Omnipotence Paradox

The omnipotence paradox is a simple idea:

– Omnipotence is being able to do anything at all

– God either cannot make a rock he can’t move, or he can make such a rock but cannot move it

– Therefore God is not omnipotent

The initial reaction of most Christians to this argument is merely to bristle at it (imagining, perhaps, that it is the product of some proud, analytical minds who put too much stock in human reason, not realizing that God is beyond our ways, and trying to discredit him with childish word games). But after a few seconds, it becomes clear that there actually is some kind of a problem at hand. The reaction, then, is often to call the argument stupid, meaningless, or confused. If you stay the course and ask what the problem with the argument is, you will usually get a lengthy rationalization that does not clearly address the problem or provide an answer to the question that arises from the second premise.

I have never heard a Christian observe that Jesus was unable to lift certain rocks, and thus, God really did make rocks he can’t move–but I hope that I hear that one day, because I think it would be a clever response.

At first glance, it’s clear why a Christian dislikes this argument. It seems to embarrass God by demonstrating that he is not quite as powerful as we thought he was. Even though the Bible does not necessarily state that God’s powers are so limitless as to interfere with logical impossibilities, it causes the Christian some dissonance and distress if the Almighty God has trouble with rocks.

The (lazy) atheist interpretation of this argument is simply that God does not exist, because God does not make sense. The Christian interpretation of this argument (when it comes down to it) is that perhaps it does not make sense to argue that God can do “everything,” in the sense of logical impossibilities like making 1+1=3, or making rocks that he can’t move.

However, I think there is a slightly deeper interpretation to be had. I believe this argument demonstrates that necessities precede possibilities.

If you speak with a theist at length about science or the universe, you will hear everything under the sun ascribed to God. The less the theist knows, the more ascribing is done, of course. You might hear “God made X” from someone who doesn’t understand the natural processes involved, whilst a more scientific response might go: “God created Y, which created X, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t effectively create X!” At some point, however; when you get into the deep end of the pool, theists will start saying things like “God made the laws of physics, he made time, space, logic and reason; God made everything!”

The question is, do those ultimate types of assertions make any sense? Perhaps there are “laws” of physics that, so far as we are able to tell, “could have been different.” It is consistent, then, to imagine a sentient being “deciding” what these laws might be, and selecting the ones that please him most. But this is not so easy to imagine with necessities and logical impossibilities. It becomes even thornier when we consider that most of the scientific “laws” that we discover appear directly linked with rigorous, consistent logic.

If we imagine a God who begins his cosmic day in a sea of infinite possibility, only then to impose logic, reason and necessity, there would seem to be no reason to do anything at all–there would seem to be no reason that God could have, such that he could do anything. Only once you have necessities can you have possibilities. Only once you have choices can you make a choice.

In my view it is demonstrated that our world arises at bottom not from the foundational choices of a personal God, but from the foundational existence of consistent truths or necessities. Therefore if there is a God, it would appear that these things must either precede him, or constitute some aspect of his very essence, such that they would have to “be” God.

Some Christians have shown signs of realizing this. They may crudely affirm such doctrines as “without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sin” (though this appears to be an arbitrary impossibility rather than logical impossibility, which perhaps takes us even farther in the wrong direction), or write allegory about “the deep magic,” as C.S. Lewis did in the Chronicles of Narnia (though this is only a kind rephrasing of the former, meant to explain the same thing).

But what cannot stand up to scrutiny is the commonly-imagined indistinct and omnipotent concept of God.


9 Responses to “Omnipotence Paradox”

  1. Ben Mordecai Says:

    “God either cannot make a rock he can’t move, or he can make such a rock but cannot move it”

    The essence of this argument is to game the system by the use of tricky language that does not correspond to reality. Then you can declare the doctrine of omnipotence to be impossible, and therefore God’s essential character impossible, and therefore the existence of God impossible.

    There is a major problem with this argument: The doctrine of omnipotence means, “unlimited in power” not “able to do anything at all.” This definition does not have separate categories for tasks that could not be accomplished for lack of power versus tasks that could not be accomplished even with unlimited power.

    You might as well ask if God can draw a square circle. The idea of a square-circle is utter nonsense because a shape that fits the qualifications of being a square (a four sided 2-D shape with all 4 angles at 90 degrees and each side of equivalent lengths) necessarily conflicts with the definition of a circle (a continuous 2-D shape in which all points in the shape are equidistant to the center).

    Likewise the rock argument requires that the very idea of a rock so large that God couldn’t move it even has the potential to exist. It cannot. Such a rock is a square-circle. If you thought of a particular theoretical rock it would have defined characteristics: volume, mass, density, chemical composition and so on. God, with omnipotence, could certainly move any of these rocks.

    As another example, the Bible says that it is impossible for God to lie. Of course, it takes a very minimal amount of power to tell a lie. Even small children can do it. Yet God’s inability to lie has nothing to do with a lack of power but asking him to become a square-circle. It is saying essentially, “Be God (and therefore retain every attribute that goes along with being God) but yet deny these attributes.”

  2. Hello again,

    On the contrary, there is no tricky language or gaming here at all! Where is it? The tricky language that does not correspond to reality is the idea of a God who is imagined omnipotent in a classical (albeit not well thought out) sense. That’s what the argument proves impossible, even if its only effect is to force someone to consider the implications of logical impossibilities existing.

    The examples are not the same. It is logically impossible to draw a square circle. It is not logically impossible to make a rock you can’t move. The logical impossibility lies in the concept of omnipotence (which demands both that you both be able to make the rock and move it once it’s made). It is unclear why God “could not” choose to take the first step of making such a rock, unless this significant attribute of his character was incoherent.

    In any case, you are not disagreeing with the point that I intended to make. In fact, you’re stoking the fire. The omnipotence paradox doesn’t show that no God can exist; it just rules out a certain type of believing in God that is, nonetheless, common.

    “Likewise the rock argument requires that the very idea of a rock so large that God couldn’t move it even has the potential to exist. It cannot.”

    Why can it not? Can God not make it so, that such a thing exist? Perhaps not. By insisting that the framework of logic dictates God’s behaviour, you are agreeing with my central point, though you are not framing it in my language–that such structures in fact “precede” God. They’re C.S Lewis’s “Deep Magic.” They’re the true thing that precedes, and underlies, all things.

    We have seen examples of strange cases where things seem to break our understanding of what is logically impossible (e.g. particles may indeed be permitted to exist in two places at once, but only in a certain sense that we did not originally mean or expect). Let’s set those aside, since the original meaning of the impossibility remains.

    Most people vaguely think of God as “a guy who could just do anything.” Then they try to posit reasons why he might have done as he did. As we’ve seen, though, he can’t do anything because there exist logical impossibilities. What things are *not* logical impossibilities? What things (in your definition of omnipotence) can God do by virtue of this quality? It is my (yet unproven) metaphysical belief, or suspicion, that the whole *world* arises because of such logic. Things happen because it is a logical impossibility for something else to have happened (barring quantum events that apparently cannot be determined beyond a certain point).

    So for someone to say that “God could snap his fingers and turn the downtown core into a brick of cheese” may be exactly the same as asking him to draw a square circle, or make a rock he can’t move. The proof of its logical impossibility may simply be far more subtle and beyond our ability to account for.

    God is supposed to be omnipotent, however you might define it, but even *reports* of God’s miracles (let alone what actually happens) have a very narrow scope. We hear much about lengthening of limbs, diseases going away, visions, and cells rearranging themselves out of sight. We never, ever hear of a limb growing back, an exploded body reassembled from its constituent atoms, etc. There are even a few stories–unsurprisingly, these usually come from Africa–of people coming back from the dead and walking out of the morgue. Well, suffice to say I can be 100% certain that none of their vital organs were removed or pureed, otherwise they could not be back from the dead today. To recognize that God’s miracles are in fact limited by such petty constraints must rework any thinking person’s paradigm on miracles.

    With so many logical impossibilities shaved off–some far more subtle than others–we arrive at a view of “omnipotence” that is actually far smaller than what we vaguely imagined, when we did not think much about what God “has the power” to do. And this revised God does not have the same powers as the one we believed in, in the classical sense–at which point he doesn’t exist (in the classical sense).

  3. Ben Mordecai Says:

    The tricky language is the imprecise definition itself being “absolutely anything” rather than “unlimited power.” “Absolutely anything” forces the omnipotent being to have the ability to perform deeds that are self-refuting.

    My argument is that the “rock so large” is a self-refuting object. It cannot retain all of its attributes without those same attributes refuting one another. The square-circle requires four right angles and no angles at the same time, making it self refuting. Likewise, the “rock so large,” in order for it to be a rock, requires it to have a defined mass, and volume, and so on. However, an omnipotent being would be by definition able to move some finite rock. The attributes that are logically required for the rock-so-large to exist cannot avoid self-refutation.

    There is a difference though between square-circles/unmovable rocks and miracles. Square-circles have attributes that are self-refuting. Miracles are actions in which God exercises his omnipotence to intervene and impose on the “normal” coarse of life. In some cases, the Bible tells us at least a part of the means, (for example, speaking in creation, appointing winds, famines, fish, plants, worms, hail) but a comprehensive analysis of what exactly took place is a mystery that is unrevealed to people. These are not instances in which an object or an action had to hold self-refuting characteristics at the same time.

    As for whether or not the average reported miracle is a true miracle or not, the question does not have any bearing on omnipotence. We sought to argue the logical comprehensibility of omnipotence, not the legitimacy of specific exercises of it. I too am quite skeptical of many particular miraculous claims – not because God is limited in his ability to make it happen, but because of the shady circumstances that often accompany them.

    Christianity teaches that there will be a universal bodily resurrection prior to the judgment and it acknowledges the obvious about the decay of bodies until there is nothing left. Nonetheless we hold to this miracle knowing that God who created the universe Ex Nihlo is not limited in his ability to bring this event to pass.

    Whether or not you believe that such miracles can come to pass is a product of your skepticism, not logical necessity.

  4. (Regarding an example of corpse-raising in Africa: Fortunately, some Christians have integrity and don’t burden their skeptical foes with discrediting everything that might otherwise help their case:

  5. Ben Mordecai Says:

    I don’t like to think of you as a foe 🙂

  6. I never used the words “rock so large.” I said “rock he couldn’t move.” A rock that God cannot move is not a self-refuting object per se.

    You are clarifying a number of points here that I feel I thoroughly discussed above–for instance, that the very incoherence of such omnipotence requires a new definition, and as the new definition is whittled down, it too faces problems.

    Whether because you are rejecting my conjecture out of hand, or because you skipped over it, you have not addressed the question of whether such miracles do indeed entail logical contradictions that are simply more subtle than the rock-that-cannot-be-moved. I believe that many of them do.

    For instance, for any macroscopic miracle you can think of, I can probably think of no less than 10 (ten) scientific experiments I would carry out in the aftermath (or at the time, if I were able). These experiments would produce results 1 through 10. I believe that in many cases–certainly if a large-scale and absurd miracle were suggested–I could set these experiments up in such a way as to create a logical contradiction in the results, UNLESS the miracle were actually to have a “natural” explanation. It is my view that “natural” explanations are nothing more than explanations that do not produce logical contradictions in what we actually observe (not to be tautological, but my point is that the average man can think of a lot of “miracles” that would create a completely inconsistent past history).

    Perhaps you’re disappointed that I’m not giving you concrete examples. But this would be a rather difficult and arduous thing to do, so for now I hope that the abstraction will suffice.

    You have also skipped over my point that of the miracles that are reported, only very specific *types* of miracles are reported. We never hear reports of things that “plainly” seem to be impossible; we only hear reports along a handful of common lines.

    Like I said: Christians have sometimes claimed that a man has come back from the dead (in Africa). Why cannot God raise a man from the dead who has had his heart put in a jar, or his body exploded? Because then we’d ask “where’s his heart?” and we’d arrive at a logical contradiction when we went looking for a pulse in the raised man. Each miracle sets off a chain reaction of questions that need answers, and only in cases where the key information is obscured can the chain reaction be staunched.

    I’m not arguing that logical necessity prevents us from believing in “miracles.” I am willing to believe that a man’s arm was “healed,” that someone’s cancer disappeared, etc. (if I have reason to assume that it happened–in some cases I have heard very convincing stories of it happening). However I am confident that if I investigate the result, I will get answers to my questions up to a point. There are a lot of hypothetical events that could never produce a self-consistent response to post-hoc observations.

    Surely you can’t disparage my “skepticism” since you necessarily must have at least as much as I do regarding such claims. I’m not a debunker. In fact over the past year I have interviewed all 300+ people in my life that I am on a first-name basis with, and I am writing a small book about their detailed responses to my question: “have you ever experienced anything paranormal, miraculous, etc.?”

    (Incidentally, though almost half the people I know are Christians, most of the stories do nothing to validate the supernatural worldview of Christianity. In the past I would have quietly attributed each and every one of the accounts I investigated to “demons”).

  7. (I have thought of a better way of phrasing the inelegant argument above:

    – Each event in the world sets off a chain reaction of questions and answers. For instance: it disappeared. Where’d it go? Nowhere. What was left in its place? Air. At what pressure? Atmospheric. Any particulates? Or: Jesus was born of a virgin. What is the other half of his DNA sequence? What’s on his Y chromosome? etc.

    – If something miraculous has happened, then it has happened completely out of line with natural “laws”

    – So far a “natural” explanation is the only explanation that can answer the immense tree of questions consistently.

    – If a miracle is to happen it has to have completely different answers to all the questions in the tree, and make them all consistent (which definitely seems impossible in at least some cases), which would seem to limit the possibility of their happening. That, or the miracle can introduce new forces of nature that are as-yet not understood, but in that case someone will stubbornly measure them and describe them, calling them “natural” again.

  8. Given the complexity of the Cosmos, and of a world that includes logical duplicity and existential evils, it is axiomatic that the obverse of the law of identity includes a complex reverse: a thing not only is only what it is, it also is not all those things which it is not. But, within an epistemologically passive stance regarding a given topic, the two sides of this axiom are conflated, allowing this stance to seem to itself to have a virtually unlimited body of logic upon which to confirm to itself the sense of its own soundness regarding that topic.

    Now, given the two-sided axiom of identity described above, it is epistemologically axiomatic that the greatest meaningful scope and degree of power which may inhere as a single agent (omnipotence) is identified, like infinity, partly by contrasting reference to the complex and variable logics of all those things which this agent is not.

    So, first, our concept of omnipotence is a cognitive action on our part to define the greatest meaningful scope and degree of power which may INHERE as a single agent over all other agents. Second, this concept obtains to our minds initially as immediately coherent. Third, its immediate coherence produces in us a specifically subjective sense of its epistemological stability.

    But, most of us are not particularly aware that, in our feebleness of mind of progressive biological entropy, we so easily transform this sense of the epistemological stability of our immediate concept of omnipotence into a cognitively lazy re-conception of omnipotence as logically indifferent or explosive. Such a re-conception is cognitively stable for its utter ease of being retained on its own terms. But, to maintain that stability in face of a world of variant logics requires stressing the ‘importance’ of the epistemologically ‘humble’―or, for the skeptic, superior―sheer insular ignorance with which such a reconceptualization initially is made.

    Part of the problem is that the subtlety of this transformation of the concept of omnipotence into an incoherent re-conception is cognitively so deep that many persons take for granted that the incoherent re-conception is, in fact, their own initial conception of omnipotence. The other part of the problem is even deeper:

    First, that kind of reasoning presupposes that in order for omnipotence to be coherent with itself, its very coherence must be irrationally remedied so that it not only is INcoherent with itself, but non-co-inherent with perfect objectivity and perfect goodness. Second, and worse, that irrationally ‘remedied’ conception of omnipotence presupposes that power, in any constructive, positive sense, must most actually essentially be destructive and negative.

    In sum: Abraham Lincoln said that to truly test a person’s character, you cannot do so simply by making him suffer, but, rather, by giving him power. And, curiously, logic is a power to know or prove things.
    But, what a person is in the habit of most valuing informs all his logic.

    • “in our feebleness of mind of progressive biological entropy…”

      I used to produce diction like this a while back, partly in an attempt to impress girls, but it didn’t work.

      Anyway, although I can (for the most part) make out what you’ve said, I’m afraid I can’t figure out what the point was. Even after the “In sum” part that was supposed to sum up the point.

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