Can God create a stone too heavy to lift by Jimmy Akin

Theological Connections II: The Foundation Stone

(Jimmy Akin)

In the previous post, I talked about how a realization in one area can lead to developments in very different areas. I also mentioned that we're going to do a series of posts that embody this concept.

So let's lay the foundation stone for future posts.

It's a particularly heavy stone.

So heavy, in fact, that God can't lift it.

Or that is what is claimed.

But could there really be a stone so heavy that God couldn't lift it?

Once, back in philosophy grad school, I was in a class where the question was raised of whether God could make a stone so heavy he couldn't lift it (this being a classic challenge to the idea of divine omnipotence) and I jokingly responded, "No, because any stone that heavy would collapse and become degenerate matter and thus no longer a stone."

The professor replied, "Welcome to academic philosophy! You have answered the question without engaging the issue!"

The issue, of course, has nothing to do with stones. You could ask, "Could God make a mass of degenerate matter so heavy he can't move it?" or "Can God make an object so massive he can't move it?" or any number of other things to get around tongue-in-cheek answers like mine.

But the challenge remains: If God could make something too heavy for him to lift then it seems that there is something he can't do (i.e., lift it). On the other hand, if he can't make something to heavy for him to lift then it again seems there is something he can't do (i.e., make it). Either way it seems that there is something God can't do and thus something contradictory with the idea of omnipotence.

The standard answer to this challenge is to say that it involves a mistaken idea of what omnipotence is.

Omnipotence doesn't mean the ability to do anything you can say.

It means the ability to do anything that is possible--anything that can be done.

In philosophy, this is usually refined to "the ability to do anything that is logically possible."

"Logical possibility" is a term of art in philosophy. What it refers to is anything that does not involve a logical contradiction. That is, the terms used to describe something do not contradict each other, creating an inherent impossibility.

A classic example of a logical impossibility is a square circle. This is something that can't exist because no two-dimensional shape can have a perimeter that is both square and circular at the same time. 

You can imagine a two-dimensional shape with a perimeter that is sometimes square and sometimes circular. You can imagine a three-dimensional shape that looks circular if you look at it from above but square if you look at it from the side (that would be a cylinder). You can imagine a circle inscribed inside a square or a square inscribed inside a circle. But these are just dodges.

No two-dimensional figure can have a perimeter that is both square and circular at the same time.

Thus such an object violates the law of non-contradiction, which holds that nothing can have the property A and the property Not-A at the same time in the same respect. (In this case, A would be either "circularity" or "squareness"--your choice--and Not-A would be the opposite.)

So the idea of a square circle entails a logical contradiction from the very terms involved, making it a logical impossibility.

God thus cannot create square circles, but that doesn't contradict his omnipotence because, while "square circle" is something you can say, it's not something that is logically possible and thus not something that falls under the scope of omnipotence.

Same thing for four-sided triangles, married bachelors, and other things of this sort.

But it doesn't apply to things that could exist but don't--like classically-conceived unicorns, pegasi, centaurs, and prequels to Star Wars that are actually good.

So what about "stones too heavy for God to lift"?

They fall in the same category as square circles. A being with omnipotence has unlimited (i.e., infinite) lifting power. That means, no matter how much mass you give an object, God can produce an equal amount of lifting power and thus can move it. 

Since God's lifting power is infinite, the only way to have a stone too massive to be moved would be for it to have more than infinite mass.

While there are varying kinds of infinity that mathematicians have described, nothing is "more than infinite." Even infinite things will fall somewhere within the taxonomy of infinities. Nothing is beyond that.

So "a stone too heavy for God to lift," like "square circle" and "four-sided triangle," is something you can say, but not something that can actually exist because it contains an internal logical contradiction. It is an intrinsically impossible thing.

And thus not something that God can make.

Yet it doesn't deny God's omnipotence because it doesn't fall within the range of possible objects.