What comes to our minds when we think of omnipotence? The idea that something is all-powerful, all encompassing. The Cambridge dictionary defines the omnipotent as one “having unlimited power and able to do anything”. The idea of an entity so formidable commanding the entirety of our lives seems frightening, yet millions submit willingly to it. We paint a picture of an omnipotent who goes beyond human vices and orchestrates life graciously.
The most common example for omnipotence is the idea of God. For most of Western theology – especially those that are monotheistic – the idea of God implies an omnipotent, omniscience (the idea of being all-knowledgeable), omnipresent and benevolent version of the Almighty.
Beyond the talk of faith and religion, the term omnipotence, seemingly harmless, has however managed to confound theologists and philosophers alike since antiquity.
Consider a God that is omnipotent. Now answer this – can God create a stone so heavy that even He cannot lift it?
The question forces us to give an answer in the form of an affirmative or negative – both cases questioning the omnipotence of God. If He can create the stone, why can’t He lift it? If He can’t create the stone, is He really omnipotent?
This simple question, first described in the 12thCentury by Averroës, a muslim Andalusian philosopher known as “The Commentator” (for his commentaries on Aristotle), is still being debated. It takes various forms – could an omnipotent being create another being more powerful than itself? Could an omnipotent being destroy itself? Could he create a wall he cannot climb?
Written in multiple ways, it ultimately questions whether a consistent definition of omnipotence exists, and what it implies for Western theology.
Some philosophers like Rene Descartes argue that absolute omnipotence is the answer – he can both create the stone and not lift it. The view that an omnipotent being could do absolutely anything, even the logically absurd, is known as voluntarism. However, most modern philosophers disagree with this as it still questions the principle of omnipotence.
In Hindusim, Brahman is the metaphysical concept of all knowledge and creation in the world, with Brahma being a masculine, human-resembling interpretation of the concept for simplicity. His essence is only ever captured in the sense of the ‘Creator’ but none can describe the exact extent of His power. Thus, He could, in some sense, embody absolute omnipotence.
Thomas Aquinas, an Italian philosopher, proposed that the paradox arose from a misguided understanding of omnipotence. According to him, inherent contradictions and logical impossibilities are not part of the definition of omnipotence. Thus, an omnipotent could only perform actions that do not violate the basic rules of logic, such as Him being unable to make 2×2=9, since we know it to be 4.
However, the Stone Paradox is still in effect here. If the question is bifurcated into two tasks, (1) creation of a stone too heavy to lift and (2) lifting the stone, both are still logical possibilities separately, making them eligible for Aquinas’ definition. They cannot, however, be performed in succession, questioning his theory.
George Mavrodes extends this argument by saying that the inability to perform logically inconsistent tasks is not a hindrance to the omnipotence of the person in question. Consider a task that seeks to make a round square. Mavrodes says that such tasks are self-contradictory by definition and terms them as ‘pseudo-tasks’ that are essentially, nonsense. Since the task itself does not make sense, the omnipotent’s ability to perform them proves nothing. Thus the creation of an immovable object, simultaneously existing with an unstoppable force – known as the law of non-contradiction – doesn’t substantiate the existence or nature of God.
Another interesting facet is introduced when we compare the ‘human’ to the omnipotent. It is perfectly possible for a carpenter to create a table so heavy that he cannot lift it. Thus, the limitations that apply to humans are justified, while they demonstrate impossibility in the omnipotent. Consider this – an omnipotent can never come to knowing that he is omnipotent, while this is a perfectly possible action for a human being to perform. This is just one example of a task that is logically possible for some being to perform, but is logically impossible for an omnipotent being.
An answer to the problem, given by Alvin Platinga and advocated by Richard La Croix, is the McEar problem. Suppose that there is a person, called McEar, who only performs the action of scratching his ear. Then, McEar is omnipotent in this regard, regardless of his inability to do anything else. A God-like creature could exist in this sense, but it does not allow for a generalisation of omnipotence.
Omnipotence and Divine Moral Perfection
Just as God cannot do illogical tasks as they are ‘nonsense’, He cannot do things that are contradictory to His nature – for example, He cannot sin. The assumption of God also, in almost all cases, follows the idea of moral perfection – that God cannot lie and that He can do no evil. However, moral perfection and omnipotence cannot simultaneously exist, since the omnipotent can theoretically do everything, but the morally bound must adhere to “good” acts only.
The argument can be formulated as follows (Morriston 2001: 144). Consider some particularly evil state of affairs, E, such as every sentient being suffering excruciating pain throughout its entire existence. Then:
(1) If any being is necessarily morally perfect, then there is no possible world at which that being brings about E
(2) If any being is omnipotent, then that being has the power to bring about E
(3) If any being has the power to bring about E, then there is some possible world at which that being brings about E
(4) No being is both necessarily morally perfect and omnipotent.
The same sort of questioning can apply to the existence of Hell. If a just, benevolent omnipotent exists, why would those who sinned against Him suffer in the worst form of purgatory?
Theists like Platinga do not hold that God’s existence implies the existence of a maximally good world, but do hold that God seeks to create as good a world as he can. Thus the Problem of Divine Moral Perfection finds the semblance of an answer.
Atheists, of course, believe that excluding logical inconsistencies from the definition of omnipotence is a convenient cop-out. The existence of God – or an omnipotent – not only goes beyond the realm of possibility, since He cannot prove his power but also allows for a scapegoat as opposed to accountability. With the rise in the number of atheists around the world, it seems like more and more people are subscribing to this school of thought.
While the world ponders the existence of a God or not, we know for sure that the end of religion as a whole is far from near. People peg their hopes on God, confess their sins and pray for His grace, unbothered by mathematicians, theologists and philosophers who spend hours – sometimes centuries- trying to solve logical paradoxes such as these.
Perhaps being blissfully unaware is the way to go, eh?
By Aanandi Arjun
2nd year undergraduate student, Shri Ram College of Commerce