“An omnipotent God could have created free beings who always choose what is right!” Discuss [40]

With this point atheist philosopher JL Mackie rejected the classical Free Will Defense theodicy, relied on by generations of Christians to defend God against charges of creating and/or allowing evil and suffering.  Going further, in his article “Evil and Omnipotence” (1955) Mackie argued that the absolute logical contradiction between believing that God is omnipotent and acknowledging the reality of evil in the world He created demonstrates that God cannot exist.  Considering a range of classical theodicies, Mackie notes how each limits the meaning of an essential divine attribute to the extent that faith becomes difficult.  For example, he argued that saying that evil is a necessary corollary of good limits what God’s “omnipotence” means to the extent that God is limited by the laws of logic and seems compelled to create anyway, despite the fact that what he creates will result in horrendous suffering.  It is difficult to reconcile this with faith based on God being the Father “almighty” and also benevolent, caring about human beings and seeking to minimize suffering.   Mackie’s article is persuasive.  His argument that an omnipotent God cannot be understood to be limited by the laws of logic while remaining true to what it is that theists believe in is difficult to deny.  Yet it is still possible to believe in the existence of an omnipotent, all-good God, in a way that is rational, despite the evil in the world. It is not necessarily correct to claim that God, though omnipotent, cannot do what is logically impossible and create free beings who always choose to do what is right .

Omnipotence means having the power to do anything. This seems straightforward, but it is important to appreciate that there are different ways of understanding what this entails precisely. Rene Descartes  is usually held up as the example of a Philosopher who claimed that God’s omnipotence involves His power to do what is impossible – create a square circle or a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift to use Avicenna’s famous example. He did write “God could have brought it about … that it was not true that twice four make eight”, but putting this claim in context reveals that Descartes’ position on Omnipotence was more sophisticated. For Descartes, ultimate reality is metaphysical, in the world of ideas.   He famously wrote “I think, therefore I am”, pointing out that there is no way to know that the world I experience through my senses is how it seems. The senses frequently lie and I could be dreaming after all. The only thing, Descartes claimed, that I can know with any certainty is that I am thinking and therefore that I must exist. From that tiny basis of certainty, Descartes extrapolated to the limits of possible knowledge using reason and mathematics. Clear and distinct ideas exist, confused and contradictory ideas do not. God necessarily exists because existence is a perfection and is an undeniable property of the supremely perfect being . Because God IS existence for Descartes, He doesn’t do the impossible as much as determine what is and what is not possible. Of course this means that God might make things possible that seem to us to be impossible, but not within this world. God exists through eternity while human understanding is bounded by a particular place and time and is limited. From our perspective now it seems that 4×2=8 is a clear and distinct idea, containing no contradiction, but for all we know God might have made 4×2=9 instead or in some other reality. Either way, this understanding of God’s omnipotence does not have to support Mackie’s conclusion that God cannot be all good. Human freedom and always choosing what is good are indeed contradictory, yet there is nothing contradictory about God being all-good in the sense of being supremely perfect as Descartes understood it and God’s including both freedom and the ability do evil in His plan. To reject the idea that a good God could wish human beings to be capable of evil and causing suffering is to interpret God’s goodness as moral goodness. This makes no sense if God is supremely perfect, because God causes moral laws to exist and cannot be bound by them. Of course, this raises its own questions about whether a God whose goodness is not moral and includes wishing human beings to be able to choose what is evil and cause suffering is worthy of worship, but it does not support Mackie’s conclusion that God cannot rationally be held to exist .

Secondarily, in his Summa Theologica (1264) St Thomas Aquinas took a different approach to establishing God’s necessary existence and supreme perfection. Aquinas reasoned inductively from observations of movement, causation, contingency, grades of perfection and teleology in the universe to the necessary existence of a being “which everybody calls God“.  Aquinas went on to reason that God must be the Prime Mover, absolutely uncaused and unchanged in Himself, outside even the framework of time and space, timelessly eternal.  In this way aquinas’ God – as the cause of everything – is omnipotent.  God is the originator of all movement and causation in the universe and what makes the existence of an infinite universe built entirely of contingencies possible. Further, Aquinas’ wholly simple God is pure act, 100% whatever it is to be God.  Outside of time (and space) God can have no potential and cannot fall short (be evil in the Aristotelian sense) in any way, so He is also all-good.  For Aquinas, God necessarily exists.  As the originating cause of everything, God’s omnipotence also contains His perfect goodness, since God caused the time and space required for evil and is not contained within it.  God’s attributes are in fact simple, single, indivisible. It is only because human language and comprehension is limited that we have to describe and try to understand God’s nature through multiple analogies. Mackie contends that God cannot be considered truly omnipotent if he cannot break the laws of logic in this world, but this seems to ignore Aquinas’ argument that God’s creative act was timeless and simple.  For Aquinas, God’s omnipotence extends only to what is actually possible.  God can do whatever is compatible with His nature and internally consistent within His single, simple creative act.  God cannot create a contradiction or create and not create simultaneously, because – as Richard Swinburne pointed out in “The Coherence of Theism” – that is not really possible and God’s omnipotence only means that he can do anything that is possible .

Certainly, Aquinas’ wholly simple God cannot sin.  Being 100% actual and timeless, God is whatever God is and necessarily cannot fall short of His nature or be considered evil.  Further, since God creates timelessly, his creation must fulfil his purpose for it and be timelessly complete, 100% whatever God intended it to be from His point of view and so good.  Yet despite not being able to sin, not being in any way evil and producing a completely good world in relation to his intentions for it, Aquinas’ understanding of God’s goodness does not necessarily conflict with His wanting freedom to involve the ability to choose what is evil, with all the consequences that flow from that. By Aquinas’ model, time and space are functions of our perception and are not objectively real properties of the universe.   From my point of view time has passed since I started to write this essay and it now takes up more space than it did, but my perception of reality is just a partial, subjective view of the case.  From God’s perspective all time and all space are as-one, fulfilled as the universe is fulfilled and complete.  As Boethius put it in the “Consolations of Philosophy” (Book V) God sees everything “all at once as present”. To use a modern analogy, it is as if God is writing the source-code for a computer program.  Being a perfect programmer, the code is simple and elegant – he can see it all at once.  He has total power over the program and total knowledge of its capabilities.  The program does 100% of what it was designed for.  This is not the same as God sitting on the shoulder of people using the program in different places and over time, watching them use it in different ways more or less well. This means that (as John Macquarrie pointed out in “The Principles of Christian Theology”) God’s power is very different from our power, God’s goodness is very different from our goodness.  God’s omnipotence does NOT include his ability to do the logically impossible, create a square circle, or a free being who can only choose what is right, but this does not mean that he is constrained by laws of logic that exist prior to or above God.  God’s actions are only limited within this world and in relation to other aspects of the same single, timeless act of creation.  God can do anything that is compatible with His perfect nature and internally coherent within a simple, single act of creation. He can do anything that is absolutely, actually possible and that does not include creating free beings who only choose what is right .

Of course, for all we know, God might have created a different world in which square circles and free beings who always choose what is right are possible, but we know from the existence of this world that he created this world. This world must, therefore, fulfil God’s intention for it and at least be of the Best Possible World type (to use Swinburne’s phrase) with respect to that intention. Remember, it is not a case of God creating things – or laws of logic – individually over time.  Creation must be simple, single and complete from God’s timeless perspective.  Mackie asks: Surely it would have been better to create a world with laws of logic which allow for both freedom and 100% good choices?  Yet what makes him hang on to the idea that God’s goodness precludes the possibility of evil being part of His design.  As for Descartes, for Aquinas, God’s goodness refers only to his pure timeless actuality and should not be understood to imply a moral dimension. It is perfectly rational to conclude that a timelessly omnipotent, timelessly good God exists, even if we object to evil and to the suffering it causes us.  Mackie’s argument fails to demonstrate that belief in an omnipotent, all-good God is irrational in the light of evil in the world, although it does highlight the limited content attributes like “omnipotent” and “all-good” can have in relation to a timeless, wholly simple being .

To be fair, Mackie makes just this point.  “Evil and Omnipotence” concludes… “there is no valid solution of the problem [of evil] which does not modify at least one of the constituent propositions [i.e. God’s attributes] in a way which would seriously affect the essential core of the theistic positionMackie is right to point out that Aquinas’ wholly simple God may be rationally satisfying, but it falls far short of the God most people worship.  The Bible records God acting directly in history and the lives of individuals; people claim to have experienced visions, voices and miracles directly from God.  When believers pray they hope that God can and will respond and when people are in trouble believers hope that God understands their plight and can act to help them.  Certainly, Aquinas tries to explain how these beliefs can still have content in relation to a wholly simple God, but his explanations are less than convincing.

  • Firstly, the idea that God’s actions are part of general, not special providence – that God always planned to bring the Israelites through the Red Sea, that God always planned that the Babylonians would take the people into captivity, that God always planned that Jesus should die on the cross – raises enormous questions about human freedom and resultantly, about God’s goodness.  If Adam and Eve being banished from the garden was factored into the single, simple act of creation, to what extent can they – and all human beings – rightly be held responsible for their original sin, be in need of Salvation or have the power to accept it?
  • Secondly, if creation is complete from God’s perspective, the end has already happened and it is difficult to see how anybody has any meaningful choice at all.  Small actions have big consequences, so every tiny decision we make might seem to have the potential to change the outcomes of creation… it follows, therefore, that human freedom must be, or be very close to, an illusion for Aquinas.  In this case, how can people be held morally responsible in this world?  How can an all-good God justly reward or punish people on the basis of choices that He Himself determined?  It is difficult to conceive of satisfactory answers to these questions.
  • Thirdly, Aquinas’ wholly simple God – although omnipotent – cannot be understood to act directly in response to events within the world, or even to have reflective knowledge of how his creation is perceived from within through the spatio-temporal framework.  This is not a God who can respond to prayers, as most theists hope that He can.  The idea that some of God’s actions are actually effected by intermediaries such as angels or saints is more convincing, but it is still hard for believers to pray to, worship or even respect an omnipotent God knowing that he cannot understand their plight or respond Himself.

 

Aquinas’ God is necessarily distant; His timeless omnipotence and His perfect goodness actually stands in the way of God being the God most Christians worship.  It follows that Aquinas’ wholly simple model of God does not definitively resolve the paradox of omnipotence highlighted by Mackie or defend faith against the possibility of having to accept that God caused or allowed evil and suffering, unless the Doctrine of the Trinity works as a means of explaining how God can be BOTH wholly simple and timeless AND active in the world and the lives of individuals, something it can never do on a purely rational basis .

Mackie’s argument boils down to the claim that if God is omnipotent, He must be responsible for evil and cannot therefore be all-good.  Either an omnipotent God knew about the horrendous consequences of creating free beings who can choose evil and chose to create anyway or God did not know, had to create or was otherwise constrained by the laws of logic and was not omnipotent.  Mackie presents omnipotence as a paradox; neither definition supports theism because few people would worship a God who is limited in power and fewer would worship a God who is malevolent.  Yet the possibility of God choosing to limit His knowledge of outcomes in order to make human freedom genuine remains open.  In “The Puzzle of God” (1993) Peter Vardy argued that God could have acted like King Cophetua, who hid his true identity so that the beggar-maid had the opportunity of coming to love him for himself rather than for his power. Vardy’s analogy was originally intended to make a point about how God could have self-limited with respect to his omnipotence, making the incarnation possible, and yet it might be re-purposed to explain Maquarrie’s broader argument that God could have self-limited with respect to his omniscience in order that human free will could be meaningful and support a genuine opportunity for people to choose what is right and earn salvation for themselves.  Recognising the inadequacy of Boethius’ understanding of God’s knowledge being only contingently necessary, this argument assumes that for freedom to be real, God could not know what it would lead to as then God’s knowledge of the end point would in a sense make that end point inevitable however free people may feel in the moment.  God might choose, therefore, to self-limit because human freedom was an essential part of the Best Possible World, as proponents of the Free Will Defence theodicy such as St Augustine and Alvin Plantinga have suggested. Nevertheless, this response to Mackie is not entirely convincing.  If God chooses to self-limit and as a result has no knowledge of the consequences of human free-will, he must have chosen to distance himself from His creation to a very great extent.  Is it worth worshipping a God who has no idea what is happening in history or in the lives of individuals?  Would such a self-limited God be able to work miracles or respond to prayer, when knowledge of the circumstances must involve His knowledge of at least some consequences of free will?  One possible way round this would be to suppose that God delegates the power to respond to crises to angels, saints or other intermediary beings.  Yet there is still a question over whether theism is supported by distant God who can only respond indirectly through general providence.  Take the analogy of Microsoft.  It designs Windows with regular updates, a troubleshooting module and has a FAQ page on its website, but if there was no helpline number to call when these proved inadequate, and no ability for the company to recognize and resolve improbable issues as they arise, few people would rate customer service highly, let alone regard the company as perfect !

In conclusion, JL Mackie raises important questions about the coherence of the Christian concept of God. He points out that there is no way that an omnipotent, all-good deity – as understood by most believers – can be excused from charges of creating or allowing evil and suffering by appealing to human free-will. Nevertheless, Mackie does not succeed in his aim of showing that it is impossible to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent, all-good deity with the reality of evil and suffering in this world and that atheism is the only rational conclusion. Mackie’s argument only highlights the superficiality of most believers’ understanding of what omnipotence and goodness could mean when applied to God. He is right that there is no way to sustain what he defines as “the essential core of the theistic position”, yet he does not establish that it is absolutely impossible either to base theism on a different core or to sustain deism. In the end, it is not true to say that “An omnipotent God could have created free beings who always choose what is right!” It would be more accurate to say that “For all we know, an omnipotent God could have created another, different world in which free beings always choose what is right”. Yet the fact remains that this-world, with all its limitations, exists and that if God exists, He must have created it. Further, it is unreasonable to speculate about what that world would be like or make facile judgements about which world-type would be “better”. The laws of logic by which we make these judgements depend on the world we live in and presumably don’t apply to other worlds or comparisons between worlds in the way that they don’t apply to a timeless God. Mackie’s conclusion, that atheism is reasonable position, is persuasive, but in the end it is not unreasonable to disagree .

 

 

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