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THE PARADOX OF OMNIPOTENCE,AND

PERFECTION
J E R O M E GELLMAN*

We m a y state the "Paradt)x of Omnipotence" as follows


(where A is any action the doing of which would diminish
God's power or his ability to control a being): 1
(1) Either God can do A or he cannot.
(2) If God c a n do A, then it is possible for his
power to become diminished.
(3) If God's power can become diminished, then
God is not omnipotent.
So, (4) If God c a n do A, he is not omnipotent. (2,3)
(5) If God cannot do A, then there is something he
cannot do.
(6) If there is something God cannot do. he is not
omnipotent.
So, (7) If God c a n n o t do A, he is not omnipotent. (5,6)
Therefore, (8) God is not omnipotent. (1,4,7)
P r e s u m a b l y this a r g u m e n t constitues a paradox in that
each of its premisses if true is necessarily true, and, so, the
conclusion is also n e c e s s a r i l y true. So, despite a p p e a r a n c e s
the concept of "God being omnipotent" is logically defective.
So we are f a c e d with a paradox: we have a concept that
s e e m s coherent on the one hand, but logically blemished at
the same time.
The "Mavrodes-Plantinga solution" (so-called because of
its essential r e s e m b l a n c e to the respective solutions of George
Mavrodes and Alvin Plantinga z) shows how God's omnipotence
* University of the Negev, Beer sheva. Israel.
1 See J. I.. Maekie, "Evil a n d O m n i p o t e n c e " M i n d , 64, r
210.
z G e o r g e M a v r o d e s . " S o m e Puzzles C o n c e r n i n g O m n i p o t e n c e , " Philosophieal Review, 72 (1963~, 221-223, A l v i n P l a n t i n g a , G o d and Other
Minds (Cornell, 1967), pp. 163-173.

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can be maintained without lapsing into logical absurdity. For,


supposing God is omnipotent, either (a) God cannot logically
possibly exist without being omnipotent (in which case we shall
say God is omnipotent essentially) or (b) God can possibly
exist without being omnipotent (in which case he is omnipotent

materially).
If (a), God's doing A is logically impossible. Hence, in
accordance with the theological tradition that omnipotence
does not extend to the doing of the impossible, his inability to
do A does .not detract from his omnipotence. Premiss (6) is
true for rational theology only if understood as
(6') If there is something logically possible for God
to do that God cannot do, he is not omnipotent.
and (7) follows from (6') and (5) only if the latter is interpreted as
(5') If God cannot do A, then there is something
logically possible for God to do that e~mnot do.
which is patehtly false, on (a)
essentially.

where God is omnipotent

If (b), then God's doing A is logically possible. So, God


can do A. since he is omnipotent materially. But that fails
to entail that God does A and that his power is actually
diminished. If God does A (and he can, since he is omnipotent
materially), he will then lose power and no longer be omnipotent. But he is (now) omnipotent. So, if (b), then premiss
(3) is false.
On the assumption that God is omnipotent, either (a) or
(b) is true, and so either premiss (5) or premiss (3) is false.
The paradox is thereby resolved.
The Mavrodes-Plantinga solution gives rise, however, to
what I shall call the " P a r a d o x of Essential Omnipotence." I
will first state the paradox, and then show how the premisses
m a y be defended on the basis of the Mavrodes-Plantinga
solution to the first paradox:
(9) Either God can do.A or he cannot.
(10) If God can do A, then it's possible for his
power to become diminished.
(11) If God's power can become diminished, then
God is not omnipotent essentially.
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THE

PARADOX

OF

OMNIPOTENCE,

AND

PERFECTION

So, (12) If God can do A, he is not omnipotent essentially. (10, 11)


(13) If God cannot do A, there is something that
he cannot do that a materially omnipotent
being can do.
(14) If God cannot do what a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do, God is not omnipotent.
So, (15) If God cannot do A, God is not omnipotent.
(13, 14)
So, (16) If God is omnipotent, tie is m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent. (12, 15, 9)
So, (17) God is not omnipotent essentially.
The problem with ( 1 7 ) i s that it is a firmly entrenched
doctrine of ortodox rational theology not only that God is
omnipotent, but that he is omnipotent essentially. If the premisses of this a r g u m e n t are true, they are necessarily true. So
if the a r g u m e n t is sound, the concept of God's essential omnipotence is logically defective.
I pass over steps (9) - - (12) as being unproblematic. (13)
must surely be accepted by the Mavrodes-Plantinga solution,
since the latter partly turns on its admission that
(18) A m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do A.
and (13) follows directly f r o m (18). What of (14)? Conceivably,
a defender of the Mavrodes-Plantinga solution might argue
that (14) to be acceptable must be equivalent to
(14') If there is something that God cannot do
which is logically possible for him to do and
which a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do,
then God is not omnipotent.
which is true even without r e f e r e n c e to the capacities of a
materially omnipotent being in the antecedent. But (14) as it
stands, he might say, is not true. F o r if what God cannot do
is such that he logically can't do it, he remains omnipotent
even if a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent can do that v e r y thing.
Accepting (14'), then, we would have' to change (13) to
(13') If God cannot do A, then there is something
he cannot do which is logically possible for
him to do and which a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent
being can do.
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But (13') does not follow f r o m (18) at all; and its a c c e p t a n c e
a m o u n t s to a begging of the v e r y question against G o d ' s
essential omnipotence.
This reply, however, will not do. To see why, let us consider what concept of omnipotence could justify the rejection
of (14) as it stands. The following definition of omnipotence:
(D1) X is omnipotent iff x can do w h a t e v e r it is
logically possible for him to do.
would justify the rejection of (14). F o r even if God cannot do
what a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can, he can still be omnipotent, as long as his inability is a logical one. In the c a s e of
the doing of A, for e x a m p l e , if God is omnipotent essentially
he r e m a i n s omnipotent though he cannot do A, and though (18)
is true. And we m u s t of course consider the possibility of
essential omnipotence, otherwise we beg the question at issue.
As is known, however, (D1) is not a s a t i s f a c t o r y definition.
According to it, no m a t t e r how logically enfeebled, a being
m a y be omnipotent provided it can p e r f o r m each logically
possible act left for him to p e r f o r m . But surely, such a concept
of omnipotence is absurd.
Suppose, now, an opponent of (14) proposes instead this
definition:
(D2) X is omnipotent iff x can do w h a t e v e r it is
logically possible for him to do and x ' s logical
possibilities a r e r e s t r i c t e d (if at all) only with
r e g a r d to the diminishing of his power (as
well as by what is logically impossible for any
being w h a t e v e r ) .
On (D2) a s e v e r e l y logically handicapped being is not omnipotent, since his abilities a r e not r e s t r i c t e d only by the impossibility of losing power. And a n y being who is in any w a y
logically restricted in addition to the restriction on losing power
will not be omnipotent. But God, who can do e v e r y t h i n g except
A, if he is omnipotent essentially, qualifies as omnipotent
on (D2).
But (D2) fails as well. It is a f a v o r e d doctrine of rational
theology that God possesses his omniscience, goodness, etern~
ality, etc. likewise in an essential m a n n e r . So, it is logically impossible for God to forget, for e x a m p l e . But on (D2). God is
t h e r e f o r e not omnipotent. But this can be patched-up as
follows;
(D3) X is omnipotent iff x can do w h a t e v e r it is
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T H E PARADOX OF O M N I P O T E N C E , AND P E R F E C T I O N

logically possible for him to do, where the


logical restrictions on x (if any) are only that
he cannot lose his power nor do what an
essentially eternal, incorporeal, omniscient, allgood being cannot do (as well as what is
logically impossible for any being w h a t e v e r ) .
On (D3), pretty clearly (14) is false.
However, the intuitive notion of omnipotence we are working with here depends, roughly, on the n u m b e r of acts performable. Hence (D3), is utterly unconvincing, given the truth
of (18); for that a being cannot do A (even if a logical cannot)
ought to count against his omnipotence, since a m a t e r i a l l y
omnipotent being can do A. The logic of the situation is no
different than in the case of a being logically restricted in some
other way. Essential omnipotence, I a m saying, ought to count
as a restriction on omnipotence, since an essentially omnipotent being cannot do something that a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do. (D3), however, entails that it doesn't
m a t t e r to his omnipotence if x can or cannot do A. But this
is surely unacceptable. Admitting the possibility of a m a t e r i a l l y
omnipotent being and given (18), a being who cannot do (A)
is less than omnipotent. So, (D3) is counter-intuitive. On the
other hand, if our reasoning against (D3) is correct, (14)
appears quite plausible.
The upshot is, I believe, that (14) can be defended in the
wake of the Mavrodes-Plantinga solution to the p a r a d o x of
omnipotence. But in that case, the "solution" succeeds only
by plunging us into another paradox for rational theology.

II
The paradox of essential omnipotence arises f r o m :
(18) A m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do A.
I want to argue, however, that (18) is no part of rational
theology, and is indeed rejected therein. So, the paradox of
essential omnipotence collapses. Also, then, the MavrodesPlantinga solution to the first paradox is unacceptable for
rational theology, since that solution depends on (18). But
once we reveal the reasons for rejecting (18), we will be able
to solve the original p a r a d o x easily and without r e f e r e n c e to
material and "essential

omnipotence.

Initially, the God-concept in rational theology is the un-

analyzed concept of the perfect being, or most perfect being,


or that than which none greater can be conceived. Divine

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attributes such as omnipotence and omniscience relate explicatively to the fundamental unanalyzed concept of God. Omnipotence, that is, is introduced in partial answer to the question,
"What are the attributes or perfections of the most p e r f e c t
being?" Anselm's way of doing rational theology in the
Proslogion exemplifies this approach paradigmatically. He
begins, in his famous Ontological Argument, with an unanalyzed concept of God, and attempts to establish God's
existence, on what m a y be construed a partial analysis, revealing that the God-concept entails existence. In ensuing chapters
of Proslogion Anselm provides a fuller philosophical explication of what is m e a n t by " t h a t than which none g r e a t e r can
be conceived". This explicative task leads to God's omnipotence, as well as to other attributes.
Given the context in which omnipotence arises, perhaps
a better t e r m for the power of God would be " p e r f e c t p o w e r . "
Now this latter t e r m could be understood analogously with
" p e r f e c t c r i m e " or " p e r f e c t coincidence." In this non-normative nonsense of perfect (Sense I) that x is a p e r f e c t F does not
entail that x, or anything else, possesses a perfection in the
m o r a l sense of perfection or that to that extent x, or anything
else. is worthy of worship. But surely, this is not the meaning
of " p e r f e c t p o w e r " apt for rational theology. In the desired
normative sense of perfect (Sense II), that x is p e r f e c t F
entails that x has a moral perfection or is to that extent
worthy of worship. That God is perfectly powerful, is to be
taken in this second sense.
It should be noted further, that sometimes it is only by
failing to be perfectly F in Sense I that one can be p e r f e c t l y
F in Sense II. Perfect truth-telling, for example, in Sense I
(e.g. telling the truth no m a t t e r what the context or consequences, perhaps better described as: omni-truth-telling) is
destructive of perfect truth-telling in Sense II (the moral
virtue, perhaps better described as: perfection with r e g a r d
to truth-telling).
In light of the above considerations, it is wrong for philosophers to seize upon the " o m n i - " in " o m n i p o t e n c e " as though
it captured the basic intuition of rational theology, and squeeze
it for all its worth, without r e g a r d for its explicative role for
the concept of " m o s t p e r f e c t being." If philosophers insist
that the t e r m omnipotence necessarily encompasses the
ability to do A, then the rational theologian ought to just give
up that particular t e r m as misleading or not adequately
explicative of the previous notion of perfect being. For, the
ability to do A, need not count as an aspect of perfection

T H E P A R A D O X OF O M N I P O T E N C E . A N D P E R F E C T I O N

(Sense II), but as an aspect of inperfection with r e s p e c t to


power. The following words of Anselm a r e directly r e l e v a n t
here:
" B u t how art thou omnipotent, if thou a r t not c a p a b l e of
all things? Or, if thou canst not be corrupted, and canst not
lie, nor m a k e what is true, f a l s e . . , how a r t thou c a p a b l e of
all things? Or else to be c a p a b l e of these things is not power,
but i m p p t e n c e . . . When one is said to h a v e power of doing or
experiencing what is not for his good, or what he ought not
to do, impotence is understood in the word power. For, the
m o r e he possesses this power, the m o r e powerful a r e a d v e r s i t y
and p e r v e r s i t y against him, and the m o r e powerless is he
against them. 3''
I believe that in this p a s s a g e Anselm m e a n s to endorse
the following m e a n i n g of omnipotence:
(D4) X is omnipotent if and only if x can do any
logically possible action the doing of which
does not logically result in an i m p e r f e c t i o n
in x, and only such actions.
T h a t God lies entails an i m p e r f e c t i o n in him; so (D4) does
not require and even prohibits God's being e v e n capable of
lying in order to qualify as omnipotent. And the s a m e applies
to God's being corrupted, forgetful, or mistaken. He n e e d n ' t
be, indeed on (D4) cannot be, capable of any of these to be
omnipotent. But the very s a m e reasoning applies to the doing
of A: if God does A, he experiences a diminution in power,
which is an imperfection. So, to be omnipotent, on (D4), God
m u s t not be even capable Of doing A.
This definition helps explain, what was noted earlier, why
G o d ' s essential omniscience, eternality, incorporeality, etc.
do not infringe on his omnipotence. These a r e not ad-hoc
qualifications, but follow f r o m the logic of omnipotence. Since
these attributes a r e perfections (Sense I I ) , they i m p o s e no
i m p e r f e c t i o n - - entailing limitations on omnipotence.
If I a m right about (D4)'s reflecting the concept of omnipotence in rational t h e o l o g y / it follows that (18) is f a l s e for
rational theology: no being can be both omnipotent and c a p a b l e
of doing (A). But if (18) is not accepted, neither is p r e m i s s
s A n s e m , Proslogion, C h a p t e r 7. T r a n s l a t i o n of S. N. Dearie, St. Anselm:
Basic Writings (Open C o u r t . 1962). pp. 12-13.
a F o r a view s i m i l a r t,o A n s e l m s. see A q u i n a s ' S u m m a T h e o l o g i c a , 1,
25. 3. where he says, " T o sin is to fal) short of full activity. H e n c e
to be able to s i n is to be a b l e to fail in doing, w h i c h c a n n o t be
reconciled with omnipotence." I would add that for similar reasons
to be able to do A c a n n o t be r e c o n c i l e d w i t h o m n i p o t e n c e .

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(13) of the paradox of essential omnipotence acceptable. For


it is not the case that a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do A;
so, it is false that if God cannot do A, then there is something
He cannot do that a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being c a n do.
Hence, the paradox of essential omnipotence disappears.
But now the original paradox of omnipotence disappears
also. For consider:
(6) If there is something God cannot do, he is not
omnipotent.
To be true, it should be taken as:
(6") If there is something God cannot do the doing
of which does not entail an imperfection in
God, then he is not omnipotent.
But in order for (5) and (6") to produce:
(7) God cannot do A, he is not omnipotent.
(5) must be r e i n t e r p r e t e d as:
(5") If God cannot do A, then there is something
he cannot do the doing of which does not
entail an imperfection in God
which is false. That God does A entails a loss of power in God,
and a loss of power in an imperfection. So even if (5")'s
antecedent is true, its consequent needn't be true. So,
understood as a n e c e s s a r y truth, (5") is false. With the falsity
of its premisses, the paradox of omnipotence collapses.
My solution to the paradoxes accepts as true:
(19) The doing of A entails
the doer.

an

imperfection

in

where an implicit universal quantification over power-curtailing acts (i.e.., " A ' s " ) is understood. Now one might argue
that (19) is false, For there m a y be acts which curtail one's
power in ways wholly irrelevant to one's worshipful status.
P e r h a p s if God creates one tiny stone he cannot move, yet
can do all else he previously could, he ought to count as just
as worshipful as before. The act, A, in this case is neutral
with respcct to perfection in the n o r m a t i v e sense, And if this
is so, then the paradoxes return in full force with the r a n g e
of 'A' restricted to such perfection-neutral acts. (5") will
indeed be true, and so will (13) (since a m a t e r i a l l y omnipotent being can do A, under the restricted interpretation).
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PERFECTION

Now I m y s e l f believe that (19) is true and that there are


no power-curtailing actions that do not result in an imperfection. F o r t u n a t e l y , however, we need not decide the
m a t t e r in order to solve the paradoxes. For when 'A' is
restricted to perfection-neutral acts, neither is (11) nor ~s (3)
a n y longer n e c e s s a r i l y true. God's power could indeed b e c o m e
diminished without at all r e t r a c t i n g f r o m his omnipotence,
since by omnipotence is m e a n t the power of a p e r f e c t being,
in the n o r m a t i v e sense. So, indeed, the loss of a power not
a f f e c t i n g the perfection of its possessor is c o m p a t i b l e with
omnipotence. True, there a r e f e w e r things that God c a n
do now he has lost a power, but God is not t h e r e b y r e d u c e d
in perfection, by the hypothesis of the restricted r a n g e of 'A'.
So by (D4), God can do A and is omnipotent. Hence, neither
(11) nor (3) is true. Finally. consider any action, B, that
God cannot now do as a result of having done A and curtailed
his power. God cannot do B. H o w e v e r if the doing of A indeed
entails no imperfection, then neither does the inability to do
B entail an imperfection. And if the inability to do B does not
entail an i m p e r f e c t i o n then it is not incompatible with omnipotence.
In sum, whether we a s s e r t (19) or not, the p a r a d o x e s of
omnipotence do not arise. I a d m i t that a full t r e a t m e n t of
the subject would require a closer inspection of the concept
of " p e r f e c t i o n " in its theological setting, but what we h a v e
said here is correct, I believe, as f a r as we h a v e considered
it. And t h e r e is no r e a s o n to believe that a fuller analysis
would substantially change our findings. 5

5 I wish to t h a n k m y colleague, Dr. Alan Zaitchik, l'or helpI'ul c r i t i c i s m


of an earlier draft of this paper.

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