One of my most faithful commenters in my Christianity category, boomSLANG (which is apparently a small venomous snake native to sub-Saharan Africa), posted a comment in my recent post about the existence of a moral law, saying that God cannot be both omniscient and omnipotent:
Let’s revisit the philosophical dilemma of a personal being having both “omniscience” and “omnipotence”:
omniscient: 1. having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.
omnipotent: 1. having unlimited or universal power, authority, or force; all-powerful.
By, yes, DEFINITION, if “God” is “omniscient”, then he/she/it knows everything, including ALL of his/her/its future choices. Therefore, this precludes “God” from being a free agent. A non-free agent cannot be “omnipotent”. If, at this moment, “God” knows for absolute certain all of the ultimate, future choices he/she/it will make, then his/her/its “hands are tied”, so-to-speak. To change his/her/its mind between this minute and the future would directly refute the idea that “God” knew its ultimate choice to begin with.
The Dilemma of Omniscience and Omnipotence
I’m going to put these in the form of a logical argument (using numbered points, and using my own words—boomSLANG does not like me to say I’m using his words without quoting him exactly):
- If God is omniscient, then he knows everything, including all of his future choices.
- If God knows all of his future choices, then he cannot change his mind in the future.
- If God can change his mind, then he cannot have been omniscient in the first place.
- If God cannot change his mind (i.e. his hands are tied), then he is not omnipotent.
- #3 and #4 cannot exist at the same time, because a person cannot both be able to change their mind, and not be able to change their mind.
Please note: I removed the language referring to being a “free agent,” because I think that my language is more clear. Also note that I will refer to God as “he” in my answer, rather than boomSLANG’s preferred “he/she/it,” for simplicity’s sake alone. This argument does not need to be about the God of the Bible specifically, and can be used in reference to any supposed omniscient, omnipotent being, but it’s cumbersome to type “he/she/it” each time.
So, we really have two problems/questions here:
(1) Omniscience Paradox – How can God know all of his future choices, and still change his mind?
(2) Omnipotence Paradox – How can God be omnipotent, and not be able to change his mind?
The Omniscience Paradox
This first question is fairly easy to address, and leads toward the answer to the second question. It is answered with a question: why would an omniscient God ever need to change his mind? If he knows everything, including all of his future choices, would any choice ever be considered a “change of mind”? Even if a choice were to reverse direction from a previous choice, wouldn’t the omniscient God know both the original choice and the second choice beforehand? So, to an omniscient God, there is no such thing as “changing his mind.”
The Omnipotence Paradox
The second question is more complex. If an omniscient God is limited to his pre-determined choices, and cannot change them from what he had originally chose, then he cannot be truly omnipotent, can he?
This is a spin-off from the age-old omnipotence paradox, which began with the question, “Could an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that even that being could not lift it?” Or, to put it more simply, “Could God create a stone so heavy that he could not lift it?”
In this paradox, if God could create a stone that he could not lift, then he would cease to be omnipotent. If he couldn’t create said stone, then he would not have been omnipotent in the first place.
In preparing for this response, I read a fascinating synopsis of responses to this paradox on Wikipedia, and I will summarize for you several responses that I think are helpful, attributing the answer to the appropriate philosopher. There are many more answers to the paradox, but you’ll have to read the entry in its entirety to get a full view:
- St. Augustine wrote in his “City of God” that “God is called omnipotent on account of His doing what he wills” and thus proposes the definition of “God is omnipotent” means that “If God wishes to do X, then God can and will do X.” This means that God will not do anything that he doesn’t want to do, which would include making a rock that he could not lift. This goes against the view of absolute omnipotence that boomSLANG proposes.
- René Descartes, an advocate for the absolute omnipotence view, has another solution. In this view, the absolutely omnipotent being can do the logically and physically impossible, because he is absolutely omnipotent. In this scenario, God would create the rock that he could not lift, and then lift the rock anyways. Such a being could also make 2 + 2 = 5, and create a square triangle.
- Thomas Aquinas asserts that the paradox arises from a misunderstanding of omnipotence. He maintains that inherent contradictions and logical impossibilities do not fall under the omnipotence of God, and rejects the absolute omnipotence of God.
I would tend to agree with Augustine and Aquinas rather than Descartes. There was also a paragraph on Wikipedia that made a lot of sense. Instead of absolute omnipotence, there is the concept of essential omnipotence:
If a being is essentially omnipotent, then it can also resolve the paradox (as long as we take omnipotence not to require absolute omnipotence). The omnipotent being is essentially omnipotent, and therefore it is impossible for it to be non-omnipotent. Further, the omnipotent being cannot do what is logically impossible. The creation of a stone which the omnipotent being cannot lift would be an impossibility. The omnipotent being cannot create such a stone, but nevertheless retains its omnipotence. This solution works even with definition 2 ["Y is omnipotent" means "Y can do X" is true if and only if X is a logically consistent description of a state of affairs], as long as we also know the being is essentially omnipotent rather than accidentally so. However, it is possible for non-omnipotent beings to compromise their own powers, which presents the paradox that non-omnipotent beings can do something (to themselves) which an essentially omnipotent being cannot do (to itself).
Tying It All Together
So, if you take the view that God is essentially omnipotent, rather than absolutely omnipotent, then the question that boomSLANG proposes is easily answered. Yes, an absolutely omnipotent God MUST be able to change his mind. But an essentially omnipotent God’s omnipotence is constrained by his will. If God’s will is that he not change his mind, then he will not change his mind, yet retain his omnipotence.
If God, then, has pre-determined his actions and choices, then there is no need for him to change his mind. Therefore, there is no philosophical dilemma between God being both omniscient and omnipotent.
Questions: Do you agree with Aquinas and Augustine that God’s omnipotence is not absolute? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
|This post is in my series called “Cross Examination: Is Debunking Christianity Possible?” I’m looking at a myriad of topics in the rational examination of my faith, and will write one post per week for the next year. If you would like to read some of the previous posts in this series, click on the links below: