Defining Omnipotence more succinctly

Definition of Omnipotence: God can do anything.

Analytic philosophers and sophisticated Theologians want to add all these well thought out qualifications to Omnipotence such as that God can do anything which is not contrary to his nature, or which is logically possible, or which is logically feasible, et cetera. I think we can treat these qualifications as implied by the simpler statement ‘God can do anything’. If somebody objects by saying that God cannot create a square-circle, or create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift if, or create an evil version of himself, or create a married bachelor, then we can object that none of these are things, and thus they are not included in what is meant by ‘any-thing’. They are simply linguistic confusions. Though one can put together sentences by stringing words together without any grammatical faux-pas, that does not imply that those sentences have any propositional content. For instance the sentence ‘two plus two equals red turtles’ is perfectly fine grammatically, but (apart from some very eclectic universe of discourse) it is empty of propositional content.

Suppose that somebody objects that there are logically possible things which God cannot do, such as ‘make Billy [libertarian-freely] propose to Sue‘ those are not things God can do precisely because God cannot ‘do’ those things at all (he isn’t the subject performing the action or accomplishing the verb, represented linguistically as the nominative noun).

Suppose that somebody objects that God cannot act contrary to his nature, for instance by ceasing to exist or by acting in an evil way, again we must respond that God does not have a nature with which he is not identical (God’s essence is identical with God, and thus all of God’s attributes are identical with God), and thus that the proposition “God ceases to exist” is as grammatically contradictory as the sentence “God creates a square-circle” since God’s essence is to exist or ‘existence’ itself, and existence cannot cease to exist (just as ‘The Good’ cannot be contrary to itself).

All one needs to understand omnipotence, therefore, is a good grasp of grammar, syntax and modality.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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11 Responses to Defining Omnipotence more succinctly

  1. “They are simply linguistic confusions. Though one can put together sentences by stringing words together without any grammatical faux-pas, that does not imply that those sentences have any propositional content. For instance the sentence ‘two plus two equals red turtles’ is perfectly fine grammatically, but (apart from some very eclectic universe of discourse) it is empty of propositional content.”

    Are you sure you’re not a positivist? *wink*

    “God’s essence is identical with God, and thus all of God’s attributes are identical with God….”

    More seriously, given the above, are you sure you’ve got a grasp on which sentences are and are not linguistic confusions empty of propositional content?

    Yet more seriously, why did you choose this highly abstruse example of “being identical with one’s attributes” (explaining the obscure in terms of the more obscure: the Theologians’ Gambit) when there are several more serviceable and mundane examples I asked you about, three times under the other recent omnipotence post and which remain unaddressed? Cut and pasting:

    Suppose someone were to say to you, “God cannot raise a corpse from the grave after three days, because that is ‘contrary to his nature’.” Or that he cannot pick the winner of next year’s superbowl. Or create life from non-life. I think any sane person would take that to mean god is not omnipotent. The limit of the reductio is to imagine that god’s actions are constrained solely to the ability to lift very small rocks on the third moon of Pluto, and nothing else, because any other action would be “contrary to his nature”. But hey, he’s still “all-powerful”, right, since he can still do every noncontradictory thing that is consistent with his “nature”…

    • Sorry for the late reply. I had composed an answer for the comment-post this was taken from, and then lost it (hate when that happens).

      The quick answer is simple: there is nothing essential to the idea of God as a maximally great being which entails that his nature is such that raising a corpse three days after the person to whom it belonged had died would be against God’s nature. God’s nature is not a contingent thing. God is identical with his attributes (his omnipotence or goodness are both him himself, as his nature is his essence is his definition is him). It is also not logically possible that God not exist (according to the Theist). Therefore, it is not logically possible that God do anything which is contrary to his nature (contrary to himself), because it is not logically possible that God have had any other nature than he does have (there is no logically possible world in which God has a nature such that x, where in another logically possible world God has a nature such that ~x). This all seems trivially obvious to me, which is another reason I didn’t bother answering before.

      • I regret that my questions must not have been clear enough. The emphasis is on explaining why me being able to easily do something (inflict pain on someone purely for my own amusement) which Yahweh cannot does not entail his non-omnipotence. If your answer is that such things would be “contrary to his nature”, then my reductio applies: there does not seem to be any amount of impotence which cannot be handwaved away by such a maneuver. You end up saying that very-small-rocks-only-god is “omnipotent”, it’s just that doing anything other than jiggling very small rocks is “contrary to his nature”…

      • And of course, there is the ancillary issue of this whole notion of one’s “nature” determining one’s actions being basically an endorsement of, er, well, determinism…

  2. So there are two misunderstandings which I am detecting here. The first is that God’s nature seems to determine his actions, and the second is that there is apparently some kind of hand-waving going on. With respect to the first, notice that I never said that God’s nature determines his actions, but only that God cannot possibly act contrary to his nature, anymore than God can be contrary to himself. Perhaps God’s nature will allow him to take a range of actions, and if he has libertarian free will then he can freely select which of those options to take, all of which are consonant with his nature.

    Now, concerning the second, that there is no hand-waving going on seems obvious to me, but not, as of yet, to you. Let me try to take us through it one more time. I maintain that God’s nature is identical with God (it is precisely what we have in mind when we signify the concept by the name ‘God’). I also maintain that God’s existence is logically necessary. Third I maintain that God’s nature is not contingent (there is no logically possible world in which God has some nature different from the nature he has in another logically possible world). Now, that means that God’s nature is necessary. Whatever that nature is, God can neither ‘act’ contrary to it, nor ‘be’ contrary to it. Thus, if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived essentially, then God cannot make himself into that than which at least one greater can be conceived. If God’s essence is to exist, then God cannot make it be the case that he does not exist. If God is ‘The Good’ in the platonic sense, then it is not possible for him to act or be contrary to ‘The Good’. Now, if you suggest that my maintaining that God cannot sin (act contrary to the good) is on a par with maintaining that God cannot raise somebody from the dead, then you will have to show me how both, or neither, connect necessarily to the concept of ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’. I maintain that somebody who thinks they have the idea of ‘God’ in mind, and that their idea is like mine in all ways except that their idea of God is of one that happens not to exist (or even contingently happens to exist), simply doesn’t have any idea of ‘God’, or at least not any considerable understanding of the concept. As Rene Descartes said, the man who thinks that he has an idea of God and thinks that God does not exist is like the man who says that he has an idea of a triangle which is just like my idea of a triangle in every way except that his idea is of a shape with at least four corners.

    The point is this: my saying that God cannot sin is analytically derived (derived by conceptual analysis) from the concept of ‘God’. The concept of God is of a maximally great being, that than which nothing greater could be conceived, et cetera. That is the idea we all have in mind when talking about God (at least those of us with any background in either Theology or Philosophy of Religion, or the history of philosophy, Medieval philosophy, et al.). Now, I can see no way to derive from this essence that God could not possibly create a purple cat, but I can see my way to deriving that God could not surprise himself. I cannot see my way to deriving that God would never raise a man from the dead, but I can see my way to deriving that God could not cease to exist, limit his power, or do anything else which would exemplify changing his nature (since God’s nature is God, and is logically necessary).

    • There are, obviously, pure logical contradictions which absolutely no one, omnipotent or otherwise, can accomplish (existing and not existing simultaneously, for example, neglecting for the moment the thorny problem of paraconsistent/quantum logics).

      But you repeatedly recur to notions with the following form: X cannot [Phi] because X [Phi]-ing would contradict X’s “nature”, but you still want to claim that this is not in any way a restriction on omnipotence.

      I have pointed out again and again that second maneuver this leads to absurdity, because there is literally no limit to how many restrictions one’s “nature” can place on one’s actions and still (according to you) be called “omnipotent”.

      And I’m sorry to say, nothing in the above even appears to address this problem. To me, the solution seems obvious: “X cannot [Phi] because X [Phi]-ing would contradict X’s nature” means that X is not omnipotent. Per the obvious meaning of the words involved.

      “Now, if you suggest that my maintaining that God cannot sin (act contrary to the good) is on a par with maintaining that God cannot raise somebody from the dead, then you will have to show me how both, or neither, connect necessarily to the concept of ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’.”

      No, all I need to do is point out that your unstated premise, “X cannot [Phi] because X [Phi]-ing would contradict X’s nature, but that is no restriction on potency” is demonstrably false. Which I’ve done.

      I’ve also, you’ll recall, pointed out that thin normative concepts such as “great” are expressive and therefore fail to fix descriptive content. For free, I’ll also throw in how terribly, terribly unbiblical this definition is, pointing out once again how you have replaced Biblegod with this blasphemous idol of Philosophergod.

      “Now, I can see no way to derive from this essence that God could not possibly create a purple cat, but I can see my way to deriving that God could not surprise himself.”

      By conceptual analysis, a being whose “essence” includes the inability to create purple cats cannot create purple cats, The problem with your argument is that you keep saying this is no restriction at all on such a person being omnipotent!

      “I’m all-powerful!”

      “Can you help me move this heavy sofa?”

      “Nope. That would contradict my nature. Me lifting a sofa that heavy is as grammatically contradictory as me drawing a square circle.”

      “Truly, you have a dizzying intellect…”

      • The difference between what I have said and the statement that a being x is omnipotent iff x has the ability to do all things which it is logically possible (given its nature) for it to do” is that, on the latter definition a rock could be omnipotent. However, what I have said is that “God can do anything just in case it is not contrary to his nature” is NOT a qualification. Rather we can say “God can do anything” is sufficient without qualification, and the only things which can be articulated as ‘things which God cannot do’ are not ‘things’ at all because they are strictly logically contradictory.

        Now, if God’s nature is logically necessary (co-extensive with God), and if God is logically necessary, then anything which is contrary to the very nature of God is strictly not logically possible. The difference between a rock being unable to talk and God being unable to sin is seminal, semantic and exemplifies a modal chasm between contingent and necessary truth. God is not able to do ‘x’ not merely because it happens to be contrary to his nature, but because being contrary to his nature it is strictly not logically possible in the strongest possible sense. A rock can possibly talk even though it is in fact contrary to its nature, but it is not logically possible for God to do the logically impossible and (given that God’s nature is logically necessary) God doing anything which is contrary to being God is strictly logically impossible. The seminal point is that God does not happen to have a nature in the way a zebra happens to have a nature, but rather God is his nature, and God is logically necessary, thus God cannot possibly be other than he is and thus God cannot be found acting contrary to himself. It is a pure logical impossibility.

  3. Now, if a rock’s nature is logically necessary (co-extensive with a rock), then anything which is contrary to the very nature of a rock is strictly not logically possible…

    You neglected the part where you even made a sporting attempt at demonstrating God’s “nature” is in any relevant respect more necessary than a rock’s nature.

    Note the verb “to demonstrate” is relevantly distinct from the verb “to assert”.

    “A rock can possibly talk even though it is in fact contrary to its nature, but it is not logically possible for God to do the logically impossible and (given that God’s nature is logically necessary) God doing anything which is contrary to being God is strictly logically impossible.”

    I have TA’ed advanced logic seminars and corrected professional philosophers of religion on mistakes in modal logic, so please believe me that I am quite capable of fairly and honestly evaluating any formal demonstration of this assertion you may care to give.

    However, I remain within my rights to distinguish between your bald assertion of this claim, and your formal demonstration of it, and I reserve the right to remain unimpressed pending the production of the latter.

    What I am looking for is anything which places your Yahweh-assertions about necessity on even
    slightly firmer epistemic grounds than my rock-assertions. We’ve been waiting for a response to Gaunilo for how many centuries now?

    • A rock’s nature is not co-extensive with a rock. Suppose that a rock by nature cannot speak. Is it still logically possible for some rock to speak? Yes, it is. Why? Because some other thing may have the power to reduce the rock to speech. God, for instance, has the ability to create the nature of the rock, and also to change that nature. How is this so? Simply: the rock’s nature is contingent. Is God’s nature contingent? No. Can God’s nature be changed? No. Why not? Because it isn’t contingent, but rather necessary. Can a rock’s nature be changed? Yes. Does this license the claim that a rock’s nature is not co-extensive with a rock? Yes, so long as we are careful not to equivocate. By ‘a rock’s nature’ we can be taken to mean the nature of a rock in the actual world, and we can find another rock in another (logically possible world) the nature of which becomes altered or changed. Is it still a rock if it’s nature is different? Three problems arise: first, it isn’t clear to me that a rock has a nature (perhaps it would have been better to use an example of something which does have a nature, like a Zebra). Second, if there is significant overlap in meaning then X in one world can be called part of the same species as X1 in another world, where X and X1 have a nature similar enough to fall under the same species of reference (eg. ‘rock’ or ‘Zebra’). Third, if you aren’t content with saying that a Zebra in one world has some nature X, and something with a very similar nature X1 in another near possible world can be called a Zebra as well, then perhaps we should just say that God could make the Zebra act contrary to its nature without altering its nature (i.e., because God would be the ‘actor’ and not the Zebra).

      Moreover, suppose you are stubborn enough to reject all that has above been said: cannot you see the difference between a rock or a Zebra being contingent, and thus having a contingent nature, and God having a logically necessary nature? The Zebra cannot act contrary to its nature ceteris paribus, but it is logically possible that a Zebra fly through the air of its own volition if God suddenly granted it the ability to do so. This would involve a change of the ‘essence’ of the substance (the particular Zebra), but it is logically possible that that essence be changed (because the essence/nature is contingent). God’s nature is not only logically necessary because it is coextensive with God (being God himself), it is logically necessary because it/He is logically necessary. To say that God cannot do the logically impossible, and to add that God cannot act contrary to his nature, is just to be redundant because there is no logically possible world where God’s nature is different, whereas in the case of any contingent thing X, X’s nature may have been different from how it is, and could change from one to another nature. Of course, some substance is only called a Zebra because of it’s species, and the nature of it’s species, rather than its nature in particular – so in order for us to refer to something as a Zebra we must be able to specify it’s species generally enough that it could be said to possibly have had a slightly different nature, even though, technically, this difference could occasion the distinction of two different species within a genus.

      If you were still unhappy, perhaps we could simply say this: “it could happen that a rock speak.” It is logically possible because God could make something, which we call a rock, speak. It could happen that a Zebra gives birth to a turtle (i.e., there is a logically possible world where a Zebra gives birth to a turtle). The nature of a Zebra bars this from happening ceteris paribus, but it is logically possible that it happen miraculously, or perhaps by some very odd genetic manipulation, or by God altering the nature of the Zebra. God’s nature is logically impossible to alter. I see a chasm of difference between the two cases.

      I’m glad you’re interested in some real philosophy :P. If you’d like to see what the definitive answer to Gaunilo is, then I think you should just read Anselm, but if you weren’t convinced by reading him (assuming you have) then you could always read Bonaventure, Godel, Platinga, van Inwagen, Maydole or Pruss (for starters). Honestly, if you think Gaunilo’s objection carries any weight at all then, at least if you’re trying to convince me that you are more proficient than I esteem you, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by pointing that out. That objection has been more than laid to rest in the literature (and has been for centuries – perhaps you’re confusing Kant’s objection for Gaunilo’s?). To the best of my knowledge, no single philosopher in the professional literature today defends Gaunilo’s objection – the objection was answered adequately within Gaunilo’s lifetime (to say nothing of how stupid it was in the first place).

      In the hopes that you are being sincere about reading real philosophy (concerning the ontological argument), I will here provide some sources for you to look up:

      Plantinga, Alvin. “God, Freedom, and Evil.” Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974.
      Maydole, Robert E. “The Ontological Argument.” The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.” (2009): 553-592.
      Leftow, Brian. “Is God an abstract object?.” Nous (1990): 581-598.
      Pruss, Alexander R. “A Gödelian ontological argument improved.” Religious Studies 45, no. 03 (2009): 347-353.
      Pruss, Alexander R. “A Gödelian Ontological Argument Improved Even More.” Ontological Proofs Today 50 (2012): 203.
      Cutsinger, James S. “Thinking the Unthinkable: Anselm’s Excitatio Mentis.” Lecture delivered at Thomas Aquinas College, 20th of April 2001.
      van Inwagen, Peter. “Necessary Being: The Ontological Argument.” Westview: Metaphysics, 2002.

      Happy reading.

      • A rock’s nature is not co-extensive with a rock.

        I have no idea what that means and neither do you, and therefore you have no idea what procedures to go through to determine whether that statement is true or false, making it a prime candidate for gibberish.

        Whereas, understanding that models are descriptive rather than prescriptive is like a stiff breeze blowing away the theologian’s fog on this topic.

        Suppose that a rock by nature cannot speak. Is it still logically possible for some rock to speak? Yes, it is. Why? Because some other thing may have the power to reduce the rock to speech. God, for instance, has the ability to create the nature of the rock, and also to change that nature. How is this so? Simply: the rock’s nature is contingent. Is God’s nature contingent?

        How.

        Do.

        You.

        Know.

        How do you know? You say you can imagine a rock talking? I say I can imagine Yahweh not existing. Looks like we’re on equal epistemic footing with the “I can imagine it” argument. You say (Philosopher)god is “by definition” such-and-such, even though clearly most gods, including Biblegod, appear not to be such-and-such? Well, I say I am only stipulating that the rocks in question are “by definition” such-and-such. Looks like we’re on equal footing again!

        No. Can God’s nature be changed? No. Why not? Because it isn’t contingent, but rather necessary.

        If you know your modal logic, you can spot the simple operator scope fallacy here.

        By ‘a rock’s nature’ we can be taken to mean the nature of a rock in the actual world, and we can find another rock in another (logically possible world) the nature of which becomes altered or changed.

        I am imagining a logically possible world in which Yahweh does evil, and is not omnipotent. Its resemblance to the god of the Old Testament is uncanny, what with the latter’s plagues and homophobia and inability to defeat armies with iron chariots.

        There is no need to talk about “natures” or “essences” once you realize that it is sufficient for a descriptive model to recover observation. Any old noncontradictory bundle of observations of X will describe some possible X, and as an added bonus you don’t have to futz around with the intractable problem of transworld identity.

        first, it isn’t clear to me that a rock has a nature (perhaps it would have been better to use an example of something which does have a nature, like a Zebra).

        It isn’t clear to you that a rock has a nature because you have literally no idea what that term refers to in your experience! Just think of the position you are now in — making grandiose claims about literally the fundamental nature of the creator of all reality, and you aren’t even 100% on whether mundane things like rocks have “natures”! You can see how this undermines one’s confidence in the reliability of the pronouncements coming out of this decrepit area of discourse.

        Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed mostly of calcium carbonate. If that is not its “nature”, then what is, and in what sense does a zebra have one if CaCO3 does not?

        Third, if you aren’t content with saying that a Zebra in one world has some nature X, and something with a very similar nature X1 in another near possible world can be called a Zebra as well, then perhaps we should just say that God could make the Zebra act contrary to its nature without altering its nature (i.e., because God would be the ‘actor’ and not the Zebra).

        Very strange things, these “natures”. They go around prescriptively “making” things act a certain way, right up until the point that they don’t, all the while failing to perform even rudimentary explanatory work in one’s model. Whereas simply talking in terms of bundles of observations functions exactly as well for recovering the data.

        Moreover, suppose you are stubborn enough to reject all that has above been said: cannot you see the difference between a rock or a Zebra being contingent, and thus having a contingent nature, and God having a logically necessary nature?

        1) “Necessarily, Yahweh has a certain nature.”
        2) “Yahweh’s nature is that he is necessary.”

        Yep. Simple scope equivocation here.

        The Zebra cannot act contrary to its nature ceteris paribus, but it is logically possible that a Zebra fly through the air of its own volition if God suddenly granted it the ability to do so.

        …and it is logically possible for Yahweh to do evil if he grants himself the ability to do so…

        This would involve a change of the ‘essence’ of the substance (the particular Zebra), but it is logically possible that that essence be changed (because the essence/nature is contingent).

        Of course! Now we have not just “essences”, but “essences of substances”. The answer for the theologian is always just around the corner with some even less well-defined term divorced from experience.

        God’s nature is not only logically necessary because it is coextensive with God (being God himself), it is logically necessary because it/He is logically necessary.

        You keep using that phrase “coextensive with God” as though you had even the slightest idea of the conditions of its deployment. Tennis without a net, indeed.

        To say that God cannot do the logically impossible, and to add that God cannot act contrary to his nature, is just to be redundant because there is no logically possible world where God’s nature is different, whereas in the case of any contingent thing X, X’s nature may have been different from how it is, and could change from one to another nature.

        How do you know? What is the difference between a zebra with a different “nature” and a non-zebra?

        If you were still unhappy, perhaps we could simply say this: “it could happen that a rock speak.” It is logically possible because God could make something, which we call a rock, speak.

        No, it “could happen” just because there exists a descriptive model in which observations of hard heavy things are associated with observations of speech-type sounds.

        Just as there exists a descriptive model in which the being who created the universe behaves like a total jerk. There is no daylight in between these two assertions. At least, no daylight which is the result of any epistemically superior position you might be in. I’ve not been shown a single maneuver I’ve not been within my rights to duplicate using non-Yahweh objects.

        If you’d like to see what the definitive answer to Gaunilo is, then I think you should just read Anselm, but if you weren’t convinced by reading him (assuming you have) then you could always read Bonaventure, Godel, Platinga, van Inwagen, Maydole or Pruss (for starters).

        Obviously unconvinced by Anselm. If an argument is really “definitive” then it can be stated succinctly without having to read an entire book, or the entire corpus of multiple authors. In fact that is the hallmark of a good argument in philosophy. It can be stated in three paragraphs or less, not in every last detail, but sufficiently to evaluate its core structure and its major controversial premises. The Pruss references look doable.

        And don’t get me started on that goon Plantinga. I have a tendency to go off on a tear, and you’d ban me from posting before I got through even a tenth of his obscurantist nonsense. For pete’s sake, the man thinks modal terms can apply to single worlds, and that you are at least as likely to beat Kasparov in a game of chess if you think you are slicing sushi as you would be if you were a grandmaster! His hopeless confusions are simply impossible to take seriously.

  4. Oh, html tags, how I love you…

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