The Raving Theist

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Good God (Updated)

November 12, 2005 | 15 Comments

As I noted here, most theologians exclude from the notion of God’s omnipotence the ability to do logically impossible or inconceivable things such as making a square circle, making 1 + 1 = 7, making something exist and not exist simultaneously, or making a rock so big He couldn’t lift it, and then lifting it. He’s still all-powerful, they say, and it’s no reflection on divine competence that He can’t do things that don’t even make any sense. You might criticize a weightlifter for his inability to lift a twenty pound barbell, but you can’t complain that he’s “weak” merely because he won’t comply with an inarticulate demand to pick it up without picking it up.

In Thursday’s post I rejected the standard theistic response to the Euthyphro dilemma — the objection that God wouldn’t command murder or other crimes because they are bad. A reader, in turn, faulted my analysis on the ground (as I understand it) that insisting that God have the power to make bad things good would involve the same sort of contradiction as insisting that He lift an unliftable rock. In other words, you can’t blame God for hating murder because it’s very bad and He’s all good; and to fault Him for the inability to make murder or any other bad thing good would lead to a contradiction.

My point, however, was merely that God (even if He does exist) isn’t essential to morality precisely because it’s out of His control, dependent on a standard outside of His whims. The same point is frequently made with respect to the relationship between morality and law. An act isn’t moral merely because it has been decreed legal. No matter how much we respect our lawmakers, we don’t judge their laws to be good simply because have been duly passed. We look to a standard outside the mere fact of legislative enactment. Nobody argues that morality would be impossible if senators and representatives didn’t exist to tell us what to do. They’re no more essential to goodness than God is.

Note that this argument is merely a challenge to God’s necessity or relevance, not a direct refutation of His existence. A related but flawed attack is sometimes posed to God’s existence by atheists who point to His “inability” to do bad things. That criticism is analogous to the one which insists that He lift the unliftable rock. Being all good, a contradiction would arise in imputing to Him the power to do even one bad thing.

Analogous, but not identical. We can at least conceive of God behaving badly. It’s not logically impossible in the absolute way that making square circles or liftably unliftable rocks is. So it’s not really “inability” but restraint; he could squash that old lady with His fist but holds back because He’s not just powerful but also good.

The real challenge to God in the moral sphere is not so much a logical one as an empirical one. It appears that no restraint at all has been exercised in the unleashing of pain and death upon the world, or conversely, that too much restraint has been exercised in preventing it. The arguments about what He could do but wouldn’t do are rendered academic by what so plainly has been done. It simply isn’t All Good.

All that remains is sophistry about evil as necessary to the creation of greater goods. “We could never be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world,”* said Heller Keller, underestimating, I think, the benefits of “only joy.” Presumably that’s the situation in Heaven — none of the fear necessary to bravery nor the boredom necessary to patience — and to argue that such a state of affairs is impossible here precludes one from arguing that it’s possible in the hereafter.

*Coincidentally (I hope) the solution to yesterday’s Cryptoquote in Newsday.

Update: As a commentor notes, C.K. Chesterton once raised the problem of pleasure. From what I gather, he was arguing that if believers are obligated to explain the existence of evil or pain in the world, atheists are bound to account for the existence of pleasure. I hadn’t heard of this argument before, but my initial thoughts are these:

(1) The existence of pleasure would be a “problem” for atheists in the same way that evil is for believers if atheists were postulating that the universe was run by a being that was all-bad. The argument in that case would be that the existence of any pleasure would negate the existence of such a creature. So the problem of pleasure is more of an argument against Satan than an argument in favor of God.

(2) Atheists who raise the problem of evil aren’t asking believers to explain the origin of evil. They’re asking believers to explain how the existence of any evil is consistent with an all-good, all-powerful being. So the proper question for theists to pose with respect to pleasure is whether it is consistent with a godless universe. It certainly is; no logical contradiction arises from the propositions that (a) humans experience pleasure and (b) god does not exist.

(3) To ask an atheist where pleasure comes from is no different than asking where anything comes from. It’s just a variant of “how did we get here?” or “why is there something rather than nothing?” But assuming that the answer must be “god” in the absence of a conclusive explanation simply begs the question. You may have no explanation of how your car keys disappeared or who put the extra cherry on your ice cream sundae, but there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that god was responsible.

(4) To the extent the argument is that no real pleasure is imaginable in the absence of pain, I simply don’t understand it. That sounds more like sadomasochism than theology. It seems that under that theory, people would have the right, if not the obligation, to cause pain in order to maximize pleasure. But I manage to find ways of making people happy without whipping and tormenting and badgering them until they feel a heightened sense of relief. Just look at my blog!


15 Responses to “Good God (Updated)”

  1. Mookie
    November 12th, 2005 @ 10:32 pm

    Thank you, RA, for a wonderful post.

  2. Dawn Eden
    November 12th, 2005 @ 10:39 pm

    G.K. Chesterton noted the flip side of the “problem of evil” argument–the problem of pleasure. If you take away all the possibilities of any evil ever happening to anyone in this life, it’s impossible to imagine any real pleasure as well. I don’t believe, however, that a state of only joy is impossible in the hereafter, because to postulate a hereafter is to postulate that, in some way, “we shall be changed.”

  3. Mookie
    November 12th, 2005 @ 10:57 pm

    Western dualism and its silliness.

  4. sternwallow
    November 13th, 2005 @ 12:30 am

    “…insisting that God have the power to make bad things good would involve the same sort of contradiction as insisting that He lift an unliftable rock.”
    Murder can easily become good if it is in the personal interest of someone high up in the hierarchy. Note how we get “Good Friday” from a horrific, vicious murder.

  5. bUCKET__
    November 13th, 2005 @ 1:12 am

    You forgot to mention that a good God and any form of damnation in the afterlife are mutually exclusive.

  6. sternwallow
    November 13th, 2005 @ 8:31 am

    When I lay in that cozy comfortable state near dreaming in the morning I am content, but not happy nor unhappy. When I awaken, I am mildly happy to greet the new day. When I find my wife in the kitchen has already made coffee for me, I am quite happy. When I discover that it is Saturday, I am very happy. I don’t need no stinking evil, thank you very much.

  7. Dada Saves
    November 13th, 2005 @ 9:44 am

    I sense that TRA is backing off his insistence that ‘all-powerful’ must include logically impossible feats. That’s a good thing, because it always struck me as a rather absurd argument. So, will the Basic Assumptions be tweaked?

  8. The Raving Atheist
    November 13th, 2005 @ 10:24 am

    Dada: There are quite a few orthodox believers who do insist that omnipotence must include the power to do logically impossible feats (see here). I agree that it’s a ridiculous definition, but it’s an attribute of their God. And the fact that they’ve included a contradictory, self-defeating definition as an essential part of their God is one reason their God can be easily disproven, even if others don’t adopt that definition. That’s why I include it in the Basic Assumptions. It’s just directed at those who insist that the ability to do “anything” really means “anything.”

    Let’s say someone posits the existence of a unicorn which has a head that is an “irregular” shape. He then tells me that by “irregular” he means that the head is both round and square. If I started a blog devoted to denying the existence of that animal, one of my Basic Assumptions would be that the animal cannot exist because the definition of “irregular” is self-defeating and contradictory (even if that contradiction wasn’t part of every unicorn-believers definition)..

  9. The Raving Atheist
    November 13th, 2005 @ 10:37 am

    Dada: Many orthodox believers insist that the definition of “omnipotence” includes the ability to do logically impossible feats (see here). I agree that it’s a ridiculous definition, but they’ve made it an essential attribute of their deity. So even though the defects of that definition are not shared by the God of more moderate believers, it is an objection to the God of those who claim that His ability to do “anything” really, really means “anything”, regardless of logic. That’s why I’ve left it in my Basic Assumptions.

    Suppose someone posits the existence of a unicorn that has an head which has an “irregular” shape. Further suppose that he tells you that by “irregular,” he means that the head is both round and square. One objection to that unicorn (although perhaps not to unicorns as they are defined by others) is that the term “irregular” is self-defeating and contradictory.

  10. Francois Tremblay
    November 13th, 2005 @ 12:47 pm

    Also see my own entry on Euthyphro’s Dilemma at :

  11. DamnRight
    November 14th, 2005 @ 8:47 am

    I don’t understand… I thought Christians claim often claim God does the impossible… certainly at least the illogical… whenever a Christian is faced with a logical argument they cannot escape, they claim God is not constrained by logic (“His thoughts are not our thoughts”, “His ways are not our ways”, “God works in mysterious ways”, etc.)… so, why not a square circle?…

  12. MBains
    November 15th, 2005 @ 9:23 am

    Interesting and calculated (?) double comment (8 & 9) RA. I like 8 better.

    You may have no explanation of how your car keys disappeared or who put the extra cherry on your ice cream sundae, but there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that god was responsible.

    That was just Nice.

    Happy Holidays (at least the commercials have already started.)

  13. snak attack
    November 17th, 2005 @ 1:42 pm

    I have a question about the Euthyphro Dilemma, as explained on Specifically about assertion #5:

    (5) If (ii) morally good acts are morally good because they are willed by God, then there is no reason either to care about God’s moral goodness or to worship him.

    This doesn’t seem at all self-evident to me. If God will eventually judge each person according to the rules God establishes, then I’d say it matters a lot. As an analogy (which would probably fall down if I knew enough about modern Physics) – there is no external ‘reason’ (as in motive) gravity has the effect of pulling bodies of mass together – but that doesn’t make gravity something not worth caring about.

  14. DamnRight
    November 18th, 2005 @ 10:41 am

    This would be similar to adhering to a set of rules imposed by our boss because he signs the paycheck… it is simply in our best interests to obey…

    … but, should he ask us to do something unethical (by our own standards or that of society), we would/should refuse…

    … however, God’s rules demand we obey regardless of our own ethics or we will toast in Hell… that’s a bit bigger incentive…

    … unless you don’t believe in God or Hell… then we are free to act as reasonable humans beings with the a set of ethics based on compassion and realism…

  15. snak attack
    November 18th, 2005 @ 3:29 pm

    I still don’t get it. I really doubt I’m smart enough to figure out a millenia old question, but what’s the problem with saying that morality was established by God’s choice? What are the consequences of this position? That morality is arbitrary? Maybe, but as I stated before, it isn’t for us if we’re in a sort of “God’s house/God’s rules” kind of situation.

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