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David Ray Griffin

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Excerpted from Evil Revisited: Responses and Recon-siderations, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1991, 102-104.  God cannot lift the stones that God creates, no matter how light they are.

Why God Cannot Coerce

David Ray Griffin

One source of the confusion surrounding the claim of process theism that God’s power is persuasive, not coercive, can be found in the fact that the distinction between persuasion and coer-cion, which I follow Whitehead in using in a metaphysical sense when referring to divine causation, is more ordinarily used in a psycholo-gical sense.  In the metaphysical sense, the dis-tinction between coercion and persuasion is an absolute difference. Coercion and persuasion are the two types of efficient causation.  In coercion the effect is completely determined by the efficient causation upon it.  In persuasion the effect is not completely determined by the efficient causation upon it; the effect, meaning the causally influenced individual, partially determines itself.  So under-stood, the difference is absolute: it is the difference between none and some, which is an absolute difference.  The being upon whom the efficient cau-sation is exerted either exercises some self-deter-mination, or it exercises none.  If it exercises none, the efficient causation is coercive; if it exercises some—whether a lot or only an iota—the efficient causation is persuasive.

Given the Whiteheadian worldview, coercion in the metaphysical sense could be exerted only on an aggregate, such as a billiard ball, which has no self or unity of experience and therefore no power of self-determination.  Coercion in this metaphy-sical sense cannot be exerted on individuals, because, qua individuals, they have some power of self-determination.  Coercion can, of course, be exerted upon what Hartshorne calls “compound individuals,” insofar as they are treated qua aggre-gates—that is, as bodies.  A father can, for example, pick up his young daughter and carry her from the room against her will.  Insofar as he affects her qua individual, however, her behavior cannot be coerced—that is, unilaterally deter-mined.  He can get her to leave as an individual only by persuading her to do so.

Coercion on aggregates can also be exerted only by another aggregate.  The billiard ball can be coerced, for example, by the cueball, the cuestick, or a player’s hand.  Coercion in this metaphysical sense can occur only when aggregate acts on aggregate.  An individual cannot be coerced by an aggregate.  For example, no matter how starved a person’s body may be, it does not dictate to the mind or soul what response to make to the presence of food: the person can choose to starve to death.  Likewise, an individual cannot coerce an aggregate.  The billiards plays, for example, moves the billiard ball by means of his hand.

It may seem, on first analysis, that our influence upon our own bodies (as in moving the hand) is an example of an individual’s coercing an aggregate.  The body is, to be sure, highly responsive to the mind’s wishes for it.  But even this causal relation between a human (or any animal) psyche and its body, which is an especially intimate case that has been produced over billions of years of evolution, is a persuasive relation.  This fact becomes clear when the body is impaired by injury, drugs, alcohol, or weariness. And we say that some persons are more ”coordinated” than others.  The mind has the power to influence its body, not unilaterally to determine its motions.  This fact becomes clearer when we focus on our influence not on our muscular system but on our physio-logical system as a whole. The mind has some power, for example, both to cause and to heal an ulcer, but this is the power to influence, not to determine.

Coercion in the metaphysical sense occurs only if the efficient causes totally determine the effect; if the causal relation is not completed, by contrast, until the effect makes a self-determining response, however trivial, then the causal relation is an example of persuasion, in the metaphysical sense.  Coercion and persuasion in this metaphysical sense are, then, different in kind, not degree.

It is the distinction between persuasion and coercion in this metaphysical sense that is relevant to the problem of evil.  This problem was generated by the assumption that God has the power to coerce the creatures of the world—that is, unilaterally to determine states of affairs among them.  Only with this assumption doe the existence of evil seem to conflict with the existence of a good God.  Without this assumption, the evils of the world can be understood to result from the self-determining activities of the creatures, activities that God cannot unilaterally control.  God cannot exert coercion in this metaphysical sense because God is an individual, not an aggregate, and therefore necessarily relates to the creatures of the world as individuals.  This position lies at the heart of process theodicy.

Why is it that God cannot coerce, even though we can?  Because we are local agents, with bodies between us and the rest of the world.  Insofar as we can persuade our bodies to carry out our wishes, we can use them to coerce other bodies.  But God, being a universal rather than a local agent, does not have a localized body.  Insofar as God does have a body, it is the whole universe of finite things, including our souls and bodies.  There is no localized divine body between the divine soul and us with which God could manipulate our bodies.  God cannot coerce, then, because God is not one finite, localized agent among others, but the one universal, omnipresent agent.

We are created in the image of God, and can therefore employ categories such as “causality” and “body” analogically.  But analogy is not identity.  The difference between the finite and the infinite, the local and the universal, must be kept in mind.  The tragedy of traditional theism is that, while it insisted on this distinction with regard to many issues, even pushing it too far on some (thereby abandoning analogy for equivocation), it did not apply it with regard to the nature of divine causation—that is, to the kind of efficient causation that can be intelligibly attributed to a nonlocalized agent.  Although traditional theism insisted ver-bally that God is incorporeal, it in effect regarded God as a ubiquitous Superman.  The problem of evil, with the mass atheism it has created, is only one of the deleterious effects of this category mistake of cosmic proportions.

David Ray Griffin