Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Supergod delusion

All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme.
-- Mark 3:28
As strong as can be, and as smart as can be, and . . .

By "Supergod," I mean the fanciful being for whom the more familiar philosophy-class shorthand is "Omni-God" -- this latter prefix referring to the various polysyllabic epithets with which this imaginary deity has been decorated: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and all the rest. Supergod is the subject of what has come to be called "classical theism" (i.e., Christianized Hellenistic philosophy), and he can be defined by the following characteristics:
  1. He knows everything.
  2. He is able to do anything that is logically possible.
  3. He and his motives are entirely good.
  4. Absolutely everything that exists, except Supergod himself, was created by Supergod out of nothing at all.
There is no Supergod. In fact, there is very obviously no Supergod. So obvious is this fact that about the most charitable thing we can say about those who profess to believe in him is that they haven't really thought things through. Disproving his existence is like shooting fish in a barrel, and of course it has already been done to death by atheists. Despite this, and because arguments against Supergod are so often understood to be arguments for atheism, I think it is important for a Christian to come out against the idea of Supergod and to make it clear that theism, and indeed Christianity, is perfectly possible without believing in the God of the Greeks.


Supergod and the Bad

The idea of Supergod can be succinctly refuted by what is traditionally called the "Problem of Evil" -- or, since evil has a rather narrower meaning now than it did when that term was coined, the Problem of Bad. Briefly:
  1. If everything had been created from nothing by Supergod, then everything would be good.
  2. But some things are bad.
  3. Therefore, everything was not created from nothing by Supergod.
It really is that simple. No honest person could fail to see it, nor could any honest person fail to see that every proposed solution is pure, unadulterated sophistry. Briefly, here are some of the ways people have attempted to justify Supergod's ways to man (in italics), with my response to each (in roman type).

1. Evil has no positive existence but is simply the absence of good.

First of all, this is very obviously false. If lying is the absence of truth-telling, then rocks are liars. If adultery is the absence of marital fidelity, then monks are adulterers. If murder is the absence of not-murdering-people, then -- okay, this is just getting stupid. Second, even if we grant the premise, the Problem of Bad (or, if you must, the Problem of the Absence of Good) remains. Whether we say Supergod created bad or merely failed to create sufficient good, the end result is the same: Some things are bad, and Supergod is responsible.

2. Suffering is an illusion.

No, it isn't.

3. Even God can only do things that are logically possible. Perhaps it is logically impossible for the universe to be less bad than it in fact is.

Do you believe in Heaven?

Sorry, that's fighting sophistry with sophistry, since belief in Heaven is logically independent of the Supergod premise. To play by the rules, then: Smallpox has been eradicated, showing that a world without smallpox is logically possible; but Supergod created a world with smallpox.

Certainly a world with less bad/suffering than the real world is logically possible. Is a world with no suffering at all logically possible? I think not, because it is human nature to have mutually contradictory desires, at least some of which must therefore be frustrated. Supergod, though, could have created humans with a different nature, one more amenable to absolutely perfect bliss.

4. Suffering builds character.

Agreed. But Supergod could have just created us with good character to begin with.

5. God can bring good out of evil.

Yes, but why should he choose that particular method of producing good? Supergod can make omelettes without breaking eggs.

6. Free will, which is good, entails the possibility of choosing badly.

First of all, lots of bad things, such as earthquakes, have nothing to do with anyone's free will. Second, free will is inconsistent with Supergod's omniscience, since he can't know with 100% certainty what we will do unless there is no chance of our doing otherwise. (If you somehow think omniscience is consistent with free will, then Supergod could have foreseen, before creating any given being, whether or not that being would ever choose to do anything bad -- and could have created only those who would not.) Third, good people consistently use their free will to choose good things, not bad things, and Supergod could have created us good. Jesus had free will, but was there ever any real chance that he might have chosen to be a serial killer rather than a Messiah? Supergod, however, apparently chose to create lots of people for whom choosing to become a serial killer was a real possibility.

7. We have no right to pass moral judgment on God.

Then where do you get off calling him "good"?


"Mere God" and the Bad

By "Mere God" I mean (with apologies to C. S. Lewis, who was after all in the Supergod camp) God as I believe he actually is, divested of all the childish superlatives with which the Supergod lot have bedecked him. His characteristics, as contrasted with those of Supergod, are as follows:
  1. He knows a great deal, vastly more than any of us, but not "everything." Specifically, he does not know in advance what any given free agent will choose to do in the future, because that is in principle unknowable. Does God know absolutely everything that is knowable? Perhaps, but I'm not about to assume that dogmatically.
  2. He is vastly more powerful than we can imagine, but there are limits to his power above and beyond those imposed by logic. (I suspect that these constraints are entirely moral in character and have to do with the need to respect the agency of other beings not created by God.)
  3. His motives are entirely good.
  4. He "created the world" in the sense that the cosmos as we know it has been to a very significant degree shaped by him, but he didn't make it out of nothing. Other beings with agency (free will) were not, and cannot be, created by him, because a free agent is by its nature an uncaused cause.
This set of assumptions about God makes the Problem of Bad tractable, chiefly by making it possible to think of evil as educational (the "suffering builds character" argument dismissed above). God didn't create us; we were "already there," imperfect from the beginning -- and it is morally (and perhaps also "physically") impossible for God to magically transform us into wholly good beings. The only way we can become wholly good is by learning from experience and making good choices. God's priority, then, is not to provide us with maximally pleasant experiences, but rather with those experiences that will help us learn and grow. (This reasoning cannot be legitimately applied to Supergod, who is supposed to have created us from nothing.)

What about the argumentum ad smallpox? Humans eradicated smallpox, and even Mere God is vastly more powerful than us; therefore, he could have eradicated it. We can also assume that God could have prevented us from eradicating smallpox, and would have done so if smallpox had played some vital role in the divine plan. Therefore, it appears that God could have eradicated smallpox, had no compelling reason not to do so -- and yet chose not to. However, I think this sort of argument is fairly easy to deal with under the education model of suffering. Different learning experiences are needed by different people and at different times, so what was once vital may later become useless; and no one specific experience is likely to be necessary in an absolute sense, since many different experiences can provide similar learning opportunities.


Then why call him God?

It is widely taken for granted that Supergod is the only sort of God worth considering, and that anything short of belief in Supergod doesn't really count as theism. A common formulation of the Problem of Evil is, "If God is good, he wants to eliminate evil. If he is all-powerful, he is able to do so. If he is not good and all-powerful, then why call him God?"

This seems like a ridiculously narrow definition of theism. Do the defining characteristics of Supergod apply to Osiris? To Zeus? To Yahweh himself before the philosophers got their hands on him? Was everyone an atheist who lived before, or outside the cultural reach of, Greek philosophy?

God is good. Isn't that enough? Is a wholly good Being somehow not worth aligning oneself with just because he doesn't know the future in every detail or didn't create absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing? On the contrary, the knowledge that God didn't create this very flawed universe out of nothing is what makes it possible for honest people to call him good; and the free will that rules out perfect foreknowledge is what makes a meaningful relationship with God possible in the first place.


Blasphemophobia

What is the reader to make of the epigraph from Mark at the beginning of this post, about how all blasphemies shall be forgiven? Is it not a tacit admission that this post is itself knowingly and intentionally blasphemous, and that it requires forgiveness?

Well, no. I do not believe that speaking the truth about God as I understand it is blasphemous. If I have criticized and even poked fun at the idea of Supergod, it is in the same spirit, and for the same reason, that Elijah and Isaiah attacked and ridiculed the those conceptions of God which they regarded as "idolatrous."

But I nevertheless think it is important to stress that God forgives blasphemy, because blasphemophobia -- the undue fear of incurring the wrath of God through lèse-majesté -- is a major impediment to thinking clearly and honestly about God. People who reflexively swallow the Supergod doctrine because they are afraid even to consider anything else, those who, for fear of risking eternal damnation, wish always to err on the side of saying God is more super rather than less -- well, I don't think they're doing themselves, or God, any favors.

Everything depends on which assumptions are regarded as the most fundamental. For me, the bottom line is that God is good and loving, and if such traditional doctrines as omnipotence and creatio ex nihilo clash with that, then so much the worse for those doctrines. Let God be true, but every man a liar.

22 comments:

Sean G. said...

This was a big road block to my conversion that was circumvented with love and humility. (I love God's creation and He is a great mystery. It's not for me to understand!)

Believing in Super God did have a subtle, nefarious effect on me— It caused me to abstract my understanding of God which kept me from fully embracing God the being. In other words, I loved God far less than I do now.

Thank you for writing this!

Francis Berger said...

Apologies. I messed something up on my first try.

Freedom/free will is the sticking point for me. If Supergod exists, then what's the point of free will? I like Berdyaev's take on this - like you, he sees freedom as an uncaused cause; a shadowy area over which God has no control and very limited power. This makes God more personal and approachable in my mind.

To me Supergod is sort of like time travel - intriguing to contemplate, but rife with paradoxes.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Sean, that's good to hear. I was expecting universally negative reactions to this post, as theists willing to explicitly renounce Supergod must be exceedingly few.

Frank, my exposure to Berdyaev has so far been limited to a few isolated quotations, but I think one of these days I'll have to dive into his work. He seems like a very simpatico thinker.

Jacob G. said...

In a similar vein:
Classical Theology posits the fall was a mistake and suffering stems pointlessly from it. But since Christ has come, and done his atonement, why are the effects of the fall not completely reversed?
Also, how is God good for punishing people for others mistakes?

Sean G. said...

Jacob, I'm interested in that explanation as well. The story of the fall confounds me more than any other. My intuition is that the fall is not a literal story but a very true one nonetheless. Perhaps each one of us HAS eaten the forbidden fruit and that is why we are incarnated as humans on this earth.

Agellius said...

Evil isn't the absence of good in the negative sense, but in the privative sense. It's not merely the nonexistence of good, it's the privation of good, the removal, damage or destruction of a good that should be there.

Lack of sight is bad in a man, not in a rock, because a rock isn't supposed to see. You can't do evil to a rock by gouging its eyes out because ... well, it doesn't have eyes. But it is possible to do evil by gouging out the eyes of a man.

Likewise, lack of marital fidelity in a celibate monk isn't an evil because it's not part of the nature of celibacy to practice marital fidelity; whereas in the context of marriage, removing or destroying fidelity is evil since it's of the nature of marriage that the participants be faithful. (It is of the nature of a vocation to the religious life to be faithful to one's vow of celibacy, and so the absence of such faithfulness in a monk would be evil.)

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Agellius, good to see you around these parts again.

I guess I understand the distinction you are making, but do you think it is enough to rescue this argument and solve the Problem of Evil? Suppose a cytomegalovirus (created by God) destroys a man's eyes and leaves him blind. Does the fact that blindness has no positive existence, but is merely a privation, make it any easier at all to explain why God would create the sort of world where such things happen?

Agellius said...

What it resolves is the accusation that God *creates* evil, as opposed to *allowing* evil.

I find the name "Supergod" somewhat blasphemous, so I'm going to refer to the omnipotent God of traditional Christian theology as "+God", and the hypothetical non-omnipotent God "-God".

Evil being the privation of good that should be there, rather than the mere negation of good, has some implications.

First, evil depends on goodness. If goods aren't there in the first place, then there's nothing for evil to deprive anything of. Therefore without good, evil can't exist. Therefore evil has no positive existence.

Everything that exists naturally is good in and of itself, but God allows some good things to deprive other good things of good. Thus, the lion is a good thing, and his prey is a good thing, but the lion deprives the prey of life. This is an evil for the prey, but a good for the lion since it enables it to survive. You may say that God creates the circumstances in which evil occurs, but not that God creates the evil. Neither the lion nor the prey is evil.

Similarly, air and water are good things in themselves, and indeed are essential to earthly life. The laws according to which they operate are also good. When a hurricane occurs, the combination of air and water and the laws they obey may cause evil -- that is, privation of good -- to human beings. But air and water nevertheless are not evil, but good. Again, God creates circumstances in which evil may occur, nevertheless everything he creates is good. He creates good knowing that evil will arise within his creation, which he permits because it serves his purposes.

You're argument was this:

If everything had been created from nothing by Supergod, then everything would be good.
But some things are bad.
Therefore, everything was not created from nothing by Supergod.

Your major and minor premises refer to good and bad things, as if anything existed that was bad in itself. This I deny, though I don't deny that bad things happen. Thus I would change the premises to this:

If everything had been created from nothing by [good] +God, then nothing bad would ever happen.
But some bad things happen.
Therefore, everything was not created from nothing by [good] +God.

But why should I grant the major premise, that if everything had been created by +God then nothing bad would ever happen? Why can't a good God allow evil? Granted that if you *do* bad then you're bad. But is it always necessarily bad to *allow* bad?

Suppose evolution is true: that all species arise by random mutation and natural selection. Would +God be bad for creating a world in which this takes place?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Agellius, thank you for the detailed reply.

"You may say that God creates the circumstances in which evil occurs, but not that God creates the evil. Neither the lion nor the prey is evil."

But Supergod could have created different circumstances in which that evil would not occur. Do heavenly beings have to harm or destroy each other in order to survive? Of course not, because that's not how heaven is set up. So why is earth set up that way?

"He creates good knowing that evil will arise within his creation, which he permits because it serves his purposes."

This works for Mere God, but not for Supergod. Supergod can make omelettes without breaking eggs. Whatever purposes of his may be served by permitting evil, he could easily have accomplished those same purposes without permitting evil, or without creating the sort of world in which evil would arise.

"Why can't a good God allow evil? Granted that if you *do* bad then you're bad. But is it always necessarily bad to *allow* bad?"

I don't think this distinction can be maintained when we're talking about someone who created absolutely everything out of absolutely nothing. Supergod could have created a wholly good world, one in which "allowing evil" would not be an issue because evil would never arise in the first place.

"Suppose evolution is true: that all species arise by random mutation and natural selection. Would +God be bad for creating a world in which this takes place?"

Yes, because he's omnipotent and could have just created the species he wanted directly, without all the suffering, death, and sheer wastefulness entailed by evolution by natural selection. If God could have accomplished something without any collateral damage at all, but instead chose to accomplish it with lots of collateral damage, then, yes, he would be bad for doing that.

Could God have created a world in which nothing bad happened? If not, then he is not omnipotent. If he could have created such a world but instead chose to create a world in which lots of bad things do happen, because that's the kind of world he prefers, then he is not good.

Agellius said...

I'm back! Sorry for the delay ...

We don't know that +God could have accomplished his purposes in creating the universe without allowing evil. It's possible that, for reasons we can't fathom because we're not omnipotent, he couldn't have done it any other way; or maybe there were other ways but this was the best way.

He probably could have created a wholly good world, a mostly good world, a barely good world, etc. But this doesn't answer the question whether it's always necessarily bad to allow bad.

You write, "Could God have created a world in which nothing bad happened? If not, then he is not omnipotent. If he could have created such a world but instead chose to create a world in which lots of bad things do happen, because that's the kind of world he prefers, then he is not good."

What if a world in which bad is allowed has super-good results that are not attainable in a world in which it's not allowed?

For example, how can one develop the virtue of patience if there's nothing to suffer? How can one be courageous if there's no danger? How can one sacrifice for a loved one if everything is given freely and will never run out? What if +God's goal was specifically to create patient, courageous beings willing to sacrifice for those they love?

It's no good to say that he could have made us with these virtues pre-installed. The virtue of courage is the habit of acting courageously, just as the virtue of love is the habit of acting lovingly. If we don't have to actually exercise courage, then it's not courage. You can't have a virtue that's inapplicable to any situation you've ever been in, or will ever be in.

Suppose +God had made a universe in which everything is given to us and we need earn nothing, a sort of Matrix where we're born hooked up to a vast machine from which pleasant visions are piped into our consciousness, passive recipients of pleasure and fulfillment like babies sucking at the breast. What definition of "good" makes this a better situation than that in which we find ourselves?

---

If God is not +God but rather -God, then how can we know "His motives are entirely good"? +God is good because he can't not be good, because he is the source of all good; he *is* goodness itself. But a -God, who is evidently a product of a preexisting universe, can't be goodness itself. And if he's not goodness itself, how do we know he can't sin? This is something the Greeks understood: The gods of Greek mythology weren't +Gods, they were -Gods, and accordingly every bit as liable to sin as human beings -- like us, only they could do magic.

---

What is the argument supporting the proposition that "It's always bad to allow bad"? Or is that just an assertion? That doing bad is bad, I can accept as reasonably self-evident. Allowing it is something different.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Agellius, your point about virtue and the Matrix is a very good one, and I have actually been thinking along similar lines myself recently.

I recently caught myself thinking that I was glad Supergod didn't exist because this world we live in is so much more interesting and engaging than a "perfect" one would be -- but then doesn't that imply that a "perfect" world is not in fact perfect, that this world is better, and therefore that Supergod would have created this world after all?

My next thought was that being bored with perfection was a contingent psychological trait, and that Supergod could have created us with a different psychology -- but beings that would find a perfect world fully satisfying would be contemptible -- but finding that sort of being contemptible is also a contingent psychological trait, and so on. I need to think more deeply about this -- about which aspects of good/bad are absolute and which depend on a contingent "human nature."

*

You write "+God is good because he can't not be good, because he is the source of all good; he *is* goodness itself."

I simply can't parse this. It's as if you'd said "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." How can a person like God possibly be an abstraction like "goodness"? What can such an assertion possibly signify?

*

It's self-evident to me that it's bad to allow bad, so there's not much of an argument to be made. If I kill someone, that's bad. If I see someone in mortal danger and could easily save him but choose not to, that's also bad. It's not as bad as killing, but it's bad.

Thordaddy said...

First Law of Perfection...

No redundancy.

Thordaddy said...

The critique is that “SuperGod” should have created Perfection. But, “SuperGod” is Perfection, hence, The First Law of Perfection.

So the real contention is with Perfection and whether one’s being originates within or without this Perfection? Having determined one’s origin now the dilemma of “evil” is either an attempted usurpation of Perfection from within or an infiltration of Perfection from without. The former seeking to expand upon his gift of free will into the realm of “radical autonomy” and the latter attempting to bring that “radical autonomy” into the realm of objective Supremacy.

This is the nature of Evil.

Thordaddy said...

“Omnipotence” is He who wills ALL Right.

Anything less cannot be more potent and anything more cannot be.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Thor, I'm not sure where this First Law of Perfection came from, but I disagree with it on multiple levels.

First of all, "no redundancy" is an awfully strange law to ascribe to the God who apparently chose to create some 10^86 hydrogen atoms. See my old post on Nietzsche, Darwin, and man's Sonderstellung on why value does not necessarily depend on uniqueness.

Secondly, you seem to assume that there is only one way of being perfect, so that if anything God created were perfect, it would be identical to God himself and therefore redundant. This seems obviously false; there are an infinite number of mutually incommensurable ways of being perfect. Would anyone say that Beethoven's Third Symphony is not perfect because it can't slam-dunk a basketball and doesn't look like an archaic torso of Apollo? In my Father's house are many mansions.

Also, even assuming this "no redundancy" law were a real thing, it doesn't explain why Supergod would create at all. If the "First Law of Perfection" demands that a wholly good God create only things that are not wholly good, why create them?

Thordaddy said...

Your dilemma is WHY did “SuperGod,” if “omnipotent,” not simply create Perfection?

My answer is: no redundancy

Perfection will not create Perfection because “redundant.”

In painting a master-peace, there are no repetitious strokes.

Yet, none of this preclude many (p)erfections.

If you could will ALL Right, you’d be perfect.

Why create at all if already Perfected?

Because true omnipotence is He who wills ALL Right.

Thus, omnipotence provokes a Creation.

Agellius said...

What insightful comments you make. We seem to be actally getting somewhere and not just butting heads.

You write, 'I need to think more deeply about this -- about which aspects of good/bad are absolute and which depend on a contingent "human nature."'

This gives me some new ideas, which I'll lay out tentatively.

God is absolutely good, and also infinite and eternal. From the perspective of eternity, "killing" a human being isn't what it seems to us, since the being lives on. Murdering a man doesn't annihilate his spirit. In killing him you're not putting an end to him absolutely, but only materially and temporally.

Within our world, killing people is the worst thing you can do. But it's a contingent evil, not applicable always and everywhere since murder as we conceive it isn't even possible always and everywhere, but only within the material universe.

So on what ground do we say that an infinite, eternal creator is evil for letting men be killed? Could it be that killing a man is an evil thing for us to do, but not an evil thing for God to do? Suppose we posit that +God created man in his image, and for that reason forbade men killing other men (whereas he didn't forbid them killing cows). Does that forbid God to kill men? Does that forbid God allowing men to kill men, while at the same time forbidding them to do so?

By the same token, physical suffering is contingently evil -- it can only happen to a physical creature within a material context, and that's assuming the physical creature is one that experiences pain (apparently not all of them do). Outside that context, does physical suffering even mean anything? Is physical suffering absolutely bad, or only contingently bad? When our earthly lives are over, will we see our suffering as having been as bad as it seemed while we were experiencing it? or will we see it in a broader context which puts it in a different perspective?

Is an eternal, infinite being evil for allowing contingent evils to occur?

---

When I say that +God is goodness itself, I mean that he himself is good, and the source of all else that is good. Suppose we posit a quality called Agellius-ness, which I impart to things I create: the things I write, the "music" I make on my trumpet. We could say that I am the source of all Agellius-ness, and indeed, I am Agellius-ness itself. Saying that God is goodness itself, is basically saying that goodness is Godness, a quality originating within himself which he imparts to all creation.

Thordaddy said...

It is not a problem with Evil, but a problem of (P)erfection.

The “free agent” is without.

That he’d desire to come within somewhat inexplicable?

He ACKNOWLEDGES the (p)erfection of Christ so HE MUST recognize (P)erfection, absolutely.

Ergo, he accepts “SuperGod.”

“Evil” is then the resistance in acknowledging “SuperGod” as though you now rejected (P)erfection. The cascade effect is evident. You reject all (p)erfections. This is “evil.”

PS “Good” is too soft a word. Objective Supremacy is appropriately secular. Perfection is universal.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Thor, we're just on very different wavelengths here, and your way of formulating things is not helpful for me. I'll leave your comments here in case someone else can benefit from them, but I won't attempt to engage with them any further myself.

Thordaddy said...

WJT...

Your dilemma, as far as I can gather, is why did “SuperGod” not make you “perfect?” Why did “SuperGod” not make EVERYTHING “perfect?” That it is “evil” for “SuperGod” to not have made all things “perfect.”

Is this not the gist of your beef with the idea of “SuperGod?”

Your take is that a real “SuperGod” would create a perfection necessarily devoid of evil, no?

Transparenthood said...

Maybe we are all attending the kindergarten of God-school? Interesting discussion guys, particularly between Agellius and WJT. I've always felt that trying to understand God through our mortal/human minds might be impossible, so in light of that, we should never unequivocally claim that our point of view is the correct one.

Alan Roebuck said...

Regarding God and the bad, I would put it this way:

God is good because He says so. Being curious, I want to understand the natures of God and of goodness to the best of my ability, but at the end of it all, I believe that God is good because He said so.

Since God is the Supreme Being, it is fully rational to believe Him.

As for evil, God permits all sorts of evil, for reasons I don't fully understand. I don't like it, but not being God, I have to accept that things are that way.

If I were the Supreme Being I would abolish evil. But I'm not.

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