As I walk along the avenue… Omniscience, Omnipotence, and #atheism

A friend of mine sends me links to Futility Closet.  It’s awesome.

One post recently caught my attention: ‘Ordained‘.

If God makes decisions, then he has a future.

But if he’s omniscient, then he already knows that future.

Can he then have free will?

Let’s be kind and pretend that the structure is logically sound (it’s not, but we can see what it’s trying to do).  And let’s tweak it so it uses more familiar language (‘If God makes decisions, then he has a future’?).

If God is omnipotent, He can do anything.

If God is omniscient, God knows what He will do tomorrow.

If God knows what He will do tomorrow, can He change His mind and do something else?

A lot of pop-atheist debate begins with setting out a definition of terms.  The standard method is to use a lick-of-the-thumb common language approach.  Omniscient means ‘can do anything’.  Omniscient means ‘knows everything’.

The problem with this approach is that denies that there’s anything intellectually serious about theology.  Imagine the outcry if a theist began an argument against Darwinism by defining evolution as ‘That thing Pokemon do to turn into stronger Pokemon.’  When physicists use terms, they might have specialist meanings that aren’t in common with the general public.  Why do we expect theological terms to be different?

Also, if we define terms in a way which is prejudicial to the case of our interlocutors, then refuse to analyse those definitions, are we really having a discussion about the possibility of God?

When we say that an omnipotent being can do anything, what do we mean by ‘anything’?  Could an omnipotent agent make twice two equal to five?  Could an omnipotent agent microwave a burrito so hot that they could not eat it?  Could an omnipotent agent make colourless green dreams sleep furiously?  Could an omnipotent agent defeat Ganon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with the Fire Rod (instead of the Silver Arrows) without breaking the rules of the game?

Language allows for a lot of valid constructions which don’t necessarily link to sensible ideas.  When we’re talking about omnipotence, is it reasonable to point to this failure of language as an inconsistency in the logic of omnipotence?

Thus, theologians and philosophers play with a lot of different ideas of omnipotence and the consequences of those ideas.  Perhaps ‘omnipotence’ means ‘a being more capable of activity greater than which it is impossible to conceive’?  In which case, omnipotence might not be terribly great: what if, for some strange reason, it’s not logically possible in some world to lift more than 51 kilogrammes?  What if our ability to conceive great things is really rubbish and there are beings which are possible but not conceivable?  And so on and so forth.  Thus, theology and philosophy of religion.

But let’s be civilised about it and say: ‘While we can’t give a really good definition of omnipotence, we basically agree on what we mean.  Super-dooper powerful.  If your omnipotent being can’t change their mind, you’ve got a problem with omnipotence.’

We similarly unpack the idea of omniscience.  Are future states ‘knowable’?  This is a contested point (future propositions might not have truth values).  Are the actions of a free agent ‘knowable’?  This is another contested point.

But we don’t need to play with those ideas too much.  We can instead look at what it means to know something.  I have TiVo.  It taped a live program this evening (Q&A).  If I watch the program now, I know what the agents will say.  That doesn’t mean that the agents were restricted in power at the time it was recorded.  Knowing the outcome of the event is secondary to the determination of the event.  Similarly, an omniscient’s knowledge of future events (if possible) isn’t what determines the future event; this knowledge is secondary to the determination of those future events.

That got pretty dense.

I go through this for a broader reason than just the above argument.  When people drop these three-liners, they rarely explore the assumptions being made which underpin them.  Big name atheists — significantly moreso than big name theists — routinely make these sort of handwaved arguments without coming terms with what the arguments mean.  Indeed, ordinary pop-atheists are actively discouraged from exploring them.

I’m an atheist, and the above, to me, shows why religious education in public schools is essential to a pluralistic society in the future.  We need a population that can discuss and interrogate its religious beliefs and its irreligious beliefs intelligently and coherently.  We don’t have a population that’s capable of it at the moment.  Why?  Because religious education, where taught, is taught by well-meaning volunteers who don’t understand the importance of good religious education, and they’re opposed by a loud group of well-meaning atheists who are incapable of any reason regarding the place of religion in society.

The future is pluralism; not secularism.

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2 thoughts on “As I walk along the avenue… Omniscience, Omnipotence, and #atheism

  1. Rather similar to my position, I deem: either great minds think alike, or the other half of the apothegm applies…

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