TIA Tuesday: An even deeper holeJanuary 6, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
There’s no hole so deep that you can’t get yourself into even more trouble by digging deeper. I could stop there and have pretty much summarized the next part of TIA Chapter 15, but where would be the fun in that? Last week, Vox admitted that God isn’t really omniscient, but then used an equivocation fallacy to try and argue that God’s omniscience (or “tantiscience,” as Vox calls the inferior omniscience he personally ascribes to God) is merely a potential knowledge, and not actual knowledge.
His excuse for this substitution is that the “capacity” for an action is not the same as the action itself. Thus, since genuine omniscience leads to some intractable problems for theologians, Vox opts to retreat to the idea that God’s omniscience consists merely of the capacity for knowing, not actually knowing. Knowledge, however, is not an action; it’s a state. Learning what you know, and remembering what you know, are actions that involve knowledge, but the knowledge itself is data—a noun, not a verb. To equate knowledge with action is to fall into a serious category error, and it’s an error that Vox uses as the foundation for the next phase of his argument.
Though it may at first seem to be a waste of time to analyze an argument to which Dawkins himself doesn’t assign much value, it is important to remember that all things, even specious and superficial arguments for His nonexistence, may prove useful in serving the greater glory of God. That’s true in this case, for in considering the Contradiction of Divine Characteristics argument, we were forced to draw a distinct line between capacity and action, the confusion of which is also the root of a much more serious theological error. Interestingly, this theological error is committed by Christians as readily as atheists, perhaps even more often, as they trust in God’s plan for their lives instead of making use of their God-given intelligence and free will.
Once again, Vox begins by striking a pose as though he’s going to deal Dawkins a serious blow, but then abruptly swerves and smites orthodox Christianity instead.
There are a variety of phrases that contain the same inherent implication about a certain view of God. Many evangelical Christians often refer to “God’s perfect plan” for their lives. This concept is reinforced with children’s songs such as “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and echoed by sports stars who compete in the assurance that their victory has been divinely secured ahead of time. It is held by American Exceptionalists who believe that God has uniquely blessed the United States of America and has authored a Manifest Destiny for it, and by Christian Zionists who see a divine hand in every violent twist and turn of the Mideast Peace Process.
Gosh, if Christians are so screwed up in their theology, what’s a self-undeclared apologist like Vox supposed to do? Pin the blame on atheists, of course!
These various evangelicals have an unexpected ally in Sam Harris, who declares it to be an obvious truth that “if God exists, he is the most prolific abortionist of all” due to the fact that 20 percent of all known pregnancies miscarry, and then asserts that those who believe in God should be obliged to present evidence for his existence in light of “the relentless destruction of innocent human beings that we witness in the world each day.”
One could carry Harris’ argument ever further by pointing out that, had God taken a more pro-life stance in the Garden of Eden, and denied the woman her freedom to choose what foods to put into her own body, He could have prevented the deaths of all of her offspring, and their eternal damnation as well (or whatever Vox believes in that takes the place of Hell in his more “open” theology). So how does Vox try and answer Harris? By pointing out that Harris is right about orthodox Christian beliefs, and what they entail.
What the evangelical and the atheist have in common here is a belief that because God is omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate, he is somehow responsible for these events, although Harris would qualify that with the necessary “if he exists.” And in fairness, it must be pointed out that when Harris cites Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami as God’s failure to protect humanity, he is really doing rather better than the “perfect plan” evangelical who would assert that these tragedies were sent by God for some ineffable higher purpose intended to benefit humanity.
Indeed, if we want to be really fair, we would point out that, since God allegedly holds us accountable for the good we could have done and did not, it is therefore a valid principle that one is as responsible for a failure to act as one is for the actions.
As an illustration, consider driving a car down a quiet residential street. You are obeying the speed limit, and are driving on the right side of the road. But a small child chases a ball out into the street and stands with his back to you. If you do not act immediately to stop the car and/or swerve out of the way, your car will strike the child and kill him or her. You will not personally get out of your car and murder the child, but if you do not act to prevent the accident, the car will strike the child and cause his or her death. Under the circumstances, would you be morally liable if you failed to act to prevent a tragedy? Could you excuse the fatality on the grounds that you did not commit the action, but merely failed to act to prevent it?
Suppose you had known a week ahead of time that 9/11 was going to happen, knew the names of the hijackers, the flights they were going to be on and the targets they were going to attack. Would you be morally culpable if you failed to warn anyone about it? If you are legitimately and morally responsible for failing to prevent these tragedies when it was in your power to do so, should not God also bear responsibility for His failure to do what He could to prevent them?
The only defense against such moral responsibility is if God, in fact, is not able to prevent the tragedies concerned. It simply wasn’t possible for God to know what bin Ladin was up to. God does not know how to prevent spontaneous abortions, or He has no power to heal the problems that cause them. God lacks the power to prevent earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and so on, nor does He possess the ability to warn anyone about them in time for people to escape to safety. Omnifrailty is the only sure defense against moral responsibility.
Sadly, Vox doesn’t seem to consider this particular solution, opting instead for a new straw man (and another neologism) intended to make the skeptic look unreasonably demanding.
This belief in an all-acting God, who not only guides the grand course of events but actually micromanages them, is the result of the same confusion between capacity and action that we saw in the Contradiction of Divine Characteristics. When God asserts that He cares about the sparrows and knows when one falls from its branch, this is very different from an assertion that He only happens to know about it because He personally struck the sparrow down. An omniscient God knows the numbers of hairs on your head and an omnipotent God is capable of changing their color, but it requires an active Master Puppeteer to personally pluck them, one by one, from your balding head, in the desired order…
Hence the term “omniderigence,” which I define as: “making infinite use of unlimited or universal power, authority, or force; all-controlling; all-dictating.” Less formally, one can think of it as über control-freakdom or ultimate puppet-mastery.
Harris shows how this mistaken belief in God’s omniderigence is part and parcel of the atheist case against God…
So if you even suggest holding God accountable for failing to do the things He allegedly could do, Vox immediately tries to label you as an extremist who is insisting that God must “micromanage” every frickin’ little detail about everything. You un-American you! Don’t you know God gives us free will? By replacing the actual skeptical objection with a straw-man demand that God exercise an unreasonable amount of control, Vox deftly avoids addressing the entirely reasonable observation that, even without micromanaging everything, there’s still a huge number of cases where a real, morally upright God could have a significant positive impact, and would be morally culpable if He failed to do what He could (even given an exemption in the case of infringing on other people’s free choice).
Having blamed an atheist for what is really a Christian failing, Vox goes on to illustrate the problem with the orthodox Christian idea of God’s sovereignty, using the tragic example of a small child who was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 4. Since it was the son of Vox’s cousin, he posted a prayer request on his blog, which prompted a Christian to offer up the consolation that God was still in control, and was allowing this illness in order to further some wise, good, and mysterious end. Vox, however, took issue with the Christian.
There are two possibilities. Either evil is part of God’s plan and has been from the beginning, or God is somehow constrained in his ability to unleash his power upon this Earth. The Biblical account describing how God gave Man dominion over the Earth, a dominion which the Scriptures explain was subsequently handed over in turn to Satan, strongly suggests the latter.
Jesus Christ himself states that Man possesses certain authority over evil in his own right. If evil is from God, then Man must have authority over God, a more fundamentally heretical notion than the idea that God’s hand is somehow constrained. This limited human authority is underlined by the situation in which his disciples complained that they could not cast out certain demons and Jesus explained that only prayer would suffice to address that sort. In other words, the disciples were required to make an appeal to God’s authority instead of simply making use of their own.
Vox’s reasoning is a bit garbled here. He seems, for example, to fail to grasp the difference between God taking evil into account while devising His Perfect Plan, and God being the generator of evil, the director of its actions in His divine Plot. Nor does it seem to dawn on him that, if having power over evil makes man have authority over God, then having power over creation would also give man authority over God, since both creation and evil allegedly come from God.
He does, however, hit on the real solution to the problem of God’s moral responsibility: denying that God has any real power. It’s still a bit garbled, because his example of casting out demons seems to imply that God is in control of evil after all, even though Vox’s argument is that He is not. Internal contradictions don’t seem to bother him much, though, as his conclusion shows:
So, my conclusion is that the leukemia inflicted on Andrew is either a random occurrence or intentionally inflicted by the evil being that both Paul and Jesus Christ recognized as the ruling power of this world. I believe that doctors, secular and Christian alike, are doing God’s work as they war against sickness and disease, just as Jesus Christ commanded his disciples.
Indeed, to assert that a child suffering leukemia is God’s will is to imply that those attempting to heal him are doing evil by defeating it. The problem of evil is not a difficult one, once one is able to accept the notion that God is not a cruel and easily bored puppeteer. Omniderigence leads inevitably to doubt, because it requires accepting the idea that all evil stems from God.
But if everything is in God’s hands and moving according to God’s plan, then what need would there have ever been for Jesus Christ to come to Earth and die on a cross?
So Jesus’ death on the cross shows that things are not going according to God’s plan? Nice work, Vox.
I almost don’t have to comment on this section, since Vox is really doing my job for me here, pointing out the internal inconsistencies and inescapable contradictions that are bound up in the historic Christian concept of God. Nor is Vox’s “omnidirigence” straw man any help for Christians, since even in poor Andrew’s case, God ought to be able to reveal to Christian doctors how to cure leukemia, even if He were unwilling to intervene directly to effect a cure. That would be a tremendous help in the battle against the “evil being” who is allegedly “responsible” for childhood leukemia, but God is either unwilling or unable to lend us that kind of assistance.
Moral responsibility does not require that God do literally everything (thus leaving no freedom for anyone else to do anything), but it does show that there are things far less than “omnidirigence” that an omnipotent (or tantipotent) God can still be held responsible for. God’s systematic, universal, and predictable failure to make any of the interventions He is allegedly capable of are sufficient to show that these moral lapses are no mere oversight, but are the dominant characteristic of His behavior with respect to men. As Vox himself inevitably concludes, God does not, in fact, have the real power to help, does not know everything, and is not in control.
All that remains is to wonder why on earth anybody would bother to be a Christian?