Saturday, August 21, 2010


Omnipotence is a tricky thing. It seems so simple to say that something is all-powerful, but a close examination quickly reveals the flaws. What exactly does it mean to be all-powerful? Most people who use the term seem to think that it means there is nothing impossible for an omnipotent being. This, however, leads us into a realm of odd contradictions. Is it impossible for an omnipotent being to find something it cannot do?

Even ignoring clever wordplay, it is generally agreed that there are a few things that an omnipotent being cannot do and yet still maintain its claim to all-powerfulness. These fall into the category of logical impossibility: things whose very definition involves a contradiction such as a square circle. Following the line of Aquinas, most knowledgeable theologians assert that omnipotence, especially where god is concerned, does not cover logical impossibilities.

 Other than that caveat, though, everything goes. Should we find anything else that an omnipotent being cannot do, we must seriously question whether such a being exists. Now it should be fairly clear that, when judged in conjunction with other typical divine attributes, we can conjure up all sorts of contradictions. But even on its own, omnipotence doesn't fare too well.

 Practically everyone who has examined omnipotence is familiar with the classic paradox: Can God create a stone so heavy even he couldn't lift?  The upshot of the question is of course that there is always at least one thing an omnipotent being cannot do.  This conundrum has seriously vexed those who wish omnipotence upon their gods. Short of limiting omnipotence in some way, which they are wont to do, there is no escaping this paradox.

Still, those brave theists couldn't help but try. The paradox, they say, falls into the realm of logical impossibility, and so does not affect God's omnipotence. This, however, seems to be a matter of definition in reverse: the paradox is claimed logically impossible because God cannot satisfy it.

An example may prove helpful. A few weeks ago, I helped some friends move.  One of them is an excellent packer. As a consequence of this she can, and did, pack boxes so heavy that she could not lift them. On the other hand, she had the good sense to hire a moving company and the strapping lads weren't as efficient as she was. They could not pack a box heavier than they could lift.

Here we have the perfect illustration that the question is not logically impossible. We have two people, one who can create a box heavier than they can lift, and one who cannot. It is only when someone claims to be able to do both that we encounter a problem. Normally, we'd call this person a liar. But in the case of a being whose very definition demands they be able to do this, we are forced to conclude that it does not exist.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The meaning of things

I've spent considerable time now trying to come up with a way to make this post interesting and, after much reflection, have finally decided that may be impossible. A few days ago, a young earth creationist on twitter "agreed"to a debate (I say "agreed" because like a man afraid of becoming a husband, he did not set a date). In preparation for that, I thought I'd use this post to lay a little groundwork.

In arguing anything, and especially with those given to fallacy, it is important to be clear in what we mean. Too often we run up against people who quite literally have no idea what they are talking about. Other times, they'll resort to equivocation, shifting meaning as it suits them. (In all fairness, I suspect a great many people guilty of equivocation fail to realize they are; frequently they are just repeating something they've been told) With that in mind, I thought it best to start with a few definitions.

Atheism is the position of having no belief in god(s).  The etymology of the word has been parsed so many times that I won't do so here. Suffice it to say that it supports this definition. In addition, defining atheism this way has some advantages. It is a broadly inclusive definition, encompassing both outright denial (There is no god) and cautious skepticism (There is insufficient evidence for god).

This definition is also in line with the default position of philosophy and the null hypothesis of science. Because this is a point that is often overlooked by creationists, I'll explain it further. In science, a hypothesis is tested against what is known as the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis essentially states that whatever being tested is not the case. If the evidence to support the proposed hypothesis is insufficient, the null hypothesis is accepted.  Similarly, the default position is the one accepted when a belief lack support. Typically, these are negative statements, as is our definition.

(Some of you may note that the null hypothesis may be formed positively. However, to avoid the cry that we are claiming certainty, we will stick with the negative formation)

Finally, and perhaps most important to a debate, defining atheism as I have nicely splits the issue in two.  A person either believes in god or does not believe in god. There is no in between here, no grey area for insufficient knowledge. And while this may upset some people who are afraid of the atheist label, it is both in line with the concept of agnosticism and beneficial to debate. (For those of you in need of convincing, ask yourself this: If you don't know whether an oncoming car will run a stoplight, don't you still form a belief? I certainly do)

Well then, that's one definition out of the way. Sadly, even this relatively brief explanation is sufficiently lengthy, so I'll hold off on any further definitions. As an aside, the creationist who agreed to the debate is looking more likely to back out. Until I get proper confirmation, I'll return to my regular rantings on the impossibility of god.