I’d appreciate it if ya’ll would do your best to tear this apart. Not the logic expressed by Dawkins and Owens, but mine. I’d particularly like to see what our resident atheists and agnostics can do to it. Don’t expect brilliance or polish here, this is just draft text straight out of OpenOffice. And never mind the footnotes….
In a chapter considering the arguments for God’s existence, Richard Dawkins muses upon what he considers to be a logical contradiction. He writes:
Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.1
As Dawkins surely knows, this is a silly and superficial argument, indeed, he follows it up with a little piece of doggerel by Karen Owens before promptly abandoning the line of reasoning. And while the argument appears to make sense at first glance, it’s merely a variation on the deeply philosophical question that troubles so many atheists,2 of whether God can create a rock so heavy that He cannot lift it.
The proble with this logic is that omniscience, or the quality of knowing everything, is the description of a capacity, it is not an action. Likewise, omnipotence, being all-powerful, is a similar description, which is why these nouns are most often used as an adjective modifying a noun, for example, an omniscient god is a god who possesses all knowledge. But capacity does not necessarily indicate full utilization and possession does not dictate use; for example, by this point it should be clear that an intelligent scientist is nevertheless perfectly capable of writing something that is not intelligent at all.
Lest you think that this distinction between capacity and action is somehow tantamount to avoiding the question, note that Dawkins himself refers to God “using his omnipotence” in constructing the supposed contradiction.
Now, as I write this, I am holding the book entitled “The God Delusion” in my hand. I bought it at the bookstore, it’s my personal copy, and therefore I possess all of the knowledge contained within it. But can I tell you the precise wording of the first sentence on the seventh page? No, not without making an effort to look at it.1
This is the difference between action and capacity, and the distinction is vital. Unless one clings to an overly pedantic definition of both omniscience and omnipotence, an inherent incompatibility simply doesn’t exist between the two concepts. Indeed, if knowledge truly is, as is often said, power, then logic dictates that all-knowledge is not only compatible with all-power, but the two seemingly distinct concepts are actually one and the same. Thus, there not only is no contradiction between God’s omniscience and omnipotence, there is not even the theoretical possibility of a contradiction.
Regardless, a God who stands outside of space and time and who possesses all knowledge as well as all power is not bound to make use of his full capacities, indeed, who is going to shake their finger at him for failing to live up to his potential? Only the likes of Dawkins and Owens, one presumes, as their ability to logically disprove God depends upon His abiding by their rigid definitions of His qualities.
Their argument can’t help but remind one of a scene from the novel Catch-22, in which Joseph Heller wrote of an aptly named atheist called Frau Scheisskopf.4 “’I don’t believe, ‘ she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. ‘But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.'”
Furthermore, there is no theological significance whatsoever to a reduced form of omniscience and omnipotence that would satisfy even the most pedantic critical application of the logic. If one posits God possessing qualities of tantiscience and tantipotence5 equating to omniscience and omnipotence minus the amount of knowledge and power required to avoid conflicting with the logical incompatibility, one is still left with a God whose theoretical capabilities are sufficient to fulfill the various claims about His knowledge and power made in His Word. Morever, this logically acceptable tantiscient God would be completely indistinguishable from the omniscient one when viewed from the human perspective.
I don’t magically summon food from the mysterious bag of plenty. But my dog doesn’t know that. From his perspective, there’s no difference between my buying it at the store or my summoning it into material existence by the exertion of my divine will. Likewise, we are incapable of perceiving the difference between a god who knows everything and a god who knows just about everything. Dawkins, of course, knows that it is as pointless to logically consider the potential contradiction between two arbitrarily defined concepts as it is to argue over the score of the 1994 World Series; would that his acolytes understood as much themselves.