Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Omnipotence (Part 1)

This post is part of my series on Nicholas Everitt's book The Non-Existence of God. For an index, see here.

It's been awhile since I dipped into Everitt's excellent introduction to the philosophy of religion and it's about time that trend was reversed. In the next few posts I will take a look at Chapter 13 of the book. The chapter deals with the topic of omnipotence.

It has been pointed out to me that some of the more interesting atheological work comes in the shape of positive arguments against the consistency and coherence of the classical understanding of God. Everitt's chapter on omnipotence does just that by critically examining the idea of an all-powerful God.

Let's see what he has to say.

1. Self-Contradiction
The type of argument that Everitt considers in chapter 13 is dependent on the notion of self-contradiction. In other words, on the idea that some concepts are self-contradictory and hence impossible.

What kind of self-contradiction would be involved in the concept of God? Let's take two examples. The first is that of a circular square. In this case there is a straightforward and obvious contradiction inherent in the concept: something cannot be both circular and square.

Sometimes, things are less obvious. A good example of this is the concept of the highest prime number. As we all know, there is no such thing as the highest prime number. Indeed, one of the first mathematical proofs I ever learned was the proof of the infinitude of primes.

But notice that the contradiction is not immediate or obvious. We have to do some formal analytical and logical work before it reveals itself. If the concept of God is self-contradictory, it is likely to be contradictory in this second, less immediate manner.

2. Divine Power
Before we look for contradictions, let's try to understand how God would exert his power. We will do this by way of analogy to our own powers.

Whenever we want to exert power and influence, we do so by chaining together long sequences of bodily movements. For example, if you want to change TV channels you will have to pick up the remote control and press the appropriate buttons. And if you want to overthrow the government, you must find a group of like-minded revolutionaries and then plot and plan a revolution. That takes a lot of effort.

It is assumed by most theists that God's power is not exerted in the same way. If God wants something to be the case, he doesn't have to take all the intermediary steps mentioned above. He can directly will whatever he wants.

Does this make his power unintelligible? Not at all. For we can directly will things as well. Take the example of raising your hand. You can do this directly without willing the intermediary steps involving the firing of neurons in the motor cortex. Now imagine this power could be extended over everything you wish to do and you begin to get close to the idea of God.

3. Defining Omnipotence
In searching for contradictions in the concept of omnipotence, we will follow a simple method. We will begin with a definition of the concept and see if that definition entails any absurdities. All told, there will be five separate definitions. In the remainder of this post we will deal with the first two.

The first definition is the most straightforward:
Def 1: "X is all powerful" = "X can do everything"
This immediately runs into the brick wall of logical impossibility. In other words, it forces us to ask whether God can do things that are logically impossible, such as make it the case that "1+1=3" or that triangles actually have four sides. If he could, we would landed in a bizarre and arbitrary Alice-in-Wonderland-like universe.

Some theists -- e.g. Richard Swinburne -- think that God must be limited by the laws of logic. But that is not a theologically disturbing thought since the logically impossible is not do-able and hence is not a limit on God's power. And even those who think God is necessary for the sustenance of the laws of logic assume that he could not have made them other than what they are.

This leads naturally to a second definition:
Def 2: "X is all powerful" = "X can do everything that it is logically possible to do"
This is the variety of omnipotence that is popular with the armchair theist, but it too has its problems. As we are about to see.

4. We are more powerful than God
The problem with Definition 2 is that there are certain things that it is logically possible for us mortal, fallible human beings to do that do not seem to be available to God. Here are three examples:

  • Because we are not morally perfect, we can do things that are cruel, cowardly, irredeemably selfish and hypocritical and so on. But God, being morally perfect, cannot do these things.
  • Because we have physical bodies, there are certainly things we can do -- e.g. walk, eat, run -- that presuppose the existence of a body. But God, being immaterial, cannot do these things.
  • Because we are finite and mortal, we have the option of committing suicide. But God, being immortal, could not do likewise.

In addition to these three objections, there is the more famous stone-objection:

  • Could God make a stone that was so big not even he could lift it?

There is no logical impossibility invoked by this question but, nonetheless, it does seem to give rise to a contradiction inherent in the concept of omnipotence. Why? Because either answer -- "yes" or "no" -- entails that there is something God cannot do.

We will see how the theist can respond to these objections, and refine their definition of omnipotence, in the next post.

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