New Puzzles about Divine Attributes

Abstract: According to traditional Western theism,God is maximally great (or perfect). More explicitly, God is said to have the following divine attributes: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. In this paper, I present three puzzles about this conception of a maximally great (or perfect) being. The first puzzle about omniscience shows that this divine attribute is incoherent. The second puzzle about omnibenevolence and omnipotence shows that these divine attributes are logically incompatible. The third puzzle about perfect rationality and omnipotence shows that these divine attributes are logically incompatible.

LINK (HT: ex-apologist)

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • watcher_b

    This goes along with my recent discovery of the label “Ignostic”. The idea that God has been defined in a such a vague and inconsistent/contradictory way that the term God has become meaningless. To talk of whether or not such a being exists doesn’t even make any sense.

    • Bradley Bowen

      The term ‘God’ must be defined with some degree of clarity in order to be able to show that it contains a contradiction. The word ‘God’ cannot be ‘meaningless’ and also be self-contradictory.

      The article that Jeff points to relies on a fairly clear and specific definition of ‘God’ and on fairly clear and specific definitions of the terms used to define ‘God’, such as ‘omniscient’ and ‘omnipotent’.

      The word ‘God’ is used in a variety of ways by different people in different contexts, but in the context of traditional Christian theology and philosophy, the meaning of the word ‘God’ is fairly clear, and thus is subject to logical analysis and critique.

      • watcher_b

        Hey Bradley, thanks for challenging my thought process. You got me thinking over the weekend.

        What I mean by “meaningless” is in the context of the discussion of whether or not such a God exists. For example, say we are searching for George who we have never met or scene. And someone describes him to us as being both very tall and very short without any context of what that means. Without any other information, “George” is meaningless in the quest to find him.

  • Bradley Bowen

    From the article:

    =============

    God is said to be omniscient (all-knowing). For present purposes, the divine attribute of omniscience is understood as follows (Wierenga 2010):

    B is omniscient =df for any proposition p, if p is true, then B knows that p.

    Now, omniscience, thus understood, seems incoherent. To see why, consider the following question:

    Could an omniscient being know what it is like not to know that p?

    On the one hand, if we answer yes, then that means that there must be some p that an omniscient being does not know, and hence an omniscient being turns out not to be all-knowing (Cf. Grim 1983).

    [...]

    On the other hand, if we answer no, then there is something that an omniscient being could not know, namely, an omniscient being could not know what it is like not to know that p, and hence an omniscient being turns out not to be all-knowing.

    =======================

    I’m not impressed by this objection.

    Surely it should be no surprise that an all-knowing person (who had always been all knowing) would not know what it is like to be ignorant. Similarly, a perfectly good person (who has always been perfectly good) would not know what it is like to be cruel or selfish or uncaring. An all-powerful person (who had always been all powerful) would not know what it is like to be weak and powerless.

    These seem to be rather obvious implications of being ‘God’ given the traditional Christian understanding of that word. God does not know what it is like to be a weak, finite, ignorant, selfish human being. So what.

    The belief that God became incarnate as a human being is presumably motivated in large part by this fairly obvious set of implications. The Incarnation is supposed to make the infinite transendent deity less of a monster or unapproachable mystery.

    It might well be the case that there are logical problems with the doctrine of Incarnation, and that it fails to acheive this goal of making God more understandable or relatable, but the motivation behind the doctrine of Incarnation remains: God does not know what it is like to be a weak, finite, ignorant, selfish human being, and thus God seems wholly ‘other’ and strange to any thoughtful Christian who rejects popular depictions of God as an old man in the sky.

    What the objection points out is that the specific definition of ‘omniscient’ under consideration is incoherent, not that the concpet of an omniscient person is itself incoherent. In other words, it points to a problem in the definition. It is obviously unreasonable to understand the concept of ‘omniscient person’ in a way that implies that such a person MUST know what it is like to be ignorant, stupid, weak, cruel, etc.

    The word ‘omniscient’ should be understood, as a first-approximation, as implying MAXIMAL knowledge. The objection shows that knowing EVERY true proposition involves knowing more than what it is maximallly possible for a person to know, at least for a person who has ALWAYS been omniscient, who has always had MAXIMAL knowledge.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Another argument from the article:

    ===========================

    The aforementioned puzzle about omnibenevolence and omnipotence can be summed up in the form of a dilemma as follows:

    1. Either God can choose the lesser of two evils or God cannot choose the lesser of two evils.

    2. If God can choose the lesser of two evils, then God is not omnibenevolent (since God can choose evil).

    3. If God cannot choose the lesser of two evils, then God is not omnipotent (since there is a possible state of affairs that God cannot bring about).

    4. (Therefore) Either God is not omnibenevolent or God is not omnipotent.

    ============================

    This appears to be just a slight variation on a very old argument:

    1. Either God can choose to do evil or God cannot choose to do evil.

    2. If God can choose to do evil, then God is not perfectly good (since it is possible for God to choose to do evil).

    3. If God cannot choose to do evil, then God is not omnipotent (since there is a possible state of affairs that God cannot bring about).

    4. (Therefore) Either God is not perfectly good or God is not omnipotent.

    Aquinas took the position that God cannot do evil, and Swinburne follows Aquinas on this point (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.164-165).
    But neither Aquinas nor Swinburne view this fact as being incompatible with God’s also being omnipotent.

    In other words, this limitation of what God can do is not considered to disqualify God from being considered omnipotent. So, this should lead one to doubt the definition of ‘omnipotence’ that is being put to use in the arguments above. Some limitations on what a person can bring about should be acceptable under the concept of an omnipotent person.

    God’s being perfectly good creates logical constraints on what God can do. That is to say, given that God always has and always will act in a way that is perfectly morally good, this implies that God will never do certain things. Omnipotence is limited by logic. God cannot create a four-sided triangle nor a married bachelor. God also cannot make it the case that a perfectly good person performs an evil action, because that would be a logically impossible state of affairs.

    If the person who is God merely happens to have been perfectly good so far, or to have acted in a morally perfectly good way from eternity past until now, and if it was possible for God to become evil, cruel, or selfish, then God’s performing an evil or morally wrong action in the future would be logically possible. If it is logically possible for God to perform an evil or morally wrong action in the future, then omnipotence, as defined in the article, would entail that God was able to do evil actions.

    But if God’s perfect goodness was an essential property of God (as Swinburne claims), then it is NOT logically possible for God to perform evil or morally wrong actions, and thus it would not be a logically possible state of affairs that God performs such actions, and thus God’s inability to bring about such a logically impossible state of affairs would NOT count against God being omnipotent, any more than God’s inability to create a four-sided triangle.

    In the case of bringing about a “lesser evil” if doing so is contrary to being perfectly good, then God cannot bring it about that a perfectly good person (intentionally) brings about a lesser evil. But if God is essentially a perfectly good person, then the ONLY way that God can (intentionally) bring about a lesser evil is by brining it about that a perfectly good person (intentionally) brings about a lesser evil, which, by hypothesis, is logically impossible.

    The state of affairs that a lesser evil exists or is brought about is logically possible. An evil or morally flawed person could intentionally bring about a lesser evil, but it is logically impossible for a perfectly good person to do so. Thus, the definition of ‘omnipotence’ is clearly defective, because it does not take into account the fact that beings and persons can have essential properties, and that those essential properties create constraints on what it is logically possible for that being to do.


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