The Divine Principle
“god can never know if god is God”
The “Divine Principle” is fairly simple to understand, but has huge implications for any discussion about the nature of the traditional monotheistic God. It arises out of the realisation that it is impossible for any being to actually know whether or not they are God.
It is important, because it significantly undermines any individual deity’s claims to omniscience and in doing so undermines the very foundation for monotheistic religions that base their claims on divine revelations from a supposedly omniscient god.
It also effectively kills the Divine Command Theory of Ethics in a quick and painless manner. If god cannot know that he is God, he has no moral right to command anyone as if he is. The Divine Principle imposes the responsiblity for moral decision making onto each sentient, where it should have been all along.
To the best of my knowledge, I had not encountered the Divine Principle prior to my formulation of it, although I had encountered a philosophical text which did mention the impossibility of any being ever being able to know if it was omniscient. The Divine Principle extends on this, along with another more well known assertion, namely that it is impossible to prove that God does not exist. This latter statement can often be heard on the lips of theists shortly after someone demands that they prove their god exists, they will in turn ask the questioner to prove that he doesn’t.
This argument does not make an appearance during undergraduate Philosophy of Religion units and if they had been aware of this sort of idea, I would have expected Dawkins and writers like him to use it. This is because it allows a person to discount theist arguments for a knowlegeable existence of God from within a theist framework.
God Knowing God is God – A Primer.
In discussions with theists of various descriptions and allegiances, once the various arguments in favour for the existence of a God have been exhausted and shown to be marginal, one often encounters and argument seemingly born of desperation. With the inevitability of the Titanic finding an iceberg, people seem to sail towards the argument that “one cannot prove that God does not exist”.
Intuitively, the statement seems sound, because while it may be the case that you can never prove that “you can never prove that you can never prove that God doesn’t exist”, it makes sense that as a being of limited awareness, I could look everywhere in the universe and never find God, particularly, if like Ralph the Invisible Pink Unicorn (RIPU) he was impossible for me to detect in the first place. The logic behind the use of this form of argument is clear. If it is impossible to prove that God does not exist, then this still leaves open the possibility that God may in fact exist, irrespective of any perceived lack of objective evidence, thereby allowing a person’s faith to survive the encounter intact.
A general form that this argument might be seen to take is as follows:
Proposition 1: It is impossible for any being to prove that something does not exist.
Proposition 2: God is something.
Conclusion: It is impossible for any being to prove that God does not exist.
It is at this point, that a rather interesting philosophical iceberg appears on the horizon. For if God, in the generally accepted sense of the word exists, then He is most certainly a being. As such, we are forced to conclude that God can never know if God exists! I other words:
Proposition 3: God is a being.
Conclusion 2: God can never know if God exists.
By this, I do not mean that god can never know that He exists. Obviously, like every other sentient creature, the wisdom of Descartes second meditation holds. God certainly can have knowledge of his own existence. Rather, by saying that god can never know if God exists, I am stating that god Himself, can never know that there does not exist another being above him and in the same relationship to Him, as He is to us. In other words, god can never know if He too has a God and therefore can never know if He really is God, or not.
There are two arguments that I encounter at this point. The first is to simply claim that God knows that God is God simply because God is God and this is the sort of thing that you know when you are God. Expressed logically, it looks something like this:
Proposition 1. God is God.
Proposition 2. God would know if he is God.
Conclusion: God knows that he is God.
Expressed like this it can be clearly seen that the claim that God knows that he is God simply because he is God is “begging the question” and is entirely circular. Such an argument presupposes the conclusion and assumes the very thing that was trying to be established by the argument.
An advance on the argument above is to state that God is omniscient, and as such has knowledge of everything that is logically knowable, including his own status as God.
For such an argument, we might seek to modify our earlier argument as follows:
Proposition 1: It is impossible for any being, without omniscience, to prove that something does not exist.
Proposition 2: God is something.
Conclusion 1: It is impossible for any being without omniscience to prove that God does not exist.
Proposition 3: God is omniscient.
Proposition 4: It is possible for Omniscient beings to prove the non-existence of something that does not exist.
Conclusion 2: God can prove that God (i.e. a higher level deity) does not exist.
Begging the Question of God’s Omniscience.
While potentially sound, as an argument, it appears that this attempt to get around the logic of the initial premise is little more than playing with words. God is Omniscient, therefore by definition, he is able to prove that he has no God. The folly of this argument can be seen when we ask how god knows that he is omniscient, or why it would be that he is omniscient. The answer is of course, “because he is God”.
He can’t know that he is omniscient simply because he is omniscient. He can’t know he is God, simply because he is God. Anyone claiming this is engaged in circular reasoning, or begging the question. Rather he must be able to know that he is omniscient through some means of determining that he is in fact omniscient, which as we have seen is logically impossible to do.
If expressed logically, such an argument would appear thus:
Proposition 1: God is Omniscient.
Proposition 2: It is possible for Omniscient beings to prove the non-existence of something that does not exist.
Conclusion 2: God can prove that God (i.e. a higher level deity) does not exist.
It can be seen quite clearly that the argument asserts that God is God in the first proposition and then uses this to assert that he can know that he is God in the Conclusion. Clearly this argument is circular and entirely void of merit.
Additional clarity can be obtained by considering if a man is unmarried because he is a bachelor, or if he is a bachelor because he is unmarried. Most obviously, it has to be the latter, as the title “bachelor” is one that we attach only to persons who meet certain conditions, namely that they are both a man and unmarried. In other words, there is a causality involved when attributing the title “bachelor”. First we check to see if a person is both a man and unmarried. Only if they meet these conditions do call them a bachelor. Obviously, it would make no sense to presuppose that someone is a bachelor and to then ascribe the traits of being unmarried and a man to them.
Similarly, it makes no sense to ascribe the condition of omniscience to a being, such as god and then to assume that they meet the conditions of that definition. In the same way as a bachelor’s status needs to be demonstrated before we call them a bachelor, so too does any being’s omniscience need to be demonstrated before we can award the title, “omniscient” on that being. Thus, to claim that he is omniscient by definition is nonsensical, in the same way as to claim that a particular person is a bachelor by definition.
Proving God’s Omniscience to god’s Satisfaction.
The problem lies in how god can know that he is omniscient. It seems foolish to say that he can simply claim omniscience by definition, as any reasonably sentient being could do that. Rather it seems that there must be some mechanism by which he can claim omniscience and be both logically and psychologically certain that he has that property.
The real issue emerges when we examine why the original argument was so persuasive. I cannot prove that God doesn’t exist, because I could look everywhere and still not be able to find God, simply because I didn’t have the capacity to detect Him. In a similar way, God too cannot ever know for certain if Ralph the Invisible Pink Unicorn, is hiding somewhere out of his ability to detect. He may think that he is omniscient, but can never know for certain whether he is.
And sadly, this would seem to be a fatal blow to the modified argument presented above, where omniscience precedes god’s being able to prove that there is no other God. It now appears that omniscience itself is limited by the fact that it is logically impossible for any being to ever know that they are omniscient and therefore, god to be ever certain if he is the real God, or just another puffed up sentient.
It very well may be that god is in fact the real deal and the True God, but the important thing to realise is that it is impossible for any particular potential Deity to ever know for certain if they are in fact the genuine article. This is the core of the “The Divine Principle”: god can never know if god is God.
Another way to approach this understanding is through the work of Descartes, in his first meditation. It was here that he postulated that everything that he had ever known and experienced might have been the result of being deceived by an evil demon, in which case he could never be truly certain if anything that he knew was certain knowledge at all. His second meditation builds on this by revealing that the only thing that he can be truly certain of is the fact that he exists as a conscious being: “I think, therefore I am”.
From this it can be clearly seen that a similar dynamic must also apply to any conscious entity that believes itself to be God. How can that entity establish conclusively that it is in fact God? How can it know that another being of greater stature is not engaged in deceiving it into believing that it is God? The simple truth is that it cannot. Once again, god can never know that god is God.
Indeed, when faced with the scenario of Decartes’ controlling demon, God can never even really know if any of his creations (such as our universe) have any validity outside of his own potentially deceived consciousness
A third approach to identifying the potential weakness in god’s potential omniscience arises from a modified example of Descartes above. However, instead of the demon providing a mock-up of an entire universe for god to live in, we can ask what would happen if it simply prohibited god from knowing one particular fact.
In this scenario, we can imagine a god who is actually omniscient with the exception of two facts: knowledge of the demon and knowledge of the prohibited information. For example, if we imagine that god’s knowledge includes all the prime numbers, how can god truly know this? What if the demon had through a strange sense of humour decided that god wouldn’t ever be able to realise that there was a single prime number of which he was prohibited from knowing?
God could in this case believe that he “knew” all of the prime numbers, never realising that there existed a blind spot that prevented his knowledge of only one of those numbers. In such a case, it is impossible to say that god could somehow calculate it himself, because the demon would be in a position to distort the outcome of any potential calculations that he might attempt.
In human terms, an example of what this could be like can be seen in the psychological condition, known as Hemispatial Neglect. Sufferers, while not actually blind will effectively ignore everything on one side of their vision. If asked to draw a picture of a scene, they will only include either the left or right hand side, or in some cases, the left or right hand side of the objects.
They don’t even realise this is happening, and believe that they have accurately drawn a picture of the whole scene. They have no conscious awareness of what is quite a spectacular gap in their perception of the world.
In a similar way, no being could ever truly know if they were genuinely omniscient, or the victim of a demon’s ironic deception.
The Problem of the Observer God.
Intriguingly, the monotheistic traditions contain within their most basic theology another reason for doubting that any being could ever know that it was God. Within these traditions, a monotheistic deity is responsible for creating us for purposes of its own. While many would claim that this deity remains active within human history, despite millennia of searching, theorising and experimenting, there is still no objective evidence for the existence of any such being.
It is for this reason that Deism was so popular among the great thinkers of the early enlightenment, including many of those who are considered to be the founding fathers of the United States. Before the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, it seemed that the science of the day, particularly the discoveries of Newtonian physics, supported the thesis that the universe had been created by an intelligent designer. But without any evidence of his ongoing presence, the premise of Deism, which holds that there is a creator God, but that since his initial inscrutable act of creation, he has left it alone to run its own course seemed to make perfect sense.
The God that the deist subscribes to is best called an “Observer God”. Such a deity seems to enjoy creating a universe and then watching how it turns out. In many ways they are much like modern scientists, who create numerous sophisticated computer models of physical phenomena, such as climate, simply with the intent of observing the outcomes.
Given that God enjoys creating an entire universe and observing its progress, while perhaps interfering occasionally, it seems entirely possible that God would create another “God” with the purpose of watching it to see how it grows and develops. To be a worthwhile experiment, this other “demigod” would have to be unaware of the existence of the initial God. It would be, to all intents and purposes, “Omniscient” but lacking the singular piece of knowledge that there was another god above it.
Even more interesting would be what would happen if God created the demigod were created with the exact frame of reference and mindset that the original God possessed mere seconds before his act of creating the demigod. In this situation, the minds of the two beings would be identical, at that point and there would be no way for the demigod to presume that his entire history hadn’t just been conjured into existence along with his very being. If we assume that the first God were omniscient at the point two seconds prior to creating the demigod, we have to assume that the demigod possesses the same awareness of his own omniscience, even though we now know it to be wrong.
While a critic might claim that God wouldn’t create a demigod in this way, we cannot know this for certain and neither can any being that might believe itself to be God. After all, God does move in mysterious ways and his actions are not ours to scrutinise, or second guess. Such a being would at least be aware of the possibility of God being able to create a demigod (after all, being potentially omniscient they’ve already read this entire article an eternity before I wrote it). Knowing this, they can never be certain if they are in fact simply a demigod created by an Observer God and therefore can never be truly certain if they are in fact “God”.
Collapse of the “Divine Command” Theory of Ethics.
If god can never know if god is God, the implications are huge. This is front page, hold the presses newspaper stuff!
Divine Command Theory (or Theological Voluntarism) is the theory that certain actions are moral, or right simply on the basis that God wills them. Their actual content is irrelevant, and irrespective of how heinous they might appear to us, they are “good” simply because good actions are, by definition, those that reflect the Will of God.
But if god can never know if he is God, he can’t claim to represent the Will of God. If god can never know that he is God, he has no moral right to command his creations because he is God. Effectively, Divine Command Ethics are rendered null and void within an instant.
While god might wish that his commands are obeyed simply because he issues them, he must face the fact that he can only know that he is god, not God and as such necessarily lacks the moral authority to issue any commands as if he were God.
More importantly, as soon as any of his creations understands the limitations of god’s knowledge they should no longer feel bound by his divine commands, just because they are his. Essentially, this forces any particular god to find an alternative moral logic for their commands (assuming that they wish their followers to act in a moral manner).
In light of this, long lists of divine rules, such as those found in the holy writings of the major religions can be seen as being highly suspicious and dubious for several reasons. Firstly, a significant number such as the first four of the Ten Commandments of the Book of Exodus, are instructions to worship god as if he is God.
With what we now know about the limits of his knowledge we are inevitably forced to view any deity providing these commands as we would any other being who did so and wasn’t in fact God (ie poorly). At best, such a deity is mistaken. At worst they are a liar.
Secondly, many of these lists of commands can be easily seen to have no intrinsic moral value and as such call into question the very morality of the deity who would issue them. For example, it is hard to see the moral value of the command contained within Leviticus 19:27, which tells the faithful “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”. Given that this can no longer be considered valid just because “god said so”, it would seem to be incumbent on the individual worshiper to reject the notion that disobeying commands such as this could be considered immoral, or against the wishes of God.
This becomes even more important, when the commands and statements appear to contradict reasonable understandings of what is moral and what is just. An example of this occurs in Sura 4:34 of the Koran, which asserts that God has placed men as the overseers of women, because he has made them stronger (or more superior), and that husbands have the right to beat disobedient wives.
Not only does this assertion appear to fly in the face of scientific comparisons between the abilities of males and females (such as women often achieving better graduate outcomes at University), but also directly contradicts the ethical understanding that all individuals should be free to pursue their lives without fear of physical harm.
Now, if the Divine Command theory of ethics were still in play, then this might be justified through saying that it is God’s Will that these arrangements be adhered to, but without this it becomes clear that the morally appropriate thing to do in these circumstances is to disobey god, as he has no right to command things as if he were God. Of course this assumes that the reader agrees that domestic violence is wrong. Any ethically deficient people who do think that domestic violence is OK, still need to find another justification, because clearly claiming that it is the Will of God simply won’t cut it.
A critic of the Divine Principle could claim that while it may be the case that god cannot command things on the basis of being God, he could do so on the basis that he is much greater than us in his understanding, and that as such we should listen to and obey his commandments as they will be the most advantageous for us to obey.
While this may be the case, it is difficult to see how it differs in substance from commands that issued from any other entity whose knowledge and wisdom are greater than our own. For example, if we were ever to encounter them, one could assume that aliens from a superior and ancient civlization might be much more wise than us. But this would not translate into a claim that the only morally correct behaviours to engage in are the ones they command of us. Especially so if, like is so often found in religion, those behaviours seem to fly directly in the face of our most reasonable interpretations of moral behaviour. As moral beings it is our responsibility to examine the moral authority under which any commandment is being received and to reject it if it appears morally suspect.
god’s Attributes Undone.
The Divine Principle also throws considerable doubt onto any particular deity’s claims to be able to posses many of the attributes normally held to be an integral part of God’s makeup.
With the collapse of divine command ethics, the most obvious concern is with the claim that God is necessarily good. But how can god know this? If god can never know if god is God, he cannot rely on the supposed fact that everything he does must be good, simply because he is God. Instead, if he wishes to be moral, then he must use some other mechanism, such as reason, or Empathy to create a moral framework that will guide his behaviours. This of course opens up the certainty that god will on occasion act in a manner that is contrary to any notion that he is “good”, even if only because he has not been able to arrive at the appropriate conclusion.
For many theologians, God is held to be a necessary being who is the primal cause and creator of everything that exists. But how can god know that this is the case? How can god know that he is the creator of all that exists, when there is the very real possibility that there exist other aspects of creation that he is not even aware of? Without the certainty of this knowledge it is impossible for god to ever know for certain if he really is a necessary being; Aristotle’s “prime mover, unmoved” upon which all other things rest.
From this it follows that god can never again be thought of as being omnipotent. If he can’t even know for certain that he is the cause of all creation, then it is highly likely that he is an emergent property of creation, rather than its origin. Given this, it is unreasonable to expect that god can ever be certain that he can genuinely do anything that he wants. While it might appear to him that he can do anything that is logically possible, it could very well be that a more superior being could at any stage enter the scene and veto anything that he chose to do.
The fact that this could occur should be enough to finally put paid to the belief that god is omniscient. He simply cannot know whether he is in the full possession of all knowledge, or not. Indeed, it may be the case that he is in full possession of all knowledge, with the exception of the fact that there is another deity superior to him. Similarly, god cannot be guaranteed to be omnipresent if there exists the possibility of places that he knows nothing about and to which he therefore has no possibility of access.
This also means that God cannot make any definitive claims about the nature of the world, how it came into existence, or the underlying metaphysics, that sustain it.
This then leads us to question whether god can be truly thought of as being the ultimate “Infinite”. If it is the case that there are things that he may not know, and that there may in fact be a superior Deity, then it is quite obvious that god could potentially be eclipsed by a being of greater stature, who is even more “Infinite” than he. This of course would be the concern faced by the next deity up the line, with the ultimate situation being a potential line of deities all the way up, much like the view that the world rests on turtles, all the way down.
Of course there is nothing to say that any particular god cannot be infinite per se, but just that his infinite nature will always be eclipsed by the possible existence of another deity up the chain, who may be thought of as subsuming the lower god’s infinite nature within his own.
Pascal’s Wager Undone – Why Worship god?
Another implication of realising god’s new, not so lofty, position in the universe is that it calls into question the entire necessity of worshiping god. Why should anybody worship god, when they know very well that he may not actually be God? Are powerful beings that are not God worthy of worship?
One might counter that even if god is not God, he still created us and therefore should be worshipped. This then raises the question of why we should worship a deity in the first place. Is being created by them enough? I think not, as this would imply that if we suddenly discovered that the entire human race had been created by a far superior alien race that we would be morally bound to worship them, as our creators.
But why worship a deity, who may very well be the “middleman”? Shouldn’t we be worshiping the Supreme God instead? Surely the appropriate response would be to worship the God (however far removed) who created our god, who then in turn created us? Surely, one should bend one’s efforts into establishing what could be known about God, even if it could only be theoretically known, and exerting one’s worship in that direction?
Throughout the history of the world, humanity has been inundated by the purported revelations of a seemingly infinite number of deities, but it should be noted that the Divine Principle has been singularly absent from any of these revelations.
In other words, god has apparently attempted to parade as God and as such, it is appropriate to call into question his basic honesty. How can we trust the commands, edicts and opinions of a being which can’t even be straight and upfront with us with respect to the ambiguity of his very nature?
It is hard to see how we can.
If I wanted to get all prophety (which I don’t), perhaps I could argue that he has waited until now to reveal it (through the somewhat peculiar means of this mostly ignored website), because until now, the knowledge would have only confused the simple folk who were his believers. This argument would be fine, if it weren’t for the seeming megalomania surrounding many of the commands of worship and the incessant wars and bloodshed that have accompanied the various deity’s churches and cults. If I got all prophety, I doubt anything I’d do would end up any different.
Pascal’s Wager quite famously asserted that it is in one’s best interests to worship God, because if he exists and is worshipped, then the rewards are infinitely good, but if he exists and isn’t worshipped the rewards are infinitely bad. If he doesn’t exist, then there is no loss either way.
But the Divine Principle shows that just as we should now question the moral underpinning of any of god’s divine commands and reject those that don’t seem adequate, we must also reject the potential rewards and punishments for transgressing those commands.
Most notably, within many traditions is the concept of an eternal heaven, or hell, where those who either obey, or disobey are either rewarded, or punished. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, if one looks at the nature of hell one can easily identify that it essentially boils down to being tortured (or punished if one talks to more “enlightened” theists) for an eternity. It seems difficult to justify this in the light of any moral theory with the exception of the Divine Command Theory of Ethics, which would essentially claim that it is OK, because God says it is OK. Alternatively some apologists would argue that as God is infinite, any sin against him is deserving of infinite punishment.
In consideration of the Divine Principle, there are a number of concerns regarding the existence of hell. The most obvious is that if god no longer has the right to issue commands and justify his behaviour as if he were God, then pointlessly torturing anyone for an eternity could never be justified, unless he were perhaps running with the dubious “might equals right” moral philosophies of someone like Ragnar Redbeard. If god were to engage in the seemingly pointless torture (or punishment) of people for an infinite length of time, then it is almost certain that he would be engaging in a gross violation of a superior deity, who may then choose to put a stop to the entire venture and perhaps even punish the offending god (eternally?) for their transgression.
The fact that God (or even another god, maybe god to the power of n), could at any time put paid to the universe and creations of god also means that it is impossible for god to offer an eternal reward for good or bad behaviour. So, while arguably a much nicer place, heaven must also be considered a dubious reward and hardly a reason to base something as important as worship upon.
Another interesting complication inherent in the Divine Principle is the potential status of other gods, who may be of equal stature as “our” god. Within the Christian tradition, one has the concept of Satan, an evil being, who continually leads people into sin. But if god can never know that god is God, and can never be guaranteed the assurance of being necessarily good, then how can he know that he is not actually the bad guy? More importantly, in a situation where there exists multiple deities, how can we best determine who is the one who is both in ultimate control, and the most morally enlightened? (Talk about this after more thought).
The Divine Principle effectively tells us that god is, in many ways, a supersized sentient, who while he may have considerable power within his domain, can never truly know if he is El Supremo. As such he must consider himself as potentially lacking in many of the qualities that we normally attribute to God, even if he is unknowingly, the top God after all.
The Divine Principle points to a world, in which nothing can ever be certain for any being, and in which all sentients have the responsibility to work towards their own understanding of moral behaviour, and to not just assume that whatever they have received from god will be the correct thing to do.
The Death of God.
Possibly the most intriguing thing to emerge from the Divine Principle, is the fact that god is just as much a bystander to the possibility of death as are we. god can never know if he is necessary, omnipotent, or any of the other things that have been postulated by theologians, which means that god can also never know if he is Eternal.
While his days may not be limited to three score and ten, and an age might seem like a second to him, god is still beholden to the Eternity Paradox, which states that a creature is either eternal, or not, but can never know which. God, with his immense, but logically restricted understanding of both himself and the universe can never guarantee that he isn’t simply going to cease in much the same way as he assumedly came into being. He can never be certain that a higher being, or random happenstance isn’t going to pull the plug on his consciousness, in much the same way as a chicken being hit by a Mack truck, just for daring to cross the road.
As such, any eternal existence promised by such a deity can only ever be provisional. It can only ever be given on the unstated premise that god believes that he is in fact eternal, despite the fact that he can come up with absolutely no evidence to back up such a claim.
This is in a way, quite reassuring. If god understands death, and experiences the same fear of oblivion as us all, he is also much more like us than we might care to imagine. Like us, he needs to find a reason to live and a reason to keep on existing, or he will run the risk of losing hope at the futility and pointlessness of his own existence.
god, like every other sentient being likely faces his own Existential Crisis and is driven by a need for meaning, lest depression and a sense of meaningless come to pervade his very existence. While it is part of my own belief, rather than part of the Divine Principle, it seems that such a god might incarnate himself as the sentients of a universe such as ours, in order to explore the infinite possibilities inherent in such a universe and to work to achieve some of the incredible and glorious futures that such universes will inevitably entail.