How Many Ways to Analyze the Word ‘God’ – Part 6

In the last post on this subject (Part 5), I claimed that one can generate over 5,000,000 definitions of ‘divine person’ from a set of five divine attributes.

In reflecting over my previous analysis of how many definitions one can generate from a set of just four divine attributes (power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), I noticed that my specifications of four degrees of these attributes (human, superhuman, perfect, and eternally perfect) mixed two different types of specification together: strength and duration. By separating these two types of specification out, one can easily generate hundreds of millions of defintions of ‘divine person’ from just four divine attributes.

The word ‘God’ is a proper name, and, as Richard Swinburne suggests, the meaning of this name should be analyzed in terms of a definite description, a description which can be used to pick out a single individual person who is ‘God’, if theism is true.

The definite description to be used for this purpose can in turn be based upon a definition of the phrase ‘divine person’. In Swinburne’s view, the definite description and the associated definition of ‘divine person’ are criterial in nature. That is to say, it is not required that each and every condition be satisfied in order for a being to count as a ‘divine person’ or as the divine person; the requirement, in terms of the ordinary use of the word ‘God’ is that “many” of the specified conditions be satisfied, and that no other being satisfy as many or more of the conditions as the candidate for being ‘God’.

Swinburne goes on to propose a tightening or narrowing of the meaning of the word ‘God’ for purposes of philosophical investigation. His narrowing of the meaning of the word ‘God’ amounts to taking the conditions that define the phrase ‘divine person’ as being necessary conditions, as opposed to being criteria. In other words, each and every one of the conditions in the definition of ‘divine person’ must be satisfied in order for something to count as a ‘divine person’ and to be picked out as the individual who is ‘God’.

One of the necessary conditions specified by Swinburne is that the being be ‘eternally omnipotent’. It is important to notice that this necessary condition, although put in terms of two words, actually represents three different components of specification. The word ‘eternally’ specifies a duration of time through which the omnipotence must be possessed by the being in question. In Swinburne’s view, one can be queen for a day, but not God for a day. In order to be a ‘divine person’ one must be omnipotent not just for a day or a year or a decade, but one must have always been omnipotent and must always continue to be omnipotent. If there was ever a period of time when a person was not omnipotent (or will not be omnipotent), then that person is not a ‘divine person’, and thus is not ‘God’, according to Swinburne.

The concept of being ‘omnipotent’ actually contains two different types of specification: a general attribute (in this case: power), and a degree of strength of that attribute that a person can possess (in this case: perfect or unlimited). So, the necessary condition of being ‘eternally omnipotent’ means possessing a perfect or unlimited degree of strength of the attribute of power for an unlimited degree of duration.

This suggests a revision of my categories of degrees of an attribute involving separating out degrees of strength from degrees of duration. Thus there would be three degrees of strength of the four divine attributes:
1. human
2. superhuman
3. perfect
These three degrees of strength can be combined into six different ranges of degrees of strength:
1. human
2. superhuman
3. perfect
4. human or superhuman
5. superhuman or perfect
6 human or superhuman or perfect
Swinburne’s view, for example, is that it is a necessary condition that a being possess a perfect (or unlimited) degree of power in order to be considered a ‘divine person’. More specifically, it is a necessary condition that a being possess a perfect (unlimited) degree of power eternally in order to be considered a ‘divine person’. Possessing perfect power for a day or a year does not satisfy this requirement. So, we need to take into consideration the additional specification of the duration that the attribute (of a specified strength) is possessed by the being in question.

In the context of attempts to define the concept of a ‘divine person’ we must include the possibility of infinite durations of time, not just finite durations. In addition to finite durations there are three different types of infinite duration:
1. finite —-
2. infinite past
3. infinite future —->
4. eternal
As with degrees of strength, we can allow for ranges of degrees of duration:
1. finite
2. infinite past
3. infinite future
4. eternal
5. finite or infinite past
6. infinite past or infinite future
7. inifinite future or eternal
8. finite or infinite past or infinite future
9. infinite past or infinite future or eternal
10. finite or infinite past or infinite future or eternal

So, the basic components of a condition in a definition of ‘divine person’ are
(a) an attribute (4 possibilities), (b) a range of degrees of strength (6 possibilities), and (c) a range of degrees of duration (10 possibilities).
If we assume that power, knowledge, freedom, and goodness are relevant attributes for defining ‘divine person’ and that these are the only relevant attributes (a simplifying assumption), then definitions of ‘divine person’ will include four conditions containing a specification relating to each of the four attributes. For each attribute there are 6 ranges of degrees of strength x 10 ranges of degrees of duration = 60 different specifications for each attribute.

So, if we focus in on just definitions composed of four necessary conditions (one condition for each of the four attributes), there will be 60 x 60 x 60 x 60 different such definitions that can be generated. That means, from just four divine attributes, we can generate 3,600 x 3,600 definitions composed of four necessary conditions = 12,960,000 such definitions.

If we start looking at criterial definitions and definitions involving a mixture of criteria and necessary conditions, then the numbers expand significantly:

A. Definitions composed of 4 necessary conditions: 12,960,000.
B. Definitions composed of 4 criteria: 38,880,000.
C. Definitions composed of 3 criteria and 1 necessary condition: 103,680,000.
D. Definitions composed of 2 criteria and 2 necessary conditions: 77,760,000.
E. Definitions composed of 1 criterial condition and 3 necessary conditions: 0.

Total: 233,280,000 definitions of ‘divine person’ can be generated from just four divine attributes (power, knowledge, freedom, goodness), specified in relation to three degrees of strength (human, superhuman, perfect) in relation to four degrees of duration (finite, infinite past, infinite future, eternal), in the case where all four attributes are treated as being relevant. Millions more definitions can be created by using only a subset of the four attributes to construct definitions (e.g. creating definitions using only three of the four attributes).

About Bradley Bowen

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