What God Cannot Do – Part 4

Swinburne takes the word ‘God’ to be loosely tied to a list of criteria or descriptions, similar to how he takes the words ‘person’ and ‘bodiless’ to be criterially defined concepts. Among the criteria or descriptions used to denote or identify an individual as ‘God’, if there is such an individual, is the criterion that this being is eternally omnipotent. Such an understanding of the word ‘God’ and the sentence ‘God exists’ may well correctly represent the meaning of the word ‘God’ in the ordinary use of this word.

However, Swinburne goes on to propose a narrower understanding of the word ‘God’ such that the criteria or desciptions become, in effect, necessary conditions for the correct application of the word ‘God’ and for the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’. Thus, on this proposed definition or understanding, ‘God exists’ would be true if and only if there was one and only one being that satisfied ALL of the criteria or descriptions considered by Swinburne.

The descriptions considered by Swinburne are:
(a) is eternally a bodiless person,
(b) is eternally omnipresent,
(c) is eternally the creator of the universe (i.e. has always had, and always will have the power to make any contingent thing cease to exist),
(d) is eternally omniscient,
(e) is eternally omnipotent,
(f) is eternally perfectly good,
(g) is a source of (some) moral obligations.

In short, something is a ‘divine being’ if and only if it possesses ALL of the above properties, and ‘God exists’ is true if and only if there is one and only one being that is a divine being.

There is a polarity going on behind the scenes here, between the natural and the artificial. The natural, in this case, is what we are aiming at by the question “What is the meaning of the word ‘God’ in ordinary use of this word?”. The artificial is more what is aimed at by the question, “How should philosophers and theologians understand/define the meaning of the word ‘God’ for purposes of intellectual inquiry, especially into the question of the existence of God?”

Swinburne first characterizes what he thinks the word ‘God’ means in ordinary use, and then proposes a tightening or narrowing of the meaning of the word, for purposes of philosophical investigation of the question, ‘Does God exist?’. The shift recommended by Swinburne is from criterial definition, which supposedly reflects ordinary use of the word ‘God’ to a definition in terms of a set of necessary conditions that taken together provide a sufficient condition for the application of the word ‘God’ and the truth of the sentence ‘God exists’.

Before I get any more enmeshed in the interesting discussion about the meaning of the word ‘God’ and the meaning of the sentence ‘God exists’, let me briefly state my originally intended point about omnipotence.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the question of whether Swinburne’s proposed definition/analysis is a good one. Suppose that we make ‘is eternally omnipotent’ and ‘is eternally omniscient’ necessary conditions for the correct application of the word ‘God’. In that case, if God exists, then the being who is God is eternally omnipotent and eternally omniscient.

Now for my moral reflection on this idea. If God is eternally omnipotent and eternally omniscient, then nothing is difficult for God. Nothing is a struggle for God. God does not have to investigate a phenomenon or to study something in order to arrive at a true and complete understanding of it. God does not have to learn or practice new skills to be able to do something well. God does not have to work or struggle at something for years in order to make or create something. If God wants to design something then -BAM!- he has the perfect design for that thing instantly. If God wants to make the thing he has designed then -BAM!- it instantly comes into existence with exactly the properties and characteristics of his design. God can never complain about the ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ that went into some effort or project. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then everything is easy for God.

God is thus incapable of being a hero or a savior. Sure, a being who is omniscient and omnipotent could help us out. But the deeds of Superman would be nothing for such a being. He could bring about the existence of a billion Supermen at the drop of a hat, and this would require no real effort or struggle or pain on his part. Because of this, such a being is not worthy of admiration, and certainly not worthy of worship. We would be grateful that such a being is good rather than evil, but even the finest of gifts and benefits from God would mean little, morally speaking, because they have no cost for God. They would require something less than a sneeze or blink of the eye for God to provide.

Therefore, if Swinburne’s analysis of ‘God’is correct, then it seems to me that God, if there is such a being, is not worthy of praise or worship, even if God is, in some sense, perfectly good.

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07559081710058635050 Pulse

    So sacrifice or effort is a necessary condition for a good deed to be considered praiseworthy? I'm afraid I don't exactly follow. Could you explain that point a bit further?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11425491938517935179 enigMan

    Also, it's false that everything is bound to be easy for such a God. Such a God is able to create a difficult problem for Himself, or He is not omnipotent.

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

    Pulse said…

    So sacrifice or effort is a necessary condition for a good deed to be considered praiseworthy? I'm afraid I don't exactly follow. Could you explain that point a bit further?
    =============
    Response:

    Close.

    I think I had in mind the praiseworthiness of the agent rather than the action. An action might be praiseworthy even if the agent who performed the action was not praiseworthy.

    One might object that supererogatory acts (acts that go above and beyond the call of duty) are always praiseworthy, and that an omniscient and omnipotent being can perform supererogatory acts, thus such a being can perform praiseworthy acts.

    However, paradigm cases of supererogatory acts (by humans) involve sacrifice or at least effort on the part of the person performing the action. If this is the case, then it might be that only a subset of supererogatory acts are praiseworthy, namely those that involve some sacrifice or effort on the part of the agent.

    Also, it could be that all supererogatory acts are praiseworthy acts, but that the agents who perform these acts are not always praiseworthy, even if we restrict the scope of concern to the specific action that is supererogatory.

    In any case, being a hero would seem to require more than just a supererogatory action; being a hero seems to require some sacrifice or at least a significant effort on the part of the agent.

    So, there are two separate claims I'm making and two different assumptions. One is concerned with the praiseworthiness of an agent for performing an action, another is concerned with what is required to be a hero.

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

    enigMan said…

    Also, it's false that everything is bound to be easy for such a God. Such a God is able to create a difficult problem for Himself, or He is not omnipotent.
    ====================
    Response:

    It isn't that easy to prove that "God is able to create a difficult problem for Himself".

    Your point is, of course, similar to the paradox of the stone, where the question is whether an omnipotent being could create a stone that he/she could not move.

    In the case of the paradox of the stone, it seems that an omnipotent being could create such a stone, but that in doing so, this being would be constraining his/her own power and would thus no longer be omnipotent. An omnipotent being, it would seem, can harm or destroy itself.

    Analogously, if an omnipotent being wished to do so, it could make itself as weak as a human being. But then, having thus weakened itself, it would no longer be an omnipotent being.

    So, let's say 'Tom' is omnipotent on Monday, and he causes himself to become as weak as a human being on Tuesday. In that case, everything would have been easy for 'Tom' on Monday, but many things would be difficult for 'Tom' on Tuesday. This only shows that a being who is omnipotent on one day (and thus has no diffiuclties) can become a non-omnipotent being on another day (and then run into difficulties).

    This does NOT show that a being can be ominpotent and at the same time face a task that is difficult for him/her to perform.

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

    Pulse said…

    So sacrifice or effort is a necessary condition for a good deed to be considered praiseworthy? I'm afraid I don't exactly follow. Could you explain that point a bit further?
    =============
    Response:

    I had in mind something Jesus said, according to the gospel of Mark:

    He [Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people came and put large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."
    (Mk. 12:41-44)

    The implication is that the more wealth a person has, the less significant and less praiseworthy are their gifts of money (dollar for dollar, penny for penny).

    The gift of a dollar by a person who has only ten dollars is of greater significance and is more praiseworthy than the gift of a dollar by a person who has ten thousand dollars.

    And the gift of a dollar by a person who has ten thousand dollars is more significant and more praiseworthy than the gift of a dollar by a person who has a million dollars.

    And the gift of a dollar by a person who has a million dollars is more significant and more praiseworthy than the gift of a dollar by a person who has a billion dollars.

    An omnipotent and omniscient being has unlimited wealth, so to speak, so if such a being gives someone one dollar, that act is of virtually no significance and virtually no praiseworthiness.

    Furthermore, even if such a being only had a finite amount of money or wealth at some point in time, and if he/she were to give away all his money, that would be no credit, because he/she could create more wealth or money in the blink of an eye.

    Also, such a being has no need for the things that money can buy, so even if he/she could somehow run out of money, he/she would never go hungry or be homeless or become cold or sick as a result of giving away all that money.

    God is thus incapable of practicing charity, at least charity that is as significant and as praisworthy as, for example, Bill Gates giving one dollar (in his entire lifetime) to charity.

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

    I can see your point, but I'm still wary to disavow the praiseworthiness of an omnipotent being altogether because of what he could do that we can't. The hero is sometimes marked not by what he sacrifices but by what he can accomplish that are beyond the capabilities ordinary people.

    A gift of one dollar from a person who has only ten dollars is certainly praiseworthy, but the gift of one billion dollars from someone who has ten billion dollars is greater still.

    Yet Bill Gates with his vast billions cannot raise a long-dead relative back to life or whisk away the souls of humanity to an eternal paradise or prevent an alien super-race from blowing up the sun. Supposedly an omnipotent being could do these things, effortlessly though it might be. Is that not cause for gratitude?

    Perhaps you're correct though. Maybe I am still conflating the act with the agent.

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

    Pulse said…

    Yet Bill Gates with his vast billions cannot raise a long-dead relative back to life or whisk away the souls of humanity to an eternal paradise or prevent an alien super-race from blowing up the sun. Supposedly an omnipotent being could do these things, effortlessly though it might be. Is that not cause for gratitude?
    ===============

    Response:
    Gratitude is a natural response to a gift that is of great value to the receiver of the gift.

    In evaluating the praiseworthiness of an act of giving there appear to be at least two key considerations: (1) the value of the gift to the receiver, and (2) the cost of the gift to the giver.

    An omnipotent and omniscient person can give gifts that are of great value to the receivers of those gifts, but the cost of the gifts to the giver is zero, at least for most of the gifts we might imagine.

    However, I suppose that an omnipotent and omniscient person could sacrifice his/her omnipotence or omniscience in order to give someone a gift. Swinburne sees God as (in essence) sacrificing some of his knowledge in order to make room for human free will. In making creatures with free will, God gives up the ability to infallibly know everything that will happen in the future, because God cannot infallibly know the future free acts of a person.

    So, if Swinburne is correct, then God in some sense sacrificed his ability to know with certainty the future, in order to allow humans to have free will.

    On the other hand, if 'God' is by definition eternally omniscient and eternally omnipotent, then God cannot actually sacrifice his omniscience or omnipotence, since to do so would mean that the being in question only possessed those properties temporarily, not eternally, and thus was not God.

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

    I may have made a questionable assumption, namely that an omnipotent and omniscient being cannot suffer or be harmed. One who cannot suffer or be harmed might be unable to make sacrifices (or even risk making a sacrifice), and would thus be incapable of being a hero.

    Although an omnipotent and omniscient being could easily avoid being caused to suffer by another being, and avoid being harmed by another being, it does not follow that an omnipotent and omniscient being is incapable of suffering or being harmed.

    For one thing, it seems that an omnipotent and omniscient being could chose to harm itself, for example by making itself less powerful, or less knowing, or by destroying itself.

    Suffering is a bit more tricky. At any rate, it is not immediately obvious to me that an omnipotent and omniscient being could not suffer.

    Swinburne argues that an omnipotent and omniscient being must also be a bodiless person. If he is correct, then that would seem to rule out actual bodily harm and suffering.

    But a mind could experience sensations as if it were embodied, even if it were not in fact embodied. Phantom-limb pains may be just as real and excruciating as pains that are produced by actual limbs.

    So, if an omnipotent and omniscient being can be subject to pain and thus to suffering, heroism might be possible for such a being.

    What is hard for me to imagine is a circumstance where such a being would need to suffer pain in order to be able to help someone else. Why not just exert the powers of omnipotence to help or protect or heal the person who is in need of a hero?

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

    More on suffering…

    Three of the divine attributes form the core of Swinburne's concept of God: (1)eternal omnipotence, (2)eternal omniscience, and (3) eternal perfect freedom.

    God's eternal perfect goodness is, according to Swinburne, entailed by God's eternal omniscience and eternal perfect freedom.

    Perfect freedom means that God's decisions are purely 'rational' meaning uninfluenced by emotions or desires.

    But suffering is inherently a matter of emotion and desire. I don't see how a being could suffer but have no emotions and no desires.

    Therefore, God, understood in terms of the three divine attributes that Swinburne takes to be the core attributes, having no emotions and no desires is not capable of suffering, and therefore it is doubtful that such a being is capable of being a hero.

    This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that God, understood in terms of the three core divine attributes, must be eternally omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free, and thus God is incapable of in fact being harmed, in that his basic properties are eternal. If a being has the three core divine attributes, but is harmed so that it loses one or more of these attributes, then that being, by Swinburne's analysis, could not have been God.

    It appears to me that, given Swinburne's concept of God, God cannot suffer or be harmed.


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