Assess the claim that the universe provides no evidence for the existence of an omnipotent God. (35)

Here is my attempt at doing the Jan 2012 A2 question on omnipotence. I did it cold with no notes in 45 mins and you can tell!

Edit: I will be adding my own revisions to this essay in bold soon to show what I think I should have included. In the meantime, if you’re interested, there is a good discussion of omnipotence in chapter 13 of the Puzzle of God by Peter Vardy. Oh, and if I had to give this essay a grade I reckon it’s a C as it stands! I really feel sorry for you A Level students – it’s really hard to do anything in 45 minutes!

A posteriori arguments from the universe or its features to God often claim that God needs to be omnipotent to guarantee the particular nature of the universe that we live in but how true is this? Surely to provide many of these features you don not need an all-powerful God, simply a very powerful one? For instance Kant argues that God is needed to guarantee the summum bonum and punishment or reward in the afterlife, but it has been noted that a very powerful angel might be able to provide the same thing.

Before we can assess this we need to be aware of the different ways in which omnipotence is defined. The classical definition as formulated by Aquinas says that God is all-powerful meaning that he can do anything that it is logically possible to do. This solves many of the problems that people such as Dawkins have claimed make omnipotence incoherent. For instance, Dawkins said that it had not escaped atheist’s notice that if God knew that he was going to intervene in the future history of the world (because of his omniscience) then he was not free to refrain from doing so, which constrained his omnipotence. Of course, this seems to be a problem unless a full understanding of God’s character as eternal and simple is grasped.

The key is in the words ‘logically possible’ – Aquinas argues that God can do everything it is logically possible to do but not the logically impossible because this would be self-contradictory. He says that for instance he cannot change the past, because it is logically impossible for something both to have happened and not to have happened at the same time. Even God cannot make this contradiction true. This applies also to Dawkins’ problem – God cannot logically both decide and not decide to do something at the same time.

Others like Descartes claim that this is too great a restraint on God and that he can do both the logically possible and impossible, so he can make a square circle for example. Thirdly and finally, Kenny argues that omnipotence is an expression of the great power of God, but doesn’t necessarily see this as meaning he can do anything.

When we come to the question of whether the universe provides any evidence for any of these kinds of omnipotence we have a difficult task. There seem to be no reasons to particularly favour the first two kinds of omnipotence – the existence of evil and suffering in the universe seems to particularly imply that any design we find is flawed, and therefore that if there was a designer he may not have been able to prevent these flaws (especially if we believe he also is omnibenevolent).

On the other hand the sheer existence of the whole of space-time as the universe might need explaining (as eg. Copleston thought), in which case it seems illogical to argue that the creator of that was not omnipotent – after all, this being would have to be radically free of space and time itself, and thus would be so unlike us or anything else in the universe that it would surely need to be omnipotent?

Many would argue that the concept of God’s omnipotence is not so much a logical consequence of evidence from the universe but that it logically follows from the concept of God itself – they would thus be using a priori arguments like the ontological argument where God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. If we accept this as the definition of God, they argue, then we need to accept that God is omnipotent in the classical sense.

In conclusion the evidence from the universe to a classically omnipotent God would seem to be very thin – rather we might need to accept Kenny’s definition and say that if there is a creator of the universe he might need to be only very powerful, and say that in the form of life of our faith, claims for omnipotence of God are expressions of our beliefs as a network that ties together different elements of our lives – in the religious language game, God’s omnipotence plays a meaningful role not subject to questions of truth and falsity from the standpoint of objective evidence. But in doing this we may be guilty of Flew’s ‘death by a thousand qualifications’.

After doing this I suddenly remembered miracles and religious experience as well as Biblical notions of God as a good creator! This shows how important it is to revise all the topics as many times at A2 it is the connections across topics – the synoptic element – that really counts, and a question on the nature of God is going to rely on these connections. So here’s what I would add:

Some religious believers would maintain that miracles are evidence of an omnipotent God, as scripture in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is seen as the unfolding  revelation of God through His intervention in history, specifically displaying his power over evil and the ultimate triumph of good. God is not merely as powerful as Satan – goodness is not on the same level as evil – love conquers all. Miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus to life or the granting of Hannah’s prayer for a child are all seen as the omnipotent power of God’s love. In the Christian tradition it is paradoxically Christ’s sacrificial death and suffering that guarantees this omnipotence.

Vardy claims this is another definition of omnipotence – as the irresistible power of God’s love – and uses St Teresa’s words – “Christ has no hands now on earth but ours” to show that an omnipotent God may still work through selfless acts of love by humans. So omnipotence does not refer to the acts of a creator god but to the inherent power of humans to love selflessly. This would be a revisionary view and it is open to the question of how closely it fits in with the beliefs of Christians – do we want to limit God’s action only to the work he does through us?

The other problem is whether it can be claimed that because scripture says in many places that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe (eg. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’) this counts as evidence – many argue that scripture is propositional revelation and that such statements are literal descriptions. However, this assumes a faith standpoint and would not seem to be verifiable outside of this context.

Dawkin’s dilemma given at the beginning is also not as easily solvable as I said:

It appears that God could not choose to do an action because the notion of choice is fundamentally one of time implying a time before and after the action. It is not easy to see how God could choose timelessly – surely God is compelled by God’s own nature to act necessarily? This appears to be a logical problem with God’s omnipotence as he would be constrained from acting freely. This limit set on omnipotence would be another challenge to the idea of omnipotence as classically understood and might be decisive in any attempt to decide from evidence whether God is omnipotent.

Finally theists might argue that the only evidence needed for God’s omnipotence is his ability to make his presence felt personally to people through religious experience. For instance Rudolf Otto talked of the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ in which God manifests himself to people as an awe-inspiring and terrifying experience, thus demonstrating his majesty and power. This might lead many to conclude that these displays of power show his omnipotence in a direct sense.

However, as Freud, Feuerbach amongst others have shown, religious experiences like these may be products of the mind, projections of neurotic contents and so have physiological or psychological bases. In conclusion, it seems unlikely that any of these pieces of ‘evidence’ constitute strong enough evidence for God as omnipotent.