For reference, the well-known Epicurean quote:

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"

It seems to me that the omnipotence of God is a fundamental problem for theists—or, at least, a bigger problem than either side in the God debate typically recognizes. As Epicurus recognized, it leads to self-contradiction. Too often, atheists will let this issue slide without hammering on it enough, in my opinion. We're letting theists get away with acting like God is a limited being when, by their own definition of him as omnipotent, he is not. So what would it mean for a being to be omnipotent, really?

The full consequences of omnipotence are most relevant when discussing the problem of evil and the free will defense. We all know that most theists with at least a passing familiarity with apologetics will at some point say that free will is necessary in order for humans to learn, to be able to truly love, and to generally not be robots; and, as a consequence of free will, evil must be allowed to happen. On the face of it, this makes sense. But we are dealing with an omnipotent God here. If God exists and created the universe, he made all the rules; God does not follow any preexisting rules, since by definition no rules preexist God. So there is no law of the universe that says it is necessary for humans to suffer and die in order to learn or to love. God must have chosen this method, which would make him malevolent.

Perhaps someone could argue that there are no other options, that it's either free will or robots, and that to say otherwise is nonsensical, like the old "Can God create a rock so big he cannot lift it?" question. I don't think this is the case. First off, we can ask the theist if they believe God answers prayer. If he allows a plane to crash in order to preserve our free will, then every time he does answer a prayer or intervenes in any way on our behalf, it is a violation of our free will. But this is a bit of a "gotcha" argument, so let me move on to the heart of the matter. Free-will-or-robot is a false dichotomy because, once again, an omnipotent being is a part of the equation. God created all the circumstances under which humans operate. He created a world with hurricanes and landslides, he created a universe with no scientific evidence of himself, he allows humans to live and die entrenched in cultures that largely shape our worldview, and he created our species with the very psychological makeup that makes us prone to such arrangements. What becomes blatantly obvious is that we are not blank slates who live free lives made up of the sum of our own choices. Compared to God, we are very contingent beings with very few choices and very little ability to affect our own outcomes. And the party responsible for all of this is God himself. Much like ants in an ant farm have the "free will" to choose where they dig, we have, at best, what you could call directed or contingent free will, which is the middle ground we inhabit between godlike free will and robots.

I can think of at least one other way omnipotence leads to a self-contradiction: the omniscient (all-knowing, or all-wise) component of an omnipotent being is problematic, because what things exist outside of God for God to know about? What conditions can he be wise about? There are none that he has not himself created! At best, we can say that it is irrelevant to speak of God's wisdom in a theological or philosophical context.

What are your thoughts? Do you take omnipotence to its full logical conclusions when debating theists? I'd love for people to hone or add to my musings on this topic.

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I expect that the need to be " logically coherent", is the primary hang-up, between Theists and Atheists, and between different 'theist' camps. I am not so sure that Atheists, as a group, are as conflicted.

Theists seem to demand certainty, either by dependence on authority, or 'thought stopping' at the appropriate times.

Atheists just figure that we are still learning, so assume that we must be open to what the universe might still offer us. This seems to be 'true' on the face of it. The 'God/god Hypothesis' is just one option among many for us, which does not seem to survive an evidence test, if we hold no previous commitments.

Theists hold a 'previous commitment', even before all the evidence is in, and seem to intentionally avert their eyes from disconfirmation(s).

As to the issue of 'God's Limits', if we step back and just consider the question as a linguistic production, and deconstruct to find 'what it means', we must determine if the noun/pronoun 'God', 'points at' or just 'assumes' an existent being or object. After that anything 'said' or predicated, may or may not be of any import. Assuming the existence of an abstract 'object' or 'subject', allows a vest web of supposition, and/or creative masturbation(s).

Falling into the Theist trap of this assumption only allows them to hold the conversation in their camp, if not twisted pretend universe. We can play with them, and knowingly/un-knowlingly help them with a fake validation of their imaginings by continued noise with no 'light', our deny them continued safe harbor without evidence.

Recently I read the book by Marcus Borg, 'Putting Away Childish Things'. Where some of these issues are discussed via a novel format. Sadly he seems to offer an 'out' on the 'evidence' issue. It might be worth a read.

       

Theists seem to demand certainty, either by dependence on authority, or 'thought stopping' at the appropriate times.

No, not really.  Or at least not most knowledgeable theists.

We do have our fundamentalists, and like any area of thought we have a lot of relative novices.  Novices in any discipline tend to depend on authority (the textbook, etc.), and "thought stopping" is a skill students learn because it's necessary in order to understand new or novel ideas.  Or to enjoy movies.

Atheists just figure that we are still learning, so assume that we must be open to what the universe might still offer us.

This is a position shared by theists.

Theists do hold a 'previous commitment', I think you're right about that.  I think that's a logical position to take no matter what the discipline.  Physicists hold a 'previous commitment' to the current best understanding of physics, so do historians, geologists, etc.  Economists maybe not ;-) .  So for me, the atheist position isn't logical.   You don't discard successful working theories unless you have something better.

James and Dr. Bob. You are both talking about an atheist position on knowledge as though it exists. It does not. An atheist is someone who rejects the statement that God exists. That is all atheists have in common and it says nothing about their ideas on knowledge or anything else.

What you are actually referring to, in regards to facts/knowlege is a: secular humanist position or a rationalist position or naturalist position or naive-realist position or a "brights" position or a "new atheist position" or a "how most people on think atheist see knowledge" position.

So when you say Dr. Bob...that an atheists position on knowledge doesn't make sense...you are absolutely right...because it doesn't make sense that people who reject one statement...collectively share a common view on facts or knowledge. That would be remarkable if it were true...bitit is not.

@Dr Bob -

"universal theories"

- it is universal, except it's framed in a scientific way.  I think that in the same way, religion is universal too.  It's two different ways of looking at the same universal thing. 

"I think it will end up leading you back to God,"

- not me, because I'm a diehard atheist.  I wouldn't be surprised if it encouraged some atheists to turn to religion, looking for the hard stuff, and maybe the other way round too.  I don't have any axe to grind though, I'm not out to bash religion or convert anyone to atheism.  Either way, the upshot is that atheists will be able to see and appreciate some of the philosophical and spiritual value in religion, and I hope that religious people will have more respect for the atheist position too. 

- "a conjecture"

It's plain as day to me, but apparently not to anyone else.  There is this defunct entry in Wikipedia, now only surviving in an unfortunate white supremacist "scientific religion" racist pseudoscience site

  • Quality-of-life-seeking

    A living organisms' need to improve their quality of life seems to serve the purpose of improving their chances of survival. Quality-of-life-seeking also includes reducing the levels of stress experienced by an individual organism. Stress can cause both physiological and mental illness. Stress can be due to crime: threat and acts against the person; threat and acts against property. Health in general comes under this category: individual organisms that seek to maintain and improve their health are improving their chances of survival.

Here are my observations.  It was about 2002 when I tried to commit suicide with 330 antidepressants.  I was living in a student house.  I took the pills at midnight.  I'm a diabetic so after I missed my injections the next day I went into a coma.  By 6 pm the next day I was still lying on my bed in a coma.  My bedroom was next to the living room and kitchen of the house.  What my friends told me later was that when they went into the kitchen for the first time that day, what happened was that (in a coma) I hauled myself off the bed and started pounding, slowly, on my bedroom door to attract their attention.  Then obviously they called an ambulance and had me taken to hospital. 

It was only by chance that I found out that detail, but it's crucial to my philosophy.  So my mind was firmly made up that I wanted to die, yet mother nature had other ideas and caused my comatose body to seek help.  Primal nature had stepped in and saved me despite my conscious wishes to the contrary. 

I had read The Selfish Gene and so I knew the idea that our genes have a reproductive imperative and a consequent survival imperative (as seen in our investment in our offsprings' and other relatives' genes).  Then I realised that a consequence of the survival imperative is an imperative to seek health and wellbeing, because these things contribute to our survival.  Like all imperatives, it has a separate life of its own and isn't directly dependent on other circumstances. 

Do you want to be happy?  Yes or no?  Do you want to be healthy and peaceful, to enjoy life?  Who doesn't?  Some people prefer thrill-seeking, but they're still seeking to feel good.  When you are injured, what happens?  Does the wound heal up or does it stay ragged and bloody?  Do you prefer feeling good or feeling bad?  Or don't you care? 

Here's an example of what I'm talking about expressed at the level of the emotions

  • In bacteria, information that feeds in from cell surface receptors for over 30 different substances all gets funnelled into a binary output—continue swimming ahead, or tumble randomly and swim in some other direction.  Bacteria are too small to be able to detect chemical gradients over the length of their bodies, but they can compare the concentration of a substance now with the concentration half a second previously. This rudimentary memory allows extraordinarily adaptive behaviour, movement towards food and away from dangers (Dusenbery 1996).  Our positive and negative emotions are mere elaborations, albeit vastly more complex after at least an additional 600 Myr of evolution.

If people don't understand that then I'm at a loss to explain myself more clearly.  If you don't understand it then I ask you to reflect on the idea until you do.  It's a big idea to take on, because it's very profound and all-pervasive. 

"What two central principles?

- that's the first one, a principle of all biological life.  It's a fact-value crossover: we value health and wellbeing as good. 

The second principle recognizes that what we can do for ourselves, in terms of promoting health and wellbeing, we can do for others, and the way we do this is called morality.  What we do is called compassion.  It's a set of actions. 

Hmmm... 

OK, part of my confusion is over the use of "quality-of-life", which is a term that is generally reserved to sentient beings.  I don't quite know how to interpret "quality of life" for a bacterium.

Another part of my confusion is how much you anthropomorphize biology.  That's probably Dawkins hangover.  It's a cute metaphor, but genes aren't selfish nor do they have imperatives.  They're just chemical chains.  Simple organisms don't "seek." Take the anthropomorphic stuff too seriously and I think you're just recreating animism. 

(Maybe that's your way out of atheism and back to enlightenment, finding spirits within all living things on the path to finding the Great Spirit. ;-) )

My third confusion is that competition seems to be missing.  In the real world, the organisms that survive are the ones that out-compete others.  Healthy bacteria with a high "quality of life" are probably making another organism really, really ill.   The jaguar's health and wellbeing derives from the slaughter of other animals.  Where does this fit in?  That's not what we would tend to call morality or compassion, but it is the essential ingredient of evolution.

Lastly, I think it's way too far a jump to go from a bacterium responding to surface chemical concentrations to human emotions.  That's a TAMO step (which might just make you a theist).

"quality-of-life"  

- being strong and healthy and, where capable, feeling good.  Flourishing. 

""quality of life" for a bacterium.  ...  Simple organisms don't "seek."

As in the example I gave, they try and avoid being poisoned and presumably to avoid other dangerous influences in the environment as far as they are capable.  They try to stay alive and healthy.  This one stops travelling forward, and tumbles and goes in another random direction, to try and get away. 

"human emotions

- human emotions are essentially the same thing - desire and aversion.  Wanting to go towards "opportunities" and away from "threats".  Wanting to feel good and not wanting to feel bad.  All emotions belong in one of these two categories - liking or not liking. 

"genes aren't selfish nor do they have imperatives.  They're just chemical chains."

- no, genes can't think or feel, but a basic property of DNA is that it reproduces.  The organisms that are best at surviving and reproducing are the best at passing on their genes, and those that aren't so good become fewer in number over evolutionary time.   Effectively an arms race.  Maintaining the health, strength and survival of the individual is part of this arms race.  Therefore the imperative manifests at the level of the organism, and organisms are capable, to various degrees, of thinking and feeling and seeking and moving.  I would contend that all of them heal when they are injured.  This imperative is so strong and basic that it persists throughout the entire life of the individual, although admittedly its effectiveness is reduced in old age, which is not surprising if the imperative is "aimed" at supporting reproduction. 

"In the real world, the organisms that survive are the ones that out-compete others"

- yes, species out-compete other species existing in the same niche. 

Among humans, it is cooperation between individuals that enables our species to be successful, and to f*** the hell out of all the other species, since we can take over almost any niche.  Humans are competitive with each other too, and we often see this behaviour. 

"The jaguar's health and wellbeing derives from the slaughter of other animals.  Where does this fit in?"

- This is where we enter the arena of morality, if we transfer this situation to human beings.  It's easy to achieve well-being at someone else's expense, and we wouldn't call this morally good.  So we have to decide on a way of achieving well-being, or even of just behaving, that is morally acceptable, and this can be summed up in a simple form as "love your neighbour as yourself". 

"My third confusion is that competition seems to be missing.  In the real world, the organisms that survive are the ones that out-compete others.  Healthy bacteria with a high "quality of life" are probably making another organism really, really ill.   The jaguar's health and wellbeing derives from the slaughter of other animals.  Where does this fit in?  That's not what we would tend to call morality or compassion, but it is the essential ingredient of evolution."

- I think I take the wider point you're trying to make.  I don't take the position that anything evolved is good, or anything natural is good.  That's the naturalistic fallacy.  I take the position that we derive a sense of value from promoting health and flourishing.  That's our fact/value crossover. 

One of the proofs Dawkins makes in defense of evolution is that if God is responsible for the design of all creatures, then God is a poor designer and makes mistakes. Some creatures are not 100% adapted to their current environments, other creatures have vestigial organs, etc.

For example, ostriches and emus have useless wings. Whales have evidence in their skeletons of their predecessors' life on land, when they had legs. 

Rather than God-made mistakes, this is best explained by the fact that evolution is in a ongoing process and that no creature is finished and is a constant state of becoming. Every creature has what might be described as heritage adaptations that are being refined or eliminated and other adaptations that are being accommodated to current conditions. 

???

Um, OK... So what does this have to do with anything?

My (probably biased) take was that creationists need to pull their collective head out and realise at the very least that God made evolution something to take seriously, regardless of what ancient mortals wrote about their take on God.

Yo, creationists... do you think God has an appendix?

Umm... OK....

I'm not sure that will convince any creationists, but I was more confused by how it related to all of @Simon's stuff.

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