• How can we mere mortals state what God SHOULD do?

    This is essentially the point, I believe, which has come out of, or driven, much of the conversation over the last few days between labreuer, Andy Schueler and myself on another thread. We popped down many rabbit holes, including free will, slavery, epistemology, history, the problem of evil and oughts. The conversation was quick and frenetic, so I decided to move it here, and start not afresh but with a streamlined trajectory. Here is what I think was labreuer’s core gist (his own comment):

    My argument reduces to the question:

    Can we come up with coherent concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection which would plausibly lead to the creation of a world like we have now?

    This is like the ultimate top-down approach. At least in my line of work, it is pragmatic to do top-down and bottom-up design. So, is it ‘good’ to do the same with the traditional Christian God? It is often objected that this is

    (1) starting with a conclusion,

    which is in direct opposition to

    (2) starting from the evidence.

    It is often asserted that (1) is an invalid course of action, that (2) is always the way to go about things. But this is manifestly untrue in some domains. I think the answer to Ought we only form beliefs based on sufficient empirical evidence? is a firm No. Democritus’ Atomism was distinctly useful to science, although it took a long time for it to become falsifiable. I think it is difficult to maintain that Atomism came from (2)-type thinking, because we’re in danger of saying that I can look around and then come up with an idea, with little connection between what I saw and the idea. I claim it was valid to ‘tentatively believe’ in Atomism. But does this hold for a creator-God?

    We often answer questions like the above in a quasi-consequentialist manner. I say ‘quasi-‘, because we also tend to care about the means. That being said, we tend to ask whether it was ‘good’ to do a certain thing. So, we have books like Christianity is Not Great vs. What’s So Great about Christianity. Some argue that Christianity led to the rise of modern science, claims which are hotly disputed. Perhaps I haven’t done enough research, but arguing on a historical basis seems difficult.

    In an earlier comment, I argue that an attempt to apologize for nasty behavior in the OT stirs us to understand that ‘human nature’ is darker than many are wont to believe. To elaborate, see the predictions for the Milgram experiment:

    1. “fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors” predicted that 0-3%, avg 1.2% of participants would inflict the maximum (450V) shock.
    2. “forty psychiatrists from a medical school” predicted that 3.73% would inflict the 300V shock, and ~0.1% would inflict the 450V shock.

    In the actual experiment, 65% of participants inflicted the 450V shock. Many weren’t happy (“Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin…”), but they did it anyway. In my opinion, this is a colossal failure in understanding of ‘human nature’. If attempting to apologize for genocide texts in the OT corrects such misunderstanding, I claim that is evidence of ‘goodness’. This does not mean that terrible things can come from extrapolations from the genocide texts. Just like nuclear fission can be used to terrible ends, so can OT genocide texts.

    In conclusion, I think we deprive ourselves of a useful form of thinking about reality if we insist that either:

    A) The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect deity is incoherent.
    B) An omni-* deity would not create the type of reality we see, now.

    This is not the same as saying that everyone must try this ‘constraint matching’ program. It merely argues that if we judge premises by the fruit (results) they produces, a good case can be made that this ‘constraint matching program’ can provide valuable results.

    There is a possible path for pursuing A which I have not yet seen: consider at what point it is incoherent to start with { potent, sentient, morally decent } being and then take all of those attributes to ‘infinity’? Alternatively, note that one way to understand ‘omnipotence’ is to switch from “understand[ing] omnipotence in terms of powers” to “understand[ing] powers in terms of omnipotence”; see Infinite Power and Finite Powers.

    There are some huge points here which I would need a massive amount of writing to properly discuss, but I will try to sum up my thoughts. Much of these topics I have written and spoken on extensively before.

    So the first key point is this:

    Can we come up with coherent concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection which would plausibly lead to the creation of a world like we have now?

    or, A) The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect deity is incoherent.

    Now, all of these points are, to me, incoherent and always require some amount of subjective opinion because even deductive logical arguments like the ontological argument (OA) require a good deal or argumentation over what qualifies as a great making property, what might be optimal, and so on. As I have mentioned before, the idea of perfection is incoherent as an intrinsic quality since it is goal oriented. I will now repeat much of what I said there:

    I can only understand perfect as a goal-directed adjective such that A is perfect for B, or this catapult is perfect for getting this stone over the wall in such and such a manner. Now, one could say that God is perfect at being God, but this implies an infinite regress or circularity. What does it really mean to say that God is perfect? Is he perfect at getting a stone over the wall? Perfect at being loving, merciful and just; at being prefect, designing and moral?

    Even establishing what a prefect painting is, is an entirely subjective process, depending upon personal tastes. And this applies to all sorts of things such that perfection becomes either subjective or incoherent. Being perfectly powerful and knowledgeable are admittedly simpler proficiencies to hold, conceptually.

    The other problem is that perfection of a being involves multiple aspects such that, as the classic problem goes, God cannot be perfectly just AND perfectly merciful since to be perfectly just assumes punishing justly for a misdemeanour, and to be perfectly merciful assumes some kind of leniency.

    With all of these characteristics which conflict, the theist retreats to maximal perfection, a sort of optimal scenario given all of the nuances and variables. But this becomes arbitrary and subjective. One more ounce of mercy and one less ounce of justice might be perfect for a God wanting to achieve A, but vice versa might be better for wanting to achieve B.

    Therefore, we need to establish, without circularity or incoherence, what God is to be perfect FOR, before establishing whether God is or can be perfect. To have a timeless God sitting there and label it as perfect is, to me, meaningless (as a stand-alone descriptor).

    Therefore, and given the subjective nature of appraisals of perfection, I see any argument using the term perfection as incoherent.

    Omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence are the subjects, really, of my book The Little Book Of Unholy Questions, my posts on God’s characteristics and my talk The Case for God on Trial:

    And for those who have not so much time:

    Which details some inconsistencies with God’s characteristics. I posit in many various places that all of these great making characteristics are problematic and are enough to show that God does not exist. That God creates subsets of people who are more or less likely to freely come to love him shows that God is inherently unfair, and thus not all-loving. Simple arguments like this are terminal.

    That is not to mention the idea that God is infinite. Infinite, though, is an abstract concept which means that God potentially becomes merely an abstraction (I have just edited a book by mathematician James A. Lindsay called Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly which argues the incoherence of attached infinites to God). Any kind of infinite is a problem when associated with God, so people like Bill Craig then claim that the term is used qualitatively rather than quantitatively. But either this is meaningless, or the qualitative statement actually reduces to a quantitative one since comparing one notion to another and saying one is more, means necessarily that there can be some sort of unitary or quantitative valuation.

    And ideas of omniscience are problematic in a similar way. Does God know the infinite digits of Pi? If so, then actual infinities do exist in God’s knoaledge (and the Kalam fails, since the argument for God relies on actual infinites not existing). And then there are infinite counterfactuals which God supposedly knows – possibilities of potential worlds and their potential configurations and interactions within. Such ruminations of infinity just don’t get off the ground because the very concept is abstract, and people who claim such things of infinity and perhaps God are confusing the map with the terrain (as Lindsay would say), or confusing our understanding of reality with reality itself (such as with the Ontological Argument)

    I could spend much time on the characteristics of God, but it really is enough to say that they are incoherent and as such God is incoherent. Perhaps this is a good argument for ignositicism.

    The second point is this:

    B) An omni-* deity would not create the type of reality we see, now.

    which is perhaps a more nuanced point to consider, and inspired the title question. So essentially we are left with 1) in our limited intellect, how can we know what the best world would be, and 2) how do we know that this is not it.

    To be concise, I will list the issues:

    a) we have no idea what the design criteria are

    b) at what time do you evaluate a creation (beginning, middle, end?) or is it evaluated in the best parameters which could perhaps give a range of outcomes.

    c) if it is evaluated at a certain point, and we are at another point, what would that look like to us?

    What labreuer has done here, without realising (since he seemed unaware of the term in conversation) is alluded to the position of skeptical theism. This is a position used to defend God in light of the problem of evil – that we are simply unable (not in a position, clever enough compared to God’s infintie knowledge etc) to know why evil exists (why this world doesn’t look like the perfect one). This was discussed to some degree with myself, Justin Schieber and Counter APologist in this Google Hangout on the Problem of Evil:

    I don’t buy it. If I punish my son for trampling on the flowers one day by bringing him inside the house, beating him within an inch of his life, giving him cancer, killing his friends etc etc and then NOT telling him why I am punishing him, are these the actions and nature of a loving parent? Look, we are in the position of being able to understand quantum mechanics and the machinations of the universe, and yet we are apparently unable to understand why God repeatedly kills us of with tsunamis etc. It seems absurd and a case of special pleading a certain form of understanding based on the absence of that explanation.

    The great thing that Justin Schieber does is that, if you accept skeptical theism, you must also accept the Divine Lies Argument so it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t from a theist’s point of view. I won’t go into this argument here, but it is well worth looking into.

    God’s divine hiddenness and reluctance to tell us why things are happening, like cancer, only plays into the hands of the atheist, in my opinion. That a greater good might come out of all this suffering is not good enough, because God doesn’t even explicitly communicate this. If I punished my child, if he didn’t understand it, then at least an explicit communication from me, the loving father, that he may not understand why the punishment has to be like it is, but that there is a greater good which necessitates this suffering would be expected. After all, God is love, so they say.

    So if we have no idea what the purpose is of this world, of the design criteria, then the whole God hypothesis becomes even more unfalsifiable, and God looks more and more like the pea in the con man’s shell game which gets moved from shell to shell when the onlooker claims to have located it. God just gets ad hoc shifted around, logically shunted from pillar to post in the hopes that whatever conception remains is somehow coherent. But from the arguments hinted at above, such conceptions simply are not coherent. We don’t even have a viable understanding of what God is or could be, let alone what and why he might want to create.

    Of course, any creation is a necessary degradation of the ontological state of affairs, and so we can safely say that if he is omni, then he wouldn’t create anything at all in the first place.

    I would rather, though, punt to what we do know of how things work, of what logic and probability entails. Methods to evacuate God from the problem of evil revolve around possibilities. God COULD have a reason why suffering exists; we MIGHT not be able to understand why God allows suffering; this COULD be the most perfect world, we just don’t know.

    Because, given God’s omni characteristics, this must be the best possible world in some way of measuring that (as alluded to above). As I mentioned here:

    Although it is very difficult to logically disprove this defence, it does have some rather serious ramifications for the Christian theist. Because God is claimed as being all-loving it means that any decision that God makes, any actualisation of events and matter and so forth, must be the most loving that can be. It means that every decision made must be the most caring or loving decision that could possibly be made in terms of some criteria, or some outcome.

    Since God is omniscient, and given the possibility of Middle Knowledge or any other mechanism for divine foreknowledge, God knows every possible outcome for every actualisation of every possible world. And God, evidently, chose this one.

    First of all, the ramifications are fairly clear for God’s own free will. Since he must do what is maximally loving at all times, he cannot do otherwise. One could argue, then, that God does not have free will himself. Without the ability to act contrary to his omnibenevolence, he has only one course of action that he can possibly take, or courses of action that contain equal quantities of ‘lovingness’ (for want of a better term). A theist could argue that God could do otherwise but chooses not to. This is akin to the taxman analogy. This goes as follows. A taxman assesses your business. He says you have a tax bill for $25,000. He gives you the choice of paying it or not paying it. The free choice is yours. However, by not paying it, you will go to prison (or to make the analogy more powerful, you will be sentenced to death). Thus you have a free choice where you can exercise your free will, but one choice will result in your imminent imprisonment or death. What will it be? You can argue, perhaps, that you have free will, but you can also argue that this is an effective denial of free will.

    In the same way, God could choose in a way that was not maximally loving, but he never would because it is against his all-loving nature. This is a grey area of free will. There is a debate here as to whether God does not have omnipotence, or whether omnipotence can be a potentiality. If it is a potentiality that can never be made real and existent, then does this equate to it not existing?

    However, the main point to be made here is as follows. It seems, then, that if God is to keep his omnibenevolent characteristic, then this world must be the maximally perfect and loving world that there can be. If God is perfect, then this must be his most perfect creation. A perfect God could not create something that fell short of perfection, and an all-loving God could not create something that did not fulfil the criterion of being the most-loving creation.

    The slightly worrying outcome this is that a world where 250,000 people and millions of animals are killed in a tsunami, where anywhere between 20% and 75% of foetuses are naturally aborted (depending on the source), where cancer and malaria are rife, where a global flood killed all the population of earth bar 8 (and all the animals bar some), where forest fires kill baby deer, is a world where these events that are perhaps even necessary for it to be the most loving world.

    Moreover, the Westboro Baptist Church may have some kind of twisted logic in celebrating the death of every soldier, in celebrating the outcome of pretty much anything as being the righteous judgement of an all-loving God. They realise that this judgement by God to actualise this particular world must be supremely wise and must result in the most loving world. This includes every piece of suffering and death experienced by every animal and plant in the history of the world.

    If this is where logic takes a Christian, then they can keep their God in all his maximal perfection. And while they’re at it, they can package up all the pain and suffering and send it return post to the pearly gates. Not needed here, thanks.

    So I don’t know that this isn’t the most perfect world through the most perfect choice to create. But I don’t know anything past cogito ergo sum. And the theist doesn’t know the that this world is the most perfect world, in some way. Everything is a probability. How do I assess the probability that this isn’t the best possible world? Well, for a start, as an outsider, all of the biblical claims (the Bible) amount to very poor evidence to support the most extraordinary claims in the world. The saints parading around Jerusalem seen by many in Matthew 28, the darkness and earthquakes are attested to in pithy verses only in one Gospel. And we are expected to believe these amazing claims when they are found nowhere else in the world? You get the picture.  Also, the personal experience of Christians is no different to the personal experiences of any other religious believer whose religion is mutually exclusive to Christianity. So evidentially, I have no good reason to pick Christianity as truthful over any other religion. Had I been born in Riyadh, I would be Muslim. Not so fair if the object is to freely come to love the Yahwistic God!

    I can’t know that this isn’t the best world, as lebreuer might ask. But neither does he know that it is. I can give many, many, many good reasons why it doesn’t look like the best possible world. Can he give good reasons why it does? How does malaria killing millions of children? How does literally billions upon billions of foetuses being spontaneously aborted naturally (far more than survive full term) figure in the explanation? God loves abortion. What we need to do is weigh up the good and the bad in the world and see whether it best supports either hypothesis.

    I would have all animals being photosynthetic such that a rational animal like myself has no need or desire to eat other sentient life forms. Better still, non corporeal beings. Better still, just invent mental beings in heaven – the ones whom I would foreknow to love me. A place supposedly with free will and no suffering and where everyone is in a perfect loving relationship with me. Skip the shit in the middle, and go straight to the new Kingdom, the end times, the post-Judgement. The heaven.

    Anything to show that this must be the best possible world is an appeal to the unknown and is ad hoc by nature.

    I could go on, but you get the picture. No, I don’t know that this world is imperfect, or what the world should look like. But I can have some pretty good rational guesses. Do you, labreuer, know that this world is in some way perfect? How do you know? On what basis is every unit of suffering ever experienced justified by an all-knowing, all-loving , all-powerful God? Those reasons have to be pretty damned robust to get over the sheer magnitude of suffering over time. Coulds and mights get you only so far.

    Right back at ya!

    Category: FeaturedGod's CharacteristicsHeavenPhilosophical Argument Against GodPhilosophy of ReligionProblem of Evil

    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce