Saturday, May 24, 2014

Responding to Objections - Omnipotence

This is going to be a response to some objections I've been getting about the nature of omnipotence.  Specifically, in Part 3 of the Philosophical Failures series, I gave a brief outline of an argument known as the Omnipotence Paradox - the idea that if God can do anything, then can God create a rock so heavy that even God Himself cannot lift it?  It's a somewhat facetious argument in its simplicity, but it does make a very serious point.  Namely, if the theist is not careful in how exactly God is defined, then disproving God becomes trivially easy.  All we have to do is examine the meaning of the words contained within the definition itself.  If we happen to find any contradictions, then God immediately disappears in a puff of logic.

That's the essence of the omnipotence paradox in a nutshell, but some people seem to have a problem with my presentation.  So what I'm going to do today is respond to YouTube user Philosophy Lines (or Phil, for short), who was kind enough to make a video critique of my video.  And if the title of his video is any indication (Exposing AnticitizenX's Ignorance of Philosophy), he seems to be under the impression that I'm just some terribly inept hack who doesn't know what he's talking about.  Well, okay, that's fair enough, but if you're going rhetorically hype your criticism to that kind of level, then you'd better have something truly insightful to say.  So what have you got for us, Phil?

"The errors he makes in this series are illustrative of the tendency within the New Athiesm to rely on popular writers such as Dawkins, Harris, or Michael Shermer, rather than serious philosophers such as Plantina, Mackie, Oppie, and Smith." - (0m,7s)

I must confess, I find these kinds of remarks to be incredibly off-putting.  I have, in fact, read the published work of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, while I have not read anything by Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris [1].  But what's really upsetting is that Phil is basically saying that all of us "New Atheists" are bunch of intellectual boobs incapable of thinking our own thoughts, simply because we read the wrong books.  In contrast, Phil only reads "serious" philosophy and so therefore Phil gets to have independent thoughts of his own.  Honestly, I don't know what he expects to accomplish with this opener, other than to cheaply imply that his philosophical dick is bigger than mine.

So yeah, that's a little bit disappointing as a starter, but let's grant him this much anyway.  Phil's philosophical penis is amazing, and mine is weak and piddly.  Now what?  Show us what you've got, Mighty Penis Man. 

"In his video, PFOC Part 3, ACX shows that he does not understand the conception of God outlined by modern theists such Swinburn, Craig, and Plantinga.  I'll quote Swinburn from the existence of God: 'God is Omnipotent - able to do whatever is logically possible.'" (0m,20s)

Okay, let's just stop right here.  Phil, you've read the title of this video series, yes?  It's not called "Philosophical Failures of Swineburn, Craig, and Plantinga."  It's called "Philosophical Failures of Christian Apologetics."  And while I do tend to pick on Craig and Plantinga a great deal, this is still a hugely broad category that extends way beyond your little clique of philosophical favorites.  And since we are talking about Christianity here, it seems perfectly natural to me that we should use the Bible as the ultimate source of what God is like.  So let's take a look, shall we?
  1. But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
  2. Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God." (Mark 10:27) 
  3. For nothing will be impossible with God. (Luke 1:37)
  4. Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh.  Is anything too hard for me? (Jeremiah 32:27)
  5. I know that you [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)
There you have it.  According to the Bible, God can do anything.  Not only that, but the Bible is even kind of enough to state this fact with unqualified redundancy.  All things are possible, period.

This is a form of omnipotence called absolute omnipotence, and is perfectly consistent with the traditional framework of Christian theology.  Granted, not many modern scholars hold to this view, but that's not really the point.  Many lay Christians today and famous philosophers throughout history have traditionally tended to naively interpret omnipotence in this regard, and have always done so precisely because that's exactly what the Bible says.  Hell, the word itself literally means "all potential" in Latin (omni = all, potens = ability, power).

Now if your conception of omnipotence just so happens to be different, then good for you.  It just means whatever argument I'm about to give against omnipotence no longer applies to you, does it?  But as far I can tell, the only reason people ever backed off on this concept is precisely because of the paradox it entails.  After all, why bother pointing out the paradox in the first place if nobody actually took it so literally?

Next, Phil plays my clip of the omnipotence paradox, wherein I ask if God can create a rock so heavy that God Himself cannot lift it.  But remember, the only real point of this question is to show that inconsistency is an automatic deal-breaker for anyone who wants to argue God's existence.  So if your conception of God is incoherent, then by default it cannot exist, and we can even prove that fact with 100% logical certainty.  Nevertheless, Phil has a response (2m13s):

"Of course, this is a strawman of the theist, who does not claim that omnipotence is the ability to do everything, including the logically impossible.  It's logically impossible to move an immovable object, so God's inability to do so does not violate His omnipotence, correctly defined as the ability to do anything logically possible."

Excuse me?  Did you say "correctly defined?"

Phil, you're an educated philosopher, right?  I mean, for crying out loud, you have the word "Philosophy" right there in your screen name, and a picture of John Mackie as your avatar to boot.  So obviously you seem to fancy yourself an aficionado of philosophical thinking, and have at least some kind of formal training in this stuff, correct?  It therefore follows that you, of all people, should know that there is no such thing as a “correct” definition.  At best, we can only say that there are “good” definitions and “bad” definitions.  Some definitions are concrete, meaningful, and precise, while other definitions are incoherent and self-defeating.  Some definitions tend to accord with the general, public understanding of a term, while other definitions tend to be more technical, contextual, or obscure.  But just because I didn't use your preferred definition of omnipotence, that does not absolve you from the fact that my definition is still perfectly consistent with plenty of naively common Christian conceptions about omnipotence.  I never claimed that my definition was the only definition, or even that it was the modern, academic definition - only that it was a usual definition (i.e., common; though perhaps a better word would have been "naive"). 

Honestly, Phil, have you even so much as read the Wikipedia entry on omnipotence?  There's at least a half-dozen definitions for omnipotence right there, and surely plenty more scattered throughout the literature.  Your definition is simply not the only one there is.  For example, Rene Descartes believed that God was not limited by logic, but could in fact do the logically impossible.  St Augustine of Hippo believed that God was capable of "doing what he wills."  Does this mean Rene Descartes and St. Augustine were not "serious philosophers" in your view?

This really is the only serious objection Phil presents in his critique.  My definition of omnipotence, being the historically naive definition inherent to the root meaning of the word itself, is not his preferred definition, so therefore I'm a philosophical ignoramus speaking nonsense.  Thank goodness we have Philosophy Lines to expose my academic buffoonery to the world!

The sad irony in all this is that we can, in fact, use Phil's own definition of omnipotence and still arrive at the same fundamental problems.  For example, if I really wanted to nit-pick, I could point out that the phrase "logically possible" doesn't technically mean anything.  "Logic" is not some binding, universal essence of the cosmos, but just a word we use for any arbitrary axiomatic framework that governs the assignment of truth values to propositions.  So which logical system are we supposed to appeal to, Phil?  Classical Aristotelian logic?  Tri-state logic?  Fuzzy logic?  Maybe perhaps one of the five different systems of modal logic?

Now to be fair, what Phil's source probably meant to say is that omnipotence simply means God can do whatever is logically consistent.  And that's certainly a step in the right direction, but it's important to understand what this is fundamentally implying.  Literally speaking, it means if you can say it, God can do it, just so long as it's intelligible and contains no contradictions.  So fine.  Let's see how it goes:
  1. God can do all that is logically possible (Phil's definition of God and omnipotence)
  2. It is logically possible to lie (incorrigible fact).  
  3. Therefore, God can lie (from 1 and 2).
  4. The Bible says that God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2).
  5. Therefore, the God of the Bible is not omnipotent (from 4 and 1).
Now what?  Is God omnipotent?  Or is Christianity true?  Remember, our focus is on Christian apologetics, so what's it going to be?  You can't have your cake and eat it, too.   

Or how about this?  Can God wish a universe into existence?  There aren't any immediate contradictions in that statement, but it also doesn't appear to have any logical coherence, either.  How exactly does the mere act of speaking an event out loud magically cause that event to manifest itself in reality?  There is no causal connection.  Yet that's exactly what the Bible says God did "in the beginning."  So does "logical possibility" include the principle of non-sequitur or what?

But hey, since Phil brought it up anyway, let's forget about Christianity altogether and take it even further:
  1. God can do all that is logically possible (Phil's definition of omnipotence)
  2. Given any force f and acceleration a, it is logically possible to compile a mass m such that m's acceleration is less than a (Newton's 2nd Law of Motion).
  3. Therefore, God can compile a mass to negate any force (from 1 and 2).
  4. Given any pile of mass m, it is logically possible to produce a force f that will accelerate m beyond a (Newton's 2nd Law of Motion).
  5. Therefore, God can provide enough force to accelerate any mass (from 1 and 4).
Now let's ask the question again: Can God create a rock so heavy that even God Himself cannot lift it?  No matter what answer you give, either premise (3) or premise (5) must be violated.  Yet if I were to simply replace "God" with any other finite being we can think of, then the contradiction immediately disappears.  It therefore has nothing to do with the question being malformed, but God Himself being ill-defined in premise (1).  Because in order for God to accelerate any mass, then God must necessarily have the capacity to generate infinite force.  And in order for God to negate any force, then God must necessarily have the capacity to generate infinite mass.  "Infinity" is not a logically well-behaved concept, and you can't just throw it around willy-nilly without running into these exact kinds of problems.

The problem Phil doesn't seem to appreciate is that two things can potentially both be logically possible in isolation, but not necessarily possible when joined together in the same set.  What this means is that either God can (a) create immovable objects, or (b) create unstoppable forces, but not (c) both at once.  Any attempt to write down an actual list of God's abilities must therefore pick and choose, resulting in a list that is always going to be incomplete.  So even with Phil's own definition, we still have the same contradictions as before, because not all "logically possible" potentials are compatible with each other.

I can't help but point out that if Philosophy Lines had ever read the work of "serious" philosophers like Bertrand Russell, then he would know that the omnipotence paradox is actually just a special case of another well-known dilemma called Russell's paradox.  Because when it comes to naive set theory, it happens to be a mathematical fact that any attempt to define a sort of "universal" set must inevitably lead to internal contradictions.  That's exactly why omnipotence likewise has so many similar problems, because it tries so hard to treat God as a similar kind of universal set.  It simply doesn't work.  The set of all logical possibilities is, itself, not a logical possibility!

So once again, without even leaving my own chair, I can conclusively prove that God does not exist, simply because the very definition being offered is not meaningfully consistent. 
But the one thing that makes this argument truly pathetic is the simple fact that it's so trivially easy for theists to avoid.  All they have to do is stop being so damned greedy in their definition of God, and then the entire objection would immediately vanish without a trace.  But no!  Theists don't want to worship a merely "finite" deity that's logically consistent, but instead insist on God being infinite in His potentials.

At this point, most apologists will tend to back-pedal on their definition even further by saying that an omnipotent being can only do things that are logically consistent with its own nature.  So for example, God may be omnipotent, but God is also immortal.  Therefore God cannot die, because an "immortal mortal" is again a logical contradiction, which God cannot do.  Yet even this definition doesn't work because it technically applies to anything and everything.  For example, I am mortal.  It is in my nature to die someday.  I therefore cannot live forever because an "immortal mortal" is again a contradiction.  It is not logically consistent with my nature.  So to say that an omnipotent being can only do what is "logically consistent with its own nature" is to effectively say that all of us are now omnipotent.  It's a tautological assertion that is always true!
  1. God is omnipotent.
  2. Omnipotence = able to do everything that is consistent with one's nature.
  3. What is God's nature?
  4. God is omnipotent.
I cannot stress enough that the only point of the omnipotence paradox is to remind theists that contradictions are bad.  Yet when faced with this brute logical fact, the best they ever seem to do is offer up yet more contradictions and even a vapid tautology to boot.  And this is just what happens when we talk about omnipotence alone.  What do you think is going to happen when they start adding other "omnis" to the mix, like omniscience and omnibenevolence?  Each one of these is bad enough in isolation, so how are they supposed to even remotely get along together in the same logical entity?  This is not a trivial problem.   The core foundation of all philosophy itself is the rigorous definition of terms.  If religious apologists can't even bring themselves to coherently define what this God-thingy of theirs is supposed to be, then it's utterly meaningless to even talk about whether or not it exists.

So really, who's "ignorance" is being exposed here, Phil?  Have you even remotely thought this thing through?  You had one job.  Get out a piece of paper, write "omnipotence" at the top, and then enumerate a list of properties we can associate with that word.  The rules?  Keep it intelligible, and don't resort to any contradictions or recursions.  If you can't do this one, simple task, then this is no longer an argument.  It's bullshit. 

  1. That's not entirely accurate.  I actually did read one of Sam Harris' books, but not until after making PFOC Part 3. So technically, it doesn't count for this discussion.  I've also read a couple of Shermer's books, but it's hard to see what anyone could have against them.  All Shermer ever does is promote basic science and skepticism, and none of the material I've actually read has anything to do with philosophy of religion.