Friday, November 23, 2018

Inspiring Philosophy and Omnipotence

I've been getting a bunch of requests to review Inspiring Philosophy's video on omnipotence. You can view the link here.

Overall, I appreciate how IP tries to tear apart absolutism, but the way in which he goes about it is just bizarre. He seems to think that atheists are the only humans in existence who have ever held to the idea of absolutism, and he completely ignores the vast multitude of Christians who likewise hold a similar position. He also has a strangely binary view on the subject. He props up two opposing definitions for omnipotence as if they were the only ones in existence, and then he makes it out as if only Christians hold to the "good" view while only atheists ever defend the "bad" view. Lastly, his personal view of omnipotence is not at all common among mainstream Christian philosophy. He makes it out as if omnipotence is a kind ability to win fights. It's really weird, and I strongly doubt that other prominent Christian philosophers would find his perspective compelling.

For convenience, I've transcribed the main points of contention I have and then added a few points of discussion. Please enjoy!

IP: First, let's define omnipotence. Omnipotence simply means "all powerful." If a being is all-powerful, they would have power over everything else in existence.

While it is true that the Latin root for omnipotence does translate into "all power," that little statement is rife with ambiguity. There is no singularly "correct" definition for that term, and I have personally encountered at least a half-dozen variations in my own research on the subject. So for IP to just casually assert his own definition as the one and only definition worth considering is simply disingenuous. All you have to do is type "What is omnipotence?" into Google, and you'll find all sorts of competing definitions from authentic Christian sources. For example, the website says this:

"He [God] has the ability and power to anything (omni=all; potent=powerful). This power is exercised effortlessly... God is all-powerful and able to do whatever he wills. Since his will is limited by his nature, God can do everything that is in harmony with his perfections."

Another website,, says that

"God can do all things that are logically possible."

The Catholic encyclopedia likewise says

"Omnipotence is the power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible."

So in less than five minutes, I was able to find three online Christian authories who offer totally unique definitions from what IP has just given. That's not a very compelling start, dude.

Now in all fairness, there is nothing wrong with offering a definition of one's own. The problem with IP is that he gives zero mention of the existence of alternative schools of thought within mainstream Christianity. Consequently, he is basically tossing all of his fellow Christians under the bus and then pretending to speak on their collective behalf after the fact. That's just pretentious, to say the least.

IP: No other being, process, object, or combination of anything in existence could ever overpower an omnipotent being. Omnipotence simply means one is all powerful. It could never be defeated by anything else in existence. In other words, everything else in existence combined would still be less powerful than an omnipotent being.

The next thing that bothers me is the oddly combative nature of IP's new definition. For all practical purposes, he is essentially claiming that an omnipotent being is defined by its capacity to beat everything else in a fight. In his own words, you could take everything in the universe and pit it against an omnipotent being. By definition, the omnipotent being will emerge victorious and everything else will be "defeated." That's his entire definition in a nutshell. 

Another odd thing about this definition is that it says nothing about typical powers one might associate with a trait like omnipotence. For example, does the omnipotent being have the power to create a universe? Or to read minds? We cannot say. IP frames his entire definition in terms of victory and defeat. In principle, he could be very liberal with this definition to include such ideas, but that would quickly run into wacky problems. For example, maybe we could imagine a "universe creation" contest and challenge two beings to create a universe in the least amount of time or effort. In that sense, the omnipotent being would, by definition, always be the one to emerge victorious. However, once you allow for that sort of unrestricted word play, then it does not take long before paradoxes spring up again. For instance, I could challenge the being to a dying contest, or maybe a truly-state-the-following-proposition contest. The omnipotence paradox would then immediately emerge. 

IP: If this is all omnipotence means, there is nothing logically contradictory going on. There is nothing logically incoherent about being all powerful. And thus, there is no omnipotence paradox.

I agree. There is nothing logically contradictory about this definition. It's just really bizarre, and I'm quite sure the majority of mainstream Christian philosophers would be highly confused by it as well.

IP: The problem occurs when someone defines omnipotence differently. Instead of it meaning all-powerful, they define it as the ability to do anything, which is an incoherent concept.

This is a classic fallacy that I encounter all the time when discussing the philosophy of religion with theists. There is a strong tendency for people to argue as if their definition is somehow objectively correct and that all other definitions are somehow mistaken. Although IP never comes out and says it, it is strongly implied by the way he argues his point. He also has this weirdly binary understanding of omnipotence, as evidenced by the fact that he is only exploring two distinct definitions. Again, there are at least a half-dozen of them floating around in the philosophical literature, many of which come from highly respected Christian authorities.

IP: It is, in fact, logically impossible to be able to do anything. One cannot make a being that is married and also a bachelor. One cannot be evil and simultaneously morally perfect. One cannot have the ability to create the logically impossible like a square circle or a married bachelor. These concepts are logically impossible and no being can bring them into existence.

I completely agree. Absolutism is not a coherent perspective on omnipotence, and many academic philosophers further support that view. Even William Lane Craig has argued many times against absolutism. IP is just ignoring two important facts in this argument.

(1) It is perfectly common for Christians to defend absolutism.
(2) There are plenty of other definitions for omnipotence besides absolutism and IP's all-power. I've even personally offered some of them myself.

IP: Luckily, this is not what omnipotence has to mean, as we explained in the beginning of this video. It just means being all powerful over everything else in existence. If we have two definitions of omnipotence, and theists are using the first and some atheists are using the second, to say an omnipotent being cannot exist, then we have a straw man argument.

This little jab at atheists is entirely uncalled for. It is perfectly common for Christians to defend absolutism, and I have personally encountered several dozen of them on my own video comments. One of the most famous defendants of absolutism, Rene Descartes, was also a very devout Christian. My own atheist videos have even argued against absolutism, and many of my fans seem to agree with the conclusions. The idea that this is some kind of "theists versus atheists" dispute is just inexcusable. Either IP is embarrassingly ignorant of the broader social context, or he is just willfully lying about it.

IP: Everyone should get to define what they mean; not have definitions imposed upon them. Thus, claiming it is logically impossible for an omnipotent being to exist because of the second definition, doesn't mean it is logically impossible for an omnipotent being to exist because of the first definition. It is the height of irrationality to try and force theists to say omnipotence has to be defined in an incoherent way.

While I agree in principle, this argument is kind of hypocritical. IP is arguing that everyone should get to define what they mean, which is fine. But IP is also ignoring the fact that many Christian authorities hold to entirely different views of omnipotence from himself. He is therefore complaining about his inability to define what he means to atheists while simultaneously denying his fellow Christians that same courtesy.

The other strange part of this argument is that IP completely ignores the plain interpretations of the Bible itself. For example:

Matthew 19:26: But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Job 42:1-2: Then Job answered the LORD and said, "I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.

So sure, if IP wants to adopt a whole new definition for omnipotence, then that's fine. He just has to specifically deny the Bible in order to do so. It's a textbook example of kettle logic.

IP: But some still try to say that the first definition is not true omnipotence because it means the being is limited in certain ways, and if a being is limited, then it cannot be omnipotent.

This is one of those fun little games that IP likes to play in his videos. He says things like "some still try to say...," without ever telling us who those supposed people are. I've seen him do many times. It's a hugely dishonest ploy because we have no idea how popular this argument is. Is this something you hear from famous philosophers like Daniel Dennet? Or is this something he read once on a Facebook post from Billy, the angry 12-year old in his parents' basement? It's a classic example of weasel wording.

IP is also framing this argument as if only atheists are the ones who ever argue this. While I suspect that many atheists have indeed argued this in the past, I also have an entire comment section on my omnipotence video with dozens of Christians arguing this exact same point. It's a pointless "us versus them" mentality based on nothing.

IP: Well the answer to this is to point out that unlimited is not synonymous with unlimited. Increasing power doesn't necessarily mean removing limits. You remove certain types of limits, like ones caused by weakness, but other types of limits can appear with increased power. For example, let's picture a being that does not become omnipotent, but simply becomes extremely powerful over time. As their power increases, they remove limits caused by weakness, but can be limited by their ability to form relationships with others. As you increase in power, it might be harder to relate to other people who feel weak around you, or threatened by you, and thus power might limit one in this area.

IP: One is also limited in the amount of fear they have as their power increases, and thus, they are limited in what they can be afraid of. These limits, and other similar examples, don't decrease power. Having more or less fear is independent from the question of how much power you could have. In fact, one could argue some limits are good to have and necessary to increase power. For example, it is a bad thing to be unlimited in the amount of diseases you could contract. How exactly would having the ability to contract a disease make you more powerful? Or to have unlimited problems, which would also be a bad thing and potentially decrease power. Being unlimited in abilities is clearly not the same as being omnipotent, as certain limits are good to have and necessary to being all powerful, and some limits do not affect power at all.

I don't necessarily disagree with the consistency of IPs viewpoint here. It's just hilarious to me that he thinks omnipotence is basically the power to demolish everything in the universe. For example, just read this:

IP: Some try to argue that if an omnipotent being was also morally perfect, that would create a logical contradiction. As if you are morally perfect, you cannot lie for immoral gains, and thus you are limited by something that could be helpful and give you more power. But lying or other immoral actions are just abilities that do not necessarily increase power. They can for some, but they would be neutral abilities for a being that already has power over everything in existence. So if a being is already omnipotent, meaning one has power over everything in existence, having the ability to lie would not really help him. Lying is something we occasionally use to get out of a problem or away from people who have power over us. If you never have to worry about this because of your omnipotent, the ability to lie would not increase your power, and being limited in this way does not necessarily decrease power.

See? When you have the ultimate power to smash things, then it doesn't matter if you can tell a lie or not. It's all perfectly self-consistent.

IP goes on for a little while longer, but doesn't say anything fundamentally new after this. Basically, he thinks that absolutism is bad because violations of logic are not coherent ideas. In principle, I completely agree with him on this point. It's just sad to watch IP frame this as a purely atheistic phenomenon when there are countless examples of Christians doing the exact same thing. I also find his new definition to be really bizarre. I think most people will agree that omnipotence should entail more than a mere ability to defeat the universe in single combat.