Problems Arising from Divine Exceptionalism

Your Favorite Gunlord (G): It’s a very useful rule of thumb in human experience that knowing what it is like to do or experience something entails having done it at some point, and therefore being capable of doing it. Now, God, being omniscient and having access to the personal experiences of all created things, knows what it is like to commit sin. But given the above rule of thumb, if God knows what it is like to sin, He must be capable of sinning. Does that not contradict His omnibenevolence?

 

Your Favorite Catholic (a Leftcath, a Radtrad, Edward Feser, whoever, hereafter referred to as C): Not at all! Sure, the only way for finite beings like you and I to gain first-hand knowledge of something is to do it or experience it ourselves, but God is in-finite. The rule of thumb which applies to us does not necessarily apply to Him. (It might also be the case that first-hand knowledge isn’t really knowledge, but that’s a different debate for another time)

 

G: Hmm. So you’re saying God would be an exception to a rule of thumb that is universally true in our experience?

 

C: Yup. You could also say it’s plainly anthropocentric to assume a rule of thumb which applies to us should apply to everything else, most especially God.

 

G: While not self-contradictory on its face, it seems to me this line of reasoning can lead one to stumbling upon a host of other philosophical problems. Take, for instance, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, much beloved of theists since Leibniz, which essentially states that there are no “brute facts” and everything we see around us has an explanation. However, justifications for this principle typically center around its necessity for our everyday reasoning. The emphasis is on ‘our’—I’m saying this principle is anthropocentric. Every time we look at an event or phenomena, we assume it has an explanation, and of course, we’re generally correct. If we see a corpse on the street, we don’t assume it’s there just as a “brute fact,” we assume there’s an explanation behind it, whether murder or accident. And as Michael Della Rocca has pointed out, any time anybody tries to explain something away as just a “brute fact,” we are typically and justifiably suspicious of such an “explanation.” But all these examples refer to our finite, mundane, everyday world, where human beings live and die, and are murdered or suffer from accidents. Why should we assume the PSR applies to things vastly outside of our experience, and vastly greater than human beings? Take, for instance, the universe itself, certainly something far stranger and more lofty than any crime scene we might happen upon in our daily lives, yet ever-present all the same. Perhaps the PSR, which applies to things like dead bodies, does not apply to the universe, which simply exists as a brute fact and needs no explanation even in principle—which would render your God unnecessary as an explanation. But if an unimaginably strange, lofty thing like God is an exception to a rule of thumb completely universal among humans (namely, that knowing what it is like to do something implies being capable of doing it), why is it impossible that another strange, lofty thing like the universe itself might be an exception to a different universal rule of thumb among humans (the PSR, that there is a Sufficient Reason for everything we see around us)?

 

C: Well, first, aren’t you committing a bit of semantic sliding? I said that God is infinite, not merely strange or lofty.

 

G: A bit, I suppose, but not enough to really take away from the point I was making. Perhaps the universe is infinite? Aristotle did believe it was eternal, after all. If you think the Big Bang disproves that, perhaps we can say the multiverse is infinite, and argue that it is not beholden to the PSR. And even if not, what non-arbitrary reason is there to believe that only an infinite being would be exempt from our human laws of thumb? Even if the universe and/or multiverse were not infinite, why do we necessarily have to assume the PSR applies to them, any more than we necessarily have to assume that God’s experiential knowledge operates similarly to ours?

 

C: Hmmmm. Well, isn’t the Principle of Sufficient Reason more foundational, or even more universal, than the human experience of knowledge? As I imply above, it is possible in principle—that is to say, not self-contradictory—that an infinite being can have knowledge of something (such as sin) without having experienced it or being capable of it. But how is it possible in principle for the PSR to be anything other than universally true? You’re using it right now, aren’t you? Don’t you expect me to have a sufficient reason to believe that the PSR might be wrong?

 

G: Ah, but I’m not asking you to believe the PSR is wrong about everything, just that it is wrong about some things. The fact we’re even having this conversation illustrates my point, not yours: Since both of us are mere human beings, we need sufficient reasons to convince each other that any given proposition is true, and we would not rely on “brute facts” in our disputation, but why would that necessitate the universe itself having a sufficient reason for its existence? Or, in other words, isn’t it anthropocentric to assume that since human beings require sufficient reasons to believe that a certain fact or proposition is actually true, all facts themselves, even those involving things far outside normal human reasoning, necessarily have sufficient reasons for their existence?

 

C: Hmmm.

 

G: Things get even worse. Take another element of divine exceptionalism—morality. What seems like cruel and arbitrary behavior to finite beings like us, ranging from exterminating large populations of people to just generally creating a universe filled with sin and suffering, is actually not wrong when God does it. But if killing people is not murder when God does it, due to the fact that He is infinite and incomprehensible to us, what about other sins? Lying, for instance. It is ostensibly wrong for human beings to lie to one another because, to paraphrase St. Edward Feser, the end of our “communicative faculties” is to tell the truth, and lying is the exact opposite of telling the truth (as opposed to just humming or speaking nonsense, which are merely non-truths rather than anti-truths). However, why should we assume the “communicative faculty” of an infinite being like God has exactly the same end as it does in limited human beings? If morality applies only to finite created things rather than the Infinite Creator Himself, perhaps it is the case that God could in principle have legitimate reasons for telling human beings falsehoods about the world or about Himself, or that lying is not a frustration of an infinite being’s communicative functions, even if we finite beings could not understand how. Thus, even if we assume that Jesus really was God, or that God appeared to the prophets of the Bible, perhaps He was lying to them—perhaps the gates of Hell really will prevail against the Church at some point, or perhaps someone else besides Peter truly possessed the power to “bind and loose,” or perhaps God didn’t actually intend to fulfill His promises to the Jewish people. Needless to say, one can also assume the Qu’ran might have been God just punking Muhammad. To assume otherwise is to assume the Creator of the Universe has an obligation not to lie to His creations, just like we are obligated not to lie. But you’ve just said that God is an exception to the rules binding finite creatures—what’s murder and cruelty if we do it is good and unobjectionable when God does it. Why wouldn’t the same apply to lying and deceit?

 

C: …D:

 

G: You can understand, I hope, why I take a dim view of the argument that God is an exception to rules or norms which apply to us. It’s always so arbitrary. Whenever the theist needs God to be radically different from us, whether in terms of knowledge of experience or moral goodness, the theist falls back on “bizarre attributes that are pretty much inconceivable when possessed by finite beings are perfectly okay for infinite beings! Anything that’s not obviously and immediately logically contradictory must be true!” However, when this train of thought implies that God might be bizarre in very unsettling ways—able to lie to us, for instance—the theist immediately claims God isn’t so different and incomprehensible after all. Curiously, this isn’t even a deathblow for theism, necessarily—St. Aristotle, for instance, thought that God was perfectly good, but that He was uninterested in human affairs and experiences and only had knowledge of Himself, self-contemplating eternally. But this obviously would not be the omniscient God of the Bible or the Qu’ran, who possesses knowledge of how it feels for humans to experience things, good and bad, and notably interacts with the world rather than just thinking of himself all the time. The other solution would be to deny that experiential knowledge is real knowledge, but as we agreed at the beginning, that’s a very vexed question by itself and a debate for another time.

 

C: So are you saying we should all convert…to Aristotelianism?

 

G: Whatever floats your boat.

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