Thursday, January 24, 2013

Can God commit suicide?

To: Victor J.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Can God commit suicide?
Date: 10th March 2009 12:14

Dear Victor,

Thank you for your email of 26 February, with your essay towards the Associate Award, entitled, 'Can God Commit Suicide?'

I think there is definitely a place for working non-stop into the night, when a problem grips you. And I can see that the question whether God can commit suicide -- or, what it would mean to assert that God will, or has committed suicide -- raises some genuine philosophical difficulties concerning the notion of a deity.

I don't think that the discussion of the fundamental laws of physics cuts any ice in this inquiry. By any accepted definition of God -- or at least any relatively modern definition -- God is not 'in' the physical universe but in some sense outside it. There are exceptions: a Spinozistic God is in some sense identical to the universe; Samuel Alexander's God (in 'Space, Time and Deity') is the final state towards which the universe is evolving. But these are heterodox conceptions.

Let's stick with a view of God according to which:

- God is a person, yet not limited by our subjective viewpoint
- God is outside time, yet is able to interact with the world
- God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent

You raise an obvious difficulty with the notion of the death of a timeless God. If God is outside time then the notion of the 'death' of God is meaningless.

However, there is a more subtle question one can raise about the deity: Assume a timeless God. I said that God is able to interact with the world (e.g. Noah's flood, Sodom and Gomorrah). Assuming that God is a person (or, analogous to a person) and therefore that God has choice, He can choose to cease altogether to interact with the world, or in other words, cease to *do* anything. That would be a kind of 'suicide', the 'death' of God so far as we are concerned (and arguably sufficient for a Nietzschean).

Concerning what God has the 'power' to do, there are well-known fallacious arguments purporting to show that the definition of 'omnipotence' is self-contradictory: e.g. 'Can God create a stone which is too heavy for Him to lift?' The correct answer to this is that to be bound by the laws of logic is not a constraint on God's power, and that 'a stone too heavy for God to lift' is, by the definition of God, a self-contradictory idea.

You can run the very same argument with, 'Can God bring about his own non-existence?' By the definition of 'God', there is no time when God does not exist. Therefore in raising the question whether God can bring about his non-existence we are asking whether God can do something which is logically impossible. Enough said.

As an essay topic for the Associate, I have to say that I am not yet persuaded that this is a runner. I don't know of any philosopher or theologian who would entertain, for a moment, the question whether God is capable of committing suicide (however, that may just be my ignorance).

I do know that the question whether God is less than omnipotent has been debated: there is a famous story of the Rabbis facing death in a concentration camp debating whether God was to blame or whether he was incapable of saving the victims of the Nazis. I have a sister who is a Liberal Jewish Rabbi who would argue that the traditional conception of God as 'omnipotent' needs to be revised in the light of the history of the 20th century. (This is a radical take on the much discussed 'problem of evil'.)

Regarding the form of the essay, although you apologized for the lack of bibliography/ footnotes, there would be objections raised by the Board of the ISFP to any essay not written in the standard format (for guidance see the portfolios archived at http://www.philosophypathways.com/essays/index.html). My view is that this is no big deal because it is the content that counts -- this is where you have the chance to show that you have something worth saying on a problem or question -- and that it is not necessary to advertise this (as it were) by bending or breaking the standard conventions.

All the best,

Geoffrey