The concept and nature of ‘God’

AQA Philosophy
Metaphysics of God

God’s divine attributes

Omnipotence

Most Christian theologians agree with Aquinas’ account of omnipotence, that it means the power to bring about any logically possible state of affairs.

Aquinas argued that God’s power is founded on God’s infinite divine nature which “possesses within itself the perfection of all being”. Therefore, God’s omnipotence can only bring about things consistent with the perfection of being.

That does not include things which are logically impossible: “that which implies being and non-being at the same time” cannot be brought about by God “not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing.” So, God cannot create something which both exists and does not exist because it is not consistent with being, the perfection of which his power is founded on. Aquinas concludes:

“it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.”

Even though God cannot create impossible things, that is not a limitation of his omnipotence, once properly understood as power founded on the perfection being.

Omnibenevolence

Omniscience

Omniscience means all-knowing. Philosophically this is typically understood as that God knows everything which can be known.

S is omniscient if for every true proposition p, if p is true then S knows p.

Some Philosophers also think it correct to add that an omniscient being is infallible such that they couldn’t possibly be mistaken in their beliefs.

Aquinas argues that God’s knowledge is a type of direct awareness of everything, which he calls God’s ‘knowledge of vision’.

Aquinas does think that God knows propositions and concepts, but only because he knows the contents and powers of human minds. Through his perfect knowing the essence of our power of intelligence with that, God knows every thought, concept or proposition that could possibly be formed by human intelligence.

However, Aquinas insists that this doesn’t mean that God’s knowledge is gained or at all dependent on thinking about propositions or making inferences from them like we do. So, God does also know every concept and proposition, but that doesn’t mean God’s knowledge is propositional or conceptual.

Competing views on God’s relationship to time

Eternal (a temporal)

Everlasting (temporal)

The paradox of the stone

Can create a stone so heavy he can’t lift it? This is problematic for omnipotence because if God can create the stone, there is something he cannot do – lift the stone. If he can’t make the stone, there is something he cannot do – make the stone.

The paradox of the stone provides a criticism of the popular view of omnipotence held by Aquinas. It’s easy for Aquinas to dismiss God’s inability to create four sided triangles as that would be logically impossible. Creating a really heavy stone doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task though, so surely God should be capable of doing it. In that case, he cannot lift the stone though, which equally doesn’t seem like a logically impossible task. So, there is some logically possible action which God cannot do, thus invalidating Aquinas’ definition of omnipotence as being capable of doing all logically possible actions.

Mavrodes defends Aquinas here by arguing that in fact the stone is logically self-contradictory if we notice the full context. It’s not just a really heavy stone – it is a stone ‘too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift’. Since by definition an omnipotent being could lift any stone, there is no such thing as a stone too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift, and thus it is in fact a logically impossible thing, just like a four-sided triangle. Therefore, the answer to the paradox is that God cannot create the stone and the reason is that it is logically impossible, but that doesn’t detract from God’s omnipotence according to Aquinas’s definition which is therefore still valid. So, Aquinas would say God can’t make the stone but that’s because it can’t be done, just like making a square circle.

Descartes on omnipotence

A tiny minority of theologians and philosophers, most notably Descartes, argue for ‘voluntarism’; the view that God’s omnipotence involves the power to do anything, even the logically impossible. Descartes gives the example that God could have made it false that twice four makes eight. He thinks that God has the power to change mathematical, geometric, logical and moral truths. We may be unable to imagine 4 plus 4 not equalling 8, but that doesn’t mean God lacks the power to have made it so:

“It would be rash to think that our imagination reaches as far as his power”

Descartes’ argument is that because of God’s ‘immensity’ “nothing at all can exist which does not depend on Him.” This includes maths and logic.

“I admit that this is unintelligible to us. Yet on the other hand I do understand, quite correctly, that there cannot be any class of entity that does not depend on God; I also understand that it would have been easy for God to ordain certain things such that we men cannot understand the possibility of their being otherwise than they are”

Descartes concludes that logic is a human limitation, but not a limitation for God on which all things, including maths and logic, depend. Thus, the rules of logic are decided by God and they then emanate from his mind.

Integration: Descartes doesn’t have the problem of the paradox of the stone, because he would claim that God can create a stone too heavy for him to lift and then he can also lift it. That is a logically impossible solution, but that’s no issue for Descartes’ view of omnipotence.

Voluntarism is incoherent: If it is possible for God to make 1+1=3, then it looks like it is possible for 1+1 to equal 3. In that case, it cannot be logically necessary that 1+1=2. By attributing to God the power to do the logically impossible, voluntaristic omnipotence seems to destroy logical necessity. If God can do the logically impossible, then it is possible, and therefore it is not logically impossible. Nothing would be logically impossible if it were possible for God to do it. Voluntarism thus undermines the concept of logical impossibility that it is based on. Voluntarism is the view that God can do the logically impossible, but then it’s not logically impossible and nothing is logical impossible, thus voluntarism undermines the concept it is trying to make a claim about and is thus self defeating.

However, arguably it is not the case that God being able to do something logically impossible makes it possible. It might seem impossible for God to be able to do something without that making it possible, but surely if God can do the logically impossible then he could make it that his being able to do something does not make it possible?

The Euthyphro dilemma

In Philosophy, a Dilemma is when there are two ways something could be, each way leading to a problem. The two options are called horns.

The Euthyphro dilemma in its modern form asks: is what God commands good because it is good (1st horn), or is it good because God commands it? (2nd horn).

God’s Omnibenevolence is the idea that God is perfectly good. However, the Euthyphro dilemma shows that there are two ways we could understand God being perfectly good.

The first horn Is it that what God commands is intrinsically good independently of God. This suggests that God is perfectly good because he perfectly follows an intrinsically good moral standard that is separate from God. The problem this leads to an apparent conflict with omnipotence, since this external moral standard is beyond God’s power to control.

The second horn is that it is God’s act of commanding something that makes it good. This suggests that God is perfectly good because perfectly good is whatever God commands it to be. This leads to the arbitrariness problem, that God could change his mind about what is good.

If the dilemma is valid and the problems it leads to cannot be solved, then the concept of omnibenevolence is incoherent.

The first horn leads to a conflict with God’s omnipotence

If we take the other horn and suppose that when God commands something to be right or wrong, he is really just informing us about what is intrinsically good. This seems to require that goodness is a standard which is independent of God and has some objective status of its own. In that case, God would be just as judged by that standard as we are, and God would not have the power to change it, otherwise what’s good would then ultimately reduce to his command. The idea that God cannot do something or is himself held to a standard higher than himself seems to conflict with his omnipotence.

Swinburne defends taking the second horn. He argues that some moral truths are necessary. In that case, they must be true, so it would be logically impossible for God to change it. Most theologians agree that omnipotence involves the power to do any logically possible thing, not logically impossible things. An intrinsic moral standard external to God which involves necessary moral truths cannot possibly be changed. It is logically impossible to make necessary truths false. In that case, that God cannot control or change morality is not actually undermining of God’s omnipotence.

The second horn (Divine command theory) leads to the arbitrariness problem

Those who accept the second horn are called divine command theorists. They face the arbitrariness problem. This is the problem that if what is good is only good because God commanded it to be so, then it seems that God could change his mind tomorrow and command that murder is good, which would mean that it thereby became good on the divine command theory view. Furthermore, it seems that God’s choice of murder to be what he commanded as wrong must have been random and arbitrary. On divine command theory, there was nothing wrong about murder until God commanded it wrong, but that means there was nothing that could have prompted God’s choice for it to be wrong. Once it is admitted that the only thing which confers rightness or wrongness is God’s command, then it seems that absent his command, nothing has any rightness or wrongness and his choice of what to command must therefore be completely random.

This also seems to bring God’s reasonableness into question. If God is acting arbitrarily then he cannot be acting based on reasons.

The response that the Euthyphro is a false dilemma. Medieval theologians (Augustine, Aquinas and Anselm) attempted to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by suggesting there is a third option, making it a false dilemma.

A false dilemma is one which poses two options when really there are others. Arguably there is a third option than the two proposed by the Euthyphro dilemma. This third option is that what God commands is good because it accords with God’s omnibenevolent nature.

K. Rogers explains this move: “God neither conforms to nor invents the moral order. Rather His very nature is the standard for value.”

The goodness of God’s commands does not depend on God’s arbitrary choice, nor on some intrinsic standard of goodness external to God, but on God’s perfectly loving nature which is intrinsic to God. The claim that God is omnibenevolent in that God is the standard and source of moral goodness is therefore defended against the Euthyphro dilemma.

This solves the arbitrariness problem because God’s choices of what to command are not arbitrary but a consequence of his perfect omnibenevolent nature. Essentially, God won’t and can’t change his mind tomorrow about what is good because his commands are a result of his perfect unchanging omnibenevolent nature.

This also solves the other horn of the Euthyphro dilemma; that God commands what is good because it is good. For Adams, what makes God’s commands good is their accordance with God’s omnibenevolent nature. This avoids the threat to omnipotence made by an external standard to which God must conform. The standard is God himself.

The issue of the grounding of God’s goodness. Attempts to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by appealing to God’s intrinsic loving nature are vulnerable to the issue of accounting for why God’s nature is good. The Euthyphro dilemma is trying to get to the bottom of why/what it is that makes God’s commands good. If the answer is God’s nature, then the question simply becomes why is God’s nature good or what is it that makes God’s nature good? This move by philosophers like Aquinas and Adams arguably merely kicks the can down the road.

The compatibility of omniscience and free will

Boethius grappled with the puzzle of divine foreknowledge – the idea that God knows what we are going to do before we do it. If he does, how can we have free will? Boethius thought this needed solving because if we don’t have free will, then how can God judge us fairly, sending us to heaven or hell. That would seem to question his omnibenevolence. Yet if God didn’t know what we were going to do next, that would seem to question his omniscience.

Omniscience seems to conflict with free will which then conflicts with omnibenevolence.

Boethius’ solution: God as eternal

Boethius’ solution was to suggest that God is eternal – outside of time. This would mean God sees all time (past, present and future) simultaneously in the ‘eternal present’. God’s eternal omniscience does not interfere with our free will – he simply sees the results of our free choices in our future in his eternal present. So Boethius saves God’s omnibenevolence from the criticism that divine foreknowledge would determine our actions making him unjustified in rewarding or punishing us for them. God’s knowledge is not ‘foreknowledge’ – it does not exist ‘prior’ to our action as it exists outside of time.

If our future actions are known, they are fixed and thus not chosen. However, while God’s knowledge may not determine our choices, nonetheless it still seems like the results of our choices are fixed and inevitable. Surely we cannot do anything other than what God knows we will in fact do. Therefore we don’t have the ability to do otherwise, and so how can we have free will?

Boethius responded to this challenge by distinguishing between simple and conditional necessity. He agreed that God knowing our future actions made our actions necessary – but only conditionally necessary. He illustrated conditional necessity with observing someone walking. If you see someone walking, it is necessary that they are walking. However, that necessity is conditional on their having chosen to walk. The walker might not have chosen to walk, and then it would not have become necessary that they are walking. This is very different from the normal sort of necessity – simple necessity – which means something cannot fail to exist or occur, regardless of whatever choices people make.

Everything we have done in our past, are doing in our present, and will do in our future, are all observed in God’s ‘eternal present’. Everything we do is ‘present’ to God. Therefore, our future actions have the same kind of necessity that the person walking has; conditional necessity. God sees our future actions and in his present they thereby become necessary, but only on the condition that we chose them. So Boethius has defended his original claim, that there is no incompatibility between omniscience and free will because God sees the results of our free choices.

Swinburne’s solution: God as everlasting

Swinburne claims God exists within time. Before the creation of the universe, God existed in a durationless non-metric time. Once the universe had been created then time began to unfold moment by moment – both for creation and for God. God thus knows what we have done in the past and what we are doing in the present. However, regarding the future, God only knows the logically possible choices we could make, not which choice we will actually make. This resolves the apparent conflict between omniscience with free will and subsequently with omnibenevolance because if God does not know what we are going to do next, there is no conflict with free will and thus omnibenevolence is not called into question in his punishing us for our actions. God is omniscient in that he knows everything which can be known.

Swinburne argues that an eternal God could not respond to people’s prayers, since that would require acting within time. Also, an eternal God would be unchanging and thus be a “pretty lifeless thing”. Swinburne argued that a relationship with God based on love is a two-way process which requires an ability for God to respond to us, and vice versa. This could only work if God was within time.