Direct continuation of: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 4: Skeptical Theism
Follow up to: Cl, Bubonic Plagues, and Bibles, Part I
This series is about looking at a series of YouTube videos by user TheraminTrees called “There are no gods”, that set out to explain what TheraminTrees used to believe about gods, and why he is an atheist now — including which gods he rejects, why, and with how much certainty. I’m still analyzing his second video, which is about the gods he can reject with near absolute certainty, because they involve logically incompatible properties and thus are logically impossible.
So far we’ve ruled out omnipotent gods (for being incompatible with the state of free will, moral perfection, and absolute immortality); knowably omnibenevolent gods (for being incompatible with Hell, suffering, evil); gods you can pray to; and omniscient gods who still get genuinely surprised or upset. That’s a lot of divine real estate, but there’s still more to be said! In this last part of the second video, TheraminTrees takes aim against gods said to be perfect.
From Whence Comes Imperfection?
The idea of perfection is pretty complex, and people have many different views on what perfection would entail God to do. Many people argue that perfection would compel a god to intervene in human events, enforce an omnibenevolent will, and oversee humanity’s ascension to Heaven. Other people argue that perfection would compel a god to be completely hands-off and detached from human affairs.
TheraminTrees moves to discuss the parts of perfection we do agree on firmly — namely, that a perfect being never makes mistakes. Thus, if God is the omnipotent creator of the universe, the universe God makes must be devoid of mistakes, and therefore perfect.
Yet, the world is not perfect. Some kinds of imperfection we might point to are the types of suffering we examined in “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil” — nonhuman animal suffering and birth defects. Yet, these forms of suffering are indeed debatable, so let’s turn to a type of imperfect that isn’t easily debatable: the idea that humans are imperfect. This is a key tenant of Christianity — humans sin — and also generically plausible given that we hurt ourselves and others both intentionally and unintentionally.
We could all be better. But this raises an interesting question: where did this imperfection come from? Are we imperfect beings created by a perfect god? If so, why? How and why could a perfect god create imperfect beings? Let’s consider an argument analyzed by Graham Oppy in his book Arguing about Gods, which I have rephrased as follows:
P1: An omnibenevolent entity would always bring about a world where humans freely preform only morally good acts provided that (1) it is logically possible to bring about such a world and (2) the entity is capable of bringing about that world.
P2: It is logically possible to create a world where humans freely preform only morally good acts.
P3: An omnipotent entity can realize any logically possible world.
C4: Therefore from P6 through P8, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent entity would realize a world in which humans freely preform only morally good acts.
P5: Our world is not a world in which humans freely preform only morally good acts.
C6: Therefore from C9 and P10, no entity can exist that is simultaneously omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
This argument is logically valid and the premises are very plausible: P3 and P5 are utterly uncontroversial, so all the debate must occur within P1 and P2. But P2 seems true because of the nature of compatibilist free will and the untenability of libertarian free will, as well as God himself having free will yet being genuinely incapable of evil, and that Heaven is traditionally conceived as a place where people have free will yet don’t commit evil acts.
P1 seems obvious on first glance, but given everything we’ve talked about skeptical theism, we have to defend that we can actually know this. I think it can be most easily defended by another appeal to the fact that Heaven has people freely preforming only morally good acts, yet is preferable to life on Earth. But more generally, it seems further defensible by taking it to be definitionally true — the morally good acts would be whatever maximizes even the goods unknowable to us, and then this argument shifts to P2 which can be defended by an appeal to the fact that humans are declared to be sinful and imperfect by God himself.
Thus what looks like a characteristic-world incompatibility argument (omnibenevolent, omnipotent gods are incompatible with a world in which humans do not freely preform only morally good acts) is actually better understood as a characteristic-characteristic incompatibility argument (omnibenevolence and omnipotence are incompatible with a god that declares his creation to have become imperfect). Now let’s look at this in a bit more detail…
In my debate with Cl about the existence of needless suffering, Cl wrote in his rebuttal that all suffering (birth defects and the suffering of nonhuman animals included!) are a result of The Fall, the theological event in Genesis in which Adam freely chose to reject God and eat the poisoned fruit. Thus the Fall is the origin of all imperfection. God created a perfect world, but we ruined it. And God has to let us endure the ramifications of our own choices…
But there are like a million problems with this. Let’s start with the most obvious: this isn’t a good place to rest a theodicy, nor a tenable origin of imperfection, because given what we know, there is no way that The Fall actually happened, and a metaphorical Fall can be no justification for actual suffering. I don’t think I need to mention how Genesis is historically untenable, genetically untenable, and contradicts a lot of scientific evidence.
Now we could pack up our bags and be done here, theodicy busted. But there’s a greater point to be made, and as far as free will and imperfection are concerned, we should be far more interested in the theological and philosophical concerns — which are also numerous.
The key lemma of the Fall is that it was (1) a free choice made by Adam that (2) God had no choice but to respect and allow to unfold. But both (1) and (2) are false, given the nature of the event that actually took place. First, the choice was entirely uninformed — Adam would not have known the ramifications of his own actions without a greater understanding of how the world worked nor would he have been able to judge his actions as wrong without eating the tree in the first place. Secondly, just as we stop children from walking off cliffs, God could have intervened at any step of the way, but in fact he did the opposite by making it really easy for the Fall to take place. In fact, as mentioned in Part 2, he knew it would take place due to his omniscience and still changed nothing.
In his essay “Sins of the Father”, Adam Lee summarizes all the problems with (1) and (2) as follows:
What we have so far is this: God deliberately created a dangerous, forbidden tree and put it into Eden with no protection, then created an intelligent, evil, talking serpent to tempt Adam and Eve, and gave them an ineffective instruction they could not have known not to disobey along with a threat of punishment they could not have understood. This bizarre behavior can only be explained as the result of malice or extreme stupidity.
But granted for the moment that all this happened as written – that God could have intervened at any step of the way to stop what was about to unfold, and yet he did not. The serpent tempted Eve, and God kept silent and did not intervene. She reached out to eat from the tree, and God didn’t stop her, although he could have. She ate, and gave the fruit to Adam, whom God also did not stop from eating. Only then – once their sin was complete – did God finally show up. And instead of simply forgiving them and undoing what had happened, which he also could have done, he kicked them both out of Paradise and cursed them, condemning them to mortal lives of toil, suffering and death.
The Trouble of the First Sin
But that’s really just the tip of the iceberg, because all we’ve done is look at the action and notice that it was uninformed and unprevented. But where did the action to reject God itself come from? If Adam was created perfect, why would he do such an imperfect thing?
As Adam Lee puts it in his essay “That Fateful Apple”:
In examining this doctrine, the first question that arises is this. What caused the first sin to come into being? In other words, why did Adam and Eve choose to eat the fruit? [...] It is true that, if he gives us the option of doing good, God must logically also give us the option of doing evil. But that does not mean we must choose to do evil. Why couldn’t God have created free-willed beings who would freely choose only the good?
[...T]he fact remains that Adam and Eve did not create their own natures. Any hint of rebellion, any trace of pride, any tinge of defiance that was to be found in their natures was there because it was put there by God. (Saying they were originally created without sinful inclinations but later took them on is absurd: why would a perfectly good person choose to add negative qualities to his character?) [...] Responsibility for any imperfection to be found within any created thing must ultimately lie with the creator. It would hardly be fair for God to blame us for being exactly as he created us to be, even though the Bible tells us he repeatedly does just that.
So clearly it cannot follow that Adam and Eve were perfect yet did something imperfect. Thus God could not have made a perfect creation and we end up with another incompatibility argument: not only is the story of Genesis incompatible with an omnipotent, omniscient god who desires above all else his creation not disobey him, and not only is the story of Genesis incompatible with a perfect god incapable of making mistakes, but the concept of a perfect god is incompatible with the very fact that the current creation contains mistakes, even setting Genesis aside.
So we enter another incompatibility argument: a perfect god cannot exist, given the fact that the world is imperfect. Not only does the Fall fail to ground any explanation for why God is justified for allowing suffering in the world, but the Fall is another example of how God messed up, and another reason to doubt his existence. In the next part of this series, we’ll see just how far these incompatibility arguments can go, and then what to do with the rest of the god concepts that can’t be ruled out by logical contradiction.
Continued in: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 6: Atheism and What’s Left
Followed up in: Cl, Bubonic Plagues, and Bibles, Part II
Author’s Note: This essay was revised on June 25, 2012 and split into two different essays to space out the length.
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