Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Unbounded God?

Since I declined to accept the truth of Richard’s tenets, I will explain my challenge to each in turn, and then describe my alternate explanation for the persistence of belief in God, religion, and worship.

Richard first asks if an all-knowing, all-loving, omnipresent God exists. I argue no on all three grounds: First, an all-knowing God would know the future, and knowing the future makes God inconsequential. Second, an all-loving God would have no reason to allow random suffering, or to choose a particular people—He would protect and share his love and word with all His children. Finally, an omnipresent God cannot be extra-systemic—and could therefore not have made the universe.

If God knows everything, then He knows the future. But this robs Him—and humans as well—of free will and agency. Nothing even God does can possibly change the future if even one entity already knows what it will be. If God knows everything, He knows the future, and this means the future is fixed—or there would be nothing to know. This of course also means that humans have no agency, and I have no control over whether I go to heaven or hell, because it has in a sense already happened. If God exists and knows everything, then He doesn’t matter.

Perhaps God knows the future but can change it. This of course means that it is not fixed, and God cannot really know the future. He is not all-knowing. This is not the God I believe Richard refers to in his question, but it would at least explain God’s desire to place dreams and visions in people’s heads that they will interpret as a prophecy. It makes a difference if God speaks to people and offers them His word. God knows what will happen if He does not intervene, or He knows how His actions will change the future, and he sends the desired message. This also helps explain things like prayer—perhaps God first checks to make sure that a particular blessing or healing or other miracle will bring the future God desires. This God matters—but He is not omniscient.

An all-loving and universally benevolent God could not create the world we live in. He could, to be sure, place temptation in front of us, and give us the free will to leave his love unrequited. He could visit suffering upon us, to guide our interpretation of his word and meaning in our lives. But He would have no reason to create an environment where natural disasters visit random suffering with no agency and no lesson. This would not be a loving act, as it has no purpose.

Perhaps God uses natural disasters in his interaction with us. This gives them purpose, and means that God has not brought suffering at random. This gives meaning to pain, at least. But why use physical pain and emotional suffering to make his point? He could just as easily create a universe where the only suffering came of separation from God. For His own reasons, he structured the world as he did, with meaningless hate, killing, disaster, and suffering. When He had the power to avoid it, He placed us in a universe that harms us. This means that his plans, his goals, his ambition for the universe are more important than his love for us. He is not all-loving.

Moreover, God withholds his love from some of His people. Many never have a chance to know Him. Billions of human souls have known life without knowing God. Indeed, it seems that God makes humans partially responsible for spreading His word—which means that he has decided that some of us get to know Him before others. He shows His love to all—eventually. He is loving, but not all-loving.

Finally, an omnipresent God must be part of the systemic arrangement that governs the universe. If God is part of the universe—part of the systemic arrangement that governs the interaction of matter and energy—then He could not have created it—God could not have created Himself. Further, if He is part of the systemic arrangement—the physical rules that govern the interaction of matter and energy—then He cannot break or change these rules. Once set, they constrain God as they constrain the rest of nature.

But if God exists somehow outside the universe—if He is extra-systemic—then He is not omnipresent. For God to be everywhere, He must inhabit our universe with us.

All of this suggests bounds to God’s knowledge, love, and presence. If something limits these characteristics of God, then Richard’s first tenet fails. God cannot know everything, or He becomes unnecessary. He must not love all, or He would behave differently. And He cannot be everywhere, or He would have had to create Himself.


  1. I do not have any idea what it feels like to soar through the sky like a bird, but bird's know. I do not know how it feels to live at the bottom of the ocean but sea creatures do. I don't know how it feels to live without God in my heart but others do. I Do know how it feels to have the love of an all knowing, all seeing God who loves me enough to let me find my own way, make my own journey, and choose Him or not. Because I have experienced miracles that cannot be explained by science and because I have felt the power of His Holy Spirit, I cannot be swayed from my belief. Those who have never experienced this can never understand.

  2. C.S. Lewis and other great Christian apologists have answered most of Stan's theories many, many years ago. I think such Lewis books as The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed, Miracles, and God in the Dock are the Lewis books most applicable to what Stan argues. Anyone interested in understanding the other side of Stan's aruments need only go to these works for compelling answers. However, you won't get through them in 30 minutes. Be prepared to spend about six months in the process.

    I was under the impression this blog was to discuss Christianity and the claims of Christianity. The foundational claim is that Jesus Christ lived, died and was raised from the dead. That is the main issue. Stan, if you can destroy those claims, you may be right.

    Frankly, I'm not interested in debating all these old anti-God arguments that have already been disposed of by better men than me, long ago. I'm sure I'll be accused of evading the issues raised by Stan, but that's the way I feel about it.

  3. There's a lot of meat here but let me respond to one idea.

    The classic Christian argument is that God created us with the freedom to decide for ourselves and suffering, etc. are a result of our bad choices. This is the most respectful way to create us it seems to me.

    My children have this freedom, at least observation leads me to think this is likely true. I prefer that they have free will to being an automaton, yet their free will causes grief both for themselves and others. I can know most of their behavior, even in the future, because I know them and because I have learned from my experiences and others.

    Might God know the future without precluding our free will? If so, wasn't this the better way to create us?

    Isn't love more valuable when given freely and yet this freedom leads to country music, which may be the most compelling evidence that there is or is not a God.

    I wrestled greatly with capitalizing "country music" but decided against it. That's what I get for blogging with the son of an English professor.

  4. To me the issue of an omnipresent, omnisicient God is no big deal to swallow. If God was not so equipped he wouldn't be much of a God, would He? I think of it as the fact that God is not time bound. He just exists in an infinite NOW. He owns eternity and occupies it all. Time as we know it is just a sliver of eternity and he just sees it all at once.

    The CS Lewis book, The Problem of Pain deals with all of these free-will issues in great detail. I suggest you get it.

  5. Lewis is a good read from any perspective.

  6. Richard asked for our views on the central tenets of Christianity, which he listed. Since I haven't the training or desire to question his list, but want to participate in this discussion, I decided to take his list in order. The resurrection is not at the top of that list, so I did not address the question first.

    But I will, and when I do I will make the point that God can exist without a resurrection. That is, if it really happened, it certainly provides evidence for God's existence--but it is not a necessary condition. So even if I can convince you that the resurrection never happened, this should not shake your belief that God exists. So for me, the resurrection is not such a key point.

    One of my fears coming into this exercise was that I might make tired old arguments that you folks have all seen before--because I have not seen them. It appears to have been a valid fear. Of course, "heard that one before" is an interesting debating tactic.

    That said, I shall endeavor to continue, except that I shall skip over the nature of Jesus (which I have been struggling with anyway) and the possible inerrancy of the Bible (which I would see as a key point, since so much of the pro-God argument uses the Bible as evidence), and move on the resurrection for my next post, if this is what you want to discuss first.

    In the meantime, let me say that I understand that humans could have free will even if God knows the future (though it would seem pointless, if the future is fixed). My central point there is that God Himself cannot have free will if the future is fixed--because a fixed timeline means He has no influence on the course of human history. He simply observes, and steps in when the fixed timeline says He does. Can someone address this claim? I am genuinely curious, and don't have time to spend six months reading C. S. Lewis.

    (PS: this would be an appropriate context to capitalize "country music.")

  7. Let's reason together ... Imagine that you are coaching my baseball team. We're in a tight game and I'm on my first with two outs and a singles hitter up.

    I want to steal second -- it feels like the reasonable choice based on the evidence that I see and I am predisposed to run, as I mentioned previously.

    However, you know that our next hitter frequently draws walks and you're the boss. Your signal to me is to wait and see if the hitter gets ahead in the count.

    I'm on first and I can choose freely though we both know that I will follow your lead, because we understand one another through shared experience and because you're the boss.

    Do you have free will as coach and did I have free will as player? You knew that I was likely to make a particular choice and yet I could choose otherwise.

    Might God know our choices without infringing on our personal volition and yet still guide us? Might God find us perfectly predictable without affecting our ability to choose and, if he knows us perfectly, still be all-knowing?

    I'll agree with an earlier post and also ask if God's sense of time might not be as linear as we're thinking here, i.e., that he's not looking into the future but all time is at once? Might God be to time as a sonic boom is to sound, might time be infinitely compressed?

    On another note, I'll disagree with Jim here on C.S. Lewis. He has a number of books, but they're mostly quite short (100pp?) and easily read on a bathroom-style schedule.

    Lewis, a fellow Oxford prof and friend of Tolkien, makes these discussions much more readable than we have so far.

  8. Your postulated coach already knows whether you will steal second or obey his signals. I agree with you that this does not affect your free will from your perspective--as far as you know the future is not fixed and you can make the decision to run.

    But the coach just knows, whether he experiences time linearly or not, that you will in fact run--you will disobey. Further, he already knows that you will do it again in the future, and exactly when you will do it.

    So the coach loses free will and agency, because nothing he can do--even sending his son to die and rise from the dead--will change your future course of action. The coach no longer matters.

    This is, of course, no more than a logical argument that God cannot be truly omniscient. This does not mean He does not exist--only that this particular Christian descriptor about God cannot be right. He could certainly be omniscient in every sense except knowing the future.

    But if the hand of time has already written, then the meaning of our own lives, as well as the existence of God, becomes much less clear. And the idea of a fixed future is a necessary condition for the claim of a completely omniscient God.

  9. I hear what you're saying but you still feel like you are locked on the linear view, which may be a different discussion, so I'll leave it out for now.

    Is the problem you're describing not the result of the inability of our "philosophical" ideas to truly integrate into reality? For example, philosophically I can assert that no truth can be known but actually I assert a truth when I make the assertion.

    I may agree with you on the Christian descriptor of omniscience but we may diverge in that I think there may be a better discriptor, one which combines the all-everything or prime mover nature of God, the universe or something else. Now I'm showing my human inability to even choose an agreeable label and yet we all know what I mean with reasonable certainty, not that there is a God, but what we mean by the concept of God.

    In reality, the coach may know what I'm going to do but that is, in fact, the reason he guides me with a signal. His signal changes both his path and mine though I can refuse to heed it. Knowing what I will do does not rob him of free will, he freely chooses to signal me. Nor does it rob the coach of having a fun and/or meaningful time. It's more satisfying to be so tightly intertwined with the player that there is real understanding. As you correctly assert, the more tightly interwined this understanding the more the player appears to be a robot but he's not, the choreography results from the yin yang of the relationship.

    I don't want to beat the metaphor to death because that will again show the limited nature of how we use language. However, I wonder if truth might be veiled by our learned, systemic way of approaching a subject that might lead to conflict.

    When you say that this is something you really wonder about or when I say I deplore philosophy as a benign discipline and implore everyone to avoid jargon, I suspect that is where real understanding lies but the philosophical dance can lead us there if we're being "actually" honest as opposed to just "philosophically" honest, as you have been.

    You said that and I truly heard you, because I identify with that feeling of knowing the key crossroads in my own system. You communicated an idea fully to me.

  10. The point about omniscience is that no entity can have perfect knowledge of everything. Linearity makes no difference, because perfect knowledge would include all dimensions. It is a question of whether the course of events is fixed--if it is not, then knowledge of the future is impossible, and so is omniscience. If it is, then knowledge of events makes no difference, and any entity--e.g., God--that knows the future is robbed of agency, at least in any sense that matters.

    Let me say that this is not an argument against the existence of God--only against the existence of a particular type of God.

    I think the answer to your concern about bringing philosophy and reality together depends on how we define "truth." Here you seem to use two different definitions: first, some form of correct or true, in the sense that your assertion that no "truth" can be known is either correct or incorrect. But the "truth" you make the assertion about is philosophical "truth" that depends on perspective or worldview, and is correct or incorrect only in context.

  11. I mean absolute truth, at least in this context.

    I'll leave the future/linear issue with this: For me, I am satisfied that God (or equivalent) can know the future and have agency, it makes sense to me. I might campaign for Ralph Nader for President, knowing the result, but I still have that freedom and might truly be enriched in the process.

    How much more would this superior God we posit then be able to do the same?

    I do not argue against philosophy, only against the view that it must be purely academic. In my experience it most often leads to an infinite circle of defining terms and/or quoting others.

    When my daughter was born and I held her for the first time and she looked at me, that was a Truth. I cannot completely define it, but where is philosophy in that except to argue that it takes a village to raise a child?

    I assume we all have a small (my presumption) number of these watershed moments and that the grand total of all of these, if perfectly shared, would be the highest form of Truth. If God exists, he must be IN us as the Hindus might successfully argue or a likeness must be in us.