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#628 Peter Atterton on the Coherence of Theism

April 28, 2019

Peter Atterton from San Deigo State University wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times claiming that the God of western civilization is incoherent and I find most of his arguments to be severely flawed. The article is called "A God Problem"

One argument of his is a bit interesting. He paraphrases another philosopher and writes: "There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.

As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, 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." I would think that one can counter this by saying a human can know what it is like to experience a feeling even though they haven't experienced it themselves. This would be possible by knowing what the opposite experience is. For instance I could know what feeling sad feels like just by experiencing happiness, because I can logically deduce that sadness is a lack of happiness.

Could we also say that Peter Atterton is also begging the question by asserting that "knowing" what lust is must be the same as "experiencing" lust? Wouldn't I know what death implies even though I haven't experienced death? Therefore that means that God can know what certain feelings are even though God never experienced them. I would like to hear your thoughts on this.


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Dr. craig’s response


I‘m glad you asked this question, Cornell, since I actually wrote a brief response to the NYT which, I assume, was not accepted for publication. Here it is:

“As a professional philosopher whose major research interest is the coherence of theism, I was disheartened by a colleague’s espousing in the NYT such oft-refuted objections to the coherence of theism. Consider them in order:

1. The problem of omnipotence. It turns out that the real problem identified by Atterton is not the coherence of omnipotence (Aquinas’ view is admittedly coherent) but rather the problem of evil:  A world without evil is logically possible, so why didn’t God create it? Answer: of course, a world without evil is possible: God could have created a universe with no life forms and, hence, no evil. That possibility goes no distance toward proving that it’s logically possible for God to actualize a world of free moral agents with as much moral good as this world but with less moral evil.

Ah, but what about natural evil? Here the atheist has to prove that it is either impossible or highly improbable that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the natural evil in the world. Atterton doesn’t even try--and no wonder, for such judgments are beyond our cognitive capacity. For all we know, only in a world suffused with natural and moral evil would God’s justifying goods be realized by free agents. The problem of evil saddles the atheist with a burden of proof so heavy that it is unsustainable.

2. The problem of omniscience. The problem Atterton alleges here is that there are certain things that God cannot plausibly know, such as what it’s like to be human. Answer: Atterton has ignored the distinction between propositional knowledge and non-propositional knowledge. Omniscience is defined in terms of propositional knowledge: Any person S is omniscient if and only if for any proposition p, if p is true, then S knows that p and does not believe not-p. In other words, omniscience is knowledge of only and all truths. An omniscient being may or may not have certain non-propositional knowledge as well. God knows propositions like “Being human feels fallible,” “Being human feels sinful,” etc. Atterton gives no example of any truth such that we cannot truly say, “God knows that ___,” where the blank is filled by a true proposition.”

So my solution to the so-called problem of omniscience is rather like what you offer in your last paragraph. Knowing what death implies, for example, is propositional knowledge: “A dead person is not conscious,” “A dead person feels no pain,” etc. God knows all of these truths.

- William Lane Craig