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 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,