantee salvation or moksha (= freedom from ignorance, vice, and suffering). What is crucially required for this connection between the existence of God and the salvation of other beings, is also the demonstration of the coherence of the notion of a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings.
“In other words, I proffer the radical and revolutionary claim that the existence of God does not in itself guarantee salvation or moksha (= freedom from ignorance, vice, and suffering).”
In fact, my argument shows that if God exists, and a plurality of omniscient and omnipotent beings cannot exist, then salvation or moksha for any being is logically impossible! LOL
Creation becomes good only if there can be a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings and beings other than God can also achieve the status of God-being ( = omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being) and become free from ignorance, vice, and suffering.
I have shown that one can become free of all ignorance, vice, and suffering only by attaining a condition of omnipotence and omniscience and that it would be coherent to suppose that one can attain this condition only if it is coherent to suppose that a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings can exist.
Does my account presuppose that “ignorance, vice, and suffering” are bad?
I don’t think so. All it does to is to show the necessary conditions for overcoming them, viz., attainment of omnipotence and omniscience and the coherence of the idea that one can attain omnipotence and omniscience.
Suppose it is incoherent that there can be two omnipotent and omniscient beings. It follows that if there is God, no other being can become omnipotent and omniscient. So, if there is God, no other being can overcome ignorance, vice, and suffering.
If there is no God, it follows that it is extremely improbable or well-nigh impossible that any being can achieve omnipotence and omniscience by its own efforts. It would also follow that it is extremely improbable or well-nigh impossible that any being can overcome all ignorance, vice, and suffering by its own efforts.
It does not follow that “all is lost” or that human life must be one long act of despair or absurdity.
It does not follow that some of the pervasive or recurrent forms of ignorance, vice, and suffering in a human life cannot be overcome.
Whether or not any of them ought to be overcome will depend on whether they are bad. If they are bad, and the badness of some of them will depend on the condition of the individual, the challenge then is to engage with those forms of ignorance, vice, and suffering the best we can and seek to overcome them. That will imbue our lives with meaning and impart “zest for living”.
To put one of my points from another “angle:
Becoming a God-being (= omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent) is the greatest achievement and the greatest good for any being.
If there is God, i.e., at least one omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being, then such a being would seek to enable other beings to attain to the same condition (freedom from all ignorance, suffering, and limitation) it enjoys.
The problem, however, is whether it is logically possible for other beings to attain to God-being. This is not the problem of becoming “one with God” or achieving “identity with God”. Those are incoherent notions. It is, rather, the problem of whether it is coherent to suppose that any being can become a God-being, become a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
Hitherto I have explored and affirmed the view that it is logically impossible for there to be more than one omnipotent and omniscient being, but now, in the darkest hour of the night, I have come to see that there is indeed nothing incoherent in the supposition of a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings or God-beings (if you add omnibenevolence).
One question pertaining to the coherence of the idea of a plurality of omnipotent and omniscient beings is this: if you have two omnipotent beings, X and Y, who is more powerful? Can X destroy or hinder Y or vice-versa? If X can’t destroy or hinder Y or vice-versa, how can X or Y be omnipotent?
Well, omnipotence does not include the ability to do things which are logically impossible. Since it is logically impossible to destroy or hinder an omnipotent being, neither X nor Y can destroy or hinder the other. This is not a limitation on their omnipotence, but rather a logical limit on what any omnipotent being can do.
Since X and Y are also omniscient beings, obviously they would know this truth among other truths.
Each can do all that the other can do and each knows all that the other knows.
If X and Y are both omnipotent and omniscient beings, how can we distinguish them? What could possibly be the criterion of individuation and distinction here?
Answer: If two or more beings are omnipotent and omniscient, this does not imply there would be no differences between them. Neither omnipotence nor omniscience entails the absence of individuality or personality.
But how could we know that they have a different individuality or personality?
One possibility is that they have different styles and choices in exercising their omnipotence. Two or more omnipotent beings need not perform the same sorts of actions.
Ok, so the notion of a plurality of omniscient and omnipotent beings (you can also add omnibenevolence) is coherent.
Of course, it does not follow, by any stretch of the imagination or language, that it is reasonable to believe that even one such omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being exists.
But if it is reasonable to believe that at least one such being exists, does it follow that it would also be reasonable to believe that more than one such being exists?
In other words, would any evidence which shows that one such being exists also show that more than one such being exists?
Hume, we should note, thought that the hypothesis of a plurality of gods was consistent with the nature of the universe. If that is so, then the hypothesis of a plurality of God-beings (omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent) is also consistent with the nature of the universe.
But does simplicity require that we prefer the hypothesis of the existence of one such God-being over that of the plurality of such beings? What could the addition of God-beings accomplish over and above what the hypothesis of one such being can accomplish by way of explanation?
On a different track, if there is one such God-being, and it is coherent to suppose that a plurality of God-beings can exist, then this has a serious implication for soteriology.
It would follow that salvation (= freedom from all ignorance, vice, and suffering) for all beings other than God consists in their attainment of God-being and that if God exists, she would be active in bringing about the attainment of this status for those other beings. The nature of the means by which she would bring this about is a matter of her choice.
If we are theists, we ought, therefore, to embrace and aspire for this ideal of salvation, viz., of becoming a God-being, and reject all forms of pseudo-salvation. Compared to this soteriological ideal of becoming a God-being, the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu ideals of salvation are mere straws.
If we are theists, we also ought to realize that we cannot become God-beings solely or merely through our efforts.
It is by a progressive attunement to God and total unconditional receptivity to whatever processes of transformation she chooses to bring about in us in the present and the future that we can achieve the highest form of salvation available to us.