Saturday, March 19, 2011

The limits of God?

Last year, in “What does God want?”, I wrote about the problem of two atheist arguments that depend on an equivocal understanding of God wanting or willing. On Wednesday, I got into a dog pile on Jennifer Fulweiler’s National Catholic Register blog combox over the issue of the logical problem of evil.

Briefly stated, the logical problem holds that, if God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then: 1) He would know every way evil can come into existence; 2) He would have the power to prevent them from coming into existence; and 3) He would want to prevent them from coming into existence; therefore, He would prevent them from coming into existence. But since evil does exist, then God is either not omnipotent, or not omniscient, or not omnibenevolent … or He doesn’t exist.

The error lies in a fuzzy understanding of the term want, especially in the assumed premise that a perfectly good God would want to prevent suffering. How do we know that? We only know that, as imperfect as we are, we want to prevent suffering; however, we don’t know how omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence affects God’s decision-making. It’s just as easy to conclude that God sees some benefit to suffering that we don’t recognize because of our limitations; in fact, as I’ve pointed out before, suffering isn’t always and ever a bad thing.

But I had to leave the argument to do some stuff around the house. The atheist with whom I was arguing left some ancillary issues that I couldn’t respond to at the time. Well, here I am with nothing better to write about just now ….

“If we do have free will, it is not absolute. There are physical constraints, like I cannot fly to the moon on a whim. This means that we could have freedom of action while still not allowing for the suffering of innocents.”

We must have free will; it’s a prerequisite for the ability to reason. Without reason, no science, no free-thinkers, no superior claim for atheism over religiosity. A strict materialism that doesn’t allow for free will to any degree negates itself (see the Tree Branch Law).

However, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. Free will necessarily entails the ability to choose to do evil, which presupposes the physical ability to do evil. As I’ve said before, we’re talking free will, not free wish: in debate terms, free will presumes fiat power. If you can’t do evil, you can’t choose to do evil. And the ability to do evil implies the ability to inflict suffering upon innocents.

“I’d like to point out that you are applying logic saying why we can/can’t do things, yet your god supposedly created logic. He should be able to create a logical system in which such a system could work[;] i.e. you are putting limits on your god’s omnipotence.”

Only in the way that God being unable to create a rock He can’t lift is a limit. Or in the way that God only does good presents a limit. Such limits, as objections to the Christian God, are ridiculous; they only show up the objector’s lack of imagination. How else do you describe a Being that can call whole universes into existence ex nihilo? What else do you call a God that encodes good and evil into the very fabric of the universe, and demands we do good?

The whole reason for calling God omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent is to say that God’s power, knowledge and love exceed all comprehension, all human measure. But, often enough, to say what a being is sets a limit on what it includes by the very nature of definition. To say that God is all-powerful is to say that He can’t create a rock He can’t lift because that’s the nature of being all-powerful. To say that He is perfectly good is to exclude from His capability all acts that are inherently evil. So they’re limits … SO WHAT? As limits, they don’t really “prove” anything.

What I think is being set up here is a prosecutorial attack: “So you admit that God can’t create a rock He can’t lift. Are you saying He can’t prevent suffering? No? Are you saying, then, that He doesn’t know how to prevent suffering? No? Ah, then you must be admitting that He doesn’t want to prevent suffering!”

Yes. I admit that freely. You don’t have to be specially intelligent to see that He permits it as part of His passive Will. But the argument has always been that His perfect Love doesn’t necessarily exclude the permission of suffering or evil. We’re talking about a God that allowed Himself to be whipped, tortured and crucified on a false charge, for Pete’s sake!

Suffering is always going to be a sticking point for one kind of unbeliever, the cousin of the person who gets hung up on the doctrine of Hell. This kind of unbeliever cries, “I won’t content myself with a God who would permit for one tiniest part of a second the torment of a child!” And so he contents himself with a God-less universe that’s indifferent to the torment of millions of children and adults. He can’t accept the idea of a Plan that would give her suffering meaning; therefore he’ll make her suffering meaningless. Because there can be no good Purpose to her suffering, there can be no purpose at all, save a jury-rigged, ephemeral, individually-constructed “purpose” whose reality is dishonest as the grand Purpose he denies so forcefully.

I don’t say the Catholic Church knows all the details of this Grand Plan or Purpose. In depth and breadth, it’s as humanly incomprehensible as His power, knowledge and goodness. If you accept these attributes as objective facts, then you must rethink your perception of suffering.

It’s not that suffering isn’t bad. Rather, there are worse things … such as doing evil to avoid suffering.