Omnipotence and Evil [Part 1]


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? Read on…..

  1. 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.

Then G-d 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. 

  1. 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.
  2. [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 them.]
  3. 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 Yehuda Gellman.]
  4. 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.]
  5. 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.
  6. 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 contradictory description.
  7. 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 ability.
  8. 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 these:

Blablabla       and and and and    with gave from peaches   1528904563

Are we 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.] 
  3. 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!
  4. 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 [8], 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. 
  5. 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.
  6. [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 true.]
  7. 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?
  8. [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.
  9. 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 contradiction.
  10. Critic: “Wait a minute? Are you not begging the question? How can you assume that G-d is omnipotent in your defense of His omnipotence?!?”
  11. 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!
  12. 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.
  13. “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?”
  14. 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.
  15. 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).
  16. 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).
  17. “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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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. 
  21. “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 “seeing voices”?”
  22. 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.
  23. 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.

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