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…