Traditional theology would have it that God is omnipotent. A very simple definition would be that God can do anything. He has all power. Although this definition is acceptable to the philosophically uninitiated, it is far from satisfactory for those to whom precision of expression and coherence of concepts is paramount. One can very quickly point out things that it does not seem possible even an omnipotent being could do. He could not, for instance, make the past something that did not happen. He could not make 2 + 2 = 5. Thus the definition would appear to need amendment so that omnipotence is understood as the ability to do anything that could conceivably be done, anything that would not involve a contradiction. This is better, but is still subject to problems. There are still things people seem able to do that such a being could not do without failing to be omnipotent. To bring these difficulties into clearer view philosophers have posed the “paradox of the stone.” This paradox has been dealt with in many different contexts, but I will deal with it exclusively in the form that Richard Swinburne expresses in The Coherence Of Theism. (1)
Is The Paradox Contradictory?
The problem is stated as follows: If God is omnipotent and can do anything conceivable, can he make a stone that he is unable to “cause to rise.” (2) Since in traditional theology God is not a material being, this expression is to be preferred to the expression “lift.” Swinburne points out that the first response to the paradox is to say a stone that cannot be made to rise by an omnipotent being is a contradiction, since an all-powerful being could lift anything. Thus the answer is no. He could not make such a stone because he can only do all things that are conceivably doable. We cannot conceive of a stone that an all-powerful being could not raise. His not being able to make such a stone is not a limitation to his omnipotence since it involves a contradiction.
This response has a very attractive ease about it but this ease is also deceptive. The problem is that it assumes what it must prove. Making a stone that cannot be lifted by an omnipotent being is only a contradiction if omnipotence is a coherent concept. The purpose of the paradox is to determine whether or not the concept is coherent. One cannot use the concept to answer this question. It must be shown to be a coherent concept first before it can be used in argument. Agreed, if the concept of omnipotence involves being able to carry out the action of raising any object, then clearly the making of the stone in question is a contradiction. But this is only so if omnipotence means something other than ability to do all conceivable things, since making an ‘un-raisable’ stone would be this kind of conceivable action.
The Inability Is Not A Limitation
Swinburne says the second attempt to solve the paradox is to assert that the inability of God to create a stone he cannot cause to rise is not a limitation. God’s inability to create such a stone means only that if God can create a stone, he can lift it. This is not a limitation of power. Unfortunately this answer merely shifts our attention off the ability to create certain kinds of objects onto the ability to raise things. True, no stone God creates is a limit to his ability to raise it. But his ability to raise it is a limit to his creative ability. He cannot make a stone of this kind, one that cannot be raised. This does appear a genuine limitation since we ourselves are able to make things that we as the maker cannot cause to rise. It seems unavoidable that God cannot be omnipotent in the sense of being able to do anything conceivable, given the conditions of the paradox.
A New Definition Of Omnipotence
Because of this Swinburne gives his own carefully crafted definition of omnipotence. It is as follows: “A person P is omnipotent at a time t1 if and only if he is able to bring about any logically contingent state of affairs after t1, the description of which does not entail that P did not bring it about at t1.”(3) Put more simply, a person is omnipotent right now, if there is nothing right now he cannot do. A full appreciation of the details of this definition would require a long exposition of Swinburne’s argument. While space does not allow this, a summary is in order.
We note first the time element in Swinburne’s definition. It is designed for a twofold task. First, it defines omnipotence as a present description, given present circumstances. For Swinburne, a being is omnipotent now if there is nothing he cannot bring about given present existing conditions. Where this becomes important is that it allows Swinburne to suggest that a presently unlimited being could carry out actions that would result in his becoming limited. But he can still be declared unlimited now, prior to carrying out those actions. The second task of the time element in this definition is to express the fact that no being can change the past, and that an all powerful being would not be limited provided he can bring about any state of affairs after the present moment.
The phrase “logically contingent” is to delineate that such a being cannot cause or alter analytic facts such as 2 + 2 = 4 and the like. Only the bringing about of particular situations whose existence or non-existence is an equally viable possibility can fairly be a required ability for a being to be considered omnipotent. Finally, the proviso that the description of the action “not entail that P did not bring it about at t1” is to forbid conceivable actions done by someone else. In other words, a definition of omnipotence would not require God’s ability to do the act, ‘Kel Good wrote this sentence’. We cannot require an omnipotent being to be someone other than himself.
Given this definition of omnipotence, Swinburne suggests that the paradox of the stone does not result in the charge of incoherence. For until P has made the stone in question he can do anything (logically contingent state of affairs) including make such a stone. At the present moment it is not proper to say that there is something P cannot do because the stone P cannot cause to rise does not exist, and therefore is not at this time a limit to his abilities. Thus P is omnipotent, in no way limited. We will return to this rather clever description of omnipotence in a moment, but first we must look at another version of the question. This is presented by Anthony Kenny in his book The God Of The Philosophers. (4)
Logically Possible Powers
Kenny suggests that the difficulty with defining omnipotence is that it is usually defined as the ability to bring about all logically possible states of affairs rather than as having all logically possible powers. The challenge with the first definition is that it requires that anything logically possible be doable, whereas the second method of definition requires only the possession of all powers to do such actions. It does not require that all such powers be able to be exercised in every situation.
Inability to exercise a power does not mean one does not possess the power. Kenny illustrates this by suggesting an omnipotent being could have the power to create an immovable lamppost as well as the power to create an irresistible cannonball. These powers, while both being possessed by an omnipotent being, could not be exercised simultaneously. The inability to exercise the power is not a limitation to one’s having the power. In terms of the language of the paradox, an omnipotent being could have the power to raise anything, and the power to create an “unraisable” stone. He could not exercise these powers simultaneously, but this would not be a limitation to his possession of the powers.
While intriguing, this definition of omnipotence is difficult to accept because of the suggestion that contradictory powers could be possessed. We will return to this question later on. For its merit of avoiding the problems of the paradox, Kenny feels his view still does not help when applying the concept to God. He admits in this context that the power to create a being one could not control, “while remaining omnipotent”, is not a logically possible power. This sounds very much like the first solution to the paradox that we rejected above. It relied on the assumed coherence of the concept of omnipotence to show that the creation of an unraisable rock was contradictory. If this is not what Kenny is doing then surely his argument parallels Swinburne’s.
Saying The Same Thing?
Like Swinburne, Kenny is saying that a being is only omnipotent until he has created something that limits him. Kenny attempts to deny that such creative power is logically possible, but his saying this seems to be on the grounds of God’s alleged immutability, that he cannot change and hence cannot cease to be omnipotent. But on Kenny’s own account God would still remain omnipotent, even if he created a being he could not control, since God would still have all logically possible powers. He simply could not exercise his power to control all beings, having created an uncontrollable being. This inability would be parallel to Kenny’s lamppost and cannonball, and would also fit the paradox of the stone. He tells us an omnipotent being still possesses the power to make an immovable lamppost but is unable to exercise this power having just made an irresistible cannonball. In the same way an omnipotent being still possesses the power to raise all things even though he cannot exercise it, having just made an unraisable rock.
We are discussing the coherence of the statement “a being is omnipotent.” This will have application to the being of God only after we have sorted out the question of its coherence. I recognize that Kenny is calling his definition of divine omnipotence a “narrower omnipotence”.(5) But as soon as we begin to qualify omnipotence by the nature of the being in question we are falling into the trap of calling omnipotence “whatever this particular being can do” or “all powers this particular being could possess.” In neither case do we have omnipotence any longer, for every being could possess every power possible for a being of its description. In the end it seems Kenny’s concept of omnipotence is also incoherent, or is the same as Swinburne’s concept.
God Is Almighty
Our study thus far suggests the traditional meaning of omnipotence is incoherent and should be discarded in favor of the meaning which P.T. Geach has given to the word “almighty”: (6) Having power over all things. Such a concept is readily coherent and does not seem at all contrary to the Western and Christian view of God. All this view requires is that God be able to do anything in reference to his creation, that no plan he has can be thwarted by any existing being. We can see how this view of God as almighty resembles Swinburne’s definition of omnipotence. They appear to be the same. Swinburne recognizes this when in suggesting his modified version of omnipotence he chooses to keep the word omnipotence instead of opting for the word almighty.(7) I think his sentiment of retaining the traditional word is good, but a brief examination of Swinburne’s concept of omnipotence will show that it really is the same as the concept Geach has called “almightiness.”
Swinburne says God is all powerful because at time t1 there is nothing he cannot bring about. The rock he cannot raise does not exist and hence it cannot be said at time t1 that there is any option available to him that he cannot do. This is true enough, but this is not the same thing as saying that at time t1 there is nothing God cannot do. Clearly he cannot raise a rock of the type we know he could subsequently create. Its not having yet been created does not have anything to do with his already having this limitation. Inability to do something is not determined by the presence of opportunity to do it. If God could create a rock in the future that he could not raise, then he is already unable to raise it.
If I can only bench press 100 Lbs. then I am unable to bench press more than this, whether or not I ever try or have opportunity to try. Even if no more than 100 Lbs. of matter existed which I could attempt to bench press I still would be unable to press more, whatever the case. Thus I would be limited in my bench pressing ability. I would be “almighty” in reference to the weights that do exist but I would not be omnipotent in the traditional sense because I already would have a real limitation in my abilities, even though there was no opportunity to demonstrate this. Without demonstration we might never know I had this limitation. But if the opportunity arose to make the attempt, this would not “give me” the inability. It would simply show the inability that was already there. Hence, I conclude that though there is nothing Swinburne’s God cannot presently do within his present opportunities, he is already limited in power at time t1 and hence not omnipotent in the traditional sense. He is almighty in Geach’s sense that nothing else that exists can resist his power and provided he does not create something that can, he remains in total control.
It is also questionable whether an almighty God could create a power he could not control. Our own ability to do so seems to stem from the fact that there exist many powers in the universe that are well beyond our abilities but can be harnessed by ourselves through technology. If God is the ultimate power it is difficult to comprehend how he could produce something greater than himself. If my feelings on this are correct then it would be proper to speak of God as the absolute power in existence, and the greatest that could exist. Such a view seems to preserve everything that was intended by the term “omnipotent” in theology (which is why Swinburne chooses to keep the term) but avoids the contradiction that the paradox of the stone brought out so clearly in the traditional concept of omnipotence. This contradiction is what is known as the infinite attribute and deserves to be examined in detail.
Can There Be An Infinite Attribute?
For years it has gone virtually unquestioned in theological circles that an infinite attribute is possible, that a being could have an attribute that has no measurable limit. It shows itself concisely in Kenny’s examples of the irresistible cannonball and the immovable lamppost. Kenny sees no problem with conceiving of either of these concepts, seeing the ability to create them as logically possible. But is this really the case? Could there be such a thing as an irresistible cannonball? What does it mean to be irresistible? It means that no force can be great enough to withstand its pressure. What does it mean for there to be an immovable lamppost? It means that no force brought against it can be great enough to move it. In both cases the issue is one of greater force or greater resistance. An irresistible cannonball would be a cannonball with such force that nothing that exists could withstand it. Such a cannonball is conceivable. But a cannonball with no measurable force, whose force is infinite, is not conceivable.
If this cannonball exists and is coming toward an object, it is coming with a particular measurable force. It may be an incredible force, it may be immeasurable with any measuring equipment we possess, but it is still a finite force because it exists and to say something exists is to say it has specific “determinate qualities.”(8) Clearly there cannot be both an irresistible cannonball and an immovable lamppost because one or the other must represent the greater force. Between two existing forces, unless they are equal, one must supercede the other. An immovable lamppost would be a lamppost that represented a resisting force greater than any force in existence that could be brought to bear against it. Its ability to resist pressure does not stem from its having an infinite resisting force but from the fact that its finite measurable force is greater than other forces that can be brought against it.
In both cases immovable and irresistible must be terms which are relative, qualified by what exists. Infinity does not apply to existent things, it is merely the fact that there is no limit to how “large” existing things could conceivably be. There is no top to the scale of how powerful a being could be. Any being that exists has a particular, finite, measurable amount of power, the greater of which is conceivable. There is no ceiling to the greatness of attributes conceivable. This is what the concept of infinity speaks of. It is proper to speak of the infinity of time, because time is not an actual existing infinity. All that exists at any given moment is a finite set of existing things, with finite attributes. Time is a concept we use to describe our perception of the fact that something exists and persists. The ‘something’ that exists is always finite. It is right to say that existence is temporally infinite, since it is difficult to conceive how something could have come about from absolutely nothing. The fact anything exists at all seems to require the belief that something must always have existed in some form.
But whatever has always existed must be finite in its attributes. Attributes are definite defining characteristics. As such they cannot exist without limit. This is brought out by George H. Smith in his book ATHEISM The Case Against God (See note 8) where he criticizes the traditional definitions of the Christian God and their use of the unlimited attribute. He points out that the fear of giving definition to God’s attributes has been that this would limit God. As Smith correctly states, the choice is not between a limited God or an unlimited God, but between a limited God and no God. No being that exists can be infinite.
The Importance Of Coherence
I have suggested that the traditional definition of omnipotence is incoherent. I have further suggested that its incoherence stems from the acceptance of the contradictory concept of the infinite attribute. A final question might be raised in this regard. How important is coherence? After all, that a viewpoint is internally coherent does not prove its truth. While this is true, the opposite is not. If a concept or viewpoint does not cohere within itself, it cannot have application in reality. The basic logical principles of identity, non-contradiction, and the excluded middle must apply. A is A, A is not non-A, a thing is either A or non-A. Concepts believed simultaneously to be true must cohere with one another. This question is very important when we are dealing with theology and the nature of God. If our concept of God is incoherent, then the God we claim matches this incoherent description cannot exist. Only a concept of God that is internally consistent could have real application.
Since the traditional definition of omnipotence is incoherent, it would seem to be in the best interest of philosophical theology to abandon both this definition of God’s omnipotence and the idea of his being infinite at all. In their place I would favor defining God’s omnipotence the way Geach has defined the word ‘almighty’. A being that is omnipotent is the greatest power in existence, has power over all things.
I tend to agree with Swinburne that it would not be useful to abandon the word omnipotence in favor of the word almightiness. I think this would be impractical on three counts. First, almighty and omnipotent are really the same word in two different languages. This means for our purposes that neither word has a practical priority. What is needed is an accurate definition of the word omnipotence. There is nothing about the word almighty that makes it a more accurate word than the traditional one. Second, the word omnipotence fits more succinctly with the other two ‘omni’s’, omnipresence and omniscience. These concepts can be given coherent definitions. It is more practical to retain the third ‘omni’ for symmetry, while defining it coherently. Lastly, as Swinburne points out, one can make a very strong case that this more qualified definition of omnipotence is really what was generally meant historically when the term was used. Certainly this qualified definition is quite a satisfactory description of the Biblical account of God’s power. The writers of the Bible always describe God’s unlimited ability in light of his creation, never in an abstract philosophical sense.
In addition to these comments on the use and definition of the concept of omnipotence, I suggest that we exercise caution and clarity when we speak of God as infinite. Although it is proper to speak of God as being temporally infinite, I believe the word infinite is usually used to speak of God as possessing infinite attributes. If I am correct in this, it would be in the best interest of theology to abandon the term infinite and replace it with some other word such as absolute or ultimate. Every attribute of God, though finite, is the greatest that exists (and if I am correct in believing that he could not create a being greater than himself then his attributes would be the greatest that could exist) and is thus absolute, ultimate.
God is the omnipotent God. Such a God, because he is finite, can exist. This seems to me a great advantage to theology since if the concept of God is not one that is coherent and hence could have application, this makes all discussion about proofs for his existence irrelevant. This is the purpose of Swinburne’s book The Coherence Of Theism. Before he could write the book The Existence Of God to address the question of proofs for God’s existence, it was necessary to determine that the concept of God itself was not incoherent. Once the coherence of the concept is established, while not proving that such a God exists, it is then proper to seek evidence of its application in an actual existent being.
1. Richard Swinburne, The Coherence Of Theism, (Oxford, England, 1977), pg. 152-158.
2. Swinburne, pg. 153.
3. Swinburne, pg. 152.
4. Anthony Kenny, The God Of The Philosophers, (Oxford, England, 1979), pg. 91-99.
5. Kenny, pg. 98.
6. P.T. Geach, “Omnipotence,” Philosophy, 1973, 48, 7-20.
7. Swinburne, pg. 160.
8. George H. Smith, ATHEISM The Case Against God, (Buffalo, N.Y., 1979), pg. 50.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)