Dr. Brian Huffling
Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.
In a NY Times article titled “A God Problem: Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent,” Peter Atterton argues, well, that the concept of God is not coherent. Atterton describes God in the classical sense as his subtitle suggests. He argues that such a view of God is logically incoherent because assuming one attribute, a problem seemingly arises with the others. I will briefly summarize his arguments and respond to them, focusing on his arguments about omniscience.
Atterton wants to “first consider the attribute of omnipotence.” After considering the cliché question, “Can God make a rock bigger than he can move,” he points to the way Thomas Aquinas’ would answer this question, namely, that such a thing would be a contradiction and even God can’t do what is contradictory (such as making a square circle).
Atterton then moves to questioning whether it is contradictory for God to create a world in which there was no evil. He avers that it should be possible to do so. So why didn’t God do that? This is basically where he leaves it and moves on to God’s omniscience.
“Philosophically, this presents us with no less of a conundrum. Leaving aside the highly implausible idea that God knows all the facts in the universe [yes you read that right], no matter how trivial or useless (Saint Jerome thought it was beneath the dignity of God to concern Himself with such base questions as how many fleas are born or die every moment), if God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.”
Atterton believes that if God does in fact know what we know this is a problem. This is the case because we know what lust and envy are; thus, God must know what lust and envy are. However, he says, “one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.” Such can’t be the case, he claims, if God is morally perfect. So God does not know what we know. But then he is not omniscient, “and the concept of God is contradictory. God cannot be both omniscient and morally perfect. Hence, God could not exist.”
Atterton ends his article by referencing Blaise Pascal’s rejection of philosophy and taking God’s existence on faith alone. It is not clear to me from this article whether Atterton believes in the existence of God or whether he merely thinks that “the God of the philosophers” doesn’t exist or can’t be proven to exist. It is to the alleged incoherence that I wish to respond.
Atterton does not make too much about God’s omnipotence other than casting doubt on it, so I’m going to focus on his objection to God’s knowledge, which is what he seems to think is a stronger point. My overall critique is that Atterton over-anthropomorphizes God. This is very typical of how people think of God. We usually think that because we do things a certain way, like know, then God must do them the same way too.
For Atterton, if God knows something, then the way in which he knows it must be similar, or the same, with how we know it. We know things passively through experience, such as a thing’s existence. For example, we know of a flea’s existence because we experience fleas and can sense them. We are creatures just like fleas. But should we think God knows in the same way as us?
Atterton references Aquinas regarding God’s omnipotence but doesn’t cite what Aquinas says about the way he believes God knows the world. This either betrays ignorance or negligence. Historically, classical theism (that teaches that God is all-knowing, powerful, etc.) has taught that God is impassible and yet all-knowing, infinite, and perfect. This means that God is not affected in any way, does not learn, for an infinite amount of knowledge cannot be added to, and he cannot gain in perfection.
It also means that God is not passive in his knowledge. As Aquinas teaches in Summa Theologiae part 1 question 14, God’s knowledge is not like ours. And why should it be, he’s not a limited, passible, changeable, material, temporal, finite, contingent human. Rather, he is the unlimited, impassible, unchangeable, immaterial, eternal, infinite, necessary Creator. How this detail escapes Atterton and others who over anthropomorphize God is nothing short of perplexing.
Rather than God’s knowledge being reactive and passive like ours, it is active and causative. We know imperfectly and through the effects of nature. God knows perfectly; not through effects, but through the cause of those effects. Such is surely a more perfect and complete knowledge. God does not have to “look at” something to know it as if the thing exists apart from God’s knowledge or sustaining power. God actively causes all things to exist and sustains those things for as long as they exist. So, contrary to Atterton and Saint Jerome, God not only has knowledge of seemingly trivial things like fleas, God upholds those fleas in existence as their cause of being. They as contingent being cannot account even for their own present existence without an efficient cause. God thus knows all of the universe simply by knowing himself as their cause.
Attertons “God” is more akin to a view of deism rather than classical theism. Many hold to such a view of God. This view of God that makes him dependent, passible, changeable, etc., sees God more as a creature rather than the Creator.
When it comes to imperfections such as lust, Atterton doesn’t even ask the question if it is possible for God to do such things. (He leaves the question of the incarnation of Jesus out of his discussion.) Rather, God must know lust since he knows what we do, and since we know lust God must as well. However, we know lust through experience and because we have the capability to be imperfect. Lust is something that humans can do which is an imperfection. However, God is not a human. Historically it has been held that such passions as lust are tied to a physical body. Since God does not have a physical body he can’t lust. Further, lusting would require a change. If God is unchangeable and eternal then he can’t lust. Further, such would require God to have potency to lust; however, if such classical attributes of God as simplicity, then he has no potency to become anything other than he is. Finally, again, God does not know via experience, but by being the perfect cause of all contingent being. He thus knows his effects (i.e. the universe) by knowing himself as their perfect cause.
Rather than the concept of the classical view of God being incoherent, Atterton’s own view demonstrates either a complete lack of familiarity with classical theism or simply neglects to inform his readers of such views.
While Atterton’s attempt at killing the traditional concept of God is DOA, the God of the philosophers lives on.