Conee on Omnipotence Part II: Intelligibility

So we left our last post on Conee off with a promissory note that we would try to make his position intelligible. Conee defends unrestricted omnipotence:

  • UO: An agent A is omnipotent iff A can make any proposition true or any proposition false.

The problem with UO arises when we interpret the ‘can’ in UO as ‘possibly’ as the following definition does:

  • UO*: An agent A is omnipotent iff that for any proposition P, it is possible that A makes P true and it is possible that A makes P fasle.

When we interpret ‘can’ as ‘possibly’ and hold (like Conee does) that there are propositions that are not possibly true and propositions that are not possibly false then it seems that UO* entails that the logically impossible is possible, which seems to be nonsense and completely unintelligible. One could avoid this problem by denying that there are propositions that are not possibly true and propositions that are not possibly false. Plantinga calls this view ‘Universal Possibilism’. But this is not what Conee seems to want. Conee wants to deny Universal Posibilism but make sense out of UO. An omnipotent being can make true propositions that are not possibly true. The way that he goes about this is to interpret the ‘can’ in UO should be interpreted as ‘has the ability to …’ or has the power to …’ as so:

  • UO**: An agent A is omnipotent iff for any proposition P, A has the ability to make P true and the ability to make P false.

Now in order for this to work we need to somehow divorce the notions of ability and power from the notion of possibility. Having the power or ability to make something the case must not be equivalent to or entail that possibly that thing is the case.

There is a question about whether or not we can motivate this distinction. We believe that we can make this distinction but let us leave motivating this distinction for a later post.

The Paradox of the Stone

One of the most famous problems with omnipotence is the stone paradox. I’m sure most all of us have come across this in form or another. The problem derives from the question: ‘can God create a stone so big that He couldn’t lift it?’ If He can, He is not omnipotent because there is something that He can’t do, namely lifting the stone. If He cannot, then He is not omnipotent because there is something that He cannot do, create the stone. Here is the argument in premise conclusion format:

  1. Either G can create a stone too heavy for G to lift or G cannot create a stone too heavy  for G.
  2. If G can create a stone too heavy for G to lift then G is not omnipotent.
  3. If G cannot create a stone too heavy for G to lift then G is not omnipotent.
  4. Therefore G is not omnipotent.

Note that this paradox only arises if we think that God is able to do anything. There are other restricted definitions of omnipotence that would avoid this paradox. But is this even really a decisive argument against the position that an omnipotent being is capable of doing anything? I am convinced that it is not. In fact that it is a quite poor argument against this understanding of omnipotence.

First we need to think about what is in the range of ‘anything’ in the actions that God could perform. Does ‘anything’ range over just all logically possible things or does it extend to God being able to do logically impossible things? Lets restrict ‘anything’ to mean only logically possible things. Either an unliftable stone is a logically possible thing or a logically impossible thing. If the stone is a possible object then God can make it but it is not threatening to God’s omnipotence that He cannot lift it because it would be impossible to lift an unliftable thing and God’s omnipotence does not allow Him to do anything. If the stone is an impossible object then God could not make it and this would not threaten His omnipotence since an omnipotent being cannot do impossible things. Now let’s say God can do impossible things. It does not matter whether or not the stone is an impossible object. God can create a stone that He cannot lift. But this is not a problem for His omnipotence because God can lift the stone that He cannot lift because His power extends to all things possible and impossible. I think that this is a conclusive objection to this argument. I do think there are other objections to omnipotence that are strong but the paradox of the stone is just not one of them.

Post by Cruz Davis

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.