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. Continue reading

Probing Shand’s Refutation of the Existence of God

God's Hand

An associate lecturer in Philosophy at The Open University, John Shand, presented an interesting argument against the existence of mainstream traditional monotheist’s God. Shand’s refutation is based on what he believes to be the incoherence of a thinking omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent being. He argued for the conclusion: “God’s thinking about anything is logically incoherent”(Shand 2010: 68)

Shand outlined his refutation as follows:

1. Limitedness is required for thought
2. God cannot exist as a limited thing
3. Therefore, God cannot think (from (1) & (2))
4. If God cannot think, then he is a limited thing (from def. of God)
5. Therefore, God is a limited thing (from (3) & (4))
6. Therefore, God cannot exist (from (2) & (5))

Shand contended that “[a]ny entity capable of thought in its most general sense including conscious awareness of the world would have positively to have the embodied, finite, contingent, fallible and impotent qualities that characterise creatures such as ourselves, if not the identical ones that we happen to have.”(ibid 63)

A being that is omnipresent, which Shand defined as “extends across time as well as space” and “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”(64), omnipotent, “nothing that is beyond his power to do”(63), and omniscient, ”nothing that he cannot know”(63), characteristics that he believes shows unlimitedness, cannot be said to be a being that “thinks about things in general, and in particular he thinks about and indeed cares about us.”(64) Since “the concept of an unlimited God – unlimited in all the ways usually thought of as definitional of God: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence – who also thinks about things, is logically incoherent”(64)

Thinking and caring about something, according to Shand, is logically incompatible with God’s unlimitedness. “Thought and experience is possible for us only because we are limited and encounter difficulty, that is, things we bump up against”(65), he explained, “[l]imitation in the world is the condition that makes thought possible at all; it is the necessary condition for thought. So, anything that thinks is limited.”(66)

Shand believed that “[m]ost if not all monotheistic believers would find accepting a God that cannot think unacceptable enough” since God “could not care about us, he could not have a plan for us, he could not be a guide, there would be no point in praying to him or entreating him, no point in trying to divine his will and follow it. An unthinking God would be no God at all.” He went further,

There’s worse to come. An unthinking God would not merely be useless in all his usual essential religious roles. We couldn’t even bite the bullet and settle for that. This is because an unthinking God existing is logically incoherent. Not to be able to think is surely a limitation, and, by any definition acceptable to a monotheist believer, God is unlimited. A putative God who could not think would not be unlimited. An unlimited God existing who could not think is therefore a contradiction. Therefore, God does not exist. (69)

Expounding Shand’s refutation 1-6 above, he provided the following additional premises:

7. If God thinks, then God would be limited
8. If God does not think, then God would be limited
9. Either God thinks or does not think

From 7-9, premise 5 therefore follows: God is a limited thing. This contradicts premise 2, which states that: God cannot exist as a limited thing. Since Shand holds that the concept “of a limited God is not an acceptable definition of God”, it would then follow that, “God cannot exist.”(70).

So, is Shand’s argument sound? Is it persuasive? I do not think so. Even before answering his case, a theist could point out that even if Shand’s argument was successful, it does not refute the existence of God per se, but a God with the attributes defined by Shand or at least what he supposed mainstream traditional monotheists believe God to be.

Countering Shand’s Refutation of the Existence of God

The achilles’ heel of Shand’s argument is premise 2. It is not the case that God cannot exist as a limited being. If it were possible for God to exist as a limited being, then it would follow that God exists, even if God cannot think.

We are told that: “Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Ps. 147:5). He is “from everlasting to everlasting”(Ps. 90:2) and He “can do all things”(Job 42:2 cf Jer. 32:17). Revising Anselm concept of God, Peter van Inwagen rightly captured the concept of God as, “a person who is aliquid quo nihil maius aut aequaliter magnum cogitari possit.[a person whose degree of greatness cannot be excelled or equaled by any other possible being]”)(Inwagen 2006: 158)

Contrary to Shand, a being which none greater can be conceived is in one-way or another a limited being. A person whose degree of greatness cannot be excelled cannot cease to exist, since a being that necessarily exists is greater than a being that exists contingently, cannot lie (Hebrew 6:18) since He is morally perfect, cannot swear by any being greater “since he had no one greater by whom to swear”(Hebrews 6:13) et cetera. God is limited by necessity of his own essence.

Shand committed an informal fallacy of composition when he inferred that God as a whole is unlimited being since the classic tripartite features of being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent share characteristics of unlimitedness. Even if it were true that all of greatness making properties shared unlimitedness, it does not follow that God is unlimited being.

Consequently Shand’s refutation, contrary to what he supposed, viz., his argument cannot successfully be attacked as knocking down a Straw God (70), is sadly so. The unlimited God to whom he so eloquently refuted is not mainstream traditional monotheist’s God.

Other issues, which I addressed in the next article, are Shand’s (mis)understanding of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, as I contended that it is true that God cannot think, but false that He cannot “indeed cares about us.”(64)

Ancient Near East proverb: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him”(Prov. 18:17 ESV) seems to be true.

Next: Shand’s (Mis)conception Of Greatness Making Properties

Question: Do you find Shand’s Case Persuasive? Share your reason(s)


Inwagen, Peter van (2006) The Problem of Evil. Oxford Press Inc., New York.

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