“God does not play dice”

6 10 2008

There is a famous paradox, known as the Omnipotence Paradox. One version of this paradox runs as follows: Can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it? Doubtless, everybody is familiar with this particular paradox, but for those of you who might have been living under this particularly heavy rock, the problem is as follows:

1. If we posit that God can create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it, then his inability to lift it poses a restriction on his omnipotence;
2. If we posit that God cannot create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it, then his inability to do so poses a restriction on his omnipotence;
3. Given that we are much enamoured with the conception of God as an omnipotent being, both of the previous two options must be taken.

The classic Chabad “solution” to this problem is that God can create a rock so heavy, and that he can also lift it, and that if this seems contradictory it is because of a limitation possessed, not by God, but by our minds. This is very Zenlike but, despite its slight appeal, it is absolute nonsense.

Let us imagine that I am playing a game of chess against God. It is reasonable to assume that, out of an infinite number of games, God will win an infinite number of times. This is because God can see ahead, not an infinite number of moves (because there aren’t an infinite number of possible moves in chess), but the extent of all possible moves that the game can allow – which, from the perspective of a human, may as well be infinite. Now, let us suppose that God is playing the white pieces and I, the black. God makes the first move… can he win?

Absolutely not. There are only twenty possible opening moves (each of the eight pawns, either one or two spaces; either of the two knights) and none of them results in victory. The only way for God to win on his first move (or even, allowing for my own stupidity, any of the first three or four) would be by either changing the nature of the game, or changing the nature of me, such that I perceive his move as a victory for him – which it is otherwise not. God is capable of changing both the game and myself, but cannot win on that first move if he does not.

Does this reflect a limitation of God? No – on the contrary, it reflects a limitation of chess. If we pick a game that is even more limited (say, tic-tac-toe), then it is impossible for God to even win an infinite number of times. It is also impossible for me to win against him so much as once but, depending on who commences the game, a certain number of them would result in a draw. So too with dice, unless – again – God changes something about the nature of each of my rolls.

So the answer to the Omnipotence Paradox is, quite simply, that it is not one. God can create a rock so “heavy” that he cannot lift it and, by virtue of doing so, cannot lift it. This is a restriction on the created rock, a quality of which is that it cannot be lifted by God. God, who is omnipotent in the truest sense, transcends all possible restrictions in his ability to create something even restricted to himself.

Were I a theologian I may state that this is effectively what God has done. By creating a quantum world in which not everything can be known – not even to himself – he creates a world that runs its own course, within which he may interact but must do so in accordance with the created rules. In other words, he might guide the paths of evolution here and there, declare his presence from time to time in the manner that he sees fit, but have no real stake in the outcome, and absolutely no recourse to miracles or intervention. This would be a world with absolute free will; a world with neither a “chosen people” nor even a chosen species; a world that, contrary to the theology of Chabad, is utterly removed from God.

Is there a difference between this world that I have described – a world created by God, but in which God is truly absent – and a world that was not created by God at all?

None whatsoever, in my opinion.




One response

12 10 2008

Actually, there is one way that you could lose a game of chess in one move – you could immediately resign. This might sound theoretical, but when I play omnipotent opponents, it is generally the course of action I take.

By the way, you’re kind of cheating in saying that as soon as a characteristic is attributed to a thing, it ceases to be an externally constructed attribute – i.e. by defining chess as a game with the rules of chess that we know and agree on, or by defining heavy as an internal property of heavy rocks, you’re ignoring the fact that the rules of chess are only as good as the institutionally-led social consensus that underlies them, and that the heaviness of a rock is only as good as the nearby massive object which it attracts and which attracts it.

Just a thought.

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