God’s Omnipotence and Free Will

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on the claimed compatibility of belief in a good, all-powerful God, and the presence of evil in the world. It was massively simplified, and probably didn’t do justice to the complexities involved. Nor did it really try to engage with any counter-arguments. The following is a small step towards rectifying that situation. It concerns the counter-claim that God, being all-powerful, should be able to create people who are truly free, but who always choose to do good. The issue turns on the definition of divine omnipotence, with critics of the free will defence arguing that such a definition would have to include the ability to create what is contradictory – including free people who always choose to do the “right thing”. Written in the style of an informal essay-cum-letter to a fictional interlocutor, the piece attempts to grapple with these rejoinders. 

Dear Jim,

You’ve raised an interesting issue in regards to the apparent clash between God’s omnipotence and the notion that there cannot exist people who always freely choose to pursue the Good – chief of which is, I suppose, confession of God’s lordship. You seem to be suggesting that an omnipotent God should be able to create such a reality – i.e. people who always freely choose him, and goodness in general (however defined). What might be characterised as “forced free choice” is sometimes used to argue that God should be able to create the sorts of people who will simply choose him – always and indubitably, without exception. You seem to suggest that anything less presents us with a contradictory picture of God: able, on the one hand, to create things out of nothing, unconstrained by the limits of his creation; and, on the other, “limited” by the fact that he apparently cannot create individuals who are both free and incapable of rejecting him or goodness. There are several reasons why I do not think this argument works.

To begin, I do not think that you quite realize the gravity of what you’re suggesting. One might call it illogical. I, however, think it’s much worse than that: an utter nonsense might be the best way to characterise your suggestion (please know that I am not trying to be derogatory in using the word “nonsense”). Forced free choice, just like a round square or a married bachelor, is an incoherent concept. It’s not so much that God cannot break some rule that would otherwise allow him to create such a state of affairs; it’s that such a state is completely bereft of meaning, and to that extent, cannot exist. There can be no rule to break, precisely because incoherent states are devoid of the intelligibility required to make any such rule meaningful in the first place. They are characterised by a fundamental privation of meaning. Indeed, they are completely void of sense. Speaking metaphorically, incoherent states are to reality what black holes are to light: absolute negation.

It will not do to suggest that an omnipotent God should simply be able to perform such feats. I think you’re trading on a very simplistic definition of the term, in any case. Omnipotence does not simply mean doing whatever one wants. A better starting place would be to suggest that God, being the source of all there is, is also the foundation for all acts of power (or potency) we observe in our world. We witness all sorts of expressions of power, even on a daily basis: the power of thought; the power to walk; the power to create fire; the power to melt a substance, changing it from a solid to a liquid; and so forth. Underlying all these contingent instances of potency is God. He is the ultimate ground, and guarantor, of whatever power is exhibited in this world. Hence, we employ the word “omnipotent” (omni = all + potent = power). Now, I’m not saying that God’s power doesn’t go beyond what we observe in this world; it certainly would, and is therefore absolute and maximal. It is not as if God is powerful only in relation to “this” material world.[1] As the ultimate form of existence, his power is unsurpassable. All I am saying is that omnipotence primarily deals with divine potency in relation to our world, given that it’s our primary reference point (we can speculate on the creation of other worlds, but that remains a vague project). Added to this is God’s unbounded nature, or the fact that he faces none of the constraints that both his sentient and non-sentient creations – bound as they are by the material realm in which they live – face. As a result, whilst the power/potency of material things is derived (for example, a man can plant a tree in the garden, but that power rests upon the functionality of his muscles, his internal constitution, the absence of disease, the integrity of his atomic structure, the presence of gravity and other fundamental forces that maintain that integrity, the presence of raw materials conducive to his intended goal), God’s is inherent and completely within himself. There is no lag between his decision to do something and its being done; nor does he require effort to bring something into being. It is immediate and self-caused, underlying all other manifestations of power we experience and see within the material realm.

Incidentally, I would suggest that the Bible comes fairly close to certain elements of this understanding of omnipotence. Actually, it’s probably true to say that the biblical authors, not being terribly interested in abstract philosophizing about the divine nature, were content to conclude from the works of nature that God was simply “all-powerful”. To put it another way, God is seen in Scripture as “almighty”, or maximally powerful, with the created world functioning as Exhibit “A” for that claim. The Bible simply doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting upon what God’s power might mean in an abstract sense. And, despite claims that it doesn’t place limits on God’s abilities (depending on how one thinks of “limits”), the truth is actually the opposite. Hebrews 6:18, for instance, states quite clearly that it is impossible for God to lie. Or what about James 1:13, which says that God “cannot be tempted”? According to your conception of omnipotence, these would count as substantive constraints upon divine power. But what would it mean to say that God “could” commit wrong? What would it mean to say that God is “capable” of lying? Mendacity, in particular, is a neat example of why it is God is “unable” to do certain things. The act of deception, false testimony, and the like, is, in many respects, the opposite of truth. Classical understandings of God conceive of him, not merely as eminently truthful, or as the repository of all truth (though these things are so), but as the paradigm of truth. It is what he is in himself. As such, God could not do anything that contradicts his own, essential truthfulness, any more than a truthful statement could be false. In any case, the aforementioned states are hardly befitting the perfect nature of the Deity. However, my point here is to suggest that the Bible, contrary to the assertions of some, does in fact place “boundaries” (if they can be called that) around God’s nature. It simply will not do to maintain the notion that the Bible offers up some unconstrained conceptualisation of God’s power – even to the point of implicitly endorsing incoherence.

Back, then, to what I said about self-contradictory states of affairs and positive attributes in my first substantive paragraph. It is quite wrong-headed to suggest that God’s claimed omnipotence is inconsistent if he cannot create such states. Because they are negative states (precisely because they are characterised by lack – i.e. of meaning and coherency), it is not correct to say that God lacks power if he “cannot” bring them into being. There is no such thing as an inability to do something that has no – can have no – positive meaning; as such, God is not hitting his head on some kind of metaphysical “ceiling”, beyond which he cannot go. To take a similar, though not identical, example: blindness. Now, blindness, unlike some of the self-contradictory examples I have given, is a perfectly intelligible state. I mean, there are people who lack the power of sight. But where there is a connection between these two examples is precisely this concept of “lack”. Blindness is characterised by a lack of sight, whilst an incoherent state is characterised by a lack of meaning. Both are, in a sense, parasitic upon what we would take as foundational, positive states (in that blindness, for example, isn’t really intelligible apart from a certain knowledge of what it means to see). Now, I have no problem suggesting that God’s omnipotence is not impugned simply because he lacks the “power” of blindness, because it is not really a power at all. Similarly, and for this reason, I do not think that the “inability” to make real an incoherency – whether a blind person who can see, a bachelor who has a wife, or a free person who only has one course of action open to him – casts doubt on God’s supreme power.[2]

I would go further and suggest that any such ability, even if it were possible, would represent some degree of incoherency within the very nature of God himself – meaning, of course, that such a concept (as with every other example of incoherency) collapses in on itself. How so? Well, for an incoherent state to be possible, it has to be extant somewhere, with its grounding in something else. In other words, it cannot possess existence independently of God, if indeed God is considered as ultimate. Its potential reality, then, must “reside”, if you like, in the divine mind, for it is the divine mind that guarantees and grounds the possible existence of anything at all. Moreover, the idea of an incoherency is closely related to the “framework” of reality; to that extent, it is intimately related to the character of God. Unlike, say, a blade of grass, a car, or even something conceptual like love (which are mere features of reality), talk of incoherencies, etc. concerns the very structures which give rise to such features in the first place. To argue for the existence of a married bachelor is actually to make a comment on what reality, at its most fundamental, should, or could, be like – and the fundamentals of reality bring us fairly close to their Author (at least, more so than the various phenomena that rely upon them). However, if reality itself can be incoherent, we may ask whether there is, in fact, some kind of incoherency within the divine nature. This appears to be untenable. We have to ask ourselves, then, whether those states render God utterly nonsensical. Is it possible for self-contradictions to exist within such a being? Moreover, what are we to make of the idea that God, possessing the kind of omnipotence for which you have argued, should be able transform his own nature into something that is self-contradictory? The problem, at this point, becomes particularly sharp. Should God be able to render himself both existent and non-existent at the same time? Should he be able to erase his memory? Should he be able to create a world in which he is powerless? There is no reason to think that your rather eccentric definition of omnipotence, should it be true, cannot be applied to God himself; it has to, if such a definition is to be upheld consistently. If it is true, though, I’m afraid that we move into the realm of the absurd.

Furthermore, if your original suggestion holds, then it would also be possible to argue that God is both limited and unlimited; that he is both omnipotent and constrained in his power. It negates the very point you are attempting to make, since on your account of things, two mutually contradictory states can exist simultaneously in the one space. So in undermining God’s omnipotence, you’re actually upholding it. Arguing in this manner means that God can both fail and satisfy your semantic demands. Similarly, if incoherent states are possible – or that God, if he truly is omnipotent, should be able to create them – it would be correspondingly possible to argue for God’s existence, even if atheists have demonstrated conclusively that it is not the case. For if self-contradictions are possible, then we could have no problem with God’s simultaneous existence and demonstrated non-existence. Thus, the non-believer’s case is actually wounded.

But I digress. Let us assume for a moment that such states are possible, and that it does not threaten the integrity of the divine nature. Why would God create incoherent states within this realm? If reality could ever be self-contradictory, what does that mean for our actions, for our pursuits? What would it mean for our quest for knowledge, if reality did not possess a fundamental coherency that was open to investigation? What would it mean for all our moral efforts, if an action could simultaneously be classed as moral and immoral? Why should we trust anything we seem to observe or experience if reality possesses such inherent ambiguity? Imagine, for example, that rape can be both righteous and wicked at the same time. What would it mean for us to make any kind of judgment upon it, if there are no stable reference points to anchor such judgments? Coming to any conclusions regarding any action, according to any criteria, and developing a coherent account of the world around us, would be rendered impossible. This is true, not only for moral truths, but for physical truths also. The possibility of incoherent states (to say nothing of their actuality; there’s no reason to think that God might not have created them in other realms, aside from the notion of “forced free choice” upon which your argument hangs) would make it impossible to draw any conclusions about, say, physical reality. The scientific project would, in principle, be a non-starter. Even your current efforts to critique the notion of an omnipotent God implicitly rely on an acceptance of coherency. Making an argument, forming chains of reasoning – indeed, discovering the richness of the external world, and developing systems of thought and behaviour based on those discoveries – cannot proceed without it. I would argue, then, that even if God were “able” to do the things you suggest, there are important moral reasons for him not doing so.

It seems to me that the concept of “forced free will” (or however one might choose to characterise it) is something that not even an omnipotent God could do. Due to the aforementioned reasons, I do not believe that your argument has been successful in pointing out a flaw in the characterisation of God as all-powerful. And, even if God were capable, and the ability to create incoherent states were an inescapable part of the divine nature, I’m not sure that we would do well to argue for them.

Thank you for your enquiries. I do not claim to be especially gifted in this area, but I have tried to deal honestly with the issues involved. Even if I haven’t convinced you, I hope you can at least understand that my failure was a sincere one.

Regards,

Scott.


[1] When I speak of “world”, I am using it in a very broad sense to denote the reality within which we exist.

[2] I suppose it could be suggested that if blindness, even if it is characterised by “lack”, can exist, then there is no reason why incoherent states (also distinguished by what they lack) should also be able to exist. If God can cause blindness (which the Bible indicates) why, then, can he not create a married bachelor or a free person who is imprisoned? There are a couple of things that I would say to this. First, the relationship between God’s agency and blindness is not as direct as one might assume. It is true that he is able to cause it, but I think it better to conceive of this process in a more layered manner. For example, God might create a flash of light, so bright that someone is blinded by it. Or he might introduce a virus into a person’s system that eats away at that individual’s retina, thus having the same effect (remember, this is just a hypothetical example). Thus, his actions might lead, inexorably, to blindness in a person, but he himself does not create blindness in the same sense that he might create other things that possess a positive existence. Blindness is not a part of God in the same way that, say, life is, and so whatever relationship there is between God and such a state, it should be seen as indirect. Second, even though blindness and incoherent states might share the same “quality” (if I can call it that) of lack, they are very different beasts. I say more about that in the next paragraph.

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