Another essay from my collection to chew on. Enjoy!
The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Torah, and a good many other holy works all describe situations in which God/gods chooses things. When I’ve asked, most religious people have no problem with deities in general, and their specific God in particular, having choices and making decisions. In not a few cases, people have looked at me like I had lost my mind or that I was definitely impaired in some manner even asking such a ridiculous question.
To me, however, the idea that a god, particularly an omni-god, could even understand the concept of choice, let alone actually make a decision, is nonsensical.
Here’s the thing: having a choice and making a decision are both functions requiring linear temporal existence and linear temporal thinking, coupled with limited resources and capacities. In other words, we humans (and certain other animals for that matter) make decisions and choices primarily because a) we can’t do distinct tasks and activities and use multiple individual items simultaneously and b) even if we could, we have finite resources to devote to given tasks, activities, and items, and we don’t have the capacity to enjoy every task, activity, and item simultaneously anyway. And in fact, sometimes we make choices because tasks and activities and certain items are mutually exclusive. A person who has decided to be a vegetarian cannot choose to eat beef and still be a vegetarian for example. Similarly, no one can snow ski a mountain while simultaneously scuba diving in the Keys.
But, an entity that exists without time, or outside of time, particularly planet-bound, material, linear time, couple with unlimited resources and capacity would not only have no such constraints, but, I submit, would have no way of really understanding such constraints or any reason to try to understand them. By way of comparison, most people who go to a restaurant are faced with a menu of different meal choices, from appetizers, salads, and maybe soups, to entrees, sides, drinks, and desserts. Most of us go into such restaurants knowing we aren’t going to order ten of every item on the menu if for no other reason than few of us could actually eat that much. But, we likely limit our food choices also based on resources; even really wealthy people have finite money and so most make choices to some extent to avoid wasting their money on food they won’t or can’t eat. Further, no restaurant has limitless capacity, so even if someone could in fact order a thousand meals, the likelihood is that the restaurant would not have enough ingredients on that day to be able to make all that food.
In addition to resource and capacity limits, we also make decisions based on past experience and expectations. We get cravings for example. We get in the mood for certain types of comfort food. So, many times we get foods specifically to appease those desires and we really don’t want anything else.
However, there are also times when we have such desires, but for some reason we cannot seem to meet them. Part of the issue can be the result of our decision making process; our recollection of experience is never perfect and our expectations are seldom exact. That is to say, we generally recall only part of any given experience and while we can come up with some pretty good memories that feed our expectations, we are not aware of everything and we usually leave out some items we either are not aware of or that we’ve forgotten or simply miss the fact that conditions can change between the past and present. So, we may choose a particular appetizer and entrée combo because we had an enjoyable experience with something similar in the past and we may expect that this combo will be just as satisfying, and then find we are disappointed when, in some cases, our inaccurate memory or a difference in the items, means our expectations are not met.
An omni-god would have no such constraints however. Never mind that an omni-god would have no resource limits (there is no reason to think that an omni-god couldn’t buy everything on any given menu or even every item on every menu on the planet AND store all menu items ordered in infinite refrigerators over infinite years), the inherent conditions of being an omni-god would mean that said god would actually have full awareness of experiencing eating every item on any given menu long before the restaurants even existed. An omni-god would never have any expectations about how something might be; an omni-god would have automatically experienced everything that is and will be instantaneously and simultaneously before anything actually exists.
Let’s consider some other areas in which we make choices. Many of us choose to save some of our income for emergencies or in the hopes of using it for some special vacation or other type of event. We may choose to invest some of our income in the hopes of building some wealth for a more comfortable retirement or for a little extra income to help pay for home repairs or remodeling or better furniture and or our kids’ college funds and so forth. Or take car shopping. We make all sorts of choices about cars in terms of gas mileage, size, acceleration, cost, color, style, suspension, and accessories (sunroof, stereo system, cargo/trunk accessories, etc). We make these kinds of choices nearly every day on things like grocery shopping and weekly (or daily) meal planning, on clothes shopping and daily dressing, on toothpaste and dental hygiene, and on washing dishes, washing clothes, cleaning the kitchen and taking out the trash. We make choices about doing certain activities or cancelling certain activities based on the weather, cost, needs of friends and family, driving or walking distance, crowd size, type of event, and a nearly endless list of other issues. And all of these choices are the result of just not being able to do or have everything and anything, right? We can’t have infinite clothes or wash everything we do have in one load. We can’t have every car ever made in every color and configuration. We can’t drive everywhere, never mind not being able to drive everywhere at once.
Omni-gods, however, clearly don’t have to save for anything. There can be no such thing as an emergency for an omni-god. Omni-gods can’t lose all their wealth in a bad investment. Omni-gods would never consider the issue of getting into transportation accidents, likely never using any forms of transportation anyway. Omni-gods aren’t concerned about college funds or retirement or fixed incomes or special vacations. An omni-god could, in theory, have a car that could become any and every car ever dreamed up instantaneously and (and this is a little hard to imagine, but I submit logical) simultaneously.
So then, in what sense would…no could…a God ever “choose” anything? What would such a god have to ever decide? Where would any such entity ever approach a situation of choice; of “either/or”? I submit such an entity could never have a choice; there could be no such thing. Such an entity could never have any constraints requiring a division of options and thus would never even have an opportunity to pause for such a condition, let alone actually understand considering such a condition.
Now I’m sure there are those who will quibble and say something like, “but clearly God can still understand the concept of decision making because Its omniscience would provide that understanding or it could be aware of how we make decisions.” Maybe, but that’s not really addressing my point. And even that has issues associated with it – such as whether some entity can ignore their knowledge and understanding of some subject in order to understand how some other entity thinks that does not understand a given subject – which I’ll touch on later.
My point here is that I do not buy into a god concept in which said god is said to choose something. I just can’t do that. It’s inherently illogical. If an omni-entity never has to make a decision, why would it? More so, if an omni-entity’s inherent characteristics make it impossible for it to ever arrive at an either/or condition, how could it? Given these points, I cannot accept the concept of an omni-god that is said to make a choice or a decision, particularly on the spot. To me, such an entity could never encounter such a spot. Such an entity would have already provided for any and all such situations long before they occurred. And further, Its very nature would make such situations moot; an omni-entity’s ability to create reality instantaneously would eliminate any and all alternative possibilities for the omni-entity (and frankly, anything existing within the omni-entity’s framework, but we’ll deal with that later. In other words, an entity worth describing as “God”, to me, could not be whimsical. Such an entity could not be arbitrary. Such an entity could never “desire” or “want” something more than something else. For one thing, as noted, an omni-god could have anything and everything It became aware of. For another, an omni-god could not recognize or understand “more than” or “less than”. It could not, for example, choose to arbitrarily heal one person from a particularly lethal form of cancer, but few, if any, others. I submit that such an entity would have no capability for such an action. Such an entity would not be able to have a “preference” for one thing over something else. Everything such an entity “wanted” in any sense would simply be, unless one can introduce some object or concept that presents an omni-god with a condition to consider. I cannot image what that could be. An omni-god could never experience being surprised. An omni-god could never encounter a situation and go, “Hmmm…I didn’t see that coming!” As such, such an entity could never consider anything, let alone change its mind about anything. It could never experience something and go, “You know…maybe that wasn’t the best idea.” An omni-god could not regret anything and thus, an omni-god would…no could…never change anything. I submit that the moment one subscribes to the concept of an omni-god as the creator of the universe, that entity is inherently banished from ever choosing to do anything further with that universe and, thus, is inherently banished from ever interacting with that universe in any way. And yes…this means I do not believe at all in miracles or the use of prayer or blessing of food and wine or communion or any number of other religious activities and claims of the supernatural. All such activities and claims would require such an entity to choose to change some aspect of its creation and I submit that such an entity could not, by inherent characteristic, do that.
I like the connection between temporality and planning, as well as the connection between choice and finitude. An infinitely powerful being that wasn’t restricted by temporal finitude is not a being that could choose.
It may interest you to know that one philosopher who recognized this and drew out all the necessary implications was Benedict (or Baruch) Spinoza (1632-1677). He is best known for two works of philosophy, neither of which has published under his name during his lifetime: the Theological-Political Treatise (published anonymously) and the Ethics (published posthumously).
In The Ethics Spinoza begins with the following definition of God: “By God I mean absolutely infinite being, i.e. substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence” A substance is defined as “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself” and something is “finite” if it is limited by something else of the same “nature” as itself (e.g. a physical object is finite because we can always conceive of a larger physical object).
From these definitions, Spinoza proceeds to show (1) God must exist and (2) only God exists.
This means that the only thing that exists is something that is infinitely powerful and that expresses its power in every way that it possibly can.
This turns out to be quite crucial: because it follows (Spinoza thinks) that God is constantly doing everything that God possibly can, and God can do everything that is logically possible. Hence there is no room in Spinoza’s theology for the idea that God makes choices, or actualizes some possibilities and not others.
But wait there’s more!
Because nothing exists that isn’t God, that includes all finite things — quarks, quasars, and Quakers, cabbages and kings. All finite things exist only as part of God. They are what he calls “modes” (a modulation or modification — God’s essence expressed in a particular, distinct way). And God does not have free will, neither do any of his modes — including, of course, us.
Part of what Spinoza means by this is that we cannot (he thinks) fail to pursue that which we believe and perceive to be good for us. Yet we are often mistaken about what is really good for us, because we have inadequate knowledge of what is really conducive to our flourishing. The more we know about what is really good for us, the more reliably and consistently we will pursue it, and the happier we will be as a result.
Anyway, just sharing some ideas from Spinoza, one of my all-time favorites, and thought you might be amused to know that in the 17th century, an obscure, excommunicated Jewish lens-grinder set forth very similar ideas.
Wow! I had no idea that Spinoza had a similar concept! I am not so arrogant to think I’m the first person this type of thought would have occurred to or even that I’m the first person to really articulate it the way I have, but I did not know that someone like Spinoza had put forth such a detailed consideration of the concept. Cool!
I admit, I have really detailed much of a theology on the idea of gods having/not having choices. This is merely my attempt to put into thought issues I’ve had with other people’s claims/concepts about God/gods.
And I can certainly understand how and why most theists wouldn’t give a second thought to the idea of their God(s) making decisions. I’m sure that for most folk there’s no reason to even question such. What does puzzle me though is such folk seem to conceive of their God(s) as…I don’t know…something (someone?) more analogous to Dr. Strange or Wanda Maximoff. That sort of embodiment of God(s) strikes me as both very cartoonish and ridiculously limiting.
For the record, I don’t know that I think of God as an infinite substance, but I’ll have to think on that a bit. The problem of course is that the moment a person tries to consider “God” in any sense, we inherently place some form of conceptual constraint on It because we a) cannot consider much about that which we cannot conceptualize in some way, and b) it’s virtually impossible to articulate that which is completely beyond imagination and conceptualization. Even trying to draw an analogy to “God” and the Star Wars universe’s “Force” places to many limiting parameters and contradictions I think. But, it’s fun to ponder anyway.
Agreed, the average theist who hasn’t had much theology has a basically pagan conception of God — what I call the “Lawrence Olivier wrapped in a sheet” conception. (Olivier played Zeus in a 1981 film called Clash of the Titans. I had the lunch-box in 1st grade.)
That is, in the absence of any theological or metaphysical training, the average theist imagines God as being a god, much like Zeus or Odin or whomever: supremely powerful, capable of doing extraordinary things that seem like magic to us, expecting us to behave in certain ways and prepared to punish us if we don’t.
Of course, the average atheist also has a similar conception of God, which is why Dawkins can make the “one less god than you do” move.
On the other hand, once we get into theology, it becomes clear that people who take really seriously what an omni-god would have to be like, end up pretty far away from what most people imagine.
Among them, Spinoza is probably the most extreme because he doesn’t care about placating the masses. (This is both why he was excommunicated and possibly deserved to be!) He just says explicitly that the Hebrew Bible is nothing more than the stories that the Israelites told themselves because they were ignorant about how the world really worked, and the New Testament is just basic ethical principles dressed up with colorful language because most people are ruled by the emotions of hope and fear rather than by reason alone. Unlike Maimonides or Aquinas, he’s not interested in watering down his criticisms of what the masses imagine God to be like.
This is why, when people ask me if I believe in God, I sometimes say, “I’m a Spinozist. I know that God exists — I don’t need the superstitions and fantasies of ‘faith’.”
It just goes to show that the gods we come up with are projections of us, just bigger.
Another bit of illogic: I wonder why a god would create frail, mortal beings like humans. If a god wanted companions, would it not just create more gods? At least then it would have beings with which it could have meaningful interactions.
I love Lawrence Olivier (I yes, I know his portrayal of Zeus…good image!), although funny enough, my absolute favorite bit of his work is not of him acting, but rather narrating. He narrated the 1973 BBC documentary The World at War. Just an amazing documentary all around imho.
I don’t know where I stand theologically at this point, but I do not subscribe to superhero, scenery chewing gods. I think I’m open to the idea of there being a God of some sort, but definitely not a personal, chummy sort of fellow. But then, maybe not as extreme as Spinoza’s God either. I don’t know. I’m hoping these essays open up some ideas for me.
Yep…a 20′ Jesus will solve all problems. 🙂
Funny enough, I have an essay that touches on that thought too. I mean really…if you’re a God and want peers, you’re kind of scrapping the waaay bottom of the barrel with humans. We are hardly good peers to each other most of the time; I can’t image how disappointed a God would be with us. Well…if a God could actually be disappointed…
I had a feeling you would.
For those interested in theological musings, I recently read “The Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice” (PDF) by Hans Jonas. Jonas presents what he calls a “coherent myth” for how a Jew can retain their faith in God — that is, God as understood by Jewish tradition — in light of the Holocaust.*
One point he makes, which is why I thought of sharing it here, is that we are required both logically and theologically to give up on the idea of divine omnipotence. We are required to give up logically because the concept of power makes no sense without something that resists it: power is a relational word. Omnipotence would require a relation with only one relatum — a contradiction. Theologically, we are required to give up on divine omnipotence for the sake of both fidelity to Hebrew scripture — God is depicted as suffering, as grieving, as making mistakes — and especially because of how the ‘problem of evil’ has been transformed by the fact of the Holocaust.
* In keeping with ordinary usage, I’ll use “the Holocaust” to refer to the mass extermination of 12 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, by the National Socialists. Many Jews avoid this term because it comes from a Hebrew word (via the Greek) that means “burnt offering” or “sacrifice”. So it conveys the suggestion that these murders were somehow commanded by God. Instead Jews use the word “Shoah”, which is Hebrew for “catastrophe”. Some Jewish philosophers, such as Theodore Adorno and Hans Jonas, use “Auschwitz” as a metonym for what happened. They do so in order to show that the enormity of the destruction cannot be classified together with any other event under a common noun.
This is interesting. I’ll take a look.
One thing I’m not immediately grasping: I get the theological issue, but I’m not sure I understand the logical one. It could be that I’m not thinking of omnipotence the same way Hans Jonas is. I haven’t thought a lot about it, but just giving it some consideration, I don’t think of omnipotence as something I can measure in joules or kilowatts. So, I’m not sure I understand what Hans Jonas means regarding power (or really, omnipotence) needing something to resist it.
If God is omnipotent, he can create compliance, therefore he has no need of omnipotence?
Thanks for providing these links.
In this publication Jonas speculates about God’s lack of omnipotence. This is something that Steiner has said in a more forceful way. I’m not sure if Jonas ever read anything of Steiner.
Steiner from here
God cannot be omnipotent whilst allowing the possibility of freedom to other beings. And humans are latecomers in an evolution that provides beings with this control over their own destiny. While orthodox Christianity polarizes Good and evil, God and the Devil, Steiner teaches us that there is actually a trinity. He created an image of this in his sculpture the Representative of Humanity. Luciferic beings possess a wisdom which lacks the love required to control it. Whereas beings under the influence of Ahrimanic have the power to manipulate earthly forces to their own advantage. The light of wisdom and the strength of might can be turned to evil without the stabilizing force of love.
Karl König was a Jewish contemporary of Jonas, who also fled the horrors of the Nazis. It would be interesting to compare the paths both men took.
To the best of my knowledge, the only Christian theologian who influenced Jonas was Rudolf Bultmann. As a Jew, Jonas’s inclination in mysticism pointed him towards kabbalah, not anthroposophy.