Question--aren't you sorta misusing the term Omnipotence?
I received this sincere and well-toned pushback:
[Draft: Oct 3/2004]
Hello again. I just wanted to check back with you regarding an email that I had sent a couple of months ago. I realize that you're busy- I just wanted to make sure that you got a copy of my question. I hope to hear back from you soon. Take care, and here's the question again:
First of all, I would like to say that I really enjoy your website. It is one of the most well-organized and intelligently written Christian apologetic websites I've seen. As an agnostic, I question the existence of any god that does not make sense to me (as I'm sure you do also).
One of the biggest problems I've come across with Christianity, is that it appears that your version of god has certain attributes which are contradictory, and would thereby make his existence impossible (for example the old Omnipotence vs. Omnibenevolence problem, among others). And I may have found the underlying problem with your argument that I wanted to run by you and see what you think.
In one of your arguments under your Hallway of Arguments section The old 'God and the Big Rock' Problem (yawn) [hgodrock.html], you offer a unique definition of the word Omnipotence which I have never heard before. I've looked it up in several dictionaries and thesauruses, but I could not find it anywhere worded even remotely similarly to the one you use. The definition you use for Omnipotence is as follows:
"Omnipotence has historically been understood as the ability to perform any task consistent with His character and essence. (At least that's the classical definition/understanding of it). This would exclude 'things' like...
Re his character:
It is impossible for God to lie (He actually is the one who told us this in the scriptures).
It is impossible for God to break a promise.
It is impossible for God to deny his existence and character (tantamount to lying, of course)."
Now I believe that this is the source of the confusion between our positions. You see, if the 'character' and 'essence' of any particular being limits its power in any way, then that being cannot fit the description of omnipotence. Omnipotent is defined as follows (as per the American Heritage Dictionary): having unlimited or universal power, authority, or force; all-powerful. Or, it can also mean: one having unlimited power or authority. In other words, an omnipotent being must be able to do anything it chooses, anytime, anywhere. Its power must be unlimited. It cannot be both 'unlimited in power' and 'limited in power' at the same time. According to the Bible, the Christian version of god is clearly not able to lie (among other things). Therefore this is a major contradiction. Your position is stating that your version of god is both omnipotent and not-omnipotent at the same time. That cannot be. In fact, this contradiction makes it impossible for your version of god to exist at all.
Think about it this way: How can your version of god be omnipotent when you or I can easily perform acts that a supposedly omnipotent being is incapable of? Does that make sense? It doesn't to me. The bottom line is that you can lie and the god you worship cant.
So I believe that it is your definition of the word Omnipotent that has steered you wrong. You (or perhaps Christian apologetics in general) have adopted a modified definition of a word which otherwise would obviously not apply to your version of god. Changing the definition of a word to suit your own personal beliefs could make any argument seem valid, especially if no one ever questioned the definition that you used. Anyway, that's my 2 cents, let me know what you think. I look forward to your response.
After looking at this, this still seems like a semantic issue to me. Christian theologians (and I suppose apologists too)
don't really assert that God is both "omnipotent" (that specific dictionary defn) and "non-omnipotent" (theological defn) at the same time.
Theists and Philosophers in general do NOT assert that God is 'omnipotent' in this abstract fashion to begin with:
"Omipotence is maximal power. Some philosophers, notably Descates, have thought that omnipotence requires the ability to do absolutely anything, including the logically impossible.
Most classical theists, however, understood omnipotence as involving vast powers, while nevertheless being subject to a range of limitations of ability, including the inability
to do what is logically impossible, the inability to change the past or to do things incompatible with what has happened,
and the inability to do things that cannot be done by a being who has other divine attributes, e.g., to sin or to lie." [Audi,
The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, s.v. "Divine Attributes"]
Part of the issue here is that the popular notion of omnipotence (hereafter O-P) is intuitive and NOT what is asserted in
the technical positions. Hence, under the entry "Paradoxes of Divine O-P" (Cambridge Ency...), Mann can qualify this notion:
"paradoxes of omnipotence, a series of paradoxes in philosophical theolgoy that maintain that God could not be omnipotent
because the concept is inconsistent, alleged to result from the intuitive idea that if God is omnipotent, then God
must be able to do anything." [emphasis mine]
Again, this intuitive notion is NOT what philosophers and theologians are intending when they use O-P to describe God. They
qualify this as we have seen above. Consider another technical statement:
"Apparently the natural way to understand God's omnipotence is simply to say that God can do anything whatever. But this quickly
runs into difficulties. Can God create a square circle, or cause it to be true that 1 + 2
= 17? At least since the time of Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224 -1274), it has
been recognized that the exercise of God's power must be limited to what
is logically possible. The expression square circle is one that could not possible
apply (correctly) to anything, and so the fact that God cannot make one implies no defect in God's power.
Other limitations on what God can do stem from God's own nature; God cannot do things that require embodiment
(such as climbing Mount Everest) or that imply limitations (such
as, for instance, forgetting something). Perhaps more significant, it is generally
held that God cannot do things that imply a moral fault, such as breaking one of his promises. In view of such considerations as these, we may say that God's omnipotence means that
God can perform any action the performance of which is logically consistent,
and consistent with God's own nature." [Reason and Religious Belief, Revised Ed., p.71f]
One more text from a Philosophy of Religion intro:
"It would appear to be a minimal requirement for a being
worthy of worship that he be greater than any otehr being. No
other being exceeds God in power, knowledge or goodness. But
this requirement is indeed minimal, since theists usually hold
that God is not only greater than any other being as a matter of
fact, but that it is impossible that there should ever be a being
greater than God. God's power, knowledge and goodness are
therefore seen not merely as very great but as maximal. God is omnipotent; he possesses all the power a being can have. God is omniscient; he knows everthing which it is possible for
a being to know. God is morally perfect; his goodness is unsurpassable.
Another way of expressing God's greatness is to say that he is infinite, or unlimited. These terms must, however, be understood in a qualified sense. To say that God is infinite in power does not mean that he can literally do anything. It has usually been held, for example, that God cannot create a square circle or a person with a morally free will who is determined always to choose what is morally right. The reason for this is not that God lacks some power or ability he might have had, but that these conceptions are logically contradictory and therefore impossible or even meaningless. God's power is the power to do anything which is logically possible. In addition, most theists hold that there are certain things God cannot do because of his nature. Being morally perfect, he cannot commit an act of senseless cruelty, for example. God's omnipotence must then be understood as the power to do whatever is logically possible and consistent with God's own essential characteristics. Similar restrictions may have to be placed on the concept of omniscience.
Even with these qualifications God's power is still infinite in the sense of being unlimited by anything outside himself."
[Philosopy of Religion, C. Stephen Evans, IVP:1982, p.33f]
This should be adequate to demonstrate that the term 'omniscience' is NOT used in philosophical
theology, in the intuitive/popular sense, so the theologian can gladly say "I didn't MEAN that dictionary definition of O-P, anyway--nobody does.", and
so the objection sorta fizzles (at least at the contradiction level).
That being said, we might add a couple of additional points:
- The dictionary definitions you cite in themselves don't go into enough detail to preclude this modified understanding above.
If we asked the dictionary editors if 'unlimited power' meant the ability to create a square circle, I suspect they would
immediately start making similar qualifications to their definition [as technical dictionaries in philosophy and theology do].
- This last point can also be seen in the conclusion you draw from this: "an omnipotent being must be able to do anything it chooses,
anytime, anyplace." That is essentially the same position as "perform any task consistent with His character and essence." In
other words, when you use the word "chooses" you ground that task UPON a "character and essence". And it is this position
which is the one embodied in the philosophical technical terminology about "not being able to lie"--God simply will never choose to lie.
- The inability to lie or do cruelty or be treacherous or to will Godself out of existence is generally understood (in the
technical literature) NOT as a liability/limitation, but as the ABSENCE of a liability/limitation. Hence it is inaccurate to phrase
it in a 'limitation' form. [Sorta like "God doesn't have the ability to forget something": this isn't a limitation at all, but
the absence of a limitation.]
- A more technical analysis of omnipotence (and its relation to moral perfection) can be found at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/omnipotence/,
where one of the summary observations is: "The foregoing line of reasoning implies that God's moral perfection and omnipotence are not incompatible"
- JFWIW, I think some of these qualifications are included in some of the Dictionaries.
- My hardcopy Oxford Concise: "having great or absolute power" [notice how it is phrased relatively here]
- Merriam-Webster Online: "1. Almighty; 2. having virtually unlimited authority or influence"
- Merriam-Webster Online (in the xref to Almighty): "1. having absolute power over all; 2. relatively unlimited in power"
- Encarta: "all-powerful: possessing complete, unlimited, or universal power and authority"
okay, where does that leave us?
Now, strictly speaking, you would be correct about the contradiction--IF the theist were affirming both propositions at the same time.
But hopefully this more detailed excursion into the technical literature will (a) show you that this is NOT actually the case; and (b)
provide you with some additional material for your further thinking about and evaluating these things.
I do commend you on your tone, and on your commitment to "intelligibility'--keep seeking, keep open, keep pondering these things--
...and thanks for your kind words about the Tank (and for 'e-hassling me' these 3-4 times about answering your question, friend--SMILE).
Warmly, Glenn Miller [Oct/2004]
- The initial dictionary definition mentioned is not an accurate description of what
philosophers and theologians have historically meant when predicating 'omnipotence' of
- As such, the objection that Christians are simultaneously asserting two poles of a
contradiction is inaccurate: the theist is only asserting ONE pole (the philosophically
- [My definition given in the prior article, about 'consistent with essence and character',
does represent the mainstream philosophical definition, and is not therefore really unique. Actually,
its spectacularly unoriginal...smile]
- Some of the character-conditioning aspects are actually implied in the objection ("chooses").
- Some popular dictionaries actually seem to reflect a knowledge of these technical issues.
- Not all 'inabilities to do something' are actually 'inabilities'--they would be the absence of an inability.
- These issues are not uniquely Christian, but are actually inherent in monotheism, in which the God is a
personal, moral, agent.
The Christian ThinkTank...[http://www.Christianthinktank.com]