In a previous entry, on Baldwin’s counter-ontological argument, I considered whether there might be divine twins, that is, two co-existing individuals sharing all of their repeatable intrinsic properties, which are the traditional perfections. One reason for thinking that there couldn’t be two such individuals is that there couldn’t be two co-existing omnipotent agents. I’ve gone through what I’ve written before, and, I think, improved my argument that there could be two omnipotent agents, and I’m posting it below the fold.
There is a standard argument that concludes that there could not have been two co-existing omnipotent agents, which goes roughly like this: if there were two co-existing omnipotent agents, then their wills might conflict, and this conflict amounts to the frustration of both of their wills, which is impossible if they are omnipotent agents. In what follows, I consider a recent form of this argument, and I maintain that the lesson to be drawn from it is not that there could not have been two co-existing omnipotent agents, but rather that contextual factors can render a task incoherent, in a sense defined below.
Joshua Hoffman and Gary S. Rosenkrantz have recently presented the following version of the argument at issue. Suppose for reductio that there are two omnipotent agents, Dick and Jane.
If this were possible, then it could happen that at some time, t, Dick, while retaining his omnipotence, attempts to move a feather, and at t, Jane, while retaining her omnipotence, attempts to keep that feather motionless. Intuitively, in this case, neither Dick nor Jane would affect the feather as to its motion or rest. Thus, in this case, at t, Dick would be powerless to move the feather, and at t, Jane would be powerless to keep the feather motionless! But it is absurd to suppose that an omnipotent agent could lack the power to move a feather or the power to keep it motionless. (2002: 168).
Therefore, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz conclude, neither agent is omnipotent, and so, there could not be two co-existent omnipotent agents.
In response, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz’s argument is unpersuasive because in stating one of their premises: It is absurd to suppose that an omnipotent agent could lack the power to move a feather or the power to keep it motionless.
they have not stated the context in which the actions at issue are to be performed. When this context is made explicit, we have: It is absurd to suppose that an omnipotent agent Dick could lack the power to move a feather which another omnipotent agent, Jane, wills to remain motionless, and that an omnipotent agent Jane could lack the power to keep a feather motionless which another omnipotent agent, Dick, wills to move.
And when stated fully, it is clearly false. It is no more absurd to suppose that Dick and Jane could have lacked the particular powers at issue than that they could have lacked the power to bring about logically contradictory states of affairs. Thus, Hoffman and Rosenkrantz’s argument is unsound, but it does yield an important lesson, which is that the coherence of a task is dependent on contextual factors. Let me explain.
I begin with two stipulations:
A task is coherent just in case it is (i) the bringing about of a logically possible state of affairs, and (ii) bringing about this state of affairs is consistent with the agent of the task’s nature.
An agent is omnipotent just in case she has the power to perform any coherent task.
Now to be sure, both the task of moving a feather and the task of keeping a feather motionless are coherent tasks in many, if not most contexts. However, both of these tasks are rendered incoherent in a particular context, namely, when we have two omnipotent agents, one willing that a feather move and the other willing that that feather be motionless: it is not logically possible, even for an omnipotent agent, to move a feather which another omnipotent agent wills to remain motionless and it is not logically possible, even for an omnipotent agent, to keep a feather motionless which another omnipotent agent wills to move. It then follows that Dick’s powerlessness to move the feather in this scenario is no bar to his omnipotence and Jane’s powerlessness to keep the feather motionless in this scenario is no bar to her omnipotence, and so Hoffman and Rosenkrantz’s argument does not tell against the possibility of two omnipotent agents.
It should be immediately apparent that this resolution of Hoffman and Rosenkrantz’s argument has an affinity with some solutions to the liar paradox. One standard response to the liar paradox is to claim that the liar sentence does not express a proposition, that is, it is not coherent. But the liar paradox arises not only in connection with a special sentence, namely, ‘It is not the case that this sentence is true’. The liar paradox also arises in ordinary but unfavourable contexts. As Kripke (1975) has shown, contextual factors can render ordinary assertions of truth and falsity paradoxical. Consider the following case suggested by Kripke (1975: 691-92). Say that Jones makes the following claim:
(1) Most (i.e., a majority) of Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are false.
This assertion, in and of itself, has no paradoxical features that might be thought to prevent it from being true or false. Say that (1) is the only sentence that Jones utters about Watergate, or that all, except perhaps (1), of his assertions about Watergate are true. Now assume that Nixon’s assertions about Watergate are evenly balanced between true assertions and false assertions, and that Nixon then utters the following sentence:
(2) Everything that Jones says about Watergate is true.
Just as there is nothing intrinsically paradoxical about (1), there is nothing intrinsically paradoxical about (2), but together, they create a paradox. One might say that (1) and (2) are extrinsically paradoxical in Kripke’s thought experiment. With this example we see that, in Kripke’s words: “many, probably most, of our ordinary assertions about truth and falsity are liable, if the empirical facts are extremely unfavorable, to exhibit paradoxical features” (1975: 691). Similarly, many — probably most — of the tasks we take to be coherent in ordinary cases are liable, if the case is extremely unfavourable, to exhibit paradoxical features. These paradoxical features render the sentences and the tasks that exhibit them incoherent. While, on the resolution of the liar paradox I have in mind, the liar sentence is incoherent in any context whatsoever, (1) and (2) are not coherent in the context given by Kripke, even though they are coherent in other, ordinary contexts. One might say that the liar sentence is intrinsically incoherent, while (1) and (2) are extrinsically incoherent in the context given by Kripke, and most, if not all, sentences are either intrinsically incoherent, or liable to be extrinsically incoherent depending on the contexts in which they are uttered. Thus, whether or not a sentence is coherent is dependent on contextual factors. Similarly, while the task of making two and two add up to five is not a coherent task in any context whatsoever, that is, it is intrinsically incoherent, the task of moving a feather and the task of keeping a feather motionless are incoherent in the one offered by Hoffman and Rosenkrantz, that is, they are extrinsically incoherent in this context, even though they are coherent tasks in ordinary contexts. Thus, whether or not a task is coherent is dependent on contextual factors, and an omnipotent being need not be able to perform an incoherent task, regardless of whether it is intrinsically incoherent or extrinsically incoherent.
Hoffman, J. and Rosenkrantz, G. S. 2002. The Divine Attributes. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kripke, S. 1975. Outline of a theory of truth. The Journal of Philosophy 72: 690-716.