Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Can God ride a bike?

DZ Phillips says (here, which seems to be a transcript of what Phillips actually said and so captures his way of speaking quite nicely) that:
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 God
This 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.


  1. Thanks for this.

    I am not sure I completely understand--not so much what you say, but how to participate in the discussion. Even though I probably have participated in such conversations, I admit that I always feel a little bit strange. I feel strange also about the fact that I participate in them, and I want to describe why I feel strange. I'll try.

    Perhaps it feels to me a bit like a word has been invented - "God" - and no one knows exactly what it means, and then people act as if they know perfectly well what it means, and so go on to ask questions as they ask questions about words: "Could I feel someone else's pain? In what sense?" "Can I know what someone wants better than them? In what sense?" "Can an object be green all over and red all over at the same time? In what sense?" So when people ask such questions like the bike question about God, it feels a little bit as if they invented a word, a noun, "bintuck," and then start asking about it: Can a bintuck see in the dark? can a bintuck fly a kite, can a bintuck learn to speak Yiddish? - And I take it that all this would be idle questioning. But the word "God" is not an invented word, so the questioning does not *seem* idle.

    I'm not sure this captures what I feel strange about exactly. Perhaps this would be better description: Perhaps it feels to me as though people (including myself) in these discussions are asking questions about an actual word, but without taking into account its actual grammar or meaning. Like taking a metaphor out of context. This would be like asking Romeo: "You say Juliet is the sun. How come she is visible at night?" or "What time is it on Juliet?" - Such questions, I take it, would involve a willful misunderstanding of what Romeo says. And perhaps the reason why the bike question in the title of your post too seems to me strange is because it seems to me to be a bit like that. I'm not sure.

    I don’t know. I’m not sure if we should say the word “God” has grammar, and if we do, I’m not sure we should say it has a grammar in the same way “table” or “certain” have grammar. My hunch is that the grammatical questions and difficulties we have about this word are really of a different kind than the grammatical questions and difficulties we have about words like “pain” or “time” or “game.” And the D. Z. Phillips discussion seems to make it seem as if the differences are not that big. So perhaps that’s why I feel strange in these discussions. But I may also be misunderstanding Phillips. – I really don’t know.

    Sorry. I’m not being helpful.

    1. Thanks, Reshef

      What I like about Phillips on this is that he sees that there is a question to be asked about what it might mean to say that God can do this or that. One problem, though, is that he doesn't (here) consider any particular examples of someone saying these things, so we're just left considering words in isolation and being invited to agree that they couldn't mean anything. But surely they could mean something. It isn't clear what they would mean, though, without more context. "Can God ride a bike?" sounds like a riddle rather than a straightforward question. And both Phillips and the people he imagines himself arguing against seem to treat it as a perfectly simple question. Instead of yes (Mackie?) or no (Phillips), I can imagine an answer coming in the form of a short story (or a joke) that would create a way to make sense of the question. And it's easy to imagine the question being dismissed as silly and/or blasphemous too.

      You suggest (in the paragraph beginning 'Perhaps...') that the question seems idle (I agree) perhaps because we don't really know the meaning of the word 'God' (is that what you meant?). One thing said of God is that he is beyond our understanding. This does not mean that the meaning of 'God' must be beyond our understanding, but it does suggest that it might be.

      In the paragraph after that you talk about ignoring the grammar of 'God'. I think Phillips would want to agree with you. His point, as I understand it, is that if we attend to the grammar of 'God' we will see that sentences like 'God can ride a bike' are meaningless. Perhaps we could even say that making such a claim (or pseudo-claim) would involve willful misunderstanding of the idea that God is omnipotent. What Phillips means is that his opponents don't understand omnipotence properly. Perhaps they don't. But then he wants to treat, e.g., God's learning Welsh as both describable without contradiction and nonsense. That seems problematic to me. I don't think he follows through on his own insights about the importance of context and of making sense. Or, if he does, he doesn't present this following through and its implications clearly.

      Finally, in the paragraph after that, you suggest that the word 'God' might not have a grammar and, if it does, it might not have grammar in the same way that other words do, and that grammatical problems associated with the word 'God' might be of a different kind from those associated with other words, including some quite problematic ones. That might be right, but I'm not sure exactly what you mean.

    2. Thanks Duncan,

      About “God” not having grammar. I feel a kind of uneasiness about this word. But I’m not sure I mean by it not having a grammar what Davis in the quotation Cora gave below, means. I’m very unsure what I want to say. I think I want to say that the sense I’m after in which ‘God’ doesn’t have grammar is not because everybody is using it differently, as Davis says. Or at least, that’s not the whole story. Saying only this sounds like saying that ‘God’ has a family of uses, which is probably true, but so do ‘table’ and ‘cut’ and ‘is’. That is, the fact that a word has a family of uses by itself doesn’t make me want to say it doesn’t have grammar. Perhaps Davis means something different. I need to read his paper. Perhaps he means that whereas speakers do manage to fix a use for words like ‘table’ in particular conversation and for particular purposes (even though those words have many different potential uses), the same doesn’t hold for ‘God,’ and conversations about God are typically lacking in this sort of clarity and agreement. That sounds closer to what I have in mind. (I’m not sure what the implications of that will be exactly; whether it means that in these conversations each person has their own, more or less private, but perfectly good use of ‘God’ that they just can’t bring others around to endorse; or whether it means that nobody really has a good enough idea how to use the word, but only some commitment to using it that they don’t quite know how to fulfill—like a riddle phrase.)

      – Does that make sense?

    3. Reshef,
      Davies is more concerned with what you mention second, about the lack of agreement. But it isn't a matter of having this or that 'perfectly good use' of "God", or of saying that nobody really has a good enough idea how to use it. The point he was arguing for was that talk of God as a 'moral agent' (in a style that both Dewi and he would reject, and that underpins the problem of evil in contemporary philosophy of religion) cannot be responded to by saying that that isn't the grammar of God. But equally it is not a 'perfectly good' use, it's a bad use. And even if there's a sense in which we don't have a really good idea how to use the word, we may have some pretty good ideas about what are bad uses, but their badness is not their going against the grammar of God. I think he would say something similar about the case of a Mackie-like view of what is meant by omnipotence. The wrong way to bring out its badness isn't to show that it goes against the grammar of God. This leaves us with the question how you can make clear why a use is a bad use, and for Davies anyway this is partly a matter of philosophical arguments (which he does not think of in the way Dewi does, as appeals to grammar) and partly a matter of concern with the tradition which someone might claim to be speaking about, but which they might get wrong. (This is partly a response to those philosophers who criticize Phillips by saying he gets wrong what believers really believe; Davies thinks Phillips is in many ways closer to traditional Christian belief than is standard contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.)

  2. Comment on Phillips's way of talking of 'the grammar of God', by Brian Davies: "I do not believe that there is any such thing as 'the grammar of God' (a phrase which recurs in Dewi's introductory section). 'God' is a word which people understand in different ways. It is, you might say, analogical - a term which people use without always meaning exactly the same thing, though without always meaning something entirely different. But they often do use it differently, and they thereby show that they have different concepts of God (which I take to indicate that there is no 'grammar of God' in the sense that I suspect Dewi to have in mind."
    Later in that essay, Davies says "We should not assume...that there is some common concept of God in the background, or somehow running through what people say of God, something to be analysed, explored or unpacked --- something to appeal to when pressing a charge of confusion when it comes to 'the grammar of God'. Here, I think, we just have to recognize differences..." Phillips did not reply to this in his account of the discussion.

    1. could be that literally speaking there aren't such things as "concepts" (common or otherwise) just our interests/wants/needs and the actions (acts of cognition, speech-acts,gestures, etc) that we use to try and manipulate the subjects/objects around us to meet them?

    2. Thanks, Cora. It does seem true that people have different concepts of God.

    3. I wonder even if we take a kind of familial-resemblance approach after the fact to uses of god-terms if we are than undertaking a genealogical/arche-ological analysis or are we now composing/assembling some-thing new?

    4. It could be either, or neither, I would think. If you accept that people use the word 'God' in different ways then you could try to identify some such ways and trace their history. There would probably be room for disagreement about what where to draw the lines between different uses, especially if they overlap, and about what was a development in the history of one concept and what was the introduction of a new concept.

      Alternatively, you could try to identify the best of the existing concepts, or create a new one that tries to capture the best of the others.

      Or, presumably, you might try to talk about either God or the word 'God' without doing any of these things. You might, for instance, try to show that the God of the philosophers, or of the contemporary analytic philosophers, perhaps, is different from the God of actual believers (or some subset thereof). And this might not involve reference to history or to who is right. Or so I would think, anyway.

  3. just trying to think thru what tracing grammar comes to, have we discovered/uncovered or composed?
    i suppose a grammar-tology could also be predictive or prescriptive.

    1. I suppose if what you are really doing is tracing grammar then you are pointing out something that is already there. But you would be identifying the rules that other people had followed, and it would be hard to know you had got them right unless they were around to confirm it. And yes, I think you could do something like this in either a predictive or a prescriptive kind of way.

    2. let's say someone tells me that God is omnipresent and I know of many occasions in their lives where they don't act as-if they believe that Jesus is in the room with them, I could try and hold them to some kind of logical consistency but I don't think this would help me to understand what they were saying and so we suggest instead a looking to the(ir) grammar/use in context (and not everywhere), I could just note their particular utterances/gestures/etc or as you say I could posit (but not see/hear) rules (moving us more in the direction of a science) but that's where my question comes of are we dis/un-covering rules (and if so are we than structuralists?) that exist or are we (more like the Freud that Witt criticized) projecting our inventions back onto others? not sure asking them would be of much help here, first they are likely acting out non-conscious processes and second wouldn't we be entering a sort of endless regress of rules to follow the rules by?

  4. Wittgenstein says (RPP II §192) that we could say of a table, presumably falsely, that 'it grows [in size]', but that we would never say of a table that 'it thinks', because we wouldn't know 'what it would be like' for a table to think. Mutatis mutandis, it would tempting to conclude that we don't speak God as having ridden a bike, because we don't know 'what it would be like' for God to have have ridden a bike. But here the problem seems to be that - unlike in the table case - we don't have a very clear idea of what it would be like for God to do ANYTHING at all.

    1. That's true. But then people do say that God has done various things. I don't claim to know what these claims mean, but there does seem to be a difference between, say, "God created the world" and "God rode a bike." The former is mysterious but not absurd in the way that the latter is. And not just because one is something people say and the other isn't. It isn't mere chance that there is no story of the miracle of the bike--that would be the wrong kind of story to tell about God.

    2. well for monotheists the idea that Yahweh/Allah would impregnate a woman and than take human form was/is the wrong kind of story to tell about God...