Peter Atterton, the New York Times, and the coherence of God

by Luke Wayne
04/23/2019

In a recent opinion piece published in the New York Times, a philosophy professor named Peter Atterton attempted to argue that the basic concept of God found in Christianity (or even more generally in most monotheistic religions) is incoherent. This was not merely an attempt to defend atheism. Atterton was not simply claiming that God does not exist. He attempted to go much further than that. He asserted that the idea of God doesn't even make sense in the first place, that the word "God" does not actually refer to an intelligible concept. He writes:

"As a philosopher myself, I’d like to focus on a specific question: Does the idea of a morally perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing God make sense? Does it hold together when we examine it logically?" 

To come forward with such a bold thesis, one would expect Atterton to have some innovative or at least mildly interesting arguments for Christians to contend with, especially when the piece is picked up by a major publication like the New York Times. Sadly, that is not at all what we find. Instead, Atterton just trots out a handful of stale arguments one might expect to hear in a middle school lunchroom or read in a YouTube comment thread. Let's take a look:

Big Rocks and Meaningless Questions

The first of Atterton's claims is one even he admits you've "probably heard," and I was honestly a little embarrassed for him when I saw it here in his paper. He said:

"Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful."

This is supposed to prove that the very idea of omnipotence (i.e., that God is "all powerful") is an incoherent concept. But on even the slightest bit of reflection, it becomes clear that it's not God's power that is incoherent but rather Atterton's question. This "question" can be (and has been) asked in a lot of ways, though the "big rock" version that Atterton uses here is certainly the most popular. Can God make a rock so heavy not even He can lift it? But you could frame it countless other ways. Could God make a light so bright not even He could look at it? Could God make a glass of water so big not even He could drink it? Could God make an argument so bad that not even He could resist laughing at it? The options are endless because it's based on a formula. You just have to fill in the variables. Could God create a ______ that not even He could ______? So, when you strip away the particulars of stones, lights, or whatever, what is the central question about God's power here? At heart, this argument is asking "Is God's power so unlimited that it's limited?" That obviously doesn't make any sense. It's not even a coherent question. It's like asking "How Thursday does the weather smell?" It's not really a question! It's just words put together in a way that looks and sounds like a question merely because it has the grammatical structure of one. There is no meaningful substance to it. The big rock makes it sound better, but it's nonsense either way.

Bottom line: God can make any stone of any size, density, mass, or volume. He can place that stone in whatever gravity He wishes to give the stone whatever weight He likes. Describe the actual specific properties of any stone you wish, and God can make that stone. God can then lift that stone. Word games aside, God can make and lift whatever rock He wants. There is nothing incoherent in that. So far, Atterton has harmed only his own credibility as a philosopher. The concept of God remains unscathed.

Evil, Suffering, and Moving Goal Posts

Professor Atterton's second line of attack is simply the age-old "problem of evil." This would have been far more reasonable had he chosen merely to argue for Atheism. It would still be inadequate, but it at least would have been on topic. Instead, Atterton claims to be proving that the concept of God is internally meaningless and logically incoherent. Yet he presents an argument that actually assumes the opposite. He writes:

"there are other problems to contend with. For example, can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible. Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction. It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same. Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why he wouldn’t have created such a world. So why didn’t He?"

Basically, the argument here is that a God who is all-powerful and supremely good wouldn't make a world with all the evil and suffering we see around us. Before responding to this claim, it is important to note that the claim itself actually hurts Atterton's position. This argument is saying that a God of the sort that most monotheists believe in just doesn't fit with this cruel world in which we live. The thing is, for you to make a judgment about what sort of world you think God would create, the idea of God must first make sense. If "God" is incoherent, then one cannot meaningfully discuss what He would or wouldn't do. I can't evaluate whether or not a five-sided triangle would look good on my office wall for the simple reason that a five-sided triangle can't look like anything anywhere. The concept doesn't make sense, so you can't meaningfully ask such questions about it, much less arrive at answers to those questions. If I asked you what sort of house a married bachelor would live in, it wouldn't make sense to even try to answer me. If I asked you what sort of world a god might create who was both all-powerful and also simultaneously completely powerless and utterly impotent to do anything, you could make no reasonable deduction in the matter because the concept itself is self-contradictory. There can't be rational judgments about the plausible actions of incoherent or meaningless things. Thus, by raising this issue at all, Atterton actually assumes the idea of God to be coherent even while claiming to show its incoherence. He may doubt that such a God as Christians believe in would really create a world like this, but he draws that conclusion from a clear picture of what he thinks such as God is.

But is there a logical contradiction between God's power and goodness on the one hand and the reality of evil and suffering on the other? Not at all. In addition to assuming the coherence of God, the above argument also assumes something else. It assumes that a good God could not possibly have a justifiable reason to create a world that would ever include evil and suffering. Yet, there is no logical reason to assume this. Back in my own undergrad Intro to philosophy course, even one of my vocal atheist classmates laughed at this argument, noting that, if God did exist, we would be in no position to stand over Him in moral judgment. Not only do we lack the moral authority, but we also lack the perspective. We are too finite to see the big picture. If a much higher good is attained through God redeeming a world that we broke through our sin, why wouldn't a good God do that, even though it would mean first allowing us to sin and break it? God is not the one who sinned; we are. We did evil. And since the biblical worldview sees humanity, the creature uniquely made in the image of God, as having a position in creation such that our own rebellion against God had ramifications throughout the created order, that one example covers more than Atterton seems to realize.

Yet, we also need not think that God must have just one simple reason for every instance of suffering. God may have one good reason for diseases, another for tornados, and still another for fully knowing how much of a jerk I would be and yet creating me anyway. Indeed, each individual hurricane or wildfire may have its own unique purpose. There is no logical reason to demand otherwise. Just because we often cannot figure out exactly why God would allow (or even cause) something to happen does not mean that there is no justifiable purpose in it. Thus, the mere existence of evil and suffering in the world does not provide a logical proof that God does not exist or that He is not both good and powerful. Indeed, the very fact that some things are objectively evil is actually evidence that God does exist, for without God there is no rational grounding for the existence of objective morality in the first place.

So much more can be said here, but for this article's purposes, it suffices to say that the so-called "problem of evil" tacitly affirms the coherence of the idea of God rather than denying it, and thus works against Atterton's aim.

Is Knowledge Inherently Evil?

Finally, we arrive at the only objection in Professor Atterton's paper that is both an actual argument and also on topic. It has the additional merit of being an argument you may not have heard before. Here, he takes a shot at proving that God's infinite knowledge is actually a moral fault:

"if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy. But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them. But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect...if God knows everything, then God must know at least as much as human beings do. And if human beings know what it is like to want to inflict pain on others for pleasure’s sake, without any other benefit, then so does God. But to say that God knows what it is like to want to inflict pain on others is to say that God is capable of malicious enjoyment."

Atterton's language is a bit clumsy here. Lust and envy are not things that we "know" (at least in the sense intended here), rather, they are things that we do. The point seems to be, however, that we know what it is like to lust and to envy, which we can only know because we have lusted and envied. The experience of such sins gives us a kind of subjective "knowledge," a memory and personal understanding of what one thinks and feels when lusting or envying. It is worth noting that such an argument is rooted in a fallacious equivocation in terms. English words often mean different things in different contexts (i.e., trunk of a car, trunk of a tree, trunk of an elephant). When I say that I know who the first president was, or what two plus two equals, or what my friend said about me last night when he didn't think I could hear him, all of those things refer to informational knowledge. If I were to claim to know Peter Atterton (I don't, but let's just say that I did), I would be talking about something else entirely. I would be claiming to have some kind of relational or interactive background with him. I would mean something very different by the word know. In his argument, Atterton switches from the former sense to the latter, probably without even realizing he is doing it.

If you are sad about something, and your friend puts their arm around you and tells you that they "know how you feel," what are they saying? Are they claiming to be aware of a specific piece of information regarding your emotional state? No. They are saying that they relate to you. They are claiming to sympathize, to have a certain commonality and connection with you in your current circumstance. They are not actually talking about knowledge. To "know what it's like" is a completely different sense of the word "know." Thus, Atterton's argument is actually little more than a play on words!

But let's say there is some kind of actual knowledge about my own thoughts and feelings that I do gain when I commit sins of the heart. So what? God is not sinful, but He knows our sin better than we do. He knows what is within a man, (John 2:25). He looks at the heart, (1 Samuel 16:7). Our desires are not hidden from Him. (Psalm 38:9). He discloses our motives, (1 Corinthians 4:5). All our thoughts and feelings are known to God before we think or feel them, and none of our intentions escape His notice. Indeed, God knows my heart even as I cannot know it myself! (Jeremiah 17:9-10). God is not a mere man who must learn by experience. He does not need to sin to know sin, for He knows my sin. Whatever I may think or feel when I sin that constitutes any sort of personal "knowledge," God knows it. He sees clearly into the depths of my soul. Do I really "know" what it is like for me to lust? Fine, then God knows what it is like for me to lust too! Do I know what it would be like for God to lust? No, not only because I do not know the mind of God, but even more because the very idea is nonsense! So God need not "know" what it is like for God to lust either! God doesn't lack such knowledge. There is no such knowledge because it is contrary to the very nature of God to lust. So there is no possible knowledge that God does not possess.

Conclusion

Thus we see that each of Atterton's arguments fail to deliver. He falls far short of his impossible goal. The idea of God has not been proven incoherent. God's attributes are perfectly consistent. God is just as He has revealed Himself to be, and all the philosophy professors in the world cannot erase Him.