Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy who teaches at San Diego State University, recently published an op-ed in The New York Times with the title, “A God Problem.”
The author contends that the traditional “Western,” i.e. Christian, conception of God as a being who is at once “perfect,” “all-powerful,” and “all-knowing” is in fact “not coherent.”
To put this another way, the idea of God is self-contradictory, as logically impossible as square circles, colorless red things, and married bachelors.
Professor Atterton’s position, as I will show, is no less mistaken now than when it was articulated by philosophers in centuries past.
Atterton launches a two-prong attack against the concept of God. First, he tries to show the (alleged) logical incompatibility between God’s omnipotence (His infinite power) and God’s moral goodness. Satisfied that he has achieved his first objective, Atterton then attempts to demonstrate the inconsistency between God’s omniscience (His infinite knowledge) and His benevolence.
In what we can call his “argument from omnipotence,” Atterton refers to an old philosophical dilemma dating back to the middle ages. The dilemma is framed in terms of a question:
Can God create a stone that God cannot lift?
If we answer that God, being omnipotent, can certainly create such a stone, then we actually deny God’s omnipotence, for there would now exist something that God cannot budge. However, if we respond that God could not create a stone that is too heavy for Him to move then we equally deny God’s unlimited power.
Atterton notes that Thomas Aquinas, unquestionably the most prominent of all medieval philosophers and a heavy-hitter in the history of philosophy in his own right, escaped the horns of this dilemma by clarifying the meaning of omnipotence:
God’s power is indeed unlimited, but this only means that God can do whatever is logically possible.
The idea of a stone that is both immovable and movable is no idea at all, for it is a contradiction in terms, and a self-contradiction is a logical impossibility. The ontological equivalent of a logical impossibility is nothing.
It is self-evident that God can’t create nothing.
However, Atterton objects, God could have created a world devoid of evil. Presumably, a perfect being would have created such a world. That the actual world is ridden with pain and suffering, Atterton seems to imply, militates decisively against the idea of a perfect and omnipotent being.
This argument, it’s crucial to observe, is the perennial argument from what has become known as “the problem of evil.” From at least the time of St. Augustine—undoubtedly the most influential of all Christian philosophers and a thinker whose work continues to arrest the attention of contemporary academics, both Christian and non-Christian alike—Christian philosophers and theologians have accounted for the presence of evil by way of multiple “theodicies,” the most prominent of which is “the free will defense.”
Atterton addresses that version of the free will defense stated most recently by the contemporary philosopher of religion, Alvin Plantinga, in which the latter contends that it is impossible for God to grant human beings the ability to do moral good without at the same moment giving them the ability to commit acts of evil. Indeed, the very possibility of a moral act, whether virtuous or vicious, good or evil, presupposes free agency on the part of human actors.
So, in other words, a world in which human beings possess free will but are not free to misuse their wills and act wickedly is a world in which they are not free.
And this is a logical impossibility.
Interestingly, Atterton evidently believes that the free will defense is cogent as far as it goes. He just doesn’t think that it goes far enough, for while this most intuitively appealing of all theodicies may explain moral or human evil, it fails to explain what philosophers of religion call “natural evil,” i.e. natural catastrophes that result in the suffering and destruction of innocent human and animal life.
There are two counter-objections to his objection that Professor Atterton fails to consider.
First, considering that he means to show the incoherence of the Christian conception of God, Atterton should look at how Christian thinkers have responded to the phenomenon of natural suffering. Within what is by no means a negligible current of the Christian tradition, natural evil is proof that the world is, as we’re informed by the book of Genesis, broken—mired in “original sin”—as a consequence of, yes, Adam and Eve’s abuse of their free will.
If Atterton has problems with this doctrine of original sin—and legitimate questions have indeed been raised regarding it—then he should identify them. But the burden is on Atterton to state his case, something that he has not done.
Second, there are two other theodicies (both of which complement one another as well as complementing the free will defense) that have been devised to meet the argument from natural evil: the “greater goods” and “natural order” defenses.
The first refers to the goods of spiritual and moral maturity. According to this line of reasoning, God allows obstacles and hardships, i.e. natural suffering, so that by surmounting these trials and tribulations we may develop into the spiritually and morally mature beings that He wants for us to become.
No pain, no gain.
The second refers to the stability or order in the world. Exercises of free will would be impossible in a world that was utterly unpredictable from moment to moment. If, for example, God intervened every time something unpleasant was about to happen so as to prevent it from occurring, then the world would be radically discontinuous with itself. Planning would be unthinkable, let alone impractical.
No, free will can exist only within a world with stability and, hence, predictability.
Atterton’s argument from omnipotence has failed to show that the concept of God is incoherent.
In my next essay, I will show that his argument from God’s infinite knowledge—the argument from God’s omniscience—fares no better.