Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Divine Attributes: The State of the Discussion

Readers here will know that I do not hold a sanguine view about the prospects for a description of God that 1) outlines being who is worthy of a suitably religious attitude, 2) conforms, even in the roughest way, with the historical accounts that have been given of God by Christianity and other religions, 3) gives a list of properties that themselves are each coherently formed and understood, 4) gives a list of properties that are consistent with each other, and 5) conforms, even in the roughest way, with what we now know about the physical universe through physics, cosmology and biology.  That is to say that we don't have, nor is there forthcoming, any account of God that makes sense along a number of vectors.  Explaining and defending each of these theses is, of course, a complicated matter, but I have been doing it across a multitude of posts, lectures, and published works.

Ex-Apologist (whose blog I highly recommend) has brought our attention to a recent article by Nicholas Everitt called The Divine Attributes.  Everitt has written a well received book called The Non-Existence of God that I also recommend for those interested in a fairly straight forward analysis, using standard analytical philosophical techniques, of the arguments for and against the existence of God.  Here's Everitt's abstract:

"Focusing on God’s essential attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, being eternal and omnipresent, being a creator and sustainer, and being a person, I examine how far recent discussion has been able to provide for each of these divine attributes a consistent interpretation. I also consider briefly whether the attributes are compatible with each other."

It looks like Everitt's overview of the recent literature, perhaps coupled with my overview of "Deductive Atheology" in the Atheism entry of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy would give one a good comprehensive picture of where philosophy of religion is today.

Then, in his summary, Everitt makes this comment:

"The divine attributes thus present a number of intriguing philosophical problems: problems with finding self-consistent accounts of each of the attributes, with ensuring that the accounts form a self-consistent set, and with reconciling the attributes with other seeming facts of human experience (divine omniscience and human freedom, divine goodness and widespread underserved suffering, etc).  Is it possible to formulate a version of theism which can simply sidestep these problems?

Suppose we start with the bare thought of God as a being who is worthy of worship.  Suppose also that we think that to be worthy of worship, a being must have a right to our allegiance, and be worthy of our love, admiration, and veneration. It is surely some such concept of worship-worthiness which has led most of those who have worshiped supernatural beings to do so. Perhaps such a god needs to be powerful – but why omnipotent? Perhaps knowledgeable – but why omniscient? Perhaps good – but why perfectly
so? Perhaps long-lasting – but why eternal? It is not as if there is any overwhelming Biblical warrant for the traditional attributions.This way of thinking of divinity has the merit, from the point of view of an impartial
uncommitted inquirer, of sidestepping the philosophical problems which the traditional attributes bring, while yet retaining the idea of worship-worthy supernatural beings. But it is not a route which has proved appealing to many theists in their reflections on the nature of the being who is the object of their worship."

My off the cuff reaction to this (I haven't had the time to give the whole article a careful read) is that it is surely possible to give a coherent description of a being possessing some degree of power, knowledge, and goodness (we are such beings, afterall), but the resulting account will suffer from new problems:

1)  Do we have any real arguments or evidence to think this sort of scaled down being exists?  The goal, afterall, is not to just give a coherent description of God at all costs.  The goal is form a reasonable set of beliefs about what's true, what sorts of things are real, and what sort of position we have in the universe historically, metaphysically, and morally.  Unless there are some substantial reasons forthcoming to think that such a being is not merely possible but real, the long list of utter failures by the smartest humans in history to render believing in God reasonable sets the prima facie burden of proof very high.  A perpetual motion machine, or gnomes may be possible, but it is fair for us to set the bar very high before we accept them as actual.

2)  I think the prospects for such a scaled down account of God giving us a being that is suitably "worship-worthy" are very dim.  In 1948, J.M. Findlay gave us a very persuasive argument in "Can God's Existence be Disproved?" that no thing short of a full blown omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being will be worthy of the title "God," and the failures of the ontological argument show that there is no such being.  (I will have to read up in Everitt to get clear on what he thinks about a Findlay style approach.)  The point:  If there is no omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being, then there is no being that should be called "God."  And other lesser notions of semi-powerful, semi-knowledgeable, and semi-good beings are philosophically and religiously irrelevant and uninteresting.

3)  It is the practice among careful, respectful, and thoughtful analytic philosophers who find some fatal flaw in an argument for the existence of God to leave every possible avenue of redress open to the theist to save some face and salvage some new, re-engineered account of God from the wreckage.  Not being as careful, respectful, and maybe thoughtful as they are, I am inclined to draw sweeping conclusions from the repeated failures of these exercises in logical and philosophical gymnastics.  See Are We Proving the Negative Yet? and Perpetual Motion Machines and an Argument Against Agnosticism for a couple of examples of my rash, overgeneralizing.  Many billions of people believe.  Many billions more have believed in history.  The widespread consensus among our best experts on the topic, philosophers of religion, is that to date, none of our best efforts to construct a justification for believing have succeeded.  Even worse, as Everitt's summary of the discussion of divine attributes shows, we don't even have a clear, coherent, or non-controversial account of what properties God would have, even if he was real.  And that's despite devoting centuries of our hardest thinking to the project.

It's time for sensible people to see the larger implications of those failures.  We've done our due diligence.  The failure of a couple of philosophical inquiries into arguments for X to produce viable grounds for believing X should just be understood as limited failures of those arguments.  The failures of ALL of our attempts, by  millions of people over the course of thousands of years to produce acceptable grounds for believing X suggests that something else is at work here than just a failure of creativity or limited resources.  (See  The Santa Principle).


exapologist said...

Thanks for the plug, Matt!

mikespeir said...

Hey, Matt,

If you get a chance, take a peek at Evangelical Realism ( ). They could use some help, I think.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the suggestion Mike. But agonizing over the details of Thomism or Lewis with them doesn't look like a very rewarding pursuit.

If folks are inclined to cite C.S. Lewis for their justifications for anything in the philosophy of religion, that generally makes for easy pickings since his arguments are so patently bad.


mikespeir said...

Yeah. And that's just what Deacon Duncan was pointing out in his lengthy critique of Mere Christianity. But now this Nick is averring that Lewis was really a Thomist and that his reasoning holds more water than is apparent because of that. I have a feeling that he's mostly blowing smoke, but so far nobody's been able to make much of a rebuttal. Oh well. We'll see how it progresses.