The Incoherence of Theism (II)

In my last post, I began exploring the concept of God in order to examine its coherence.

If the concept of God is logically contradictory, then the debate about the existence of God would be over – logically contradictory things, like square circles, don’t exist. So far, however, all of the supposed contradictions that I have come across rely on non-logical premises which may be questioned (for example, “persons cannot exist timelessly”). And the arguments for the existence of God give us reason to question those premises.

The Concept of God, Continued

Omniscience

Informally, omniscience is the property of “knowing everything,” though I think it is more accurate to characterize it as perfect or maximal knowledge. To give a precise definition, most theists would say that, at the very least, God has the following property:

Propositional omniscience: knowing every true proposition and believing no false propositions.

God has this property alongside appropriate self-knowledge, that is to say, he knows propositions like “God is omniscient,” but he also knows that he himself is God, so that he correctly believes that he is omniscient. (For a contrasting example, God knows “Justin Trudeau is the prime minister of Canada,” but God also knows that he himself is not Justin Trudeau. So he does not believe the statement “I am the prime minister of Canada” even though that statement is true, at present, if spoken by Trudeau.)

God’s omniscience is essential to him, and his knowledge of every true proposition is also innate rather than learned or perceived. God does not know what is happening in the world because he looks out and perceives it; rather, he simply knows all truth innately. That is, God’s knowledge is more like intuition than perception.

When I wrote about epistemology I said that the best definition of knowledge seems to be validly justified true belief, and that valid justification can be analyzed in terms of counterfactual implications between truth and belief. Because it is metaphysically necessary (if God exists) that God believes all and only true propositions, God’s beliefs automatically satisfy this definition of knowledge.

However, the fact that God essentially knows every truth does not preclude the possibility that some of his knowledge is logically dependent on his will. Just as God has counterfactual control over whether reality is timeless or temporal, God has counterfactual control over some of his knowledge, based on what world he decides to actualize. I believe we can group God’s propositional knowledge into four categories:

Natural knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of every metaphysically necessary truth (in other words, all truths about what is metaphysically possible). These truths are independent of God’s will.

Middle knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of contingent subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about possible created beings (in other words, for any free creature or indeterminate cause that God could create and any circumstance in which God could place them, God knows what that creature would do if they were in that circumstance). These truths are also independent of God’s will, given that God can create genuinely indeterminate causes or beings with genuine free will.

Knowledge of his own will: this is God’s knowledge of contingent subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about himself (I believe God knows who and what he would create and what circumstances he would actualize, given any set of subjunctive conditionals of indeterminacy about possible created beings). Crucially, these truths are dependent on God’s will, since God’s choices are up to God.

Free knowledge: this is God’s knowledge of contingent truths in the indicative mood (in other words, all truths about the actual world that do not fall under the other two categories). These truths are dependent on God’s will (though not dependent solely on his will), following logically from his creative decision and the truths in his natural and middle knowledge.

The above understanding of God’s knowledge resolves both the supposed contradiction between foreknowledge and divine freedom (God cannot be free because he already knows what he will do), and the supposed contradiction between foreknowledge and human freedom (we cannot be free because God already knows what we will do). The belief that God has middle knowledge is one of the pillars of a position called Molinism, which I think makes the most sense of God’s omniscience.

Basically, God’s foreknowledge of what we will do is not what causes us to do what we will do. That fact that God knows we will do some action, A, does not mean that any other choice, B, is impossible or beyond our power: it simply means that if we were to choose B instead of A, then it would have been true that God knew we would do B, instead of knowing that we would do A. God’s knowledge tracks our free choices; our choices are not forced to be what they are by the mere fact that God foreknows them.

There are some objections against the middle knowledge component of God’s omniscience, the most pressing of which I think are the grounding objection and the explanatory priority objection. However, I believe those have received adequate responses: for example, William Lane Craig on the grounding objection, and Wes Morriston on explanatory priority. (And maybe also the divine voodoo objection; see Randy Everist’s response to that one.)

I believe there is probably one further aspect to God’s omniscience than the knowledge of all propositional truths that I have described above. I think it may be the case that God has a kind of experiential omniscience: God can represent to himself all possible qualia, and so in addition to knowing propositions like “strawberries are red,” he knows what red looks like and what strawberries taste like, for example. (You might call this the ability of divine imagination.)

Omnipotence

Can God make a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it? That is the classic challenge to the concept of omnipotence. Here’s the gist of the answer: that question is either ill-defined or doesn’t actually make sense, when you think about it. And if you make enough sense of it to give it an answer, then it doesn’t reveal any contradiction in the concept of omnipotence, properly understood.

It is for the property of omnipotence, more than any other, that it is important to remember why we would want to ascribe such a property to God. From a Christian perspective, the most that we really need to say to align with scripture is that God is supremely powerful, greater in power than any other being, and sufficiently powerful to perform the actions that scripture attributes to him. (Verses in the Bible like “with God, all things are possible” are not intended as axioms of analytic philosophy – it goes beyond the context of the verse to say that it means, for example, that God can do logically impossible things.)

And philosophical reflection on the idea of God as a perfect being only requires us to say that God has the greatest possible degree of power, or that he has perfect power. None of this requires the theist to believe that God is capable of doing anything that is logically impossible, or that he can create contradictions.

Which is why the majority of philosophers and theologians through the ages have agreed that omnipotence does not entail that are absolutely no logical limits on what God can do. Often, this is put colloquially as “omnipotence means that God can do everything – but logical contradictions are just nonsense combinations of words, not real things, so God does not have to have the power to do them.”

In their essay “Maximal Power,” Thomas Flint and Alfred Freddoso present a precise definition of omnipotence, guided by reflection on what things must be logically impossible for anyone to do. They effectively define omnipotence as being able to actualize any state of affairs logically possible for an agent to actualize, recognizing in particular the following limits that must apply to any agent:

  • Only metaphysically possible states of affairs can be actualized (you can’t cause a causeless event, for example: if you caused it, it wouldn’t be causeless).
  • It is logically impossible to change the past (you can’t make it so that something that has happened, has not happened).
  • It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something in a given circumstance if that is not what they would freely do in that circumstance (forcing someone to do something makes it so that it is not done freely).

If you’re curious about how supposed contradictions of omnipotence can be resolved, and want to challenge yourself with a little bit of technical reading, I recommend the above article so you can see the details of Flint and Freddoso’s definition.

So how does this answer the stone paradox? Well, since God is omnipotent, he can make a very heavy stone, but since he is essentially omnipotent, he cannot make himself unable to lift it as long as it is metaphysically possible for that stone to be lifted: that would require actualizing a contradiction in which an omnipotent being is unable to actualize a possible state of affairs.

On the flip side, God could make a stone that is metaphysically impossible for anyone to lift as long as such a thing makes sense, and then he would not be able to lift it: but this would not impinge on his omnipotence, because lifting the stone is simply not metaphysically possible.

The above article also addresses the alleged contradiction between omnipotence and impeccability (that is, God’s inability to sin) in their article: how can God be omnipotent if he is incapable of acting in any way that would be less than morally perfect? The answer is that, since moral perfection is an essential attribute of God, any state of affairs in which God commits sin is metaphysically impossible. Thus, omnipotence does not require God to be able to actualize such states of affairs.

Another possible response to the tension between omnipotence and impeccability is simply to say that God actually is able to commit evil in some circumstances (say, by becoming incarnate as a human being and thereby being exposed to temptation); but he simply never chooses to commit evil and thus retains his moral perfection. Andrew Loke suggests that position in his essay here. I do not take that view, but if properly understood I think it could be defensible.

Goodness

God’s goodness, as I already discussed in my series on the axiological argument, is generally believed to consist in him having moral virtues (such as love, faithfulness, justice, mercy, and so on) essentially and perfectly. So to say that God is good is to say that his character or his essential nature has certain traits, and not others. It is therefore a meaningful statement, and logically coherent as long as there is no contradiction between the various virtues which make up goodness.

One contradiction that has been claimed is that God’s perfect justice cannot be compatible with his perfect mercy. Within Christianity, this tension is addressed by the doctrine of the atonement, which is something that I will write about in later posts. I don’t think it is too difficult to find a reasonable and coherent formulation of that doctrine. But, I will briefly discuss this objection here.

The justice versus mercy contradiction can go something like this:

  • Justice is giving a person the punishment they deserve.
  • Mercy is not giving a person the punishment they deserve.
  • Therefore no one can be perfectly just and perfectly merciful.

There are a couple of responses can be made to this. First, it may be that divine justice can be served in ways other than giving a person the punishment they deserve: for example, God himself could bear the deserved punishment in order to offer redemption to the guilty person, thereby taking care of his justice and mercy in one go. That, of course, is precisely what the traditional Christian doctrine says.

And second, it may be that “perfectly just” and “perfectly merciful” do not necessarily mean “always, maximally just” and “always, maximally merciful” – perhaps perfect justice (respectively, mercy) simply entails “being just (merciful) whenever it is fitting or best to be just (merciful)”. I haven’t seen any contradictions claimed between other attributes within God’s goodness, but something similar could be said about them, if there was.

God’s essential moral perfection is usually taken to imply the further attribute of impeccability, meaning that God is unable to sin or act in any morally imperfect way. I discussed the tension that this raises with omnipotence in the last section; but it has also been thought to conflict with God’s goodness. Can we really call God good, and praise him for his goodness, if he really had no choice but to act good? Furthermore, if God has no choice but to act good, does he really do so freely?

To answer the above questions: I see no problem with calling God’s actions good and morally praiseworthy, as long as his good actions are freely chosen. And because God is omnipotent, uncaused, and completely self-sufficient, all of his actions are perfectly free. No person or circumstance can force God to act in a way that he does not choose, and God’s choices do not originate from anywhere outside of himself.

That, I believe, is the essence of free will: being the originator of one’s own choices and actions. Hence, God’s good actions are freely chosen, and so even though it is not possible for God to act in a way that is not morally perfect, his moral perfection is still praiseworthy.

An excellent paper on the interplay between God’s goodness and his freedom to create whichever world he wants, or no world at all, is Alexander Pruss’ essay Divine Creative Freedom. The basic idea in the paper is that incommensurability between different types of goods means that there is a diverse (probably infinite) multitude of possible worlds which are all “best possible worlds” in some respect. And so, God is free to choose from among those worlds without contradicting his goodness.

Immutability and Simplicity

There are a couple other properties which have been attributed to God in some traditions which often serve as a source of contradictions. Specifically, it is sometimes claimed that God is completely immutable in the sense of being unable to change in any way. And then there is the idea of divine simplicity, which is rather ironically named, since it is an extremely difficult concept to understand.

The Bible says that God does not change, but it seems to me that in context that verse (Malachi 3:6, if you’re curious) is best understood as referring to his nature and character in how he extends grace to his people. I see no pressing religious or philosophical motivation for believing that God is completely immutable in any stronger sense than that his character remains steadfast. So, any logical contradictions with immutability in the stronger sense do not apply.

Moving on, divine simplicity refers to the idea that God has absolutely no kind of complexity or differentiation in himself. Divine simplicity in this sense says that God is not a being that has properties, rather, he is his properties, and all of his properties are really identical to each other (and to him), and his essence just equals his existence (whatever that means). If that makes no sense to you: that’s fine, because there is also really no good scriptural or philosophical reason for believing it as far as I can see. Which means that any logical contradictions in divine simplicity so understood (or not understood) are irrelevant to the logical coherence of the concept of God more generally.

(Edit: I no longer believe that there are no good philosophical reasons for simplicity and immutability, and I must admit that I wrote in ignorance. There have been and still are many learned theists who argue that divine simplicity is absolutely crucial to theism, and I am beginning understand the motivations for the position, and even wrap my head around it and see how it could avoid some problematic implications. See here for an article defending the coherence of divine simplicity.)

In a weaker sense, there are ways in which God can be understood as not having various forms of metaphysical complexity: he is not composed of a mind and a body, for example (nor is he composed of separable components at all). For another example, because of his eternality, omniscience, and omnipotence, we can view his actions in the world as really just aspects of a single creative act. But nothing about divine simplicity in that weaker sense requires us to believe contradictions.

The Coherence of Theism

Having surveyed the basic concept of God in these last two posts, it seems to me that it is quite coherent, and the most common objections from incoherence that I have seen are unsuccessful. Which means that the easiest route to argue against God’s existence is blocked.

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