Can an omnipotent deity be omnibenevolent

Folks are talking about the problem of evil. John Wilkins takes on the problem of the problem of evil and Darwin, arguing that, for theologies where the problem of evil is a problem, evolution probably does less to exacerbate the issue than basic physics, or physiology, or first principles of ecology. And he's right.

But one sentence setting up this argument doesn't work for me:

Evil exists, so if you believe in a âtri-omniâ deity (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent), you had better find a reconciliation.

This idea of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god is pretty common, but the more I consider those three properties, the harder it is to see how anything could be all of those at once. And for the problem of evil to be a problem, it's really important that we assume an omnibenevolent deity.

Consider: Stating than an omnipotent, omniscient deity is also omnibenevolent essentially restricts what that deity can do: it can't do evil. Which creates several problems. First, it's a restriction on what the deity can do, so now the deity isn't omnipotent. Evil actions are like kryptonite for Superman or the color yellow for (Golden Age) Green Lantern. A god who isn't completely omnipotent has far fewer problems with the problem of evil.

But that objection (which is of the "can god make a rock so heavy even she can't lift it?" family of objections) actually isn't the biggest objection. The biggest issue comes from a form of the Euthyphro dilemma. To say that a god is omnibenevolent requires, after all, some coherent definition of good and evil. There are two basic approaches to that definition, one either says that acts are good because they are commanded by god, or they are good because they match some extrinsic definition of good. In the first case, a god clearly could not do evil, as its actions would be good by definition. On the other hand, if there's an extrinsic definition of good, and an omnipotent god can't modify that definition, then the god isn't omnipotent, and anyway, why worry about the god? Why not focus on the extrinsic definition of good (and maybe on that definition's origins)?

And if one drops the requirement of omnibenevolence, the problem of evil largely goes away. In that case, evil could exist because god wants it to, or because it prevents some greater evil, or because our sense of good and evil is hopelessly bound up in our finite existence, and the issues that concern an omnipotent, omniscient, infinite being don't easily map onto the concerns of limited, finite meatbags (I explored some of these issues in the comments at Jason Rosenhouse's blog).

It's worth noting that a requirement of omnibenevolence is hardly the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The Biblical God â whether the Jewish God or the Christian God of the New Testament â does all sorts of cruel things. Some of them can be argued to serve some good purpose (whether those are good arguments is a different issue), but some cannot. For instance, Job's sufferings come precisely because he is blameless. Satan is hanging out with God right at the beginning of the book (this was written while Judaism was at least henotheistic, if not polytheistic). God says: "Check out my man Job. He's totally righteous." And Satan says: "Only because you treat him so well, dude." And God says: "Wanna bet?" And Satan says: "Sure, you let me mess with him, and I bet he'll curse you in no time." They shake on it, and off Satan goes.

So Job's family gets killed and his house burns down and his sheep get stolen and so forth. And Job sits on the ashes of his house, and his jackass friends prate at him about how this must be punishment for some sin, or perhaps chastisement against future sin, or maybe it's all part of some plan that will ultimately work toward the greater good. But we, as readers, know that it's just a bet between members of the pantheon. We know there's no grand plan. But then God shows up and lectures Job out of the whirlwind, telling him how he has no right to question the infinitely wise plans God has drawn up.

And that's how it ends. At some point, some jackass bowdlerized the text by slapping on a happy ending (it's like a country song played backwards: Job gets back his wife and kids and house and dog and pickup truck), but we know the score. God's speech out of the whirlwind is great poetry, but the omniscient narrator told us that it's BS. God is lying to Job to cover his ass.

In college, I took a course on the problem of evil in Jewish thought, and Job was obviously a big part of the discussion. In one of the essays, I worked my way up to some dichotomy in which the authors of the text had to either envision their god as omnibenevolent, or as being capable of evil. I said something like, "we can disregard the latter possibility," and I proceeded on the omnibenevolent assumption. The professor rightly dinged me for that choice, asking the question that seems central to this whole issue:

"What would happen if we didn't disregard the possibility that god could do evil?"

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If there is one thing that no one I've ever known who believes in God seems to agree on, it's that God isn't a person. We are people and we are limited, individually and collectively. So anything we can say about a number of things is limited by our abilities, the structure of the universe, the scope and character of evolution, the foundations of the number system and logic. Given our inability to comprehensively understand those, the idea that we could comprehend God is idolatrous. Even the seemingly infinite tripartite formula Omni.... is a limitation. I like what it says in the beginning of Moses und Aron, by Schoenberg, Single, eternal, omnipresent, invisible, unimaginable, I especially like the last one, which opens up the implied limitations of the definitions and accounts for seeming contradictions.

In the comments at the link, it talks about the idea that God couldn't act in contradiction to logic. Logic is a human development based in our experience of the physical universe, it's the product, first, of our every day experience of how things happen and every other development of logical application stands on that experience. Nothing we can do with logic or mathematics or science, never mind every other time we use logic, can escape that heritage, it's only through that experience that we have any reason to believe in even the most sophisticated and impressive product of logic. Which is the reason I can't accept the fashionable idea in some branches of physics that you can separate science from the knowledge of the physical world.

But if you believe God is omnipotent that would include the ability to surpass the restrictions of logic, if that wasn't the case then in some sense logic would be more powerful than God and God wouldn't be omnipotent. Remembering that God isn't a person and that logic is the product of human experience, then that's not such a troubling idea. God could create a rock so big God couldn't pick it up and also pick it up, to put it in a way that seems illogical but I think it's, actually, logical.

Given that, any answer we could come up with on the question of a benevolent God and the existence of evil is bound to be unsatisfying, for whatever reason, we don't have access to an answer to the question that will make sense or give us an understanding of how a benevolent God, who could construct a universe or a human experience that would achieve whatever end we can assign to the existence of evil that would also allow us to be free of suspicions about the benevolence of God. Since we can't understand what would seem to be far simpler problems of the physical universe with the tools we've made from our experience of the physical universe, expecting those to result in an understanding of the mind of God is irrational.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

Oh, I forgot the important point. Isn't it a sin of omission for all that effort disputing The Problem of Evil be better spent on trying to keep people from doing rotten stuff to other people and animals and other living beings. Maybe the problem is we're not holding up our end of things.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

I think you are being a little simplistic here, Josh. Theists have debated these matters for ages, and the idea of omnipotence merely means that anything that is in the nature of the deity to do, they can do. It is not the idea they will do anything. So logical constraints do not reduce omnipotence, for example, and neither do moral constraints (a far more interesting debate is whether or not the deity constrains morality or is constrained by it - Euthyphro's Dilemma).

I think evil is incompatible with tri-omnism. Hence I agree we must decide which tine of the tripartite fork to abandon. Personally, I think it is best to abandon omniscience, since there are good reasons for thinking that is incoherent independently.

the idea of omnipotence merely means that anything that is in the nature of the deity to do, they can do.

The idea that a deity can have a nature has the problem of deities being supernatural. I wonder how the idea of God having a nature would fit into the idea of God being above nature. Not to mention that people limiting God as having a "nature" contradicts the idea that God is omnipotent.

I don't think it's legitimate to apply logic to the question for the reasons I stated above.

By the way, as at J. W's blog, it would have been clearer, though more cumbersome to talk about God not being a "human being" instead of not being a "person", though the word can mean human being which I think is fairly clear from what I said.

"Evil" hasn't ever had a universally agreed to definition, by the way. Lots of things which I'd assert are obviously evil, killing people who aren't dangerous, destroying an ecosystem, don't bother other people. The problem of evil in human beings isn't as much a matter of coming up with a logical argument which is irrefutable as one of persuasion which requires appealing to a wider range of thoughts and experiences than the merely logical. It requires contact on a scale that's far too intimate and particular, it requires human contact, emotional contact. As with religious conviction, convincing someone in morals can only happen on a subjective basis.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 16 Mar 2011 #permalink

re your professor, undoubtedly he was familiar with this from Deuteronomy 32:39 -

"See now that I am he, there is no god beside me. I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, and no one can deliver from my hand."

John: I'd distinguish "will do anything" from "can do anything." If a deity can't do some things (e.g., evil things), how can we call it omnipotent? Saying it can do anything consistent with its nature seems rather circular.

All that being said, yeah, this is probably simplistic, but that's why I tossed it out on the blog, to have the holes pointed out. And I know these issues have a long history, and I'd be surprised if I were the first to attempt this line of argument. I just don't know that history, and hope for enlightenment.

Hemmingway's suicide note is in "A Farewell To Arms".

The protaginist is watching ants crawl on a log, in the middle of a fire, as he waits for rescue in a dire situation. He has a tin of water in his hand and watches the fire grow, yet while not angry with the ants, he is indifferent to their plight.

That indifferent god, was too much for E. H. Hand me the shotgun.

The premise of a omnibenevelant god is a concept. The idea of grass, water, cold fusion, war, peace, good and evil et al comes from concepts and those are the only tools used in this discusion to determine wether there is a god. Conceptual thought allows us to assign good and evil to actions, and pass conceptual judgement on same.

If god is merely an indifferent Laplace type demon, then Hemmingway should have killed himself in the face of the most depressing war in history, ww1.

Check out Becker's "Denial of Death". I love the Occidental perfection of compartmentalization as expressed by a genius, who then, keels over dead! Beautiful. Christopher Hitchens must love that, as he wastes away from cancer directly after publishing 'God is not Great".

You guys are pretty damn smart, and thats the problem.

The answer to all these question, imo, its as close as I have come, is with Oriental philosophy and intrisic insight which is not trasmitted through words, or objective experience. Sufi, Kabalah, Zen, etc etc, and the answer will be personal.

Just my opinion, but concepts and thought is our world that we have created in our own Descartian perception of this realm.

Confuscious would suspend the"Naming of names".

Maybe Timothy Leary was smarter than we thought.

Among the enormous number of problems with trying to deal with these questions, the stubborn assertion that you can reason your way through them, when numerous generations of smart people have failed to come up with a proof persists. There isn't any reason to think it can be done now, not with science, since the question of evil requires judgments that lie far, far outside of the competence of science.

If the cannon of the Bible didn't include the story of creation, I wonder if the feverish issues of trying to dispel God with science or the strange idea that you can use science to understand God is just as unfounded as the idea that you can use God to explain the structure of matter or the physical history of life, scientifically.

Science is supposed to exclude everything except the observable, measurable, analyzable, physical universe, it begins by excluding any of the information you would need to begin to address these questions. You wouldn't choose a sports team with science, you wouldn't, or at least shouldn't, favor a scientific theory on the basis of political conviction. But the culture of scientists, and so science, is social and political, and in no other part of science does political influence come in as much as in evolutionary biology, it was put there by Charles Darwin, for good or ill, that's as undeniable as his admission that his reading of Malthus was the inspiration of natural selection. It continues, at least, in the culture of scientists today, though a lot of evolutionary biology has gone past it.

I do think that a lot of the current antagonism against religion is political and class based. Go read the comment threads at even a liberal new atheist blog, such as PZs, and read the class and at times regional derision. I think much of the historical precedence of that is quite illiberal, and as seen in Thomas Huxley, explicitly racist. I have an enormous problem with the traditional concept of natural selection because of its economic foundations in Malthusian ideology. Much, much more of that ideology survives through out the history of Darwinism, it persists today in the general culture, as you can hear in David Brooks book tour or S. Pinker's influential ideology.

While a lot of the new atheists are proper representatives of the present day, university based, educated elites, supporting the somewhat ineffective social welfare programs such as the English speaking Peoples have been allowed, and a range of civil rights for minorities - Richard Dawkins, to be fair - a lot of what they hold undermines the social and intellectual foundations of equality and justice. The lessons of history from that most infamous statement of Darwin about the dysgenic effects of social welfare (from Dickens Britian!) and the immediately appended, ass covering, demurral saying we had to give aid, though it was dangerous, I'd say that the demurral is not what's going to be politically effective.

Marilynne Robinson said that the elite of Europe have long been eager to be relieved of the concern for the poor that Judaism and Christianity mandate, they found the voice of God, demanding justice to be annoying and very occasionally inconvenient. That's been the history of that religious tradition, even the books of the First Testament talk about it. I find the case she's made in her essays, Mother Country, The Death of Adam and Absence of Mind, to be far more convincing that anything I've read from the other side.

Just off hand, Mother Country couldn't be more relevant with the nuclear catastrophe in Japan going on, though it deals with Britain dumping nuclear waste into the sea and its possibility due to the rejection of justice by the elites of England going back to the Tudor era. Much of what she says about the historical precedents is similar to what William Cobbett pointed out in his history of the Reformation in England.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

Oh, well, I cut off a sentence of two in editing. I'm a lousy editor. Blog commenting is inherently a quick and dirty form of communication. Hope it's not too disjointed.

By Anthony McCarthy (not verified) on 17 Mar 2011 #permalink

I always considered the problem more directly. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he's morally responsible for things like earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disasters. This is especially true if you hold to the idea he created the Universe (hence he designed all those elements into it, when by definition he has the power and knowledge to avoid such problems).

Reality simply doesn't allow for such a Trifecta Being (all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful) to exist. Please note this handily avoids the airy arguments about "free will" that are often used to defend the existence of evil. Getting rid of natural disasters doesn't require messing around with human brains. Further, it can't be defended by the idea that these are tests, since there are plenty of people outright killed by such disasters. For them, no testing can possibly occur.

By Drachasor (not verified) on 19 Mar 2011 #permalink

I always considered the problem more directly. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, then he's morally responsible for things like earthquakes, plagues, and other natural disasters. This is especially true if you hold to the idea he created the Universe (hence he designed all those elements into it, when by definition he has the power and knowledge to avoid such problems).

Reality simply doesn't allow for such a Trifecta Being (all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful) to exist. Please note this handily avoids the airy arguments about "free will" that are often used to defend the existence of evil. Getting rid of natural disasters doesn't require messing around with human brains. Further, it can't be defended by the idea that these are tests, since there are plenty of people outright killed by such disasters. For them, no testing can possibly occur.

By Drachasor (not verified) on 19 Mar 2011 #permalink

Well said. The problems with the tri-omni representation are numerous and seemingly insurmountable.

Plus, for Christianity, we have no record of Christ uttering the word "omnibenevolence"--it's a Greek root and, I believe, resulted from scholars fully centuries ano domini.

Not too surprising to think that Jewish mystical teachings did not shoehorn into Hellenic logic so easily.

By isomorphismes (not verified) on 12 Mar 2013 #permalink