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Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Omnipotence Paradox




The Paradox of Omnipotence

Can God create a rock so big that he cannot lift it? This question, like the Omniscience/Free Will Paradox, is viewed as an argument against the existence of God as He is commonly conceived, and is one of the most popular, next to The Problem of Evil. No matter how you answer the question, you seem to be admitting that God is not omnipotent. The God of Christianity claims omnipotence, therefore, He cannot exist. The argument goes like this:
(1) God either can or cannot create a rock that is so heavy that he cannot lift it.
(2) If God can create a rock that is so heavy that he cannot lift it, then God is not omnipotent.
(3) If God cannot create a rock that is so heavy that he cannot lift it, then God is not omnipotent.
Therefore:
(4) God is not omnipotent.
(5) If God exists then he is omnipotent.
Therefore:
(6) God does not exist.

This argument doesn't really work, though.

Situational Ethics

If we are to judge a Christian God, we must do so by examining the Christian text that describes Him. The ethical system we see at play in scripture is called situational ethics. Situational Ethics is the idea that actions are not intrisically good or evil, but they are made good or evil by the context in which they are performed.

For example, to kill one person to save ten is not the same as killing ten to save one, all other factors being equal. Likewise, killing one to save ten is not the same as killing one to save a thousand. Killing Adolf Hiter is not the same as killing Mother Teresa.

We can see many more examples of this in scripture. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord commanded the children of Israel to break almost all of the Ten Commandments, but these things were acceptable for a specific context and condemnable for many others. Likewise, when Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for breaking Levitical laws regarding the Sabbath, he said, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:” (Mark 2:27). He also argued, “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:6). The Lord also says in the Book of Mormon, “It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” (1 Ne 4:13)

So, according to a Christian text, a Christian God may perform any action depending on the context in which it is to be performed.

Conditional Omnipotence

So with God all things are indeed possible, but not all things are possible all the time. He can perform any action which the current set of circumstances render “good”, whatever that might mean. So a set of circumstances might require that God creates a rock, but would not require that he lift it. Later, the circumstances might change such that He now needs to lift it. He would then find it within His power to lift it.

It may seem odd to places limitations on omnipotence, but He remains omnipotent because he still possesses all power. He is capable of performing any action. In fact, this may be the only true form of omnipotence, since it is the only intelligible way to answer the above paradox, while also reconciling the fact that "with god, all things are possible"(Matt 19:26) with the claim that "it was impossible for God to lie" (Heb 6:18). He must simply comply with the “good”, but that is not a new idea to Christianity. Many admit that God's power does not extend to logical contradictions, for example, like creating four-sided triangles or married bachelors.

Also, since the Bible also teaches that "[God] cannot lie" (Titus 1:2), our modern definition of "omnipotence" clearly does not apply in the way we'd think. So even if we ignore situational ethics the paradox would still not work because omnipotence in the sense that he can do any thing at any time is not an attribute he claims to have.

So can God create a rock so big that he cannot lift it? Yes, and He can lift it.

8 comments:

rodericke said...

Are you a Mormon? Thanks

Laughing Ninja said...

Yes I am. Your Welcome. :)

Joe Heschmeyer said...

Laughing Ninja,

I'm in partial agreement:
(1) All potential forms of omnipotence are bound by specific and intrinsic logical limitations: four-side triangles and married bachelors are great examples (which I wish I could have come up with when I wrote my post). This is true of both the Christian God, and any other potential theory of omnipotence you could imagine. To say, "my imagined Deity can make four-sided triangles" is to say absolutely nothing.

(2) Beyond the intrinsic logical limitations, there are also the limits which we know the Christian God to have, on the basis of His Being.* Chief amongst these are the Goodness of God. God cannot (either intrinsically, or by virtue of His Will) do something evil. So when Christians speak of God's omnipotence, we mean that anything God wills, He can do. But since He cannot will evil (since evil is, by definition, that which is contrary to the will of God), things like lying aren't on that list.

Beyond this, however, I'm afraid we disagree (provided I'm understanding your argument):

Your argument makes God's omnipotence situational, and thus, contingent. Sometimes He can lift a rock, sometimes He can't. But God is, by definition, not contingent. St. Thomas Aquinas proves this in the third of the Quinque viae.

The universe exists, but it could have not existed. Its existence isn't logically necessary, and since it's a created thing, it is by definition contingent, since it's conditioned upon the actions of Another, God. But God can't, in turn, be contingent -- or at least, there has to be a non-contingent First Cause. In the view you've painted, sometimes God is omnipotent, and sometimes He isn't. But who or what decides when He is or isn't? If it's Himself, then His omnipotence isn't really contingent. If it's someone or something else (the setting, etc.), then He's just not omnipotent.

Hope that made sense -- apologies in advance if it didn't. Merry Christmas! (And to you, too, Roderick!).


* Euthyphro's dilemma is somewhat implicated in the question of whether God chooses to be bound by His own Goodness -- whether God's Goodness is a product of His Will, or an immutable boundary to it. At the very least, we can say that God would not be God were He to violate His own perfect Will, and God willing what He does not will runs afoul of the logical limitations of (1), anyways.

Laughing Ninja said...

Thank you very much for your comment!

I think your point #2 answers our disagreement. God is indeed contingent on something, the "good". God cannot be evil.

You say, "...who or what decides when He is or isn't? If it's Himself, then His omnipotence isn't really contingent... If it's someone or something else (the setting, etc.), then He's just not omnipotent."

I think I'd say that he is omnipotent, but not in the way that we define it today. He's bound by the "good", which it just so happens he pretty much personifies. So it is still the case that he can do anything He wills, since it is always "good".

Hubbo said...

To say God is "bound" by anything seems flawed logic. If we are talking about the Christian God, one of the attributes He possesses is infinity. He is infinite and eternal, so limitless in both time and space. However, if He is infinite, than this attribute must extend to His other attributes as well. He can't be infinite, except when it comes to omnipotence. So He must be infinitely and eternally omnipotent, which means under no circumstances is God "bound" by anything.

However, this also applies to God's goodness, so God must be infinitely and eternally good. Situations don't apply to God because God isn't limited by time and therefore doesn't see situations as different from one another. He sees the whole thing as one big picture. God can't think one thing is right at one time and wrong at another time, because He isn't bound by time and situations in the way we are. If something is good, it is eternally good, as it applies to God.

Since you said God has told people to break pretty much all of the Ten Commandments, where you get this from. I haven't seen it anywhere in my Bible.

Laughing Ninja said...

Well, you admit that God "must" be infinitely and eternally good, and you claim that God "can't" think of something as right now and wrong later. So it sounds like we're talking about the same thing, but we're talking about it differently.

As far as the Lord unusual commands, I started to prepare a list, but it got really long, so I'm hoping I can just email it to you or something. I don't want to post a comment long enough to be a separate post, but I do want to answer your question.

In the meantime, this verse at least proves my point, Matt 12:11, that it is sometimes acceptable to break a commandment, even the super sacred sabbath, if a greater good is at stake. The Law of Charity takes precedence over every ritual law.

Ang Pogi said...

I think that sometimes when we are considering the omnipotence of God we focus too much on what He can or can't do, when it is possible that His omnipotence has as much to do with what He will or will not do. God isn't bound by time or space, but I believe it isn't incorrect to say that he is bound by morality and goodness. When the scriptures say God can't lie, it is equally true that God won't lie. He not only has control over the universe, but has control over His own self. Regarding the rock, perhaps the correct answer is: God can't create a rock so big that He can't lift it because He won't do such a thing. There would be no reason for Him to do that, it has no good purpose, so He won't do it. An example of this is when Satan was tempting Jesus Christ to turn rocks into bread to satisfy his hunger after fasting. Jesus refused. Why? Not because he couldn't do it, but because he wouldn't. To do so would have been selfish and an unnecessary use of his power. Jesus didn't need to prove anything, just like God doesn't need to prove how great He is by creating a rock so big He can't lift it, and then lift it. In closing, I believe that God is is God not only because of what He can do but also because of what He will and will not do. I apologize for how repetitive my comment may sound.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Don't apologize. It's a great comment, and I agree. I think God is bound by the good, but it's a loose binding since He only wishes to do good anyways. It's not a binding He ever has need to tug against.

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