Effortlessness and omnipotence
May 23, 2012 — 8:25

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Concept of God  Tags: ,   Comments: 37

All of the extant definitions of omnipotence are missing what seems to me to be an important ingredient. A typical definition says something like: “God can do anything that’s logically possible.” But that’s not quite enough. One needs to specify that God can do everything effortlessly. This is an easy emendation, of course, but an important one.

Comments:
  • Fletcher

    You begin by claiming that definitions of *omnipotence* are missing an important ingredient. You next suggest that we make an emendation, but the emendation you suggest is only required for a definition of *God’s* omnipotence, not omnipotence simpliciter.
    Strictly speaking, no such emendation is needed for a definition of “omnipotence”. But such an emendation is indeed needed to satisfy a desideratum of a metaphysics of Christian theism.

    May 23, 2012 — 8:35
  • I shouldn’t have talked about God. I think a being that needs to make an effort to do something isn’t omnipotent.

    May 23, 2012 — 8:48
  • Chris K.

    On the face of it, this seems like a harmless enough emendation, but I wonder if it would be helpful to spell out the justification for our needing to add this. Is it impious to think that God must struggle in doing some things? Is it unbiblical? Is it contrary to divine perfection?
    Further, there’s the question of whether God could have redeemed humanity effortlessly. Even if one affirms that He could have, I think it should be important to recognize the difference between God’s being able to do something effortlessly and God’s actually doing something effortlessly. It appears, at least on my reading of things, that God is not particularly committed to effortless courses of action.

    May 23, 2012 — 9:04
  • This isn’t intended to be a snarky criticism, though it might come across in that way. What about actions like “expending effort in running a 4 minute mile”? These are clearly logically consistent (and metaphysically possible) actions, yet they are impossible to perform effortlessly. Presumably they are to be ruled out somehow.
    More important for the Christian philosopher is the obvious effort expended by the Second Person of the Trinity, say, in the Garden of Gethsemane when struggling with taking on the task before Him. Perhaps we might want to say that God could take on the redemption of the world effortlessly, but it looks like that wasn’t how it was actually achieved.

    May 23, 2012 — 9:07
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    if a situation S is possible, is S’s being brought about effortlessly thereby also possible?

    May 23, 2012 — 9:12
  • Greg:
    The second person of the Trinity did not expend the effort qua God.
    As for expending effort in running a 4 minute mile, yes, that’s a problem for accounts of omnipotence like the one I used in my example where possible actions are quantified over. It’s not a problem for accounts of omnipotence where propositions are quantified over, and it is said that God can bring these propositions about. One example of such an account of omnipotence is the Pearce-Pruss account on which a being is omnipotent iff it is perfectly free and has an efficacious will, i.e., one that has to bring about whatever proposition is willed (there are more details in the paper). For in accounts where propositions are quantified over, the proposition that God effortfully runs a 4 minute mile will simply be taken to be an impossible proposition, and hence one that there is no need for God to be able to bring it about.
    Chris:
    I think effortlessness may be a consequence of impassibility. In any case, it seems contrary to divine perfection. And it seems a standard part of Christian thought to say that nothing is difficult for God.
    God redeemed humanity with no divine effort. The effort was all expended by him qua human.

    May 23, 2012 — 9:17
  • Joshua:
    No, if only because some situations are possible but can’t be brought about, say that God exists.

    May 23, 2012 — 9:17
  • Chris K.

    To say that the second Person of the Trinity expended effort only qua human seems to rely on a contested limitation on the communicatio idiomatum. This is not necessarily a criticism, but just a point that there will be significant disagreement within the Christian community as to how Christ’s humanity and divinity interact.
    I suppose it would also help to pin down what is meant by “effort.” Does effortlessness simply mean that something done not be difficult for the agent? Or that no energy is expended? Or something else? Are there relevant differences between action-effort, mental effort, and emotional effort?
    If impassibility rules out at least most emotions, surely it does not rule out love (although love is perhaps more than an emotion, it at least seems to include emotion). Is love something that can be had or expressed without emotional effort?

    May 23, 2012 — 10:37
  • Kenny Pearce

    I’m not sure the following is correct, but perhaps it’s in the ballpark of something that will work. We want to say that an omnipotent being can do anything effortlessly. It might be that God in fact (qua God) actually cannot expend effort, but that might be, as you say, due to his impassibility or something. It doesn’t need to be built into omnipotence. Now consider the following argument:
    1) An agent needs to expend effort in order to bring about some outcome only if the agent needs to take some means to accomplish the outcome.
    2) By perfect efficacy, an omnipotent agent never needs to take means to accomplish any outcome.
    Therefore,
    3) An omnipotent agent does not need to expend effort to bring about any outcome.
    Here’s an argument for premise (2):
    a) An agent needs to take means to accomplish an outcome only if: (i) the agent wills the outcome, and (ii) despite the agent’s willing, the outcome will not come about unless the agent also bring about some other state of affairs logically independent of it.
    b) But, by perfect efficacy, an omnipotent being’s will is necessarily always fulfilled.
    Therefore,
    2) By perfect efficacy, an omnipotent agent never needs to take means to accomplish any outcome.
    The reason I’m not certain that this is right, is that I’m not sure about these principles about means (premises (1) and (a)). I’m also concerned about working out the details of (b). You might worry that there could be a being whose will is necessarily always fulfilled because, necessarily, whenever that being wills certain ends it always wills the means to them. We might want to try to rule this out with the freedom condition, but willing the means to your end is a principle of rationality, so that approach is tricky. It might be better to say that that being fails our counterpossible test. What do you think?

    May 23, 2012 — 10:58
  • Kenny Pearce

    On further reflection, the counterpossible test is surely the way to go: the being described is such that if (per impossibile) it should fail to will the means, then, despite its willing, the end would not come about. So that being lacks perfect efficacy. That should be enough, I think, to show that a perfectly efficacious being doesn’t need means. So the real question is whether my principle (1) is true, that a being who uses no means expends no effort.

    May 23, 2012 — 11:03
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Alex,
    I’m wondering if your emendation is ultimately superfluous. Let O be the class of states of affairs that an omnipotent being should be able to bring about. I’m wondering if for each member o of O, there’s a member o* of O that’s identical to o’s being brought about effortlessly, where o* couldn’t be brought about by a being unless that being could effortlessly bring about o. It might help to think this through in terms of a specific specification of O–such Flint-Freddoso’s.

    May 23, 2012 — 11:34
  • Josh:
    Suppose it were to turn out that it’s metaphysically impossible that any being create donkeys effortlessly. On your proposal, that’s compatible with there being an omnipotent being. On my proposal, that’s not compatible with there being an omnipotent being. So our proposals aren’t equivalent.
    Kenny:
    I am inclined to think God cannot expend effort, but I think you’re right that this isn’t a part of omnipotence per se.
    As for means, if essentiality of origins holds for any creature or any natural kind (it’s very plausible that it holds for biological kinds whose identity is bound up with their evolutionary history, but maybe these biological kinds aren’t really natural), there will be states of affairs that cannot be brought about without means.

    May 23, 2012 — 13:06
  • Chris:
    I guess I am inclined to think that God doesn’t need to go to any effort at all to bring anything about.
    Analyzing the types of effort there are would make a good paper or maybe even dissertation in moral psychology.

    May 23, 2012 — 13:08
  • Kenny Pearce

    Good point about biological kinds. That means my premise (a) is false (since biological kinds provide an example where the means are not logically independent of the ends). But perhaps there is still some relation between exerting effort and having to bring about the end by bringing about some other, logically independent, state of affairs. When I exert effort to lift an object, it’s because I have to lift the object BY contracting my muscles. An omnipotent being doesn’t have to do that. Perhaps this will entail effortlessness. (But it is not easy to figure out how exactly to formulate the principle in question.)

    May 23, 2012 — 13:11
  • Joshua Rasmussen

    Suppose it were to turn out that it’s metaphysically impossible that any being create donkeys effortlessly. On your proposal, that’s compatible with there being an omnipotent being. On my proposal, that’s not compatible with there being an omnipotent being.
    I concede.

    May 23, 2012 — 13:19
  • I wonder if the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of God being actus purus–Pure Act; if this helps defend the view that God does everything effortlessly? The thought is this: If God is ‘pure act,’ then there is nothing in which would require exertion on God’s part, for he Himself is ‘pure act.’

    May 23, 2012 — 15:55
  • Ebbedee

    I submit that an omnipotent entity must be an entity requiring no means outside itself in order to fulfill any end. This is in keeping with the traditional Christian doctrine of atonement by the substitution of God for the sinner, in the person of the unique God-man as the true intermediary between sinner and God. Only God can.
    Moreover, the changelessness of the God of traditional Christianity seems to me to require that that God’s omnipresence be by way of that God’s transcendence, in the sense that that transcendence requires no means in order to be present-with-the-creature (i.e., self-existence requires no intermediate substance in order for the self-existent entity to bring about any substance which is ‘external’ to that entity. How can there be such a thing as an essential intermediate between itself and its creatures? The essential middle is excluded by definition.

    May 23, 2012 — 16:21
  • Ebbedee

    Effort, as in a sense of strain, is a function of expendability of resources. Omnipotence is un-expendably, immediately infinite. This is just like the power involved in the infinite velocity of a transcendent object, which is equivalent to omnipresence of that object. And, non-transcendent objects, by definition, cannot achieve infinite velocity, wherein infinite velocity becomes transcendent omnipresence, because synthetic objects are, by definition, non-transcendent, since to be immutably coherent is to be non-synthetic, and the infinite velocity of a non-transcendent object would mean the immediate annihilation both of that object and of all non-transcendent objects in its path-of-travel. So, the concept of infinite effort is an irrational object.

    May 23, 2012 — 16:53
  • Fletcher

    Kenny,
    Well, perhaps the effort-analogue to a human being lifting an object is that the being said to be omnipotence must direct itself in thought towards a given task in order to make it so that it obtains. Not effort of strength, but effort of thought. Though at this point, effort doesn’t quite capture the nature of that activity. Nevertheless, it is a means.
    Self-determination, or having powers of immediate efficacy, surely still requires an intentional activity which is said to be a *type* of means. A necessary condition anyway.

    May 23, 2012 — 20:39
  • Stefan Lindholm

    Another aspect of effortlessness and omnipotence is that whoever has these properties is a candidate for being worthy of worship. I am not sure being worthy of worship is essential to an omnipotent perfect being but it must relates to it for we do not worship any omnipotent being. It is the type of omnipotence that is important or how a being is omnipotent. This is where effortlessness might be relevant.
    Consider the following analogy: Which athlete do you admire the most – the one who performs action A effortlessly (because he/she is a natural and need less practice) or the one who performs action A with great effort (becasue he/she is more in need of practice)? And what kind of omnipotent being do you find most worthy of worship (or admire) – the one who performs action B effortlessly etc.?

    May 24, 2012 — 0:27
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    It seems to me that the predicate “can” should not be used in the context of omnipotence, for it only makes sense in the context of not omnipotent beings. In general we should be careful when applying to God language we have found useful to describe the human condition.
    I’d like to suggest that omnipotence is to do what one wants to do (which is the definition that St Augustine gives in his City of God). In the context of God the paradox of the stone fails, for God, being rational, simply does not want to create such a stone. Neither must one make qualifications about impossibilities, for God does not want to do impossible things. As for the issue of effortlessness this definition implies that if God wants to do something effortlessly than God does so; and if God wants to do something with effort then God does so too. If God wants to do something qua God then God does so; and if God wants to do something as the incarnation of God’s second hypostasis then God does so too.
    I have found St Augustine’s simple definition to work very well. Incidentally, that definition can be applied to omniscience too: Omniscience is to know what one wants to know.

    May 24, 2012 — 0:56
  • overseas

    Leftow talks about God’s “strength” in a way that may build effortlessness into the definition of omnipotence. See his piece on omnipotence in the Oxford handbook of philosophical theology.

    May 24, 2012 — 1:21
  • By the way, something related to effortlessness is that God doesn’t need to work over a period of time to get something done. He wills and it is so.
    Dianelos:
    “omnipotence is to do what one wants to do”
    Trivially, a rock does everything it wants to. Likewise, we could imagine a being with only the desire to sing Yankee Doodle who does what it wants to do, and can do nothing else.
    “Omniscience is to know what one wants to know”
    There are some people who have no interest in knowledge. None of them are omniscient.

    May 24, 2012 — 9:06
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Alex, fair enough. I am only interested in the proper understanding of omnipotence in relation to God. So let me put this way: “God is omnipotent in that God does what God wants” – or perhaps a little better “God is omnipotent in that God realizes what God wants”. (Which, incidentally, leads me to universalism: Since God wants each one of us to fully repent and join the Kingdom – this will be realized.)
    For completeness sake, here are St Augustine’s actual words in his City of God: “God is called omnipotent on account of His doing what He wills”.

    May 24, 2012 — 12:42
  • Ebbedee

    “Omniscience is to know what one wants to know”
    “There are some people who have no interest in knowledge. None of them are omniscient.”
    Omniscience is to know all necessity, as such, and, thus, to perfectly distinguish it from any contingency. In other words, to possess all effective knowledge, both a posteriori and the a priori that makes a posteriori possible.

    May 24, 2012 — 17:46
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Does effortlessness enter into the account of omnibenevolence and omniscience, too? Or, following Fletcher’s observation from above, should those enter into the discussion (if they should at all) only if we’re concerned with divine omniscience and divine omnibenevolence?
    For the record, I don’t see anything wrong with keeping effort (or its analogue) out of an account of omniscience and omnibenevolence. Indeed, in the case of omniscience, I’d want an omniscient being to know what it’s like to discover p, run through an argument, wonder whether p, etc. Of course, I’d also want the omniscient being to know what its like to do something with great effort.
    Is there an objection here? Maybe. I don’t think that X can know what it’s like to do something with great effort if X hasn’t ever done anything with great effort. You didn’t say that an omnipotent being _can’t_ do something with great effort, only that whatever it can do it can do effortlessly. Two positions you might take here:
    P1. The omnipotent agent can do things effortlessly and with effort.
    P2. The omnipotent agent can only do things effortlessly.
    In response to Greg, your view seems to be P2. If P2 is in tension with omniscience for the reasons hinted at above, that’s some reason to prefer P1. But, then I wonder if you’d need a different response to Greg’s worry. (This is all back of the envelop stuff, I suspect that you’ll either deny the omniscience-what it’s like link or say that God has the what it’s like K without being the agent/subject of the action so that we can say that God knows what it’s like to suffer without having suffered or what it’s like to be confused without suffering confusion, etc.)

    May 25, 2012 — 5:24
  • Ebbedee

    “I don’t think that X can know what it’s like to do something with great effort if X hasn’t ever done anything with great effort.”
    I think there is a needless element being inferred here: that for an omnipotent-and-omniscient being necessarily to act and know effortlessly means that it cannot know what it is like to make an effort.
    I would propose that if an omnipotent-and-omniscient being is the creator of non-omnipotent, non-omniscient beings, then, even though that creator does not make an effort, it nevertheless knows what it is like to make an effort. This proposal is in keeping both with the doctrine that God cannot sin and with the Genesis account that God nevertheless knows the difference between good and evil.

    May 25, 2012 — 9:27
  • Ebbedee

    “I’d want an omniscient being to know what it’s like to discover p, run through an argument, wonder whether p, etc. Of course, I’d also want the omniscient being to know what its like to do something with great effort.”
    I think it safe to think that only a contingent knower is limited to knowledge-*of*-experience by knowledge-*by*-experience. I think that the pre-incarnate Christ, as pure God, did not lack intimate knowledge of our suffering, but that since He knew that *we* could not know this so well unless we knew that he had indeed suffered with us, he became a human and *actually* suffered with us.

    May 25, 2012 — 9:37
  • Ebbedee

    “Perhaps we might want to say that God could take on the redemption of the world effortlessly, but it looks like that wasn’t how it was actually achieved.”
    I don’t think that for a knowing being to be the primary ontology means that that being is incapable of taking on a knowing non-primary ontology and genuinely experiencing what only a knowing non-primary ontology can actually experience. By way of a couple of poor analogies (and I don’t think any analogy could be otherwise), paint on a door is, at once, door-and-paint; and a lighted light bulb is both bulb and light. I think that we ontologically non-primary beings must keep in mind that we are non-primary.

    May 25, 2012 — 9:49
  • Kenny Pearce

    Why think omniscience includes knowing-what-it’s-like and not only knowing-that?
    After all, from a Christian perspective, Hebrews seems to suggest God knows what it’s like to be human only in virtue of the Incarnation. Of course, independent of the Incarnation, in virtue of his omniscience, God knows that it’s like x, y, and z (that it involves pain and suffering, for instance), but only by becoming Incarnate does God gain any kind of experiential knowledge that can’t be reduced to knowing-that.

    May 25, 2012 — 11:36
  • Cian

    Kenny,
    Re: “Why think omniscience includes knowing-what-it’s-like and not only knowing-that?”
    Because the distinction between knowing-what-it-is-like and knowing-that is not a fine-grained one, and when one attempts to make one, one ends with identifying a point already established: That is, that ‘god’ proper did not have certain physical experiences.

    May 25, 2012 — 12:36
  • Ebbedee

    ” ‘god’ proper did not have certain physical experiences.”
    Does this mean that ‘god’ proper cannot experience (‘subjectively’), say, the taste of an apple? In other words, if ‘god’ proper becomes a human, does ‘god’ proper not even then gain a human experience? If ‘god’ proper does not even then gain such experience, then how can it be said that ‘god’ proper even *can* have the knowledge-that of human experience? It seems, then, that there is no correspondence between Creator and creature from the point of view of the Creator, such that the Creator is precluded from any genuine interaction with the creature (i.e., hard deism: the ontological preclusion of the ontologically primary from having any genuine access to the ontologically non-primary).

    May 25, 2012 — 13:55
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “Why think omniscience includes knowing-what-it’s-like and not only knowing-that?”
    Hi Kenny,
    Here’s a view. To know what it’s like _is_ to know that a certain proposition is true. (If know-how is reducible to know-that, perhaps knowing what it’s like is reducible.) If so, and God doesn’t know what it’s like to X, then there’s a p that’s true that God doesn’t know. I’m fine with that.

    May 25, 2012 — 18:16
  • Kenny Pearce

    Well, if knowing-what-it’s-like is reducible to knowing-that, then why should God have to be able to do something (e.g. exert effort) in order to know what it’s like to do that thing?

    May 25, 2012 — 18:46
  • Cian

    Kenny,
    He should not have to exert any effort at all in order to know what it is like to do that thing, that is, not if ‘god’ is omniscient.

    May 25, 2012 — 19:13
  • Dennis Whitcomb

    A related issue is whether omnipotence requires the ability to do every act “directly” (or every possible act directly, or every possibly-direct act directly).
    One does an act directly iff one does it, but not by doing some other thing; typically at least, when we raise our arms, we do that directly. One does an act indirectly iff one does it by doing some other thing. For instance, I might disrespect you by refusing to shake your hand. Here, I would disrespect you indirectly, because I would disrespect you by doing some other thing (namely refusing to shake your hand).
    Doing things directly sort of seems to be of a kind with doing them effortlessley and doing them over zero units of time. Just exactly why these three categories of acts seem of a kind, I’m not sure. But that’s how they seem to me anyway. So, perhaps, if omnipotence requires the ability to do every act effortlessley, and/or the ability to do every act over zero units of time, then it also requires the abilities to do every act directly.

    May 25, 2012 — 22:19
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “Well, if knowing-what-it’s-like is reducible to knowing-that, then why should God have to be able to do something (e.g. exert effort) in order to know what it’s like to do that thing?”
    The view that wants to assimilate k-that with k-wil can say that you’ll only have some k-that/k-wil if you’re the subject of certain events. Mary can’t know what it’s like to see red until she sees something red, a Zombie can’t know what it’s like to feel pain because it has beliefs but no qualitative states, the psychopaths cannot know what it’s like to respond sympathetically to the suffering of another, and a atemporal agent cannot know what it’s like to act in time. I take it that these cases support the idea that k-wil is only available to subjects that have been the subjects of certain kinds of events, which places a constraint on the related propositional knowledge. If you’ve never tasted something that has the taste of a kiwi, you’ll never k-wil to taste one and won’t know the related proposition if, say, the proposition involves a judgment about a state with a certain qualitative character or a certain experience that you’re undergoing.
    So, here’s a proposal:
    (i) To k-wil to undergo F-type events, you have to be the subject of an F-type event.
    (ii) This k-wil is k-that.
    (iii) There are some F-type events such that a possible creature k-wil to undergo them such that God cannot be the subject of these F-type events.
    Seems coherent to me. I think you need something like (ii) to even make sense of how certain thought experiments (e.g., the Mary thought experiment) could be a treat to physicalism. Cases provide some support for (i). I don’t think that God can undergo an F-type event that involves feeling confused, so that gives us (iii). I’d say the same for k-wil to make an effort in pursuing an end.

    May 27, 2012 — 4:18
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