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What is God's omnipotence?

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When Christian's mention God's omnipotence, what do they mean? What capabilities fall under the Christian's idea of omnipotence?

The reason I ask is that I thought an omnipotent being was a contradiction. But then I was wondering if the objections I had were fair to ask (in other words, are the objections applicable to omnipotence, and if so, why?).

The 2 objections are well known.

1) Can the OB (omnipotent being) create a sq. circle? (I don't think this would fall under power since it would be asking the OB to do that which is contradictory)

2) Can the OB create a boulder that is so heavy it could not lift it? (It seems this would be unfair to ask too since an immovable object and an all-powerful being existing w/in the same context is impossible)

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You'd be better off asking Christians what they mean; we're the ones who think the whole thing is nonsense :)

But seriously, there have been many discussions of this throughout theological history. The main 2 issues are:

1) Can God do everything, or only everything that is 'logically possible'. Someone who held the first view (eg Descartes) would hold that square circles and unliftable rocks are ok, whereas someone who believed the secone (eg Acquinas) would rule these out.

Restricting omnipotence to the logically possible seems to be putting constraints on God, but it has the benefts of being semi-coherent and fairly respectful to logic. However, as you might expect, other theologians have put fowards more bizarre arguments - Harry Frankfurt argued that God could make a stone he could not lift, yet he could still lift it anyway. He gave the following justification: "If an omnipotent being can do what is logically impossible, then he can not only create situations which he cannot handle but also, since he is not bound by the limits of consistency, he can handle situations which he cannot handle.” . There's a perverse logic behind this argument which I enjoy, and it does serve to bring out the absurdity of the whole idea.

There's a fairly extended discussion of this on wikipedia.

2) Reconciling omnipotence with the problem of evil. The following 3 statements appear to be mutually inconsistent:

God is all powerful

God is all loving

Evil and suffering exist

This kind of thing has caused many problems, and (afaik) the concept of freewill was invented specifically to deal with this problem ("evil exists because humans need to have the ability to choose between good and evil"). This seems completely inconsistent with the idea that God can do the logically impossible, because it seems he should be able to create free-will while avoiding evil, since he can apparently do anything. Those that limit God's omnipotence to the logically possible have more options available - for instance Leibniz idea that the existing world is actually "the best of all possible worlds", hence despite all its problems, it is logically impossible for God to have created a better world.

In short, different philosophers/theologians have various views on omnipotence, theres no real 'Christian position'.

Edited by Hal
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I'd start by asking what they mean when they say "God."

Regarding the "God" of Christianity and the existence of evil, George Smith put it very simply and effectively in Atheism: The Case Against God. This is not a verbatim quote, but it's pretty close.

----

If evil exists, here is what becomes of the three major attributes put forth by Christians about God:

If God doesn't know that evil exists, he is not omniscient.

If he knows that evil exists but can't stop it, he is not omnipotent.

If he knows that evil exists and can stop it but chooses not to, he is not omnibenevolent.

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2) Reconciling omnipotence with the problem of evil. The following 3 statements appear to be mutually inconsistent:

God is all powerful

God is all loving

Evil and suffering exist

This kind of thing has caused many problems, and (afaik) the concept of freewill was invented specifically to deal with this problem ("evil exists because humans need to have the ability to choose between good and evil"). This seems completely inconsistent with the idea that God can do the logically impossible, because it seems he should be able to create free-will while avoiding evil, since he can apparently do anything. Those that limit God's omnipotence to the logically possible have more options available - for instance Leibniz idea that the existing world is actually "the best of all possible worlds", hence despite all its problems, it is logically impossible for God to have created a better world.

In short, different philosophers/theologians have various views on omnipotence, theres no real 'Christian position'.

Having been brought up Catholic, I was given the following to excuses for the existence of evil:

1. Your life on Earth is a test. If you pass the test of being a good person (i.e. not being evil to others) then you get into heaven.

2. (The standard way of dodging this question): the lord works in mysterious ways.

3. Who are we to question his divine plan?

The last two always made me laugh because they are clearly dodging the question completely. :)

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1) Can God do everything, or only everything that is 'logically possible'. Someone who held the first view (eg Descartes) would hold that square circles and unliftable rocks are ok, whereas someone who believed the secone (eg Acquinas) would rule these out.

Restricting omnipotence to the logically possible seems to be putting constraints on God, but it has the benefts of being semi-coherent and fairly respectful to logic.

Actually, the restraints it imposed are more severe than that, since the logically impossible includes every causal connection and every existent's identity. If God is restricted to performing actions that are logically possible, he cannot perform miracles. In effect, he can do nothing godly. Then again, if one applies the axiom of identity consistently, he can't exist in the first place...

As an aside, my girlfriend is a Christian, but also committed to reason, and explained to me that God is not and cannot be omniscient, since that would preclude man's free will. I've always been aware of the inconsistensy between those two ideas (omniscience & free will), but had never met a theist who didn't evade it.

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2. (The standard way of dodging this question): the lord works in mysterious ways.

3. Who are we to question his divine plan?

Yeah, that's the 2 catch-alls that cover anything :lol: Christians in my experience have a hard distinguishing between talk about the concept of God, and talk about God as the actual entity they believe exists. Any attempt to point that their concept is incoherent will be taken as a statement about the entity God and dismissed, since"we cannot understand God's power".

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Actually, the restraints it imposed are more severe than that, since the logically impossible includes every causal connection and every existent's identity.  If God is restricted to performing actions that are logically possible, he cannot perform miracles.  In effect, he can do nothing godly.

"It's in the nature of everything to do whatever God tells it, but to default to X if God's command is absent at some particular point in time", where X is how it behaves normally.

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I am not defending omnipotence or god, but I feel that peope always misrepresent what would be if there were a god. Logically, it would have to exist outside of the physical universe, thus being allowed to create it. It would have to be able to interact with the physical universe (Just like you can build a table and then move it, or sit on it, etc....god could build a universe then do things to it). Because he could do things to the physical universe that normal people can't do, some people might think that he is omnipotent. However, I don't think anyone can claim that, he probably just has characteristics and abilities that are merely amplified from what we would consider normal. Thus he could do lots of things, but he would also have the power to abstain.

I don't think god would be omni-anything, but even with him being benevolent, it wouldn't mean that he would act on stopping evil. If god has free will, the omnis would really mess him up, so I don't think god can be omni-anything. I could see someone getting mugged, even if I had the power to stop it, I might opt not to. And I dont think I would consider myself any less benevolent. I think that if there is a god and he does judge us, he would want to abstain from as much as he could, thus making his judment more fair in the end. If he righted every wrong (which I dont even think any type of god could do) then the judgment part at the end would be quite dumb and moot. He would also be eternal, since time is a property of the physical universe and god wouldnt be in the physical universe. Uh...I can't think of anything else at the moment, but I'll get back to this.

***PLEASE NOTE*** I am not into any religion at the moment, all of my ideas are strictly mine and not of any religious sect. They aren't definitive and are just ideas I've batted around in my head, while pondering stuff. I believe that since god exists outside of our universe, we would never really know whether there is one or not. Plus god is either a being that either necessarily exists or is logically impossible, so you cannot really prove anything without making it somewhat of a circular argument.

EDIT SPELLING

Edited by nimble
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The 18th century atheist Baron D'Holbach said it best:

"No religious system can be founded otherwise than upon the nature of God and of man and upon the relations they bear to each other. But in order to judge of the reality of these relations, we must have some idea of the divine nature.

But everybody tells us that the essence of God is incomprehensible to man. At the same time, they do not hesitate to assign attributes to this incomprehensible god and assure us that man cannot dispense with the knowledge of this god, so impossible to conceive of.

The most important thing for man is that which is the most impossible for him to comprehend. If God is incomprehensible to man, it would seem rational never to think of him at all. But religion concludes that man is criminal if he ceases for a moment to revere Him."

D'Holbach concludes, that "religion is the art of occupying limited minds with that which it is impossible to conceive or to comprehend."

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Thanks for all the replies so far.

I have read Smith's book, "Atheism: The Case Against God" many times, and I have a section I'd like to quote from the book that I have some questions on relating to omnipotence.

Pg 69 START

"What does "omnipotence" mean? Does "all-powerful" mean that God can do literally anything? Can he create a square-circle? A married bachelor? To admit these possibilities leads to insuperable difficulties. Since these things are logically impossible, they cannot exist--and any being with the supposed capacity to create the logically impossible must himself be logically impossible. To say that God can do anything, even the logically impossible, is to push one's God into the realm of that which cannot possibly exist.

"This problem is an obvoius one, and sophisticated theologians have attempted to deal with it. Their solution has been to deny the capacity of God to accomplish the logically impossible, while claiming that this does not detract from his omnipotence.

"In short, God's omnipotence is usually interpreted to mean that God can do anything that is conceivable--anything, for instance, that can be drawn or animated in a cartoon. No artist, however skilled, can draw a square-circle; this is a logical impossibility. But an artist can draw the transformation of an acorn into a theologian, or he can illustrate a cat giving birth to elephants--so these are deemed to be "logically possible" and thus w/i the scope of God's power. If we can imagine it, God can do it.

"Despite the fact that many philosophers wish to label the growth of an acorn into a theologian as a "logical possibility," I consider this notion, or any similar to it, to be a travesty of the word "possibility." The fact that we can imagine the mysterious and causeless transformation of an acorn into a theologian does not change the nature of an acorn, a theologian--or any part of reality.

"It is important to realize that an entity has a specific nature, specific attributes, that make it the kind of thing it is, and that delimit the actions open to that entity. To suggest that an acorn can possess a certain set of characteristics and yet act in a manner which is totally incompatible with those characteristics is, I submit, a contradiction--and it is a contradiction which is as fully impossible as any so-called "logical contradiction.

"To accept the idea of an omnipotent God, one must believe that it is in some way "possible" for an entity to act in contradiction to its nature. In a universe containing an omnipotent being, any action would be open to any entity at any time upon the bidding of God. Causality would be a sham, and rational explanation would crumble.

"It is into this chaotic world that one must plunge if one wishes to speak of God as omnipotent: a universe w/o identity, a universe of the unintelligible and the unknowable--a Walt Disney wonderland whree pumpkins can turn into coaches, oranges into spaceships, and women into pillars of salt."

END

My questions:

In the 2nd paragraph, where Smith says that theologians have claimed that even though God cannot accomplish the logically impossible, his omnipotence isn't hindered---this would be true in the sense that when we talk about "power," we never speak of it as an ability that can create a contradiction, right?--So no "intelligent" Christian would use it that way.

"Despite the fact that many philosophers wish to label the growth of an acorn into a theologian as a "logical possibility," I consider this notion, or any similar to it, to be a travesty of the word "possibility."

I agree with this--it seems as though a Christian may use the concept "logical possibility" to denote what an Objectivist would call the arbitrary. (So, inferred from these passages, when a Christian uses the word "possibility," he means that which isn't a contradiction) However, Smith then says,

The fact that we can imagine the mysterious and causeless transformation of an acorn into a theologian does not change the nature of an acorn, a theologian--or any part of reality.
This part here I am unsure of. In this case, the transformation of an acorn into a theologian wasn't causeless b/c God caused the transformation, right? Nor would that change the nature of the acorn or a theologian, since it would (or at least could) be in both their nature's to be subject to God's powers? (Although after reading this passage over and over again, I think Smith was merely backing up his claim that that which is imaginable isn't necessarily possible)

Then Smith goes onto say

To suggest that an acorn can possess a certain set of characteristics and yet act in a manner which is totally incompatible with those characteristics is, I submit, a contradiction--and it is a contradiction which is as fully impossible as any so-called "logical contradiction.
Which I agree with, but I don't think Christians are necessarily suggesting that an acorn possesses certain characteristics which then acts incompatibly with those characteristics. They are merely suggesting that at any time, God may come in and change the acorn into a theologian. (Once again, it could be argued that it is in the nature of an acorn to be subjected at any time to God's will, correct?)

In a universe containing an omnipotent being, any action would be open to any entity at any time upon the bidding of God.  Causality would be a sham, and rational explanation would crumble.

But couldn't causality exist and simply be interrupted by God's will? Granted, it would be difficult to understand causality if there was a being who could interrupt it, but I don't see how Smith says that it would be a complete sham.

Knock yourselves' out,

Nick.

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  This part here I am unsure of.  In this case, the transformation of an acorn into a theologian wasn't causeless b/c God caused the transformation, right?  Nor would that change the nature of the acorn or a theologian, since it would (or at least could) be in both their nature's to be subject to God's powers?  (Although after reading this passage over and over again, I think Smith was merely backing up his claim that that which is imaginable isn't necessarily possible)

Then Smith goes onto say  Which I agree with, but I don't think Christians are necessarily suggesting that an acorn possesses certain characteristics which then acts incompatibly with those characteristics.  They are merely suggesting that at any time, God may come in and change the acorn into a theologian.  (Once again, it could be argued that it is in the nature of an acorn to be subjected at any time to God's will, correct?)

If God can change any entity into any thing, then that means that entities don't have a determinate nature, i.e., don't have an identity. Just think about it a bit. That is the crucial point to grasp here, and I think that's precisely what you're missing. Get that point and all the nonsense about omnipotence just sounds like so much intellectual legerdemain.

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Nimble, are you familiar with the concept of the arbitrary?

If we are speculating what god might be, I would say at least attack a version that is defensible, like mine. The version of a god that is portrayed in this thread is as arbitrary as the god I described in my post, so I should ask...are you familiar with the concept of arbitrary?

My ideas of what a possible god might be are at least coherent. I just thought it was a bit dumb to start off with a concept of god with flawed attributes and definitions, then proceed to attack it. I am sorry that I decided to toss out an idea of a being that one might consider god, whose attributes are a little more defensible. I mean really, what is more pointless, me throwing around ideas in my head about god or a group of atheists asserting their atheism for the rest of the group?

I hope you don't take this as a harsh response, but I felt as if you were being a bit rude considering that I did put a disclaimer that it was just an idea and not anything more.

Edited by nimble
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I hope you don't take this as a harsh response, but I felt as if you were being a bit rude considering that I did put a disclaimer that it was just an idea and not anything more.

No, I don't consider it a harsh reply at all, and I'm sorry if my question sounded rude.

I should have asked if you are familiar with Objectivism's view of the arbitrary.

According to Objectivism, arbitrary propositions are ones for which no evidence of truth or falsehood exists or can exist; they are neither true nor false, that is, they have no relationship to reality at all; they are simply null and void.

I bring this up because you seem to hold the following as a possibility: "Logically, (god) would have to exist outside of the physical universe, thus being allowed to create it."

I hold that to be an arbitrary notion, and as such it is neither a possibility or an impossibility -- it is nothing.

The point is that removing the "impossible" attributes of god does not make his existence a possibility; it does not make the concept "more reasonable" -- and it does not impose on us a burden to "prove he does not exist".

I realize you are just tossing ideas around. But let's not grant the arbitrary the additional status of "a possibility".

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If God can change any entity into any thing, then that means that entities don't have a determinate nature, i.e., don't have an identity.

I understand that this would be the case if God were to "abuse" his omnipotence daily, but what if God simply did an extraordinary feat once every month?

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I understand that this would be the case if God were to "abuse" his omnipotence daily, but what if God simply did an extraordinary feat once every month?

What is your position, Nick? Do you believe in god? Are you searching for some sort of reasoning that will make you comfortable with a belief in god, or what?
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Are you searching for some sort of reasoning that will make you comfortable with a belief in god, or what?

Yes! I want to believe! Why can't I just have comfort knowing that someone is watching out for me!?!?

Just kidding. I'm strictly an atheist but was conversing with a Chrisitian a few days ago about the omnipotence of God and why I thought it was a contradiction. But then after we spoke I thought about it some more and was wondering if I was stealing a concept (power) and applying it arbitrarily when I asked if the OB could create a boulder he couldn't lift.

Plus it's a good chance for me to practice my rusty logic :D . I know the belief in God is unfounded, I'm just taking a piece of "Him" and putting it under a microscope, irregardless of his non-existence.

[email protected]

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've always been under the impression that if God were omnipotent (and omniscient, omnipresent, etc.), then he is inherently undefinable, which means he does not follow the law of identity and, therefore, the axiom of existence. In order for God to be conscious, he must exist possessing a definable identity. Otherwise, he would break every single axiom by his consciousness having primacy over his existence (and identity).

Those questions are irrelevant, because they assume that God follows the primacy of existence.

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I've always been under the impression that if God were omnipotent (and omniscient, omnipresent, etc.), then he is inherently undefinable
We dont define objects and things - we define words and concepts. This might seem like a minor semantic point, but I think it is important here. The problem isnt that God is a being that somehow transcends all attempts at definition - its that Christians havent managed to nail down their concept of 'God' to a point where a sensible definition is possible.
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