The Paradox of Omnipotence

By Tyler DeWacht

The word “omnipotent” is a relatively simple word. Its Latin roots are “omni,” meaning total, and “potent,” for power. To be omnipotent is to have limitless power, and an omnipotent being should be able to do absolutely anything and everything. Not a force in the world can constrain omnipotence, no power can overrule it, and no ordinary being can stand against it. It’s a simple idea in concept, but when you start to look closer, the word becomes quite paradoxical at times. What is it about this word that opens up so many logical flaws and inconsistencies?

To stay concise, let us call this omnipotent being God, since that’s the level of power an omnipotent being would have. Disregard for a moment the ideals and teachings of all religious faiths–this God is plain and simply an omnipotent being. This article is not meant to offend anyone as the name of God is simply a placeholder here; feel free to call this omnipotent being something else if you want, maybe Deus or Bob. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get back to it.

Now, let’s say God were to make an impenetrable prison cell that automatically locks whenever someone goes inside. Once anything goes in, this cell will be so secure that nobody can possibly get back out of it. What would happen if God entered this prison cell? Could God break out of this impenetrable prison cell? If God can break out, then that means that the prison cell wasn’t impenetrable, which means God can’t make an impenetrable prison cell and is therefore not omnipotent. If, however, God can’t break out of this impenetrable prison cell, then that also means God isn’t omnipotent. Both paths appear to lead to the same conclusion: God isn’t omnipotent.

Let’s try another example. Perhaps God decides one day to eat a spicy pepper. This isn’t just any spicy pepper, it’s a pepper God specifically bred to be so spicy that even he couldn’t handle the heat, a pepper that makes the ghost pepper look like a sweet bell pepper in comparison. God eats this pepper, and what happens? If God couldn’t make it hot enough to hurt even himself, then he can’t be omnipotent. If God succeeds in hurting himself, then that means there’s something God can’t handle, but nothing should be able to overpower an omnipotent being in any sense. Again, both paths seem to lead to the same conclusion: omnipotence is impossible.

Though simple in meaning, the concept of omnipotence is in and of itself paradoxical. How do we settle this problem, then? Do we just dismiss omnipotence as an impossibility? Do we disregard our foundations of logic when looking at omnipotence? Can omnipotence be reconciled to work with logic? These are the three main camps of people who have attempted to resolve the paradox.

The first camp is the dismissers, those who dismiss the possibility of omnipotence. If both roads lead to paradoxical solutions, then the only logical conclusion is that such a being cannot possibly exist. This is the most straightforward of the three conclusions, and it’s a position most logical thinkers would tend towards. The issue with this conclusion, however, lies in the definition of omnipotence: the ability to do anything and everything.

This counterpoint is taken up by the believers, the second camp, those who believe that logic is irrelevant when dealing with omnipotence. After all, if this omnipotent being can do anything, then can’t it also rewrite reality and overpower logic? This position also comes with problems, those of the logical variety. How can you convince others of your argument if you disregard logic? What would happen if God were to create a being even more omnipotent than himself? If he can’t because there is no higher level of omnipotence, then that makes him not omnipotent because there’s something he can’t do, but if he can, then wouldn’t that more omnipotent being be able to do things that God couldn’t, therefore making God not omnipotent? The paradox returns once again, logic can’t be disregarded that easily; how could a lesser omnipotent being overpower a greater omnipotent being?

This is where the middle road comes into play, the reconcilers. This answer works towards reconciling omnipotence and logic, saying that omnipotence works around the rules of logic. No, God can’t create an even more omnipotent being, but that’s because it’s a self-contradiction. It has no real meaning, it’s just nonsense gibberish, and nonsense has no form. This too runs into a problem: semantics. Is God really omnipotent if there are things he can’t do, even if said things are impossible to do? It may be omnipotence in the modified sense that he can do all possible things, but God will still have limits on what he can do, and an omnipotent being is supposed to have unlimited power.

Each side raises legitimate points, and each side has potential criticisms to face. For the question of whether omnipotence is possible, there’s no easy answer. If there is a being like God, can he truly be considered omnipotent? Can anything be truly omnipotent? Such a single word, yet so many questions and controversies.

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