Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three main monotheistic religions, describe God as an omnipotent, all-powerful agent. In other words, God has power over everything. If God is described in this way, then the following questions are raised immediately: Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift? Can He make Himself nonexistent? Can He behave unjustly or lie? If we assume omnipotence as an essential attribute of God, then these questions seem to be puzzling. If the answer to such questions is yes, then it is like saying that we also accept that God can kill Himself. But if He can kill Himself, then He is not an eternal being, therefore not truly God. If the answer is no, then it would mean that He does not have enough power to perform the tasks in question, which would be a defect in His power, implying that He is imperfect. So again, He is not truly God. In any case, the answers to such questions produce a conflict in terms of the coherence of the traditional notion of God. This is the brief description of the problem, which is typically known as the “omnipotence puzzle.”
On the basis of the omnipotence puzzle, one can reject the existence of God as an absolutely perfect, omnipotent and eternal being because the notion of such a being seems to be incoherent, thus it has no real referent. However, there are various theistic views that try to make sense of this puzzle by preserving omnipotence as an essential property of God. Let’s examine Aquinas’s and al-Ghazali’s views regarding omnipotence and see how an answer to such questions can be produced.
Aquinas was one of the most prominent figures of Christianity in the Middle Ages. He attempted to systematize the Christian faith within the framework of Aristotelian philosophy. His philosophy is known as Thomism and accepted as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church to this day. One of the central issues Aquinas dealt with was God’s nature and His omnipotence. Let us examine his ideas on this.
According to Aquinas, hypothetical cases such as God killing Himself or lying, imply contradictions in relation to God’s nature. God is eternal and truthful by nature. And in his terms, “anything that implies a contradiction does not fall within the power of God” (Aquinas, 1963, Q. 25, art. 3, p. 165). Contradictory cases are impossible; they could never happen. Since they are not genuine cases, divine power is not applicable to them. However, Aquinas did not carefully formulate the idea he proposed here. In expressing this intuition he used the modal verb “cannot” with the subject term “God” in most cases. Take into account the following of his remarks:
God cannot make yes and no true at the same time, not because of His lack of power, but because of the lack of possibility, such things are intrinsically impossible (Aquinas, 1952, I-18, 19).
Even though he did not think that the term “cannot” in the sentence above does not pose a limitation on divine power because the case in question is not a genuine case, the linguistic meaning of “cannot” implies that God’s power is applicable to such a case, and therefore He is unable to do it. Let’s continue with al-Ghazali’s view on omnipotence.
Al-Ghazali can be regarded as one of the most influential Medieval theologians in the Islamic world. His criticisms directed to Avicenna’s or al-Farabi’s attempts to interpret Islam in terms of Aristotelian philosophy had a major influence on the formation of the Islamic world. He is usually considered to be a dogmatic theologian who attacked philosophy and prevented free thinking and intellectual progress in the Islamic world. However, if his criticisms are examined carefully, we see that his target was not the activity of philosophy but the false beliefs produced by certain philosophers. Avicenna and al-Farabi were critized by him on the grounds that their philosophies included some elements coming from Aristotelian philosophy, which is not accepted by Islam. It should be noted that his way of critizing them is not any less philosophical than his opponent’s way of arguing. He was certainly not dogmatic in rejecting them and engaged in philosophical activity in doing so. One of the most recurrent topics in his work was the omnipotence of God.
Like Aquinas, al-Ghazali excludes contradictions or impossibilities from the scope of divine power. That is to say, impossibilities are not objects of power. Let’s examine what he says exactly in his masterwork, Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers):
The impossible is not within the power [of being enacted]. The impossible consists in affirming a thing conjointly with denying it, affirming the more specific while denying the more general, or affirming two things while negating one [of them]. What does not reduce to this is not impossible, and what is not impossible is within [divine] power (al-Ghazali, 1997, 17th Discussion, 29th paragraph, 179).
However, al-Ghazali is more sensitive than Aquinas in expressing this idea. In his main works where he analyzes omnipotence, the Tahafut and al-Iqtisad, he never uses “cannot” as a modal verb in a sentence whose subject is God. I think this was a conscious decision, because the semantics or meaning of the term “can” or “cannot” includes the idea of ability or inability to do something, which is closely linked to the notion of power. The sentence “God cannot do x” presupposes that x is included in the extension to which divine power is applicable but God is unable to do it. To avoid this, al-Ghazali simply says “the impossible is not within divine power.” The idea assumed here by al-Ghazali is expressed by the notion of category mistakes in contemporary philosophy of language.
When an expression systematically misleads us because of category confusion in representing a certain fact, then it is a “category mistake” (Ryle, 1949, 16). For example, referring to faculties, libraries, museums and scientific departments as being in the same category with universities is a category mistake. The university is not a member of the class of which the listed units are members of, but it is rather the way in which all of them are organized (Ryle, 1949, 16). We can give more examples. Predicating colors of numbers is another category mistake. For example, “Number 2 is yellow” is a sentence asserted as a result of category confusion. Numbers are not the things to which the color predicates apply. In other words, color-predicates have a certain range or extension of applicability, which excludes numbers. On the other hand, the properties of “being odd” or “being even” apply to numbers but not to material objects. To say that this chair is even is another category mistake.
So each predicate has a certain extension to which this predicate legitimately applies. Things or expressions that are not in the scope (extension) of a certain predicate lead to a category mistake if they are associated with this predicate. So the sentence “God cannot do x” includes a category mistake if x is a contradiction because contradictions are not within the scope of divine power.
As a result, the question of whether or not God can kill Himself can be answered in the following way by supporting al-Ghazali’s unnamed intuition of category mistakes: this question presupposes that divine power is applicable to such a case, but this is a category mistake. Because of that, this is an illegitimate question that can be answered neither by “yes” nor by “no.” It is like the following question: How many times did you kick your dog? Assume that you don’t have a dog. If you do not have a dog, then there is no point in asking the number of times you kicked the dog that you do not even have. Considering the reality, it is an absurd question.
The notion of Omnipotence
An answer formulated in this way, in response to the puzzle, treats the notion of power as a crucial element in understanding the relation between God and the universe. It also allows us to understand the meaning of omnipotence clearly. An omnipotent agent is an agent who can perform everything that falls under the scope of the notion of divine power. An omnipotent agent cannot be characterized as a being that is able to do anything unqualifiedly. Cases that do not fall under the scope of power are not legitimate cases to which divine power is applicable. The classical criticism of this view is that God is limited by proposing such a scope of limitation. However, what is limited is not an agent, namely God, but a notion, which is divine power. Contradictions are used in determining the notion of divine power. So they put a limitation on the definition or meaning of “divine power,” rather than on the agent who is powerful. By excluding these contradictions from the scope of power and including things that are within this scope, the notion is defined. In this sense, defining is putting limitations on the notion of power. God conceptualized in this way has infinite power, i.e. He can create everything that falls under the scope of power. Otherwise, allowing such contradictions within the scope of divine power will undermine of the very concept of God. Then, for instance, we should have said that God can kill Himself. If God can kill Himself, then He could not be accepted as God anymore because God is essentially eternal by definition. In order to have an intelligible idea of God, the scope of divine power must exclude such absurdities.
As it is shown in the sample case of omnipotence, the apparently theological problem has logical and linguistic aspects. This puzzle can be handled by some clarification of the meanings of crucial terms regarding this puzzle. Both Aquinas and al-Ghazali were aware of this aspect of the problem even though they did not clearly express the intuition, which we call “category mistakes,” in contemporary philosophy of language. Much confusion is encountered in daily life, especially in the topic of religion, that stems from the misuse of language. If we want to get rid of such confusion and be clear in our thinking, then we should seriously ponder on the use of language.
- Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). Michael E. Marmura (tr.), Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1997.
- Al-Iqtisad fi al-Itiqad. Ibrahim Agah Cubukcu and Huseyin Atay (ed.s), Ankara: Ankara Universitesi Ilahiyat Fakultesi Yayinlari, 1962.
- Aquinas, Thomas. On the Power of God (Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei). Lawrence Shapcote. Trans. Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1952.
- Summa Theologiae. Latin text and English Translation. T. Gilby. (ed). 60 vols. London, 1963.
- Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Taylor and Francis Books. 1949.