A Critique of Divine Supremacy
I was thinking the other day… assuming there is a God, how do we know God is good? So… who’s up for walking the wonderfully twisty path of a thought experiment?
Let’s assume for a moment that there is such a thing as a Supreme Being — a God, as the case may be — that has influence over life on Earth. Let us further assume that such a being may possess one or all of four qualities which traditionally are associated with a supreme deity: immortality, omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. For the purposes of the discussion, a Supreme Being or big-G “God” would require all four. Finally, let’s assume that such a being is morally good, according to our current understanding of that term, such as it is. This isn’t that much of a stretch; if we believe any given religion, God (or the gods) gave humans the knowledge of morality, and our morals are formed in His (or their, or its) image.
So — is it possible to logically demonstrate or reject any conception of the divine based on these assumptions and knowledge of the current nature of reality?
I would argue that it is not only possible, but logically inescapable to come to certain conclusions, namely that if God exists, He is either functionally evil or cannot be all-powerful.
Yeah, hold onto your butts. It’s gonna be that kind of article.
First, let’s examine the qualities of a divine being. By definition, a deity must have a degree of power that far eclipses that of mortal men. Each of the four qualities mentioned earlier confer such power, for the following reasons:
Immortality: This quality is one of life everlasting in the sense that an immortal either cannot die (note the phrasing — not “does not die” but “cannot die”) or is outside the traditional cycle of life and death as we understand it. That is, such a being is either supernaturally resilient or exists in a different plane of reality where death is simply not an option. An immortal being could qualify as a deity by virtue of accumulated knowledge, experience, and tools. Think Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” then multiply that by a factor of a million. Such a being would, from our perspective, be supernaturally capable of predicting, evaluating, and reacting to events. They would be able to influence entire civilizations by planting ideas, supporting key individuals, or providing the right technological nudge at just the right time. They would have the capability of forming and overseeing plans that could span many thousands of years, just by virtue of having done it before. Such a being would easily counter any attempt by a mortal to block their actions or push a society in a different direction, and thus for all intents and purposes could guide their chosen people in the path they found most desirable.
Omniscience: This quality is one of totally comprehensive knowledge. This implies not just knowledge of how everything works, but also of where everything is, where everything will be, and of what is happening everywhere at all times (i.e. not just what has happened, but also what is happening and what will/could happen in the future). A being with such a quality would be godlike by virtue of being absolutely unstoppable and almost by default having the power of omnipotence and probably also immortality (since knowing how everything works should grant the ability to make tools that can control everything). An omniscient being could control the flow of history and men’s actions as easily as you or I turn on a water faucet.
Omnipotence: This quality is one of supreme personal power. An omnipotent being can enforce their will on the world without the necessity of using tools or performing anything that we would recognize as an action; their will would simply be made manifest as soon as they decided on something. The character Q from Star Trek is a good example. An omnipotent being could create worlds with a thought, turn cities into salt, or pop a universe into existence, so long as they had the requisite knowledge of the forces involved.
Omnipresence: This quality is one of distributed presence. An omnipresent being is everywhere all at once; to such a being everywhere is “here.” H.P. Lovecraft’s Yog Sothoth has this quality, and is terrifying as a result. Depending on the scale such a being was capable of observing, it might also achieve a limited form of omniscience, in the sense that it would know where everything was and everything that was going on at any given time. With even a little bit of physical power, such a being would be entirely capable of subtly affecting reality anywhere.
Functionally speaking, any being which is immortal and in possession of any one of the “omni” qualities would be an extremely powerful entity, easily earning the label of “god.” From a practical perspective, any being which attained omniscience would be entirely capable of assuming the rest of the qualities (since infinite knowledge implies infinite power, or at least the ability to attain infinite power). A Supreme Being as codified by the Abrahamic religions is a big-G God, i.e. a being which possesses all four divine qualities.
So, a God is a supreme being with infinite knowledge, who is everywhere at all times, who can do anything, and who cannot die. Such a being is not in any sense theoretically impossible; the universe is vast and not fully understood, as we are only now beginning to fully comprehend. And although the argument has been made that we cannot directly observe a God through empirical evidence, the simple and endlessly effective counterargument is that He simply does not want us to, and we’re just too primitive and limited to break through whatever obfuscation He has put in our way. Quite simply, there is no way to disprove the existence of a God.
By the same token, of course, there is no way to prove the existence of a being with Godlike powers which wishes to remain hidden. This is the classic realm of faith for many religions; devotees choose to believe through a conscious act of will, and reinforce this belief with stories of various times when the hidden God has supposedly revealed Itself to mankind.
No modern, unbiased experimental set has yet proven the existence of any supernatural divine forces whatsoever. Nevertheless — we cannot discount the possibility of a deity. The universe is, after all, filled with things we do not understand and forces we do not comprehend. Just try to get a physicist to give you an explanation of what energy actually is; it all ends in flustered hand waving. It would be the height of hubris to assume we know enough to discount the divine, especially if we include the caveat that the divine might be actively hiding from us, or the distinct possibility that what we call “divine” might actually just be really advanced aliens. In any case — it’s impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God. So for the purposes of this discussion, we assume a Godlike Supreme Being exists, because without that assumption I’ve got nothing to write about and you, dear reader, can go back to watching clips from “Groundhog Day” on YouTube.
Getting back on track, most major religions tend to label their Gods as some variant of “good” or “righteous” or “just,” indicating that they are the source of these and other moral traits, often as the counterpoint to a demonic influence which is the source of “evil” or “unjust” moral traits. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use the following definitions of good and evil drawn from that most honored of sources, Wikipedia: “Good” implies valuing life, charity, happiness, love, and justice. “Evil” denotes conscious and deliberate wrongdoing which causes physical, mental, or emotional harm and/or humiliation, as well as acts of indiscriminate destruction and deliberate wanton violence. Religions tend to add an additional component, specifically sins against God, to the “evil” category, which for the purposes of this discussion we’re leaving aside since the question is not whether man is good or evil (the answer, obviously, is both) but whether God is good or evil.
Furthermore, let us assume that the old adage that “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” applies. That is to say, being morally good requires a God to take action against that which is perceived as evil as soon as it is apparent that evil exists. With great power comes great responsibility. Thus, if a God is “good,” He cannot sit idly by while evil exists.
Finally, almost every major religion and particularly the three Abrahamic religions also declare that God is the creator and master of the universe, which is to say that He created everything, is responsible for the maintenance and direction of everything, and monitors the universe. Therefore we will assume for the purposes of this discussion that a God is responsible for the way things are.
So to sum up: we have a Supreme Being who is supposed to be good, who is supposed to oppose evil, who created the universe, and/or who maintains an active hand in its disposition. What, then, can we figure out about the observable nature of this being, given its action or lack of action in observed reality? And is observed reality a valid source of data at all?
Let’s take a step back and talk about that question for a moment. I would argue that we can only, logically, make any statements about the Supreme Being based on observed reality. Faith is not a valid argumentative tool; just because I really, really, really want something to be true does not make it so, and just because someone in the past said something was true does not make it so. Those who seek miracles will find miracles; those who seek prophecy will find prophecy. This is not a statement in support of miracles or prophecy, but rather one of confirmation bias. If miracles are to be taken seriously then they should come with a note; if prophecy is to be taken seriously then prophets need to be a little more specific. Otherwise all we have are people assigning meaning to what might very well be random occurrences. If you want to figure out the universe, evidence is valid; faith is not. Your faith just tells us what we need to know to figure out you.
There is no confirmed scientific evidence of the afterlife. There is no confirmed scientific evidence of God. There is no particle of the human body which is commonly recognized as the soul. There are no scientifically verified miracles (although there are lots of things that science looks and says, “Huh… that’s weird”). There are no universally accepted prophecies. These are statements of fact, which do not in any way rule out the possible existence of any of these things. But they do tell the dispassionate observer one thing, and that is: no human has the total concrete knowledge of what is really going on… but we have a lot of opinions, and we try our best to make the world around us fit them.
However, if we assume there is a God, and if we assume that He created the universe (which we can observe), and if we assume that God is good, and if we assume that He is a Supreme Being, then that tells us quite a lot about His nature, if we further make the argument that all of these points hold in perpetuity. In other words: God does not change his mind and he does not play dice.
Why is the final argument valid? Quite simply, because the quality of omniscience makes any attempt to argue that God ever changes his mind totally specious. A being who can see everything and every possible path of everything, and who can furthermore process all of that information, has no need to ever alter a plan; rather, the plan comprehensively encompasses every possible eventuality. If the plan ever has to change, that is de facto evidence that the being in question is NOT omniscient (since change implies the need for adaptation, which implies an unforeseen difficulty, which should never apply to an omniscient being). So if we assume that God is omniscient, that must mean that everything that happens is happening exactly as he intended.
This is an important argument, and one that leads inevitably to the classic philosophical and theological Problem of Evil, which is the focus of this article: to paraphrase, if there is a God, why do people suffer and die in so many horrible ways after living miserable lives, and why does that happen so frequently? There’s a much larger argument there, but the core of it is that bad things happen to good people, and what the hell dude?
I think that’s a good question to ask, but I don’t think it goes far enough. I think the real problem with a “good” Supreme Being goes much deeper — not “why do people do the things they do?” (e.g., suffer and die) but “why are things the way they are?” The core argument against a “good” Supreme Being should not only be that evil exists, but also that the universe is constructed in such a way that it cannot help but exist.
So what do we observe of the universe? Let’s start with the macro picture. We know that the universe is very large and very old (this is either true or God is totally screwing with us, which would be a rather evil thing to do). We know that life exists (although getting people to really define what that means is a little tough). We know that we are alive. We know that all life, any life, requires an external energy source, which is another way of saying that all life is designed to end (since over a long enough timeline a circumstance will arise which causes any given life form to starve — that’s just statistics). And we also know that life, all life, exists only under specific environmental circumstances — it is not necessary to know what all of those circumstances are, but rather it is sufficient to know that if you change them enough every organism will die. And this, too, is evidence that over the long term all life is designed to perish, since over a long enough timeline every habitat in the universe will become incapable of supporting whatever form of life originated there.
The very first things we know about the universe as it relates to life are therefore as follows: Life is temporary (in cosmological timeframes, anyway), and doomed; and life must consume energy to survive. This leads to a similar statement: we know that life is designed to perpetuate itself, because we observe life multiplying whenever it gets the chance. This is turn leads to the logical statement that the primary objectives of life are to consume energy to sustain itself, make more life, and not die for as long as possible in order to accomplish the first two goals. And indeed this is what we observe. But this sets up an inherent paradox in terms of universe construction: why build life into a universe that will eventually wipe out all life, if the purpose of life is to grow, reproduce, and spread more life? This is a serious issue if we believe that “good” means that one is interested in preserving life. In short form — if life exists, and God exists, and God is good, why is our sun going to wipe out all life in the solar system in about four billion years?
Furthermore we know that life consumes energy to survive, and that creatures are naturally ordered into food chains which concentrate that energy into higher and higher doses to support creatures of increasingly complexity. This leads inevitably to one of the basic cruelties which is built into the known universe: the energy requirements necessary to support a creature which is capable of asking the question “why?” appear to necessitate a long string of living creatures lower on the food chain whose primary purpose in life appears to be eating one another. In other words, the nature of the universe is that complex animal life must consume other life in order to survive. Given that all life has the built-in imperative to survive, one could reasonably argue that the seeds of conflict between living creatures are therefore sown into the universe from the start.
So from an extremely high-level perspective, we already know that life is not ultimately favored by a Supreme Being — at least, not your life, or the lives of any given species. If life has been designed for any purpose, it must be accomplished before one reaches the end of an ultimately futile struggle against cosmic entropic forces. Thus, if our idea of a “good” Supreme Being is that of one who is a champion of life, either the universe is flawed (indicating at the very least that the Supreme Being did not create it, and does not hold all three “omni” qualities) or that the Supreme Being is not “good.” To put that more simply — a “good” universe would be one that is indefinitely stable and in which resource constraints are not applicable. The fact that this doesn’t make sense according to our understanding of physics is irrelevant — if we accept the assumption of a Supreme Being, we necessarily accept that the realm of physics is His to play with.
This is a somewhat grim picture which doesn’t get much prettier at a lower-level view historical viewpoint. The human experience has traditionally been one of short lifespans and deprivation for most individuals, where the merest chance, accident, or disease was sufficient to end one’s life. Our species is fragile and under equipped for survival except in one respect — our mental faculty. While this has been sufficient to take us to the top of the local food chain and lift ourselves out of the state of nature, it has also forced us to come to terms with a competitive universe about which we know frighteningly little, and to which we have responded with centuries of superstition and violence. Given the assumption that we are a created species, this indicates that our Creator designed us as we are, emotionally and mentally, and didn’t do a particularly good job at it. A properly designed humanity would have bigger claws, tougher skin, a lot more zen, and a lot fewer crusades.
Similarly, if we continue our assumptions then we come to the conclusion that the various hardships which humanity suffers must also have been created by the Creator. In this assumption Ebola was created or allowed to evolve, as was the flu, and E-coli poisoning, and all the other diseases that cause our lives to end in horrible fashions (or just cause us to stay up all night on the toilet, which makes us merely wish our lives would end sooner). Similarly, we must assume that every physical ailment, from aging to cancer to lower back pain to simple physical ugliness, was specifically designed into the human condition. If we are a created species, the only conclusion is that either we were designed to suffer or that the Creator was having an off day when he implemented certain design choices. This again raises the logical contention that either the Creator is fallible (i.e., not a Supreme Being since He’s missing some of the “omni” qualities) or the Creator is not “good” (since a “good” being would not design suffering into an infinite universe for such pointless reasons as population control).
There are, of course, some religions which argue that man’s condition is a punishment; that our distant ancestors angered their Creator such that he cursed them with suffering, toil, and death throughout their generations. This of course ignores a crucial point — that an omniscient Creator made creatures which he had to have known would behave badly, and then punished them for it, which doesn’t make any sense. It also perverts the concept of guilt — it is illogical to blame offspring for the sins of their fathers. A Supreme Being which is “good” ought not to extend punishment throughout multiple generations, since by definition children cannot know or participate in actions which occurred prior to their birth, even if such a punishment was just in the first place, which gets back to the point about an omniscient Creator making a mistake.
Similarly, some religions argue that a demonic influence of some sort corrupted the world, or man, or both, and is responsible for life’s hardships. This contention shares the same logical weakness — where, then, did this devil come from? If it is a creature that rebelled against the Creator, would not the Creator have known about this rebellion in advance? And if such a devil is a creation of the Creator, why does the Creator not simply destroy him? Indeed, if the Creator is a force of good, is it not a moral imperative of the Creator to immediately destroy or otherwise denature any evil force which exists within His domain? Thus the traditional religious counterarguments also tend to fall into the same logical trap: either the Creator is fallible, and therefore fundamentally unable to destroy a “devil,” or the Creator is not entirely “good.”
Lastly, there’s the final fallback argument that most religions tend to bring to bear when confronted with the imperfect universe: that of the Ineffable Plan. This argument states that the various hardships of the universe are there to fulfill some component of a larger design which must, by definition, be entirely good. The core contention of such an argument is that the Greater Good of the Plan is superior to, and justifies, the various hardships of life and the evil we encounter in the world.
Unfortunately, this argument still tends to underestimate the definition of “omniscient.” Specifically, a “good” omniscient being would have no need, whatsoever, to include any form of evil in their plans at all. Evil in such a case would be an item which might be avoided or neutralized, but never incorporated. For that matter, the Ineffable Plan almost by definition violates the idea of a “good” Creator, since it implicitly assumes that the Creator not only created evil, but did so deliberately, which means the Creator isn’t “good.”
Finally, one might argue that evil is an emergent force that seeps into the world without any action by the Creator and must be countered by man, in which case one cannot argue that the Creator is both “good” and in possession of the three “omni” qualities, since any evil that exists in a universe governed by a Supreme Being would be immediately recognized, neutralized, and scrubbed from existence. By the same token, the argument that evil seeps into the universe presupposes the existence of some source of evil that is more powerful, at least in certain areas, than the Creator, whose job it is to keep it out, which leads right back to the same problem of whether or not the Creator is a Supreme Being.
There is another possible argument: that the values we recognize as “good” are incompatible with values that the Supreme Being might recognize as “good.” Man’s law is not God’s law and all that. This would logically allow the Supreme Being to be “good,” but by a definition to which we are not privy. The argument here might be that God is so far advanced from us that He cannot be judged by any mortal yardstick; indeed, it wouldn’t make sense to even try.
Unfortunately this idea implies some uncomfortable things about the nature of the divine. For one, it implies that it’s probable we are simply being used. This is a rational explanation for a “do as I say, not as I do” principle; God has a Plan, and we are part of that plan, but only in the same way that a gear is part of a car engine, and with roughly the same value — the engine works, and as long as the gears do their job the car runs, but the gears are usually put through hell, at least from their perspective.
This in turn implies that we are being led along a path chosen by a Supreme Being who is profoundly disinterested in our personal suffering, because what we view as “suffering” simply isn’t applicable to His viewpoint. While this is a defensible argument, it unfortunately makes the Supreme Being evil from our perspective by His own definitions, since without knowledge of the Plan we have no other moral compass to guide us than that which we have been given, and most religions have specific things to say about murder (remember, if we assume God is in control, that means he kills a lot of people every day). There is no justifiable reason to then conclude that such a being is “good;” according to all that we have been given to know about the universe, His actions must be judged as evil, because by His own design we cannot help but recognize them as such.
Another possible outcome of the incompatibility argument is that God has no Plan, or at least none for us, but has simply wound up the universe and is not terribly concerned with the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants. Perhaps in this scenario God’s definition of “good” is simply that He keeps the universe running; gravity works, the strong nuclear force keeps going, but the little things like a mortal’s perception of good and evil are simply too small-scale to matter in the overall operations of the cosmos or are simply irrelevant (this is a classic Deist position). This argument also seems defensible, but at the same time removes any inclination or necessity for the Supreme Being to be “good” from our perspective — in such an assumption He’s just kind of there, but neither good nor evil.
This is just a short overview of what philosophers and theologians call the Problem of Evil, and it’s a very tough nut to crack if you want to keep a “good” Supreme Being. Most theologians throughout the years have fallen back on specious arguments, tortured reasoning, or simple faith — “I don’t have to figure out how it works, it’s enough to believe.” I don’t believe that is a valid argument. Instead, I would say that a much easier logical resolution to this problem is available: to conclude that a divine Supreme Being cannot logically be all-powerful. Suddenly, all of the issues which arise as a result of evil go away; it’s not God’s fault anymore that evil exists, and in fact He may be working just as hard as any saint to make it go away. This also allows all the literary demonic figures back into the picture, since now they’re simply opposing forces as opposed to entities which have no logical reason to even exist. This also removes all of the paradoxes of the nature of existence; a god (as opposed to a God) has no more say in how the cosmos were created than we do, and has to work with what He has available.
Such an interpretation, a “little-g god,” is in my opinion the only way to logically reconcile observed reality, with all of its joy and all of its horror, with any conception of the divine. To speak of any sort of “good” Supreme Being is to almost inevitably result in a logical paradox; the best we can hope for down that path is a sort of Cthulu-mythos-ish divinity, not precisely evil but so utterly disinterested in human life as to be indistinguishable from evil from the mortal perspective. A little-g god, on the other hand, allows for a divine being who can be “good” and allow evil to exist. If you drop the omniscient quality, it even allows Him to be a little bit of a dope, a lovable super-powered Homer Simpson. Because that’s literally the only kind of god that has any business assigning morality to consensual relations between adult humans, condemning people for not believing in Him, or supporting the election of Donald Trump. Logically speaking, that is.
At the time of this writing, I have not yet been struck by lightning.