This was a long letter from MJ, so I’ll have to address it in parts:
I am 21 years old and a student at a small Jesuit college in Ohio. I just recently came across your blog. To be precise it was introduced to me last spring–March, I believe. I wasn’t part of your regular traffic until October or so. Now I think hardly a day goes by that I don’t read what is stirring in your head. First, thank you both for your insights and your (at least I consider it) courage (maybe you consider it normalcy). To be brief, I grew up in a relatively conservative Roman Catholic household. However, as one who prefers to avoid confrontation, I rarely engage in debates about politics or religion. I’ll speak vehemently about such subjects with people with whom I agree. When it comes to others, I prefer to keep quiet or, if necessary, appease. I say this so that my thanks might be better placed. You have no desire to avoid or appease those whom you consider wrong. Your example is a great help.
Perhaps it was divinely ordained, but I had been reading through a handful of literature on science, atheism, and religion at around the same time that I grew fond of your blog (I didn’t read any Dawkins; I skimmed the first five chapters of Hitchens’s memoir; I gravitated toward Stenger’s God the Failed Hypothesis and Cunningham’s Decoding the Language of God)…. At the time I started this endeavor and even during the initial stages, I probably would have classified myself as an agnostic….
Now, I am not contacting you solely for the sake of encomium; I have a few things that I wish to ask. First, I remember reading some comments you had about the omnipotence, omniscience, etc. of God. You suggested replacing such attributes with ideas about tantipotence, tantiscience, etc. I prefer to think of my theology almost in terms of mathematics (just to note, my theology is incredibly uninformed. A current goal of mine is to become both more biblically literate and theologically literate. The downside of a Catholic upbringing!). I have never been a fan of the arguments of god’s nonexistence by means of syllogism (that is, God is A, but A leads to B, and B is inconsistent with well known fact C, so God is not A or something like that) since syllogisms of this sort seem to be equivalent to abusing and mutilating the dictionary. However, since these arguments are out there, I began to consider the following. I don’t wish to jeopardize God’s infinite nature.
However, pure omnipotence can cause logical problems (if we wish to impose some logical structure on God’s nature, something that I think objectionable). In your suggestion of tantipotence, you (I think) mentioned that to the human mind tantipotence would virtually appear to be omnipotence. To the human mind, there is no significant difference between a God who can do all and a God who can do nearly all things. My only qualm is that to the believer this might be an acceptable concession; but I would imagine that the non-believer would love to poke fun at the not-fully-all powerful God. I was wondering what you might think of this idea. In mathematics there are different gradations of infinity (I am sure you are aware). The set of integers has a cardinality of infinity, but this infinity is less than the infinity that is the cardinality of the set of real numbers. That is, there are more real numbers than integers even though both are technically infinite in extent. If we take omnipotence as the cardinality of the real numbers and tantipotence as the cardinality of the integers, then God still remains infinite even if “less so.”
My point is to ask your opinion about thinking about theology in terms of mathematics. To some degree I think that mathematics presents the universe (or multiverse, hyperverse, or whatever they are calling it now) with its own mind-body problem of dualism. How is it that mathematics, something so abstract, can interact with the physical world? (I suppose something similar could be said about language; how does an abstract concept such as language reflect, relate, and influence the material world?) I read your post today from Spengler’s Decline of the West. I am definitely going to look into that book. As a final point, I am awestruck at one of the most basic ideas in mathematics, continuity, and how continuity affects infinity. For example, I am still puzzled by how an infinitely long number line can be looped up into a circle of radius 1 through a simple compactification method….virtually allowing me to hold infinity in my hand! I am also intrigued that through a few simple lines a mathematician can prove a statement that can solve an infinite number of problems. I suppose it’s akin to what you write in The Irrational Atheist that a few lines of programming can generate the infinitely complex Serpinski Triangle.
In relation to the above, I encountered on Richard Dawkins’s website the classic argument that atheists make: if god is all-powerful and all-loving, then he should wish to stop and be able to stop evil. You know the rest. Just out of curiosity, does this argument presuppose that God operates on a kind of utilitarian moral code? After all, the alleviation of suffering is precisely Sam-Harrisian…er…I mean utilitarian. Not for a second do I imagine a utilitarian God! If, indeed, this argument presupposes such a God, it seems to me all the more reason to throw it out immediately!
I’m glad that some people are finding my anti-anti-apologetics to be useful. I’m not going to pretend I don’t enjoy beating up on the intellectual cripples of evangelical atheism, as one agnostic described them, but there is a more serious aspect to the activity than my own personal amusement.
First, I think it is important to always keep in mind that whether it is theology, psychology, philosophy, or even history that we are contemplating, we see as though through a glass, darkly. Nothing we do, think, or say can jeopardize God’s nature, whatever it actually happens to be, from nonexistence to omnipotent omnipresence. We are not debating the truth, we are not even capable of perceiving the truth, we are merely debating our superficial observations and our momentary perceptions of the truth. The truth is out there, but it is grander and more complicated than we can possibly hope to comprehend.
In other words, don’t flatter yourself, sport. Neither God nor nature depend upon MJ’s opinion of them. Or mine.
So, the idea of shying away from an idea due to its potential effect on us or anyone else is fundamentally misguided. Anyone who attempts to make hay with regards to the imagined limits of a tantiscient and tantipotent God is doing nothing more than demonstrating himself to be a midwit and a fool. The analogy of the limits of the two infinite sets MJ mentions is a very good one; regardless of whether one is considering integers or real numbers, it is objectively stupid to claim that the number 100 is bigger than the upper limit of either set.
As for the idea that an all-powerful and all-loving God should wish to stop and be able to stop evil, to say nothing of the idea that the existence of evil therefore disproves the existence of such a god, well, that doesn’t even rise to the level of midwittery. One has to have a truly average mind and remain ignorant of basic Biblical knowledge to find either of those concepts even remotely convincing.
Imagine the Sisyphean hell that is the existence of a video game character, literally created to die over and over and over again. Does the misery of his existence prove that the video game developer does not exist? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any limits upon him that the video game character can observe? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any particular enmity for the character? Not at all.
Now, it does prove that the developer is not all-loving. But then, the Christian God is not all-loving. He plays favorites. He loves some and He is very specific about others for whom He harbors not only antipathy, but outright hatred. It is fine to attack the idea of an all-loving god, but it is a mistake to assume any such attack is even remotely relevant to the Christian religion.
The argument is stupid, ignorant, and while it can theoretically rest on a presumption of utilitarianism, more often it rests upon the clueless moral parasitism of the atheist who subscribes to it. It is ironic that the more foolish sort of atheist often attempts to disprove Christianity by an appeal to Christian morality, but then, as MJ has already discovered, we’re not dealing with intellectual giants here.