|Ancient of Days, William Blake|
Leaving aside debate about whether gods exist or not, and whether the absence of evidence for them is evidence of their absence, like it is for just about everything else, neither Christians nor Muslims seem to know what sort of god they believe in. They will often cite as 'proof' that their favourite holy book was divinely inspired by quoting some passage or other which can, usually at a stretch, be presented as some sort of prophesy of the future.
These 'prophecies' normally fall into three sort:
- Imaginary prophecies: Those they claim have been fulfilled, for which they normally have to ignore the context of the 'prophecy', make claims about history which are not born out by the facts, and/or stretch reason beyond breaking point to map the 'prophecy' onto real events. Prophets of these events never manage to foretell the exact year.
- Retrospective prophecies: 'Prophecies' written after the events they supposedly prophesied. A bit like prophesying what you ate for dinner yesterday or who won World War II
- 'Gunner be' prophecies: 'Prophecies' which have not actually been fulfilled, but we are assured are 'gunner be', at some point, and often "real soon... you'll see!"
Like the 'prophecies' of Nostradamus, Biblical and Koranic prophecies seem particularly good at predicting the past but are singularly inept at predicting the future. For example, Muslims will tell you that the Koran predicted all the scientific discoveries, yet they can never look in it to find out what the next discovery will be. As always, it's usefulness as a predictive tool seems to have ended last week.
But there is something which proponents of these prophesying gods don't seem to have worked out, despite having 2500-3000 or more to think about the problem. You see, to prophesy the future you need to know not only the future, but everything leading up to that future, and nothing at all could change, or the future would be different and the prophecy would fail. This is no less true for a god than for a person or a computer. You can only prophesy the future if the future is absolutely fixed and unchangeable and that means the present is also fixed and unchangeable. A god which lived in a universe in which everything is fixed and unchangeable is a powerless god, indistinguishable from an absent one.
A universe with a fixed, unchangeable future is indistinguishable from a universe with no god in it.
I'll let former evangelical Christian Dan Barker, author of 'Losing Faith In Faith' and founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, say it far more eloquently than I ever could hope to in the transcription of a radio interview phone-in he did on a Christian radio show hosted by creationist loon, Jason Gastrich. It's a bit long but worth the read, as is the even longer transcript of the complete interview:
Dan: You're saying that there is a god that knows the future, and that this god is a personal being with free will who can make decisions, right?
Jason: Hmm . . . I'm sorry, I'm sorry, we're getting away from the question, but let's go ahead. Go ahead and tell me . .
Dan: Well, you're talking about prophecy, right?
Jason: I was talking about a specific prophecy, but let's talk about what you're saying. Go ahead.
Dan: Well, if this god exists . . .
Dan: . . . and if he knows the future, like you pretend he knows here, . . .
Dan: . . . that means that the set of future facts is fixed. It cannot be changed. If God knows it in advance, then the future is fixed and unchangeable. Otherwise, God wouldn't be omniscient. He wouldn't be able to predict the future.
Dan: If the future is fixed, then that sets some limits on God's power. And also, how can a personal being with free will have any ability to make any decisions if the future is already fixed. God Himself cannot even make any decisions, because he can't do what he knows that he's not going to do. Therefore, if this kind of god exists, philosophically, this god is not a personal free being. He's more like a robot or something.
Jason: I think you jump from God knowing the future to the point where you asserted that God controls the actions, all the actions of human beings.
Dan: No, I'm talking about God's own actions, not human beings.
Dan: I'm talking about God . . . If God knows what he's going to do . . .
Dan: . . . tomorrow at twelve noon, right?
Dan: Then God can't change in the meantime what he's going to do between now and then. He knows it.
Jason: Well, I think there's an instance in Jonah, where God had told Jonah to tell Nineveh that Nineveh is going to be wiped out because of their sin. And then Nineveh decided to repent with weeping and fasting, and God decided to exercise his perfect mercy on them.
Dan: Yeah, but that was clearly conditional. That was a supposed conditional prophecy. I'm talking about these prophecies that are supposedly clear prophecies of something that will happen.
Jason: I don't know if that was conditional. In Jonah there's only four chapters, but um, as far as I could tell, it was God telling them judgement will come on you. And some people have said that looks like God has changed his mind, or changed. How could this happen with a changeless god? But in reality, he decided to use his perfect mercy instead of his judgement.
Dan: So, before he exercised his mercy, did he have one idea of what the future would be like, but after he exercised his mercy, he changed his mind and had a different idea of what the future would be like? In other words, was he not omniscient to begin with? Was the set of future facts changeable or fixed? [Do] you know what I'm saying? If it's changeable, then God doesn't know the future.
Jason: Why is that?
Dan: Because he doesn't know how the ball is going to bounce. He doesn't know. He's like you and me, right?
Dan: So if God doesn't know the future, then he can't prophesy anything, because anything can happen between now and then. Do you see the philosophical problem here? He's either a free being that can make decisions openly, or else he knows a fixed future that cannot be changed. He can't have it both ways. He might be omniscient, in which case he's not omnipotent. Or he might be prescient, in which case he's not a free being, and he's not worthy of my worship if he's like a robot or a computer program or something.
Jason: Ok, I see what you're saying, I think. And um, I think that the rub is just because God doesn't step in and do the things that you do think he should do if he were to exist. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's not there, or not powerful or couldn't do something.
Dan: I'm not saying that at all. That wasn't my point. My point was that if your definition is right, then something's got to give. You have a mutually incompatible definition of a god: one who knows the future, and yet is also a free personal being. I'm not telling him what to do. If there's a God, he can do what he wants to. But I'm just saying that you have a problem with an incompatibility in your definition of what God is like. According to you, Ezekiel 38 tells, predicts a future which will happen, right?
Jason: Uh-huh. Right.
Dan: And there's no way that you or I, or even God can change that.
Dan: Right? It's predicting something. And if God can't change that, then God has limits on his power and on his freedom.
Dan: Therefore, he is something less than the being that you claim to worship.
Jason: Ok, well yeah, the argument that you're using is much more tied into what I said than you realize, because it's the same kind of argument that atheists have used before to say, "if God can't lie, if God can't steal, if God can't do evil. If he can't do these things, then we're not worshipping an omnipotent god." But um, it's just I think how much this argument stems from a lack of understanding.
Dan: I'm not saying that either, but -- I've heard atheists say that, and I disagree with it -- because if there is a god, he has a nature, right? And he would want to act in accordance with his nature, so I'm not saying that.
Dan: I know enough about theology and the Bible to know that this god that Christians worship has a particular nature that he usually acts in accordance with. Not always, but . . .
Jason: That doesn't mean that he's not omnipotent, it just means that he's not doing the things that you, or someone else, would see as a complete, powerful, all-powerful god.
Dan: Well, [Laughs] then it's not just omnipotence, but it's freedom. If, if . . . in order for you to make a decision . . Let's say you're going to make a choice about who-knows-what. Let's say you're going to have coffee or tea, or you're going to chose a mate, or whatever. In order to have freedom, or the illusion of freedom, you have to have at least more than one option available to you, each of which could be freely chosen or rejected, and there has to be a period of time during which there's an uncertainty during which you could change your mind, right?
Jason: Yeah, all humanly speaking you're correct, I think.
Dan: Yeah, and so that's the definition of "free will" and freedom.
Dan: If there is a god who is a person, and [being a] person requires this freedom to make decisions, then this also applies to God. He also has to have the freedom during a period of uncertainty to be able to change his mind and to exercise mercy or justice or to change . . . Do you know what I mean? Otherwise, he's not a free being, right?
Dan: He has to have that period of potential, but . .
Jason: I think God has just bound Himself to the promises he has made to us. If you want to say that that makes him less omnipotent than some other god, then maybe you could say that.
Dan: I'm not saying [less] omnipotent. I'm saying less of a person, less of a free person. As a personality, he's more like a robot than . . He might be totally omnipotent, but he's not the kind of person that I would find admirable to worship as a person. He's more like this force of a huge computer program or something. Do you know what I'm saying? He's not a being. He's not a personal being if he knows the future. He can't be because he has no freedom, no choice, no period of potential to change his mind and be and to be merciful or warm or friendly. Do you know what I mean? He's not like you and me. He's some sort of a weird creature up there who's running things in a colder kind of impersonal way, and that's the kind of creature that I could not worship or respect.
Jason: But on a human level, it's possible to know the future and then, I mean, to an extent, and still be loving, or . . . Isn't it?
Dan: Well, none of us knows the future. We get lucky a lot.
Jason: Yeah, I just mean like I'm going to go to [laughs] to work today, or I'm going to do this, or I'm going to do that, or my kid's going to do this tonight . . .
Dan: Yeah, but on the way to work you still have the option, you probably wouldn't exercise it, but you could still change your mind and go somewhere else, right?
Dan: That's what makes you free.
Jason: Um-huh. Dan: But if you did not have that option, you wouldn't be free. Your hands would drive to work no matter what. You wouldn't be, you wouldn't have free will. You wouldn't . . .
Jason: I suppose it would give me, it's given me even more of a respect for God, realizing now, that he has laid down his omnipotence in order to give humans comfort by promising them things.
Dan: So he's not omnipotent, you just said?
Jason: Well he's surely omnipotent, but his type of omnipotence is different from the type of omnipotence that you want him to be, apparently.
Dan: I don't want him to be anything. I'm just trying to make sense of this Bible. I don't want God to be anything at all. If he exists, he can be whatever he wants to be. I mean, that's not up to me to decide. I'm trying to decide whether or not I think he, first of all, exists at all, and secondly, even if he did, if he is worthy of my admiration. Because I have the free will to choose, don't I?
Dan: I don't have to like him do I? But I don't have to respect him. You know, I could denounce him if I choose. That's part of my freedom, right? And so it's my choice whether or not I find this kind of a being worthy of my respect. And I find him unworthy of my respect. I mean, what's wrong with me exercising my judgement, based on moral intellectual principles, to say such a thing?
See 'Barker Tears A New One' for a full transcription.
Love that different type of omnipotence, Jason!
So, as Dan Barker so patiently explained to the hapless Jason, "You have a mutually incompatible definition of a god: one who knows the future, and yet is also a free personal being." Not for the first time do we find religion requires it's believers to hold two or more mutually incompatible views simultaneously.
So, Christians and Muslims, and anyone else who has an omnipotent, omniscient god who makes accurate prophecies, how do you square that circle and have both an omnipotent, omniscient god who is bound irredeemably by his own inerrantly omniscient foresight and so is utterly powerless?