impossibility arguments

Here are a few more intriguing thoughts from The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. This first one is a simple refutation of the idea of an omnipotent god,

The traditional problem for omnipotence is the paradox of the stone: Could God create a stone too heavy for him to lift? If so, there is something God could not do – he could not lift such a stone. If not, there is again something God could not do – he could not create such a stone. In either case, there is something God could not do. It follows that there are things no God could do; neither he nor any other being could be omnipotent. (p. 200)

This second one is a refutation of the idea of an omniscient god,

Knowing how raises clear impossibilities for any traditional and omniscient God. If God is a being without a body, he cannot know how to juggle, how to balance on the parallel bars, or how to compensate for a strained muscle in the right calf. If omniscience demands knowing everything that can be known, therefore, no disembodied being can be omniscient. This form of difficulty can also be developed without appeal to other attributes. One of the things that I know is how to find out things that I do not know; I know how to find out what I do not know about the planet Jupiter, for example. Were an omniscient being to have all propositional knowledge, there would be nothing it did not know in the propositional sense. There must then be a form of knowledge that I have but that any such being would lack: knowing how to find the propositional knowledge it lacks. Any being that possessed all propositional knowledge would for that very reason lack a form of knowledge how. Knowledge by acquaintance also raises clear impossibilities for any traditional and omniscient God. Among those feelings that nonomniscient beings know all too well are lust and envy, fear, frustration, and despair. If a God is without moral fault, he cannot know lust or envy, and thus cannot qualify as omniscient. If a God is without limitation, he cannot know fear, frustration, or despair. Here too the argument can be pressed without appeal to other attributes. One of the feelings I know all too well is the recognition of my own ignorance. An omniscient being would have no ignorance, and thus this is a feeling no omniscient being could know. There can then be no omniscient being.” (p. 205)

I’ve heard the omnipotent refutation before, but the omniscient refutation really struck me. I’m reminded of the often expressed sentiment of theists that, “God is suffering with me. God knows my pain.” If you are not a Mormon and do not believe in an embodied god, then god cannot know your physical pain. And if you are Mormon and are suffering over some sin, like masturbation, then god cannot know your pain unless god, too, has masturbated. In a sense, then, whenever you are suffering, god is NOT with you. How’s that for “bleak”?


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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19 Responses

  1. Most theologians limit God’s omnipotence to the set of logically possible actions. Of course this makes God beholden to logic and not its master.

    The idea that really struck me when I first heard something like that refutation of God’s omniscience is that Jesus who was supposed to be perfect could never know what it’s truly like to fear eternal damnation. He would have to forget who he was. There are various theological problems with this idea, but it was thought provoking.

  2. Seth R. says:

    Mormonism gets around this by making God not truly “omnipotent” and “all-knowing.” At least, not in the philosophical sense demanded by traditional Christianity and other strictly monotheistic religions.

    It’s actually one of Mormonism’s selling-points for me.

  3. Seth R. says:

    That was directed more toward Jonathan than the original post (which would require more treatment of Christ’s suffering in the Atonement).

  4. I’ll admit that Mormonism’s version of God is much more resistant to many of the argument against his existence.

  5. Seth R. says:

    Remember that Joan Osborne song back in the 1990s – “What if God Was One of Us?”

    The Protestant in me (inherited from the broader US culture) recoiled at the message. But I think something Mormon in me was thinking she might have a bit of a point.

  6. mormonzero says:

    “And if you are Mormon and are suffering over some sin, like masturbation, then god cannot know your pain unless god, too, has masturbated. In a sense, then, whenever you are suffering, god is NOT with you. How’s that for “bleak”?”

    I could be wrong but from what I understand of Mormon theology I don’t think we/they necessarily emphasize God suffering in the literal sense. Christ suffered physically for physical pain and also suffered spiritually (i.e. separation from God). The spiritual suffering may not originate from the same place but the pain would in theory be the same.

    So in the case of masturbation it would not necessarily mean that Christ ever masturbated but that he felt what it feels like to be spiritually cut off from God the Father. At least that is what I understand it to mean.

  7. mormonzero says:

    I agree w/ Jonathan though; the Mormon version of God is much harder to pin down, especially if one is using the more traditional arguments against God.

  8. Steve EM says:

    Masturbation is sin? Does BKP have to pass before all Mormons drop that nonsense? Now the intellectual masturbation of trying to prove or disprove G-d, that might be sin.

  9. mormonzero says:

    Steve Em…I would hope not…it is nevertheless still an issue.

  10. chanson says:

    Mormonism gets around this by making God not truly “omnipotent” and “all-knowing.” At least, not in the philosophical sense demanded by traditional Christianity and other strictly monotheistic religions.

    It’s actually one of Mormonism’s selling-points for me.

    I touched on this a bit in my post about Polytheism vs. Monotheism + Omnipotence.

  11. Seth R. says:

    A lot of Mormons like to play make believe that we’re nice monotheistic Protestants. But our source theology really isn’t.

    Of course, to be fair, labels like “monotheistic” and “polytheistic” and “henotheistic” can be incredibly slippery and hard to pin down.

    But honestly, I think Mormonism shines best when it sticks to the original positions taken by Joseph Smith. It’s when we try to act like mainstream Protestants that we usually tend to get in trouble.

  12. Wayne says:

    Seth- Would you expand on the Mormon version of God?

  13. Seth R. says:

    Not some isolated alien sort of being who snapped his fingers one day, and everything popped into existence. Not some exalted puppet master pulling all our strings and playing make believe at which puppets have been good and which have been bad. Not some genderless, passionless entity that couldn’t care less whether you have a good day or not, because he’ll still be perfect at the end of it.

    Rather, an actual Father who is seeking for people like Him to share infinity with. Truly free beings whom He DOES NOT have absolute control over. People who are free to reject Him. Only truly free beings can ever really give love and devotion, and this is what God wants. A real, tangible person who has the same emotions we have. Who has allowed Himself to be, in some sense powerless before us. When we fall, He weeps and feels the loss.

    I once saw a message on a local Protestant church billboard. It read: “God will survive your rejection, but you won’t.”

    I think that is one of the most pernicious lies that was ever told about God. The idea that He is immovable and unaffected by whatever we do. That is not what God is. When we reject Him, He is diminished, it is a real loss for Him.

    In Mormon theology, God is not the great manipulator, but a fellow traveler trying to share something with us. Yet, we Mormons sometimes forget that and start beggaring theories from the Protestants. At that point we really lose our way.

  14. profxm says:

    Interesting depiction… This means, then, that your god is not: omnipotent, omniscient, nor omnibenevolent. Your god is more like a Greek god, powerful, knowledgeable, and, depending on the deity, somewhat kind (though sometimes not kind). Also, your god is flawed.

    Well, I’ll give you credit for believing in a god that is easier to defend from a logical and philosophical standpoint. I’d say it’s completely possible that a being that is (1) powerful, but not all powerful, (2) knowledgeable, but not all-knowing, (3) and mostly kind, but not omnibenevolent, could exist.

    Of course, this leads to the next criticism: Why worship such an entity? What you’re describing really seems like a heroic character; a Beowulf. I might revere such an entity, but I would have a hard time worshiping it.

  15. Wayne says:

    Seth- Your description fits well into the Buddhist version of Gods.

    profxm- You would worship a god if you thought you might get something from them. Even if you believe that god to be myth.

    One of Neil Gaimans more recent novels, called “American Gods”, deals with the subject of Old gods losing power to the more modern and recent less interesting ones.

  16. profxm says:

    If I really thought something could be gained from “worshiping” a deity, I might. But I’d have to be very convinced of it.

  17. Seth R. says:

    Well, He got me a wife…

    I guess that counts for something.

    profxm, it’s not exactly accurate to say the God I’ve described is “not perfect” or “flawed.”

    The problem is that you’ve essentially bought into Protestant notions of perfection. I think my God is perfect. But I don’t define “perfect” the same way that Protestants do.

  18. profxm says:

    There’s another definition for “perfect”? I figured “without flaw” was “without flaw”. Do tell…

  19. Seth R. says:

    That’s Plato’s assumption. I don’t share it. For me, perfect simply means infinite capacity for good and total harmony with the order of the existing and possible universe.

    I do not consider not knowing what free beings will choose to be a “flaw.” It is enough to be at harmony with the possibilities. Perfection does not require force or control. Not directly moving everything that happens in the universe is not a deficiency, it is an asset.

    Thus God is not some static “finished” being, but is rather progressing. He is also changing in a sense and has infinite room to grow.

    These ideas are hard to grasp. But imagine an infinite set. What happens when you add to that set? It’s still infinite. The addition or subtraction did not make the set any less infinite. Thus it is no diminishment of God for us to become gods with Him. We become infinite, but it is simply added to an already existing infinite quality.

    I think some Jewish theologians have done some work in this area, but I believe in a God who can be surprised by us, moved by us, and persuaded by us.

    Completely different being than Calvin’s cold and alien God.

    As to whether my God is more perfect than Calvin’s God… Just ask yourself this – all other things being equal, which one would you rather be?

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