Questions about traditional definitions of God

What follows is a typical definition of "God," which, perhaps with some adjustments, would be acceptable to many within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths: God is an eternally existent being that exists apart from space and time. God is the creator of the universe; and is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. Several aspects of this definition appear, to many thinkers, to need some explanation. There are two different kinds of questions we might raise about aspects of the definition. First, what do various important terms in the definition really mean? Second, how could we possibly get the very concepts of certain properties, described by those terms, properties which are not properties of anything in our ordinary everyday experience? What follows is a limited sample of problems. We begin by examining two relatively minor problems and then one much more important, overarching problem. First, some say that God is eternally existent. Some theorists take this to mean that God is timeless—categories of past, present, and future just do not apply when we are talking about God. Others hold, instead, that "eternal existence" means that God exists at all times. In other words, if God is eternally existent, he has already existed for an infinite amount of time, and he will continue to exist for an infinite amount of time—his existence never began and will never end. It is common to deny that we can understand God's eternity. Suppose we wish to deny that we can understand what an actual infinity is, and therefore we cannot understand what (God's) eternity is. In that case, part of what God is—his eternity—is something we cannot understand. Nevertheless, we want to have some notion of what God is that is adequate or robust enough for us to be able to say we understand what we mean when we say that God exists. The mere fact, if it is a fact, that we do not understand eternal existence, may not, by itself, be enough to show that we do not know what we are talking about when we say that God exists. Maybe we could still make sense of the claim, "God exists," without any clear notion of eternal existence, or maybe we could make do by understanding God's eternity by way of our closely related concept, of a potential infinity. Second, we say that God is "all-powerful," or to say the same thing, omnipotent. Some philosophers have brought up some puzzles that are supposed to cast some doubt on whether the notion of omnipotence is coherent, or that are supposed to force us to rethink our notion of what omnipotence might be, anyway. The basic notion of being allpowerful can be understood well enough, it seems, at first glance: something is omnipotent, or all-powerful, if the being can do anything we can think of. But here is something we seem to be able to think of: a square circle. We may not be able to imagine a square circle, and of course, such a notion is self-contradictory. For all that, we do know what a square circle would be: a shape that is both square and circular. One might argue, then, as follows: if God can do anything, then he could create an actual square circle. But square circles, being self-contradictory, cannot exist. Does this mean that it is in God's capacity to do impossible things? Along the same lines there is this hackneyed conundrum: would God's omnipotence allow him to create a stone that he could not lift? On the one hand, he is omnipotent, so he could create anything; but if he created this stone, then he could not lift it. It does not seem to solve the problem to say that, just as a matter of fact, God does not make square circles, or stones he cannot lift. The question, after all, is not whether God does such things, but whether he could do such things. The claim that God is omnipotent is, after all, a claim about what is possible, about what God has the ability to do, not about what is actual. Many philosophers and theologians regard this puzzle about omnipotence as not a very serious problem. What they often say is that God can do whatever is logically possible. God cannot create contradictions, they say, but that is no real limitation of God's power. To talk about an actually existent contradiction is just nonsense, they claim; that God cannot create a stone he cannot lift, or that God cannot create an actually existent square circle, is not any serious limitation of God's power. So, they say, we could say that God can do anything that does not imply a contradiction.

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