A-level Philosophy/The Concept of God

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In A-level Philosophy, the "Concept of God" refers to the idea of the God of the Abrahamic Religions - Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Generally, they all agree that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-loving). Some distinguish between a more personal God of religion and a more detached, impersonal and indifferent God of the philosophers.

God and Free Will - An Issue with Omniscience[edit | edit source]

As God is believed to be omniscient, meaning he knows all, there becomes a problem with how this attribute can be compatible with the idea of human free will. If God's omniscience is to be understood as him having true knowledge of everything that has happened and will happen, then he must know what action every human has done and will do. If he knows what action every human will do next, and his knowledge absolutely has to be true, then we cannot do otherwise - if we cannot do otherwise, we must not have free will, as the idea is incompatible with God's omniscience.

Responses and Criticisms[edit | edit source]

Religious believers may argue that the idea of free will being redundant because of God's omniscience is wrong as the end judgement (when we are sent to heaven or hell) proves that our actions have consequences. However, it can then be argued that it is unfair for God to send anyone to heaven or hell when we are unable to stray from the path he knows we were always going to take - technically, we never had a real option to do what we wanted to, we could only do what he knew we would do, so he has no right to judge us for our actions.

Thomas Aquinas' response to this argument is to claim that God exists outside of time itself. He knows everything that we will do because he has seen all of our actions at once. We were always free to do otherwise, as he has seen everything happen in real time. God's omniscience is to be understood as timeless knowledge, not foreknowledge of what will happen in what we see as the future. Aquinas does not change the definitions of omniscience or free will, but for his response to work God has to be eternal, not everlasting - some may accuse Aquinas of thinking of the God of the philosophers, not the God of religion.

Philosophers such as Aristotle and David Hume offer a "compatibilist" definition for free will that would mean that God and omniscience are, as the name for the term implies, compatible. The issue is that we imagine free will as being libertarian, meaning we are "free" if we can make any choice at any time regardless of whether or not it is the right choice, or the choice we really want to pick. If free will is libertarian, and God is not eternal like Aquinas thinks, then God's omniscience is not compatible with free will. However, by the compatibilist definition, free will is when we are able to make the choice we wish to make and we are not forced to do so. If free will is compatibilist, then it should not matter that God knows what we will choose as it will always be what we wish to choose. However, this totally changes how we see free will. Some may reject the compatibilist definition and if they do then this response does not work and there is still a problem with God's omniscience.

Modern philosopher Richard Swinburne backs the "Open Future" solution to the problem of God's omniscience. This is the idea that God cannot know what happens in the future because there is not yet any future to know about. God does have omniscience, but he only knows what has happened, not what will happen. This is not a good solution for religious believers, especially not Christians - in the Old Testament, there are moments where God explicitly states that he knows what will happen in the future. This also changes the traditional view of omniscience, possibly too much for religious people to be comfortable with, as it undermines the idea that God has a divine plan for every individual person.

The Paradox of the Stone - An Issue with Omnipotence[edit | edit source]

This is a traditional challenge to the idea of omnipotence - it is a paradox because both "solutions" imply that the idea of an all powerful being is nonsensical and contradictory. The question is, if God is all powerful, does he have the power to create a stone he cannot lift? If he can create the stone, then he is not all powerful as there is something he cannot do - lift the stone. If he cannot create the stone, that is again something he cannot do, meaning either way he is not omnipotent. This is not as simple of a paradox as it seems on first glance. It relates to the idea of whether or not any omnipotent being can do something which would limit their own power, such as creating genuinely free creatures who can disobey them, something which is a large problem in philosophical debates about God.

Many atheist philosophers, including John Leslie (J.L.) Mackie, believe that the paradox cannot be solved and it essentially proves that the idea of an omnipotent being is nonsensical.

Response[edit | edit source]

George Mavrodes argues that it is not the idea of an omnipotent being that is incoherent, but the idea of an omnipotent being creating a stone he cannot lift. If the paradox is rephrased as "can a God who has enough power to lift anything create a stone that cannot be lifted by a being who has enough power to lift anything," it becomes nonsensical. It is an invalid question as the task is self contradictory. This is a good criticism against the individual case of the paradox of the stone, but it doesn't help to answer the bigger question of whether an omnipotent being can reduce its own power, such as the earlier mentioned human free will issue.

The Euthyphro Dilemma - An Issue with Omnibenevolence[edit | edit source]

This idea comes from Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, concerning God and morality. Religious believers argue that whatever God commands is whatever is moral as he is all loving and supremely good, but that leads to issues concerning why it is moral (good). One option is that whatever God commands is good because God himself is good, but then it means that God could command people to do things commonly understood to be horrific like mass killing and it would have to be moral because God has commanded it. The Bible even supports this concern as the God of the Old Testament was known to do things such as this. Another option is that God makes his commands based on an external moral source. However, that would mean that God is not omnibenevolent or supremely good, as he is only conforming to an external source, and that external source is the true supreme good. In either circumstance, God cannot be coherently called omnibenevolent.

Response[edit | edit source]

Thomas Aquinas argues that morals do not come from God, they come from a natural law that God himself has created. He has an omnibenevolent nature, and can only will what is good, and he always abides by the law he has made. His commands are not fluid this way, so the issue of him commanding something like ,ass killing disappears. However, if God is limited to only doing omnibenevolent actions, his power is restricted and it could be argued that Aquinas is contradicting God's omnipotence.

God and Time - Eternal vs Everlasting[edit | edit source]

God as Eternal[edit | edit source]

This is often referred to as a more traditional belief on how God interacts with time. This is the idea that, because God is supposed to be immutable and unchanging, he cannot exist within time as everything in time changes. God must, therefore, be outside of time. Thomas Aquinas compares it to a person on a road and a person on a mountain. The person on the road can only see what is directly in front of or around them, they are stuck within the bounds of the road. The person on the mountain can see everything the person on the road can and more, as they are above the road and above the land. The road is time, and the person on the mountain is God.

Anthony Kenny disagrees with Aquinas' interpretation of eternity as he argues that the concept itself is incoherent. Rome burned in 64CE, and Kenny wrote his views on eternity in the 20th century. If God is eternal, he must have viewed Kenny writing and Rome burning simultaneously, at the same time. However, Rome burning and Kenny writing happened one after the other and are thousands of years apart. This proves that the concept of God as eternal is incoherent as these events did not happen at the same time.

Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump claim that Kenny has misunderstood what 'simultaneous' means when discussing God as eternal. Simultaneous for temporal beings means that things existed or occurred at the same time, dubbed T-Simultaneity. As we are temporal and simultaneous for us refers to T-Simultaneity, Rome burning and Kenny writing happened one after the other and were not at the same time. For God, and eternal beings, there is another definition, E-Simultaneity. This means that things exist in the same eternal present. Stump and Kretzmann cite Einstein's works on relativity to back up their claims. God's point of reference means that he sees things simultaneously where we see things happen one after the other.

God as Everlasting[edit | edit source]

Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that scripture says that the Abrahamic God is everlasting, meaning he exists within time but without beginning or end. If God exists within time, then he is closer to us, making him more personal and involved with human affairs. This would mean that God is temporal. However, if God is everlasting, then it creates problems with his omniscience as mentioned earlier in the problem of free will.