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.