Shand’s (Mis)conception Of Omnipotence

God's Hand

In Probing Shand’s Refutation of the Existence of God, I contended that John Shand, associate lecturer in Philosophy at The Open University, attacked a Straw God and committed an informal fallacy of composition. In this article I addressed his (mis)understanding of omnipotence. His (mis)understanding of omniscience and omnipresence are addressed in the next article.

Shand described necessary features of monotheistic God as a being who is “omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.” He expounded,

He[God] knows everything, can do anything, and is everywhere. What these characteristics share is unlimitedness,that is to say in all these respects and taken together God is maximally great. He is all- knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere. To present the definitional characteristics negatively: there is nothing that he cannot know, there is nothing that is beyond his power to do, and there is nowhere he is not. (Shand 2010: 63)

He went further to explain,

“God’s omnipresence extends across time as well as space, and it is for the former reason that God is more accurately characterised as eternal; he does not just go on existing necessarily for all time, rather he is transcendent in being outside time, and on most monotheists’ views, outside space too. (ibid. 64)

Shand explained that ‘ Perfect’ and Absolute’ are sometimes used as “unlimitedness”. He believed they have the same linguistic derivation(78). Thus unlimitedness is the shared characteristics of these greatness making properties. I would argue that what is shared is not unlimitedness but maximality, viz., maximal perfection or maximal excellence. For example, when God is said to be omnipotent (all powerful), what is meant is not that His power is unlimited but that God possesses a maximal perfection with respect to power.

Omnipotent: Nothing That Is Beyond God’s Power To Do?

Shand seem to have misunderstood or perhaps is misinformed in his understanding of God’s omnipotence. Contrary to Shand’s understanding of the term, omnipotence does not mean that there is “nothing that is beyond his [God’s] power to do”. What theists are trying to communicate is that there is nothing that is metaphysically possible that is beyond God’s power to do (actualize). They are things, or more correctly states of affair, that are metaphysically impossible, or using Shand’s terms, beyond God’s power, to actualize. Example it is metaphysically impossible for God (a necessary being) to cease to exit or both exist and not exist at the same time and sense. Thomas V. Morris thus rightly explained that:

“[L]ogically impossible tasks are not just particularly esoteric and unusually difficult tasks—when you have attempted to describe an act or task and end up with an expression of a logical impossibility, you end up with nothing that can even be a candidate for power ascriptions” (Morris 1991: 66–67).

This is what Thomas Aquinas also contended in Summa: “God can do all things, is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.”(Aquinas 2009: 1.25.a3) Things that are not metaphysically feasible, according to Aquinas cannot be “numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility.”(ibid).

If Aquinas and Morris are correct, then God’s omnipotence cannot be defined in terms of un/limits terms. It could be argued that God is limited to actualize only what is metaphysically possible (this would exclude God incapability of doing what is against His essential nature). This is in accordance with what Christians believe from what is revealed in Scripture. The Holy Writ clearly stated that God possesses maximal excellence in respect to power (Genesis 18:14 & amp;Jeremiah 32:17) while at the same time He cannot lie ( Titus 1:2), He cannot get tired (Isaiah 40:28), He cannot break a promise (Psalm 89:34) &c., It is, thus, not true that God can do anything, as Shand believes. Here Shand holds a misconception of what theist philosophers mean by omnipotence.

Aquinas, Thomas (2009). Summa theologica (Complete English ed.). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Shand, John (2010) A Refutation Of The Existence Of God. Think No. 26, Vol. 9 Autumn 2010: 61-79

Morris, Thomas. V. (1991). Our Idea of God. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press.


6 thoughts on “Shand’s (Mis)conception Of Omnipotence

  1. Hi Prayson. I can follow your argument here, and can see why, in your understanding, Shand got it wrong. I hesitate to accept yours and Walk the Way’s easy acceptance that our own human understanding of the situation is correct. I get a little nervous about believing both that God is superior to humans to an enormous degree, and also that we mere humans know what God can or can’t do. How do you know?

    But more importantly, what does it matter? Let Shand say what he will, and forego trying to argue. Only your God truly knows how this debate would shake down. In my humble opinion, it isn’t worth your time.

    You most inspire me, Prayson, when you engage in seeking a deeper understanding for the purpose of fulfilling your own aspirations to be the best Christian you can be. I love hearing how you have been learning and growing and pressing your mind to greater levels.

    (and p.s. I’m so glad you keep writing and posting when people’s comments can be so carelessly critical of you as a person, when I think they haven’t taken the time to try to know you. I hope you let their words slide off like water off a duck’s back. 😉 )

    • Thanks Crystal. I follow your concerns and do believe there are fair points to ponder. I bend towards maximality and not unlimitedness because of the problem un/limit creates. Shand’s definition is in such a way to defend his case that God cannot think. This he believe is a limitation. Since God is unlimited then we have contradiction, thus it would follow that God does not exist. His argument depends on this idea of un/limit. When one reject its, then his argument fails.

      Thanks for your kindness Crystal. You are the reason I keep on writing.

  2. Hello Prayson, the Saved, and Faithful. I pray all is well with you and yours.

    I looked at The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy in interest and on page 240 I read,

    “Omipotence is maximal power. Some philosophers, notably Descates, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible. Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened, and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie.”

    Another way of expressing God’s greatness is to say that he is infinite, or unlimited. These terms must, however, be understood in a qualified sense. I agree with you that to say that God is infinite in power does not mean that he can literally do anything. It has usually been held, for example, that God cannot create a square circle, or create a rock too big He can’t move it, or a person with a morally free will who is determined always to choose what is morally right. The reason for this is not that God lacks some power or ability he might have had, but that these conceptions are logically contradictory and therefore impossible or even meaningless. God’s power is the power to do anything which is logically possible. In addition, most theists hold that there are certain things God cannot do because of his nature. Being morally perfect, he cannot commit an act of senseless cruelty, for example. God’s omnipotence must then be understood as the power to do whatever is logically possible and consistent with God’s own essential characteristics.

    All this makes sense. It is logical and simple to understand.

    Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Father who is full of mercy, the God of all comfort. He’s the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

  3. What, in the name of all that is reasonable, do you mean by metaphysically possible? Is there anything logically absurd about god willing that s/h/it were not? Is it possible that a god, if one were to exist, would will something and not actualize it? If not, on what basis do you have limits to god’s omnipotence?

  4. By your admission, then, logic precedes your god. It does not determine it, engineer it, or rule over it. In two words, logic exists ‘before’ and ‘without’ a god. Logic (the absence of self-contradiction) therefore exists objectively and does not require a law giver, rendering the Yahwehists Prime Mover god-hypothesis irredeemably crippled.

  5. You love making up all of these claims about what God is like, but do you even have a shred of evidence that he even exists or that any of your claims are true?

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