Shand’s (Mis)conception Of Omnipotence

God's Hand

In Probing Shand’s Refutation of the Existence of God, I contended that John Shand, associate lecturer in Philosophy at The Open University, attacked a Straw God and committed an informal fallacy of composition. In this article I addressed his (mis)understanding of omnipotence. His (mis)understanding of omniscience and omnipresence are addressed in the next article. Continue reading

C. S. Lewis & Omnipotent God

Blood

How far does God’s power extend? Is there any state of affair that an omnipotent God cannot bring about? These are the questions Christian theologians and philosophers have wrestled with throughout centuries.

God’s omnipotence prima facie appears to be challenged by the existence of pain and suffering in the world He created good. Was God not powerful enough to make sure that the creatures He created in His own image would not experience pain and suffering?

For C. S. Lewis existence of pain and suffering did not challenge God’s omnipotence as he once believed when he was a self-claimed atheist.  Pain and suffering is the result of mankind’s bad exercise of freedom of will endowed by God. Lewis contended:

God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. (2002, 47-48)

The reason God gave higher creatures free will is that it is  “the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having”(48) The world without free will creatures would indeed be free of pain and suffering, but it would also be a world without genuine “happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him[God] and to each other.”(ibid)

According to Lewis, it is logically impossible for God to create genuinely free creatures who freely choose to do the right acts only. Shadowing Augustine¹ and Thomas Aquinas², Lewis submitted “that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” nature.” (1996, 26) He understood omnipotence to encompass the power to bring about logical possible states of affair only. Lewis wrote,

It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”(ibid, 25)

He concluded that,

If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it, “you have not succeeded in saying anything about god: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can”(ibid)

Rene Descartes would have disagree with Lewis. Descartes entertained the idea that our intellect is finite while God’s power is infinite, thus we cannot set bounds from our finite minds what God’s power can do. He wrote,

“I boldly assert that God can do everything which I conceive to be possible, but I am not so bold as to deny that he can do whatever conflicts with my understanding – I merely say that it involves a contradiction (LHM³ 241).

Descartes’ God, wrote Harry G. Frankfurt, is “a being for whom the logically impossible is possible.” (Frankfurt 1977, 44) God, for Descartes, is ex les. His power is beyond our reason and morality.  God, in this view, can bring about any state of affairs. If this is true, then contrary to Lewis, God could have created higher creatures with free will that freely and voluntarily choose the right things only.

The problem, with adopting Cartesian absolute power of God that could even bring about logical impossible states of affair, is that the problem of pain and suffering disappears with it. If God can bring about logical impossible states of affair, then it would follow that God could bring about what atheologians believe to be logically impossible, namely the coexistence of pain and suffering and omnicompetent and benevolent God.

Previous: C. S. Lewis & The Problem of Evil


[1] De Symbolo, I.i & De Civitate, V. x

[2] Summa I, Q. xxv, a. 3

[3] Rene Descartes’ letter to Henry More, 5 February 1549 in trans, and ed. Anthony Kenny(1970) Descartes Philosophical Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Bib.

Frankfurt, Harry G. (1977)  “Descartes and the Creation of the Eternal Truths,” Philosophical Review 86 No. 1: 36-57

Lewis, C. S. (1996) The Problem of Pain. New York: Simon & Schuster.

____________ (2002) Mere Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers.

Mackie & The Paradox of Omnipotence

Focus“[C]an an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?” inquired J. L. Mackie(1955:210), as he set forth what he called the Paradox of Omnipotence. Mackie’s paradox unfolds as follow:

If we answer “Yes”, it follows that if God actually makes things which he cannot control, or makes rules which bind himself, he is not omnipotent once he has made them: there are then things which he cannot do. But if we answer ” No “, we are immediately asserting that there are things which he cannot do, that is to say that he is already not omnipotent.(ibid)

Mackie anticipated a common reply that his “paradox is not a proper questions” and responded that it is a proper question equal to the notion of humans’ possibility of making machines they cannot control.

We could add beliefs about God that Christians cannot deny, viz., God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2) and God cannot be tempted with evil (Jam. 1:13) to Mackie’s list of fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating beings God cannot control and God making rules that binds God Himself.

The possible solution to Mackie’s paradox could be the notion that a being that is God could actually make things which He cannot control, or make rules which bind himself, yet remain omnipotent once he has made them since cannot does not necessarily reflect that being’s ability, the possible power it could have to accomplish that state of affair, but moral character such a being is strongly disposed.

Addressing a similar problem of omnipotence and God’s ability to sin, Nelson Pike (1969: 215-216) provided an illustration to show how that could be the case, which I borrowed and exaggerated it a little. Think of deeply devoted Buddhist Jones whom we are told cannot be cruel animals. Surely Jones does have physical ability to kick a kitten, for example. So it is not because Jones lacked certain power to act cruel to the animals that Jones cannot be cruel to animals but because of Jones’ strongly disposed moral character that insures that he is incapable of acting cruel to them. The cannot does not reflect Jones physical ability, but moral incapability.

If this is true, then a being that is God, thus necessarily omnipotent, could be said to have ability to make things which He cannot control, or make rules which bind himself but yet remain omnipotent once he has made them because it is not because of lack of certain amount of possible power that being could possess that it cannot control beings it has made(or is bind by its own rules) but it is because of its moral perfection that insures that it is incapable of doing so.

Thus contrary to Mackie (1955: 209-10), there is no fundamental difficulty in the notion of an omnipotent God creating humans with real free will that even God cannot control them since it is not God’s lack of possible power a being that is God could have that being cannot control them, but because of that being’s moral perfection.[1]

The conclusion that Mackie drew, viz., if there is a thing God cannot control or rules that binds God Himself then God is no longer omnipotent, is thus not necessarily true.


[1] This also answer the question on how God cannot sin/ cannot be tempted yet is omnipotent.

Bibliography:

Mackie, J. L. (1955) “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254: 200-212.

Pike, Nelson (1969) “Omnipotence and God’s Ability to Sin,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3: 208-216

Cover Paint: William Blake “Great Architect of the Universe”

Omnipotent God and The Paradox of the Stone

Paradox

The concept of an omnipotent being, namely a being with maximal perfection with respect to power, is sometimes believed to involve a contradiction. The most popular reductio ad absurdum case against the existence of omnipotent being is known as “the paradox of the stone.”

The paradox unfolds as follows:

1. If God exists, then He is omnipotent
2. If God is omnipotent then God can create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift.
3. If God can create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift, then God is not omnipotent since He cannot lift the stone He created.
4. If God cannot create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift, then God is not omnipotent since He cannot create the stone too heavy for anyone to lift.
5. Either way God is not omnipotent.
6. Therefore God does not exist.

Since a person offering this case “is assuming throughout that if there is something specifiable that God cannot do, it follows that he lacks omnipotence” as Thomas V. Morris (1991, 73) correctly observed, clarification of the terms used would help show how weak and unsound this case is.

What do we mean by “a being Y can do x ”? According to Morris, we can mean either ability, Y is “ able to do x” or capability, Y is “capable of doing x”. Our questions, should be then, does it necessary mean that Y lacks power to do x, if Y cannot do x? Soundly no. Y might have the power to do x but lack reasons or will or skills or opportunity et cetera to do x. Does it necessary then mean that Y lacks power to do x, if Y is not capable of doing x. Soundly no again, since Y might have the power to do x but lacks moral justification to do x.

Borrowing Morris’ example, God could indeed create a small stone that no one could lift, by simply making the stone impossible to be lifted by any other beings and vow himself not to lift it. Since God is morally perfect, He cannot break His vow not to lift the stone, thus add himself to a group of all other beings that cannot lift that stone. We can say, in this state of affair, that God cannot lift the stone, but not because of lack of power but of the promise that a perfect being cannot break.

Michael Tooley’s Solution: Atheist Philosopher’s Critique

Tooley deemed this paradox of omnipotence argument as “clearly unsound”. He contended,

[T]his[unsoundness of the case] can be seen if one simply makes explicit the times at which the being acts, or possesses some property. For suppose A is omnipotent at a specific time t1. Then A can act at that time to bring it about that there is a rock that no one can lift. But at what time does the latter state of affairs first exist? It cannot be time t1, since, I would argue, a cause cannot be simultaneous with its effect. So let us suppose that A acts at time t1 to bring it about that there is, at some later time t2, a rock that no one can lift. It then follows that A either no longer exists at time t2, or does exist at time t2, but is no longer omnipotent. So to bring it about that there is a rock that no one can lift—including himself—an omnipotent being must either commit suicide, or at least bring it about that he is no longer omnipotent at the relevant time. This is not, presumably, something that a sensible person—let alone a morally perfect one—would be likely to do. But there is no contradiction in the proposition that A, who is omnipotent at time t1, either does not exist at some later time t2, or else exists at that time, but is not omnipotent. Accordingly, there is no paradox of omnipotence.(Plantinga & Tooley 2008, 87)

Tooley’s solution is of no use to theists, since they believe God, if exists, is a being that none greater can be conceived. Omnipotence and necessarily existence in all possible worlds is a greatness making properties that a being none greater can be conceived must possess. Is there a possible solution that both atheists and theists would accept?

Thomas V. Morris’ Solution: Theist Philosopher’s Critique

Morris offers two solutions, which I find compelling. Probing what kind of stone is a defender of this case asking an omnipotent God to create that He cannot lift, Morris contended,

But what would such a stone be like? What, for example, would it weigh? If God is omnipotent, then, presumably, he can create stones of any possible weigh? But if he is omnipotent, then, presumably as well, for any possible weight n, he can lift stones of weight n. Realizing this has led some philosophers to one of the simplest solutions which has been offered to the stone paradox. They have just claimed that ‘creating a stone which even an omnipotent being can’t lift,’ and all its analytical equivalents, is just an incoherent act-description. And since the phrase ‘the power to create a stone which even an omnipotent being can’t lift’ does not designate a logically possible power, it does not follow from the fact that God cannot create such
 a stone that God lacks any power required for omnipotence, or that he lacks in any other respect. This solution maintains that the proper answer to our original question is no, but that does not cause any problems for the ascription of omnipotence to God. (Morris 1991, 74)

What if the defender of this case keep insisting that God creating a stone too heavy to be lifted is a logical possibility. Is it possible that God can create such stone and still be omnipotent? Yes. Morris again argued that it still would not follow that God lacks the power to lift such stone. God could simply vow not to lift the stone, thus it would not be because of inability to lift the stone but moral incapability that God cannot lift that stone. “Thus, lacking a power to lift S[stone] is not lacking a possible power, a power possible to have, and so no such lack would detract from God’s being omnipotent.(ibid 75)

Morris awesomely concluded:

If we choose to say that God cannot create a stone he can’t lift, we can block the inference to his lacking omnipotence and explain the apparent divine inability by characterizing the act-description here as incoherent. If we choose to say that he can create such a stone which, once created, he cannot lift, we can block the inference to his lacking omnipotence by explaining that the subsequent inability to lift cannot be thought of as reflecting the lack of any power it is possible to have. But by either strategy the claim of omnipotence for God is defended.”(ibid 76)

Question: Are you persuaded by the Paradox of the Stone as case against omnipotent God?

Bibliography:

Plantinga, Alvin & Tooley, Michael (2008) Knowledge of God. Blackwell Publishing.

Morris, Thomas V. (1991) Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. InterVarsity Press.

Cover Paint: Paradox 1 (2005) by Robert Pepperell, Oil on panel, 46cm x 60cm