The meaning of omnipotence [according to Mackie and others], I repeat again, is the ability to do any action describable without contradiction. Now how do we know when a description of an action is contradictory? Who is going to decide what is or is not a contradiction. Well, I hope you would agree with this, you would have to look at the context of what he said. You cannot describe them; you cannot decide that in the abstract. So you have to look at every specific context to find out whether an action, proposed in that context, is contradictory or not. So if you accept that, this is the new look of logical problem of evil, someone challenging, like old Epicurus did; this is how the challenge would look. If God is omnipotent, he can do any action which is describable without contradiction in its appropriate context. Second line of attack, there are millions, millions, and millions and millions of actions describable without contradiction in their appropriate context which it makes no sense to describe God doing. Therefore, God is not omnipotent, that would be the challenge. If there are millions of actions, and don't forget we are speaking of the first person of the trinity, God the father; the incarnation brings in special problems, and we've got enough problems for one night on our hands with this topic without bringing in the incarnation. So we are talking about God the father as is the proof; God the father. So the challenge are there actions in context which you and I are quite familiar with, that we can describe without contradiction that it would make no sense to speak of God doing? There are millions of them, and I could get away with the rest of the lecture simply by going on giving you millions of examples, but just a few will do to disprove the proof. Here are some of them: riding a bicycle, licking a `Haagan-Daz' ice cream, bumping your head, learning Welsh, having sexual intercourse, forgetting things, being absent minding, you can go on forever. All those things we know those things; they are describable without contradiction. None of them makes sense when ascribed to the creator GodThis strikes me as a bit confusing, perhaps even slightly confused, but interesting.
My first thought when I heard the suggestion that it is logically impossible for God to ride a bike (etc.) is that this is just false. If Jesus is God and Jesus can ride a bike then God can ride a bike. The idea of Jesus being God is an odd one, true, but would Phillips reject it? And if Jesus can ride a donkey couldn't he also ride a bike? Phillips says he is not going to bring in the incarnation, but that seems tricky to me. If we are talking about whether God can do something that requires a body then it is a bit arbitrary to refuse to consider his doing so by first occupying a body. Anyway, that was my first thought.
But then my second thought was that there is something very strange about this idea, something absurd. In what sense could Jesus ride a bike? In what circumstances might he do so? I keep picturing a challenge to God following which he proves his power by adopting human form and riding the nearest bicycle, perhaps doing some awesome tricks while he's at it. Or creating a bike and then riding that. But this is all absurd. He wouldn't do any of that. It's inconceivable.
It might not seem inconceivable because I just described it, and you could draw a cartoon of God proving the skeptic wrong in just this way. But, I want to say, precisely because of behaving in this way the cartoon would not (really) be of God. It would be of the familiar cartoon character called God. But it would not be of the God of the Bible. No one worships the cartoon character.
Phillips puts his point better in his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (p. 19):
If it is logically impossible for God to ride a bicycle, that is, it makes no sense to talk of him doing so, not being able to ride a bicycle is no restriction on God's power. [Quoted from here.]I don't like the 'logically impossible' talk because it makes it sound as though there is some identifiable thing that God cannot do, but if we stick to what makes sense then I agree that it makes no sense to talk about God riding a bike.
If I agree with Phillips after all why do I say the passage I quoted seems confusing? Part of the muddle, I think, is Mackie's. The business about incarnation also seems questionable, as I mentioned (but haven't explored) above. And then there's the talk about what God cannot do, e.g. his "not being able to ride a bike" (from the second, short passage). There is, I would say, no such thing as God's not being able to ride a bike. Rather, "God can ride a bike" makes no sense. Or perhaps better still, I don't know what it would mean to say of God that he either could or could not ride a bike.