THE OMNIPOTENCE PARADOX
By Miklos Jako
I’ve always thought that the existence of God is something that can be legitimately argued for or against, as reasonable conjecture, but not as something that can be proven or disproven. The existence of God, like free will and consciousness, may be one of those intractable intellectual questions that just cannot be resolved.
Philosopher Colin McGinn has argued that the concept of an omnipotent being is inherently contradictory, and God is thereby disproven. [SKEPTIC magazine 24.1] I think he is overreaching to call his argument an actual disproof.
Summary of McGinn’s Disproof
As I understand it, McGinn’s position is this: God is traditionally defined as morally perfect, omniscient, and omnipotent. But the third attribute of omnipotence logically includes the first two, because if you are omnipotent, you also have the power of moral perfection and omniscience. We can define God simply in terms of omnipotence, since that is the more encompassing attribute.
Now, if God is omnipotent, then he can sneeze or pick his nose. In order to do that you need a body. But God is defined as a disembodied being. That is a problem. If God is omnipotent, then he can turn into a worm. But if he is a worm, then he is not God. That is a problem. God cannot have the powers of God and at the same time have the limited powers of other entities. Thus, the concept of an omnipotent God is inherently incoherent, and God is disproven.
I would disagree on three counts. 1) Exercises in pure logic do not necessarily constitute proof. 2) God is not logically bound by logic. 3) A position on the God issue should include at least some degree of agnosticism.
1) Exercises in Logic
McGinn’s contention is similar to the so-called “paradox of the stone” argument: “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” Isn’t an omnipotent God thereby disproven? A classic theist response is that the definition of God’s omnipotence does not include performing logical absurdities. Omnipotence means God can do anything that is logically possible, not, anything at all.
I don’t see the necessity of defining omnipotence to include the ability to do anything at all, including logical absurdities. The atheist might insist on that definition, because that is what omnipotence means, the power to do ANYTHING at all. In that case, I could be equally cheeky and claim that God, by definition fully omnipotent, could create another universe where logical contradictions are possible, unlike our own where logic reigns. It seems to me that either definition, full omnipotence or omnipotence excluding logical absurdities, are equally arbitrary.
Take the ontological argument and its arbitrary definition of God. If God is defined as “that which no greater can be conceived,” then God MUST exist in reality, because God in reality is logically greater than God only in theory. Would that not be a proof of God under that definition? I don’t think so. I think the argument assumes God in the first place. IF there is a God, then a real God would be greater than a theoretical God, yes. But that doesn’t prove God does in fact exist. You can’t simply define God into existence, or for that matter, out of existence as McGinn’s reasoning has.
The ontological argument is only one line of reasoning, one exercise in logic, based on the domain of that particular line of reasoning. McGinn’s argument, by its domain of reasoning, leads to an opposite conclusion. Different definitions or starting points can lead to different conclusions. There may be no objective Archimedean vantage point from which to resolve the issue.
A mathematical analogy comes to mind. Mathematically, half of infinity (all existing even numbers) must be less than infinity (all existing numbers), since it is only half. Yet, at the same time, half of infinity, by definition, is still infinity. Your conclusion depends on which piece of logic you choose to apply. Likewise, contradictory conclusions about God can both be valid, by the terms of the particular logic applied. But the issue is not resolved. God is neither proved nor disproved.
2) Is God Bound by Logic?
In contemplating the origins of the universe, one can logically say that if God is defined as the creator of the universe, then he created logic itself and is therefore not necessarily subject to it. In other words, if logic existed on its own before God came along, then you’re violating the definition of God as the creator of everything. Such a limited God would not be a putative supreme being, but a less-than-supreme being, if he is pre-dated by logic and subject to its restrictions. A theoretical being outside of the universe does not have to be bound by the logic of the universe he himself created.
At the outer reaches of reality, logic breaks down. Just as normal lines of reasoning may no longer apply cleanly to the transcendent concept of infinity, normal lines of reasoning may not apply cleanly to the transcendent concept of God.
3) Agnosticism as the Only Reasonable Default Position
If we take the traditional concept of an intervening God, we should theoretically be able to prove God. If petitionary prayer can be proven, if miracles can be scientifically verified, if specific prophecies impossibly come true, then God is proven. But, most skeptics will agree that such positive tests, such evidence, does not exist.
I think the only reasonable concept of God is an almost-deistic one (“Soft Theism”). A God who just lets the natural world run. No breach-of-nature miracles, just the miraculous nature of life itself, intelligence itself, consciousness itself.
McGinn speaks elsewhere of epistemic humility. We may need to admit that certain issues are simply insoluble, intrinsically unable to be known or proven to the human mind. But by that admonition, shouldn’t we avoid claiming proof, or disproof of God? Isn’t the correct default position agnosticism, whether towards one end of the spectrum or the other? Maybe his essay should have been titled “An Argument against God” rather than “A Disproof of God.”
The atheist sees no compelling reason to believe in something that cannot be verified. The theist sees no compelling reason to dismiss the concept of God just because it can’t be concretely verified. God may be one of those issues that resists resolution.