The Problem of Guilt

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Daniel Tippens

(Note from the editor: This essay is cross-published on The Electric Agora)

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.

  1. God is Omniscient (all-knowing)
  2. God is Omnipotent (all-powerful)
  3. God is Omnibenevolent (all-good)
  4. Evil exists
  5. 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. 


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, echolocating 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. 


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:

  1. If God is all-knowing, then he knows what it is like to experience guilt
  2. If God is all-good, then he has never experienced guilt, for he is without sin
  3. If God has never experienced guilt, then he cannot know what it is like to experience it
  4. 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.


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 to a degree, 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.

10 thoughts on “The Problem of Guilt

  1. HI DanT,
    I loved your insightful essay.
    But I think this statement is wrong.
    If God is all-knowing, then he knows what it is like to experience guilt

    Knowing and experiencing are two entirely different categories, which is the point that Nagle was making. Experience is transient and temporal, whereas knowledge is permanent. Experience gives rise to “knowledge of” but that experience can never be replicated. Knowledge of an experience can never recreate the experience thus knowledge and experience are intransitive. Knowledge is the set of labels we attach to the experience but they are not the experience itself nor can it create the experience.

    Turning now to God, I believe in a quadri-potent God:
    – all-knowing;
    – all-good;
    – all- powerful;
    – all-experiencing.

    Now why should God’s experience of my guilt make him guilty? Consider the following thought experiment.

    Imagine I have invented an experience machine based on my discovery of an experience center in the brain.. It consists of a box with electrodes embedded in your experience center. I have a similar box with electrodes embedded in my brain. The two boxes communicate via Bluetooth. Now everything you experience is transmitted to my box and it instantly recreates your experiences in my brain so that I have the same experiences at the same time.

    You enjoy a fine meal at a top restaurant and I sit just outside the retaurant, within Bluetooth range, enjoying your meal just as much as you are. Imagine that, the ultimate in voyeurism! But at the end of the meal you are distracted by an argument with your girlfriend and neglect to tip the waiter. As you get into the taxi you feel a moment of intense regret and guilt at your omission. I cringe with you as I feel your regret and guilt.

    I get in my taxi and reflect on the intense feelings of guilt that I had felt emanating from you and resolve not to make the same mistake as you did. Happily the experience of guilt becomes just knowlege and I file it away. Now did the experience of guilt make me guilty? I had done no wrong so clearly I was not guilty. The problem arises because we are using one word “guilt” in two different senses, one conveying an intense feeling and the other an objective sense of having committed a wrong. But these are not the same thing.

    Peter(aka labnut)


  2. Over at EA, DanK said this:
    I would think the problem you pose could be generalized to *all* subjective knowledge. God can’t know *any* of it.

    The problem here is that he uses two contradictory terms subjective and knowledge. These are two different kinds of thing. What is subjective is experience and experience can’t be ‘known‘, only experienced.

    Then the question becomes – can God share our experiences? Is there, as it were, a divine experience machine?.

    If I posit that God is all-powerful then I am committing to the belief that his power allows him to share our experiences by experiencing them as we do.

    How might that work? Imagine that God’s consciousness pervades the universe, perhaps as a consciousness field. Imagine also that when this consciousness field intersects with brain neurons it ignites consciousness in our brains that is a subset or pool of consciousness within God’s consciousness. But our consciousness, being fully embodied is constrained by our sensory limits, limiting our consciousness to our own local pool of consciousness. But God’s consciousness knows no limits so so he fully shares our consciousness, including our experiences.

    This belief has radical consequences. When I look into someone’s eyes God is looking back at me from that person’s eyes. If I strike someone God has felt that blow and it is as if I struck God. If I treat someone with love it is as if I was loving God since God is eperiencing that love. God then is everywhere around me, wherever there are people.

    Little wonder then that Mathew reported (18:20)
    For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.


  3. Hey Peter (Labnut,

    It’s really great to hear from you. I’ve missed engaging with your posts given their insight.

    “Imagine I have invented an experience machine based on my discovery of an experience center in the brain.. It consists of a box with electrodes embedded in your experience center. I have a similar box with electrodes embedded in my brain. The two boxes communicate via Bluetooth. Now everything you experience is transmitted to my box and it instantly recreates your experiences in my brain so that I have the same experiences at the same time”

    I think the problem I’m trying to get at can be put in the form of a dilemma: Suppose there is a unique experience of justified guilt and unjustified guilt. If God has the experience of justified guilt, then *he must be guilty,* for the experience can’t be replicated otherwise. But if he has only unjustified guilt then he must not be all-knowing (since — as Nagel would say– there are *facts* about bat’s experiences which we can’t know from the outside. In particular, what its like to echolocate).

    If someone were hooked up to the experience machine and had the experience of justified guilt, it would follow that they would *have* to take on guilt themselves, otherwise the experience couldn’t be replicated. It is an experience that requires a normative property attaching to you, so to speak, and so the machine I contend the machine would have to generate your ability to freely choose to do wrong. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have the experience. In this way, the individual gets out of the machine they would have a lingering sense of having done something wrong.

    I’m worried about the abstract nature of the thought experiment simplifying the connection between conscious experience, the brain, and embodiment. Some people think an experience machine of the sort you describe is conceptually not even possible, once one knows the relation between the aforementioned things.


  4. Suppose there is a unique experience of justified guilt and unjustified guilt

    But I deny there is such a distinction. True guilt, by definition, is always justified. Now we need to separate out the emotion from the cognitive judgement. In the subject of the experience machine the emotion is presented to the cognitive mind. His cognitive mind evaluates this emotion and recognises that it is warranted.

    I, as the observer connected to the experience machine, receive exactly the same emotion and I receive the cognitive thoughts of the subject, with his inner admission of guilt. But as the observer I have my own independent cognition that I bring to bear on the process. And this is what makes all the difference. I feel the subject’s emotions but my cognition interprets them differently.

    Let me give you a small example. I dislike anaesthetic injections during dental procedures and so I elected to have root canal treatment without anaesthesia. The pain duly presented itself to my conscious mind with full force. However my conscious mind decided that this was merely a signal arriving at my brain which I could choose to tolerate or ignore. And so I tolerated it. What ordinarily would be intolerable pain became tolerable pain because the observer in my mind decided so. I became an observer in my own body and distanced myself from the pain, observing it and interpreting it.

    Nothing had changed in the pain. It was still the same pain but adopting the role of the observer changed my reaction to the pain. In the same way, I suggest that your distinction between justified and unjustified guilt is not because of a difference in the emotion of guilt but because the observer can make the cognitive distinction and react differently.


  5. By the way, I particularly liked your essay on God and Wonder. I think this was CS Lewis’ argument for the existence of God, our capacity to perceive the numinous.


  6. 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 really would like to see how you deal with the problem of evil. That of course is another and very large discussion. I am so pleased that you raised the issue of the problem of guilt. It is a subset of the problem of experience. As I said earlier, I believe in a quadri-potent God, one who experiences all. Let’s call that Omniperceptive so that we now have four ‘omnis’.

    As I said above, it is a radical belief that forever changes how we perceive and relate to other people. It also provides a new reason for understanding why God created living, thinking, experiencing species. That is so that God can independently experience his creation. This makes us necessary to God and his creative purpose.


  7. Perhaps this is also what is in part meant when the bible says God is omnipresent — he is everywhere, always

    This is a most important statement but how could that be possible?
    1) We know from physics that fields can pervade the Universe. They are everywhere, all the time.
    2) Imagine that God’s consciousness is a ‘field’ pervading the Universe and igniting pools of consciousness wherever this ‘field’ intersects with suitable assemblages of brain neurons. Thus God is everywhere that thought and experience is possible.
    3) Then imagine that the Laws of Nature are the properties of God, making God present wherever the Laws of Nature operate.

    Steven Hawking, in his earlier work, written before he had lost his sense of the numinous, asked, of the Laws of Nature, “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”. This is the deepest and most profound question in science, one that Hawkins and science do not even try to answer. What is it that gives the Laws of Nature their potency?

    If the Laws of Nature are the properies of God then it is God that gives the Laws of Nature their potency.

    Just as Omniperception has radical consequences so too does the belief that that the Laws of Nature are the properties of God. This means that God is present in an intimate way. Wherever I experience the Laws of Nature(which is everywhere, all the time) I am experiencing God. And because of God’s omniperceptiveness(as I call God’s ability to share our experiences) wherever/whenever I interact with people(and even my dogs) there is God, looking back at me through their eyes.

    Now God is no longer a remote and nearly imperceptible being on a remote plane, supervising the departed with their harps and pitchforks.

    He is here, everywhere I look. It is just that I did not recognise him, just as the Disciples did not recognise Jesus on the road to Emmaus(Luke 24:13-35). This is the deep meaning of that passage in Luke.

    My reaction to all of this is one of awe and wonder(as you describe in your last essay). Awe and wonder describes our recognition of God.


  8. Awe and wonder describes our recognition of God.

    This need not be a cognitive, verbalized, explicit and named recognition. More often it is a felt and nameless recognition that touches the wells of our innermost being.

    CS Lewis used this excerpt from Wind in the Willows to describe sacralisation, our sense of the numinous, the presence of the sacred:

    Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror – indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy – but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

    Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event … All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived, and still, as he lived, he wondered.

    “Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
    “Afraid!” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet – and yet – O, Mole, I am afraid!


  9. I posted this in reaction to one of Dan-K’s essays. It seems apposite here.

    Is science the only significant source of knowledge? It has very little to say about the interior life of the human species. For that we need the humanities. In an earlier post Dan-K said this about sacralization:

    It is my belief that once our material needs are met — and I mean “material needs” in the broadest, most substantial sense, which will also include all manner of social goods — there is one remaining need for it all to be significant in some way. To mean something. This is just the need for a life and a world that are sacralized, and I believe that the tradition of humanities and liberal arts can play a central role in that sacralization.

    He is saying, in effect, that sacralisation is the capstone of the humanities. This capstone is what supplies the final meaning and makes it an End. Without sacralisation the traditional justifications are like the columns of a building, lacking a roof to give them unity, form and final meaning.

    I agree, but most will not. That is because the sacred has drained out of our WYSIWYG world. What is left is superficial, like a dessicated exoskeleton, drained of vitality. That is because abundance has become a trap that has left us stranded in the sticky marshes of pleasurable hedonism. Surfeit has depleted our will to explore the higher levels of our capacity for enjoyment. These are, starting with pleasure:

    1. Pleasure
    The experience is gratifying.
    2. Enjoyment
    A cognitive experience. Mental pleasure is derived from the gratification.
    3. Fulfillment
    The pleasure is seen as rewarding and worthwhile.
    4. Joy and gratitude
    It is a form of delight and elation touched by gratitude.
    5. Exaltation
    One’s spirit soars and sings on the wings of an experience that seems mystical in its intensity.
    6. Sacralisation
    It is an opening of the mind that allows it to see the world in a wholly new way, one that is infused with awe, wonder, ecstasy and a sense of the numinous. Life acquires a new dimension that gives it meaning in its own right. It is the peak of exaltation.
    7. Devotion
    This, the final level, perceives God and sees meaning in serving and loving God. Atheists will deny this level but they should at least recognise that theists experience this.

    Thus we can ascend the levels of pleasure, enjoyment, fulfillment, joy/delight, exaltation to sacralisation and as we ascend these levels we discover a world increasingly suffused with meaning.

    Many will deny that sacralisation can be the capstone of the humanities because they cannot recognise the presence of the sacred. It is a from of colour blindness. This is a symptom of a materialist, naturalist outlook that is over concerned with the denial of God. The strength of their denial blinds them to the experience of the sacred. But some atheists do recognise the sacred, in a reduced, non-theist form, and Dan-K is one of them.


  10. Hi Peter,

    I’m glad you liked the essay on God and Wonder, can you link me to the place where C.S Lewis makes a similar argument? I’d love to read it. I really enjoy Lewis’ work. (follow-up, I saw that you recounted the argument in your comment, I’m interested in reading the whole work within which the argument is embedded).


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