A Philosopher’s Problem

S belief in the Christian God coherent? Peter Atterton, philosophy professor at San Diego University, says “No” in his New York Times op-ed piece, A God Problem. To make his case, Atterton takes issue with two attributes of God: omnipotence and omniscience.

God and a Heavy Rock

Regarding God’s omnipotence, his quality of being all-powerful, Atterton raises two concerns. First, he mentions a couple of the typical quandaries for this doctrine. Can God create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift? Can God create a married bachelor? No matter which way you answer you end up with something God can’t do. But does this really render Christian belief incoherent?

Second, Atterton raises the concern that God could have made a world in which there is no suffering. That God didn’t is asserted as proof of the incoherence of Christian belief. Yet, what is missing in both critiques is any real argument. In the first case, the examples are illogical. We aren’t saying that God can do the illogical. God also cannot do that which is contrary to his character. The Bible makes this point when it says that God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18) and God cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

In the second case, Christians aren’t saying that God couldn’t create a world without suffering. All we know is the world we live in, and what God has revealed to us about this one. We aren’t saying it is impossible for God to have made a world in which suffering were not possible, even as a result of human agency. Could God have made a world like that? Sure. So what?

In both cases, Atterton mentions the Christian response to his challenges but then quickly moves on. What I would have found interesting is a substantive argument seeking to demonstrate the irrationality of the Christian response. We are told to accept his nuanced definitions first, definitions which are contrary to the historic Christian position, in order to then dismiss the historic Christian view of God as incoherent. We should begin by challenging his premises.

By saying God is all powerful Christians are not implying that God can do the illogical or that which is contrary to his character. That would be incoherent. That’s also not historically what Christians have believed.

God and First Person Knowledge

Atterton also takes issue with God’s omniscience, the doctrine that God is all knowing. The main problem that Atterton expresses is for God to know everything he would have to possess first-person knowledge of sinful desires and acts. If God has such first-person knowledge, if he knows first-hand what it feels like to lust, then he would be guilty of those very sins.

If God doesn’t have such first-person knowledge, then he isn’t all knowing. If he does have such first-person knowledge, he isn’t morally perfect. It’s a ditch either way.

This really becomes a battle over definitions. Can God know everything without having to know it in a sinful way? Atterton writes:

“…if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.”

Philosophers do bicker over these sorts of definitions, whether it’s possible to have all knowledge without having present or first-person knowledge. But it’s a contested topic. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out, “But there is little agreement about what precisely distinguishes self-knowledge from knowledge in other realms. Partially because of this disagreement, philosophers have endorsed competing accounts of how we acquire self-knowledge. ”

In an effort to stay out of the philosophical weeds on this one, I’ll give a common sense response. (Here’s a lengthy Christian response for those who might be interested). We don’t really use this line of reasoning in normal discourse to define knowledge. This requires an abnormal and highly nuanced definition of knowledge. It’s my contention that you can have proper warrant for true knowledge without it being first-person knowledge.

For example, last week I had a migraine. At the time of the headache, I had first-person knowledge of my migraine. I don’t have a migraine now, thankfully. But I can still speak knowledgeably about migraines. My friends aren’t going to say, you don’t fully know what a migraine is like because you don’t presently have first person knowledge of a migraine. Though someone else’s experience of a migraine might be more severe, the likes which I may never encounter, I would still have knowledge of migraines without possessing their first-person experience.

Furthermore, a doctor who has never experienced migraines could still understand the physiology, the symptoms, root causes, and treatments for recurrent headaches. The requirement for first-person knowledge seems arbitrary and doesn’t fit the way we usually talk about knowledge. In fact, if the doctor is presently experiencing a severe migraine when diagnosing us, we might question their accuracy and ability to think clearly and offer a proper diagnosis.

Would we require a medical student to have first-person knowledge of all major maladies before they would be deemed competent to receive a degree or offer care? 

This definition of knowledge certainly doesn’t fit the way we talk about God. We aren’t saying God has experienced every possible experience, but that God knows all possible facts. We don’t believe God possess first-person knowledge of sinning so that he can have full knowledge of sinners. This might be a problem for some hypothetical understanding of God, a philosopher’s paradox, but it doesn’t match the historic Christian position.

The biblical view of humanity is that we are indeed thinking, feeling, deciding, beings. This is never in conflict in Scripture with God’s ability to know all things (See Psalm 139). If we bring Atterton’s definitions to the Bible, maybe then we would have a problem. But why would we do that? These are highly debated issues related to knowledge, and his assertion that this renders Christian belief as incoherent is, in my opinion, a leap of faith.

In this short article I wouldn’t expect Atterton to give a thorough treatment of all Christian explanations of how God could be all knowing and morally perfect. But that doesn’t keep Atterton from a dogmatic, if not somewhat disconnected, assertion that God doesn’t exist.

Jesus and Temptation

Related to this, Atterton raises the notion that Jesus didn’t really experience temptation because it was impossible for him to sin as the Son of God. I can see why this topic is difficult to understand from outside of Christianity, because there are often debates on how this works from inside of Christianity. I like how C.S. Lewis responded to this objection years ago:

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives into the temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it; and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation really means—the only complete realist.”

The article ends with the assertion that Christians are forced into a binary choice between irrational belief or abandoning faith. He says that inconsistencies, like the ones mentioned in the article, are what force the dilemma. The problem is not that Atterton raises these questions. The real problem is that many readers will assume Atterton has outlined compelling arguments and shown the historic Christian responses to be ineffective. He hasn’t.

“A God Problem” is a helpful example for discerning Christian readers to consider. First, we should listen and learn from the critiques and questions unbelievers have about the faith. Second, we should analyze arguments advanced against Christianity which require serious  and sincere responses. But when a piece like this makes assertions and jumps to conclusions without compelling arguments or rebuttals, we need to point that out as well. In the end, this is a philosopher’s problem—not God’s.

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