By Peter Atterton
Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy.
If you look up “God” in a dictionary, the first entry you will find will be something along the lines of “a being believed to be the infinitely perfect, wise and powerful creator and ruler of the universe.” Certainly, if applied to non-Western contexts, the definition would be puzzling, but in a Western context this is how philosophers have traditionally understood “God.” In fact, this conception of God is sometimes known as the “God of the Philosophers.”
As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?
Let’s 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.
The way out of this dilemma is usually to argue, as Saint Thomas Aquinas did, that God cannot do self-contradictory things. Thus, God cannot lift what is by definition “unliftable,” just as He cannot “create a square circle” or get divorced (since He is not married). God can only do that which is logically possible.
Not all philosophers agree with Aquinas. René Descartes, for example, believed that God could do absolutely anything, even the logically impossible, such as draw a round square. But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, Aquinas’ explanation, there are other problems to contend with. For example, 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. According to the well-known Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, “To create creatures capable of moral good, [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.” 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: “A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?”
What about God’s infinite knowledge — His omniscience? Philosophically, this presents us with no less of a conundrum. Leaving aside the highly implausible idea that God knows all the facts in the universe, no matter how trivial or useless (Saint Jerome thought it was beneath the dignity of God to concern Himself with such base questions as how many fleas are born or die every moment), 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.
What about malice? Could God know what malice is like and still retain His divine goodness? The 19-century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was perhaps the first philosopher to draw attention to what he called the “diabolical” in his work “On Human Nature”:
For man is the only animal which causes pain to others without any further purpose than just to cause it. Other animals never do it except to satisfy their hunger, or in the rage of combat …. No animal ever torments another for the mere purpose of tormenting, but man does it, and it is this that constitutes the diabolical feature in his character which is so much worse than the merely animal.
It might be argued, of course, that this is precisely what distinguishes humans from God. Human beings are inherently sinful whereas God is morally perfect. But if God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do. And if human beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake, without any other benefit, then so does God. But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment.
However, this cannot be true if it really is the case that God is morally perfect. A morally perfect being would never get enjoyment from causing pain to others. Therefore, God doesn’t know what it is like to be human. In that case He doesn’t know what we know. 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.
(I shall here ignore the argument that God knows what it is like to be human through Christ, because the doctrine of the Incarnation presents us with its own formidable difficulties: Was Christ really and fully human? Did he have sinful desires that he was required to overcome when tempted by the devil? Can God die?)
It is logical inconsistencies like these that led the 17th-century French theologian Blaise Pascal to reject reason as a basis for faith and return to the Bible and revelation. It is said that when Pascal died his servant found sewn into his jacket the words: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob — not of the philosophers and scholars.” Evidently, Pascal considered there was more “wisdom” in biblical revelation than in any philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature — or plain lack thereof.
Peter Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University.
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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