Is God a Taoist?

Danny Yee (danny@STAFF.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Sun, 5 Jun 1994 19:53:31 +1000

Joan Miller asked me:

> How about posting where it can be found? I've not read it and the title
> sounds intriguing.

Raymond Smullyan's "Is God a Taoist?" can be found in _The Mind's I_,
edited by Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett. The latter
is a collection of short fiction with the subtitle _: Fantasises and
Reflections on Self and Soul_, and is itself highly recommended.

"Is God a Taoist?" was first published in a book titled _The Tao is
Silent_ (Raymond Smullyan, Harper and Row 1977), which is a lot of fun.
(Hofstadter and Dennet describe it as what happens "when Western logician
meets Eastern thought".)

I'm will type the start of the dialogue in to give you an idea of what
it's like.

Danny Yee.


MORTAL: And therefore, O God, I pray thee, if thou hast one ounce of
mercy for this thy suffering creature, absolve me of *having* to have
free will!

GOD: You reject the greatest gift I have given thee?

MORTAL: How can you call that which was forced on me a gift? I have
free will, but not of my own choice. I have never freely chosen to have
free will. I have to have free will, whether I like it or not!

GOD: Why would you wish not to have free will?

MORTAL: Because free will means moral responsiblity, and moral responsibility
is more than I can bear!

GOD: Why do you find moral responsibility so unbearable?

MORTAL: Why? I honestly can't analyze why; all I know is that I do.

GOD: All right, in that case suppose I absolve you from all moral
responsibility, but leave you still with free will. Will this be

MORTAL (after a pause): No, I am afraid not.

GOD: Ah, just as I thought! So moral responsiblity is not the only
aspect of free will to which you object. What else about free will is
bothering you?

MORTAL: With free will I am capable of sinning, and I don't want to sin!

GOD: If you don't want to sin, then why do you?

MORTAIL: Good God! I don't know why I sin, I just do! Evil temptations
come along, and try as I can, I cannot resist them.

GOD: If it is really true that you cannot resist them, then you are not
sinning of your own free will and hence (at least according to me) not
sinning at all.

MORTAL: No, no! I keep feeling that if only I tried harder I could avoid
sinning. I understand that the will is infinite. If one wholeheartedly
wills not to sin, then one won't.

GOD: Well now, you should know. Do you try as hard as you can to avoid
sinning or not?

MORTAL: I honestly don't know! At the time, I feel I am trying as hard as
I can, but in retrospect, I am worried that maybe I didn't!

GOD: So in other words, you don't really know whether or not you have been
sinning. So the possibility is open that you haven't been sinning at all!

MORTAL: Of course this possibility is open, but maybe I have been sinning,
and this thought is what so frightens me!

GOD: Why does the thought of sinning frighten you?

MORTAL: I don't know why! For one thing, you do have a reputation for
meting out rather gruesome punishments in the afterlife!

GOD: Oh, that's what's bothering you! Why didn't you say so in the first
place instead of all this peripheral talk about free will and responsibility?
Why didn't you simply request me not to punish you for any of your sins?

MORTAL: I think I am realistic enough to know that you would hardly grant
such a request!

GOD: You don't say! *You* have a realistic knowledge of what requests I
will grant, eh? Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do! I will grant
you a very, very special dispensation to sin as much as you like, and I
will give you my divine word of honour that I will never punish you for
it in the least. Agreed?

MORTAL (in great horror): No, no, don't do that!

GOD: Why not? Don't you trust my divine word?

MORTAL: Of course I do! But don't you see, I don't want to sin! I have
an utter abhorence of sinning, quite apart from any punishments it may