Omnipotence and Evil [Part
It is often
said that G-d creates, or tolerates, evil as a necessary means to [a
greater] good. Many wonder – how can the means be necessary if G-d is
omnipotent? Surely He could create the good without using the evil means?
How shall we define “omnipotence”? Intuitively
we say: G-d can do anything. Suppose we explain as follows:
Any way of filling the blank in “G-d can ___”
must be true.
will not be omnipotent. For, there are ways of filling the blank so that the
result is not true. Here are three:
G-d can learn something new.
G-d can improve.
G-d can commit suicide.
Of course, the three exceptions above can be
easily explained. To be able to learn something new, one must be [at
present] ignorant [of at least something]; in order to be able to improve,
one must be imperfect; in order to commit suicide, one’s existence must be
contingent [not necessary]. But G-d is not ignorant [of anything]; G-d is
perfect; G-d’s existence is necessary. But to explain the exceptions is
not to deny them: G-d cannot learn something new; G-d cannot improve; G-d
cannot commit suicide.
[Note: each of these abilities is perfectly
real, consistent, possible, intelligible, conceivable etc. etc. In fact,
countless people possess each of them. The problem is not with the
abilities themselves, the problem is with the idea that G-d possesses
So let’s explain omnipotence this way: G-d can
do anything that a perfect being should be able to do. G-d has all the
abilities implied by perfection, but not the abilities that imply
imperfection. [1-4 summarize a point I heard in the name of Professor
Now let’s move to an entirely different
problem. Jewish sources refuse to assert that G-d can do logically
contradictory things. Hmm – “logically contradictory things”?! Let’s be a
little more careful: Jewish sources will not accept any way of filling the
blank with a logically contradictory description. Like “square circle” for
example. We do not assert that G-d can make square circles. [See
Maimonides Guide I:75 [fifth argument] and III:15, Malbim at the end of
the second chapter of Joshua; Ramchal Maamar al HaChochma. And look also
at the end of the Ramban’s Disputation.]
Why is this an entirely different problem?
Because here the problem lies squarely with the ability itself. It would
be just as objectionable to assert that X can make square circles, for any
X. The problem has nothing to do with G-d in particular.
What exactly is the problem? Intuitively we
think: G-d can do anything [that is, anything that does not imply
imperfection]. So why cannot He do logically contradictory things? Look
back at 5. Why did we shy away from “logically contradictory things”?
Because, of course, there are no such things! A logically contradictory
description is not a description of a thing to do. So there is no sense to
asserting “G-d can ___” when the blank is filled by a logically
Let’s try to make this clear. I will start
with an analogy. George paints portraits. Is it a limitation on George’s
portrait painting skill that he cannot paint a portrait [portrait,
not picture] of Santa Claus? Of the present King of France? Of long
division? Of course not. To show a limit on George’s portrait painting
ability, one must present someone to be painted, and then show that George
cannot paint that person. To fill the blank in “George can paint a
portrait of ___” with a description that does not describe someone to be
painted is to fail to present a test of George’s portrait painting
One step closer to our problem [but there are
more steps to come]: Suppose we fill the blank in “G-d can___” with one of
Blablabla and and and and with gave
from peaches 1528904563
committed to assert those sentences – G-d can blablabla, G-d can and and and
and, G-d can with gave from peaches, G-d can 1528904563? No! They make no
sense! Why? Because the blank in “G-d can ___” needs to be filled with a
description of something to be done. If the blank is filled with something
else then the sentence makes no sense.
OK. Now to “square circle”. It is not exactly
like blablabla and its ilk – it is not total nonsense. We understand
“square” and “circle”, and we understand what it is to put them together.
But the result does not describe something to be done. It is a phrase with
no idea behind it. It gives us no picture, no understanding.
Why is that? Why does “square circle” give us
no picture, no understanding? Well, intuitively, if it is to be a circle,
then, by definition, it must not be a square. But then “square circle”
means that it must be square and it must not be square. By the same logic,
it must be a circle and must not be a circle. And “square and not square,
a circle and not a circle” definitely gives us no picture, no
understanding. [If you care for formal logic, try this. Any logical
contradiction logically implies any proposition whatsoever. So “X is
square and not square” implies that X is the Eiffel tower, X is
Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, X is Socrates etc. etc. Indeed, all logical
contradictions are logically equivalent, so all contradictory descriptions
describe the same thing. So “X is a square circle” and “X is a colorless
green leaf” and “X is the father of the number 2” all say the same thing.
So no one of them gives us any picture, any understanding.]
So we do not want to assert that G-d can make
a square circle. Now for a crucial move: We also DO NOT want to assert
that G-d cannot make a square circle! Why not? Because that makes THE SAME
MISTAKE – it assumes that “square circle” succeeds in describing something
to be done and that G-d cannot do it. But that is not correct – THERE IS
NO “IT” TO BE DONE!
So here is where we are: We do not say that
G-d can make square circles, and we do not say that G-d cannot make square
circles. Likewise above , for George’s portrait painting ability, we
will not say that he can paint Santa Claus, and we will not say that he
cannot paint Santa Claus.
Now the critic asks: “How can you have it both
ways? Surely one of the other must be true? What is the answer to the
question: Can G-d make square circles? Surely it must be yes or no?” The
appropriate response to the critic is to NOT ANSWER the question, but to
respond that the question is illegitimate. It is illegitimate because [for
the umpteenth time] the critic has not provided a description of something
to be done. The ”question” whether G-d can do “it” does not arise since no
“it” to be done has been described.
[Of course, we might think that a description
is contradictory and then discover that we were mistaken. Then the
description might very well be true. But that does not show that a
contradictory description – a really contradictory description – can be
One final application. [Can you guess what is
coming?] The critic asks: “Can G-d make a rock too heavy for Him to lift?
If He can make it, then He cannot lift it, so there is something He cannot
do. If He cannot make it, then again there is something He cannot do.
Either way, there is something He cannot do. So omnipotence is
impossible.” What is the answer?
[For the umpteenth + 1 time] “Rock too heavy
for G-d to lift” is logically contradictory. So it does not describe
something to be done. So the question is illegitimate.
Why is “rock too heavy for G-d to lift”
logically contradictory? Because G-d is omnipotent! So “rock too heavy for
G-d to lift” = “rock so heavy that G-d, Who can lift anything, cannot lift
it” = “rock that G-d can lift and cannot lift” and that is a
Critic: “Wait a minute? Are you not begging
the question? How can you assume that G-d is omnipotent in your defense of
No, I am not begging the question. The
critic’s argument is this: Omnipotence is impossible since logic proves
there is something that cannot be done. My reply is that omnipotence IS
POSSIBLE – we can use omnipotence without any contradiction – we can
assert that G-d is omnipotent without danger of implying that there is
something G-d cannot do. In other words, my reply is: we can use
omnipotence with complete consistency. So of course I can use omnipotence
in my defense of omnipotence!
So we conclude: We do not say that G-d can
make a rock too heave for Him to lift, and we do not say that G-d cannot
make a rock too heavy for Him to lift. We disqualify the question. And
that silences [not: answers!] the critic.
“But there are contradictory descriptions from
sources we cannot ignore. The Torah says that at Sinai the people saw the
voices. Now a voice is something that is heard, not seen. So, according to
your logic, the Torah is saying that the voice was seen and was not seen.
Therefore, according to your logic, the Torah is not describing anything
at all. Similarly, the sages say that the Ark took up no room in the holy
of holies: the distance of the wall to the edge of the ark + the size of
the ark + the distance to the other wall = the distance of the wall to the
edge of the ark + the distance to the other wall. But that is a
[mathematical] contradiction. So again [if a mathematical contradiction
counts as a logical contradiction – perhaps debatable, but I will accept
it here] by your logic the sages are not describing anything at all. How
can that be?”
Good question! Here is the answer: the words
describe nothing. But they are prompted by a reality, and that reality
would be described by a consistent description. The contradictory
descriptions are given to us to indicate a reality that we do not grasp,
and perhaps learn something from the way in which we do not grasp it.
Let’s explain this. Someone says something and
I respond, “What he said is true.” When I say “What he said is true” I may
mean (a) “I understand the idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation
etc he expressed with his words, and I agree that that
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc is true” or I may mean
(b) “I do not understand the
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc expressed by his words,
but on the basis of his reputation I agree that whatever
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc his words expressed is
true” or I may mean (c) “His word express no
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc at all, but I am sure
that he has some idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc in
mind, and I agree that that idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation
etc is true.” If his description is complicated, or used words unfamiliar
to me (etc.), then I may mean (b). If his description is contradictory,
then I will [I should] mean (c).
Now (c) is the right choice for seeing the
voices and the ark taking up no room. Those descriptions are
contradictory. They give us no picture, no understanding. They communicate
no idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc to us. So (a) is
wrong – I do not understand the words at all. But (b) is also wrong
because, since his description is contradictory, the words do not express
any idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc at all. So all I
can mean is (c).
“But still, when you mean (c) “The words
express no idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc at all, but
I am sure that the source of the words has some
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc in mind, and I agree
that that idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc is true.”,
are you not implying that the contradictory words are in fact true?” No I
am not. For the contradictory words do not describe the
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc the source has in mind.
The contradictory words describe nothing. If the
idea/proposition/theory/hypothesis/explanation etc is describable at all,
it will be by other words – non-contradictory words – and those words will
be true. But the original words will never be true.
An example. Imagine someone trying to
introduce negative numbers to a society that lacks them. They object: “You
cannot have –5 apples! Numbers are for counting. They measure the size of
a set. No set has –5 members! The idea of a set having –5 members is
contradictory.” He answers: “Suppose you owe someone five apples. You
could say that you have –5 apples, and then if you have 10 apples in the
drawer, you could combine 10 with –5 to say that your assets are 5
applies. Would that not be useful?” Now suppose they agree. What has
happened here? Is it (1) They objected that it is contradictory to
describe a set having –5 members, and he agreed that it is contradictory,
but he showed them even though “a set having –5 members” is contradictory,
“a set having –5 members” does apply to reality? Or (2) They objected that
it is contradictory to describe a set having –5 members, and he agreed
with them; but he showed them that numbers might have a use other than
counting the members of sets, and –5 might be useful for that new purpose,
and the description of the new use of numbers is perfectly consistent? I
will assume it is obvious that (1) wrong and (2) is right.
Now this is the model for seeing the voices
and the ark that takes up no room. The reality behind those words is not
expressed or described by those words. It may be described by other words
– non-contradictory words – which are true. But their truth does not show
that the original description is true.
I said in 21 “The contradictory descriptions
are given to us to indicate a reality that we do not grasp, and perhaps
learn something from the way in which we do not grasp it.” What could we
learn from the contradictory expression “seeing the voices”? That their
experience was utterly unlike any of ours. That the senses, whose normal
function is to present the physical environment, functioned on that
occasion not to present the physical environment. That in so doing the
senses enabled them to interact with a Being who is beyond the physical.
And very much more.
“You said in 11 that all logical
contradictions have the same meaning, that “Square circle” means the same
as “colorless green leaf” and “the father of the number 2”. So “seeing
voices” must also mean the same as and “colorless green leaf” and “the
father of the number 2”. How then can you draw any particular lessons from
There is a difference between what words mean
and what people mean. If someone says “I broke my uncle” and we say that
he means his ankle, that does not make his words true. If he says that
viruses are alive and they are not alive, and we say he means that they
have some of the characteristics of living things and lack other
characteristics of living things, that does not make his words true.
“Seeing voices” means the same as and “colorless green leaf” and “the
father of the number 2”. But the use of the particular phrase “seeing
voices” gives some indication of what the idea is that the source has in
mind. And that incomplete, unclear idea may communicate valuable
information in spite of its incompleteness and unclarity.
Finally, the first pass at the necessity of
evil. The question is: Why cannot G-d [being omnipotent] create the good
without using the evil means? The response [not: answer] will be: the
description “achieving the good without the evil means” is a
contradiction. It is just as bad as “square circle,” “stone too heavy for
G-d to lift” and all the rest. So the response is: You have not asked a
real question, you have not described an alternative to what G-d in fact
did, there is no “it” that we must explain why G-d did not do “it.” We can
see this – we can see that “achieving the good without the evil means” is
contradictory – by deducing the evil from the good. That is, starting from
(a) “such and such is the good to be achieved,” we deduce (b) “such and
such evil will exist.” Then the conjunction of (a) and the negation of (b)
is a contradiction. This deduction is contained in the second chapter of
The Way of G-d by Luzzatto. My exposition of the deduction will have to
wait for Part 2.