Anyone who defines the supernatural as “whatever lies outside the natural realm” is being more verbal than informative. I’d ask that person to point out the boundary line that separates the natural from the supernatural. Until someone does that, the term “supernatural” is cognitively empty. This is the demarcation problem discussed in my previous blog post. A god quarantined to some extra-natural realm lies outside the demonstrated scope of human perceptual—and even conceptual—capabilities and is therefore unintelligible.
But if a man describes his god in intelligible terms, we may be able to judge whether his god exists. Pardon this rather frivolous example, but suppose a man defines his god as a pancake. Such a clear definition allows us to say with confidence that his god does indeed exist. In fact, multiples of his god exist in a diversity of shapes and flavors, so in the unlikely event that I adopted his definition of god, I would be a polytheist. A hungry polytheist.
Suppose instead that the man said, “God is love.” I’d probably interpret that as praise of God or as a description of how God makes the man feel, not as a definition of God.
But suppose he insisted that he literally defines God as love. Such a definition is clear enough for evaluative purposes. It has meaning within the range of my experience, so I can pass judgment on the existence of such a god.
Here’s the general principle: If we define God with sufficient clarity, we’re able to judge whether he exists. Let’s apply this principle to the Christian god.
The Christian god is defined as a person. No one thinks God is a mortal person like you and me. But he’s described as a person in the sense that he has a distinct personal identity.
To have a distinct identity is to be something, as distinguished from nothing or everything. In other words, to have a personal identity is to have defining limits. Having limits, any limits, is impossible for an unlimited being. Therefore the statement that God is a person contradicts the popular claim that God is unlimited. We may presume that God has the power to remove his limits and boundaries, but if he exercises that power, he would cease to be a personal god.
Christianity depicts God not only as a person, but also as having human-like qualities that reveal him to be less than omnipotent. The Old Testament enumerates God’s human-like qualities. He talks (Leviticus 26:12), rests from his labors (Genesis 2:2), changes his mind (Exodus 32:14), and feels regret (Genesis 6:6), jealousy (Exodus 20:5), and pity (Judges 2:18). He has hands (Exodus 7:5), arms (Psalms 89:10), a face (Numbers 6:24), eyes and ears (Psalms 34:15), and a mouth (Psalms 33:6). He walks (Genesis 3:8) and leaves footprints (Psalms 77:14-19), which is to be expected since he has feet (Genesis 3:8). He presumably has legs as well, since he’d look rather comical with feet and no legs. He sits on a throne (1 Kings 22:19), so he must have an ass. He likely uses his ass for more than just sitting on his throne, given that his bowels make noises (Isaiah 16:11, KJV). As these passages reveal, it’s a misconception that only the New Testament portrays God in human form.
The New Testament does, however, present God in a more pleasant and relatable human form. Modern Christians improve Jesus, depicting a handsome, gentle, pop culture icon, by cherry picking his moral teachings and by recalibrating his ethnicity.
The Christian god, whether in his gruff, tyrannical Jehovah phase or his Zen-like, lounge-lizard Jesus phase, exhibits human-like qualities that, as conventionally understood, may be in mutual conflict.
For example, God is often described as just. This is understood to mean that God dishes out rewards and punishments precisely in accordance with what each person deserves. God is also described as merciful, meaning that he dishes out less punishment than what a person deserves. A contradiction results when Christians say that God is just and merciful in every situation. God can be merciful and just, but not both simultaneously.
Christians say God is omniscient (all-knowing). To verify God’s omniscience, the Christian would need to compare, one by one, each of God’s beliefs to full knowledge of everything and show that he’s right point by point. The Christian must, in other words, have access to all knowledge, an impossible task for any mortal. Thus, certainty about God’s omniscience is unwarranted.
A flat-out contradiction results if an omnipotent god reacts to humans with anger, pleasure, or love (Exodus 4:14, Deuteronomy 26:18, and John 3:16). If God is affected by humans or by any other external force, and that includes any emotional influence, then he’s not omnipotent.
Omnipotence is also mutually incompatible with sentience. All sentient beings are subject to causation. To be sentient—to see or hear, for instance—is to be causally influenced by the physical world. When we hear, our eardrums are subject to mechanical pressure.
Some Christians, notwithstanding biblical statements to the contrary (see above), may presume that God is quite different structurally from humans and can hear through non-mechanical means. Perhaps so, but we humans can’t conceive non-mechanical perception. We literally have no idea what we’re talking about when we suggest the existence of a sentient being immune from outside physical influences. The conception of such a being is as incomprehensible and contradictory as the conception of a married bachelor. I don’t expect you to initially accept that the contradiction is equally real, but you can convince yourself by trying to imagine some means by which a being can see photons of light without interacting with those photons. If you can imagine (and intelligibly explain) a means by which that’s possible, then I am wrong. If you cannot, then I am right.
It might be objected that we often believe in the existence of things we don’t fully understand. We can’t dismiss something merely because it’s mysterious. Everything is mysterious if we examine it closely enough.
That’s true, but irrelevant. My point isn’t that omnipotent sentience is mysterious. My point is that a being whose senses causally react to the physical realm without being causally reactive to the physical realm is contradictory. Therefore, belief in such a god is irrational.
The plethora of contradictions that arise from omnipotence is so theologically unwieldy that religious philosophers have had to content themselves with a less superlative definition of omnipotence. They accept something more humble, something that makes God more plausible, even if that means making God less godly.
Their solution is to stipulate that God can’t violate a law (or more precisely, an axiom) of logic. They maintain that God is subject to the law of identity, the law of the excluded middle, and the law of non-contradiction. An example of something God can’t do is go back in time and make your grandmother sterile, since that would eliminate the possibility of your existing.
Lay Christians, less wary than philosophers of the pitfalls in the concept of omnipotence, say omnipotence means “with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) Given that the prefix omni means “all,” these Christians can easily defend their claim that omnipotence means all-powerful. The philosophers’ god, constrained by logic, is less than omnipotent. He is pseudo-omnipotent.
Many religious philosophers would balk at my invention of the term pseudo-omnipotence. They would insist that they’re free to define omnipotence however they see fit. After all, there’s no law that says omnipotence must literally mean all-powerful.
They have a point. In fact, I might accept religious philosophers’ stunted definition of omnipotence if they stuck to it. But they don’t. In lectures to the general public, they crow, “God can do anything.” Alvin Plantinga is notorious for doing this. Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and Peter Kreeft do it. Religious philosophers continually equivocate on the definition of omnipotence. Until they learn to use the term responsibly, I refuse to relegate it to them.
Let me emphasize that only my terminology deviates from the philosophical consensus, and it does so in a manner that enhances precision. The philosophical concepts I am labeling are well within the mainstream of academic philosophical consensus.
Let’s take a closer look at the notion of a pseudo-omnipotent god who is subject to the laws of logic. This notion raises an obvious question. Where do these laws of logic come from if they constrain even God?
Setting that question aside, let’s briefly consider theological problems solved by pseudo-omnipotence.
A fully omnipotent god has the power to know everything. Omnipotence entails omniscience. One might then ask whether God knows what it’s like to be separated from God? One might also ask whether God has the power to forget and thus sacrifice his omniscience? Such questions can be resolved by stipulating that God can do only what’s logically possible.
Suppose a skeptic said, “Can God lie? If not, then he’s not all-powerful. If he can lie, that implies that his moral standards can’t prevent him from lying.” A pseudo-omnipotent god, however, assuming he’s also omni-benevolent, can’t commit a moral infraction.
Our hypothetical skeptic might say, “We mortals understand what it feels like to be consumed by lust. Does God know how it feels to be consumed by lust? If not, he’s not all-knowing.” Again, pseudo-omnipotence comes to the rescue. It’s logically contradictory for a sin-free god to sin.
Pseudo-omnipotence resolves some tricky issues that plague full-blown omnipotence. It’s hardly surprising that almost all modern philosophers have migrated to pseudo-omnipotence.
Pseudo-omnipotence has drawbacks, too. It limits God and it elevates logic above God. But lay Christians are largely unaware of these concessions, whereas theologians and religious philosophers deem these concessions worthwhile.
Even a pseudo-omnipotent god is too muscular for most religious intellectuals. Ask them whether God can commit suicide and they will opine that God can’t kill himself because he’s immortal. The alleged divine attribute of immortality restricts God’s range of actions and powers. The upshot is that the philosophers’ definition of omnipotence, in addition to being restricted by the rules of logic, is also restricted by other aspects of God’s nature. The philosophers’ god is sub-pseudo-omnipotent.
Many theologians try to summarily define God’s omnipotence as the capacity to perform precisely those actions consistent with his nature. By that definition, you, I, and a dry-roasted salted peanut are all omnipotent because we can do anything within our natures. No matter what limitations are imposed on God’s powers, he’s guaranteed to be labeled omnipotent.
Pseudo-omnipotence, while it solves some problems inherent in full-blown omnipotence, fails to resolve quandaries raised earlier. For example, to detect photons requires a physical god, and thus a god with physical limitations. Pseudo-omnipotence also fails to address Adam’s provoking of God’s wrath. A god whose emotional states can be manipulated by humans isn’t a logical necessity. A god thus manipulated is sub-pseudo-omnipotent.
The Christian god’s sub-pseudo-omnipotent status is brought home by the question, “Is God powerful enough to make a rock too heavy for him to lift?” This question expresses a paradox that dates back at least to Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), also known as Averroës. The paradox, just as devastating today as it was back then, reveals the absurdity inherent in the concept of full-blown omnipotence.
This paradox isn’t resolved by postulating a pseudo-omnipotent god. No logical contradiction is implied by building something too heavy to lift. Humans do it all the time.
An apologist may object as follows:
This rock question is poorly formed. God can do anything. There’s no limit on either the weight of the rocks God can create or on the weight of rocks he can lift. The “too heavy” adjective doesn’t apply to any rock from the perspective of an omnipotent god. The only thing this question reveals is that an omnipotent god can fail at being a limited rock-maker or limited rock-lifter. Failing at being limited really isn’t a failure in any meaningful sense. The rock question is thus rooted in a miscomprehension of the word omnipotence. The person who poses the rock question simply needs to consult a good dictionary to look up the word omnipotence.
This apologetic response regurgitates the traditional definition of omnipotence as all-powerful. That’s why it fails. If an omnipotent god can do anything, then he can successfully make a rock too heavy for him to lift and he can successfully lift that rock.
The apologist might retort that this combination is logically impossible. I agree. It is logically impossible. So what? An omnipotent god can do the impossible.
It’s a flat-out contradiction for an apologist to say that God can do anything and to simultaneously say that God can’t do the impossible. Only a pseudo-omnipotent god must abide the laws of logic, in this case the law of non-contradiction.
This rock question reveals the incoherence of claiming that an omnipotent god can do anything. That’s the claim made by most lay Christians as well as philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, at least when they speak carelessly to the public.
But what about most modern religious philosophers, who insist that God can do only what’s logically possible? Can they escape the force of the rock question?
No. In their case, the rock question is not only a legitimate question, but it’s also in principle answerable. After all, the question, when posed with respect to a pseudo-omnipotent god, isn’t about what’s logically possible. It’s about God’s physical capabilities. It’s therefore a perfectly fine empirical question. Indeed, the question has precisely the same legitimacy when directed at a pseudo-omnipotent god as it does when directed at a human. God, like a mortal man, reveals his impotence when he can’t get it up.
The rock question reminds me of an argument advanced by René Descartes in his effort to disprove the existence of atoms. Descartes insisted that an omnipotent god could not create things so indivisible that he couldn’t divide them. Descartes deserves credit for being ingenious. Unfortunately, he used an unscientific definition of atoms (as indivisible) and an unhelpful definition of omnipotent (as able to do anything short of a logical contradiction). I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible for a believer to invent an argument for belief that is so unbelievable that even a believer can’t believe it.