Omnipotence and Failure
June 13, 2011 — 16:22

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 12

The famous Stone Paradox asks, ‘can an omnipotent being make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?’ A simpler question, and one which I think makes the issues clearer, is, ‘can an omnipotent being fail?’
If a being can fail, then there is something that being doesn’t have the power to do, namely, whatever it is it can fail to do. If a being can’t fail, then there is something it doesn’t have the power to do, namely, to fail.
Now, we sometimes have chancy powers/abilities, as, for instance, in J. L. Austin’s famous example, the power to sink a putt from a certain distance. The possibility of failure is compatible with this sort of power. However, surely when we ascribe omnipotence to God, we don’t mean to say that he has chancy powers of this sort; we mean that he has infallible powers. In fact, I would claim, in ascribing omnipotence to God, part of what we mean is precisely that he can’t fail to do anything he tries to do. (This isn’t all we mean; to avoid some counterexamples, we need some conditions about what he can try to do. In an as-yet-unpublished paper, Alexander Pruss and I argue that this additional condition is perfect freedom of will.)
Call the following property ‘act-omnipotence’:

S is act-omnipotent =df. S can perform a token of any logically possible action-type

We can turn the above reasoning into an argument that act-omnipotence is inconsistent with omnipotence:

  1. If a being can fail, that being is not omnipotent.
  2. If a being cannot fail, that being is not act-omnipotent.
  3. Every being either can fail or cannot fail.
  4. Therefore,

  5. No being is both omnipotent and act-omnipotent.

Now, of course, if omnipotence implies act-omnipotence, then this is just another way of saying that omnipotence is self-inconsistent. But why think that omnipotence implies act-omnipotence?
As far as I can see, act-omnipotence is self-consistent. ‘Causing oneself to cease to be act-omnipotent’ appears to be a logically possible action, and if the act-omnipotent being can do this, then it seems that it can fail, and that it can create a stone it can’t lift. It can do these things by ceasing to be act-omnipotent. But act-omnipotence is inconsistent with omnipotence and, therefore, should not be ascribed to God.
[cross-posted at]

  • David Waldock

    If a being is not act-omnipotent, that presumably creates an opportunity for a moral act-inhibitor (ie. causing immoral acts to be impossible)?

    June 13, 2011 — 16:55
  • Kenny Pearce

    Act-omnipotence certainly implies the ability to do evil. Whether omnipotence does is a more difficult question. My view is that God has the power to do evil, in the sense that if he tried to do evil he would succeed, but that he is prevented from trying to do evil by a form of ‘volitional necessity’ which does not impinge on his freedom, like a Luther case. (See Gary Watson’s “Volitional Necessity” in his Agency and Answerability.)

    June 13, 2011 — 17:15
  • John

    I think it’s necessary that “omnipotence” imply “act-omnipotence.” Yes, an act-omnipotent being should be able to cease being act-omnipotent but that does not mean that it’s possible for the being to fail. After all, the being ceased to be act-omnipotent. Any subsequent failure would be the failure of a non-act-omnipotent being.
    To say that omnipotence is the property of doing things that cannot logically be done is absurd. Omnipotence must imply act-omnipotence.

    June 13, 2011 — 17:26
  • Mike Almeida

    if the act-omnipotent being can do this, then it seems that it can fail, and that it can create a stone it can’t lift.
    An omnipotent being can create a stone he cannot lift, I think. Call that S. Now ask whether sucha being can lift S. The answer may well be yes. But were he to do so, S would not be a stone too heavy for him to lift. The only assumption you need is that S is not necessarily or essentially such that an omnipotent being could not lift it. It is just contingently so.
    fwiw, I’m not convinced by the position that God is omnipotent in the sense of having the power to do anything, including a necessarily unmanifested power to perform a wrong action. There aren’t any necessarily unmanifested powers, since there are no necessarily finked dispositions.

    June 13, 2011 — 17:34
  • Kenny Pearce

    John – An act-omnipotent being can bring it about that it itself fails. It is true that it cannot fail while at the same time continuing to be act-omnipotent. But to say that an act-omnipotent being can’t fail is like saying a bachelor can’t get divorced. Of course he can’t get divorced while remaining a bachelor, but if he, the agent who is in fact a bachelor, can get married, then he can subsequently get divorced. So although he is presently a bachelor, he presently has the power to later (after he has gotten married) get divorced. There is no lack of ability on his part; it’s just that the ability he has must be exercised by means of a multi-step process.
    Now, you might try to define act-omnipotence as the ability to token any action-type directly, without the need for intermediate steps. This property, it seems to me, would be incoherent.
    Whether an omnipotent being can do impossible things is beside the point. Cartesian voluntarism implies act-omnipotence. (A being who can perform any act whatsoever, even an impossible one, can a fortiori perform any possible act.) What I am claiming here is that omnipotence should not be defined in terms of the ability to perform acts at all. (James F. Ross argues persuasively for the same claim in his Philosophical Theology.) I would say it should be defined in terms of the ability to bring about states of affairs. (And this is how, e.g., Leibniz, Ross, and Plantinga conceive of it.) Of course, we should only include possible states of affairs.
    Mike – Call the allegedly omnipotent being B. Now suppose S has some property P (say, mass greater than 1 billion kg) in virtue of which it cannot be lifted by B. Even if B can lift S by causing S to cease to exemplify P, it seems that the fact that B cannot lift the stone while the stone continues to exemplify P suffices for B lacking omnipotence (and act-omnipotence). That B lacks act-omnipotence can be seen from the fact that there is a possible action-type ‘lifting a stone that is P.’ I suppose if you introduce a primitive property being unliftable, then you can get around this (since the action-type ‘lifting a stone that is unliftable’ is impossible), but from your other remarks about powers and dispositions I assume you don’t want primitive dispositional properties – let alone primitive negative dispositional properties!

    June 13, 2011 — 18:03
  • Pukadog

    X is omnipotent at time T =DF, It is within X’s power to do any action which is metaphysically possible for X to do at T and it is within X’s power at T to do some action. Thought this would be of some help. It get’s around the stone paradox.

    June 14, 2011 — 1:00
  • Kenny Pearce

    Pukadog – Yes, this is one of the definitions frequently discussed in the literature, and it does get around the Stone Paradox. But it fails on McEar-style counterexamples: some (possible) beings may count as omnipotent because the range of actions it is metaphysically possible for them to perform is very small.

    June 14, 2011 — 2:26
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think the mistake behind these apparent paradoxes is to apply the concept of “can” to an omnipotent being. As St Augustine in his “City of God” rightly observes “God is called omnipotent on account of His doing what He wills”. This I think describes well the power of the greatest conceivable being.
    The only relevant question then is whether God *wants* to do X. To ask whether God can do X is incoherent, because “can” applies only in the context of persons who may want something without doing it. Now it is obvious that God, being perfectly rational, does not want to create a stone so heavy that S/He cannot lift it, does not want to do evil, does not want to remove Him/Herself out of existence, does not want to create a square circle, does not want to fail, etc.
    Similarly, omniscience should be understood in the sense that God knows what S/He wants to know. If God wants not to know X then God knows X. If God does not want to know Y then God does not know Y. And if God wants to forget Z then God forgets Z. (In my mind the latter bit explains how evil will be utterly defeated, namely at some point all evil will be forgotten even by God.)
    By making God’s properties such as power and knowledge contingent on God’s will I believe one gets a clearer picture of the greatness of God, and avoids, as far as I can see, all the usual apparent paradoxes.

    June 14, 2011 — 18:59
  • Kevin

    This is getting a bit off the original thread, but I don’t see how evil is defeated by being forgotten. Can you say a bit more here, Dianelos?

    June 15, 2011 — 8:52
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Even though the project of understanding why there is evil in creation is as yet incomplete, I think we do understand bits and pieces of the puzzle. So, in my judgment, truth probably lies in the neighborhood of soul-making theodicies. Further we can see that the existence of evil in creation is necessary for the attainment of some virtues such as courage. We can see that the creation of significantly free persons implies that evil will enter the world. Conversely, I think we can see that the existence of evil increases freedom, in that it gives us the freedom to overcome it, a great freedom which we would lack if evil didn’t exist. (So it’s not only that freedom brings evil, but also that evil brings freedom.) We need the evil of God’s apparent distance for our love for God to be precious, and for our trust in God to be meaningful. Paradoxically it may turn out to be the case that we need the problem of evil to understand the nature and goodness of God. As Plantinga argues evil is necessary for us to behold the beauty and receive the blessing of Christ’s sacrificial love. In conclusion on theism it must be the case that even though evil itself is evil, the telos of evil is good. Evil forms part of a perfect creation in that it is directed towards the realization of a greater good, a good that is not realizable without the previous presence of that evil. Theism entails that God has created the world in such a way that the most excellent eternal state will be realized.
    Given the above, even if (as I believe) universal salvation is true and all evil and its fruits will be defeated and removed from existence, even if at the eschaton all persons will exist in perfect atonement, the shadow of evil will still exist in their personal memory of it. But then there will still be a blemish in the state of creation, but one that can easily be removed. We, limited created persons, will naturally tend to forget past evils. Even in this life, as part of the process of forgiveness and repentance, we tend to forget the evils we suffered and the evils we did. In the previous post I was pointing out that with the (I believe) correct understanding of God’s omnipotence and omniscience we can see that ultimately even God will choose to forget all evils, which means that that creation will become utterly free of evil, blemishless, and perfect in goodness. Thus, the understanding of omnipotence and omniscience I suggest, not only removes many of the claimed paradoxes, but also helps us see how God’s creation will realize its most excellent eternal state.
    Incidentally, I think I can give a different reason why I believe that even God will ultimately forget all evils, namely that this much is implied by St Anselm’s definition. Very simply, a being who chooses to forget all evils (when these evils have fulfilled their telos and thus knowing about them serves no rational purpose) strikes me as greater than a being who chooses to eternally remember them. In fact, the idea that all actual evils, from the most horrible to the most trivial, will for always remain in God’s holy and most beautiful mind – strikes me as absurd.

    June 15, 2011 — 21:30
  • Kevin Timpe

    Thanks, that’s helpful. So it’s not God’s forgetting which, by itself, defeats evil. But His forgetting is a way of removing the last trace of those evils which have already been defeated in some other way. I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

    June 15, 2011 — 22:13
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Yes, but please observe that removing the last trace of those evils is defeating the last remaining evil. As God is perfect so too creation must be perfect in its eternal state.

    June 16, 2011 — 19:11