Omnipotent God and The Paradox of the Stone

Paradox

The concept of an omnipotent being, namely a being with maximal perfection with respect to power, is sometimes believed to involve a contradiction. The most popular reductio ad absurdum case against the existence of omnipotent being is known as “the paradox of the stone.”

The paradox unfolds as follows:

1. If God exists, then He is omnipotent
2. If God is omnipotent then God can create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift.
3. If God can create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift, then God is not omnipotent since He cannot lift the stone He created.
4. If God cannot create a stone too heavy for anyone to lift, then God is not omnipotent since He cannot create the stone too heavy for anyone to lift.
5. Either way God is not omnipotent.
6. Therefore God does not exist.

Since a person offering this case “is assuming throughout that if there is something specifiable that God cannot do, it follows that he lacks omnipotence” as Thomas V. Morris (1991, 73) correctly observed, clarification of the terms used would help show how weak and unsound this case is.

What do we mean by “a being Y can do x ”? According to Morris, we can mean either ability, Y is “ able to do x” or capability, Y is “capable of doing x”. Our questions, should be then, does it necessary mean that Y lacks power to do x, if Y cannot do x? Soundly no. Y might have the power to do x but lack reasons or will or skills or opportunity et cetera to do x. Does it necessary then mean that Y lacks power to do x, if Y is not capable of doing x. Soundly no again, since Y might have the power to do x but lacks moral justification to do x.

Borrowing Morris’ example, God could indeed create a small stone that no one could lift, by simply making the stone impossible to be lifted by any other beings and vow himself not to lift it. Since God is morally perfect, He cannot break His vow not to lift the stone, thus add himself to a group of all other beings that cannot lift that stone. We can say, in this state of affair, that God cannot lift the stone, but not because of lack of power but of the promise that a perfect being cannot break.

Michael Tooley’s Solution: Atheist Philosopher’s Critique

Tooley deemed this paradox of omnipotence argument as “clearly unsound”. He contended,

[T]his[unsoundness of the case] can be seen if one simply makes explicit the times at which the being acts, or possesses some property. For suppose A is omnipotent at a specific time t1. Then A can act at that time to bring it about that there is a rock that no one can lift. But at what time does the latter state of affairs first exist? It cannot be time t1, since, I would argue, a cause cannot be simultaneous with its effect. So let us suppose that A acts at time t1 to bring it about that there is, at some later time t2, a rock that no one can lift. It then follows that A either no longer exists at time t2, or does exist at time t2, but is no longer omnipotent. So to bring it about that there is a rock that no one can lift—including himself—an omnipotent being must either commit suicide, or at least bring it about that he is no longer omnipotent at the relevant time. This is not, presumably, something that a sensible person—let alone a morally perfect one—would be likely to do. But there is no contradiction in the proposition that A, who is omnipotent at time t1, either does not exist at some later time t2, or else exists at that time, but is not omnipotent. Accordingly, there is no paradox of omnipotence.(Plantinga & Tooley 2008, 87)

Tooley’s solution is of no use to theists, since they believe God, if exists, is a being that none greater can be conceived. Omnipotence and necessarily existence in all possible worlds is a greatness making properties that a being none greater can be conceived must possess. Is there a possible solution that both atheists and theists would accept?

Thomas V. Morris’ Solution: Theist Philosopher’s Critique

Morris offers two solutions, which I find compelling. Probing what kind of stone is a defender of this case asking an omnipotent God to create that He cannot lift, Morris contended,

But what would such a stone be like? What, for example, would it weigh? If God is omnipotent, then, presumably, he can create stones of any possible weigh? But if he is omnipotent, then, presumably as well, for any possible weight n, he can lift stones of weight n. Realizing this has led some philosophers to one of the simplest solutions which has been offered to the stone paradox. They have just claimed that ‘creating a stone which even an omnipotent being can’t lift,’ and all its analytical equivalents, is just an incoherent act-description. And since the phrase ‘the power to create a stone which even an omnipotent being can’t lift’ does not designate a logically possible power, it does not follow from the fact that God cannot create such
 a stone that God lacks any power required for omnipotence, or that he lacks in any other respect. This solution maintains that the proper answer to our original question is no, but that does not cause any problems for the ascription of omnipotence to God. (Morris 1991, 74)

What if the defender of this case keep insisting that God creating a stone too heavy to be lifted is a logical possibility. Is it possible that God can create such stone and still be omnipotent? Yes. Morris again argued that it still would not follow that God lacks the power to lift such stone. God could simply vow not to lift the stone, thus it would not be because of inability to lift the stone but moral incapability that God cannot lift that stone. “Thus, lacking a power to lift S[stone] is not lacking a possible power, a power possible to have, and so no such lack would detract from God’s being omnipotent.(ibid 75)

Morris awesomely concluded:

If we choose to say that God cannot create a stone he can’t lift, we can block the inference to his lacking omnipotence and explain the apparent divine inability by characterizing the act-description here as incoherent. If we choose to say that he can create such a stone which, once created, he cannot lift, we can block the inference to his lacking omnipotence by explaining that the subsequent inability to lift cannot be thought of as reflecting the lack of any power it is possible to have. But by either strategy the claim of omnipotence for God is defended.”(ibid 76)

Question: Are you persuaded by the Paradox of the Stone as case against omnipotent God?

Bibliography:

Plantinga, Alvin & Tooley, Michael (2008) Knowledge of God. Blackwell Publishing.

Morris, Thomas V. (1991) Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology. InterVarsity Press.

Cover Paint: Paradox 1 (2005) by Robert Pepperell, Oil on panel, 46cm x 60cm

15 thoughts on “Omnipotent God and The Paradox of the Stone

  1. Morris’s moral solution is interesting, but I’m not quite sure it works for examples like, “Create a table that God didn’t make.” Creating a table that God didn’t make is not “an incoherent act-description”. Do you think his view can accommodate examples such as this? If not, what are your thoughts about Plantinga’s solution?

    • Thanks Jimmy. I would like to understand what you mean by “create a table that God didn’t make”. Who is to create a table and what do we mean by “God didn’t make”? Are we using “make” different from “create”?

  2. I’ve given this ‘dilemma’ consideration before. Coming from a math background, I can categorize this problem as having an undefined solution. Undefined solutions usually involve an infinite value that cannot be computed by any known logic. Follow: Assume God builds a rock of large mass. Being omnipotent, He can still lift it. Now assume He builds a rock of larger mass. Lifting power is still equivalent. Now take the letter m to represent mass and k to represent potential lifting power. As m grows larger, so does k. Most powers have limits, but omnipotent power has no limits. Thus, as m goes to infinity, so does k. In order to find a point at which God’s power (k) is less than the mass (m) of the rock, we would need to go through every number from zero on through infinity. Basically, we are asking whether infinity is greater than infinity, which turns out to be a nonsense question.

  3. I think the argument is incoherent. For a rock is by nature composite, maintaining various properties, i.e., weight, length, position, etc., and so by virtue of the rock’s nature it is limited in its attributes qua the nature of the rock in and of itself.

  4. It seems that this argument stops before it really even starts. I think this is evident from the below commenters. The argument for those opposing the existence of God via his lack of power to then lift a stone he himself has created (created and it’s properties might also provide clarification) switches from a “great being” to “greatest being”. Those are two very different “beings” when it comes to possessing the property of omnipotence; it is recognizable because the power given to create such a stone as is depicted in the paradox, would be the greatest but “not lifting” the stone reduces the same being to just great. The paradox itself, based on the definition of God, is an illogical question.
    On a separate note, I sometimes think that we dismiss questions like these to quickly. They do have merit in discussing them so thanks for presenting this Prayson.

    • I completely agree. Part of the reason why Christianity is increasingly seen as not being an intellectual option is because the Church has not done all to great a job at honestly and earnestly engaging with such questions, too often giving quick “Sunday school” answers or dismissing the inquisition with “have more faith.” This is why Apologetics is so crucial. Many people, inside and outside the Church, have honest questions about the faith. We must engage, always being ready to make a defense with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:15). Part of that respect is in not dismissing these questions but rather engaging and loving those who ask them.

    • The beauty of these objections is that they give us opportunity to explain, redefine or reform our definitions of God’s attributes and in doing so share that belief in God is reasonable.

  5. The whole argument is a straw man. It stems from a lack of understanding of what “omnipotence” means. Most people say that omnipotence means “the ability to do ANYTHING”, but this just isn’t correct. Omnipotence is truly “a maximal degree of power”.

    Regardless of the power one possesses, they cannot make a round square, a married bachelor, or any other self-referential incoherence.
    God also has other restrictions from his nature. God cannot act immorally. God cannot change.

    There is clearly a huge chasm between the common definition of omnipotence and the actual one.

  6. Yes indeed. I explored this in my last post. There are a great many things that God cannot do. Primarily God cannot, as a prefect being, contradict his own nature. He cannot be other than Himself. So, for the same reason that God cannot sin, lie, act unjustly and so on, He cannot make a rock so big that he cannot move it. That is, because God, in his essential nature, is not a physical being He is not limited by the constraints of the physical universe (i.e. mass of an object). Therefore the question itself presents a logical inconsistency. It essentially asks God to be NOT God, which would violate His being.

    Great Blog!

  7. I remember I solved this dillema for myself when I learned that God does everything within his nature. It’s impossible for God to do X (lie, cheat, steal) because if he did X, he would not be God. It’s not a smudge against his omnipotence, it’s a smudge against his very nature and thus his existence.

    • I was thinking of writing the same idea. By lifting a stone that NO ONE can lift, God would violate a divine ordination, and therefore be inconsistent within His attributes.

      He ordained that the stone cannot be lifted by ANYONE, and He will not lift it. Just like He cannot lie. :)

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