Sunday, March 31, 2019

Is God incoherent?

The NYT recently published an attack on Christian theism by a secular philosopher:

Before considering the specifics, there's a general flaw running through Peter Atterton's attack. He appears to be making words like "omniscience," "omnipotence," and "all powerful," "all-knowing" his his frame of reference. He seems to think that because the words have unlimited connotations, if he can show that there are in fact some codicils on God's knowledge and power, it follows that the concepts of divine omniscience and omnipotence are self-contradictory. But that's semantically jejune. 

Words like "omniscience," "omnipotence," and "all-powerful" are merely shorthand labels. You can't derive the concept from the label. The label is just a convenient designation for ease of reference. So even if it turns out that the concepts of omniscience and omnipotence are inconsistent with the surface-level meaning of the words, that doesn't begin to demonstrate conceptual incoherence. 

First consider the attribute of omnipotence. You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.

i) For reasons I've discussed elsewhere, I think the stone paradox is a pseudotask. The alleged paradox is incoherent. For instance:

ii) It is, however, true, that there are some things God can't do. But that doesn't make the concept of divine omnipotence incoherent inasmuch as the concept of divine omnipotence in philosophical theology is routinely qualified in certain respects. So, yes, there are limitations on divine omnipotence, but since the concept of divine omnipotence isn't standardly defined as absolutely unlimited, giving examples in which God's ability might be limited in some respect doesn't ipso facto contradict the nature of the attribute. 

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible. Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction. It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same. Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?

The standard defense is that evil is necessary for free will... However, this does not explain so-called physical evil (suffering) caused by nonhuman causes (famines, earthquakes, etc.). Nor does it explain, as Charles Darwin noticed, why there should be so much pain and suffering among the animal kingdom.

Is Atterton simply uninformed about the range of theodicies? Moreover, it's not as if any one theodicy has to be a silver bullet. It's not as if there has to be a single explanation. We can combine several theodicies.  

What about God’s infinite knowledge — His omniscience? …If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection. Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect... But if God doesn’t know what we know, God is not all knowing, and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.

Here Atterton repeats the same schoolboy error. Since God is a categorically different kind of being than human creatures, that means God's knowledge is not absolutely unlimited, in the sense that God's mode of knowledge is necessarily different from creatures. And since, by the same token, God is not a creature, he can't directly experience what it's like to be a creature. However, that's not contradictory inasmuch as the concept of divine omniscience makes allowances for those divergences. 

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