Anthony Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He has a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts. Professor Grayling has written and edited over twenty books on philosophy and other subjects. In addition, he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British philosophical association, the Aristotelian Society. One would therefore hope that if a man with such a distinguished background were to pen an attack on belief in God, it would be an intelligent critique. But one would be wrong.
In a recent email exchange with Professor Jerry Coyne (an atheist who, to his credit, is at least prepared to entertain the possibility of theism) over at Why Evolution Is True, Anthony Grayling contends that the notion of God is a logical absurdity:
[O]n the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being – on inspection such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity…
But ‘god’ is not like ‘yeti’ (which might – so to say: yet? – be found romping about the Himalayas), it is like ‘square circle’.
Now, if Grayling is right, then the implications for Intelligent Design are obvious: the notion of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent Designer can be automatically ruled out.
But has Grayling established his case? Not by a long shot. In today’s post, I’m going to critique his argument on two grounds: first, the concept of God is no more incoherent than many other concepts currently accepted by philosophers and scientists; and second, the arguments Professor Grayling puts forward against the possibility of God’s existence are very poor ones.
I have said before that in my experience, the best refutations of atheistic arguments are usually ones written by other atheists, and today’s post provides an excellent illustration of this point.
A general observation: “difficult to grasp” is not the same as contradictory
An atheist philosopher writing under the nom de plume of “Physicalist” has written a rebuttal of Professor Grayling’s argument that the concept of God is logically absurd, in the comments section (scroll down to comment #14) of a recent post by Professor Jerry Coyne, entitled Many voices of disbelief (18 March 2011), in which Coyne invites his readers to explain why they are atheists. Physicalist writes:
I have to say too, that I’m pretty unconvinced by the claim that we can discount the existence of god(s) because the notion is incoherent.
Pretty much any notion is incoherent if you push it far enough. We philosophers struggle with the notions of causation, causation, knowledge, necessity, etc. etc. The fact that we have a lot of trouble making good sense of these notions is not itself good reason to think that these things don’t exist.
And it’s not like science is much better off. We don’t have clear notion of the ontology of quantum mechanics, for example, or of how quantum reality is to be squared with relativity. The notion of a biological species is controversial enough that the lay person isn’t likely to grasp it. And so on. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Here’s a question for Professor Grayling: is the concept of God any more absurd than that of a particle which is in two places at once, or of a universe which creates itself out of nothing (as some cosmologists have suggested), or Max Tegmark’s Ultimate Ensemble theory of the multiverse (complete with doppelgangers and all), or for that matter, David Lewis’ modal realism about possible worlds? If so, why?
Physicalist goes on to add:
The point is that we often have good evidence for the existence of something (or for the truth of some claim) even though we don’t have a perfect conception of what the thing is (or of the precise way to state the truth claim).
We should NOT hold god talk to a different standard. It’s the evidence (or lack thereof) that matters.
Hear, hear! I agree with Physicalist on this point. One of the reasons why I’m interested in the Intelligent Design movement is that it is making a genuine philosophical and scientific attempt to address the question of what would count as evidence for or against the existence of a Deity. All I will say for now is that I have addressed this question before, and I shall return to it in a future post.
Why Professor Grayling’s attempted disproofs of God’s existence don’t work
In his email exchange with Professor Jerry Coyne, Professor Grayling puts forward three arguments against the possibility of God’s existence, and I have to say that they are not good ones. To put it bluntly, he hasn’t done his homework.
Atheistic argument #1: How Professor Grayling misconstrues omnipotence
Grayling’s first argument for the logical impossibility of a God is that omnipotence entails logical absurdities:
[O]n the standard definition of an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent etc being – on inspection such a concept collapses into contradiction and absurdity; as omnipotent, god can eat himself for breakfast… [The ellipsis is Grayling’s, not mine – VJT.]
What! This is what an Oxford-trained Professor of Philosophy considers a good argument? Surely he knows that traditional believers in God have never defined “omnipotence” as the ability to do absolutely anything. (Descartes is about the only Christian philosopher of note who thought that God could do absolutely anything; Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas all expressly taught otherwise.) Rather, the faith of believers has always been that God can do anything that can be done, for “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). However, some of the things that we ask God to do are simply nonsensical, and therefore cannot be called “things” at all. If God is unable to do as we ask, it is not because there is something He cannot do, but because there is nothing that He was asked to do in the first place.
Take, for instance, Professor Grayling’s absurd request that God eat Himself for breakfast. Problem Number One: God doesn’t have a body. God is Spirit (John 4:24). Asking a spirit to eat is as nonsensical as asking a triangle or a poem to do so. Category mistake! Problem Number Two: God doesn’t have parts. According to classical theists, God is truly and absolutely simple, as St, Augustine puts it (De Trinitate iv, 6, 7). But the act of eating requires moving parts – teeth and a mouth, for instance. Problem Number Three: God is outside time. In Him there is no shadow of an alteration or change (James 1:18). No change entails no possibility of eating – and hence, no breakfast. Problem Number Four: as a necessary Being, God is indestructible, but eating involves the destruction of that which is eaten – in this case, God.
So my answer to Professor Grayling is: what do you want God to do, in order that He can meet your request that He eat Himself for breakfast? Do you want Him to have a body or to be incorporeal? Do you want Him to have parts or to be essentially simple? Do you want Him to be inside or outside time? And do you want Him to be destructible or indestructible? If you desire the former option in any of these four cases, then you are really asking God to be something other than what He essentially is. You want God not to be God. Now that’s impossible. Your request is an incoherent one, Professor Grayling.
I’m not saying anything new here. Bishops, priests and theologians (including St. Thomas Aquinas) have taught the same thing for the past two thousand years, and ordinary folk have believed likewise. As the philosopher Edward Feser puts it in his masterfully written volume, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009, p. 123):
In line with the mainstream classical theistic tradition, Aquinas holds that since there is no sense to be made of doing what is intrinsically impossible (e.g. making a round square or something else involving a self-contradiction), to say that God is omnipotent does not entail that He can do such things, but only that he can do whatever is intrinsically possible (S[umma] T[heologica] I.25.3). (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Professor Grayling is not a stupid man. I presume he has reasons for rejecting the classical theistic view of omnipotence. What astonishes me, however, that he was willing to put forward, in an email that he asked Professor Jerry Coyne to publish, an argument against God’s omnipotence which a sharp seven-year-old could knock down with a feather.
Atheistic argument #2: God must will whatever evil he causes and foresees
Next, Professor Grayling argues that the fact of suffering is incompatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator:
[A]s omniscient it [i.e. God – VJT] knows the world it created will cause immense suffering through tsunamis and earthquakes, and therefore has willed that suffering, which contradicts the benevolence claim…etc etc…
I would like to observe in passing that Professor Grayling has completely overlooked the distinction between God’s active will and His permissive will. Perhaps Grayling thinks it’s an irrelevant distinction. Let me just note here that substituting “permitted” for “willed” in the above quote robs it of much of its rhetorical force. For it simply isn’t clear that permitting foreseen suffering is logically incompatible with benevolence.
Now, I happen to live in Japan, and I was working in Yokohama when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011. I survived unscathed, but sadly, twenty thousand people perished as a result of that terrible catastrophe. I’ll say more about earthquakes and tsunamis in my next post. All I’ll say for now is that as a religious believer, I do agree with Professor Grayling on one point: the terrible suffering Japan experienced was absolutely senseless.
Today, however, I simply want to address the question: is the fact of suffering logically incompatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator? The answer is no – unless you can convincingly show that it is always immoral for an intelligent agent to knowingly cause suffering for a sentient being, even for an instant, if that agent is aware of an alternative course of action which would avoid that suffering and which would cause less suffering overall.
Now, some atheists reading this post may be nodding in agreement at this point, and saying to themselves, “Of course it’s immoral. What morally decent individual would think otherwise?”
I would ask these atheists to think again. Suppose there’s a sentient being (let’s call him Fred) that suffers as a result of some act of God, and that God (being omniscient) can foresee this. What if the only alternative course of action for God to avoid harming Fred is to create a world without Fred – say, a world with a different set of laws, in which Fred (and other beings like him) would not exist, and in which nobody else would be harmed? Should God make a world like that? The answer to that question sems to depend on which sentient being you ask. Fred might not agree. If the suffering in question were temporary, and the harm done were not irreparable, then Fred might well prefer to exist, after all, even if it means enduring pain. And yes, I realize that in a world without Fred, no-one would miss him, but for me the morally relevant point is that whether we like it or not, Fred does exist, in this actual world. Conjuring up an alternative world in which Fred is air-brushed out of the picture in order to avoid suffering strikes me as an unsatisfactory solution to the problem of evil.
So the question of whether it’s wrong for an omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator to make a world containing suffering seems to boil down to the question of whether it’s wrong for God to knowingly inflict irreparable harm on a sentient being while it’s conscious, if there’s an alternative course of action open to God which would avoid that suffering and which would cause less suffering overall, and which would result in exactly the same sentient beings coming into existence (and perhaps additional sentient beings as well). But when you put it like that, it’s not at all clear that such an alternative world is even possible. I for one am highly doubtful. After all, my individual identity as a human animal depends on which parents I had – if I’d been born of someone else, I wouldn’t be who I am, but someone else instead. So we’re being asked to imagine an alternative world in which the same sentient beings exist, and have the same ancestors – which seems to entail that the same laws of Nature obtain – but in which there is less suffering. Could there be such a world? Color me skeptical.
Now, perhaps Professor Grayling believes that an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent Being is morally obliged to save sentient beings by recourse to miracles, if necessary. In other words, God is obliged to step in to save every sentient being from suffering – even if only by rendering it unconscious (e.g. by shutting down its nervous system). Fair enough. But again I would ask Professor Grayling: is God obliged to do this always, and on every occasion?
However, if Professor Grayling is still not convinced that the fact of suffering is logically compatible with the existence of an omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator, then I’d like to direct him to an online article entitled, The many-universe solution to the problem of evil (December 3, 2008), written by a fellow atheist, and a philosopher like himself: Professor Bradley Monton, who outlines what he considers to be “the most promising reply to the problem of evil,” as follows:
This isn’t the most formal way to present it, but I’ll present it with a parable. Suppose that God exists, and God is omnipotent and omniscient, and has the desire to be omnibenevolent. So God creates a very nice universe, a universe with no evil. We might at first think that God has fulfilled the criterion of omnibenevolence, but then we recognize that God could do more – God could create another universe that’s also very nice. Agents could exist in that universe that didn’t exist in the first universe, and so there’s an intuitive sense (which is admittedly tricky to make precise mathematically) in which there would be more goodness to reality than there would be were God just to create one universe.
But of course there’s no reason to stop at two – God should create an infinite number of universes. Now, he could just create an infinite number of universes, where in each universe no evil things happen. But in doing so, there would be certain creatures that wouldn’t exist – creatures like us, who exist in a universe with evil, and are essential products of that universe. So God has to decide whether to create our universe as well. What criterion should he use in making this decision? My thought is that he should create all the universes that have more good than evil, and not create the universes that have more evil than good.
So that’s why an omnipotent omniscient omnibenevolent God would create our universe, even though it has evil – our universe adds (in an intuitive sense, setting aside mathematical technicalities) to the sum total of goodness in the universe, and hence it’s worth creating.
If Professor Grayling thinks there’s a logical hole in the solution to the problem of evil put forward by atheist philosopher Professor Bradley Monton, or if he thinks that Monton’s criterion for “create-worthiness” is too broad, or that our own universe on balance is not worthy of being created by a Deity, then I think he owes his readers an explanation as to why he thinks that way. I await his response.
Atheistic argument #3: Miracles make either God or the universe rationally incomprehensible
Finally, Professor Grayling argues that miracles, if they occurred, would make a mockery of the scientific quest to rationally comprehend the cosmos:
[L]ocal suspension of the laws of nature for arbitrary reasons e.g. in answer to personal prayer, … makes a nonsense of the idea that the world or the deity is rationally comprehensible: and if either or both are non-rational then there is nothing to talk about anyway[.]
As a philosopher, I cannot help noticing the number of vague terms in this passage that haven’t been defined: “arbitrary”, “rationally comprehensible” and “non-rational”.
I also cannot help noticing the loaded language. If God suspends the laws of nature to save a child’s life, then that’s arbitrary? Frankly, I can think of no better reason for acting.
Nor can I agree with the notion that miracles make the universe rationally incomprehensible. First, I cannot help asking: rationally incomprehensible to whom? Us or God?
Second, if Grayling means “rationally incomprehensible to us,” then I have to ask: for how long? For this life only, or for eternity?
Third, why does “rationally comprehensible” have to mean “scientifically predictable”? (For I presume that’s what Grayling really means by the term.) In the 21st century, we no longer believe that we live in a Laplacean clockwork universe, so why are we still doing philosophy as if we did?
Fourth, why does rational comprehensibility have to be an all-or-nothing affair? Suppose we lived in a cosmos where the laws of nature held 99.999999% of the time. Professor Grayling might wish it was 100%, but beyond a certain number of decimal points, I think most of us would say, “Who cares? 99.999999 is near enough to 100, for all practical purposes.” My point is that we could still do science on an everyday basis, even if miracles occasionally happened.
Fifth, I would argue that Grayling’s claim that miracles make the universe rationally incomprehensible is empirically false. After all, we all acquire a naive understanding of the way the world works, during the first few years of life – call it folk physics, if you will. For instance, we learn that things fall down and not up. But a baby who is well cared for by her parents might well form the generalization, “Things fall down when dropped, unless they happen to be people,” or even, “A thing falls down when dropped, unless it happens to be me.” Perhaps the baby has always been caught in the nick of time by her very alert and loving parents, whenever she was perched precariously on the edge of a table or sofa. Do these “miraculous” acts of intervention by the parents make the baby’s universe rationally incomprehensible? I think not.
I conclude that a fair-minded individual would have to say that Professor Grayling has utterly failed to establish, or even make plausible, his contention that the existence of God is a logical absurdity.