Conee on Omnipotence

One topic we have been thinking about a decent amount is omnipotence. There are many different analyses of omnipotence and we plan on going over different analyses in different posts. We will focus just on one in this post. One analysis that is often given less time than it deserves in an analysis of omnipotence is the view that God is able to make any proposition true and any proposition false, this even includes the ability to make propositions true that are not possibly true and propositions false that are not possibly false. In more layman’s terms it is the view that God is able to perform any action where the quantifier ‘any’ extends beyond the realm of possibility to all impossibilities. Let’s call this analysis of omnipotence Unrestricted Omnipotence (or UO for short). A good paper that gives some motivations for the UO and does a decent job in dealing with the problems that arise from UO is a paper called “The Possibility of Power Beyond Possibility” by Earl Conee. In this post we will briefly present Conee’s argument for UO and assess its plausibility.

Conee’s argument for the claim that an omnipotent being has the power to make any proposition true or false including impossible propositions  has two premises. The first is:

a)     If a being is omnipotent, then the being is able to will any proposition to be true and able to will any proposition to be false.

Conee argues that the inability for a being to will a proposition to be true would imply that the being has a lack of will power. If I cannot will that I am a rabbit then I am lacking in an ability of willing, namely the ability to will that I am a rabbit. This would extend to any proposition even necessary and impossible propositions, such as: ‘2+2=4’ or ‘there is a colorless blue car’. Because intuitively we do not want an omnipotent being to be lacking in something as mundane as the ability to will things, we ought to think that the first premise is true.

b)     If an omnipotent being is able to will a given proposition to be true, and able to will the proposition to be false, then the being is able to have the proposition be true and able to have the proposition be false.

This premise just states that an omnipotent being would be able to always carry out its will. That is there is nothing that could prevent it from achieving what it wills. Conee thinks that if it were the case that something that is willed by a being is not achieved then there would be a lack of power or ability in a thing to carry out its intentions. And the inability to carry out one’s intentions is not something that we should want to ascribe to an omnipotent being.

From these two premises [(a) and (b)] we get the conclusion Conee wants:

c)     If a being is omnipotent, then the being is able to have any proposition be true and able to have any proposition be false.

Because (a) allows for the omnipotent being’s will to extend to any proposition, which includes impossible ones. And an omnipotent being can always carry out its will, an omnipotent being can make any proposition, including impossible propositions, true.

I feel some of the pull of this argument. If one can have the ability to will impossible things, then it seems that an omnipotent being should have this ability (as is claimed in the first premise). And if an omnipotent being can will these propositions to be true or false, then it seems like it would be strange to think that it could in some sense be stopped from carrying out its will, or that it would be incapable of carrying its will out (as is claimed by the second premise).

One worry I have about this view is that I am not sure that one can will impossible things to be true. I think maybe one can desire for impossible propositions to be true but I do not see how one could in any sense will them to be true. It seems that willing involves deciding to take some course of action to make the world match a desire that one has. But I don’t see how any one could decide to take a course of action to make 2+2 not be equal to 4 because there is no course of action that could be taken.

So far Conee has only given us that an omnipotent being can make any proposition true, and can make any proposition false. But Conee does not yet tell us whether or not an omnipotent being can give any proposition both truth-values. One question for Conee is whether or not an omnipotent being has the power to make it the case that a proposition is both true and false. Here’s an argument in favor of the claim that He can:

c) If a being is omnipotent, then the being is able to have any proposition be true and able to have any proposition be false.

d) There is a proposition ‘all propositions are both true and false’.

e) If the proposition ‘all propositions are true and false’ is true, then all propositions are both true and false.

f) Therefore an omnipotent being can make it the case that the proposition ‘all propositions are both true and false’ is true. (From (c) and (d)).

g) Therefore an omnipotent being can make it the case that all propositions are both true and false. (From (e) and (f))

Notice though that if (g) is true then so is:

h) The proposition ‘an omnipotent being makes every proposition both true and false’ is both true and false.

There just seems to be something funny going on here. We’re not sure that this is a problem that is separate from willing two contradictory propositions to be true, i.e. the newspaper is red and only red all over and the newspaper is black and only black all over. But, it seems that this problem might be more worrisome than contradictions of those kind. Propositions that are propositions about what an omnipotent being can make true seems problematic. One angle to take despite not having made a knockdown argument is that this result seems counterintuitive to our consideration for allowing UO (notice that if UO is true and an omnipotent being makes all propositions true and false then UO is also false). I don’t think we wanted him to have the power to will reflexive wills.

A final worry for Conee is the intelligibility of the claim that an omnipotent being can make any proposition true and any proposition false. This seems to entail the logical possibility of the logically impossible. This statement does not seem to just be contradictory but nonsensical. Which seems to be a big problem facing UO.

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7 Comments

  1. One thing I was waiting to be addressed here is the definition of “possible” and “impossible”. If one is able to do the impossible, then it seems to me that the thing which was done was mislabeled as “impossible” in the first place. Perhaps a better labeling would have been “impossible up until that time”, or “all that had tried to do that thing had been unable to do so”.

    From my comment, I suppose I am myself suggesting what I feel the definition of “possible” and “impossible” to be, something along the lines of:
    Possible – it has been done
    Impossible – it has not and never could be done

    Of course, my definition for “impossible” is never achievable, because only given all of time can it be shown that a thing is “impossible”

  2. Welcome to the blogosphere!

    The existence of UO would seem to preclude any logical discussion of UO.

    • That is a good point. It seems to be similar to the last point that we made in this post. But I think the discussion can be a logical one. Conee does try to answer the intelligibility objection and I think that will help us see how we can have UO and discuss it logically. We will be posting here soon on the intelligibility of UO.

  3. Sean,

    One thing to notice about the notion of possibility is that many other notions can be defined in terms of it. Some of these notions are: necessity, contingency, and impossibility. P is necessary if and only if it is not possible that not p. Contingent if and only if it is both possible that P and possible that not P. Impossible if and only if it is not possible that P.

    So to answer half of your question something is impossible by definition if it is not possible that it is the case. Now how to define possibility in the sense that I am using it is not an easy task. What I mean by possibility is something along the lines of logical consistency. If something is possible it does not entail a contradiction, it is consistent with the rules of mathematics and laws of logic, and the essences of things. Where we take essence to be more like a definition than the necessary features of a thing (since that would not be illuminating). So possibility here is to be understood in the most unrestricted sense. It is in one sense whatever can, could, or could have happened.

    There is a problem with your definition though. You define possibility as ‘it has been done’ but there are many things that have not been done that are possible. And in fact may never be done, like instant transportation or flying cars or the Bengals winning a superbowl.

    Does this help out at all? Let us know if you want us to explain anything else.

    • Summa,

      First of all, thanks for illuminating the problem with my definition of possibility. Surely, as you have pointed out, possibility holds a certain “future connotation”, even if it is purely theoretical.

      I agree with your definition of possibility being something along the lines of logical consistency (does not entail contradiction, consistent with rules of mathematics, logic, etc). This is precisely why I agree with Tomato Addict that “the existence of UO would seem to preclude any logical discussion of UO”. Since the UO as described would seem to “break” our definition of possibility, namely by breaking logical consistency.

      You already answered Tomato Addict with a precursor to a future discussion, so I don’t expect any response to this other than the one you already gave Tomato Addict. So in response to your response to Tomato Addict, let’s say I’m interested 🙂

  4. I agree with Tomato Addict in that there cannot be any rational discussion of UO if it is true. It seems that we can’t argue or draw conclusions if logical laws are not steadfast.

    Imagine a UO agent willing the following to be the case:
    ‘There never has been or will be an agent bearing UO.’
    ‘Nothing has ever been willed.’
    ‘Arguments that are invalid are valid.’ followed by ‘The sky is blue, therefore no agent can possess UO.’
    It seems to devolve into nonsense quickly.

    It seems that Conee’s arguments are better employed in reaching the conclusion UO is impossible as it reaches (by definition) impossible conclusions.

    • So I re-read the Conee and I am confused by his paper. The objection to UO that Conee believes threatens UO’s intelligibility is that it ‘seems to imply the possibility of the logically impossible’. But if this is a problem for Conee then why wouldn’t any contradiction implied by the view be problematic?

      So I see where you are getting at. I definitely think the view isn’t intelligible or right, but I think investigating Conee’s defense of the view is important to getting a good grasp on how to think about omnipotence.


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