What Is God Like?: Crash Course Philosophy #12


Crash Course Philosophy is brought to you
by Squarespace. Squarespace: share your passion with the world. We’ve spent quite a bit of time looking
at arguments for God’s existence. But we haven’t said much yet about this
God. Like, what’s he like? Is he a he? Is he like strictly Marvel superheroes, or
is he more of a DC guy? Does he prefer his salsa with or without cilantro?
I like corn! Who’s his favorite Crystal Gem from Steven
Universe? I guess those kinds of questions would only apply to a heavily personalized and anthropomorphic God. But the traditional picture of God – the
one accepted, and even assumed, throughout Judeo-Christian tradition, up into modern
times – is what we might call an “omni-God,” possessing particular divine attributes – the
characteristics believed to be held by God. Now let’s pause a moment to acknowledge
that this discussion is of one particular God, the one who stars in Jewish, Christian,
and Muslim scriptures. Of course, lots of people believe in lots of other gods, and they all have attributes of their own. We’re focusing on this god because he’s the one
all these philosophers we’ve been studying were talking about – he’s the one they
believed – or didn’t believe – in. Philosophers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas
– who were themselves influenced by the writings of Plato and Aristotle – came up
with a general set of divine attributes that are still widely held today among theists. And in this view, God is omniscient, which
means he knows everything that can be known. And he’s also omnipotent, or all-powerful. He’s been said to be omnibenevolent, or
possessing perfect goodness. And he’s omnitemporal and omnipresent – meaning
he exists at all places and all times at once. Now, it’s worth noting that none of these
attributes is actually mentioned in the Bible. But philosophers like Aquinas reasoned that
they must be the case, if God is perfect. And these philosophers took it as a given
that he is. The problem is, a close investigation of these attributes reveals some rather tricky little puzzles. No, I take that back.
They’re really, really, big puzzles. [Theme Music] Can God create a rock so heavy he can’t
lift it? – is just one of an infinite number of unanswerable
questions that can be asked about God. Like, if God is omnipotent, he has to be able
to create something so heavy he can’t lift it. Otherwise, his inability to create it would
mean there’s at least one thing he couldn’t do. But then, he wouldn’t be omnipotent, because if he were truly all-powerful, he’d be able to lift anything. Quandaries like this come up all the time
when you consider the divine attributes. And some of the questions that arise are
not only about God, but also about us. For instance, if God knows everything, then
he also knows the future, right? Which makes sense, if he’s also omnitemporal, because that would mean that he’s already in the future. And also in the past.
And don’t forget the present. But many theists also believe that God
gave us free will. So, how can we be free, if God already knows what
we’re gonna do? In that case, are we really free? Or is freedom just an illusion that he created for us, to make us feel like we’re in control? What we’re seeing here is that, at least
on the surface, God’s traditional divine attributes are internally inconsistent – meaning,
they can’t all be true at the same time. And what do you do when you hold inconsistent
beliefs? Well, if you’re being philosophically rational,
you either give some of them up, or you figure out a way to understand them that makes them
consistent. This is what a theist who believes in the
omni-God has to do. Let’s think about the contradiction that
arises from believing the following propositions: 1) God is omniscient
2) Humans have free will Is there any way to resolve this contradiction,
or do we have to surrender one of those beliefs? One possible response is to say that knowledge
and causation aren’t the same thing. So God might know that we’re going to do
something, without actually causing us to do it. This actually makes sense,
if you think about it. Imagine a person standing on a cliff looking
down on a train track that curves around a bend. From her vantage point, the onlooker can
see that, just on the other side of the bend, a person is stuck on the track as the
train approaches. Too far away to do anything, the onlooker
knows the accident will happen before it does, but the fact that she knows it will happen
doesn’t mean that she caused it to happen. To use a less gruesome example, if God knew
you were going to eat an entire pecan pie by yourself over the course of a lonely weekend,
that doesn’t mean that he caused you to do it. That was all on you. But wait. If God is omniscient, then he can’t
be wrong, can he? Because if he was ever wrong, then there would
have been something he didn’t know. So if God knew you were going to eat the whole
pie, then you couldn’t not eat the pie, because if you decided not to at the last minute,
then you would have just proven God wrong, thereby single-handedly stripping him
of his divine omniscience! Good job! So the knowledge and power of God are, to
say the least, philosophically perplexing. Now let’s consider another question about
God’s personal skill set: Can God sin? If he’s omnipotent, it would seem that he
can, because he can do anything. But if he’s omnibenevolent, or inherently
good, then it would seem that he can’t. This doctrine, which says that God can’t
sin, is known as divine impeccability. But if God is impeccable and incapable of sin,
then doesn’t that mean that he is not omnipotent? After all, I can sin…easily. I mean, gimme five minutes and I can
probably break two or three commandments. Like, the ones about coveting stuff —
not the murdery ones. But still, it seems kinda weird to think that
I can do something that God can’t. Some people try to solve this particular puzzle
by saying that sin is necessarily a failure, so therefore, a perfect being can’t do it. Others say that, even though God might do
something that would be a sin if a human did it, the idea of ‘sin’ simply doesn’t apply to God.
Perhaps because, given his omnibenevolence, everything God does is inherently good. Now, many philosophers find this solution troubling,
because it kinda makes God’s goodness vacuous. After all, it basically means that saying
“God did a thing” would be the same thing as saying “God did a good thing,” because
ipso facto, anything God does is good. And if that’s the case, then his goodness
doesn’t have any real meaning. Yet another possible contradiction presents itself in the belief that the omni-God is also a personal God. Many people find it difficult to suppose that
God could be omnitemporal and omniscient, yet still have a personal relationship with
his creatures. It’s hard to understand how God could relate to us – or feel the way we feel – if he doesn’t experience time as we do: If he
already knows what’s going to happen, how could he ever be surprised,
or change his mind? And if god is omnitemporal, is it even possible
that he could be moved to respond to our prayers? Let’s look at this idea up close in this week’s
Flash Philosophy. To the Thought Bubble! When people talk about praying for something
to happen, or to not happen, or are otherwise making a request of God, they’re making
what are known as petitionary prayers. When you pray in this way, you’re asking
God for something – to help you pass a test, or to save a loved one who’s in danger,
or to make sure the Patriots win the game. Contemporary American philosopher Eleanor
Stump argues that we have no reason to think that asking God for something would actually
make a difference. She thinks about it like this:
If God knows everything, including the future – which he does, if he’s omniscient – – and if God has the power to bring about any state of affairs – which he does, if he’s omnipotent – – and if he always wants to bring about the best state of affairs – which he does, if he’s omnibenevolent – – then God has already decided what’s going to happen in every single case. To everyone. Always. So either your prayer is asking God to do
something he was already going to do, in which case your prayer was kind of a waste of time. Or your prayer is asking God to do something
he has already decided not to do, because it wasn’t actually the best thing.
Sorry Patriots. And in that case, even if God would change
his mind, based on your prayer, you wouldn’t want him to, because it would actually make
things worse than they would’ve been if you’d just let God do his thing. In other words, if God knows what’s best,
why would you want to change his mind?! Now, Stump suggests that there might be some
value in the asking, even if the prayer doesn’t actually change what’s going to happen.
Maybe you agree with her. But at this point, it should be clear just
how many problems there are in the divine attributes, when you think about them. Thanks,
Thought Bubble! Thomas Aquinas – the thinker who’s largely
responsible for the traditional divine attributes we think of today – responded to these sorts
of puzzles by saying that all of this speculation of What God Is Like is just analogical predication. Basically, Aquinas said that we can’t
predicate, or assert, anything about God, because he’s so far beyond our understanding. When we speak of God, Aquinas said,
we never say anything that’s true. Instead, we have to speak entirely in
analogies, because that’s all we can do. So, God isn’t literally our father, for example, but we can understand his role for us as being father-like. Because that’s as close as we can get to really understanding what what he is. Or think of it this way: People in south Florida
might say it’s cold when the temperature dips into the fifties, but in Alaska, it’s
not cold until it’s well below zero. But both of those frames of reference are
more similar to each other than they are to the cold that is absolute zero, which is about
negative 273 degrees celsius. You might even say that absolute-zero cold and
negative 10-degree cold are not even the same thing. But we use the one word – “cold” – to
describe them both, as a kind of analogical way of talking about something that defies
our complete and personal understanding. So, Aquinas basically said not to worry about
all of these puzzles, because none of these things we say about God is more than an approximation
– a little analogue that our tiny little minds can come up with, so that we can talk
about an infinite being. Now, there are other thinkers, particularly
in modern times, who point out that none of the traditional divine attributes is in the
Bible anyway. So, maybe God isn’t an omni-God. Maybe he’s more like a superhero. He can
be way smarter than us, way more powerful than us, way more good than us. But still
not perfect. This seems like sacrilege to a lot of people,
but some philosophers argue that it’s more compatible with the God of the Bible. After all, in the Bible, we see God doing
very human things, like walking in the garden, getting angry, being surprised, and changing
his mind. So, it could be possible that God actually
does hate cilantro or is a big fan of Amethyst. That’s the kind of stuff that we, as philosophers, get to ponder – kindly and thoughtfully in the comments. Today we learned about the traditional divine
attributes – omnipotence, omniscience, omnitemporality, and omnibenevolence – and the puzzles that
they create for our understanding of God. We also explored some possible solutions to
those puzzles, from Aquinas’ ideas of analogical predication, to the work of Eleanor Stump. This episode is brought to you by Squarespace.
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