Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Wife the Theologian II

I posted one of my wife's previous works here. Still in her class at Portland State University, she has done it once again. This time, after reviewing her paper, her professor said: "I cannot emphasize enough what a well-written paper this is. You very excellently present Mackie and Geach in a kind of conversation; you explain their views, yet still successfully argue for your own. Well done! And the clarity, focus and strategic organization all contribute to a thoughtful, excellent argument." Am I bragging? Well yes; so what? Lovers get to tell others of their beloveds' greatness.

The following was her answer to a question asking: "In light of Mackie and Geach's claims, is omnipotence as problematic as outlined? Why or why not?" She was again limited to three pages. Here it is:
Omnipotence [(omnis – all), (potens – powerful)], is the English derivative term for the Latin – used by early Latin speaking Christians – to translate the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures [El Shaddai (Hebrew) = Pantokrator (Greek)]. All three terms express the similar sense which, for the purposes of this paper, can be understood as “all-powerful.” The reason to draw attention to the history of the term is to evidence not merely its antiquity, but to establish its use in a religious context. In short: that God is somehow all-powerful is a fundamental notion to classical, biblical theism.

As we shall see, however, just what it means to be “all-powerful” is not self-evident. Omnipotence may be a term rightly attributable to God, but understanding the term in a non-equivocal way can be difficult; this will be implicit in what follows. What I hope to show in an explicit manner, however, is that in engaging what has come to be known as the “Paradox of Omnipotence,” religious believers can, nevertheless, still be warranted in asserting that it is coherent to ascribe omnipotence to God.

The paradox set out by Mackie is now classic: to the question “Can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?” (Mackie 210), Mackie points out that, on the one hand, if we answer “yes,” it follows that the being is not, in fact, omnipotent; but that, on the other, if we answer “no,” then again he is not omnipotent. The strength of this paradox lies in its seeming ability to force the believer into one of two unacceptable positions: either reforming her understanding of God – God cannot be omnipotent because if he is, he is not, and if he is not he is not – or, abandoning the concept of omnipotence altogether. While Mackie does offer a solution to the paradox as he articulated it, it is not a solution I will explore (Mackie too quickly mixes his solution with questions of God’s temporality).

Instead, Peter Geach offers something of a solution by way of distinctions. By distinguishing between at least four senses of what it can mean to be “all-powerful,” Geach rearticulates a religious intuition basic to classical theism: that God is all-powerful (in some perfect manner), but that he cannot do everything (e.g., he cannot sin, since the power – ability – to sin is not a perfection, but rather an imperfection expressing a lack of a perfected ability). Geach’s distinctions are difficult to grasp, and for that reason I will not entertain each of them; rather, I will draw a more general conclusion. It remains important, nevertheless, to outline his schema: God can be omnipotent in the sense that (1) God can do everything absolutely, even to the extent that God is not bound by the laws of logic; (2) God can do everything, but only those things, that are logically consistent to do; (3) God can only do things that are not self-contradictory, and that God actually does (this relies on a further distinction between what has been known as God’s potentia absoluta and his potentia ordinata); (4) and, God can only do things that are not self-contradictory, where what will be, is what can be (Geach 36).

The first sense of God’s omnipotence suggests, contrary to most classical theistic beliefs, that God is capable of performing logical impossibilities since he is not a being bound by the laws of logic or consistency. Proponents of this view suggest that it is somehow more of a perfection to be capable of achieving logical impossibilities. With Geach, I do not find this convincing. Can God both necessarily exist and actually, necessarily not exist? Can God both be and not be in the same respect? I find this to be more overly pious than something grounded in the historically religious claim of God’s all-powerfulness. Of the other three distinctions Geach draws, he discards them for their implicit involvement in logical contradictions (Geach 41). Instead, Geach makes another distinction: he claims omnipotence should be understood as almightiness; as the power over all things, not the ability to do all things.

But this sense of omnipotence seems subject to a modified version of the paradox Mackie calls the “Paradox of Sovereignty”: Can a legal sovereign make a law restricting its own future legislative power? If the answer is “Yes”, we should be admitting the validity of a law which, if it were actually made, would mean that the legal sovereign was no longer sovereign. If the answer is “No”, we should be admitting that the legal sovereign is not now a legal sovereign (Mackie 211).

It appears then that Mackie has bested Geach by showing that the attribute of omnipotence cannot rightly be ascribed to God. But this conclusion might be too quick. While both Mackie and Geach suggest that omnipotence cannot extend to all powers logically possible, this does not mean that omnipotence should not be understood in some other sense: Geach adequately demonstrates the complexity of defining what is meant by the term. If by omnipotence is meant those powers logically possible and adequate to God’s nature (so to speak), then the apparent incoherence dissolves. As God cannot lie, because to lie is an imperfection inadequate to his other attributes (e.g., his omnibenevolence), so a believer may coherently assert that God’s omnipotence consists in his ability to do anything logically possible not inconsistent with his other perfectly perfected attributes.

If the above suggests a limitation on God’s power, but nevertheless such power retains the dignity of perfection, then the believer can still be warranted in asserting that it is coherent to ascribe omnipotence to God.
And believe it or not, right now she is again in the other room practicing her Latin. This post has been nominated to be a recipient of the prestigious:

Congratulations sweetheart!

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