The Nature of Omnipotence

Let us break the chains of the prejudice called Logic. Are we going to be stopped by a syllogism? -- Dr. Floyd Ferris, from Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged

I just joined alt.atheism. It's an interesting newsgroup that goes through several hundred posts a day. Although it's mostly populated by hardcore theists and atheists (at least, these are the most vocal members) the group is also home to a significant number of avowed agnostics. For those of you who are not familiar with the terms, a theist is a person who follows theism, or the belief in the existence of a personal and perhaps friendly God. Most of the more popular religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) are theist in nature. An atheist, on the other hand, is a follower of atheism, or the belief that God does not and has never existed. An agnostic, or a follower of agnosticism, is a bit more subtle. According to the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, agnosticism is

the doctrine that the existence of a personal Deity, an unseen world, etc., can be neither proved nor disproved, because of the necessary limits of the human mind (as sometimes charged upon Hamilton and Mansel), or because of the insufficiency of the evidence furnished by physical and physical data, to warrant a positive conclusion (as taught by the school of Herbert Spencer)

This definition, of course, entirely glosses over the issue of who exactly this Deity (or God) person is supposed to be. Webster's Dictionary says that God is:

A being conceived of as possessing supernatural power, and to be propitiated by sacrifice, worship, etc.; a divinity; a deity; an object of worship; an idol.

Many religious people will sometimes augment this definition by recognizing in God the attribute of omnipotence. Just to be sure that there are no misunderstandings, the supernatural is simply defined as that which is above or beyond the established laws of the universe while omnipotence is defined as the ability to do anything - literally anything.

Why am I bothering with all this formalism? I'm bothering with it because, although I realize that many people believe in such a supernatural, omnipotent entity, I don't think these same people give enough thought to what exactly this sort of omnipotence would entail. There's a popular paradox that's passed around in philosophical circles : "Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?" If you believe in the existence of a truly omnipotent God, then the answer to that question is a simple yes. God is supposed to be beyond logical contradictions because He, of course, invented logic. He must be able to posses the quality of omnipotence and be able to create a stone that he cannot lift. He must be able to create a square shaped circle and a red coloured blue. He must be able to know every corner of the universe and the have the ability to get lost in it, at the same time. He must be able to turn a dog into a castle at the same time that the dog is busy being a dog.

This God must have the ability to break the most basic, fundamental laws of nature, existence and logic. This God must be able to break the law of identity (the law that says that a rock is a rock or, more formally, that A is A) and break the law of non-contradiction (the law that says that a rock can't be a cat while it is busy being a rock) To be blunt, this God must have the ability to exist and not exist, at the same time - and this God must have the ability to not have this ability, at the same time. At this point, I seem to be reduced to gibberish. It's not really surprising. When the law of non-contradiction goes out the window, anything is possible - anything.

Some people will try to circumvent the obvious problems involved here by narrowing the definition of omnipotence. Of course God can't change the laws of logic, the argument goes; he's merely a very powerful entity who can bend matter and energy (as opposed to the fabric of reality itself) to his will, who created humanity and all the suns and planets, and who set out all the laws of physics in one big tapestry for reasons as yet unknown to us. What these people are describing is a natural God (as opposed to a supernatural God) - essentially nothing more than a very, very powerful alien. I don't buy the argument. I suppose such a critter could exist, but since we are now talking about a natural entity, the concept of evidence suddenly becomes applicable, and there is no evidence for such a being that can't be explained by less extreme theories. Besides, God is supposed to be supernatural; anything less and we can't really call such a creature God, now can we? At least, not according to Webster's.

Almost by definition, I don't believe the human mind can grasp the existence of a truly omnipotent entity, who can break the rules of logic, and I suspect that anyone who says otherwise is either lying or naive. Some people will now, I'm sure, try to label me as an agnostic. I think that label is a bit inaccurate since, contrary to some who say that one cannot "prove" the existence or non-existence of God one way or the other, I think it is actually very, very, very easy to "prove" that God does not exist, if you accept the validity of the law of non-contradiction. If you accept it, then an entity capable of making contradictions possible is automatically excluded from the realm of existence, from the get-go. Hence, God does not exist. End of story. Convincing, eh?

The standard rebuttal at this point, promulgated by both theists and agnostics alike, is usually along the lines of "Can you prove that the law of non-contradiction or that the law of identity is valid? No? Then your argument falls apart." The theists will go on to say that God is "beyond logic" (or something similar), and the agnostics will go on to say that the existence of God is still an unprovable issue. The first part of the rebuttal, I admit, is partly true; I can't "prove" that logic, as a science or a method, is valid, but that's only because the laws of logic (the law of non-contradiction and its ilk) are the basis upon which any kind "proof" is built, and hence are not subject to proof. While we're on the topic, I should probably also mention that I can't bite my teeth either. What these people are looking for is a way to prove the validity of the law of non-contradiction without invoking it i.e. by strictly illogical means. I'll be happy to oblige them; I will simply assert that the law of non-contradiction is one hundred percent proven and meet every objection with nothing more than a cry of "You're wrong, sucker!" followed by an exclamation of "Urp!". The "Urp!" is very important; without it, my illogical proof doesn't work.

What are they going to do? Say I'm wrong? By what means will they attempt to show it?

Of course, this is probably not what these people mean by an "illogical" proof. But if it isn't, and one still does not accept the validity of the law of non-contradiction as the irrefutable basis of any proof, then I'd really, really like to know what exactly is meant by the terms "proof" and "prove"...

As for the second claim, that my argument falls apart, I suppose that depends on how you look at it. Let me just say that when agnostics throw doubt on the power of logic, when they state that the laws of logic are not the basis of proof, but are subject to proof just like everything else, when they assert that for a theory to qualify as truly "ironclad" one has to "prove" the validity of it's basic logic through means that don't involve logic...then they undercut and undermine the sum total of all human knowledge. With this in mind, will they still say that the existence of God is an unprovable issue?

Some people try to resolve the issue by asserting the existence of a different kind of "logic", one that is not based on the law of non-contradiction. I suppose the problem I have with that assertion is one of semantics. I realize we're just arguing over labels, but I don't think I'm alone when I say that, for me, the word "logic" is indelibly tied to the law of non-contradiction and that using the word to describe something radically different is horribly misleading. I could just as easily say that a circle is really just a different kind of square, but is that a truly useful statement? If one insists on using the word "logic" to describe something that is essentially the opposite of what people normally think of logic, then I will simply say that one is describing a very, very, very, very, very, different kind of logic indeed - so different that one is better off using a different label to describe it.

So that's the end of that. I have to come to the conclusion that God does not exist. I know that God cannot exist, in exactly the same way that I know that water cannot be a rock at the same time that it is busy being water. I'm an atheist, not an agnostic. Furthermore, I suspect that many agnostics are actually atheists who have just never thought about the full implications of their position, or just want to keep their bases covered in case there really is a hell. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, I think many agnostics are just atheists without the courage of their convictions.

Most religious people, will usually assert at this point that logic isn't everything and that some things in life just require faith. I won't argue with them ( I can't argue with them ), any more than I can say anything useful when I'm confronted by people who claim that the Bible is the Word of God because God said it was so. I hold no ill will; at least these people realize that they have no logical leg to stand on (I say this with no value judgment at all). Some of them will undoubtedly find solace in their beliefs. Whatever makes them happy, I say, so long as they don't try to force others to believe the same thing. The key thing to realize is that the belief is illogical, and leave it at that. The rest follows from there.