God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Seven

God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Seven

Omnipotence and Human Freedom:

It is sometimes argued that if the existence of an omnipotent agent is possible, then the existence of a non-omnipotent free agent is impossible. According to this line of thought, if Caesar was free, then Caesar and only Caesar could have brought about Caesar’s freely refraining from crossing the Rubicon. However, if Caesar could have brought about that state of affairs, it must be a possible state of affairs, and an omnipotent being could bring it about. However, this cannot be correct, for if someone other than Caesar brought about Caesar’s refraining, then Caesar would not have refrained freely. Therefore, an omnipotent being could not bring about this state of affairs. But if even an omnipotent being could not bring it about, then surely Caesar, who is not omnipotent, could not bring it about either. Therefore, Caesar was neither free nor any other non-omnipotent agent by parity of reasoning.

The Leibniz-Ross theory renders the problem even more acute. According to Leibniz, God chooses precisely which possible world will obtain, and God chooses whether Caesar will cross the Rubicon. However, if someone else chooses what Caesar will do, then Caesar is not free. Similarly, for Ross, Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon is logically equivalent to God’s effectively choosing that Caesar crosses the Rubicon.

The choice is up to God. Therefore, it is not up to Caesar, at least not in a sense, which (according to some philosophers) is required for free will. Neither Leibniz nor Ross finds this objection particularly troubling. According to Leibniz, since it is possible that Caesar freely refrains from crossing the Rubicon, there must be a possible world representing him as doing so. In making a world actual, God does not, in any way, change the intrinsic character of that world. [i] As a result, had God brought about that world, Caesar would still have been free.

Similarly, Ross suggests that whatever independence from external determination freedom requires, it certainly does not require that the agent’s choice be independent of its logical entailments. However, in his view, God’s effectively choosing that the agent so choose is logically equivalent to the agent’s so choosing and cannot be inconsistent with freedom. [ii] Compatibilists about free will may be satisfied with the responses given by Leibniz and Ross. Libertarians, however, have generally not been satisfied and have argued that an omnipotent being need not have the power to bring about such states of affairs as Caesar’s freely refraining from crossing the Rubicon. Most of those who have been so concerned have followed an approach developed by Plantinga. [iii] This approach hinges on the existence of a class of propositions known as counterfactuals of freedom.

A counterfactual of freedom is a statement about what an individual would freely choose if faced with a specific hypothetical circumstance. For instance, the claim, “If Caesar were offered a bribe of fifty talents, he would freely refrain from crossing the Rubicon,” is a counterfactual of freedom. Now, suppose that Brutus wants Caesar to refrain freely. If he uses force to prevent Caesar from crossing the Rubicon, he has not successfully brought it about that Caesar freely refrains. In this case, Caesar’s refraining has been brought about by Brutus and not by Caesar. So Caesar did not do it freely. This bringing about is known as strongly actualizing. Only Caesar can strongly actualize Caesar’s freely refraining from crossing the Rubicon. However, Brutus knows that if Caesar were offered the bribe, he would freely refrain. Then there is a sense in which Brutus can bring it about that Caesar freely refrains: Brutus can strongly actualize the state of affairs Caesar’s being offered the bribe, and he knows that if he does this, then Caesar will freely refrain. In such a case, Brutus would be said to have weakly actualized Caesar’s freely refraining. According to Plantinga, for creatures to be free, it must not be up to anyone whose counterfactuals of freedom are true. So even an omnipotent being could not bring about those particular counterfactuals of freedom that are true.

However, an omnipotent being could presumably bring it about knowing the true counterfactuals of freedom (or if the omnipotent being were also essentially omniscient, then it would already know). It could presumably strongly actualize many of their antecedents and weakly actualize various states of affairs in which non-omnipotent beings acted freely. An omnipotent being could not, however, weakly actualize just any possible state of affairs. For instance, if there were no possible circumstance such that, if Caesar were in that circumstance, he would freely refrain from crossing the Rubicon, then even an omnipotent being could not weakly actualize Caesar’s freely refraining. Among those who accept Plantinga’s arguments, some have attempted to analyze omnipotence in terms of what an omnipotent being could strongly actualize and make appropriate qualifications for free actions. It is typically pointed out that it is logically impossible for any being to strongly actualize a state of affairs in which another being makes a free choice. And it suffices for omnipotence that a being can strongly actualize those states of affairs which it is logically possible that that being should strongly actualize. [iv]

This approach, however, runs into McEar-style counterexamples. Others have attempted to analyze omnipotence in terms of what an omnipotent being could weakly actualize. Flint and Freddoso[v] require that an omnipotent being S be able to weakly actualize any possibly actualized state of affairs which is consistent with the counterfactuals of freedom about beings other than S.

However, as Graham Oppy has pointed out, Flint and Freddoso’s analysis also seems to make omnipotence too easy. Since on Flint and Freddoso’s account, a being who could not strongly actualize such mundane states of affairs as a five-pound stone’s being lifted or a barn’s being painted red could turn out to be omnipotent if it was able to actualize them weakly. [vi]

 Omnipotence and the Problem of Evil:

Divine omnipotence is typically used as a critical premise in the famous argument against God’s existence, known as the Logical Problem of Evil. The argument can be formulated as follows:

  1. An omnipotent being would be able to bring about any possible world
  2. Given the opportunity to bring about some world, a morally perfect being would only bring about the best world available to it
  3. The actual world is not the best possible world. Therefore,
  4. A being who is both omnipotent and morally perfect did not bring about the actual world

The argument is formulated here in Leibnizian terms, and Leibniz notoriously rejected the premise (3). Premise (2) has also been rejected: some philosophers have denied that there is a unique best possible world, and others, most notably Robert Adams, have argued that even if there is such a world, creating it might not be the best course of action. [vii] However, the premise that is of present concern is (1). Although (1) is accepted by Leibniz and Ross, considerations related to necessary moral perfection and human freedom have led many philosophers to reject it. It is the central premise of Plantinga’s Free Will Defense against the Logical Problem of Evil[viii]: If there are worlds that God, though omnipotent, cannot bring about, then the best possible world might be one of these. If this is so, then, despite being both omnipotent and morally perfect, God would bring about a world that was less than the best, such as, perhaps, the actual world


  •    [i] Leibniz 1985: sect. 52
  • [ii] Ross 1980: sect. 2.
  • [iii] Plantinga, 1974: ch. 9.
  • [iv] Wierenga 1983.
  • [v] Flint and Freddoso (1983)
  • [vi] Oppy 2004, 74-75.
  •   [vii] Adams 1972.
  • [viii] Plantinga 1974, ch. 9

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