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by J.D.D. Hutto
Having spent the spring term teaching philosophy of religion to first-year university students I found at the end of the term few proponents for God’s existence (apart from those who entered the course already armed with a firm belief). For to those who are persuaded by reason alone (as all good philosophers must be) it seems that atheism is the only honest stance we can take. Here I hope to show that reason does not in fact endorse such atheistic conclusions. But first let us examine why it is such a popular position to young (and some older) philosophers.
It is argued by atheists that if we consider the characteristics ascribed to God by classical theism (i.e. God is one being, creator of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient, all-good, perfect, eternal, and so on), we shall find that taken together they produce nothing but irreconcilable paradoxes. To hold this conception of God, we would be required to defy logic’s first law of noncontradiction. The law of non-contradiction holds that a thing cannot be and not be in exactly the same manner, at exactly the same time.
Thus the familiar problem of evil is generated if we think of God as all-powerful and all-good. It is asked how can a being that is both omnipotent and all-good create a world which contains evil (as ours surely does)? If God were all-powerful he wouldn’t need to and if he were all-good he wouldn’t wish to; therefore evil could not exist if God was as classical theists describe him. This is a paradox. (Throughout this paper I shall refer to God with the pronoun ‘he’ for stylistic purposes only. This is not an attempt to decide the gender of such a being and I have no wish to offend by this usage.)
The problem of evil has been attacked in many ways; one of the most popular is to invoke the freewill defence. But as we shall see this in itself only highlights further paradoxes within the concept of God. The argument goes that the world is a better place because we are free to choose between good and evil and thus it is not paradoxical for a good God to have created evil. But it is counter-argued that if God is the allknowing creator of the universe then we cannot be free. For if God created us and could never be surprised by any action or decision we might take (due to omniscience) then it cannot be true that we have any spontaneous freedom. No more than synthetic robots would be free if their designer could never be mistaken in predicting their behaviour. Thus for us to have freewill and be created by such a God generates another paradox.
And it has been argued that God’s perfection is also paradoxical with his agenthood (i.e. being a creator). If we think of God as the eternal creator of the universe, we must think that there was a time (if time is even sensible in this context) before the existence of the universe when God was perfect. But if God thought to create the universe this implies God in some way changed or noticed a ‘lack’. But if God changed and is now (and forever) perfect then he could not have been perfect prior to his creation. And if he was perfect then, but changed through his action, then he cannot now be perfect. For anything that was perfect at time (t1) and changed at time (t2) must thereby cease to be perfect at time (t2). And this is yet another paradox.
It is true that there are many ways to defend against these arguments, but they almost always involve generating further paradoxes (such as making God an atemporal agent) and often fail to be very persuasive to reason. Let us assume (along with the majority of my students) that such arguments do show the concept of God to be self-contradictory. Are we thereby forced to the conclusion, as atheists say we are, that God is a logically impossible concept? I think not.
So how can we keep the picture of God as painted by classical theism and accept the paradoxes generated therein without adopting a merely blind, but rather a reasoned faith?
Viewing this as a purely philosophical project, I think such faith need not be so blind as it might seem to both students and atheists. This is my argument.
One of God’s most prominent features is omnipotence (the property of being all-powerful). This feature has often been used to defend the ‘mysterious ways’ argument; for if omnipotent then God could do anything; therefore we need not be concerned about the paradoxes generated by the conflicting characteristics in our description of such a being. In this bare-faced form the argument runs into immediate difficulties and fails to be convincing to many philosophers. The main criticism being that even a omnipotent being would not be capable of defying the laws of logic and certainly not the law of noncontradiction. For example, if this were possible then God could conceivably create something greater than himself and thereby, by definition, cease to be all-powerful as something even greater would then exist which would be even more powerful. And essentially the main point is that no conception is coherent which breaks the laws of logic. But I now hope to propose a form of this argument which is not so bare-faced.
If it is possible that any conception can defy the laws of logic, then it must be true that the conception of an omnipotent being could do so. But why should we hold it possible of any conception that it could defy the laws of logic? Clearly any such conception would have to be necessary or it would have to be abandoned, due to its paradoxical nature. So the question is; do we anywhere employ any such necessary and paradoxical conception? I think we do.
The notion of infinity appears to break the laws of logic and has been an unavoidable stumbling block to philosophical thought since the time of the Greeks (if not before). As classically stated in Kant’s first antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason “[W]e cannot conceive in any way the extension of a quantum, which is not given within certain limits to every intuition” but, says Kant, “though many a series of things may take its beginning in the world, the world [universe] itself can have no beginning, and in reference to time past is infinite.”
Kant held that reason demands that we think either that the universe has a beginning in time (and/or space) or that it has no beginning in time (and/or space); but both positions collapse inescapably into each other if properly reasoned through. For if it has a beginning in time we can always imagine a time immediately prior to this beginning in which it must have begun, but if it has no beginning in time we are unable to see how it could ‘begin’ at all. Thus whenever we turn our thoughts to the spatial or temporal boundaries of the universe we are frustrated by the dilemma of these two reasoned, yet conflicting pictures – and as Kant notes this is not a “gratuitous question, but one which human reason in its natural progress must necessarily encounter.” (Emphasis mine) Of course Kant’s solution is provided by his phenomena/noumena distinction, but assuming we are not Kantian enough to accept this response we are still left with a necessary, yet paradoxical conception of the ‘size’ of the universe. A conception, which although controversial to mathematicians and philosophers alike, remains important to science and ordinary contemplation.
If it is true that infinity, when applied to the size or age of the universe, is a self-contradictory yet necessary conception then it is logically possible for a given conception to be selfcontradictory. Thus if some conception can be self-contradictory, surely it is logically possible to say of the conception of an omnipotent being, if anything, that its description could contain selfcontradictory properties (from our point of view) without falling foul of coherence. This proof only works so long as we accept that infinity, as applied to cosmological questions, by its paradoxical nature, forces us to conceive of it in a fashion at odds with the law of non-contradiction while at the same time remaining necessary to our reasoning. This would suffice to prove that self-contradictory conceptions are logically possible.
A weaker version of this argument can be produced for those who feel that Kant’s error was the simplistic application of Euclidian geometry or his failure to read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It might be said that if (and I still hold that this is even now highly controversial) we came to understand the notion of infinity with regard to cosmological questions in a non-contradictory fashion then we still might have reason to suspect that the concept of omnipotence could eventually also be described in a non-contradictory fashion. Thus what appears self-contradictory from a limited point of view would not appear so with a new understanding. And that is always the philosopher’s hope. But one might then argue the concept of ‘omnipotence’ only appears selfcontradictory in the just way the size and age of the universe did for so very long. This would be a weaker claim as it would make God a possibly logically possible conception.
But if the conception of an omnipotent being with contradictory features is logically possible is it thereby necessary? Not at all.
The above argument is only a safeguard against atheistic polemics attempting to show that God is an incoherent conception on the basis of the features ascribed to such a being by classical theism and the strength of the law of non-contradiction. If it has been shown that God, as omnipotent, is a logically possible conception; then whether or not we hold the proposition “God exists” to be true, like all such logically possible propositions, becomes a matter of acceptance or rejection. Due to lack of evidence, when our beliefs are not settled, we are required to ‘pin our colours to the mast’ and adopt a policy of premising the truth (or falsity) of a proposition (as is often the procedure in highly theoretical science).
We are in the position of lawyers, who with little evidence about our client’s background, must adopt a policy of holding him innocent, guilty, or abstain from judging altogether. Because we are entertaining the logical possibility we are not pushed one way or the other by irresistible evidence – as we would be in the case of ordinary beliefs and opinions.
Imagine again that we are lawyers, only now faced with ample evidence pointing to the guilt of our client – in this case we are no longer free to choose what we think, even if we are free to choose how we will act. Our beliefs are formed for us by the evidence and our involuntary reaction to it. In the case of ordinary belief and opinion that we cannot be held responsible for what we hold true, because we cannot literally ‘choose to believe’. Such choice goes against the nature of belief because we as believers would simply have no faith in beliefs which were available ad hoc. Our unique backgrounds and immediate environment are causally operative in the propositions we accept or reject. As Winston of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four asks: “How can I help it? ... How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four...I would see five if I could.”
But this lack of responsibility with regard to ‘belief’ in God would be intolerable to any religion valuing orthodoxy (in Greek ‘right belief’) which held its followers responsible for their ‘beliefs’. It is important to most theists that we are responsible for the stand we adopt toward the existence of God.
However this should not trouble them if ‘God exists’ is seen only as logically possible proposition.
As we have seen it is true of logically possible propositions alone that once they are understood as being merely logically possible we must decide our attitudes toward them (even if we decide for agnosticism). Where normally our decisions are affected by the weight of evidence, in the case of God it is likely the evidence will remain vastly under-determined. Given these facts, just as in the case of any other logically possible, evidentially under-determined propositions, the thinker is forced to make a choice; to hold it true, false, or suspend judgement.
And this creates the possibility of the free acceptance of God which is held by many faiths (not only Christianity) to be the only proper attitude toward religion.
In summation the argument of this paper has been this; against atheistic positions which say otherwise, the concept of an omnipotent being is a logically possible concept, if and only if it can be shown that some self-contradictory conceptions are possible. The concept of Infinity, when applied to cosmological questions, is both selfcontradictory and necessary; therefore the concept of an omnipotent being is logically possible. And further all logically possible propositions demand an attitude of acceptance, rejection, or abeyance which is exactly the attitude desired by any religion which holds people responsible for their faith or lack thereof. Thus if the argument is successful it should explain why it is reasonable that questions concerning God’s existence are logically a matter of faith.
The conclusion is not much different from that of many religious discussions or debates – usually the believer argues that it is a matter of faith and the non-believer holds that there is not enough evidence to support God’s existence. However if this proof works it justifies the debate in logical terms by showing God to be a possible conception despite the paradoxes. And surely that is good news for those who believe in God and in logic.
© J.D.D. Hutto 1991
Daniel Hutto is a graduate tutor in philosophy at the University of York.