Why Avoid Statements About What God Cannot Do?
by Theodore Walker, Jr.
Theodore Walker, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Ethics and Society at Perkins School of Theology, Southern, Methodist University, Dallas, Texas 75275. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.137-138, Vol. 28, Number 1-2, Spring-Summer, 1999. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Metaphysics should avoid statements about what God cannot do. Statements such as "God cannot" do thus and so, and "Not even Gad can" do this or that, should be avoided for two reasons. One reason is that such statements invite accusation of trying to limit God’s power. Charles Hartshorne has been protesting against this charge for sixty years (CSPM 153; also 13), and he has not been helped by authoring a book with a title implying omnipotence is a theological mistake -- Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. The second reason is that such statements are either wrong because God can do thus and so, or, as is usual in the case of neoclassical and process metaphysics, they are attempts to expose absurdity or nonsense. Where such statements are wrong they should be avoided because they are wrong. Where such statements are intended to expose absurdity or nonsense, it is better to say of the view being exposed, "This is nonsense."
For instance: When we come upon a statement to the effect that "God can create square circles," it is misleading to counter that statement by saying, "God cannot create square circles" or "Not even God can create square circles." "God cannot create square circles" wrongly implies that "God can create square circles" makes sense and would be true if only God were sufficiently powerful. A more helpful response is to point out the nonsensical character of the alleged concept of square circle. Rather than implying limit on divine power, this more helpful response explicates a limit on theological language -- a limit excluding nonsense.
To be sure, excluding nonsense is precisely the intention of Charles Hartshorne, Schubert Ogden, David Ray Griffin and others deploying these misleading formulations. In Creative Synthesis and Philosophical Method Charles Hartshorne writes: God "Cannot absolutely conceal himself from any creature, for the omnipresent can never be more than relatively inaccessible" (CSPM 156, italics added. Hartshorne’s point is that absolutely inaccessible omnipresence is nonsense, not that God "cannot" conceal Gad for lack of sufficient stealth capability Elsewhere in this same text Hartshorne writes, "Not even God can, perceptually or mentally run through the totality of events, for there is no such totality complete once for all" (CSPM 138, italics added). As here indicated, Hartshorne’s point is that a once for all totality of events is nonsense, not that God’s mental abilities are not up to this task. In "The Criterion of Metaphysical Truth and the Senses of ‘Metaphysics’" in Process Studies 5 (1975), Schubert M. Ogden writes concerning metaphysical statements, "Now among such statements, there are evidently some that not even a divine believer could avoid believing" (PS5 47, italics added). Ogden identifies "God exists" as a metaphysical statement "unavoidably believed even by God" (PS5 47). Ogden’s point is that saying "God does not believe God exists" is nonsense, not that God is unable to avoid some avoidable belief. In Varieties Of Postmodern Theology. David Ray Griffin writes, "Because of the nonoverridable creativity of the creatures, God cannot unilaterally determine the utterances of any voice, the writing of any book, the thought processes of any mind" (VPT 50, italics added). Griffin’s point is that given necessary creaturely creativity absolute unilateral determination is metaphysical nonsense, not that God "cannot" do thus and so. Similarly, in God and Religion in the Posts-modern World, Griffin writes, "God could not possibly be the sole possessor of creative power, and cannot interrupt or unilaterally control events in the world" (5, italics added). Griffin’s point is sole possessor of creative power and unilateral control are nonsense, not that God’s power is insufficient to do what a more powerful God could do. Each of these examples (and there are many others throughout neoclassical and process literature) are consistent with Hartshorne’s view that denials of "necessary metaphysical truths" are "all in some fashion absurd" (CSPM 139) and nonsensical.
Absurd-nonsense statements about God should be exposed as absurd-nonsense; but it is misleading to contradict them with formulations (such as "God cannot x" or "Not even God can y") implying they make sense and are simply untrue. Sensible statements have positive and negative truth-values. Nonsense statements have neither positive nor negative truth-values. They are without coherent meaning. Metaphysics needs to distinguish between the positive truth-values of correct statements, the negative truth-values of incorrect statements, and the zero truth-value of meaningless-absurd-nonsense statements. Where the intention is to expose theological nonsense, contradictory formulations resembling mere factual corrections are misleading, and therefore they should be avoided.
GRPW David Ray Griffin, God and Religion in The Postmodern World. Albany State University of New York Press. 1989.
VPT David Ray Griffin, Varieties of Postmodern Theology Albany State University of New York Press, 1989.
PS5 Schubert M. Ogden, "The Criterion of Metaphysical Truth and the Senses of ‘Metaphysics’," Process Studies 5(1975), 47-48.