TIA Tuesday: Twisting in the windDecember 30, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
We’re ready to start Chapter 15 of TIA, suitably entitled “Master of Puppets or Game Designer.” Not a terribly flattering set of alternatives either way, but given that Vox himself is a video game programmer, it makes sense that he would follow the traditional Christian practice of inventing God in terms of his own background and interests.
He begins with a cursory overview of the problem of evil.
When one surveys the long list of horrors that have engulfed countless men, women, and children throughout the course of history, the vast majority of them innocent and undeserving of such evil fates, one finds it easy to sympathize with the individual who concludes that God, if He exists and is paying attention to humanity, must be some sort of divine sadist.
Because doubts are reasonable, normal, and inevitable, they should never be brushed aside, belittled, or answered with a glib phrase, for not only does decency demand that they receive a sensitive hearing, but they also can have powerful ramifications that resonate long after the doubter himself has had them resolved one way or another…
But if God exists, it is a basic theological error to attempt to place the blame for earthly tragedies on Him. In fact, it is not only a theological error, but also a fundamental error of logic to conclude that God, even an all-powerful God, must be to blame for every evil, accident, or tragedy that befalls us.
Before we get to Vox’s answer to the problem of evil, though, he spends an entire section trying to belittle and brush aside a related issue, the question of God’s omnipotence.
Vox turns to Richard Dawkins for a typical illustration of the contradictions inherent in the traditional view of God. According to Dawkins, “[i]f God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.” Despite what Vox said before, he tries to rebut this point by first belittling it, then by brushing it aside, then by offering glib answers.
As Dawkins surely knows, this is a silly and superficial argument; indeed, he follows it up with a little piece of doggerel by Karen Owens before promptly abandoning the line of reasoning in favor of a return to his attack upon Thomas Aquinas. While the argument appears to make sense at first glance, it’s merely a variation on the deeply philosophical question that troubles so many children and atheists, of whether God can create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it.
Ooo, “children AND atheists.” Take that Dawkins! And yet, for such a “silly and superficial” argument, it gives Vox a major headache, as he twists this way and that, trying to find some way of calling it “wrong” even though he can see that its logic is so inescapable that he himself has to abandon both God’s omnipotence and His omniscience in order to reconcile the contradiction that Dawkins raises.
First, it is important to note that the Christian God, the god towards whom Dawkins directs the great majority of his attacks, makes no broad claims to omniscience…
In keeping with this interpretation, Dr. Greg Boyd, the pastor at Woodland Hills Church and the author of Letters to a Skeptic, has written a book laying out a convincing case for the Open View of God, which among other things chronicles the many Biblical examples of God being surprised, changing His mind, and even being thwarted. Moreover, it would be very, very strange for a presumably intelligent being such as Satan to place a bet with God if he believed that God knew with certainty what Job’s reaction to his torments would be.
Take that, Dawk—wait, that’s not Dawkins being wrong, that’s Christianity being contradicted! Dawkins is pointing out that there’s an inherent contradiction in the orthodox, historic Christian doctrine of God, and Vox “rebuts” him by admitting that the Church is wrong about God! With friends like Vox, who needs atheists, eh? This is a huge point, because it shows that the people who defined Christian doctrine, including selecting which books were “Scripture” were fallible men who didn’t really know as much as they thought.
That didn’t work too well, so Vox’s next attempt is to raise a quibble about the difference between having the capacity to do something, and actually doing it. It’s a moot point, because Vox has already admitted that Christian doctrine was originally defined by men who got it wrong and who need to be corrected by more modern-thinking, open minded individuals. But Vox gives it a go anyway.
[O]mniscience, or the quality of knowing everything, is the description of a capacity, it is not an action. Likewise, omnipotence, being all-powerful, is a similar description, which is why these nouns are most often used in their adjectival forms modifying other nouns, for example, an omniscient god is a god who knows everything, i.e., possesses all knowledge. But capacity does not necessarily indicate full utilization and possession does not dictate use.
So Vox has saved God. Or has he? The problem is that if God already knows what He is going to do, then He can’t be omnipotent (i.e. He can’t do something different from what He knows He is going to do). Vox’s solution: just have God not use His knowledge. Poof! since God no longer knows everything (i.e. He keeps Himself from knowing the future), there’s no longer any conflict between His foreknowledge and His free will.
The problem is that, in fact, Vox has only invoked the same excuse in slightly different terms: God does not know everything, He merely possesses the potential to learn things He does not currently know. That’s not omniscience (knowing all), that’s only the capacity to discover, and the capacity to discover, even if infinite, is a different thing than omniscience.
Vox’s next stab at it is to construct an obvious equivocation fallacy around the phrase “to possess knowledge.”
Now, as I write this sentence, I am holding the book entitled The God Delusion in my hand. I paid cash for it at the bookstore prior to reading it through in its entirety, so I now possess the book in a very real and legally binding sense, and I feel sure that the reader will readily acknowledge that I therefore possess all of the knowledge contained within it in every relevant meaning of the term. But can I tell you the precise wording of the first sentence on the seventh page? Well, no, not without taking the action required to actually look at it.
Yep, no need to go to college. Just buy the textbooks, and you’ve got all the knowledge other people spend years of study and hard work to acquire. I own a full set of encyclopedias, just imagine how smart I am! I own books written in languages I can’t even read! My knowledge is just amazing—or at least it might seem amazing to anyone silly enough to confuse having legal ownership of a record of knowledge, and actually knowing the knowledge.
Knowledge is information, but merely owning a repository of information is not the same as having integrated that information into your awareness and understanding of what’s true in the real world. To truly know something means to have incorporated that information as an attribute of your mind. It’s the difference between buying a hard drive with the capacity to hold the most expensive software in the world, and actually buying and installing the software.
One major problem that Vox doesn’t mention, let alone try to address, is that the doctrine of God’s omniscience is a doctrine that derives from people’s need for a God Who knows what He is doing and Who is absolutely in control. A God that does not know everything is a God who is continually at risk (as we all are) of having His plans thrown off by unexpected developments. He’s a weaker God, a gambling God, a fallible God. He may be smart, but Satan’s supposed to be smart too, and if God loses both His omniscience and His omnipotence, He’s lost His advantage. He might not actually win.
What’s more, a God who is not omniscient is a God who is Himself subject to time, not outside of it, because time controls how much God knows. Otherwise, if He stood outside of time, there would be no difference between remembering the past and foreseeing the future. Dawkins’ dilemma would still vex Him, because a God who stands outside of time cannot look forward to a future in which He will learn what He did not know in the past. If God is not subject to time, then time-based differences in knowledge do not apply.
Unfortunately, Vox presents us with a God who is outside of time. “Regardless,” he says, “a God who stands outside of space and time and who possesses all knowledge as well as all power is not bound to make use of his full capacities, indeed, who is going to shake their finger at him for failing to live up to his potential?” But “potential” is meaningless outside of time, because it assumes that there’s something you’re not doing “now” that you could possibly do in the “future.”
The doctrine of God’s omniscience is at least partially a consequence of the (extrabiblical) doctrine about God existing outside of space and time, since from God’s alleged vantage point He ought to have equal access to all knowledge. Since the distinction between actual knowledge and potential knowledge is a time-based distinction, He’s either going to be eternally knowing or eternally ignorant. You can’t have a change in the status of God’s knowledge, because change is a difference in state over time, and if God stands outside of time then He does not change (and neither does His knowledge). So ultimately, God has no “potential” knowledge—either He knows, or He is ignorant, for all of time.
But, as we saw before, this is all moot, since Vox has already surrendered the orthodox, historic doctrines of omniscience and omnipotence, substituting instead the weaker notions of “tantiscience” and “tantipotence” (i.e. “lots of knowledge” and “lots of power”)—qualities God shares with Satan, not to mention a potentially large number of other allegedly powerful and intelligent spiritual beings. Vox is not so much defending Christianity as he is replacing it with a variety of polytheism that uses Christian vocabulary to describe unorthodox ideas.
He closes this section of Chapter 15 by comparing mankind to a dog.
When it’s time to feed my Viszla, I don’t magically summon food from the mysterious bag of plenty. But my dog doesn’t know that. From his perspective, there’s no difference between my buying it at the store or my summoning it into material existence by the magic force of my divine will. Likewise, we are incapable of perceiving the difference between a god who knows everything and a god who merely knows a whole lot more than we do…
Unless, of course we’re smarter than a dog. But there is a difference between omnipotence and “tantipotence,” between omniscience and “tantiscience.” That’s the whole point of Vox’s retreat from the former to the latter. The former entails a number of inconsistencies and contradictions that render the traditional, orthodox Christian doctrines untenable, even for a believer like Vox. If omniscience and omnipotence did not have inescapable problems, there would be no need for him to try and invent new theological dogmas that weakened God enough to avoid the dilemma.
What Dawkins said was correct: there are intractable problems with orthodox Christian theology. Perfect knowledge of the future would indeed prevent God from having the power to choose a course of action that would prove His foreknowledge wrong. V0x tries to make Dawkins look defeated, but ends up twisting in the wind, abandoning the historic faith, and straying into ancient dualistic/polytheistic heresies. It’s a vain attempt to find a coherent understanding of a God manufactured out of naive superlatives. For all his glib answers, Vox can’t brush this one off.