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What Is Omnipotence?
I remember hearing some variation of “Can G-d make a rock so heavy He can’t move it?” in high school. I don’t remember thinking much about it at the time. My earliest memory of having any clear thought about it is probably around 2010 when, as I recall, I answered it “Yes, and that rock is called ‘free will.'”
Which brings us to one thing normally recognized by contemporary philosophers as a reasonable limitation on omnipotence: G-d does not have the ability to break the rules of logic. That’s part of how Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga responds to atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie. In a nutshell, Mackie wonders why G-d can’t just make a perfect world with free people in it, and Plantinga replies that even omnipotence doesn’t have the power to give us freedom and force us to do the right thing at the same time.
That’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t clear up quite enough. Some people seem to think omnipotence means being able to do just anything. That is incorrect. Omnipotence means having unlimited power. That’s the dictionary definition.
Now it’s true that “power” can mean an ability–the power to win a race, the power to eat candy, the power to watch television like Ratbert here:
But “power,” more fundamentally, means might or strength. “Power” can mean an ability because more power often means you can do more things.
But sometimes more power means there are things you can’t do. A powerful runner has a diminished ability to lose a race while trying to win; the most powerful runner possible wouldn’t be able to do it at all.
When I’m navigating the Hong Kong MTR system and have to switch from the East Rail Line to the Kwun Tong Line, I could hardly be the last person to hike that quarter-mile through the bowels of Kowloon Tong Station even if I tried. That’s not because I have some weakness relative to whoever comes in last; it’s because I don’t.
Superman does not have the ability to be killed by a bullet when there’s no kryptonite nearby; that lack of an ability does not mean he has a weakness; it means he has extra power.
And that brings us to the tradition. Omnipotence is an attribute traditionally ascribed to G-d by a tradition, and that tradition is classical theism.
What the word “omnipotence” means is, above all, what the traditional doctrine teaches. Similarly, the term “the Trinity” means G-d according to the doctrine of orthodox Christianity–One G-d, Three distinct Persons who are G-d. Heaven knows how many people out there think “the Trinity” means one G-d with three different roles. Their confusion does not change the meaning of a term that denotes the teaching of a tradition.
What classical theism teaches about omnipotence is that G-d has unlimited power, not that he can do just anything.
People representing the tradition–like Aquinas, and like Anselm here–also explain that certain abilities are weaknesses, not strengths. E.g., the abilities to sin, lie, die, or break the rules of logic.
Being able to do things like that is not required by omnipotence. Being unable to do them is.
Anselm’s book Proslogion introduces the general idea very well, and it’s not a hard book to read (if you don’t get bogged down in the ontological argument in chapters 2 and 3). Here’s chapter 7, where Anselm explains omnipotence, and here’s my short YouTube intro to this lovely little book.
And now . . . surprise! Once we have that perspective in place, we can actually go back to that other sense of the term that caused all this trouble in the first place–“omnipotence” as the ability to do anything.
People like Anselm and Aquinas will actually welcome that definition of omnipotence–but only as long as we understand what it actually means to do something. Sinning is not in itself the doing of a thing. It’s a way of failing to do right. Lying is not a thing you do. It’s a particular way of failing to do something–to speak the truth. Dying isn’t a thing you do; it’s just a failure to keep living. Breaking the rules of logic is not a thing you do, but a particular way of failing to do a thing–to keep the rules.
Technically, an ability to do something means an ability to do a real thing–and these aren’t even real things. And, again, being able to do these things is not some limit on omnipotence; it’s actually part of what omnipotence is. (For example, see Aquinas’ Reply to Objection 2 here.)
Or so the tradition says.
And as for the overrated rock question, if you wanna take it as some sort of metaphor for free will like I once did, be my guest and answer “Yes.”
But if you want to take the question literally and apply a dictionary definition or the equivalent historical definition of omnipotence to it, then the answer is “No”: An omnipotent G-d could not have a weakness. But if G-d made Enchanted Rock in west Texas so heavy that He didn’t have the power to move it, then he would have a weakness.
But trying to think with the tradition is hard work if you’re not used to it. So here’s a suggestion:
Try to forget about the tradition for a moment, and just suppose a few simple principles:
–G-d does not have the ability to break the rules of logic,
–to have an imperfection is to have a limitation,
–and to have a limitation is to have a weakness.
Now let’s admit that a loser like me might, constrained by extreme circumstances, have a moral obligation to lie once in a lifetime. But an omnipotent being will never be constrained by such circumstances; G-d is not a loser like me. So consider this argument:
1. To tell a lie when one is not constrained by extreme circumstances is to have an imperfection.
2. To have an imperfection is to have a weakness.
3. Therefore, to tell a lie when one is not constrained by extreme circumstances is to have a weakness.
You can add one premise and extend the argument.
3. To tell a lie when one is not constrained by extreme circumstances is to have a weakness.
4. It is not possible for an omnipotent being to have weaknesses.
5. Therefore, it is not possible for an omnipotent being to tell a lie when not constrained by extreme circumstances.
If omnipotence means an omnipotent G-d should be able to tell a lie, which of those premises is wrong? Is it 1, 2, or 4?Published in General
The wisdom of Babylon 5:
I like the one in Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey asks G-d something like “How can I make someone love me?” and the answer is something like “That’s a good question. You let me know when you figure that out.”
Actually that would be quite simple, without free will.
I’m not impressed by much of what is supposed to be “deep thinking” in movies, books…
God wouldn’t need to break the rules of logic, God could just make the rules of logic be different than they currently are.
I was thinking that love with free will was implied in the film.
Not sure what you have in mind there.
That might mean that even omnipotence doesn’t allow for outright contradiction. Even God can’t make something that is both “A” and “Not A” at the same time. At least in this universe as currently constructed by God. Could God create another universe where that is possible? I have no idea. But if, presumably, in such a universe the question necessarily wouldn’t even arise…
Oh, and I can think of another exception to the “love” question. If God made everything manifestly obvious, about his existence etc, it might very well be that all people would love Him. But if God refuses to do so, whose fault is that, really?
It doesn’t mean that, and your premises are fine by me.
All I know is when you look for the answer to the riddle that namlliT_noD has posed, then according to the laws of quantum physics, the answer won’t be where you look for it!
That is correct.
An interesting topic I probably should save for another day!
I think this is sophistry.
You’re welcome to say that your particular view of God is as a being incapable of exhibiting this or that behavior. But words have meanings, and the OED defines “omnipotent” thusly:
If you want to posit limitations on God based on your theory of the character of God, that’s fine: I don’t insist that your God be omnipotent.
But declaring that God is simultaneously omnipotent and incapable of choosing to use deception for whatever reason he might choose is self-contradictory based on the literal meaning of the word. Better to say that God is limited by his own goodness, or some such, than to insist on crediting him with a quality he can only possess if you redefine it from its literal meaning.
God is omnipotent. What God can’t do is deny Himself.
Authority is a matter of power, too. And God may delegate authority to whomever He wills, and yet He never loses it. Even in the free will that He has given, He retains ultimate authority, He remains sovereign and works His will within the framework of the freedom of will that He grants to others whom He has created.
And since God can’t deny Himself, He doesn’t have the will to deny His own character. And therefore He can’t lie, either.
Added: So, no. God can’t create anything outside His sovereign control, and so can’t create a rock so big He can’t lift it. (Not to mention that God created reality and mass and gravity apart from Himself, so it, too, it fully within His control.)
Yes. And as for man’s “logic”:
[Added: Even as Einstein said: There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.]
From the Bible on man’s wisdom:
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God [w]was pleased through the foolishness of the [x]message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for [y]signs and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach [z]Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than mankind, and the weakness of God is stronger than mankind.
I think the argument is that if God wrote the laws of physics then evidently He can break the laws of logic. It’s a wave or a particle, not both! Only it is both.
I guess one of the problems I have with this formulation — this idea that to lie would be to demonstrate imperfection — is that it seems to single out lying from other negative forms of behavior.
For example, choosing to destroy mankind, as in a great flood, or to send plagues to force the hand of the Pharaoh, or to send an angel to kill the firstborn of each family, or to destroy the walls of Jericho, all of these things are in a sense negative and destructive. Why is it that killing innocents in order to shape the behavior of others is not a sign of weakness in a perfect being, but misleading people to achieve the same end is?
God can presumably choose to kill babies (at least, if the Biblical accounts are to be taken at face value). If manipulating his people with an untruth would make God imperfect, how can killing their infants with a sword not do the same?
If you have a headlight on a train, and the train is moving at 1/2 the speed of light, how fast is the headlight’s light moving?
Is light a wave, or a particle?
There are lots of examples of stuff in the world that violate “logic”.
Miracles can rightly be defined as the direct intervention of God in His creation, as His workings outside of the humanly perceived ways that the natural universe works.
Or people do not really understand God’s logic.
Or, as I might put it, “logic” has to take into account the full context. In a relativistic context, I don’t think the apparent behavior of light actually does violate the rules of logic. It’s only when we fail to take into account differing frames of reference and the physical laws governing motion near the speed of light that logic appears to break down.
There’s a difference there. Take Lazarus. He was dead, and then he was not. This is a reversal of what we expect to see, but there’s no logical contradiction there. He wasn’t dead and not dead at the same time. (But what about zombies? Ask Mr. Spock: “It’s life Jim, but not as we know it.)
“Dead” has two meanings, one material and temporary, and one spiritual and eternal. Lazarus was only a little bit dead.
There are a lot of problems with zombies, but I won’t derail the thread over that.
I think there are some legitimate logical problems with the popular conception of God, as well. But I don’t think those are violations of the rules of logic, per se, but rather suggestions that God as popularly conceived doesn’t make sense. The point of this entire thread illustrates one such example, in that it attempts to describe God as simultaneously unlimited and limited.
Sometimes such a contradiction is itself the product of bad logic, as in the question about God making a rock so big he can’t pick it up: that’s the equivalent of asking if God can choose to remain omnipotent while making himself non-omnipotent. That’s a nonsensical question.
The question about lying is not, in my opinion, a nonsensical question.
On the contrary:
The answer is 42, but now that we know that we’ll never know what exactly was the question.
[Never mind. I’d better redo this comment more carefully later.]
Which would not really be an act of power, now, would it?
Or, rather, it is not exactly either.
But a both/and scenario is not by itself a violation of logic. What violates logic is “True and not true at the same time and in the same respect.”
The claim that these things are both attributed to G-d in the Bible and imperfect looks to me like a very important claim in a very important–and very separate–topic.