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Saturday, October 30, 2004

Impotent Arguments About Omnipotence

The Rock Too Heavy
by David G. Nesbitt


A fellow Christian was overheard saying, "A couple of my co-workers and I were talking about God and what He can and cannot do. One of my co-workers asked this question: 'Can God make a heavy rock that He can't pick-up?' I know it's kinda hard to understand but I don't really know how to phrase the question. My co-workers and I started talking and debating about this topic."

This objection is heard far too often, given its rather embarrassing weakness. Usually posed as a question, and usually raised by atheists, it is typically intended to demonstrate the inherent logical contradiction of the divine attribute of omnipotence. An interesting thing to notice is that, regardless of how you answer the question, only one answer can result: God cannot be omnipotent. There is a reason for this, and it ought to prove embarrassing to whoever proposes the question as a theological problem.


"Can an omnipotent God create a rock that he cannot lift?"

Unfortunately for the proponent, the Rock Too Heavy argument is fallacious (i.e. contains a fallacy) and consequently invalidates itself. The specific fallacy it commits is petitio principii (i.e. 'begging the question)', which is the fallacy of assuming the truth of the very thing yet to be proven. The argument therefore requires no response; one needs only to point to the fallacy, which renders the argument invalid. The fallacy is located in the "rock that he cannot lift" object. The argument is usually proposed as a defeater of the divine attribute of omnipotence by addressing whether God has the power to make such an object, but the "rock that he cannot lift" illegitimately begs the question—omnipotence is denied from obtaining before the argument even reaches the conclusion that omnipotence cannot obtain. In other words, by positing in advance the existence of a "rock that he cannot lift", the proponent of the argument has already assumed the truth of the conclusion before reaching the conclusion. Either God can create a rock he cannot lift, which would mean he is not omnipotent, or he cannot create a rock that he cannot lift, which would mean he is not omnipotent. No matter how you answer the argument, the result is always that God cannot be omnipotent precisely because of that "rock that he cannot lift" object, which is fallacious.

This is a frequently encountered question/objection and I think it is because most people either misuse the theological distinctives of omnipotence—willfully or inadvertently—or they are just theologically uninformed—willfully or inadvertently. Most people, I would note, are likewise unfamiliar with critical thinking and sound reasoning skills; similarly, most are relatively ignorant of logical and rhetorical fallacies. Consider another example of this, from an agnostic fellow who argued, "Omnipotence is incompatible with omniscience: God lacks the power to learn something without forgetting anything first." By positing that God lacks the power to learn something, the arguer has promptly denied omniscience, which renders his question as no longer addressing the issue he needs it to. By way of explanation, let me point out that God does not lack the power to learn something (whatever this is supposed to mean); he does have the power to learn something. However, there is nothing for God to learn—because he is omniscient.


Some have said that the question serves merely to show that omnipotence cannot actualize logically impossible states of affairs. With this the Christian can only agree and inform the person that omnipotence has never been said to regard that which is not an object of power. Logical impossibilities are not objects of power, which omnipotence regards (more on this below). How much power does it take to make a square circle? How much power does it take to make 1+1=5? How much power does it take to make an apple exist and, at the same time and in the same respect, not exist? The very question itself is absurd because, the moment any answer is proposed, the very existence of the answer denies that the object was ever impossible. Consider the following statement carefully: If the impossible could become possible or actual simply by applying power to it, then it was never impossible to begin with, but merely difficult—which is to deny that self-contradictions are necessarily impossible (which is to deny necessary truths).


Intrinsic impossibilities do not limit omnipotence at all. Self-contradictions, by virtue of being two mutually exclusive properties, carry their impossibility within themselves, and therefore it is intrinsically impossible for them to have occupancy in the same universe at the same time—under all conditions and in all worlds and for all agents. "All agents" here includes God himself, Lewis notes in his book The Problem of Pain, explaining further that God's omnipotence
means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to his power. If you choose to say 'God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,' you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix them to the two other words 'God can'. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but non-entities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of his creations to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because his power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God (Lewis 18; emphasis mine).
"It is more exact to say that the intrinsically impossible is incapable of production," Aquinas noted, "than to say that God cannot produce it". Elsewhere he notes that a contradiction is not subject to omnipotence, "not from any impotence in God, but because it simply does not have the nature of being feasible or possible." He elaborates further that whatever "does not involve a contradiction is in the realm of the possible with respect to which God is omnipotent. Whatever involves a contradiction is not within the scope of omnipotence because it cannot qualify for possibility."

Herein lies the key concept: omnipotence regards power, but self-contradictions have nothing to do with power. Omnipotence does not imply power to do that which is not an object of power—as, for example, that which is self-contradictory. If the impossible could become possible or actual simply by applying power to it, then it was never impossible to begin with, but merely difficult. That which is impossible remains impossible regardless of any power applied. If omnipotence regards the power of God to do all things which are objects of power, and if it means this power is never frustrated by an obstacle, and if self-contradictions, as non-entities, can be neither objects of power nor possible obstacles, then nonsensical self-contradictions are not subjects of omnipotence nor can they be—logical impossibilities are not things but non-entities.


What does omnipotence actually mean? "God can do all things the accomplishment of which is a manifestation of power," said twelfth-century philosopher and theologian Hugh de St. Victor. In other words, God can do with power anything that power can do. "Omnipotence is maximal power," cites the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Omnipotence speaks in regards to the power of God to do all things which are objects of power. When we assert that God is omnipotent, we are talking about power. In all dictionaries, encyclopedias, and systematic theologies I have encountered, omnipotence is defined as: having unlimited or universal power; all-powerful; the state or quality of being all-powerful; the state of having unlimited power. Omnipotence does not mean, and has never meant, "can literally do anything," including bringing about a self-contradiction. Omnipotence speaks in regards to the power of God to do all things which are objects of power.

These repeated clarifications and refutations notwithstanding, it is guaranteed this question will raise its deformed head again and again. And when the last rational theist finally tires of endlessly addressing this same question over and over, the questioner will probably shout triumphantly, "See? This question unravels your theology!" because he too, like all those before him, blissfully ignored the abundance of responses to it that already exist.

* Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1944.