October 26, 2010

On Omnipotence

In my last Sobel post, I discussed Sobel's proposal that, since the Stone Paradox shows essential omnipotence to be incoherent, the traditional God, since he would have his properties essentially, would have essential ONSLIP, or only necessarily self-limited power, but that this would not amount to omnipotence. Here I want to propose an alternative account of omnipotence, an attribute worthy of that name and which would be had essentially. First, however, we must distinguish power from freedom. To be omnipotent is to be all powerful. God is also supposed to be free in his exercise of power, and this creates a number of problems, some of which were discussed at the beginning of this series. I take it that the relevant type of power, the kind that agents have, is simply the ability to do what one wants, or to bring about one's ends, whereas freedom is something more complicated. This immediately suggests the following definition of omnipotence:

S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p.

To prevent any ambiguities, here it is in symbols:
S is omnipotent =df. □∀p[(p is a proposition & S wills that p) -> p]

So an omnipotent being's will would always be fulfilled as a matter of logical necessity. Now that's power! Furthermore, omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.

Here are some interesting features/consequences of this definition:

  1. The definition follows Alexander Pruss's suggestion on the Prosblogion version of the earlier post that omnipotence be construed as having to do with the range of states of affairs God can bring about.

  2. If the value of S substituted into the sentence (e.g. 'God') is a rigid designator, and the necessity is interpreted as being of the 'broadly logical' type, then omnipotence, being a modal property, entails essential omnipotence.

  3. The conditional in the definition is intended to be a material conditional. As a result, if there are any necessarily false propositions (and there are), then the definition entails, by the Distribution Axiom of modal logic, that, necessarily, those propositions are not willed by an omnipotent being. That is, □~(2+2=5) and God's omnipotence (as defined) jointly entail □~(God wills that 2+2=5).

  4. The definition entails that an omnipotent being's higher-order volitions (if any) are satisfied, which is thought by some (e.g. Frankfurt) to be important for freedom. That is, if God wills to will what is good, then (necessarily) he wills what is good.

But you might be worried about something (at least if you are not a Humean about causation and/or abilities): what if S wills only things that come about because S's will is conformed to reality, rather than reality being conformed to S's will? It is not clear that this is coherent: some philosophers think that the difference between belief and propositional desire/volition is the 'direction of fit' - that is, we try to conform our beliefs to the world, but we try to conform the world to our desires. If a being's (so-called) 'desires' were actually conformed to the world, rather than vice versa, they might turn out not to be desires at all, but rather beliefs. But in case this response doesn't work, we can easily modify the formula:

S is omnipotent =df. necessarily, for any proposition p, if S wills that p, then p because S wills it

Now, cashing out the 'because' might be tough, but if we are non-Humean enough to care about the problem, then presumably we are non-Humean enough to think that some sense can be given to 'because' here.

I cannot see that omnipotence, defined this way, generates any paradoxes by itself. Certainly it is unaffected by Sobel's objections. It may, however, have complicated interactions with other divine attributes, especially freedom (there are things that God can't will). The current definition looks like it plays nice with compatibilism, but it is not so clear that it plays nice with libertarianism.

[cross-posted at The Prosblogion.]

Posted by Kenny at October 26, 2010 11:04 AM
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Philosophers' Carnival 117
Excerpt: The 117th Philosophers' Carnival is is now up at a blog with the fantastic name The Consternation of Philosophy, with a link to the Prosblogion version of my post post on omnipotence....
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