Saturday, May 22, 2010


In Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, the gods were powerful, but their individual power was limited. These gods were often fighting amongst each other and no one god held all power.

In monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) there is a single god, and this God is said to be omnipotent: there is no limit to God's power, and no other being could exceed the overall power of God.

Power should be distinguished from ability. Power = ability + opportunity: a being having maximal ability that is prevented by circumstances from exercising those abilities would not be omnipotent. Nothing could prevent an omnipotent agent from exercising its powers, if it were to endeavor to do so.

But what does it mean to say of any being that it is omnipotent? A being that can do everything, even the logically impossible, seems to qualify as omnipotent.

Definition 1
X is omnipotent = X can do everything

A God who could do the logically impossible would be malevolent. Human beings have free will – the capacity to knowingly and intentionally choose between two or more tolerable alternative actions. God allows humans to be free in order that they may be free to love God and other fellow beings. Love requires freedom; a person who is not free is unable to love. Unfortunately, this freedom can be used to do evil acts: killing, raping, torturing, etc. If God could do the logically impossible, then God could bring about two mutually contradictory states of affairs. God could have created this world such that:

1. Human beings have free will, and
2. Humans are controlled in such a way that they only do morally good actions

Hence, God could have prevented all the evil that humans have inflicted on each other at no cost. There would be no wars or terrorist acts. Women would not be raped. Children would not be neglected or beaten. Thus, if God exists and can do the logically impossible, then the fact that unnecessary evil caused by humans exist in the world shows that God is malevolent.

However, according to this definition, God could create a square circle; but that is absurd. It is not possible for an agent to bring about an impossible state of affairs. Hence, God cannot break the laws of logic.

Some think that this is a limitation of God’s power; but it is not. This does not mean that there are tasks that God cannot do; rather, they are not tasks at all - they are meaningless because they are logically impossible. To say that something is logically impossible is to exclude it from the realm of the do-able.

Definition 2
X is omnipotent = X can do everything which it is logically possible to do

Are there any actions which God will be unable to perform? One of God’s defining properties is that he is immaterial. Hence, God does not have a body. It follows that God cannot do any act that require having a body. This means that you can do things that God cannot do! You can dance in the moonlight; God cannot. Humans can run in the jungle, hug a loved one, etc. If a God exists, he should envy us! But, couldn’t God just create himself a body, and then dance in the moonlight? After all, according to Christian theology, God walked on earth as a human being named Jesus.

Another of God's defining properties is that he is omnibenevolent. Hence, God cannot act immorally. This means that you can do something that God cannot do! You can sin; God can not. Humans can act cowardly, cruel, selfish, etc. It seems that omnibenevolence and omnipotence are imcompatible because omnipotence entails that God has the power to bring about evil, whereas omnibenevolence entails that God is powerless to bring about evil. Since acts of evil is not logically impossible it follows that an omnipotent being can bring about evil. Hence, an omnibenevolent God cannot also be omnipotent. To solve this problem, the theist can relativise omnipotence to the being in question:

Definition 3
X is omnipotent = X can do everything which it is logically possible for X to do (i.e. everything which is logically consistent with X’s other defining properties)

This explains why God cannot sin: it is logically impossible for God to sin, since he is by definition morally perfect, so his inability does not compromise his omnipotence. Another of the defining features of God is that he is immaterial or pure spirit. This means that it is not logically possible for God to ride a horse, scratch his nose, etc., and hence his inability to do so will not be a limitation on his omnipotence.

But, a source of complication comes from the fact that there may be some kinds of action that are possible at one time but not at another. In 1938, God had the power to prevent World War II. In 1946, given that he had allowed the War to occur, is it logically possible for him to bring it about that the War had never occurred? Given the definition, the answer seems to be "yes”. However, it is not possible for an efficient cause to occur later than its effect. Therefore, it is impossible for an agent to have power over the past. Hence, God cannot change the past. The theist can relativise God’s power to a time: something can be logically possible for God at one time and not at another.

Definition 4
X is omnipotent = at every time, X can do everything which it is logically possible for X to do at that time (i.e. everything which is logically consistent with X’s other defining properties)

This definition opens up the possibility of there being great numbers of omnipotent beings. Of course, there would be a great many things which these omnipotent beings were powerless to do; but as long as their powerlessness was a logical consequence of some of their defining properties, it would not show that they were really not omnipotent.

We can imagine an absurd case which is consistent with this definition. Imagine a nullipotent being: one of whose defining features is that he cannot do anything. He will then count as omnipotent by the definition. For it will be true of him that he can do everything which is logically possible for a nullipotent being to do, i.e. nothing at all. It would clearly be absurd to describe a nullipotent being as omnipotent, so any definition of omnipotence which allows us to do this must also be absurd. The theist can amend the definition to avoid the absurdity.

Definition 5
X is omnipotent = at every time, X can do everything which it is logically possible for X to do at that time (i.e. everything which is logically consistent with X’s other defining properties); and no being, Y, greater in overall power than X, can be conceived

A nullipotent being do not qualify by this definition because they fail the final clause: we can conceive of beings greater in power than nullipotent beings. But this definition creates another problem: it exclude God from being omnipotent! Imagine a being – call him Semigod – which has all of God’s properties except for moral perfection. Since his actions are not constrained by moral perfection, he can do everything that God can do, and more. He can sin and God cannot. Semigod would therefore be greater in overall power than God; hence God fail to meet the final clause of Definition 5; hence God is not omnipotent.

The very idea of an omnipotent being is logically impossible. Hence, if a supernatural being exists, he will not be omnipotent. Thus, God is not omnipotent, because no being can be. Nor is he the most powerful being that can be conceived, because he is constrained by his other properties. Hence, all that can be claimed is that God is very, very powerful.

Further Reading:

Everitt, N. (2004). The Non-Existence of God. New York: Routledge.

Hoffman, J. & Rosenkrantz, G. (2006). Omnipotence. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Martin, M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Plantinga, A. (1967). God and Other Minds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Stewart, M. (1993). The Greater-Good Defence: An Essay on the Rationality of Faith. London: Macmillan.

Swinburne, R. (1986). The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vardy, P. (1999). The Puzzle of God. Londin: Fount.

Vardy, P. & Arliss, J. (2003). The Thinker's Guide to God.UK: O Books.

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