Monday, August 18, 2008

On Omnipotence

The following essay was written in late spring 2008 during an episode of Lost. A master's student at UConn (where my wife is studying English lit) found out that I was a Christian and promptly asked questions like "can God create a square circle"? My quick answers needed some fleshing out, hence this essay. I don't think I have actually read any professional philosophers' take on these questions, so I welcome any comments or corrections.

A traditional objection to the possibility of God’s omnipotence (and therefore the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God) comes in the form of a question: can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? Or, another: can God create a square circle? The fact that it is difficult (or impossible) to answer these questions is supposed to demonstrate that an omnipotent being could not exist. How serious are these objections? Let’s take a look at the latter question first.

Wittgenstein, the 20th century Austrian philosopher, took the view (for a time, at least) that many of the problems of philosophy were actually problems with language. While it seems obvious that not all problems of philosophy reduce to a matter of unclear language, at least some problems can genuinely be seen as merely illusions due to language. The idea of a square circle is supposed to pose an unsolvable problem for an omnipotent being, demonstrating that such a being could not exist. Upon closer inspection, asking an omnipotent being to create a square circle is very much like asking them nothing at all. What is a square circle? It is not a thing. These two words joined together in the English language simply do not mean anything. We should not be bothered, then, by the fact that an omnipotent being cannot create a non-thing we pretend exists by stringing together two words. I can imagine someone demanding that God create a square circle, or else they won’t believe that he is omnipotent. One may as well stand before God and demand that he “couch shave while plant big in beer toe.” If he can’t, so much for God. I think the problem is that "square" and "circle" are such simple words that it is easy to pretend such a small phrase is intelligible when in fact it is no more intelligible than the above beer toe example. The phrase is literally nonsense and as such cannot tell us anything about God.

What about the first question? Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it? This objection seems to be the stronger of the two. Assuming the existence of such a being, obviously the answer must be either God can create a rock so big that he can’t lift it, or that God can’t create a rock so big that he can’t lift it. So perhaps the question should be which answer should be true for God to be as omnipotent as is logically possible. Let’s see. Would it be more impressive if God could create a rock that he then could not lift, or if God created the heaviest rock possible but could still lift it?

First, the very form of this question is problematic, as we are assuming that God has a physical body subject to physical laws (e.g. gravity). The heaviest rock possible? There is no logical limit to how massive an object may be; infinite mass is a possibility. This makes the question difficult to answer sensibly. I suggest a reformulation; this question, at its base, is asking: can an omnipotent being impose limits of power on itself? Imagine it this way: an omnipotent being creates maximally strong unbreakable (and let's say metaphysical too) handcuffs for itself and then cannot escape. Or, the being creates maximally strong unbreakable handcuffs for itself and then breaks them. It is clear that if an omnipotent being could impose limits of power on itself that it would only be taking away from its own omnipotence (e.g. if it could not break the handcuffs). Logically then, an omnipotent being cannot take away its own power without violating its own omnipotence. On the other hand, why couldn’t such a being willingly impose limits on itself? If it then decreases its own power, so what? How does any of this suggest that such a being could not exist? At best it suggests that we should approach the term “omnipotence” with care. Perhaps an omnipotent being’s omnipotence is tentative, contingent on its will. Or perhaps no matter what God does he could always later undo it.

Either way, it is not clear to me that these objections go very far in arguing against the existence of God (or superbeings in general).


bairdduvessa said...

i know that i am no christian or philosopher, and i mean this just as a question and not an attack, but if we are created in the image of an omnipotent being-shouldn't our ability to imagine the concept of a "square circle" imply that therefor an omnipotent being would either or either not also have that thought. and isn't omnipotence mean that they can make the possible impossible?

overall jeff the essay is quite good.

~higgins the elder

Unknown said...

Higgins the elder:

Thanks for your kind words; as for your question, I would respond that when we think that we are "imagining" a square circle, we aren't actually imagining anything. I would argue that, like my "beer toe" example, the phrase is meaningless, and cannot therefore tell us anything about God. On omnipotence making the impossible possible, that's a good question; I guess I would say that omnipotence means they can do anything that is logically possible.

bairdduvessa said...

"beer toe"-when your toe is covered in beer

Anonymous said...

what if your toe thumb was covered in beer?

logical, possible; semantics really. i think you handled the question very well. the question, though probably sincere in nature, smells more of just a red herring to me.

one point i would like to add is that, assuming God does exist and created the natural order of the earth and its processes, it is not irrational to assume that, in our realm anyways, God interacts with us by natural means which carry said designated order. therefore it is unnatural and irrational to think of God taking two shapes, which are opposites at the core (and purposefully so), and combining them.

now one could argue that the conception of Christ was not according to the natural order yet still occurred so why could not a square circle be created? my opinion would be that God does not violate His natural order in the immaculate conception; He shows omnipotence by taking an imperative piece of the equation (man) away and speaking the pregnancy into existence. the rest of the story is of course as natural as He planned, as Yeshu came out, in fact, human and not as fred the two-footed fung from grungus ("goat" for lay people). also, assuming we exist by an omnipotent Being, it sounds ridiculously silly to imagine this ultimate Creator spending his time meddling with geometric dichotomies. this God would be a God of purpose (as His creation would show) and would find it pointless to create a beer toe just to "prove" Himself.

what do you think ...

MJ Millenium said...

Would this Master's student's name happen to begin with an "R"? Also, listen to the audio clip on my blogger profile.

MJ Millenium said...

In response to the post, examples like these (rock so big...) were popular in the middle ages; see Suarez or Abelard, for instance. Their general response was similar to your first answer, that such is like asking if God could create "a nothing." The answer is obviously "no," but that does not purport any limitation on God's omnipotence but simply that creation is always of something, not of nothing.

What's more, the notion that humans can understand divine omni-anything (omnipotence, in these cases) is relatively new. It is not until Descartes (17th-C) that philosophers began to positively delineate what omnipotence means. He would say, for example, that we can approach the idea of infinity by contemplating on what our finiteness would look like were it more perfect. Before Descartes, and especially with the eastern theologians, negative theology was thought more appropriate -- describing God by what he is not or cannot be, like "God is not finite." Why negative, or Apophatic, theology is perhaps more appropriate for talking about "omni's" is that it prevents us from asking stupid questions like the "Rock so big" question because it presupposes that language is subject to what is "not God," and not vice versa.

Unknown said...

Hmm...interesting. If I read you correctly, the older approach would say that our languages are only capable of discussing "earthly" or finite things and so trying to use language to discuss hypotheticals about a being who is infinite is to commit a sort of category mistake. This is also interesting because it again reminds me of Wittgenstein, who (in his first book) held that metaphysical subjects or truths cannot be discussed using language but can only be "shown" through something like art.