Thursday, August 12, 2010

Omnipotence (Part 4)

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

I am currently working through Chapter 13 of the book. This chapter deals with the potential contradictions inherent in the concept of an omnipotent being. Everitt surveys five possible definitions of omnipotence and checks them for inconsistencies.

We closed the last part by looking at the third definition of omnipotence:

  • Def. 3: "X is omnipotent" = "X can do everything that it is logically possible for a being with X's defining or necessary properties to do."

Applied to God, this definition means that God's power must be consistent with his freedom, knowledge and moral perfection. In a different series of posts, we ran into some of the problems with this definition.

Everitt raises similar objections.

1. God's Omnipotence is Relative to Time
Some things are only logically possible at particular moments in time. If we assume that God is in some sense temporal (either totally or just in his relations with human beings) then his power would limited by ordinary temporal processes. For example, it would have been possible for him to prevent the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami back in 2004, but not in 2006.

If this reasoning is correct, we get a fourth definition of omnipotence:

  • Def. 4: "X is omnipotent" = "At every time, X can do everything that it is logically possible for a being of X's nature to do at that time."

So now God's power is relativised to both his nature and to time. Does this leave us with a coherent conception of omnipotence?

Not really, as Everitt notes, once you start relativising your definition of omnipotence in this manner you open up the possibility of many omnipotent beings. Indeed, every being is omnipotent relative to some identifiable set of constraints. This would seem to make a mockery of the notion of an all-powerful being. (This was discussed previously)

The mockery becomes apparent if we consider the following reductio.

  • A Nullipotent being = A being, one of whose defining properties is the inability to do anything

This being would count as omnipotent, if we were to follow definitions 3 and 4. This is clearly absurd. So those definitions must be inadequate.

2. A Final Possibility
What can the theist do to avoid this absurdity? Everitt considers one final definition:

  • Def. 5: "X is omnipotent" = "At every time, X can do everything which it is logically possible for a being of X's nature to do at that time; and no being, Y, greater in overall power than X, can be conceived."

The final clause seems to avoid the absurdity of the nullipotent being, but it does so at the expense of creating further problems with the concept of omnipotence.

First, there is the measurement problem. The definition assumes that we have some readily-available metric for comparing the relative strengths of the capacities possessed by different beings. This might be true if all beings could obtain the same capacities (e.g. X, Y, Z) and one being had more or less of them. But if beings have distinct sets of capacities, e.g. {X, Y, Z} vs. {R, S, T} commensurability becomes an issue.

Second, and more seriously, it would imply that God, as traditionally conceived, is not omnipotent. To see this, compare God with Semigod. God has all the traditional divine properties. He is morally perfect, all-knowing, all-present, and so on. Semigod has all the traditional properties save one: he is not morally perfect. God, due to his moral perfection, could not commit a morally evil act; Semigod could. It would then follow, from definition 5, that Semigod is omnipotent and God is not.

One doubts whether that would be palatable to a traditional theist.

3. Conclusion
What have we learned from this exploration of omnipotence? Clearly, we have learned that omnipotence is a tricky concept. The most natural definition -- Definition Two -- becomes problematic when applied to a being who fits with the traditional conception of God. And the subsequent "relativised" definitions seem to lead to absurdities or to the unappetising conclusion that God is not omnipotent.

The one possible solution -- canvassed in part three -- would be to develop a sound argument for a logically necessary God. This would be a version of the ontological argument. Whether such an argument is possible is a question for another day.

In the meantime, the following diagram summarises the five definitions of omnipotence covered in this series, as well as some of the problems associated with them.


  1. Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.

  2. John D,
    According to definition 5 "no being, Y, greater in overall power than X, can be conceived", but what about a being that is equal in overall power to X? The definition doesn't cover this possibility, though I don't know if such an observation is of any importance.

  3. I don't think that's important. Definition 5 is being introduced to deal with the absurdity that arose in relation to definitions 3 and 4, i.e. the nullipotent being. That why the clause "no being greater in overall power" was added.

    Suppose Def. 5 had a clause saying "and no being equal in power to X exists". Then we could have two nullipotent beings. They would be equal in power and they would both fit the relativised definition from the first part of definition 5.

    In other words, the absurdity would still remain.

  4. An interesting analysis. I'm not sure it covers all options of defining omnipotence, though. What about an Eternal deity, for example?

    Def 6(?): "X is omnipotent" = "X can determine the eternal [=past, present, and future] physical reality [and any other reality, if such exists] in any way that is not self-contradicting".

    Note the important different between X being able to do something, which is an action in time, and determining [eternal] reality, which is not an action in time.

    I believe Def6 handles the raised problems fairly well, although some questionable aspects remain (e.g. god can determine that excessive evil will be in the world, but does not because he is Good - now try to make sense of that without filling your head with a spaghetti of thought...)

    Are there other a-priori reasonable definitions of omnipotence? I don't have one on hand, but I'd tend to think so. It doesn't seem, from your report, like Everitt did a thorough survey or systematic analysis.

    I'd note one more strange thing about omnipotence, which does not really matter here but comes to bear elsewhere - for some reason people keep assuming god can only make one universe. In the wake of the Multiple Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, I'd think that it would make much more sense to talk about God doing things across multiple worlds - perhaps doing them differently in different worlds. Again, not really relevant here, but I think it's an overlooked point on omnipotence that is actually very important in handling the Problem of Evil, the Cosmological Argument, and more.

  5. Well Everitt has a chapter on Eternity and omnipresence (which I haven't read yet) so maybe he gets into some of that.

    In any case, Everitt's book is really only an introduction so he doesn't do a systematic survey or analysis of anything.

    I presume your Many Worlds-point is intended to be distinct from the kinds of modal arguments employed in relation to the problem of evil etc.?

    I believe that Timothy O'Connor's book Theism and Ultimate Explanation talks a bit about God acting across multiple worlds at some point (in relation to PoE if I'm not mistaken). I am basing that on a review that I read.

  6. I'm glad to read your response, JD. I trust the chapter addresses the issue, and if not that's certainly fine in an introduction.

    The note on the MWI is certainly different from modal reasoning, and I'm glad to hear that Timothy O'Conners apparently deals with the issue in the context of the problem of evil - where it is most important. I'll need to check that out sometime.

    Thanks as always,


  7. God is indeed all powerful which is what omnipotence means. Omnipotence by definition of the word means that nothing can be more powerful than the One All Powerful Being-God. But one cannot fully understand God's Omnipotence without also looking at all the other attributes that are unique to God alone. He is Eternal, Absolute Justice, Absolute Righteousness, All Loving, All Knowing, Present Everywhere (both inside and outside time simultaneously)Immutable (His character never changes), Absolute Truth, and Supreme Sovereignty (King of all kings and Lord of all lords). None of His attributes will contradict one another, therefore, you cannot consider His omnipotence without taking into account the additional attributes that are unique to God alone.