Martin Lembke’s ‘Omnipotence and other possibilities’ wins the 2012 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize
Dr Martin Lembke is the Associate Director of Studies at the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Sweden. He was recently awarded the 2012 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize for his article ‘Omnipotence and other possibilities’ (Religious Studies 48/4). This annual and international Prize is sponsored jointly by Cambridge University Press and the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion. It is open to all those who, at the time of the deadline, are registered for a postgraduate research degree. The winning entry is published in Religious Studies (Cambridge University Press). Dr Lembke shares his thoughts on the Prize and provides a summary of his winning article.
When Robin Le Poidevin, Editor of Religious Studies, emailed me about the decision of the Editorial Board, I was almost certain that he would inform me that, unfortunately, the 2012 Postgraduate Essay Prize had been awarded to someone else. Naturally, then, I was all the happier to learn that they had indeed decided to give it to me.
I mentioned this to my supervisor at the time, professor Catharina Stenqvist, and as it happened she notified the Head of my department. Within a week or so, my winning a Cambridge essay competition was top news at the Lund University website for several days running. Then I got interviewed at length by the University’s monthly magazine, and then again by the University’s widely circulated student newspaper, in which I was given a double-page spread. As a result, there has even been some media interest in my recently defended thesis, Non-Gods and Gods: A Cosmontological Treatise. Just the other day I was contacted by a glossy high-profile Swedish magazine that invited me to write something about it on a popular level. None of this would have happened, I am sure, had it not been for the 2012 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize.
In my winning essay, ‘Omnipotence and other possibilities’, I suggest that there is a way to satisfy the ‘omni’-condition of omnipotence at the most basic metaphysical level. Intuitively, of course, omnipotence should be the ability to do anything, but most philosophers and theologians have long agreed that this cannot be right. Take for instance the ability to write a novel that is not written (either directly or indirectly) by God. Obviously God (if there is one) cannot write such a novel, but it would be odd to conclude that, therefore, God cannot be omnipotent. To sidestep this and similar problems, I suggest, then, that instead of being analysed in terms of the ability to do anything, or the ability to actualize any possible state of affairs, omnipotence is better understood in more fundamental terms of the ability to ‘possibilize’ any possible state of affairs. Trying to express myself more to the point, or at least in more idiomatic English, I hazard the following definition of what ‘omnipotent’ is:
An agent A is omnipotent if and only if the possibility of any other agent is created by A.
Thus, for example, despite his ‘inability’ to write a novel that is not written by God, God might still qualify as omnipotent if the possibility of any novelist (except himself), and hence of someone writing a novel that is not written by God, is created by God. On this account it follows, more generally, that if there is an omnipotent agent A then ultimately all other agents (including all actions not done solely by A – be they good or bad or morally indifferent) depend on A in the sense that, had it not been for the creative activities of A, they would have been metaphysically impossible.
‘Omnipotence and other possibilities’ also contains an attempted defence of the idea, frequently questioned during the last thirty or so years, that omnipotence is compossible with – possible to possess together with – impeccability (here understood as the inability to do anything wrong). Hence I argue that, even if an agent A is absolutely impeccable, this need not disqualify A‘s claim to omnipotence. Or perhaps more accurately: I argue that the critics’ contention to the contrary is less than convincing.
To view Dr Lembke’s essay, please click here.
Submissions to the 2014 Religious Studies Postgraduate Essay Prize will be invited in September 2013. To read last year’s guidelines, please click here.