Here, I want to look at a logical quagmire that crops up in apologetics with alarming frequency; the omnis.
Omni is a Latin prefix meaning quite simply 'all'. Traditionally, we think of the three classic examples from theology; Omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. There are others, but let's start with them.
Omniscience, rendered into everyday language, is 'all knowledge'. Generally, discussions about omniscience revolve around logical issues in conjunction with free will, and I do want to address that, but first I want to look at problems with the concept of omniscience in isolation, because it's highly problematic in and of itself.
In previous outings, we've looked a bit at knowledge and its limitations. In Who, What, When, Where, How, Why? we spent some time on what it means to know something, how knowledge is defined, and where we have to draw the line and say 'we can't know that'. I talked specifically about why I shy away from absolute or ontological statements. To summarise what I said there, because we're limited to what we can observe, and because there's no observation we can make, even in principle, that can tell us that what we observe is, in a fully ontological sense, real, we have to stop short of this kind of absolute statement and admit that there's a limit to what we can know. The philosophical literature -as well as science fiction - is riddled with models that are equally adept in terms of explaining what we observe without it being real. The Matrix, brain-in-a-vat, solipsism, idealism, all are empirically equivalent.
Much like the uncertainty principle which we've discussed in previous posts, although for different reasons, there are absolute limitations to what we can know. And these limitations can't be breached by any cunning in our observations, either, they're absolute logical barriers to knowledge.
What we didn't discuss in that earlier article is that this isn't simply a limitation that applies to humans. It isn't a limitation of science any more or less than it's a limitation to epistemology. As such, this limitation applies to everything. It's quite literally an omni-limitation, and it applies equally to any entity that could reasonably be described as a deity. Thus, a deity could only ever have the illusion of omniscience.
'OK', you might say, 'but what if we limit omniscience to what is logically possible?'
This is a reasonable objection, but it isn't without problems when coupled with other assertions from the same classical theology, and it's time to address those. We're going to come back to omniscience later, but I want to move on to the next item in our shopping list; omnipotence.
Omnipotence translates into the vernacular as 'all power'. There's a classic argument against this in the form of a question, namely 'can your god create a rock so heavy that he can't lift it?' This question has been thrown around a fair bit over many hundreds of years, and there seem to be quite a few possible get-outs. I prefer to cast the question slightly differently as 'can god construct a pile of bricks so heavy that he can't lift it?'
On the face of it, this looks like exactly the same argument, but cast like this it's easy to highlight a problem with the main get out, the assertion that the proposition is inherently incoherent. By casting it in this manner, what we're actually doing is bringing this power into the realm of what can be achieved by an ordinary person. I can do this. Indeed, it used to be about 12 or 14 bricks (or slightly more or fewer depending on the type of brick), but is now considerably fewer since injuring my lower spine a few years ago.
The point is that I can carry out this act, whereas I can't build a rock. This becomes important, because it's perfectly reasonable to say that god can't do something illogical, but it's quite another to suggest that an entity that has 'all power' can't do something that a mere mortal can do. This is a perfectly coherent, logical 'power' that an omnipotent entity simply cannot do. If it can construct a pile of bricks it can't lift, then there's a limit to what it can lift, and it therefore cannot be omnipotent. If it can't construct such a pile, then it fails to possess a power that even I possess, meaning that there are abilities that it cannot possess. To be clear, there's nothing illogical about the act, it only becomes absurd when you bring omnipotence into the mix, meaning that it's omnipotence that's absurd.
I've heard many attempts to circumvent this, but they all fail for pretty much the same reason. If anybody knows of a good counter to this, feel free to post it in the comments and I'll either address it or concede the argument.
The most common attempted counter is that god can choose not to be able to lift it. That's all well and good but, if he can choose to lift it again later, then he was never without the ability to lift it. If he chooses to no longer have the ability to lift it at all, he's excluded a power and therefore is not omnipotent.
As far as I'm aware, there is no sound rebuttal to this.
I'm going to say very little about omnipresence except to note that I have no problem at all with something being in more than one place at a time. Indeed, I've talked in previous posts about quantum mechanics, and especially the principle that entities can have more than one location, and that this precise principle is what underpins both fusion in stars and the operation of the microchips in the computer I'm employing to deliver my various musings about thought. There are even well-regarded models in which all the electrons in the universe are actually the same electron! This means that, on its own, something being in multiple locations is not an attribute that points to divinity.
There's one more omni that we should talk about, because it's another one that gets tossed around a fair bit; omnibenevolence. This is simply the idea that god is 'all good'.
Now, a simple reading of any of the major holy texts of monotheism will rapidly disabuse you of the notion that the entity described in them is in any way good. The deity described in the Torah is a ruthless imperialist, and has no compunction in annihilating entire races and taking their possessions (and their virgin daughters - for what, we can easily guess - once everybody else has been slaughtered) when it suited his needs. The deity of the Qu'ran and the Bible are largely the same book, with some additions that don't much improve things. Certainly the god of the New Testament seems, on a cursory reading, to be a little more likeable, except that, among other things, we've now been introduced to the lake of fire, a metaphor for infinite torture for finite crimes. Indeed, since the only truly unforgivable crime is failure to give obeisance to the god in question, and all other sins, no matter how heinous, will be forgiven on accepting salvation, it's not stretching things too much to say that the goodness quotient has actually reduced.
Another thing that strikes you about the NT is the very central tenet of Christianity. It's often painted as the biggest selling point but, in reality, it's a truly repugnant concept to a thinking moral agent, that of vicarious redemption.
This was one of those things that always niggled at me like a splinter. I could never quite work out why this was supposed to be a good thing. It seems to me to be among the most deeply immoral ideas ever invented by the mind of man.
Here's the thing: I alone must bear the burden - whatever that might be - for the things I've said and done. The idea that I could simply divest myself of this responsibility is anathema to me, as it should be to any entity with any moral rectitude. This, completely aside from the accompanying suggestions that a) this occurs with absolutely no input from me concerning my desires in this regard and b) that the process for this has precisely nothing to do with my contributions to society and the well-being of humanity, relies only on believing in an entity that, should it actually be worthy of the appellation 'deity', should have neither want nor need of my belief or, indeed, my worship.
There's a common name for this idea, stemming from the roots of a particular practice in the ancient world. It's interesting to me that, when this moniker is employed, nobody would suggest that it's a good thing and, in fact, the word has entered the language as something quite wrong yet, when attached to this particular notion, it's delivered up as the greatest moral virtue. The name in question is, of course, 'scapegoating'. That this ideas is propounded by the purported moral arbiters of our species not only constitutes a fatal oxymoron, it tells us that it doesn't come from any divine source, but from the minds of frightened, fallible humans.
And, of course, all that is setting aside the fact that, to my mind, the idea of eternal life is excruciating, even without the eternal worship of an entity whose biography suggests is unfit to lick the boots of real moral beings.
So, aside from omnipresence, which I have no issue with, it's fairly simple to show that these omnis fail on their own terms. However, we're not done, because some really interesting things happen when you bring them together with each other and with other concepts.
I'll start here with the simplest example to ease us into the thought-space. The simplest example arises when we bring the three objectionable omnis together all at once, and it comes to us in the form of an obvious incongruence with observation, and the classic 'problem of evil'.
Now, I have issues with the concept of evil. It carries with it an awful lot of baggage and, being largely defined as violation of God's wishes is ultimately predicated on the existence of god. In Morality and the False Dichotomy, I talked at length about the perils of moral absolutes, and how they're not really morality.
That said, I'll use the term evil here as essentially 'unnecessary harm', as long as the caveat is borne in mind.
Observation tells us that evil exists as defined above. In this context, there can be no entity that has all three of those omnis and for evil to still exist. If an entity knows all about evil, has the power to stop it, and doesn't, it isn't benevolent, let alone omnibenevolent. If it's omnibenevolent and omniscient and doesn't, it can't, thus it isn't omnipotent. If it's omnipotent and omnibenevolent and doesn't, it's ignorant. This exhausts the possibilities, and shows that no entity with all three attributes can co-exist with evil.
The general attempt to escape from this is to invoke free will, but that idea is so riddled with problems that it's only the absurdities holding it together. I'm going to finish this outing with two of them.
The first is obvious, namely that a multi-omni deity would have known how things were going to turn out and could have created the universe without evil.
The second is a little more tricky, and requires some unpacking. This little chestnut has troubled apologists for generations; the compatibility of omniscience and free will. It's actually quite simple, but contains subtleties that can be tricky to grasp. It has even led to an entire area of thinkers, compatibilitists, and has garnered swathes of discourse, much of it nonsense.
The basic idea is straightforward. The sceptic will argue that omniscience and free will are not compatible, because omniscience entails determinism.
On the face of it, this looks unobjectionable, yet the cognitive pretzels erected to try to rescue free will and omniscience wouldn't look out of place on the ox-cart of Gordias.
Some apologists who've had a few minutes education in philosophy will assert that the incompatibilist is committing a modal fallacy. This is a fallacy that is committed when a false causal relationship is drawn between one thing and another, and the implication in this case is that God's perfect foreknowledge cannot be causal to the collapse of free will. This objection actually commits the fallacist's fallacy, in rejecting the conclusion on the basis of a perceived fallacy. The incompatibilist doesn't assert that the infallible foreknowledge is causal, merely that free will is not compatible with it.
Less sophisticated apologists will erect all sorts of examples, such as 'I offer you a mars and a snickers. I know that you will choose the snickers, and you choose the snickers; does my foreknowledge mean that you had no choice?' The answer to this is that, were such a choice to exist, the apologist could be wrong. With a properly omniscient entity, this would not be possible. If such an entity knew what I would choose, then there is no possible way I can choose contrary to his knowledge, and choice becomes an illusion. In other words, perfect, infallible foreknowledge means that the offer is more like 'I have a snickers in my hand; which will you choose?' There is no choice, because there aren't freely realisable alternatives.
Other attempts to rescue c.all upon such things as apologetic re-workings of such things are Everett's Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and suggest that God's knowledge is essentially the position that God knows all possible outcomes. This fails for precisely the same reason. If God knows which of the universes I inhabit, then there is no way that, in this universe, I could choose other than what he knows. In other universes, I might choose differently, but he knows that as well for all possible universes, or he isn't omniscient.
As it happens, there's extremely good evidence that free will is an illusion that doesn't have anything to do with omniscience. In recent years, there has been a lot of study in cognitive science dealing with the decisions we make, most notably that led by Daniel Kahneman. An entire field of study has arisen from it known as 'priming'. This research has shown that we respond differently to strangers on first meeting based on nothing more than a warm or cold drink being placed in our hands some moments before. It turns out that there are many, many constraints on our decision-making process, and influences we simply aren't aware of (and we've identified very few, but there are thought to be many). In light of this, free will must definitely be illusory. The question becomes, then, whether or not we have any will at all, free or otherwise. Even this is defeated in the case of omniscience.
So, do we have will? That's unknown, but problematic. Is the universe deterministic? Definitely not, as we discussed in treating the EPR paradox and Bell's Inequality violations in Paradox: A Game for all the Family! but this doesn't necessarily open the door to free will. Free will (or will) is predicated on determinism being false, but to assert that determinism being false means that free will is true commits the fallacy known as denying the antecedent. This takes the form:
P => ¬Q, ¬P
Where P is determinism and Q is free will.
"Of course we have free will; we have no choice" Christopher Hitchens