Sunday, October 28, 2018

God Wouldn’t Perform Miracles

You are capable of doing less good than you have the capacity to do. You sometimes lie when you could have told the truth, you are less charitable, compassionate, loving, and forgiving than you are capable of.

You are also able to exert less power than you are fully capable of. You lift a single grocery bag when you could have carried three. You run slower than your limit. You don’t perform actions that are within your capacity. In some cases, there are external forces, events, or obstacles that thwart the exertion of your power. And in some cases, the restriction on your exertion of your power is your choice; you have failures of knowledge, character, virtue, or wisdom.

You also have less knowledge than you are capable of having. There are logical theorems that you could prove on the basis of things you already believe, but you haven’t put the intermediate steps together and made it explicit knowledge. There are things you just don’t know because of your limits; you don’t know the cure for cancer or how to build a spaceship for interstellar travel. And no amount of effort would produce that knowledge for you.

God, I submit, would not act in any sub-maximal ways with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. God, by the conventions of traditional theism, possesses all knowledge. God knows all and only truths. There is no fact that is knowable not known by God. Furthermore, God is the almighty, all-powerful creator of the universe. But not only did he create the totality of this universe, his power includes the capacity to do all things that are doable. He could have made any number of other universes, including those requiring more power. He can do any action that is logically possible. And finally, God is an infinitely good, morally perfect being. God has endless love, limitless virtue, and is a being that cannot be morally exceeded in any way. God is omnibenevolent.

God would not act in ways that are inconsistent with infinite power, knowledge, and goodness. You can and often do act in ways that are sub-maximal, given your knowledge, power, and goodness. Sometimes through some fault, imperfection, or error, you choose the wrong action; if you had more knowledge, or if you even had more of the knowledge that you are capable of possessing, you would have chosen better. But God will never act in some sub-maximal way because of this sort of failing. God lacks no knowledge. Sometimes, you exert less power than you are capable of because of laziness, a lack of goodness, a character fault, or a lack of knowledge. God won’t act sub-maximally in any of those regards because of his infinite knowledge and moral perfection. Sometimes, even exerting all of your power you fail to achieve your ends, you are thwarted, or you fail because there are other external forces that exceed your power; you are overpowered. God, being infinitely powerful, cannot be overpowered by external forces. Sometimes you do less goodness with your actions than you are capable of or than you should have done. You lack goodness, virtue, or character. Maybe you could have done better, but you didn’t. Or maybe the act in question is simply beyond the limits even of your acting to your full potential goodness. God, being infinitely good, morally perfect, infinitely loving, won’t act sub-maximally in any of these ways.

Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. To walk on water, raise the dead, or feed thousands with a few fishes and loaves of bread would all violate physical laws such as the conservation of matter, the conservation of energy, the density of matter, entropy, and so on.

Miracles are also limited with regard to knowledge, power, and goodness. That is, an agent performing a miracle need only have enough power to perform that miracle, to raise that corpse from the dead, or sustain that instance of walking on water. Miracles only require sub-maximal power, knowledge, and goodness. We might think that infinite power, knowledge, and goodness are sufficient for performing miracles too. But, as we have seen, infinite power would express itself perfectly and fully, reflective of all knowledge and goodness, in God’s case. To cure a leper is to leave thousands or millions more uncured. To raise one corpse from the dead is to leave millions or billions of others in the grave. To feed one hungry crowd is to leave millions or billions of others starving. An action of such limited scope is consistent with the actions of a being that has limited knowledge, power, and goodness. But it would be inconsistent, contrary to the expressions of a being with infinite properties.

It’s not merely that by doing a miracle God would be acting at levels that are within but below his limits; such a limited action is precluded by God’s infinite nature. Limited actions are as much outside the capacities of God as performing miracles are outside of yours. Can or would God sin? No. Can or would God be less than perfectly moral? No. Can or would God exert less power in the world than he is capable of? No. Can or would God act in ways that defy or neglect his infinite knowledge? No. Miracles, however, achieve limited goals. Miracles would not be within the tool set, or expressed actions of a being that has no limits or imperfections. However, miracles insofar as they imply limited power, knowledge, and goodness are quite plausible as the actions of finite, imperfect beings who lack power. That is suggestive about why they strike us as so important and interesting, but miracles simply do not make sense as expressions of the goals or actions of a being so vastly beyond us in power, knowledge, and goodness.

I have argued:

1. God wouldn’t act in any ways that are below capacity.
2. Performing a miracle would be acting below capacity for God.
3. Therefore, God wouldn’t perform miracles.

Matt McCormick
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State


  1. I don’t think I follow this, Matt. I can see why God’s infinite power would express itself perfectly and fully, reflective of all knowledge and goodness. But I can’t see why this should mean that it would never express itself in an act that requires something below full capacity.

    It does — trivially — if “and fully” above just means “at full capacity, utilizing all God’s power at the max level,” but then it seems a much less plausible thing to say about God and what it means to think he’s omnipotent. Surely, whether God will utilize his full capacities depends on what his ends are and what it takes to secure them.

    1. Thanks for the input. I've only got a minute, so I'll post some of the elaborating remarks I wrote that might help.

      Suppose you and I watch a chess match between two unidentified players, X and Y. X manages to beat Y, but X’s moves are poorly chosen, they don’t seem to reflect much experience or foresight with the game, X takes longer than necessary to win, X misses or appears to miss several important strategic moves, and to all appearances, X looks like a player with limited knowledge and power over the game. Nevertheless, X beats Y. You assert that player X is actually Gary Kasparov, the greatest chess player of all time. I point out that X made several mistakes, didn’t play very well, didn’t demonstrate Kasparov’s knowledge or experience of the game, X didn’t make moves the way Kasparov would typically move, and looks like a rank amateur. You insist that even though the moves were poor and X played a bad game, it’s true that Kasparov, were he to choose to do so, could have played that poorly. It was within Kasparov’s power to make bad choices, to be inefficient, to achieve his goals in a haphazard, inelegant, and amateurish fashion. I maintain that that just wasn’t the sort of game that Kasparov would play. It doesn’t fit with his mastery of the game, it doesn’t reflect his deep understanding or experience, it doesn’t resemble the sort of game he plays when he’s typically playing. The evidence in front of us fits much better with the hypothesis of an untrained amateur than with the Kasparov hypothesis for the identity of X. The likelihood of that sort of game resulting given that Kasparov was making the choices is much lower than the likelihood of that sort of game coming from a sloppy beginner.

    2. That makes sense, Matt. But how does it connect to the post? These remarks seem less like an elaboration on how to establish deductively, on the basis of perfect being theology, that God couldn't or wouldn't perform a miracle, and more like a version of the evidential argument from evil (or mistake) that God probably doesn't exist. 

      You ask above, "Can or would God exert less power in the world than he is capable of?" I suggested the answer: depends what his ends are and what it takes to secure them. When the Bible depicts Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, we probably shouldn't assume it was a case where he was aiming to raise all dead people from the dead, but he kind of goofed up. When it depicts Jesus and Peter walking on the surface of water, we probably shouldn't assume it was a case where he was aiming to make water such that anyone could walk on it whenever they want, but he used insufficient power. 

  2. Hello Matt You seems to have pushed the god you speak of to only acting with a setting of "on at max revs". Were there such a being you case might be clear. I subscribe to the traditional God of the Christian faith. Here we have God acting to die on a cross for his creation .... sounds weird. Perhaps God's ways are not aligned with our ways?

    1. Merely denying the conclusion of the argument isn't an objection to it. If a supernatural being isn't infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, and not infinitely good, then there's no real conflict here. A mean god, a dumb god, or a weak god might well act in limited ways. But not an infinite one.

  3. What if it's part of being a perfect God to bring aesthetic beauty to the universe? Couldn't God then perform miracles that break the laws of nature because they are beautiful in large part because they break the laws of nature. E.g., imagine if God made a beautifully shaped lake with vibrant fishes in it and crystal clear water that floated in mid-air minus the land that typically surrounds a lake. It would create aesthetic wonder in the masses. Perhaps it can be consistent for a perfect God to create certain kinds of aesthetic miracles. Such acts would be expressing aesthetic perfection rather than limited power.