Monday, March 3, 2014

An Argument for Annihilationism

In the previous post I offered an argument against annihilationism.

In an email conversation, a friend called into question my premise two, and in its place offered the following argument (all the premises of which he did not fully endorse):

1.  The finally unrepentant are hopelessly lost, because they have irrevocably rejected God.
2.  God is the ultimate source of flourishing.  
2*  If y loves x, then (among other things) either y promotes x's flourishing or acts to prevent x's languishing.
3.  The finally unrepentant thus have no chance of flourishing in a robust sense.  (That is, apart from merely existing and (perhaps) possessing free will, they are profoundly languishing.)
4.  From 2*, if God loves the unrepentant and knows that they cannot possibly flourish in a robust sense, then God will act to prevent their languishing.
5.  There are two ways to prevent this languishing: (1) Remove their free will and force them to love him, or (2) annihilate them.
6.  Losing one's free will is a fate worse than annihilation.
7.  So, God annihilates the finally unrepentant.

This argument in some ways brings to mind ideas that C.S. Lewis entertains in The Great Divorce.  But more on that in a future post on the subject.

I find premise 5 initially problematic.  Perhaps one could be forced to love someone with a defective kind of love, but not with the perfect kind of love which Christianity teaches is a constituent of the human end.  (Moreover, if one could remove the free will to prevent languishing, presumably one could prevent the person from ever reaching such a hopeless state in the first place calling into question premise 1.)

Sub-conclusion 3 is also suspect, at least as "robust flourishing" is parenthetically cashed out.  Perhaps hell consists in some flourishing beyond the mere possessing of free will (perhaps it consists in exercising free will for some finite goods, knowledge of God, playing a role in God's just plan for the world, having some desires satisfied even if other desires are not, etc.).  I expect to say about this in a future post.

Premise 6 might be incoherent.  It seems to presume that annihilation is an action I can undergo being done to me--an action that can be "enjoyed" by me (relative to suffering).  But my annihilation is not something that happens to me just as the ex nihilo creation of the universe is not something that happens to the universe.  The universe does not change or have anything good or bad done to it when it is created ex nihilo. It simply comes into being.  Similarly with annihilation.  I do not change when annihilated--perhaps the universe changes from having me in it to not having me in it, but I neither acquire nor lose any properties if annihilated.  I simply cease to exist.  So annihilation can be neither good nor bad for me.  But since it cannot be a good for me it cannot be an action of love toward me.  

For that reason in rejecting 6 I also reject 2*.  One can only love someone by preventing his languishing if the languishing for that person is replaced by something positively good for that person.  

But suppose I'm the communist, Stalin.  Might the act of annihilating me be an act of love towards someone else such that God might do it?

Having few Calvinist bones in my body (i.e. zero), I believe God treats none of his creatures as mere means (nor would he).  But God would not be using me as a mere means if he annihilated me, so that line of response won't work.

We can admit that surely someone else's ceasing to experience the pain I'm causing them and instead experiencing tranquility would be good for them.  I think the proper thing to say is that God could just as well isolate me from the ones I'm harming while still willing what is good for me as well.  And it is surely plausible that it would not only be good for them but also good for me to be isolated from them (for it would be good for me do something other than hurting them).  Suffice it to say for now that I think God's nature is such that he wills only what is good for each of his creatures, so annihilating any of them is not a viable option for God.  Whatever hell amounts to, though unpleasant, it must be a product of not only divine justice but divine love for its inhabitant.  But it would be good to have an argument for these latter claims.


  1. I think Premise 6 is coherent. I think annihilating something is an action of some sort, and I think creating ex nihilo is an action of some sort. They seem to be the sort of actions that mere contingent mortals can't pull off, but God can.

    You say: "I do not change when annihilated--perhaps the universe changes from having me in it to not having me in it, but I neither acquire nor lose any properties if annihilated."
    You do not acquire or lose any properties, yes. But you lose your essence! And, therefore, you do change. You change from existing to not existing.

    Perhaps one obstacle with thinking about annihilation is getting the analysis of what sort of action it is right. Here are some quick thoughts. You indicate in the last post that annihilation is not a process, and I think that is right. There is no vagueness in annihilation. Perhaps the fact that it is not a process inclines some to think that annihilation is not an action, but I don't think that follows. It seems that an action could be instantaneous. One instance, it hasn't been done. The very next, the action has been completed. I think creation and annihilation are like this.

    Here's a plausible example of an instantaneous act: Call to mind the letter "A". Now, this example might depend on science of the brain stuff, but I think it is plausible to think that, in one instance, you were not thinking about "A", but in the very next, you were. The act of deciding might be like this too. When I'm trying to decide to do B or C, there is indeterminacy. The instant I decide, the issue is settled. There is no half-way point between undecided and decided. Likewise with annihilation.

    I probably got a little side-track there, but my point is that I do think that (6) is coherent. I think it is still highly contestable though.

  2. Interesting - but it seems to me that 2* is axiomatic for this, and you merely dismissed it as obviously false rather than either seeing whether it led to the actual conclusion (or any of the myriad other ways for philosophy to go wrong).

  3. I'm not sure I concur, JS. That is, I tend to think that Tullius is correct here, i.e., that no change occurs upon annihilation. I'm not sure what to make of view according to which one neither acquires nor loses properties but one does lose one's essence. [Unless one's substantial being is some sort of bare particular, but even here, I'd think a strict sort of super-modal-essentialism would be in order.]

    Which is why the Scholastics, for their part, did not understand creation as a change. Instead, creation (unlike causation - or even substantial change) was genuinely set aside as creatio de novo. Now, it is open to you, of course, to deny the underlying metaphysical picture - which, for Suarez, Aquinas, among others - is a variety of hylemorphism - but I'm no less convinced that one could lose one's essence and REMAIN the subject of change. The point Tullius is making, I take it, is that there is no relata on the rear-end and hence, no genuine subject of change on the offing.

    I do find 2* problematic. I don't see much in the way of the disjunct that is not ad hoc, Tullius.

    Which is not surprising...since annihilationism is false.


  4. Thanks Monash, I think I see the point a little better now. I'm less familiar with the Midievals than Tullius and you, it seems, so I often need a little help with there concepts and terminology. So, if Tullius's point is just that there is no relata on the rear-end and hence, no genuine subject of change in the offing, I am on board with that (I think).

    I might be confused still, however. I don't see how that fact leads to the incoherence of (6). I don't think that it is a necessary part of the concept of annihilation that annihilation be an action I (or any other object) can undergo. I hope that makes sense.

    It seems to me that when annihilation happens (if it does), some item has been removed from the "book of the world." It was listed an instant ago, but now it's gone.

    I've talked myself into thinking that (6) is ambiguous, and that according to one meaning it is incoherent. But, there are other interpretations that make it coherent. Here's one that I think works: "Losing ones free will is a worse state of affairs than not showing up in the "book of the world."" Doesn't that capture the meaning of (6) without bringing in the change talk? If we add a premise that says, "In order for an existing thing to not show up in the "book of the world", God must annihilate it" we can then get to the conclusion.

    Having said all that, I agree. 2* is false.

  5. JS,
    Thanks for commenting.

    6 suggests annihilation is a fate that can befall one. But let's go with your suggestion:

    "Losing ones free will is a worse state of affairs than not showing up in the "book of the world.""

    That's helpful. Here's another way to put what I think you're getting at:
    All other things being equal, the state of affairs in which a person loses his free will is a worse state of affairs than the state of affairs wherein that person has just been annihilated.

    But notice that in putting things this way, we're no longer being concerned with what is good FOR that person, we're now comparing states of affairs to see which one we think is intrinsically better. Yet it seems to me the motivation for annihilationism originates with a concern for the suffering of those in hell and that it would be better FOR THEM if they would've died in the womb. But they didn't, so the next best thing is FOR THEM to be annihilated (which I say makes no sense). What you want to say now, though, is that a world where people get annihilated instead of languishing forever in hell would be a better world. Well, maybe that's right but it's certainly not obvious to me that that's true. (And it may be that we can only compare the goodness of worlds by comparing what is good for the creatures in each world).

    Why would God annihilate me when he could isolate me instead, partly for my own good? Wouldn't annihilating me be the ultimate act of hatred instead of love?

  6. wtanksley,

    If you think I dismissed 2* without any argument then you haven't been following these last two posts. You can love someone by replacing their languishing state with a better one, but you cannot love somebody by annihilating him for there is no good for him promoted by annihilating him. At least that is what I have tried to argue. So if you disagree you need to object to one of my premises (my understanding of love, or that God's nature is such that he loves all his creatures, etc. or one of the unstated bridge principles in my argument that isn't formally valid :) ).

    [Can philosophy go wrong? Philosophers can but can philosophy?]

  7. Tully, 6* is a better way of putting what I was getting at. I liked the way your response to me calls attention to the fact that my premise shifts away from what seems to be the motivation for annihilationism--that it's better for that person. So, the next question is, as you say, whether a world in which people get annihilated is better than a world in which people languish in hell. You are right that it's not obvious that annihilation-world is better than hell-world. Likewise, it is not obvious that hell-world is better than annihilation-world.

    So, to your question: Why would God annihilate me when he could isolate me instead, partly for my own good? The annihilationist (is that a word?) would have to argue that there are some modes of human existence that are so bad that they are worse than annihilation. They would have to argue that existing in isolation is one of them.

    A related question might be, "Is it the case that ANY kind of existence is better than non-existence?"

  8. JS,

    "Likewise, it is not obvious that hell-world is better than annihilation-world."
    I'm not sure how helpful trying to compare worlds would be in this case. In some cases it's helpful (a world where every creature suffered for eternity would be a worse world than the actual world) but I think the focus should be on what value there might be in annihilating a single soul vs. not. For if we think there is sufficient reason for annihilating anyone then that's a problem for my argument.

    "The annihilationist (is that a word?) would have to argue that there are some modes of human existence that are so bad that they are worse than annihilation."

    Worse for whom? God? (Every good, I presume, is a good for someone or something).

    "A related question might be, "Is it the case that ANY kind of existence is better than non-existence?""

    It's hard to compare one relatum with nothing. :)

  9. I'm not seeing this. Can you help me? 2* is logically incompatible with 2, but your proof of 6 simply asserted 2. Then your "disproof" of 2* simply hinges on your assumption that 2 is true.

    Your friend was drawing a scenario where 2* took the place of 2. That means proofs cannot simply invoke 2 anymore.

  10. wtanksley,

    Ah, I think I see what you're getting at.

    If acting to prevent x's languishing in 2* means (a) doing some action (where I'd be willing to simply count having a certain desire toward x as an action) such that the action replaces the languishing with some positive good, then 2* is logically equivalent with 2. If 2* means (b) removing the languishing by destroying the person, then it begs the question.

    And I don't see any way for the action to (c) remove the languishing while NOT having some positive good for x in its place.

    But maybe you're right that I'm begging the question against 2* interpreted as (b). And I'm not sure what else there is to say because the dispute is over what love entails. I think it entails a certain desire for some type of union with the object of love. The person who holds 2*(b) thinks it's compatible with the annihilation of the object of love. That seems to me much more like hate then love.
    Perhaps there's an inductive argument in my favor....

    1. Most instances of loving involve a desire for a certain type of union with the object of love
    2. Thus, all instances of loving involve....
    Then add...
    3. But an act of annihilating x cannot come from a desire for a type of union with x.
    4. Thus any act of annihilating x is not an act of love toward x.