Many of you have probably heard of the so-called omnipotence paradox. It is usually framed in questions like “can God make a rock so heavy that he himself cannot lift it?”. The question is a frustrating dilemma, because if he can’t lift it, he cannot do everything, and if he can’t make it, he cannot do everything. Lose/lose.
There are two possible answers to this, obviously. Yes and no. I am going to tackle the problems with the argument from both perspectives.
1. No – God cannot make the rock
This is the answer which is most consistent with Christian theology. Historically, Christian theology has favored this approach (with the exception of a few oddballs like Descartes), and it is generally agreed that there is no reason for God’s omnipotence to include logical contradictions.
You can find this view not only in Catholic doctrine:
“Omnipotence is the power of God to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible. These last words of the definition do not imply any imperfection, since a power that extends to every possibility must be perfect. The universality of the object of the Divine power is not merely relative but absolute, so that the true nature of omnipotence is not clearly expressed by saying that God can do all things that are possible to Him; it requires the further statement that all things are possible to God. The intrinsically impossible is the self-contradictory, and its mutually exclusive elements could result only in nothingness”
But in more secular sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“One sense of ‘omnipotence’ is, literally, that of having the power to bring about any state of affairs whatsoever, including necessary and impossible states of affairs. Descartes seems to have had such a notion (Meditations, Section 1). Yet, Aquinas and Maimonides held the view that this sense of ‘omnipotence’ is incoherent. Their view can be defended as follows. It is not possible for an agent to bring about an impossible state of affairs (e.g., that there is a shapeless cube), since if it were, it would be possible for an impossible state of affairs to obtain, which is a contradiction (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia, 25, 3; and Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part I, Ch. 15)”
This approach makes a lot of logical sense. Logical contradictions, like a square circle, are not actually possible, conceivable things. They are a meaningless combination of words which is only grammatically correct. One might as well ask whether God could create a reaferogajeirgag. It’s an unintelligible jumble of language.
There is, however, another answer. It is one which folks like Descartes will choose, and as we will see, it reconciles this problem just as effectively.
2. Yes – God can make the rock
This may sound confusing, but it is actually the easy way out. If God is not bound by logical contradiction, then it is possible for him to be both omnipotent and incapable of lifting a rock. It is possible for him to know everything and nothing. It is possible for him to be good and evil. It is possible for him to simultaneously exist and not exist. Once we break the concept of God free from the chains of logical contradiction, it is impossible to form any argument against him. Having discussions about God and raising objections to him presupposes that he obeys logic.
This has unfortunate ramifications for those who would seek to use this argument to unseat the idea of God.
Conclusion: This argument has self-contradictory premises
This argument attempts to disprove omnipotence via contradiction. In so doing, it presupposes that omnipotence cannot break through logical contradiction. But then it also presupposes the ability to ignore logical contradiction as a necessary definition of omnipotence.
This means the argument uses a dishonest, contradictory definition for what constitutes omnipotence. Both yes and no resolve this question easily by correcting one of the two contradictory premises of the question. The one useful feature of the rock question is that it tells us something about the answerer’s view of God, but it is not effective as an argument against God. It is logically incoherent.