Jason Thibodeau has been offering a series of critiques of my views on God and explanation over at his blog. Here’s the most recent entry: “Do theists need to explain God’s existence? Part 3“. In case you were wondering, Jason has a PhD in philosophy from the University of California and is a professor in philosophy at Georgia Perimeter College.
In this series Jason has been taking issue with the appeal to theism as an explanatory hypothesis. In his most recent installment he offers the following definition of theism:
Theism: There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Next, Jason contends that appeal to this definition leaves many facts unexplained. Here is how he sets up the point:
I maintain that even if theism is true, there still exist facts that theism cannot explain. Here is a list of some of these facts:
- that the creator of the universe is omni-benevolent rather than omni-malevolent, mostly good, or even indifferent
- that the creator of the universe is omnipotent rather than merely very very powerful
- that the creator of the universe is omniscient rather than merely very knowledgable
We can describe this point as the “arbitrary attributes problem”. Let’s say that there is a poor family living in a shack. Suddenly one day they begin to find food hampers left on their doorstep. They then surmise that the hampers were left by a kind old bearded man named Smithwick.
They may be on good ground to infer that an agent is leaving the food on the doorstep. They may even be on good ground to think the agent is kind. But why think that the agent is an old bearded man named Smithwick? It seems wholly arbitrary to predicate those attributes of the agent, and thus we have the arbitrary attribute problem.
Likewise, you may have reason to think an agent cause can explain facets of the universe. You may even have reason to think that agent exists necessarily. But to think the agent is omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient? Isn’t that arbitrary in the same way it is arbitrary to describe the family’s “earth angel” as an old bearded man named Smithwick?
The short answer is, no. There are at least three reasons why.
To begin with, Richard Swinburne has pointed out that in terms of hypothesis formation predicating infinite powers of the agent cause of the universe is simpler than predicating powers of a particular finite measure:
“If the action of a person is to explain the existence and operation of the universe, he will need to be a very powerful person. It is a simpler hypothesis to postulate that his power is infinite rather than just very large. If we said he was powerful enough to make a universe of such and such mass but not powerful enough to make a more massive one, the question would arise as to why there was just that rather than any other limit to his power. ” (Is there a God?, 45)
Of course as a hypothesis the postulation of infinity (or power or any other attribute) is provisional and open to revision. The point, however, is that it is not wholly arbitrary or unjustified as a provisional hypothesis since positing a specific degree of finite power would raise questions about why that level of power and not another. (A person might respond: “Why not postulate an agent powerful enough to create this universe and simply not take a stand on whether the agent had sufficient power to create a greater universe?” But agnosticism of that kind is a position which also must be justified. Why can’t we provisionally conclude it likely that the agent would have power to create a slightly grander effect than the one observed? And why not a bit more grand than that? At which point we’re back to writing down “infinite” and getting on with our day.)
Second, Jason misses the fact that there are independent reasons why one would appeal to those various Omni-attributes. Consider omnibenevolence. This attribute is not simply that God happens to be the best person there could be. Instead, it asserts that the divine nature is the source across all possible worlds of objective moral value and moral obligation. This is an appealing hypothesis because, among other things, it enables one to affirm human moral intuitions that moral value and obligation are independent of human individual opinions or our existence as a species and are instead objective facts that we can recognize or fail to recognize. In addition, it avoids the need to multiply our ontology by positing an independent transcendent source of these moral values and obligations like a Platonic good. Finally, the recognition of transcendent moral obligation — e.g. I really ought to have helped that person and I ought not to have lied — fits better with a concrete agential source rather than an abstract one. (Abstract objects like a Platonic good are generally viewed as inert, and it is conceptually problematic to view obligations sourcing from inert entities.)
Third, and perhaps most importantly, we turn back to Jason’s definition. It is a good definition for certain purposes, but it also has the danger of creating a distortion in the way theists conceive of God because it offers no meaningful relation between the properties postulated, thereby leaving the theist open to that charge of arbitrary attributes. The fact is, however, that theists are not arbitrary in their postulation of attributes of deity. You can read more about the perfect being definition of God, and how the set of attributes posited by the theist is a coherent, meaningful package in “Perfect Divine Being, Perfect Divine Commands.” (As a bonus, this article will also illumine my second point.)
In conclusion, I don’t think the (Christian) theist is vulnerable to Jason Thibodeau’s arbitrary attribute charge.