Copyright:  2006                 

The Paradox of Divine Agency[1]

Prof. Matt McCormick

Department of Philosophy

California State University, Sacramento



If we are to be reasonable about our religious beliefs and attitudes, the label ďGodĒ cannot be attached to just any object.  J.N. Findlay says, ďour religious object should have an unsurpassable supremacy along all avenues, that it should tower infinitely above all other objects.Ē[2]  To have a religious attitude towards something is to worship it, to view it with profound respect, reverence, awe, fear, devotion, subordination, deference, and love.[3]  To have a religious attitude towards anything that falls short of infinite supremacy in any regard would be idolatrous and perverse, or simply foolish.  In order for a religious attitude to be appropriate, the being that is its object must possess characteristics that are commensurate to that attitude. 

An argument against Godís existence can be constructed from this starting point. It has been widely agreed that in order to be God and therefore worthy of a religious attitude, a being must at least be omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly morally good.  So, if it is not possible to possess some, one, or all of these properties, or any property that is essential to a religious attitude, then there is nothing befitting a religious attitude, and God does not exist. 

I will argue that in addition to those properties listed above, God must be an agent who is capable of setting goals and willing and performing actions.  I will then defend the central thesis of this paper:  when taken together, the divine properties of omnipotence, omniscience, and perfection (moral and otherwise), preclude the possibility of agency.  That is, God cannot act.  It is impossible for an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect being to actóit cannot exert its will because it can never find the world in a state that does not conform perfectly with its will.[4]  In light of this conclusion, the very notion of divine agency, of Godís possessing plans and acting to achieve ends in the world, becomes meaningless and must be abandoned.  And a God that is incapable of action or agency is not worthy of an attitude of religious reverence.  So, since it is not possible for a being to possess all of the necessary properties, God cannot exist.  

Let us turn to the argument:

1.  It has been widely alleged that God acts or possesses agency. 


He is described as planning and creating the world from nothing.  He passes judgment and issues punishments or rewards.  He has a plan for humankind.  He sacrifices his son, sends his prophets, issues commands, causes miracles, and so on.   It is God's agency that makes it possible to have the sort of personal relationship to God that is crucial to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.   God has an impact on our lives, it is said, because he interacts with humans, makes choices, expresses his goals and desires.  And it is by recognizing his agency in acknowledging his efforts, his commands, his goals, and his desires that we are able to establish a relationship with God and adopt an appropriate religious attitude towards him. 

2.  A being has agency when it has goals, conceives of them, acts on the basis of those goals with the intention of achieving them, and it could have done otherwise had it chosen to. 


Thus we can separate agents from other beings that act, and even have goals in a sense, but do not have agency.  So speaking loosely, squirrels can be said to act, and we may speak of their burying nuts with the goal of surviving the winter.  But we would not attribute agency to them in the sense described in 2 in part because they do not cognize the goal and the means of achieving it.  Nor are they free to establish another goal and instigate another action instead. 

Not only has God been traditionally portrayed as possessing agency, a stronger case can be made that any object that does not have agency is not worthy of a religious attitude; a being must have agency to be worthy of the name of God.  A non-agent, no matter how great it is in other respects, is a thing that cannot act to achieve goals, it cannot plan, and it cannot achieve intentional interactions with the world or beings in it in.  And a being that can do these things is superior to one that cannot.  So we should not be religious towards a non-agent because all other things being equal, a non-agent is inferior to an agent.

While it is true that people have had religious attitudes towards a wide variety of objects, including many that were unworthy, we should have a religious attitude towards a thing if and only if we highly value its essential properties and its essential properties make it superior to all other things.  It must lack no property that we hold in the highest esteem, and it must possess no negative property.  Its properties must render it superior to every other thing, real or imagined.  Our worship and admiration would be misplaced if it were directed at one thing while there exists another superior object.  And to adopt a religious attitude towards an existing object while it is possible for a superior being to exist would be settling for second best or compromising. A religious attitude towards anything less gives it more respect and esteem than it deserves and would seem to indicate an embarrassing weakness in us, namely our need to worship something even if it is inferior in some way.   Few would dispute the claim that God is unsurpassably great and that only such a being is worthy of worship. 

The high value we place on agency in ourselves and in God is evident in a number of ways.  Our own agency is not a property that we wish to be rid of.  We would not see losing our ability to conceive of and effect change in the world as an improvement.   If anything, we strive to better accomplish change in the world and be more effective as agents so that we may improve our own situations and the plight of those around us. 

Furthermore, there are good reasons to value agency in the God that we worship.  We do not and should not adopt a religious attitude towards objects that cannot act because there can be no hope of their establishing a personal relationship with us.  Non-agents cannot acknowledge us as minds with goals and the power to achieve them.  They cannot act to offer us any moral guidance.  They have no telos and no capacity for self-governance because they cannot act to change themselves or anything around them.  They cannot respond to our needs or interests, nor can they hear our prayers or do anything about them.  A non-agent is not deserving of the religious love that we should have towards a divine being who is capable of loving us in return and who is able to act on that love.  To adopt a religious attitude towards objects that are not agents would be idolatrous.   

To devote oneself wholly to a thing that cannot act, cannot respond to requests, and is incapable of exerting its will in the world to achieve its goals would be perverse because it would suggest that this being is worthy no matter what it does or does not do.  Feeling piety, profound respect, infinite deference, and subordination towards an object that is incapable of acting in any fashion would be self-destructive and absurd because it indicates that we value the inability to act in God despite cherishing the ability so highly in ourselves. 


3.  The possession of agency is a necessary (but not sufficient) property of an appropriate object of a religious attitude.


It should be noted, however, that if the critic takes issue with the claim in 3 that an appropriate religious object must possess agency, the argument will still succeed.  In what follows, I will show at a minimum that there cannot be a being with the properties of omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, and agency.  By most accounts, this describes God.  So God cannot exist.  If the argument for the stronger claim in 3 is successful, I will have also shown that no other being is worthy of a religious attitude or the name ďGod.Ē  So both the weaker and the stronger versions of this argument have a profound impact on theism

Agency has other features that are relevant to my argument.  In order for an agent to have goals, a being must acquire a conception, however, rudimentary, of the world as it is.  If I am not aware that I am 50 lbs overweight, I cannot form the goal of going on a diet in order to loose that 50 pounds.  If I do not have a conception of the bus careening towards me at the crosswalk, I cannot form the goal of diving to safety and avoiding it.  We can think of the goal that an agent possesses as a conception of the world as the agent would like it to be.  So,   

4.  In order to have agency, a being must recognize some state of affairs in the world (correctly or incorrectly), conceive of another desired state of affairs, and then set about to make the desired/conceived state of affairs real. 


It is integral and necessary to the possession and exercise of agency that the agent grasp (in some fashion) that the world is in a state of affairs, P, and through some cognitive activity that being conceives of another state of affairs, ~P, that is not actual (or at least the agent believes it is not actual).  More simply put, a being has to see the way things are (rightly or wrongly) and also see the way it wants them to be.  Without this action gap between what is and what one wants there can be no ground or opportunity for action at all for an agent.  Furthermore, the agent must want that state of affairs to be real.  In order to act, the world must be in some sub-optimal condition from the agentís perspective.  The state that one wishes to bring about may actually be worse overall, and it may not turn out to be what one wants, or it may already be actual unbeknownst to the agent.  But in order to act, the agent must at least think of that state of affairs as being different and better, than the one that is actual. 

"Conceive" in premises 2 and 4 is being used in a broad and inclusive fashion.  There is a wide range of completion or awareness in the agent's conception of the desired state of affairs that leads to action.  Sometimes we have a clearer idea of what we want than others; I might go to the grocery store with a specific list of 15 items, or I might go with only the vague feeling that I am lacking groceries.  The actorís awareness of the desired state of affairs can range from lucid to dim.  It may even be possible for the actor to be moved to action without any conscious awareness of the desired state of affairs that she is moving towards.  We should understand ďconceptionĒ to cover many cases, but we should also accept that on some occasions we act but we are not acting as agents because our goal is too weakly conceived. 

Fallible agents like ourselves need only believe that the world is in some state that is different from what we wish it to be.  The world may already be in the goal state that we conceive, but we still act on the misconception that it is not.  Since an omniscient being will know all truths and believes no falsehoods, God will not have a mistaken belief about the state of the world that leads to his acting.  So,

5.  In order for God to exercise agency, the world must actually be in a state of affairs that is different from what God wills or wishes it to be. 


So an action gap for God would develop when God accurately comprehends the relevant state of affairs in the world, and there is a divergence between what actually is the case in the world and the state of affairs that God has as a goal. 

In general,

6.  If there is an action gap for an agent, then either a) the being desires to close the gap, but it is not possible for the being to do so, or b) the being has the goal of changing the state of affairs but refrains from doing so because of some other goal, or c) the being possesses the non-actual state as a goal and acts to make it actual. 


When an action gap occurs for an agent, any number of things can intervene that might interfere with that being's closing the gap, thus creating the situation in 6.a)  For humans, the list of factors that keep us from getting what we want is long.  Obstacles to closing the gap can be internal or external.  Internally, we may have X as a goal, but we want Y more and X precludes Y.  I may want to buy a new car, but my need and desire to have food to eat is greater, so my desire for a new car goes unfulfilled.  So in some cases, something is within our power to obtain, but we choose not to act to obtain it in favor of an alternative action.  An internal obstacle to closing the action gap is imposed by the will of the agent.  In these cases, an agent does not have a unified or singular will; the agent possesses multiple goals, and achieving them all is not possible because they are not all compatible with each other or the agentís abilities or resources do not allow it.

When the obstacle to closing the action gap does not arise from the exercise of the agentís will, then it is external.  In some cases, we have goals or objects of desire that are not within our power to obtain.  I may dearly wish to be a brain surgeon, but I do not and will not ever have the intellectual aptitude to achieve it.  It is not naturally possible for me to become one.  External obstacles to closing the action gap are involuntary because the interference does not arise from any willed choice of my own. 

Let us call a natural obstacle to acting one that arises as the direct result of the laws of nature and not as the result of another agentís actions.  An artificial obstacle is one that arises from another agentís actions e.g., a prejudicial admissions officer that prevents me from getting into medical school to become a brain surgeon.  An agent may have its goals thwarted because what he wants is not logically possible as well.  My intense desire to be the first married bachelor will forever remain unfulfilled.  So in sum, there can at least be internal, external, natural, artificial, logical, voluntary, and involuntary restrictions to an agent's closing the action gap.

With the possible exception of logical restraints, there can be no obstacles to God's actions that fall into any of these categories.  First, in virtue of being omnipotent, there will be no external obstacles to God's getting what he wants.  Since God has all power, no other being or object will prevent God's actions.  Should he choose to act, no force, phenomena, being, or thing will prevent that action from having the desired outcome.

Similarly, there can be no natural restrictions on God's actions.  The laws of nature which are ultimately behind a finite creature's lack of strength, intelligence, or ability will not confine God's agency.  Being omnipotent gives God the power to control the laws of nature.  Indeed, this is how miracles are commonly characterized. 

Furthermore, there can be no artificial restraints on God's actions.  Since God is perfect, and since there is only one God according to classical theism, there is no other free agent who is up to the task of restraining God's will.  And no other imperfect or inferior being has enough power or knowledge to interfere with the exercise of God's agency.[5]  

Could logical restraints help to create a gap between what God wants in the world and what is actually the case?  If omnipotence is the capacity to do anything that is logically possible, as many philosophers have argued, then there could be a state of affairs that God desires but that God cannot acquire, namely a logically impossible state of affairs.  God could wish to create a square circle, or some other impossible feat.

God's other attributes, however, would prevent him from having any logically contradictory goals.  Omniscience would include the knowledge that God cannot do that which is logically impossible, so it cannot be that God continues to desire the unobtainable because he does not know any better.  And it cannot be that God cannot obtain it because he does not know how to get it.  Rather, the only reasons that would lead God to set logically impossible goals would imply God's imperfection.  A perfect being would have goals that are perfectly aligned between what is desired and what is possible and what that being is capable of accomplishing.  Perfection would require that the agent not have internal conflicts between its various properties. 

So the situation in 6.a) cannot occur for God.  There are no limits on what God can do with his power except perhaps logical limits, and God would not have a logically contradictory state of affairs as a goal. 

Can the situation in 6.b) occur for God?  That is, does God ever internally, voluntarily restrain his power to achieve one goal because he subordinates that goal to another one? 

No, God never foregoes one goal for the sake of another because God's will must be singular and unified.  When there is an internal, voluntary restriction of the behavior of finite creatures like ourselves, when we want something but choose not to pursue it, we do so because of competing, conflicting, or overriding goals.  That is, agents for whom there is an action gap that they voluntarily choose not to close must have multiple and diverse goals or motives.  In our case, more often than not, our actions are the result of the combination of a variety of impulses, reasons, goals, and desires.  I barely endure the excruciating discomfort of a root canal in the dentist's chair by weighing a long term and broader goal of having good health against my aversion to pain and my intense desire to avoid the drill.  Biological factors, evolutionary traits, base impulses, rational insight, personality traits, and other factors, dramatically complicate the decision and action process for human agents.  As a result, we often find ourselves acting to achieve one thing while still possessing a strong desire that we were doing something else or that some other state of affairs would be the result of our action, such as when we must do expensive repairs on a car.  Even when we act voluntarily and achieve the intended goal, a gap often persists between what is the case and what goals we have.  In short, inferiority leads to goal subordination because a lack of knowledge, power, or perfection renders a goal unobtainable or forces one to settle for less.

But multiple, incompatible goals, and action gaps that persist because of subordinated goals in an inferior agent do not occur for God.  The nagging doubts that put our motives in conflict do not occur for an omniscient being who perfectly apprehends every facet and every implication of his actions.  God knows perfectly what the results of his actions will be, he knows how to achieve the perfect or optimal results for any situation no matter how complex, and he perfectly and unerringly assesses and chooses the goals he sets.  Once chosen, those goals cannot be of mixed value to God the way the root canal is a mixed blessing for us.  God does not grudgingly or disappointedly admit that employing means X is the least unhappy way to achieve end Y the way we do when we use chemotherapy to cure cancer, or when we sell a car rather than do costly repairs on it.  First, an omnipotent being will not make use of imperfect or crude means to achieve his ends as we do in the dentist's office.  And second, God has no lack of power or knowledge, so he is never forced to settle for a means or an end that satisfies some but not all of his goals.  And third, his perfection would prevent him from possessing goals that are not or cannot be satisfied by the actions that are available to him.  Unfulfilled longing is the product of imperfection and/or a lack of power.  Godís perfection and the resulting alignment of his faculties would prevent any lingering discontent with the best possible resolution of an action gap.  A perfect, rational, omniscient, and omnipotent being assesses the situation, recognizes the best possible solution, and then has the confidence, knowledge, and unification of will to be satisfied with the results.   

So the decision process, if it can be called that, for God must be of a radically different nature.  The perfect alignment and balance of God's attributes means that there will be no internal conflict of motives.  What he knows combined with perfect rationality form a singular, unerring will behind the exercise of power.  There can be no overzealous emotional impulses, rash judgments that one regrets later, floods of passion, or unfulfilled longing.  Nor does God have the biological, physical, or evolutionary impulses that we do that sometimes run counter to what reason tells us we should do. 

So Godís will must be singular and unified.  Therefore, the situation in 6.b) will never occur for God because God will never internally, voluntarily restrain his power to achieve one goal in order to achieve another.

But since, as we have seen, there can be no external factors forcing an omnipotent, perfect agent to refrain from doing something,  

7)  There can be no restraints, internal or external, on the actions of an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect agentís will.  


So, if a perfect divine agent does not change some state of affairs, then that state of affairs is in perfect accord with that being's will.  Another way to put the point is that if the being wills to restrain itself and does not change some state of affairs, then that being is actually willing that state of affairs.  If God accepts a state of affairs and there is no obstacle to his changing it, then he is willing that state of affairs to be. 

Now we arrive at the heart of the argument that God cannot act.  If God chooses not to act, then the state of affairs in the world is in perfect accord with God's will.  God does not have mixed motives about the choice not to act; he recognizes exactly what is the best and nothing can interfere with his achieving it.  So if he chooses not to act, the world must be exactly as God wishes. 

          In order for God to choose to act, on the other hand, something impossible has to occur.  In order to act, the state of affairs in the world has to diverge at some point from what God wills.  Unless there is a gap between what is the case and what God wants to be the case, no action to close that gap is possible.  Hence, there will be no opportunity for action. 

          So the question is, how could the world get out of alignment with God's will thus creating the opportunity for him to act?  How could 6.c) happen for God where there is an action gap, he possesses the non-actual state as a goal and then, on the basis of that non-actual state, sets out to make it actual?   The answer is that such a situation cannot occur.  God's omniscience includes perfect knowledge of every fact in the world, so something could not have diverged from his will without his knowledge.  And nothing is beyond his power, so it cannot be that some state of affairs occurred that God does not have the power to alter.  And since God's will is singular and unified, he never acts in one way while some other dissatisfying state of affairs persists.  So everything that occurs must be in perfect accordance with a divine beingís will.  No sub-optimal state (from Godís perspective) can occur because for it to occur, God must have willed it.  And if God willed it, then it is not contrary to Godís will, and it is not sub-optimal.  

There is simply no way for things to become different from what God wants which would create the opportunity to act. 

8) Therefore, it is impossible for there to be a state of affairs in the world that does not accord perfectly with an omnipotent, omniscient, perfect agentís will.  The world always conforms perfectly with God's will.


9)  And since action requires that there be some state of affairs that is different from what an agent wills, God cannot act.


Conclusion:  I have argued that God, in order to be worthy of the label, must have certain properties.  In addition to the standard theistic properties of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection, God must also be an agent in order to be worthy of worship.  God must be able to devise goals and act to achieve them.  But now we have seen that a being with the divine properties cannot act.  Given Godís properties, no occasion for action can ever develop.  The divine attributes preclude the possibility of conceiving of some desired outcome, devising a plan to achieve it, then willing to bring it about.  But a being that cannot act is not worthy of a religious attitude.  So, it is not possible for any being to have the properties that would warrant a religious attitude.  So, God cannot exist. 


[1] I must thank Ricki Monier, Michael Martin, and Rebekah Donaldson for many helpful comments on drafts of this article. 

[2] Findlay, J.N.  ďGodís Existence is Necessarily Impossible,Ē New Essays in Philosophical Theology.  Anthony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds.  New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1955.

[3] Again, Findlayís argument is quite powerful and eloquent on this point:  ďA religious attitude was one in which we tended to abase ourselves before some object, to defer to it wholly, to devote ourselves to it with unquestioning enthusiasm, to bend the knee before it, whether literally or metaphorically.Ē  Ibid.

[4]  Tomis Kapitan has argued a related thesis in ďAgency and Omniscience,Ē  Religious Studies, 27(1991):105-20.  Kapitan argues that Godís omniscience makes it impossible for him to act because ďa being with complete foreknowledge of the future, specifically, its own future, cannot deliberate, and seemingly, cannot make up its mind or decide among options.Ē  My argument shows that the opportunities for action never occur for a divine being.

[5] The critic might suggest that the devil could thwart God's plans.  By most accounts, however, Satan is subordinate to Godís power.  But even if we grant the point, God would know if and when his efforts to achieve his ends would be thwarted by Satan.  And if he is perfect and omniscient, God would know better than to try to obtain some end that he cannot achieve.  The perfect alignment of all his attributes would lead God to apply himself only to those tasks that he could achieve and not to be in conflict with himself or anyone else for those that he cannot.