What God Cannot Do – Part 1

For the past couple of months I have been reading philosophers of religion, esp. Richard Swinburne, about divine attributes. According to most theists, omnipotence is a divine attribute, a property of God. There are some interesting problems and puzzles concerning omnipotence, a key problem being the paradox of the stone. Here is a summary of the problem by Swinburne:

The paradox arises when we ask whether God, allegedly an omnipotent being, can make a stone too heavy for himself to lift. If he cannot, the argument goes, then there is an action which God cannot perform, viz. make such a stone. If he can, then there will be a different action which he cannot perform, viz. lift the stone. Either way, the argument goes, there is an action which God cannot perform, and so…he is not omnipotent. What applies to God applies to any other being and so, the argument goes, it is not coherent to suppose that there be an omnipotent being. (The Coherence of Theism, revised edition, p.157)

I would have thought that medieval philosophers had exhausted discussion of this problem long ago, but a number of analytic philosophers have tackled the problem again in the twentieth century, including Mayo, Mavrodes and Plantinga.

It is interesting that Mayo, Mavrodes and Plantinga all make the same basic logical error in their analysis of the paradox of the stone, as Swinburne points out:

He [Mavrodes] argues that God is omnipotent, presumably by definition. But ‘on the assumption that God is omnipotent, the phrase “a stone too heavy for God to lift” becomes self contradictory’. …
But Mavrodes, like Mayo and Plantinga in their similar solutions, misses the point of the paradox. As Wade Savage pointed out, the point of the paradox is to show that the concept of omnipotence is incoherent. It is therefore begging the question to assume that a certain person, if he exists, has that property, whether by definition or not.
(COT, p.158)

This is an example, by the way, of progress in philosophical analysis on the question of the existence of God. The solution to the paradox of the stone that was presented by three different analytical philosophers has been shown to be no good, because it begs the question at issue. That doesn’t mean that we now have arrived at the correct and universally agreed upon analysis of ‘omnipotence’ and the paradox of the stone, but this is still real intellectual progress, and progress that took place in the twentieth century.

What interests me more than this bit of intellectual progress, however, are the moral implications of the idea of omnipotence, implications that Swinburne fails to recognize. In short, the divine attribute of omnipotence means that everything is easy and effortless for God, and this makes God (if God exists) a less admirable person, less worthy of worship than one might initially think.

To be continued…

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    My understanding is that the only thing that God cannot do is what God does not want to do. Conversely, God can, and does, what God wants to do. This understanding goes back to Augustine, and strikes me as completely free of any conceptual problems.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    My understanding is that the only thing that God cannot do is what God does not want to do.
    ============
    Response:
    1. God cannot do anything that is logically impossible to do. Nobody, including God, can make a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor.
    2. God cannot do anything that is logically impossible for a being with the properties of God to do.
    I can get divorced, but God cannot get divorced (assuming that he is not currently married).
    3. God cannot change the past.
    This might be an implication of (1), but if so is still worth pointing out because of the significance of this implication.
    4. God also cannot do anything that is evil or immoral. This is an implication of (2), but a significant implication that is worth pointing out. Presumably such actions fall under the category of actions that "God does not want to do", but this casts doubt on the assumption that God has free will and is morally praiseworthy for his good actions.
    5. God cannot fall asleep, get hungry, cut his finger, work up a sweat, strain his back, have a bad headache, etc. These are implications of (2), and the fact that God is a spirit (bodiless person)and is omnipotent, but these are significant implications worth pointing out.
    6. God cannot infallibly know what will happen in the future. This is more controversial, but it is a constraint that Swinburne sees as an implication of (2) and the assumption that God has free will.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    God does not do absurd things such as creating a four-sided triangle or a stone too heavy to lift because God, being perfect, never wants to do absurd things. Similarly God never wants to do evil. So it’s not a question of what God *can* do (for God, being limitless could do anything whatsoever), but of what God *wants* to do. I think this far it is easy to agree.

    Let’s now see the other relevant items in your list.

    As per #3 I have no idea whether God ever wants to change the past. Even though I can’t think a good reason right now perhaps S/He does, who knows.

    As per #5, according to Christianity God has wanted to do all these things by incarnating in Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnation is a means for God to do a lot of things such as, for example, being courageous, hopeful, being good without having all knowledge, etc.

    As per #6, I think that God does not want to know everything that will happen in the future. Indeed I think that God, being perfect, does not want to know everything, but to know only what is required for His/Her creative work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    Dianelos Georgoudis said…

    "God does not do absurd things such as creating a four-sided triangle or a stone too heavy to lift because God, being perfect, never wants to do absurd things. Similarly God never wants to do evil. So it’s not a question of what God *can* do (for God, being limitless could do anything whatsoever), but of what God *wants* to do. I think this far it is easy to agree."

    A) You are incorrectly conflating that which is impossible with that which is absurd. The two are not one and the same.

    B) You are asserting God's motives and desires without evidence. The question of God's sanity and benevolence is separate from the question of God's omnipotence.

    C) You are improperly redirecting the question by assuming the very thing that is under question, God's omnipotence. Motivation is irrelevant unless ability is first established.

    D) The statement "God can do anything God wants to do" is a very different and much weaker statement than "God can do anything". The former does not establish God's omnipotence because the very same statement can be applied to dirt. Dirt can do anything dirt wants to do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Pulse said…

    D) The statement "God can do anything God wants to do" is a very different and much weaker statement than "God can do anything". The former does not establish God's omnipotence because the very same statement can be applied to dirt. Dirt can do anything dirt wants to do.
    ==============
    Comment:
    Good point. Excellent example.

    If God's power is limited to what God wants, then if God does not want anything, that means God has no power at all.

    Also, if God only wanted to do things that human beings could do, then God would have some power, but only a very limited amount of power.

    So, if God's power is limited by God's wants, then it is very important to determine whether God has any wants and what those wants consist in. Otherwise, we would have no idea of the actual extent of God's power (on this assumption).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Bradley,

    You wrote: “Good point. Excellent example.

    Do you really think so? After all, dirt is not the kind of thing that wants things, so to suggest that “dirt can do anything dirt wants to do” strikes me as an obvious equivocation.

    “Also, if God only wanted to do things that human beings could do, then God would have some power, but only a very limited amount of power.”

    Yes, but God, being perfect in all respects, surely would not only want to do things that human beings could do. Therefore, as the antecedent is clearly false, the consequent has no particular relevance.

    So, if God's power is limited by God's wants, then it is very important to determine whether God has any wants and what those wants consist in.

    Right, that’s the important question: What is it reasonable to believe that a perfect being would want? And, specifically: Would a perfect being want to create the world in which we exist?

    A final note: I don’t think it is proper to say that “God’s power is limited by God’s wants”, because I don’t see the limitation in that. How is one being limited by being able to do anything one wants?


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