In my last essay, I began to respond to Professor Peter Atterton’s contention that the traditional (Christian) conception of God makes no sense. Atterton makes two arguments against it, the argument from God’s omnipotence and the argument from God’s omniscience. I already showed the inadequacy of the former. Here, I look at the latter.
Atterton writes that “if God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know. But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection,” for this would mean that God would know things like lust, envy, and malice, i.e. sin.
And this, presumably, would make the Perfect Being imperfect.
But the idea of a being that is perfect and imperfect is a self-contradiction.
Hence, the concept of God as an infinitely knowledgeable and infinitely good Being is incoherent.
Interestingly, the response to Atterton’s objection is contained within the objection itself: It is precisely because the idea of a sinful or imperfect, Perfect Being is logically impossible that it is Atterton’s supposition that God should be able to “know” sin as we “know” sin that is incoherent.
There are at least three replies to Atterton’s criticism.
First, one can know something in thought, abstractly, say, without necessarily knowing it “in the gut,” so to speak. Must I be a murderer or have lost someone to a murder in order to know the awfulness of murder?
Must I be tempted to murder someone in order to know what murder is and how horrible of a thing that it is?
That one needn’t be a murderer to know the nature of murder is obvious. It should be equally obvious, though, that God needn’t experience lust, envy, and malice in order to know these vices.
Second, as I noted in response to Atterton’s argument from omnipotence, within the Christian tradition, sin and immorality, though real, possess what the ancients and medieval thinkers called “negative reality” or “negative being.” Whatever has negative being is a deprivation of that which exists in its own right.
Weakness, for example, is simply the absence of strength, just as darkness is the absence of light, ignorance the absence of knowledge, and coldness the absence of heat.
Whatever has negative reality tends toward non-being or nothingness insofar as it is simply the corruption, the absence, of that which is ontologically primary, i.e. that which has positive being. Strength, light, knowledge, and heat are all substantive things. Their contraries, however, are not.
To say that God could not know moral weakness is no more contradictory than saying that God cannot know ignorance—which is to say that it is not contradictory at all.
Third, the Christian intellectual tradition was shaped immeasurably by the contributions of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who in turn, along with other Christian theologians, imported into the development of Christian theology some of the philosophical assumptions of Socrates and Plato. Within this Greco-Christian tradition, only being is knowable.
That which tends toward non-being—that which changes—is in a perpetual process of becoming. Thus, it is not, strictly speaking, knowable, for while it is real, it is not as real as that which never changes. Corporeal objects, material bodies, are constantly changing. Hence they are objects of belief, but not objects of knowledge. At the very least, they are not as knowable, or can’t be known as fully and truly, as that which is changeless.
So, it could be said that there’s a sense in which no one, neither God nor any finite human, can genuinely know immorality as one knows, say, moral excellence, for immorality is a tendency in a human being (or angel) toward nothingness, toward the corruption or maiming of a person’s character.
(Bear in mind that I am here not even bothering to expound upon the uniquely Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and how it has been read as an answer to some of Atterton’s objections.)
Professor Atterton has failed to show that the Christian idea of God, the idea that has informed the collective consciousness of European peoples for the last two millennia, is incoherent.
Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz was a German philosopher, a rationalist, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries and who, because of the enormity and insightfulness of his contributions to every field ranging from metaphysics, epistemology, and logic to mathematics, jurisprudence, history, and the philosophy of religion, is regarded today as the last of the “universal geniuses.”
Of Liebniz, the atheist French thinker, Denis Diderot, while authoring in the 18th century his Encyclopedia, wrote: “Perhaps never has a man read as much, studied as much, meditated more, and written more [.]”
Diderot continued, describing Leibniz’s work on “the world, God, nature, and the soul” as being of “the most sublime eloquence.” He added that had Leibniz’s “ideas been expressed with the flair of Plato,” he “would cede nothing to the philosopher of Athens.”
Such are Leibniz’s talents that compared with them, “one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner.”
Leibniz was a committed Christian who enlisted his talents in the service of proving God’s existence. Yet Liebniz noted that before any such proofs could be executed, one first had to establish that the idea of God was coherent, that it isn’t self-contradictory. This, Leibniz set out to accomplish.
The idea of the Supreme Being is supposed to be the idea of a being in whom inheres all “perfections” (power, knowledge, virtue, being, i.e. all good-making properties, qualities that we recognize are better than not to possess). Atterton himself acknowledges this idea of God, yet he argues for the logical incompatibility of two of God’s perfections—His infinite power and infinite knowledge—with a third, His infinite goodness. However, Leibniz argues, perfections cannot be incompatible, for a characteristic is a thing both “positive” and “simple.”
To say of a property that it is simple is to say that it is not a complex or compound of multiple ingredients. It is “unanalyzable,” as Leibniz says, in that it can’t be analyzed into simpler or more basic components. And to say this is to say that a perfection cannot be affected or limited by any other perfection.
Thus, the idea of a being in whom resides all perfections is, contra Atterton, coherent. There is nothing contradictory about it.
Even if we find Leibniz’s chain of reasoning unconvincing, though, we can always turn to the virtual consensus of atheist philosophers, a near consensus represented by the likes of such stalwart (and brilliant) atheists as Bertrand Russell, among the most illustrious of all philosophers that the 20th century ever produced.
These atheists, for all of their differences and despite their other arguments against theism (some of which are undoubtedly sophisticated and thought-provoking), are of one mind in their verdict that there is no “God problem.”