Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Elegance of Symmetry

There are three descriptors of God typically used, especially when one is about to bring up the argument against God from evil. While I argue that the list is non-exhaustive, it is widely accepted that these are sine qua non for the traditionally understood "god":

  • All Good - Omnibenevolent
  • All Knowing - Omniscient
  • All Powerful - Omnipotent

All knowing gets flack as being apparently opposed to free will (which is is not), and all powerful gets thrown the sophomoric questions such as, "could God create a rock so heavy He couldn't lift it?" But that is nothing compared to the confusion that surrounds the nature of Good.

There is an (incorrect) notion floating around that good and evil are just words, just terms. They are not absolute indicators, but relative statements of opinion, conditioned by society et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. There are a number of problems with this, but for the time being I want to instead state a positive case in support of the traditional Catholic understanding of evil as a privation of good.

This point comes from symmetry, specifically the symmetry between these three descriptions of God.

First, Power, or Potency. From Latin potens - the ability to do something. The opposite of potency is not anti-potency. It's not like there's some mysterious condition where you perform negative work on a situation such that what happens is in direct opposition to what was intended. This isn't anti-potency, but rather misdirected potency. The opposite of capability is incapability, a lack of potency, impotence.

Second, Knowledge. Again, the opposite of knowing a thing is not to know the wrong thing, but to know nothing. There is no anti-knowledge, but lack of knowledge masquerading as knowledge. You either know or you don't - "knowing" a falsehood means that you don't actually know.

Before I go into good vs. evil, take a look at the thermometer, and keep it in mind as a descriptor while I go into a physical analogy. Temperature is referred to as hot vs. cold, but they're generally considered to be completely relative. However, it is similarly a zero-to-infinity scale - there is such a things as the coldest possible, though the same is not true on the upper end.

So it is with good. Evil is not "anti-good," but a lack of good. It is defect or lack, not something in itself. Tolkien knew this when he wrote the Lord of the Rings - the Orcs were deformed Elves, for evil can create nothing. Evil can only distort and destroy, because it is fundamentally absence.

This set of definitions of course glosses other very important characteristics of which God possesses/is the source of - being, love, presence, mercy, justice, the list could go on and on. There are more and better proofs for why this is a good way to understand reality (some of which will likely show their head on this blog at a later date). I am just struck by the beauty of the symmetry, and the way in which it points to a convergent source - God.

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