OmnipotentSome people claim the existence of God cannot be falsified.  As I have argued elsewhere, this is not true. One way to falsify God’s existence is to show that the concept of God is logically incoherent. This can be done by demonstrating that two or more supposed divine attributes are logically incompatible. For example, it has been argued that omnipotence and omnibenevolence are logically incompatible.

The objection

The argument is set forth along these lines: Omnipotence entails the power to actualize any state of affairs that is logically possible to actualize. There is nothing logically incoherent about an omnipotent being committing evil, so omnipotence must include the power to actualize a world in which the omnipotent being commits evil. As an omnibenevolent being, however, God is incapable of committing evil.  Therefore, God cannot be omnipotent.  While a being can be either omnibenevolent or omnipotent, no being can be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent.  Since the theistic concept of God entails both, the God of theism cannot exist.

Areas of agreement

How might the theist respond to this objection?  Let us start with some points of agreement.  First, we agree that God must be both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.  Theistic philosophers have long held that the concept of God is that of the greatest conceivable being (GCB).  God is a being of which a greater cannot be conceived.  If we can conceive of some being Y who is greater than the being we call God, then being Y is the true God. Since it is greater to be all-powerful than partially powerful, the GCB must possess the property of being all-powerful.  Likewise, since it is greater to be all-good than partially good, the GCB must possess the property of being all-good.

Second, we agree that God cannot commit evil.  A being whose very nature is all-good cannot commit evil. If he did, he would cease being all-good and thus cease being the GCB (a logical and metaphysical impossibility[1]).  As such, it is logically impossible for God to commit evil.

Third, we agree that God’s omnipotence does not include the power to actualize a state of affairs which includes God committing acts of evil.

Point of disagreement

We disagree, however, that God’s inability to commit evil is incompatible with his omnipotence.  Omnipotence only requires that the being who possesses the property have the power to actualize logically possible states of affairs.  Since a state of affairs in which God commits evil is not a logically possible state of affairs (due to his omnibenevolence), God’s inability to actualize such a world is not a deficiency in his omnipotence.  To say otherwise would require us to affirm that God can do what is logically impossible for him to do.[2]

What is the nature of omnipotence?

At this point the anti-theist may object that I am begging the question. The question is not whether God has the power to actualize every state of affairs that is logically possible for him to actualize, but whether God has the power to actualize every logically possible state of affairs.  If there are more logically possible states of affairs than God is able to actualize, then he is not truly impotent, and if he is not omnipotent then he is not God.

Is there a logically possible world in which an omnipotent being commits evil?  Not if that omnipotent being is God, but what if that omnipotent being is someone other than God?  What if omnipotence was instantiated in a great being (GB) rather than the GCB?  A GB does not need to possess every great-making property, so we can imagine a GB who possesses the great-making property of omnipotence but not the great-making property of omnibenevolence.  It is logically possible for such a being to commit evil, and thus logically possible for him to actualize a world in which he does, in fact, commit evil.  By examining the property of omnipotence independent of the property of omnibenevolence, then, we discover that omnipotence requires the being who possesses it to have the power to actualize a world in which he commits evil.  Since a GB possesses that power whereas the GCB does not, it follows that there are more logically possible states of affairs than the GCB is able to actualize, and thus the GCB is not truly omnipotent.  But if the GCB is not omnipotent, then he is not the GCB since the GCB must possess all great-making properties, including omnipotence.  There is a logical incompatibility, then, between the attributes of omnibenevolence and omnipotence, and thus a logical incoherence in the very concept of the GCB (God).  If the concept of God is incoherent, then God cannot exist.  Theism is demonstrably false.

False presumption

While this conclusion seems inescapable, don’t dig God’s grave just yet. The objector makes two critical mistakes. First, he thinks the power of an omnipotent GB to actualize a state of affairs in which he commits evil tells us something meaningful about the nature of omnipotence, namely that any omnipotent being must be able to commit evil.[3] Not so. As William Lane Craig points out, while a GB may possess the power to actualize a state of affairs in which he (the GB) commits evil, he still could not actualize a state of affairs in which God commits evil since it is logically impossible for God to commit evil, and the GB cannot actualize logically impossible states of affairs.  If omnipotence does not include the power to actualize a state of affairs in which the GCB commits evil, then it is no mark against the power of the GCB that he is unable to commit evil.

So whether omnipotence is instantiated in a GB or the GCB, it does not and cannot include the power to actualize a state of affairs in which the GCB commits evil.  That means the number of logically possible worlds is the same, whether omnipotence is instantiated in a GB or the GCB.  An omnipotent GB and an omnipotent GCB can both actualize a world in which an omnipotent GB commits evil, but neither an omnipotent GB nor an omnipotent GCB can actualize a world in which the GCB commits evil.[4]  It follows, then, that there is no basis for thinking the GCB is not omnipotent.

The objector could counter that I am begging the question when I say that even the GB cannot actualize a state of affairs in which God commits evil since this presumes God might exist. The very purpose of his thought experiment is to show that God cannot exist because he cannot be omnipotent because he cannot commit evil, so it does me no good to counter his argument by saying that even the GB lacks the power to actualize a world in which God commits evil.  This line of reasoning is mistaken, however.  The thought experiment only tells us what would need to be true of an omnipotent GB, not what would need to be true of every omnipotent being.  It’s not begging the question to point out that what power can accomplish in one particular being need not be the same for every other being since every being has a different nature, and the power to actualize states of affairs is always in accordance with the being’s nature.  An omnibenevolent being would not need to possess the power to commit evil since it is logically impossible for him to commit evil due to his nature, and omnipotence does not entail the power to do the logically contradictory.  There simply is no reason to think an omnibenevolent being cannot also be omnipotent.

The objector’s second mistake is in thinking it is possible for a being other than the GCB to possess the property of omnipotence. He considers what omnipotence would look like if it was instantiated in a GB, and concludes that omnipotence must include the power to actualize a world in which the omnipotent being commits evil. But if it is not possible for any being other than the GCB to possess the property of omnipotence, then the thought experiment fails to tell us anything meaningful about the nature of omnipotence.  The central question, then, becomes whether or not it is possible for omnipotence to be instantiated in any being other than the GCB.  I will argue that it is not possible.  I’ll make my argument in three steps.  First, I’ll argue that omnipotence can only be instantiated in a single being, then I’ll argue that this being must be a necessary being, and finally that this necessary being must be the GCB.

Only the GCB can be omnipotent

Omnipotence rides solo

How many beings can possess the property of omnipotence?  Only one being can possess the property of omnipotence for the simple reason that omnipotence includes the power to actualize a world in which all contingent beings[5] (other than oneself[6]) are destroyed.  If omnipotence was instantiated in two beings, it would be possible for being A to will that all other contingent beings be destroyed while being B wills that all other contingent beings be preserved.  Each would prevent the other from actualizing their desired state of affairs.  An omnipotent being, however, cannot be prevented from exercising his power to actualize a logically possible state of affairs.  The only way to avoid this logical contradiction is to avoid a world in which more than one being is omnipotent.  If omnipotence is instantiated in the world at all, then, it can only be instantiated by a single being.

Omnipotence and necessary beings

What kind of being can omnipotence be instantiated in?  Will any kind of being do?  No.  Omnipotence cannot be instantiated in a contingent being because having all power includes the power to sustain one’s existence eternally.[7] Contingent beings do not exist eternally, but began to exist in the finite past, and thus cannot be omnipotent.  Only a necessary being, has the power to sustain his existence eternally.

Volition narrows the field to one

While we have narrowed the field to a single necessary being, which one is it? If one subscribes to Platonism, there are an infinite number of necessary beings in the form of abstract objects. How can we narrow infinity down to one? Volition. Omnipotence can only be instantiated in a personal being because actualizing states of affairs is a function of the will. Anything that lacks volition cannot be omnipotent. Abstract objects are impersonal and causally inert (i.e. they do not stand in causal relations to anything), and thus cannot be omnipotent. The GCB, however, is a personal being and does stand in causal relations with other beings, and thus he is the only necessary being capable of possessing the property of omnipotence.

If omnipotence cannot be instantiated in a GB, then imagining what the property would look like if it were instantiated in a GB is a pointless exercise, comparable to imagining what temporality would look like if it were instantiated in an atemporal being.  The only way to understand the nature of omnipotence is by examining it as it is instantiated in the GCB.  As we’ve already seen, the GCB has the power to actualize any logically possible state of affairs, but that does not include a state of affairs in which the GCB commits evil because it is logically impossible for the GCB to do so.  As such, it is not a logically possible state of affairs, and the GCB’s inability to actualize such a world does not detract from his omnipotence. While there may be reasons for thinking God does not exist, surely the supposed incompatibility between omnipotence and omnibenevolence is not among them.

 

____________________

[1]The GCB’s nature must be changeless because a being whose nature is incapable of change is greater than a being whose nature can change (Also, any change in his nature would entail the loss of at least one great-making property. Since the GCB must possess all great-making properties to be the GCB [if he lacked even one great-making property, we could conceive of an even greater being, thereby making this other being the true GCB], he would cease to exist if he experience any change in his nature).  Therefore, it is a logical contradiction to say that a being whose nature is incapable of change experienced a change in his nature.

It is metaphysically impossible as well.  A being is inseparable from its nature.  If you change its nature, you change the kind of being it is.  If the GCB’s nature changed, such that he could commit evil, he would cease to exist as the GCB.  But one of the properties of the GCB is necessary existence (a being whose existence is necessary is greater than a being whose existence is contingent), and a necessary being cannot not exist.  It is metaphysically impossible, then, for the GCB to commit evil.

[2]To think the inability to actualize a world in which the GCB commits evil demonstrates that he does not possess true omnipotence is like thinking the GCB’s inability to annihilate himself demonstrates that he lacks omnipotence.  Necessary existence is greater than contingent existence, and thus the GCB must possess necessary existence.  He cannot not exist.  The GCB’s inability to annihilate himself is not due to a lack of power, but due to the logical impossibility of such a state of affairs.  The concept of a necessary being who could cease to exist is logically incoherent.  Likewise, the power to actualize a state of affairs in which the GCB commits evil is logically incoherent because it requires the GCB to do what is logically impossible.  Omnipotence entails the power to actualize logically possible states of affairs, not logically impossible states of affairs, so the GCB’s inability to actualize a world in which he commits evil is not a deficiency in his omnipotence.

[3]The objector’s thought experiment doesn’t reveal anything new about the nature of omnipotence. No one disputes that an omnipotent being who is not all-good could actualize a world in which he commits evil, but it does not follow that a being who is omnibenevolent cannot be omnipotent because he is unable to commit evil.

[4]Later, I will argue that a GB cannot be omnipotent. I am merely considering the possibility at this point for the sake of argument.

[5]The power to destroy other beings excludes necessary beings because necessary beings are such that their very nature requires that they exist; i.e. they cannot not exist.  It is logically impossible to destroy that which cannot not exist.  That is why the argument that says two omnipotent beings cannot exist because both beings would have to have the power to destroy the other does not work.  As necessary beings, it is logically impossible that either be destroyed, and thus not a test of the other’s omnipotence since omnipotence only requires the power to actualize logically possible states of affairs (and it is not logically possible to destroy a necessary being).  The inability of both necessary and omnipotent beings to destroy each other is not due to a lack of power in either, but due to the logical impossibility of the task.  Destroying each other is just as logically impossible as creating a square circle.

[6]If the omnipotent being was also a contingent being, it would stand to reason that he would not include himself in the destruction (although it would be logically possible for him to destroy himself as well since he is not a necessary being). As I’ll argue momentarily, however, contingent beings cannot be omnipotent.

[7]It requires more power to sustain one’s existence for all eternity than it does to sustain one’s existence for a finite temporal duration, so the being who has the power to sustain his own existence for eternity has more power than the being who is only able to sustain his own existence over a finite temporal duration. Seeing that contingent beings only exist for a finite temporal duration, contingent beings cannot be omnipotent.

Advertisements