The Problem of Guilt

by Daniel Tippens 

(Note from the editor: This essay is being cross-published on the author’s blog The Related Public) 

The problem of evil aims to show that the properties of the Judeo-Christian God are incompatible with the existence of evil. Broadly, the idea goes something like this.

  • God is Omniscient (all-knowing)
  • God is Omnipotent (all-powerful)
  • God is Omnibenevolent (all-good)
  • Evil exists
  • God cannot be Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent

The first three premises are simply provided by the Bible, primarily in the Psalms. The fourth is evident by observation. Take a look at the world and you’ll see that there is evil of all kinds, both natural and man-made. Hurricanes and tornadoes have displaced our lives as humans, and murders have taken loved ones. But if a god is all-knowing, then he knows how to stop evil. If he is all powerful, then he has the power to do so, and if he is all-good, then he ought to put an end to these grotesque things. Hence, there does not exist a God with all three properties, at least one of them must be given up. Or so the argument, broadly, goes.

The problem of evil is a long-standing one and I don’t wish to delve into it here. Rather, I want to outline a new and similar kind of problem which I call the Problem of Guilt. The problem of guilt aims to show that there is a tension between God being all-good and all-knowing.

I.

In 1974, the philosopher Thomas Nagel published a famous essay which is still taught in every Philosophy of Mind course titled, “What is it like to be a Bat?” In it, Nagel insightfully pointed out something with which we are all inclined to agree: We can’t know what the phenomenal world of a bat would be like. We can’t know what the conscious experience for it is like as it flies around, echo-locating its environment. We couldn’t know what it is like, from the inside, to be a bat.

This, Nagel observed, points out a deep fact about conscious experience; that it isn’t something we can look at from the outside. Atoms, deodorant, and sushi rolls — physical things — can all be observed from the third person point of view. You, me, and our friend can all gather around an anthill and point at it, perhaps commenting on how busy the ants are today, exchanging knowledge about it with one another. In this sense, physical objects are objective — they are understandable and accessible from the third person point of view.

Conscious experience isn’t like that, and Nagel’s insight about our epistemic relationship with bats makes it clear. We can’t gather around a bat and observe its phenomenal experience. We can’t circle around it and point to its conscious experience saying, “oh look, that’s what its like to be this hairy little winged creature!” Conscious experience is inaccessible to the third person point of view, and so is subjective: accessible only to a single point of view, i.e to the creature who has it (or does it, if you think conscious experience is something we do). In this way, there are facts about the bat’s experience — those about what its like to be it — which we don’t and perhaps can’t have access to.

II.

I assume here that Nagel’s insight is correct: we can’t know what its like to be a bat because conscious experience is not accessible from the third point of view. It is only accessible “from the inside.” But this generates a problem for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God with regard to the phenomenal experience of guilt:

  • If God is all-knowing, then he knows what it is like to experience guilt
  • If God is all-good, then he has never experienced guilt, for he is without sin
  • If God has never experienced guilt, then he cannot know what it is like to experience it
  • There cannot be an all-good and all-knowing God

The reason this is important to me is because of what would be true if God really hasn’t experienced guilt: we would always be epistemically “detached” from him, so to speak, in a manner which I find unpalatable. In particular, we would have an empathy-block between us and God.

Consider what its like when you tell a friend about a loved one’s death but that individual has never experienced the loss of someone dearest to him. You may have the comfort that comes with simply talking about the event, but you won’t experience the rejuvenating qualities that come with someone who can crouch down and cry with you, knowing the pain that you have experienced. If you haven’t experienced an emotion, I assume, you cannot empathize with an individual undergoing the sentiment. And until someone has felt guilt, they cannot know what it is like. This is why we smile at children when they are unable to understand evil or guilt. Their innocence is endearing.

But since God is supposed to be all-knowing and our friend, with whom we walk daily, it is less endearing and more discouraging to believe that he couldn’t empathize with our guilt when we pray to him, seeking someone who will undergo a passion with us, lightening the load. It would be equally discouraging, you might think, to know he isn’t all-good. Who will restore us in the darkest of hours? Who will surely not hurt us? If God can’t be omniscient and omnibenevolent, the devout Christian might be troubled.

III.

You might think that someone can experience guilt without actually being guilty. Sometimes people displace their guilt onto others. In cases of domestic abuse this happens, where a parent makes an 8 year-old child feel like he is guilty of something, perhaps yelling at him, when of course he couldn’t be guilty at such a young age. In this way, the child comes to experience guilt without being guilty.

But the problem is that there is surely a phenomenal difference between the experience of guilt when one is actually guilty as opposed to the experience of guilt which obtains when one is falsely accused. For this I simply ask you to consult your own experiences.

In the New Testament, we are told that Jesus Christ died for our sins on the cross, and that God poured his wrath toward the world on him. In this way, Christ died for our sins. Perhaps when God poured his wrath out on Jesus, Christ felt guilt. But again, the problem is that Jesus is said to have been without sin. As such, he was as innocent as the child who is unjustly blamed. His act was one of grace.

A final response might go something like this: If God is all-knowing, then he has first-person access to our sentiments. He can take our point of view at any point in our lives. Perhaps this is also what is in part meant when the bible says God is omnipresent — he is everywhere, always. But while this would imply that God has the ability to empathize with us, I don’t think it would imply he knows what it is like to experience guilt when one is actually guilty. Again, he is not us, who actually may have guilt. He can search our hearts and know that we are guilty and what its like to experience guilt, but not what its like to be guilty.This is certainly a more comforting response, but not a successful one philosophically.

I don’t yet have an answer to this problem, but I will end by saying that I don’t think it needs to be a serious problem for the devout Christian who has faith in God. The faithful Christian holds, I think, that God is capable of things and we do not and perhaps cannot know how. God can make a rock that cannot be moved, but he also has the power to move it. If one holds that God is capable of such contradictions, clearly we couldn’t know how, being the limited creatures we are. For devout Christians, there is no problem with being mysterians about God’s properties.

Daniel Tippens is a PhD Student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He blogs at The Related Public.

19 Comments »

  1. First of all, it is *so* good to see your work here again!

    Second, this is an original, powerful argument that I think could be deployed along multiple lines, in addition to guilt.

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  2. It’s great to be back on here, and thanks! Thomas Nagel is one of my favorite philosophers, and so using his work in this way was very satisfying

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      • That’s interesting. I thought guilt was the unique lack of access he would have given that he is explicitly said to be without it. Can you elaborate? I may write a follow up argument for the little journal “Think”

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        • Well, given that *all* subjective experience can only be known “from the inside” to speak figuratively, no person outside could possibly know the content of someone else’s subjective experience. Even if they can “read minds,” that would provide only a 3rd person perspective of the other’s first person experience.

          Now, of course, you know I don’t accept the whole inside/outside way of treating subjective/objective, but I am working within the frame *you* — and Nagel — have set.

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  3. This is a beautiful essay.Thank you for it.

    I happen to be a believer and the way out of the dilemma you describe or the so-called problem of evil is to recognize the almost impossible to comprehend fact that god is not even a person, so questions of cause and effect and responsibility are far too limited and crude to apply to God. At a certain point , in my account of religious history, God became something like a person, a superman or superwoman, but this is actually a distortion and violation of the true meaning of faith. What s abundantly clear is that we humans do a great many things, some very good, some very bad and many gradations in between. I think such things in a sense are up to us, not in a full libertarian sense of free will, but in the sense that it isn’t some supernatural force making us do this or that but in the sense that our primary goal is how to transform and transcend what it is the we have already done – to the better, That is what is important.

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  4. A general comment.

    According to Nagel, I cannot know what it is like to be a bat.

    Can I know what it is like to be Thomas Nagel? Can I know what it is like to be Dan Tippens?

    Can I know what it is to be like me?

    Can I know what it is like to not be me. And if I cannot know what it is like to not be me, how can I know what it is like to be me?

    I’m skeptical of all of these “what is it like to be” arguments. The “like to be” part seems to be referring to a comparison, where no comparison is actually possible.

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  5. Hi Dan.

    Nice to see this from you. I will have to chase up your blog (such an old fashioned medium!).

    I think the problem here is “experienced” versus “experience”: memory, continuity of identity, limitations of self-knowledge. You can have the memory of the mental state one was in following a genuine moral failure, but like grief etc, have come to an accommodation or an equilibrium. Even if you are a moral realist, you might find it hard to differentiate between your recall of your level of suffering due to guilt over an event you later find out is not your fault, and one where it was your fault, but you have forgiven yourself. Surely the former is a grounds for sympathy (unless “other minds” is a problem*), and this will extend to people who are currently guilty or have not reached an accommodation about old acts.

    So, I can’t see why G-d can’t experience such a memory.

    * One version being, even if you carry out the same guilt-inducing acts as me, you still won’t have the same experience.

    PS I was trying to find out Myles Barlow ever reviewed guilt. He does mention it as a major problem in
    this episode.

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    • Davidlduffy,
      G-d would not “experience a memory” for the simple reason that he knows everything all at once. This makes both ‘experience’ and ‘memory’ utterly irrelevant. (He doesn’t ‘experience; because he *knows*. Memory is irrelevant because it is temporal and he is not.)

      I think a central problem here is 1) that most people in the Western traditions conceptually limit the capacities of a divine being their own texts assure them are illimitable; and 2) this illimitable being in fact has limitations that we only glimpse, as long as we accept the conditions of those traditions.

      Hint as to 1): a loving god need not give a damn about any of us, because what he loves is his own creation.
      Hint as to 2): god supposedly exists outside of time – and that forms his greatest limitation.

      I will try to get further into this at a later posting.

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      • Relatedly, I’ve always wondered what it is for a non-temporal being to love. More precisely, to what extent can human concepts of love be used to understand the kind of love an unlimited being has? Not expecting a reply; just chiming in.

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          • That’s what I suspect too. Or, at least, I suspect that the believer overlooks the extent to which the (meaning of the) concept of divine love (be there any at all) is parasitic upon the (meaning of the) concept of embodied love. The believer is thus, I suspect, blind to how grossly their concept of divine love is likely missing its target, so to speak.

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          • A traditional argument is that humans are created in god’s image, so human love etc are derivative of and can ascend towards the divine type.

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  6. We cannot get into somebody’s mind, but is there any logical obstacle that would prevent god from doing that? If he could do that, he would experience (somebody’s) guilt without having sinned. (Just speculating for fun – I am not religious)

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  7. Hi Dan,

    Glad your back and a pleasure to read your essay.

    I agree that humans can’t actually know what it’s like to be a bat or to experience another person’s subjective position so to speak, and because of that humans are clearly not all knowing.

    On God, I was taught to look at it this way: if God is all knowing then he can’t be limited to what humans can and cannot know or not be be able to experience himself what a human is experiencing, like guilt (or what it’s like to be a bat).

    In other words, if God is said to be all knowing then mustn’t he be able to do what’s needed to be all knowing, including anything that would actually be needed for him to experience another person’s subjective experience from the inside so to speak, not reading a mind, but actually being able to, for example, position himself in a way that permits him to experience without interference the same thing a person is experiencing.

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