Why Our Conception of God Is Coherent

Last week, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, titled “A God Problem.” The subhead hints at what the perceived problem entails: “Perfect. All-powerful. All-knowing. The idea of the deity most Westerners accept is actually not coherent.”

If you’re going to claim that people’s conception of God is not only wrong, but incoherent, and do so on the nation’s most prominent editorial pages, you should probably have a strong, or at least compelling, argument. Atterton’s argument, as many people pointed out on social media, is the type that should earn a freshman a failing grade (or maybe a C if the teacher is generous).

While it’s tempting to ignore it altogether, there are solid reasons why it deserves a rebuttal. The fact that the argument is made by an expert (i.e., a professional philosopher) and published in America’s paper of record gives is an air of undeserved credibility. This might lead some people to question whether our beliefs about God’s attributes really are incoherent. And while some people may intuitively understand that the article is flawed, they may not be able to explain the reasons to themselves or to others.

Ultimately, it deserves a response because, as C.S. Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”

While an academic philosopher could provide a more thorough counterargument, I thought it might be useful to provide an explanation that would be comprehensible for laypeople like me.

Are God’s Attributes Logical?

Atterton says, “As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?”

How should we answer this question? Are these attributes logical? What’s the standard to make such a determination?

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a reputable and peer-reviewed resource on philosophy, includes an entry on the “Logical Problem of Evil.” In that entry, James R. Beebe explains what is required to establish whether a claim is logically possible:

How would you go about finding a logically possible x? Philosophers claim that you only need to use your imagination. If you can conceive of a state of affairs without there being anything contradictory about what you’re imagining, then that state of affairs must be possible. In a word, conceivability is your guide to possibility.

We’ll play by the rules of the philosophers and use conceivability as our guide to possibility. To determine whether claims about God’s attributes hold together, all we need to do is show that they are conceivable and not obviously logically contradictory.

Can God be All-Powerful?

The claim that God is all-powerful refers to his omnipotence. It’s unclear if Atterton thinks this attribute is wholly logically impossible since he cites a convincing counter-response:

You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.

The way out of this dilemma is usually to argue, as Saint Thomas Aquinas did, that God cannot do self-contradictory things. Thus, God cannot lift what is by definition “unliftable,” just as He cannot “create a square circle” or get divorced (since He is not married). God can only do that which is logically possible.

Most Christians define omnipotence in a way that means God can only do that which is in keeping with his character and that he cannot do what goes against his character. In other words, God can only do that which is in keeping with his nature and cannot act in a way (i.e., by creating a stone he cannot lift) that negates his own omnipotence.

Can God Be Morally Perfect?

Perhaps Atterton is not merely skeptical about omnipotence in general but only in how it is specifically connected to God’s moral perfection, for he contends that the existence of a morally perfect being is incompatible with the existence of evil. He says, “[C]an God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.”

Atterton is correct in one sense: It does appear to be logically possible that God could have created a world in which evil does not exist. But he implies that since that claim is true (or possibly true), its opposite much also be true, that is, it is not logically possible for God to create a world in which evil exists.

But that is not a logical conclusion. In the entry on the “Logical Problem of Evil” that we just mentioned, Beebe notes:

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that [philosopher of religion Alvin] Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist.

Does a Christian have sufficient evidence to believe that evil exists? Yes, we unfortunately have an abundance of both external and also internal evidence to validate that belief. Does a Christian have sufficient evidence to believe that God exists? Again, yes, we have an abundance of both external and also internal evidence to validate that belief. Why then should we believe it is logically impossible for the two to co-exist when we have sufficient justification for both beliefs?

For our purposes here, we don’t need to develop an argument that is philosophically rigorous (though Plantinga and other Christians have done so). All that’s required to establish that God’s moral perfection is consistent with the existence of evil is to postulate a single plausible reason. The reason many Christians would give is that God allows evil to exist—for now—because it maximizes his own glory. Whether or not you agree, that reason is sufficient to resolve the perceived logical contradiction.

Can God Be All-Knowing?

Omniscience is typically defined in terms of knowledge of all true propositions. It can be formulated as: God is omniscient if for every proposition X, if X is true then God knows X.

But instead of focusing on propositional knowledge, Atterton makes the peculiar claim that,

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God. As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, 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.

Atterton makes two errors that lead to his confusion. The first is he misunderstands the source of moral perfection. What we call the good are merely characteristics that describe God’s nature. God is not good because he possesses certain properties, such as justice, mercy, generosity, and so on. Rather, we call these properties good because they are properties of God. God is the standard of moral perfection by which we know and judge imperfection and sin.

Second, Atterton redefines omniscience to include first-hand subjective knowledge of every possible experience. For example, he says that one “cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.” Does God have, or need, such knowledge to be all-knowing?

Jesus, who is both human and divine, certainly understood the subjective experience of temptation. During his earthly ministry he was tempted to sin in his human nature, but did not do so because he relied on the Holy Spirit. He could not be tempted in his divine nature, though, because God cannot be tempted to act in way that is contradictory to his own nature. While Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted, neither the Father nor the Son knows what it is like from an internal subjective perspective to commit a sin, such as engaging in lust or envy.

But this has no bearing on omnipotence, because God’s attribute of all-knowingness—his omniscience—is limited in the same way his all-powerfulness—his omnipotence—is limited. Just as God cannot act in a way that is contrary to his perfect moral nature, he cannot know in a way that is contrary to his character. Just as God cannot negate his omnipotence by creating a stone so heavy he can’t lift it, God cannot negate his omniscience by knowing what it’s like to have the internal subjective experience of sin. God would not be God if he knew what it was like to be Satan rebelling against God.

Atterton’s Errors

Throughout his op-ed Atterton commits two types of fallacies. The first is the fallacy of equivocation—using an ambiguous term in more than one sense that makes an argument misleading. Whether a claim is logically impossible depends on what the user means by the terms involved. For example, when the Christian claims that God is all-powerful and all-knowing we have specific meanings and definitions in mind. But Atterton applies different meanings—meanings that most Christians would reject—and then attempts to claim that based on his use of the terms the concepts are logically incoherent. If he truly wants to show our concepts are incoherent, he must use our actual conception rather than a strawman version.

The second error is that Atterton commits the fallacy of personal incredulity, a fallacy especially common among atheists. His argument can be summarized as, “Personally, I cannot imagine how these claims about God’s attributes could be logically possible; therefore the claim that that they are logically possible must be false” Just because Atterton does not find the claims about God’s attributes to be convincing, though, does not mean they aren’t true. The onus is on him to support his assertion that our beliefs about God’s attributes are actually incoherent.

As we’ve seen, though, by the standards used by professional philosophers it is rather easy to show that God’s attributes of moral perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience are logically possible. The reason most Westerners have accepted the idea that our concept God is coherent is because it is actually coherent. While it’s true that, as Pascal said, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob is not necessarily the god of the philosophers and scholars, in this case there is no contradiction between, as Atterton claims, the “wisdom” in biblical revelation and the philosophical demonstration of God’s existence and nature.