Saturday, November 19, 2005

asking the impossible of God

Someone named Anonymous found an old post of mine about God and logical paradox, and left a comment. Given how old the post is, I've decided to report the person's comment here, along with the reply I made in the comment threads. If you're a good analytical philosopher, you will, of course, disagree with me and side with my critic.

The comment:

Kevin writes: "A lot of theistic philosophers claim God's omnipotence is limited by logical necessity. I've always contended this is absurd: a truly omnipotent God isn't chained by logical necessity. Why, then, do many of these same theists accept what we know to be the physical absurdity of a man walking on water, but balk at the logical absurdity of God making a round square?"

I think you are misconstruing the concept of logical impossibility here. It isn't just very hard to achieve. It is impossible. The reason is not that it is infinitely hard to achieve, but that it is impossible in principle. It is our human understanding of a statement, or proposition, that if it is true then it is not also false. To ask a god to achieve the conditon of something both being the case and not being the case is to ask him to both succeed and fail at the same task. You are saying that for god something impossible should also be possible, by which you mean not impossible. So for god you are saying something can be both possible and impossible at the same time. It is our concept of contradiction that ensures the impossibility of the task. Not the impotence of god as the doer. You are setting him a meaningless goal.

My reply:

Dear Anonymous,

First, I'd like a name!

Second, I've heard this objection far too many times, and it falls on deaf ears. You write:

"The reason is not that it is infinitely hard to achieve, but that it is impossible in principle."

...and that's precisely the point where I disagree. "Impossible in principle" is a conclusion reached through limited human reckoning. We can't envision a universe in which 2 + 2 = 5; we assume, therefore, that such a thing is impossible, meaningless, etc.

You're saying this is a limitation built into the (onto)logical structure of reality-- including the divine reality. I'm saying it's a limitation built into the human mind.

Besides-- if we grant that God is unable to perform paradoxes, then we have to assume that miracles-- such as Dr. Vallicella's floating bar of iron-- are also impossible.

My point in that post was that physical absurdity = a subtype of logical absurdity. Given the nature of the physical universe, certain things are possible while other things are, as you say, "impossible in principle." The theistic philosopher is going to have a hard time explaining on what, exactly, he bases his theistic beliefs once miracles are entirely stripped from the equation.


So allow me to lay out the dilemma for the theistic philosopher.

He must either (1) believe that God is incapable of performing logically contradictory actions, in which case he must allow that miracles are impossible, or (2) believe that God is not chained by paradox, in which case miracles are possible and God can be seen as ultimately responsible for the existence of evil (since miraculous capabilities put one in a position to do something about suffering).


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