I don’t generally try and define God. It is not my place to tell people what a god is. I will generally ask what a person believes and why, and then deal with what I hear rather than attack straw-men.
And yet there are some attributes that are generally associated with God, especially in western culture. When you press most people, they will define the omni-max god; the god they believe in to be omniscient, omnipotent, and maybe even omnipresent. Sometimes, omni-benevolence even added, although that last one makes no logical sense in light of the previous three.
I refer, of course, to the famous question posed by Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
This is, perhaps, one of the most eloquent ways of illuminating the problem of evil. I shows two things; the first is that the skepticism about the nature of god in light of reality is ancient. The second is that the logical problems of a god with all of the attributes listed above are of legitimate concern for anyone who takes such things seriously.
And many do take this issue seriously. There is a whole area of study within theology and apologetics called theodicy designed to respond to this problem of evil. It is not my intention to evaluate theodicy here or to expound upon the problem of evil itself. It is brought up because it lays tangentially next to an issue that brings up some of the same type of logical problems.
Free will. Perhaps one of the most complicated philosophical problems to struggle with, and one I will not even attempt to solve here, is the question of how we can be free. I’ll say, briefly, that I don’t think that the question is as simple as the dichotomy of determinism and free will. One of the reasons is that I don’t think that the universe operates under circumstances that allow the question to be rationally parsed so simplistically. Essentially, I tend to agree with compatibilists.
One of the issues is how free will is defined. Obviously, our will is not absolutely free. I cannot will impossible things, or even possible things that are beyond my cognitive or physical ability. My will is limited to what is possible for me to accomplish. The question is to what extent do the predictable laws (if they can actually be called laws) of nature determine what options an agent has at any point. To what degree is cause and effect responsible for our decisions?
So what does this have to do with God? Well, if God is omniscient and omnipotent, does that not imply that God knows everything and has the power to make the universe any way that it wants? That’s what the words seem to imply to me, but perhaps my Latin is weak. Would this not imply that every word I type here, the position you are in sitting or standing while reading it, and whether you are tapping your foot or not were all things known by God when it created the universe? If so, in what sense did we choose these actions?
Apologists will insist that God gave us free will, and so we have the ability to choose our daily actions. This way, our obedience or disobedience to god are our responsibility. In fact, some apologists will argue that our belief is our responsibility (I disagree; belief is not subject to the will. I believe or disbelieve because I have been convinced or not, not because I choose to). But what does the deciding? Are our bodies not part of the so-called creation which is subject to the laws of nature? Is there a part of us that is not effected (and yet affects) the rest of us such that it is not subject to the same laws?
Pardon my skepticism–no, scratch that, I will not apologize for my skepticism–but I see no reason to believe that any such thing exists as part of us. From what we have been able to tell, our thoughts, feelings, decisions, and opinions are all housed in a biological machine of the brain and body which are part of the chain of cause and effect like everything else. Our decision-making powers are all subject to being altered by states of emotions, how tired or intoxicated we are, etc that leaves little to no room for contra-causal free will, let alone a vehicle for such a thing.
But back to a deity; what sense does it make to say that a God who knows everything and is capable of creating the universe any way it wants to (perhaps within logical possibility, if this is in fact a limitation on God. If so, then so much for the transcendental argument for God), at the same time is not responsible for any “choice” that anyone makes? If I choose to type the word ‘poppycock’ right now, one question could be whether I could have chosen any other word, but the more pertinent question here is whether this was really my choice at all if God created the world exactly this way and knew that this word ‘poppycock’ would be the one I would choose at that time. Otherwise God is not omniscient.
A common apologetic is to argue that God chooses not to know certain things. That in giving us free will, God gives us a gift of choice. This is nice to assert, but it does not hold up to scrutiny. “But God can do anything!” some will say. Yes, but that is precisely the question at hand; does it make any sense for God to be omnipotent and omniscient (that, in itself may be redundant) and yet for people it created to be free to make choices? I don’t think so.
Something has to give here. God’s nature will have to be reevaluated (and many theologians do just that, I am aware), our freedom will have to be reevaluated (and reformed theology deals with this), or we have to get rid of this concept of an omni-max god. My interest here is to have people realize that the omni-max god has theological and philosophical issues that need to be dealt with. One cannot simply say, and stand on rational foundations, that God is all-knowing and all-powerful and that you actually chose to submit your life to him and that because I have not I am damning myself. That is absurd.
If God is truly omni-max, then I am exactly as God intended; an unrepentant non-believer who openly challenges the theology that it is solely responsible for. I don’t do it out of hatred for any concepts of gods or even of those who follow it. I do it because it is absurd. And if this omni-max God is real, then it knows my reasons for not believing and has not seen fit to have made me any other way.