Strong Omnipotence

The Greek-speaking Jewish theologian Philo of Alexandria (1st century BCE to 1st CE) was perhaps the original antiphilosopher. That is to say, he used some philosophical ideas with learning and sophistication, but was unequivocally hostile to the autonomy of reason, which was something of a commonplace among the Greek philosophers.

For Philo, any equivalent of ethical virtue seems to come exclusively from faith in the revelation of the Greek Old Testament, taken as the literal word of God. To me, this sounds like an unfortunate precursor to today’s fundamentalisms, which ignore all sounder theology, and preclude the very possibility of genuine ethics. Where there is no allowance for virtue independent of one-sided authority, it may become all too permissible to hate whomever is called an unbeliever or heretic. Many other theologians have been far less one-sided, allowing for at least a relative autonomy of reason, and a possibility of genuine virtue independent of sheer obedience to presumed dictates of revelation. With them, a moral philosopher can find common ground.

Philo may have originated the suggestion that Platonic ideas exist in the mind of an omnipotent God. An emphatic supernaturalist, he defended creation from nothing, grounded in an ultra-strong version of divine omnipotence. On this view, God has absolute liberty, and thus can do absolutely any absolutely arbitrary thing at any time, as with the later Islamic occasionalists. Philo explicitly contrasted this view with those of all the Greek philosophers and those influenced by them, who at the very least would expect God to act in ways that are genuinely reasonable and good, and thus put reason and goodness before any will. Unlike the God of Aquinas, for instance, the God of Philo is even supposed to be able to do logically impossible things if he so wills. This is extreme theological voluntarism.

Philonic strong omnipotence is precisely the kind of thing Leibniz later said would make of God an arbitrary tyrant, with disastrous ethical and social consequences. Notions of divine will tacitly assumed to be known with certainty by human authority, and not subject to any inquiry go against the whole better tradition of faith seeking understanding, and make it all too easy to mask hate in the name of supposed holiness.

In all three of the major monotheistic traditions, this dangerous kind of voluntarism has been applied by some to God. Some have gone on to attribute similar supernatural free will to humans as well, on the ground that they are made in the image of a God that has that kind of completely unconstrained freedom. This is using bad theology to justify bad anthropology. As anthropology, it is what Hegel called the illusion of Mastery. Some bad philosophers have simply postulated a similar completely unconstrained “negative” freedom or “freedom of indifference” for humans, without even a pretended explanation of how this could be. (See also Freedom and Free Will.)

My main source for statements about Philo here is the actually sympathetic essay by Harry Austryn Wolfson, in his book Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays (1961). I always thought of Wolfson as a Spinoza scholar, but Wikipedia says he is actually best known for another, larger work on Philo. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary of current Philo scholarship. (See also Fragility of the Good; Theology.)