On Omnipotence
October 26, 2010 — 13:10

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 27

In my last post, I discussed Sobel’s proposal that, since the Stone Paradox shows essential omnipotence to be incoherent, the traditional God, since he would have his properties essentially, would have essential ONSLIP, or only necessarily self-limited power, but that this would not amount to omnipotence. Here I want to propose an alternative account of omnipotence, an attribute worthy of that name and which would be had essentially. First, however, we must distinguish power from freedom. To be omnipotent is to be all powerful. God is also supposed to be free in his exercise of power, and this creates a number of problems, some of which were discussed on my personal blog at the beginning of this series. I take it that the relevant type of power, the kind that agents have, is simply the ability to do what one wants, or to bring about one’s ends, whereas freedom is something more complicated. This immediately suggests the following definition of omnipotence:

S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p.

To prevent any ambiguities, here it is in symbols:

S is omnipotent =df. □∀p[(p is a proposition & S wills that p) -> p]

So an omnipotent being’s will would always be fulfilled as a matter of logical necessity. Now that’s power! Furthermore, omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.
Here are some interesting features/consequences of this definition:

  1. The definition follows Alexander Pruss‘s suggestion on the earlier post that omnipotence be construed as having to do with the range of states of affairs God can bring about.
  2. If the value of S substituted into the sentence (e.g. ‘God’) is a rigid designator, and the necessity is interpreted as being of the ‘broadly logical’ type, then omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.
  3. The conditional in the definition is intended to be a material conditional. As a result, if there are any necessarily false propositions (and there are), then the definition entails, by the Distribution Axiom of modal logic, that, necessarily, those propositions are not willed by an omnipotent being. That is, □~(2+2=5) and God’s omnipotence (as defined) jointly entail □~(God wills that 2+2=5).
  4. The definition entails that an omnipotent being’s higher-order volitions (if any) are satisfied, which is thought by some (e.g. Frankfurt) to be important for freedom. That is, if God wills to will what is good, then (necessarily) he wills what is good.

But you might be worried about something (at least if you are not a Humean about causation and/or abilities): what if S wills only things that come about because S’s will is conformed to reality, rather than reality being conformed to S’s will? It is not clear that this is coherent: some philosophers think that the difference between belief and propositional desire/volition is the ‘direction of fit’ – that is, we try to conform our beliefs to the world, but we try to conform the world to our desires. If a being’s (so-called) ‘desires’ were actually conformed to the world, rather than vice versa, they might turn out not to be desires at all, but rather beliefs. But in case this response doesn’t work, we can easily modify the formula:

S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p because S wills it

Now, cashing out the ‘because’ might be tough, but if we are non-Humean enough to care about the problem, then presumably we are non-Humean enough to think that some sense can be given to ‘because’ here.
I cannot see that omnipotence, defined this way, generates any paradoxes by itself. Certainly it is unaffected by Sobel’s objections. It may, however, have complicated interactions with other divine attributes, especially freedom (there are things that God can’t will). The current definition looks like it plays nice with compatibilism, but it is not so clear that it plays nice with libertarianism.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.]

Only Necessarily Self-Limited Power
October 17, 2010 — 18:34

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Books of Interest Christian Theology Concept of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 39

After considering arguments for the existence of God, Sobel has a brief interlude on the divine attributes, before going on to arguments against the existence of God. Chapter 9 concerns omnipotence and the famous Stone Paradox. Sobel defines omnipotence (roughly) as the ability to do anything that can be done. (He improves this basic definition in a few ways, but these need not concern us.) The Stone Paradox, Sobel rightly recognizes, is no real problem for omnipotence as such, for if a being can do anything that can be done, then that being can take away some of the powers it has, just as I can take away some of the powers that I have. As a result, there is no problem with an omnipotent being creating a stone it can’t lift; it is simply that it must lay aside its omnipotence in the process. However, as this analysis shows, essential omnipotence is something else altogether, and this points to a more general problem: the God of the religious tradition has essential properties (in fact, it is most common, historically, for theologians to hold that he has all of his properties essentially). But then there are things I can do that God can’t, such as making myself less knowledgeable. (Of course, God could make me less knowledgeable; what he couldn’t do is make himself less knowledgeable.) Sobel comes up with a proposal for a coherent understanding of the feature the theologians want to attribute to God, but denies that this feature is properly described as ‘omnipotence’. In this post I will discuss Sobel’s proposal. In the next post, I will make a proposal of my own, and argue that it is sensible to call the feature I identify ‘omnipotence.’
Sobel says that although nothing could be essentially omnipotent, a being could possess a feature Sobel calls ‘only necessarily self-limited power’ (ONSLIP). This is the property of being such that:

[one is] capable of each task t that it is logically possible that some being should do, which is such that (i) for each attribute, if any, that x has essentially, x’s performing t is consistent with its having this attribute … and (ii) if x has necessary everlasting existence, then performing t is consistent with its continuing to exist. (p. 365)

In other words, God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature. This is, I think, the sort of thing the theologians have in mind. However, as Sobel points out, a being might have this feature and not be anything like omnipotent. To use his example, a being might be “essentially incapable of creating something from nothing” (ibid.), and so be an ONSLIP without having that power. So Sobel is right that the property of being an ONSLIP ought not to be called ‘omnipotence’ (or ‘almightiness’). I wonder, however, if perhaps we might get an omnipotence “worth the name” by specifying the sorts of attributes the being can have essentially. For instance, an ONSLIP who essentially possesses all positive properties (if we can get a decent understanding of ‘positive’ in this context) is not going to seem limited to us in the way an ONSLIP who is essentially incapable of creating something from nothing does.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]