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Ep. 88 Ludwig von Mises versus God

Bob tackles a common objection from atheist libertarians: Doesn’t Mises (in Human Action) refute the very notion of the Biblical God? Specifically, why wouldn’t an omnipotent, omniscient being remove all uneasiness with one action?

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."

21 Comments

  1. Bob on 12/25/2019 at 11:22 PM

    Hi Bob, I love you though I don’t think your arguments accomplished what you set out to do. Mises was talking about an omnipotent God. You moved the goalposts to talk about a God that is “sort of” omnipotent, as an analogy, but not literally omnipotent. Really you presented a variation of the presuppositional claim that we live in a simulation and the programmer is God-like inside the simulation. That doesn’t advance the argument either way, you’re just presupposing assumptions that make you “right.” I can claim with just as much evidence that we don’t live in a simulation and that any analogy of authorship or similar relies on a self-serving and biased set of axioms, presupposing what it sets out to argue.

    Besides, the programmer / author is only God-like by analogy, they’re not literally omniscient because if they were then Mises’s claim rings true to me — you seemed to almost admit as much. You changed the scope of the problem in such a way that Mises’s argument doesn’t apply, you didn’t actually argue against what he claimed.

    I have nothing but love for you Bob, I wish you and yours all the best, have a very merry Christmas!

    • Robert Murphy on 12/26/2019 at 2:53 PM

      “You moved the goalposts to talk about a God that is “sort of” omnipotent, as an analogy, but not literally omnipotent.”

      When did I do that? How is JK Rowling not omnipotent to the people in the Harry Potter universe?

      • Bob on 12/26/2019 at 4:50 PM

        “When did I do that? How is JK Rowling not omnipotent to the people in the Harry Potter universe?”

        You moved the goalposts when you switched from talking about an omnipotent God (Mises’s argument) to talking about a mere mundane programmer or author that has a merely analogous and not literal type of omnipotence. Mises was talking about omnipotence. You are talking about an analogy that falls short of addressing what is implied by actual omnipotence. It’s a good analogy for a simulation universe or a Calvinist predestination theology, etc. But the analogy does not address what Mises is talking about: an omnipotent God.

        JK is, by analogy (not literally), omnipotent to the people in her world.

        Let me state the problem another way: sometimes I write stories in my head. From the perspective of the people in my stories I am omnipotent. Therefore what? I’m God? No, it’s just an analogy that proves nothing and falls short of addressing the issue of a literal omnipotent God. 🙂

        Or think of it theologically: anything you can conceive of can be nothing more than an insulting oversimplified idol of what God is, of what literal omnipotence implies. Your analogy makes God into something small and weak and mundane in a way I wouldn’t expect a pious man to do. It solves the problem of omnipotence by making God not omnipotent, except by analogy alone.

        I’ve tried to attack this from a few different angles to hopefully clarify the kind of problem I think exists with this line of argumentation. Every word is written with love, merry Christmas!

        • Tel on 12/29/2019 at 1:48 PM

          Snape could correctly infer that because “The Author” has already spun this out to seven books where in principle it could be over and done with in a single book, this suggests that “The Author” must be living under external constraints caused by unknown forces outside of Snape’s perception. He might further correctly infer that having a bad guy hanging around happens out to be quite useful … perhaps even necessary … although it would be difficult for him to ascertain exactly why.

          Some might argue that Snape (as a mere character in a story) cannot have access to any additional information beyond what his Author provides him with, but since JK Rowling apparently does enjoy money, and Snape is shaped by Rowling’s thoughts, we cannot rule out the possibility that Snape also inherits some aspects of Rowling’s personal hopes and desires.

          Let’s hypothetically put forward the scenario wherein Snape is in the midst of a routine summoning, and the ghost of Mises spontaneously appears and whispers, “Hey buddy, incentives matter.” These miraculous words would lead Snape to a revelation, “I am profitable … therefore I am.”

          I should point out that Snape has no need for additional empirical evidence in order to jump to this startling conclusion. He only needs to be given the axiom that Authors act in order to dispel feelings of uneasiness, and from this basis, he can (all by himself) determine the corollary that seven books are freaking well milking a simple idea for as much as it’s worth … and the time to cut a deal is ASAP.

      • Dave H on 12/27/2019 at 12:11 AM

        The claim of Christianity isn’t that God is omnipotent with respect to our universe, but that he is omnipotent with respect to every possible universe, everywhere. Are you conceding that God is merely an author in some higher meta-verse populated by other similar beings and that we are merely a work of fiction meant to entertain these other beings?

        • Robert Murphy on 12/27/2019 at 5:12 PM

          Dave H. wrote: “Are you conceding that God is merely an author in some higher meta-verse populated by other similar beings and that we are merely a work of fiction meant to entertain these other beings?”

          Of course not. I think you guys don’t know how counterexamples work. Mises made a specific argument and I showed that it would obviously be silly if applied in a different context. So it must not be a good argument. You then bring up incidental features of my counterexample.

          You could just as easily have asked me, “Oh, so Bob do you concede God is a woman who started out on the UK welfare state?”

          • Dave H on 01/09/2020 at 4:35 AM

            The point of the original poster though was that Mises’ argument applies to God precisely because God is fully omnipotent, not merely omnipotent with respect to his creations. JJ Rowling acts because she isn’t actually omnipotent on the whole – she lives in a world where she needs to survive and therefore employs her talents as efficiently as she can in order to secure food, shelter, etc. God doesn’t need food, or shelter, or to create a universe to satisfy any ends that he might have.



        • Martin Brock on 12/30/2019 at 9:27 PM

          “Every possible universe” is a contradiction in terms. Only one universe is possible. That’s why we call it the uni-verse.

  2. Marko on 12/26/2019 at 7:46 AM

    Your analogy between the script writer and the script in the Star Wars example and the God and Universe is clear. The script writer is really omniscient and omnipotent in relation to his script. This is all very logical and true. But, you must also know how dangerous is to use the metaphors, how seducing and self-indulging they may be. If the God/Universe story was true, your analogy would be perfect. The problem only remains that we (and you as well) do not know if it is true. But, someone who is using the convincing metaphor, is the first one to fall in the trap of believing that even the other end of the metaphor must be true. Despite all that, the metaphor is not without any practical use. You just proved it is not impossible to be both omniscient and omnipotent in some cases, but you did not prove that God/Universe idea fits one of those cases. It is perfectly known the intention of Lucas, he wanted Dart Wader to repent, but we do not know the intention of God. We may speculate, but we do not know.

    It is very hard to prove if the human’s free will is really going to go in the direction of the script writer. If it is, it is not the absolute free will, but the fantastically manipulated illusion of it. And it it is not, the script does not have the known end. May be, God never called our free will in his script with that name, may be it is just our own name for it. For him it was always just a perfectly manipulated illusion of it. I grant you that, but neither you, nor me, nor anyone else, knows today which of the two.

    And now about the fact that God loves us. How do you know that? From all the evidence and from all the history books, we see mostly the hate. I will use the metaphor now. One can spend thousands of years to design the best possible automobile engine. And this engine is really great, efficient, and even elegant, but never powerful enough to let that car fly even if it had wings. The impression I have about the creation of human is that it was built without the theoretical possibility to fly, but with the strong desire to fly. The fact humans do evil so easily and do good with big difficulty, makes me conclude that if ever was the script writer, that he did us this bad trick. He gave us the understanding of what flying means, he gave to some of us a desire to fly, but with the hardware never capable of doing it. That’s the biggest sadism I can imagine. But, I am not sure about my conclusion. I am wondering, how can you be sure of yours? I often think how wasteful all this Universe would be with the sole intention to torture its creations, but this is all we see all day long. May be the Super Sadist wants the elaborated torture. How can you so easily exclude this? I may just guess it. Imagining so wild level of cruelty is very hard, but the weight of historical evidence is overwhelming. Again, I am not proving anything either, but that’s not my job. I am not proposing anything, you are the proponent, so it is your job to prove it. I am just challenging you. And I would add, I would be the happiest person if you or anyone else managed to prove it. Until then, I wish you a Mary Christmas, that’s the minimum I can do.

  3. Faithless on 12/26/2019 at 5:33 PM

    Interesting episode, Bob. It seems to me that you made an argument for “fate” — a predetermined destiny, wherein everything has already been determined. If God is the author, and every “cell” was drawn instantaneously at the outset, then my free will exists only to the extent that I *think* I’m doing what I want to do, but am in fact, only acting out what was previously ordained. Perhaps that’s the case, but I don’t think so. And I certainly don’t want that to be the case.

    I respect your beliefs and the beliefs of others. I enjoy hearing various perspectives. On this issue, I remain unconvinced.

    • Robert Murphy on 12/27/2019 at 5:15 PM

      Faithless wrote: “If God is the author, and every “cell” was drawn instantaneously at the outset, then my free will exists only to the extent that I *think* I’m doing what I want to do, but am in fact, only acting out what was previously ordained.”

      Right, it seems like an insoluble paradox. And yet, when I ask, “Did Anakin choose the Dark Side in a way that the storm trooper who said ‘These aren’t the droids we’re looking for’ didn’t have free will?” you have no problem answering that question. Even though George Lucas wrote the whole script.

      • Martin Brock on 12/30/2019 at 7:29 PM

        I’m a compatibilist and reject a dualistic soul, so we presumably understand “free will” differently. The storm trooper says, “These aren’t the drones we’re looking for,” because Obiwan places a thought in his head by some telepathic process; however, Obiwan also places thoughts in Luke’s head through more conventional communication and possibly telepathically as well, so the storm trooper’s will seems as free as Luke’s will. Obiwan even places misleading thoughts in Luke’s head, like “Darth Vader betrayed and murdered your father.” If Obiwan had earlier told Luke that Darth is his father, the story might have unfolded very differently, but if a will acting on inaccurate or incomplete information is not free, then no will is ever free.

      • Dave H on 01/09/2020 at 4:39 AM

        Your question is only coherent because it contains a hidden assumption that we accept Darth Vader and storm troopers to be real people for the sake of argument. But they aren’t real people. You and I are real people, so the analogy fails to hold.

  4. Clint on 12/27/2019 at 2:31 AM

    If Harry Potter were to become a real, sentient being, with free will and desires and intentional action, and JK Rowling chose to subject him to suffering for the sake of entertaining herself, she would be a narcissistic sadist.

    • Mike on 12/30/2019 at 6:51 PM

      Imagine Harry had a perfectly normal life and nothing unexpected ever happened to him. Yet since he’s a human being he still feels pain: he gets a paper cut, breaks a leg, gets in one car accident, feels hungry between meals, etc. Are these sufferings indicative of a sadist creator too?

      Or picture this (true story): I hiked a 1k meter mountain in Australia (Mt Solitary). By the time I climbed down the Golden Stairs, trekked to the mountain, climbed to its summit, climbed back down, trekked back to the Golden Stairs, climbed back up them – I was in so much pain. Through and through it was painful and even scary at points. Yet it remains one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever done. Does this make me a sadist?

  5. Martin Brock on 12/30/2019 at 5:43 PM

    As a pantheist, I reached similar conclusions about common usage of “omnipotent” and “omniscient”. The former cannot coherently mean “able to do anything imaginable”, but it can mean “does everything doable” or “does everything done”. The latter similarly means “knows everything knowable” or “has all knowledge”. If the Universe is fundamentally non-deterministic, as Quantum Mechanics suggests, then countless (even uncountable) “possible futures” are imaginable, but (ignoring a theoretical multiverse) only one future actually unfolds. Other, possible futures never exist even if a mind can imagine them. Knowledge of what exists is “all knowledge” in a meaningful sense, so an “all knowing” being requires only this knowledge, not everything imaginable. Of course, knowledge of what exists includes anything an existing mind does imagine but not everything a mind might imagine.

    Mises uses an incoherent sense of “omnipotence”, so his conclusions aren’t meaningful; however, that a being (like the Universe) can be meaningfully omnipotent and omniscient doesn’t lend credence to parting seas or divinely inspired laws on stone tablets or virgin births or resurrection from the dead or natural property rights.

  6. Mike on 12/30/2019 at 9:25 PM

    Nice post. I might add:

    1. “The praxeologoical categories…are devised for the comprehension of human action…[and] become self-contradictory…[when applied to] conditions different from those of human life.” And, “…the use of praxeological concepts [in reference to an absolute being] are no less questionable.” And, “He is above all human comprehension, concepts, and understanding.” And, “It is beyond the faculties of the human mind to think the concept of almightiness consistently to its ultimate local consequences.”

    God is not natural but supernatural. He is above and outside the preconditions and limits of nature and man. By Mises’ own admission we cannot confront the concept of God. So why, then, does he try? That God does not fit inside the box of praxeological categories is not an indictment of God. We can’t even say that God can or cannot violate the law of non-contradiction (re: “Has the almighty being the power to achieve something which is immune to his later interference?”). I tend to think that there are better resolutions to this apparent paradox but to be sure we cannot say one way or the other.

    In the exact sciences, you cannot even ask the question – even formulate the hypothesis – on the existence or non-existence of God. It is literally impossible. No measurement, no experiment, no observation, no hypothesis, no theory, nor any law can be formulated in the physical sciences on the question of God. In the social sciences – where science takes on the modern connotation – and thus includes economics, philosophy, and epistemology, but excludes theology, metaphysics, and (I think) ethics, you cannot ask this question either. You can only ask this question in metaphysics which, to many, is a soft religion.

    2. “But action can only be imputed to a discontented being and repeated action only to a being who lacks the power to remove his uneasiness once and for all at one stroke.” And, “If he were contented, he would not act.”

    This is a warranted assumption when applied to man and an unwarranted assumption when applied to God (“God” re: “superhuman”). It’s another attempt to put the supernatural into a natural box. Dr. Murphy, I really enjoyed your resolution of part of this question, viz., “at one stroke” through the outside of time remark.

    I think it’s just as reasonable to assume that God was/is in a state of absolute perfection and that, despite this, he still acts or acted. There’s no reason to believe that there is only one state of perfection. Is a frowning Mona Lisa *not* perfect? I contest that if da Vinci made her frown instead of smile it would nonetheless be just as heavenly and perfect.

    3. “Omnipotence would mean the power to achieve everything… without being restrained by any limitations.”

    I’m not prepared to fully treat this here for want of time but GK Chesterton, Fulton Sheen, CS Lewis, et al (and countless others really) have put forth powerful arguments against the idea that power and freedom means you can do anything and everything without limits when in fact the creative process and true freedom are necessarily constrained by their very nature. GK Chesterton, “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”

    4. On the simultaneity of omnipotence and omniscience

    I think the analogy of JK Rowling as creator of the HP universe is binding here. Another way to look at it is through the effect of law: we *know* with absolute certainty that Gresham’s law holds when the preconditions of its operation are met. Yet did we *cause* its operation with this foreknowledge? God creates us, knows what we will do, but does this cause us to do it with this knowledge? I don’t think so.

    I enjoyed the free will comparison in the Star Wars analogy. I see a few complaints here in the comments about it. It would seem as if the commentators are saying that the storm trooper must be acting under “unfree-unfree will” and Anakin under “free-unfree will”. Those denying the existence of free will must fancy themselves socialists because in denying it they implicitly admit that a formula can be discovered that would allow a planner to know the future and align all productions decisions in accordance with it.

    Free will does not mean free of all influence – it simply means choice. I am not free to choose between winning the lottery today and eating McDonalds, but I am free to choose between eating McDonalds and eating Burger King. Thus, I do have free will insofar as it’s my choice; between real alternatives; I’m prepared to act on this choice and I subsequently do act on it.

    • Laura on 01/19/2020 at 5:58 PM

      I really appreciated this thoughtful comment.Thanks.

  7. The NAPster on 12/31/2019 at 12:57 AM

    While the matters of God’s omniscience, omnipotence, dimensional existence, etc. are somewhat interesting, the more interesting questions are why God created the universe and man at all (assuming for now that he did), and why, if he is supposed to be a good/kind God, he allowed humans the ability to do evil (why didn’t he just create beings that didn’t do evil)? Bob has a unique way of explaining things, and I look forward at some point in the future to hearing his take on these matters.

  8. Jake L on 01/10/2020 at 7:51 PM

    My comment is too long, so I have to split them:

    1/2

    I understand you’re addressing a specific argument by Mises in this episode, but you’re still making a broader argument by denying that God is liable for the moral consequences of the actions of his creations due to us being characters in a story where we have free will. This liability is fundamental to the Epicurean “Problem of Evil”, so your counter does not just apply to the Misesian argument. I think a detailed analysis of your analogies is valid and isn’t just being hypercritical since those analogies are critical to your arguments.

    Regarding God as an author of reality and fiction writers as authors of fiction – The critical point here is the distinction between fiction and reality. If these two things were blurred in any way, your analogy would not hold water.

    For example – imagine that JK Rowling had some device that, when used in a particular way, could kill children in *actual reality*. There are devices already like this, of course: a gun is one example. If she pulled the trigger on a working, loaded gun while pointing it at the head of a boy named Harry – and she did so of her own free will knowing exactly what the result would be – would she be guilty of a crime?

    Now imagine that this device was instead a notebook that she wrote in, where she could simply write things like “A person named , at shall be shot in the head at ” and then, through some bizarre machination directly traceable to her writing those words in that notebook, this happened in *actual reality*. Every time she wrote any such command, it would happen as reliably as pulling a trigger on a gun shoots a bullet. Would she then be guilty of actually killing someone because she wrote in a notebook? I would argue that the crime would still exist even though the implement changed – whether a gun or a magical notebook, a real child is dying either way.

    The critical point here is that the stories she wrote in the deadly notebook would not stay fiction – because people in *actual reality* would be harmed in predictable and foreseeable ways, then what she is doing with the notebook is tremendously more serious than her actual authorship of the Harry Potter series, if not a completely different moral category altogether. What she wrote in the notebook would not be fictions and she would surely be guilty of these crimes. How could she not?

    2/2

    In your analogy, casting our reality as fiction and God’s plane of existence as *actual reality*, results in assuming your conclusion:

    1) It assumes the opposite of what should be a default position. I can use my senses to determine I am a part of reality, even if you want to posit that I’m really a brain in a vat or something (which doesn’t change the fact that reality exists, only that I don’t have a full or correct perception of it). To say that fictional characters on a page could begin to have consciousness enough to even try to perceive *actual reality* doesn’t make any sense at all.

    2) It denies the muddying of reality and fiction that is repeatedly presented in the Bible. The only reason we can say “The stormtrooper didn’t have free will but Vader did” is because we are simulating a reality in our minds, not because either character does, in fact, have free will. You touch on this point at the 8 minute mark that “Really George Lucas did all this” and point out that there are layers of meaning when we discuss “free will”. Those layers only exist because of the distinction between the Star Wars universe and reality – we can simulate a reality in our minds where the Star Wars characters DO exist and in which George Lucas does NOT exist to control them. We can run this simulation because, even with the magic and swords, the Star Wars characters are similar enough to real people that we can approximate their behavior and then make judgements about those behaviors as if they were real. Like the Stormtrooper, we know people (usually ourselves) who have been duped and what that is like, and how it removes some level of responsibility for that person’s actions. This simulation is easy enough, so I can say “The stormtrooper wasn’t responsible for letting the droids go and Vader was responsible for saving Luke” without blinking. However, if George Lucas had written himself into Star Wars and had a line of dialogue like:

    “Hey there Luke, Obi-wan, Chewie, Han, and everyone watching: I’m George Lucas. I am writing this film which you are now watching in 1977 and I will be credited as ‘Himself’ at the end. Because I control everything you’re watching and seeing, I have the power to do whatever I want because I made this universe, and all of the characters are doing exactly what I wrote about. Now witness my prophesy: A naked, tapdancing Yoda shall appear!”

    … then those layers of meaning would collapse. Hypothetical questions about which characters had the free will to act wouldn’t make any sense because we would not have a clear distinction between the fictional, alternative reality and *actual reality* – it would no longer be meaningful to say the “Star Wars characters have free will” because of how bizarre and convoluted the story had become with the explicit introduction of the author as a character and his subsequent manipulation of the story within the story. We would no longer be able to simulate the fictional reality in our minds as it would have gone wildly out of the bounds of hypothetical reality, no longer resembling anything like what we deal with on a day-to-day basis. At best, we could say that the Lucas character made all the other characters do what they were doing – and then we would, in fact, be attributing the consequences of the characters to this George Lucas character who is also the actual film director.

    And that’s the key point – the ability to have conjectures about hypothetical stormtroopers and Vaders is ruined by making George Lucas a character in the universe and muddying the difference between total fiction and actual reality. As soon as that happens – by bringing an author of a reality into the reality he has authored – then the layer of “Does character X have free will” disappears and we stop being able to simulate things sufficiently to assert that there is any meaningful difference between the Stormtrooper, Vader, and – most importantly – the author.

    To another argument – you pointed out a misstep by people who doubt the validity of deathbed conversions while also seeing Vader’s actions as redemptive. No doubt that it was good for Vader to destroy the emperor, and it’s certainly emotionally thrilling (I cried like hell when I was a kid, it still chokes me up). But aside from the tragedy, there’s nothing to say that Vader is free of the consequences of his actions. Pretend for a moment that he had survived and was captured by the New Republic. Do you think they would have been like “That was badass what you did to Palpatine, don’t worry about those billions of people on Alderaan it’s cool”? The only reason he was free of more serious consideration of his redemption is because the time to pay the piper was over in that very moment. He may still exist in the force, but unless we get into some really nerdy extended universe shlock, our simulation is “Parental unit has died in tragic way” and that’s it, there is no director’s cut with Vader’s trial or StarWarsFan69’s Force Ghost Purgatory to speculate about the level of redemption he attained within the Star Wars universe – and outside of that universe, I would point out that we still think of Vader as “the bad guy” antagonist even though we know how Episode VI ended.

    You then followed up with a rebuttal of the “Can god create something that is so heavy that he cannot move it?” argument, where you have Dumbledore introduce JK Rowling and Snape says JK Rowling can’t be both omniscient and omnipotent. You have Snape do a demonstration saying that she can’t know what will happen next year at Hogwarts if she can change it, which fails to show that JK Rowling is not effectively a god in regards to the HP universe, explicitly asking “Is there any meaningful sense in which JK Rowling is not omnipotent and omniscient with respect to the Harry Potter universe?” You pointed out “She can do whatever she wants and she knows that’s what’s going to happen when she makes it happen”. In this scenario, you fail to show how JK Rowling is capable of changing the outcome once it’s happened – Rowling cannot rewrite any of the first seven books. She can write different books that are named the same if she wanted to release a new edit, but then that would effectively be a different universe – the actual words she wrote at the time are what they are and there is no changing it. Were she omnipotent, she could go back in time and rewrite them. The character’s point about the metaverse in which the author exists is true regardless of whether the character demonstrates this or not – no author can change what was printed on a first edition. She could of course create an 8th book that says “Actually this other thing really did happen and if you just imagine book 8 is in the same universe as 1-7 then you can see I am omnipotent” but then that’s not the same thing as the “creating the comic all at once” analogy you used to explain divine authorship.

    Toward the end of the podcast, you say that had HP known of JK Rowling, he might say “Phew that was a close call, that was JK Rowling looking out for me” after a narrow escape. This seems to contradict your earlier point saying that authors are not guilty of crimes about which they write in fictional universes since the moral considerations are entirely fictional – since Rowling cannot be blamed for the things the evil characters do as this is simply story telling, so too can she not take credit for the good things within the HP universe per se. Further, compared to a real scenario – for example, a baby that has been raped to death, which is something that has likely happened many times over the course of history – it seems strange to think that such ‘characters’ should be grateful for their lot regardless.

  9. Harry Gonad on 01/25/2020 at 4:38 PM

    Sorry but the real world is not a Harry Potter novel.

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