Is God Perfect? - Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong - Philosophy

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is an American philosopher. He specializes in ethics, moral psychology, neuro-ethics, the philosophy of law, epistemology, the philosophy of religion, and informal logic.

Full Profile >
Contributor

Walter
Sinnott-Armstrong

Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University

Transcript

View TranscriptHide TranscriptDownload Transcript (PDF)Select All and Copy To Clipboard
Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Walter, one of the characteristics of God, particularly the western religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—is that God is perfect. Now, if I want to believe in God, I have to understand what that means and I can't imagine a better way than to talk to an atheist, a philosopher, to ask what does it mean that God is perfect?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Well, it's hard for me to say what it means, because I can't believe that people think that way. I mean, just, God was supposed to inspire the Bible. Just look at the Bible and all the imperfections in it. There are inconsistencies. There are bad moral doctrines. There are horrendous actions like killing all the people in the next village over for the sake of your village being able to take over their land, that are lauded. Well if God inspired that book, how could you think God is perfect? And if God allows all the evil in the world, how could you think God is perfect?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But you are making a God in your image. And in your image, you have certain kind of very constricted moral approach. That may be very valid—that people should never kill under any circumstances or never this, but maybe the God that, that created this entire universe and everything that's in it has a broader understanding of what, of what should be accomplished.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. Maybe his view of what should be accomplished is that we should glorify him as much as possible. But that doesn't strike me as perfect! His, when I ask is God perfect, I've got to use my concept of what seems to be perfect. Otherwise, theologians can say of course he's perfect! By perfect means, you've got a three-letter name, G-O-D. You can make anything sound like perfect. But what counts as perfect to me is what seems good to me. What seems laudable to me. And I don't see how a laudable God would write a book with so many imperfections.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. So, so, so what, so what would amount to perfection? How, how could you, as richly as possible, give the characteristics of a perfect God?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Well, I would think a perfect God would have to be all powerful and all good, for example. Those would be two, in the beginning. And those are the ones that are incompatible with the existence of evil. A perfect God would also have to exist at all times equally and be unchanging, because if God changed, then why would God change? If God was perfect to begin with, what's the point of the change? And so, if God is unchanging, then God however can't bring about new events in the world. Can't bring about changes in the world, like answering prayers and causing miracles. But then, wait a minute, God's not perfect, because God's not all powerful any more. So, it's not clear to me that you can get a coherent notion of a God that is perfect in the sense that I think most believers want God to be perfect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, maybe the problem is, is that theologians have tried to impose a concept of perfection which is inherently illogical, and they're trying to, to, to harmonize things that can't happen, and they're creating a, a logical contradiction that is the equivalent of, you know, can God make a rock so heavy that he can't lift it. Now nobody uses that argument to show that God doesn't exist, because it's a logical inconsistency, so it's a trivial argument. So maybe requiring God to be perfect is the same kind of, of, of logical mistake, even though it's a more complicated one.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. I think there's something to that. And then the additional complication comes from the mix of traditions. When you look at the New Testament in particular, you're getting influences from the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, and the Jewish tradition that went before, with all of the doctrines in that tradition, getting combined with Greek influences, which are using notions of infinity and other worlds outside of time. And you put those two traditions together into a single book and you get additional incoherence's within the doctrines.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well I think, I think actually what happened is a lot of those influences, some came into the New Testament, but most came after the New Testament in the development of church philosophy in the next few hundred years, and particularly through the Middle Ages.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. I grant you the influence continued much later, and much of the New Testament is not influenced so much by Greek. Gospel of John, maybe some other, some other letters, but not all of it, right. At that point, it was just beginning. But by the time you reach the Middle Ages, the two traditions were trying to mix together in a way that didn't make any sense.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right. So maybe the struggle with this concept of God's perfection leads us to begin to examine, within the religious traditions, what the elements are that we, that are really important and, and, and what are not. So, I, I think it's a, it's a, it's a, it's a helpful exercise, not in just asking the question, but in probing what is the nature of the God that people are trying to believe in?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. But the problem is, once you start saying well, which is the part that really matters, now you're compromising. What happened to perfection? Perfection's not supposed to be a compromise, it's supposed to have it all!

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right. Well this is the issue.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

That's the problem.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so, you set up some nice contradictions—all powerful and all good, and then you have the problem, the problem of evil. And then you have the perfection of God being outside of time, with the problem of God interacting with human beings in time. And so that's, that's a contradiction. And so, if these are both part of the definition of perfection, some, something has to be weakened in order to make this coherent.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. But from my perspective, to say something has to be weakened, is simply to say you've got to give up on the idea of perfection.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. And, and does that mean that you have—but that's a specific definition of perfection. But it is not clear that if you gave up this maybe artificial, maybe it's a syncretic definition of, of, of perfection, that you have to give up God. You have to give up on this manufactured definition of perfection, not necessarily giving up on God.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Yeah, but remember, it wasn't me that manufactured it. It was Anselm and the Medieval theologians. When they talked about perfection, they meant all of these things I've been talking about, mixed together into one package.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure, sure, absolutely. But that doesn't make it right either, that some philosophers think at that point.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Yes. If you give up on some of those things and say those weren't really perfections after all, then we have to look at the individual case and say, why isn't that a perfection? Why doesn't that matter?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Or that perfection is not something in our definition of perfection that we have to require.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Sure. You can say God is not perfect. I mean, look, the ancient Greeks said that. Zeus wasn't perfect. The Hindus say that. Shiva's not perfect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

There is a difference. By saying, forcing God to be perfect and then affirmatively saying God is not perfect, because you're still using that same word, now you're creating a whole other aura. I'd prefer not to deal with that word, because it has its own connotations.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

That's fine with me. I'd be happy to give up the word. It's the theologians that want to claim that God is not perfect, not me.

Transcript

View TranscriptHide TranscriptDownload Transcript (PDF)Select All and Copy To Clipboard
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Well, I would think a perfect God would have to be all powerful and all good, for example. And those are the ones that are incompatible with the existence of evil. A perfect God would also have to exist at all times equally and be unchanging, because if God changed, then why would God change? If God was perfect to begin with, what's the point of the change? And so, if God is unchanging, then God however can't bring about new events in the world. Can't bring about changes in the world, like answering prayers and causing miracles. But then, wait a minute, God's not perfect, because God's not all-powerful any more. So, it's not clear to me that you can get a coherent notion of a God that is perfect in the sense that I think most believers want God to be perfect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, maybe the problem is, is that theologians have tried to impose a concept of perfection which is inherently illogical, and they're trying to, to, to harmonize things that can't happen, and they're creating a, a logical contradiction...

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

I think there's something to that. And then the additional complication comes from the mix of traditions. When you look at the New Testament in particular, you're getting influences from the Hebrew Bible, and the Jewish tradition that went before, getting combined with Greek influences, which are using notions of infinity and other worlds outside of time. And you put those two traditions together into a single book and you get additional incoherence's within the doctrines.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So maybe the struggle with this concept of God's perfection leads us to begin to examine, within the religious traditions, what the elements are that we, that are really important and what are not. So, I, I, I think it's, it's, it's a helpful exercise, not in just asking the question, but in probing what is the nature of the God that people are trying to believe in?

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. But the problem is that once you start saying well, which is the part that really matters? Now you're compromising. What happened to perfection? Perfection's not supposed to be a compromise, it's supposed to have it all!

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right, something has to be weakened in order to make this coherent.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Right. But from my perspective, to say something has to be weakened, is simply to say you've got to give up on the idea of perfection.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

You have to give up on this manufactured definition of perfection, not necessarily giving up on God.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Yeah, but remember, it wasn't me that manufactured it. It was Anselm and the Medieval theologians. When they talked about perfection, they meant all of these things I've been talking about, mixed together into one package. If you give up on some of those things and say those weren't really perfections after all, then we have to look at the individual case and say, why isn't that a perfection? Why doesn't that matter?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Or that perfection is not something in our definition of perfection that we have to require.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

Sure. You can say God is not perfect. I mean, look, the ancient Greeks said that Zeus wasn't perfect. The Hindus say that Shiva's not perfect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

There is a difference. I'd prefer not to deal with that word, because it has its own connotations.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

That's fine with me. I'd be happy to give up the word ‘perfect.' It's the theologians who want to claim that God is perfect, not me.