The Problem

The three traditional attributes of God (in whichever tradition it is) are omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Under the assumption that reasonable discussion of God is possible, these three attributes cannot be realized simultaneously and to their fullest extent while retaining logical consistency.

We can see this by supposing that God fully embodies all three attributes to their fullest extent while considering the problem of evil. If God has the power to stop all evil and complete awareness of all evils that exist, then God cannot be fully omnibenevolent while permitting evil to continue. We may argue that God's "good" is a truer "good" than humanity's "good," and that evil is somehow "part of God's plan," but this voids the word "good" of any coherent meaning. A similar, if lengthier argument can be used to dissolve the concepts of "omnipotence" and "omniscience" into a soup of ambiguity. We don't really gain anything from caveating our definitions into oblivion.

While it is not unreasonable to resolve this seeming paradox by adopting the position that God is simply beyond all description, definition, language, or reason - so that the statement "God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent" remains true no matter what - it's also exceedingly boring. There isn't a whole lot we can learn from or about the unknowable, imperceptible, and indescribable, and relegating God to the realm of inscrutable cosmic vagueries largely robs It of any significance (except, perhaps, as a tool for the exploration of existential horror.)

The point is, if we wish to have any kind of genuinely meaningful discussion about God, then we have no choice but to define the properties of God in a way that's consistent (or at least paraconsistent) with the way the that semantics works. And this requires us to weaken at least one of the three aspects of God.

The question is then: How can we maximize the three attributes of God while remaining logically consistent?

I'm not sure how to go about this one.

Approaching it mathematically, I might consider functions "P," "S," and "B," mapping descriptions of God's omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, respectively, to the interval [0,1]. The task is then to find mutually consistent descriptions "dp," "ds," and "db" such that the value of "P(dp)+S(ds)+B(db)" is a global maximum over the domain of consistent descriptions (we can alter this expression to weigh each attribute differently, if we so choose.) The problem with this approach is that there doesn't seem to be an especially reasonable way to quantify the extent to which an arbitrary description realizes an attribute of God. Furthermore, since the space of all descriptions is at most countably infinite, the most common analytical methods* of optimization won't be available even if there is.

The only definitive measure seems to be the number of attributes being weakened, but there is an argument to be made that a certain version of God with full omnipotence and particular forms of weak omniscience and omnibenevolence might embody God more than one with a particular form of weak omnipotence and full omniscience and omnibenevolence.

This is where I get stuck. Without a "most logical way" to define an order on the space of descriptions of each attribute, there's no sensible way to compare consistent characterizations of God except by the number of attributes weakened. Yet this number alone is likely insufficient for measuring the strength of a characterization. Even if it were, there's no reason to choose between, say, weak omnipotence, with full omniscience and omnibenevolence, and full omnipotence and omniscience, with weak omnibenevolence.

I suppose that I could have God exist in some kind of undecided logical superposition of "equally" weakened states - so that the assertion "There exists an index n such that God is Cn" is decidably true for some set of independently consistent characterizations {C1,C2,C3,...}, while "God is C1," "God is C2," ..., are all undecidable - but that's just being obnoxious for no good reason (although it would be hilarious to see a debate about the nature of God pointlessly derailed by the realization that the debaters had all committed the same modal fallacy.)

My Thoughts:

With all that said, my favourite characterization so far has been weak omnipotence, with full omniscience and omnibenevolence, with God's omnipotence being defined as follows:

"Given any possible [future] state of affairs "U," God may intervene in such a way that after some finite length of time "U" is the present state of affairs."

This gives God the power to do anything eventually, but not to do everything instantaneously, thus resolving the problem of evil by way of "God will ultimately rid the world of evil, but it will take time." I like this characterization because it doesn't directly contradict any known truths about God (I have yet to find a canonical description which requires that the action of God on reality be instantaneous), and it suggests that the only real limit to God's power is "reality must be consistent."

This does get into a spot of trouble with relativity, though, since it's unclear exactly what is meant by "possible," "present," and "state of affairs." If we're not careful, this can end up being indistinguishable from "God only has the power to travel a continuous path across block universes." (although, that would make the Bible an account of God's journey across the multiverse, which is kind of awesome.)

Also of note: full omnipotence and omnibenevolence with weak omniscience is inconsistent wherever 1) God is aware of Its omnipotence and 2) full omniscience would aid in the exercise of God's omnipotence or omnibenevolence. Supposing this grants God the capacity and motive for granting Itself full omniscience while forbidding God from doing so. We could counter this by weakening omniscience to the point that God doesn't realize or understand how omniscience could be useful, but I think that an all-powerful, all-loving, dumbass is definitively less "Godly" than a being which fully embodies two aspects and almost fully embodies the third. Alternatively, perhaps some form of ignorance is simply necessary for omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and this fact is included among God's knowledge. Perhaps ignorance is strength, and we are either too stupid or too intelligent to know it?

In any case, the weakening of omniscience in a non-stupid way requires that God knows at most everything but the fullness of Its omnipotence, or that full omniscience is not necessary or beneficial for the exercise of omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Technically, we might still be able to get away with full omnipotence, full omnibenevolence, and almost full omniscience if we suppose that "God is aware of everything except Its ability to grant Itself full omniscience," and "The ability of God to grant Itself full omniscience is logically independent of all other truths," but 1) I find the truth of the latter claim to be less likely than that of "God's just an idiot," and 2) this is such an utterly contrived manipulation of logic that it feels less like a solution and more like an exploit.

Edit: Operationalizing "Omni-XYZ"

As Frank points out in comments, we need to clarify the meanings of "omnipotent," "omniscient," and "omnibenevolent" to prevent everything from devolving into opinion. I had hoped to avoid this, since it might lead to discounting interesting alternative perspectives but needs must, I suppose.

Definition: (Potential) the potential of an entity is the capacity of that entity to alter the present state of affairs. In particular, an omnipotent entity is one with the capacity to alter the present state of affairs in every way.

Note that the notion of potential is not well-founded, so the potential of an entity is counted in the state of affairs which that entity may alter.

Definition: (Knowledge) The knowledge possessed by an entity is the set of all true statements known by that entity to be true (I will not distinguish between "true belief" and "justified true belief," because it doesn't add anything.) In particular and omniscient entity is one whose knowledge includes all truths.

Formally, we can express the knowledge of each entity as a modal operator. As is the norm for modal logics, knowledge of knowledge is included in knowledge (specifically "from KiP and P, infer KiKiP," where Ki is the i-th modal operator.) Yes this leads to recursion. No it doesn't matter.

Definition: (Benevolence) Benevolence is the desire and tendency of an entity to seek the happiness of others, and to prevent or alleviate suffering. In particular, an omnibenevolent entity is one which seeks to guarantee the happiness of all entities and eliminate all suffering.

We can pretend like we don't understand what this means, but let's be honest: kindness is kindness and suffering is suffering, there are complexities and nuances to both, but it's not some kind of enigmatic riddle. Giving a cold person a blanket is kindness and shooting them in the knee will cause them suffering.

An omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being is thus one with:

  1. the capacity to induce any state of affairs

  2. knowledge of all truths

  3. the desire and tendency to cause happiness and eliminate suffering in all cases

We take as axioms that God possesses potential, knowledge and benevolence, and that God possesses these attributes to the greatest extent that it is possible for any entity to possess these attributes.***

One may or may not wish to exclude claims of the discourse from the state of affairs to prevent paradoxes (such as might be caused by God altering these definitions or the notion of "truth.") While this does prevent many paradoxes from forming, it is not strictly necessary for the prevention of paradoxes in every case.** I leave it up to the reader to decide the permissible extent of self-reference in interpreting "state of affairs."


* "Analytical methods" as in the methods employed in the study of mathematical analysis, not the methods of analytic philosophy. I mean to highlight that the mapping is not generally differentiable, or even continuous.

** For examples, I would recommend Douglas Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas. There are also more rigorous texts on self-modifying abstract machines, but these are a lot drier and I couldn't name them.

*** Yes, this means that God is an entity. The word "God" is a singular proper noun whether spoken in English or Latin, so arguing that God is beyond what can be considered an "entity" amounts to saying "we can't talk about God," which once more, is a logically sound but incredibly boring point of view.

tag because 90% of the actual work in making God consistent has to do with self-reference (ex: "God has the power to make Itself powerless," "God does not know that It is omniscient," "God seeks Its own gratification," etc.)


2 Answers 2


The framing of the question (as a question for an SE) comes across as subjectivistic enough that I don't see how we're supposed to provide much in the way of a "conclusive," objective answer, here. Moreover, some of the presuppositions seem false, some others seem to contradict each other (at least on the level of linguistic pragmatics), and generally, much is stated with arguably more confidence, more "matter-of-factly," than is warranted by the topic.

  1. The opening remark about traditional concepts of God doesn't seem correct (God's unity might often be more significant, for believers, than Its maximality, except so far as we speak of maximal unity).
  2. Mentioning the lack of a "canonical" definition as dialectically allowing for delayed action on God's part goes against the idea of imagining a maximal such being a priori.
  3. Per (2), then, the question on the surface is whether it is conceptually possible for the three attributes to be maximized together in one entity, but that answer has a relatively trivial answer (i.e. "problems with unrestricted quantification aside, the phrase a maximally good, knowledgeable, and powerful being is not inconsistent in the abstract"), and you quickly bring up the problem of evil, so I assume that is what generates the OP issue specifically.
  4. Statements about the word "good" not having "coherent meaning" if we imagine things like "hypergoodness" above it, or that a concept of God is boring if it's too esoteric, seem variously exaggerated or personal.
  5. So take Kant's definition of God as the agent of intellectual intuition. That phrase intellectual intuition specifically means that God's relationship with synthetic a priori propositional space is absolutely proactive (Kant's word is "spontaneous"). Given the architectonic of reason on Kant's account, however, this relationship, which seems epistemological at first (and thus furnishes a semantics for the word "omniscience"), has ontological and deontological ramifications: God's way of knowing things is in the act of creating them (referring to them by the will-to-refer primarily, not by attaching labels to them from a relatively passive standpoint where those things are given before such willing), and the unity of the concept of God in the form of reason bleeds over into the doctrines of practical reason, where God's own autonomy does indeed set a standard for God that is unlike the standard it sets for us (in Kant's metaphor of the kingdom-of-ends, though we are all legislators in the kingdom, God is more like what in the US we call "the executive branch," i.e. the presidency).
  6. This is relevant to the doctrine of divine simplicity, which at its most seemingly extreme is the claim that there is no difference between God in the abstract/as a genus and the One True God/as a particular. God and the Form of God are the same, so to say, then (there is a weirdly-worded remark by Paul in the New Testament that can support this "Form of God" talk, incidentally), and which is typically defended modulo the doctrine of aseity or, for the less abstruse believer, for the sake of things like the Shema or tawhid ("that there is only one God"). As the agent of intellectual intuition, God's personality is identical to Its epistemic character, and this character is then Its power and glory; and the concept of intellectual intuition is a maximal concept, in Kant's system. So we get an example of divine simplicity, all three classical attributes, and absolute unity, for the price of one concept.
  7. But again, what of the problem of evil? If that's your yardstick, though, there's your answer as to which attribute to weaken: which weakening of whatever attribute is maximally consistent with the problem of evil? You start out by saying that God cannot be absolutely good, powerful, and knowing alongside the existence of (a lot of) evil. Mathematically, there is no direct reason to prefer a solution that weakens any specific attribute instead of the others; solutions are available, but "equivalent" in value, based on a weakening of whichever attribute. Morally, we might prefer adverting to the options that don't weaken the attribute of omnibenevolence, since we're framing the whole issue in terms of a moral problem anyway. But the two generic kinds of solutions possible, then—weakening God's power or knowledge—are on a par; either might be considered optimal. A further filter might be the consideration that omnipotence is easier to phrase in an inconsistent manner than omniscience, and so a weakened omnipotence is to be preferred already.
  8. However, to dovetail considerations (1) and (5), again I must note that since even in the human case, there is no absolutely stable consensus on what goodness, knowledge, and physical energy are, I'm not sure why ambiguating between human and divine goodness conflicts with using the word "good" and its kin in a "coherently meaningful" way, or then why we would differentiate between stupid and smart versions of God, etc. (That notion, "stupidity," is suspect in the human case as it is; it would not do to equate it with just any lack of knowledge, especially not a lack of knowledge that is metaphysically necessary instead of contingently due to failures on the part of reasoners.)
  • Thank you for this informative answer! Regarding my citing of the problem of evil, I chose it for no other reason than that it is well known. In regards to God's epistemic character is this with reference to God's self-knowledge, or the knowledge that beings other than God have of God? Additionally, is Kant's proactive description of God assuming that the only possible world is the actual world?
    – R. Burton
    Jan 29 at 0:33
  • Also, and this is a bit of a subtle point, but does Kant's notion of a priori maximality assume Newtonian determinism? I'll need a moment to actually read Kant's work but it seems implicit that he identifies God with reality itself, at least to an extent. This isn't incompatible with the rejection of determinism per se, but it's hard to imagine what he means otherwise.
    – R. Burton
    Jan 29 at 0:45
  • 1
    @R.Burton Kant's modal semantics are quite involved and he was quite critical of Leibnizian theories in this connection, so I'm not sure that he would have had much use for talk of possible worlds. He might've been given more to think of possible ways that "the" world can be as a whole, yet he doesn't even have "the" world as a completely given object in his system; the world that we know has fuzzy boundaries. And for Kant, of course, no mortal knows whether God exists; in fact, Kant didn't think that God could prove Its existence to us even by Its power of self-revelation. Jan 29 at 0:45
  • So by "God's epistemic character" I mean God's relationship with synthetic apriority, esp. for existence propositions: in Kantspeak, "intuition" means a particular state of consciousness, consciousness of particular things; "intellectual" means cognitively spontaneous; so the knowledge of space and time that Kant attributes to us is the manner, he indicates, of God's knowledge of everything. Jan 29 at 0:47
  • Just found a summary of Kant's logic and I already hate it. How did people even live before notation!?
    – R. Burton
    Jan 29 at 1:23

I think you face two unrelated problems. The first is that you must optimise against some overall value or constraint, so until you define that you will have no way to judge whether one combination of degrees of weakness is 'better' than another. The second is that you are wrong to suppose that the degree of weakness can be characterised on a scale from 0 to 1, since there are different types of weakening- for example, God might have become slightly hard of hearing, or somewhat absent minded- so you need to factor in far more variables. My own view is that God's omniscience is limited in the sense that her field of vision is narrow, so she must sweep around the Universe rather as a radar sweeps around circle. If we imagine the period for a sweep around the entire Universe to be sufficiently long- a few thousand years might seem reasonable- that would allow adequate time for the present level of evil to have developed since her last sweep. And since you have not listed omnitolerance amongst her, sorry, Her attributes, we might expect Her to have a right old cob on when She sees what we have been up to while her divine back was turned. I for one have done nothing to warrant holy reprobation, fearing the arrival of the next sweep might be at any time soon and that she will be swift to mete out exacting punishments to the wicked when her all seeing gaze returns.

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