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I have been having a discussion with a commenter on a previous post concerning prayer in the light of an OmniGod (my preferred term for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god). As many of you who have followed my blog, my writings and books will know, I spend a lot of time looking at how incoherent these three characteristics are as they sit alongside each other (as well as being problematic as stand-alone properties). One criticism that the commenter has is as follows:

Let’s start with the “classical omnis.” If we allow for those definitions, then we either start by saying that god cannot exist, by definition, or we allow for a reality in which can be described in an inconsistent logical system.

If we demand the former, then we’re done. All of this discussion is pointless as the thing defined cannot exist purely based on definition and model. If it is the latter, then proof by contradiction falls apart.

Which is to (partly) say that it is pointless arguing about how prayer does not cohere with the omnis if you are arguing that the omnis are themselves logically consistent. The former is a waste of time since the latter takes precedence.

So why, if I do think the omnis are problematic and end up getting redefined completely out of original meaning, do I bother arguing about things in light of the omnis being granted?

Well, people are funny things. And by funny, I mean they ignore things, suffer from outright cognitive dissonance, or simply don’t know an awful lot of stuff.

Using Christians as my main debating bloc, it is clear to me that they fit into a range of categories; perhaps these:

  1. sophisticated: having argued a lot about them, they adhere to the omnis, but shift them about in meaning, or are very vague in what they specifically entail.
  2. armchair: believe these omnis to the extent that they have thought about them to some degree (and maybe had some internet arguments about them), but have not pursued them enough to understand how prima facie problematic they are.
  3. unknowing laypeople: they understand the basic principles of omnis in a conversational manner, but have never thought deeply at all about how they might work, and aren’t really bothered. Their belief is not really for challenging and debating in this manner.

It must be said that all three categories almost always still believe in some form of divine foreknowledge (I don’t personally know any Open Theists, for example, though there is some rational reason to go down that route given the issues with divine foreknowledge and free will). With regard to my prayer arguments of the last week, it is the interaction of these two ideas that is problematic, aside from any other omnis.

The reason why I still pursue arguments that are “further down the line” from the more axiomatic tenets is that people so often fit into the second category, or even the first but with massive dollops of cognitive dissonance. This means that they either know there are problems with the omnis but still tenaciously hold to them (either dubiously, or irrationally), or they are simply unaware of the writing and philosophy involved in criticisms of the omnis and, say, Perfect Being Theology.

So I grant them that. I disagree that they can rationally hold to the OmniGod, but I grant them the belief. They might not have the time or desire to read all the many things I and many others have written on the topics.

Arguing on blogs like this is often a cumulative affair and you have to come from many angles.

Look, I don’t believe God exists, so why waste my time at all? Partly I enjoy it, partly it is to test my own beliefs, partly it is to spread rational thought. But it doesn’t have to be strictly hierarchical in the way the commenter insists. I can grant certain premises that I don’t think hold for the sake of argument. That is where”for the sake of argument” comes from. We use that very term to say, “Look, I disagree with your axioms or premises, but given them, you still have problems further down the line.”

I can’t see anything wrong with this. This is a perfectly sound approach in the pragmatics of arguing. We do it all the time in many spheres of arguing. “Okay, I’ll grant you that, but if you think that is the case, then have you thought about how it is affected by this?” It’s another way to unhinge the belief.

I fundamentally don’t believe in free will, but I still grant free will in many arguments I propose, because arguing these things is multifaceted and can be done from many angles. I would be very boring if the only string to my bow, and the only conversation I have, is that free will does not exist. Incidentally, in my free will talks, I start by saying the God argument (other than Calvinism) pretty much supervenes on the free will argument, so all the other theological arguments about this, that and the other are all irrelevant if you cannot provide a coherent model for libertarian free will.

And that’s exactly my point. Besides which, if I am wrong about free will and it is my only argument, I would be stuffed.

I’m not, though.

Wrong, that is.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...