Wednesday, February 02, 2005

If you were all-knowing, what would you think about?

If one takes seriously the supposed traits of the Christian God – all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful and all-dancing – one has to ask a rather difficult question: Is God a reasoning being? After all, if you– with absolute certainty – know everything, not just about what happened yesterday but also about what is happening right now and, in fact, what will ever happen, that doesn’t leave much scope for head-scratching. I mean, imagine God trying to do some of the things we have problems with. Need to fill out a tax return? No need to work out the amount the tax office owes you – you already know it. Want to take your holidays somewhere nice? Ibiza is going to be great in the last week of August. Wondering where you left your keys? They’re in the left pocket of your old jacket, the one you never wear anymore. None of these questions, nor anything more difficult such as: Why is the speed of light a constant? presents him with any difficulty. There is no opportunity for him to think as he already knows everything and does not need to work it out. This means that God, if he should exist, is far less like our cognising, worrying selves than like a massive look-up table.

Given his being all-good this also leads to a further (and much more often heard) question: In what sense could God have free-will? After all, if he always knows the best thing to do and always can do it, being all-good he must do it. Of course, it might be argued that he does the best thing of his own free will, but then does he do the best thing in some sense accidentally? Could God do something that wasn’t the best course of action? I do not know the answers to these questions but it certainly makes clear to me that the idea of God is not one that hangs together very well. It seems to be cobbled from a set of idealised traits that do not actually lend themselves to idealisation. Goodness is necessarily limited. Since we exist we must act but every action has its cost, every action is the choosing of a lesser evil but an evil none-the-less. If God exists then the existence of evil shows that he faces the same limitation upon goodness. Knowledge and power are, likewise, limited. If our knowledge or power were limitless we would not be able to tell the difference between our dreams and the real world. We could not find out that we had been wrong about something, never having our presumption be brought up short by the real world nor could we find our wishes frustrated as the world would be putty in our hands. Under those conditions there would be no difference between the raving of a lunatic mind and the cold counsel of reason. Far from being a wise old man God would be more like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man – possessing amazing talents but unaware of them and less capable of coherent thought than a child.

The limitedness of goodness, power and knowledge might be seen as giving some comfort to those seeking theodicy as it goes a long way to explaining why the human condition is what it is. However, it is cold comfort as it shows that the notion of a perfect being is utterly nonsensical.


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