Paradox of Omnipotence

It is sometime alleged that the concept of omnipotence is logically self-defeating and therefore impossible.  If omnipotence is an essential attribute of God and impossible, then God cannot exist.  But are these paradoxes any real threat to orthodox theistic belief, or is the threat overblown?

Perhaps the most common example of the paradox of omnipotence is posed in the following dilemma: Either God can create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift, or God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.  If God can create such a stone, then there is something an omnipotent being cannot do—namely, lift the stone.  If God cannot create the stone, then once again an omnipotent being lacks the ability to do something.  So, no matter what, it seems omnipotence is impossible.

The traditional theistic response has been to embrace one of horns of the dilemma while denying that the horn leads one to the conclusion that omnipotence is impossible.  To understand this, we first must understand what “omnipotence” means.  Most traditional theists define “omnipotence” as the ability to do anything logically possible.  So an omnipotent being could create stars, black holes, and even unicorns.  But such a being could not draw a round square, since roundness and squareness cannot cohere in the same object at the same time and in the same way.  But what about a really heavy stone, what is so logically incoherent about it?  Notice that the stone is attributed not with merely being super heavy, but with being so heavy that an omnipotent being cannot lift it.  We might put it this way: a being that can create anything and lift anything is tasked with creating something that a being that can lift anything cannot lift.  If there is no weight that is too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift, then it is simply not possible for an omnipotent being to create such a stone.  No such stone can exist.

There have been some other interesting examples of omnipotence paradoxes.  For instance, it appears that an omnipotent being cannot create legal U.S. currency.  Why?  Because in order for currency to be legally made, it must be minted at one of the dozen or so authorized mints around the United States.  So, if God were to just bring a dollar into existence, having not been minted legally, God would be guilty of counterfeiting the bill.  A clever theist might come up with a way around this, i.e. God could incarnate himself as man and then apply for employment at the U.S. mint.  Then he could be said to have at least been a part of the process of minting real money.  Still another theist might say something like, since God is the creator of all matter and energy, God is the remote cause of U.S. currency—though not the proximate cause.  Really the legal currency example really boils down to a logical incoherency.  An omnipotent being cannot create something that is defined as not having been created by an omnipotent being.  So if legal U.S. currency is, by definition, currency not created by omnipotent beings, there is little God could do, short of becoming the building, the printing machine, the employees, and the U.S. treasurer, so that God could be said to have fully created the dollar bill all by himself.  And even if he did all those things, there would still be some question as to whether the minted bill was really created by a genuine U.S. mint of a counterfeited one.

My interest in this puzzle is with those who might find this first solution dissatisfying.  They might insist that omnipotence is the ability to do anything, including the logically impossible.  So, if God cannot make a stone so big that even God cannot lift it, then omnipotence is impossible and so is God.  So rather than insist that the previous definition of omnipotence is the only one on the table, I would like to offer the following counter-dilemma to those who might think that these paradoxes are real defeaters for theism.  The dilemma is as follows:

Either omnipotence is the ability to do anything but the logically impossible or omnipotence is the ability to do anything including the logically impossible.  If omnipotence is limited to doing the logically possible, then God cannot make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it simply for the reasons stated above.  If omnipotence is not limited by the logically impossible, then God CAN make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.  But this is not very problematic either.  For if one insists that omnipotence ought to include the ability to break the laws of logic, then it must be reassessed as to whether the inability to lift a stone qualifies as something which precludes an entity from being omnipotent.  I argue that we have no logical footing from which to make such an assessment.  If there is a logically impossible world where omnipotent beings can create objects so heavy that they cannot be lifted, then we are just as likely to infer that an omnipotent being is unlimited in action as we are to say that such a being is limited in action.  The laws of logic no longer apply to such a being, right?  So, if an omnipotent being could make a stone so heavy that a being that can lift anything cannot lift it, then the same omnipotent being certainly would have the power to stipulate the definition of omnipotence around any objections.  If one were to object to such a move as illogical it’s just too bad, for the objector has already insisted that an omnipotent being can do that which is illogical.

Is the ability to do the logically impossible logically impossible?  Squared-circles cannot exist because squareness and circularity are contrary attributes that cannot cohere in the same object at the same time.  But, is the ability to make squared-circles itself logically impossible?  So it might not be the case that the ability to do the logically impossible it itself logically impossible.

These questions aside, the theist is perfectly within her right to insist that omnipotence means only that God can do the logically possible.  If the atheologian insists that omnipotence requires the ability to do the logically impossible, then it is the atheologian who has walked through the dialethistic door of admitting the possible impossible.  And if the only reason for insisting that omnipotence means the ability to do the logically impossible is to conclude that omnipotence is itself logically incoherent and cannot exist, then one has merely begged the question through stipulating omnipotence in this manner.  That is, one has stipulated omnipotence to be defined as an impossible attribute which cannot exist.  That is not a very compelling reason to think omnipotence doesn’t exist, especially since there are competing definitions out there.  So I think a theist is perfectly within his or her rational right to think omnipotence can and does exist.

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Posted on September 1, 2011, in Nature of God and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hey Daniel,

    At approximately what point in the 14 billion year history of our universe did your invisible sky-god decide to personally trot around a tiny spot in the ancient Middle East for the purpose of personally impregnating a young girl so that he could turn himself into a man who could then allow his very own creation-a superstitious, pre-scientific bunch of peasants-to later nail him to a tree as a barbaric, sickening, disgusting, revolting, vile, immoral, asinine, irrational, savage blood sacrifice?

    And what says “Love” better than a sickening act of heinous cruelty that we condemn as immoral in any other culture that has ever practiced it?

    After 14 billion years was he just tired of playing checkers with his angels?

    3 billions years of watching amoebas wasn’t as exciting as he had hoped?

    Did life on Pluto leave him bored?

    Do you have a remotely coherent explanation as to how a person can call himself sane while believing in this type of Neanderthal lunacy?

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  2. Oh, and would you consider the study of Scientology to be an even bigger waste of ones life that the study of the Cro Magnon nonsense that is Christianity?

    (I know this is a tough one!)

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  3. Hey TruthOverfaith,

    I would say that my God decided from all eternity to be incarnated in the Middle East so that he might die for our sins. I think God is omniscient and so knew that in creating the world, such a sacrifice would be needed to reconcile creation to him.

    I do not think God experiences passive emotions like boredom, as that would be an imperfection. I think that God created certain physical laws that required large periods of time for humans to develop. I do not think God is inside time, so I do not think he would be concerned with waiting periods.

    I believe God is omnipresent, so I am not sure why you would limit him to the planetoid Pluto.

    Yes, I do have reasons to think a sane person could believe what you call a “Neanderthal lunacy”. My blog is a work-in-progress aimed at providing some of those reasons, so I hope that I will gain your readership. For now, it suffices to say that I trust in the historicity of the claims of the Gospels and the early Church fathers. I think Anselmian theology provides adequate means to deduce the existence of a maximally great or even omniperfect God. Further, my own personal experiences and the testimonies of those I trust confirm many of my theistic beliefs.

    I do not count Scientology as reliable and so I am unimpressed by your analogy. For one thing, there are many quotes from L. Ron Hubbard which suggest that he was purposefully inventing his religion for profit.

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  4. Let’s see now, Dan,

    Your first three paragraphs are nothing but juvenile assertions without a single shred of evidence to support them.

    “I do not think that God experiences passive emotions like boredom”
    “I think that God created certain physical laws”
    “I believe God is omniscient”
    “I do not think that God is inside time”

    Wow! That sure is some impressive argumentation! Let me just take some time to sort through all of that evidence that you offered to support those astounding claims. O.K., all done.

    You say that you trust the historicity of the Gospels, so apparently you believe the earth is 6000 years old and Noah had dinosaurs on his ark.
    The Mormons trust the historicity of their holy book, the Muslims trust theirs, etc.,etc.etc.

    So, Dan, do you have a theory as to how the blood that spilled out of a butchered man in the ancient Middle East desert had the “magic” power to atone, or offer restitution, for the “sins” of humankind? Did the blood of all those animals in the Old Testament suddenly lose its “sweet savor to the Lord”?
    Can you really explain how a person in this day and time can allow their minds to seriously accept at such utter, stupefying, primitive insanity and not be embarrassed?
    Blood sacrifice? Are you kidding me? BLOOD SACRIFICE!!!!!!????

    Can you honestly look at this type of Cro Magnon lunacy and find some kind of intellectual sanity in it?
    What would you think of some culture today who decided to practice blood sacrifice, either animal or human, to their god? Would you not call that practice a sickening, savage act of heinous cruelty and lunacy?

    Well, Dan, your religion is founded on this very idea. And it is the single most revolting, barbaric, outrageous, repulsive, cave man bunch of sadistic garbage that the human mind had ever concocted in our entire history on this planet. It is beyond vile. Beyond disturbing. Beyond immoral. Beyond reprehensible. And you’re certainly free to believe this disgusting pile of manure, but please don’t refer to yourself as an enlightened, thinking, rational human being. You are not.
    You may be intelligent, but you have walled off part of your mind from reality, for whatever reason. And it’s laughable and sad at the same time.

    And as far as L. Ron Hubbard goes, at least we have “quotes” and writings from the man himself. Which is far more than we have for your beloved Jesus. Who, assuming he even existed, was either illiterate or too clueless to bother actually writing anything down.

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  5. The ‘apparent’ paradox of omnipotence only exists because for all the religious history and contrary to the scriptural record itself, tradition has NO demonstration of omnipotence to offer? That is now set to change!

    It would appear that all sides of the God question and history itself have it wrong! The first wholly new interpretation of the moral teachings of Christ for two thousand years is spreading on the web. Radically different from anything else we know of from history, this new ‘claim’ is predicated upon a precise and predefined experience, a direct individual intervention into the natural world by omnipotent power to confirm divine will, command and covenant, “correcting human nature by a change in natural law, altering biology, consciousness and human ethical perception beyond all natural evolutionary boundaries.” Like it of no, a new religious claim testable by faith, meeting all Enlightenment criteria now exists. Nothing short of a religious revolution appears to be getting under way. More info at http://soulgineering.com/2011/05/22/the-final-freedoms/

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  6. TruthOverfaith,

    Your first three paragraphs are nothing but juvenile assertions without a single shred of evidence to support them.

    “I do not think that God experiences passive emotions like boredom”
    “I think that God created certain physical laws”
    “I believe God is omniscient”
    “I do not think that God is inside time”

    Wow! That sure is some impressive argumentation! Let me just take some time to sort through all of that evidence that you offered to support those astounding claims. O.K., all done.

    Indeed. I was not arguing these points. My juvenile assertions were in response to your infantile rhetorical remarks, e.g. God being bored and hanging out on Pluto. You were attacking a straw man form of theism, so I am merely letting you know that my particular brand of theism remains unscathed by your ridicule. But, I did hint to you that I base my arguments on Anselmian theology, so I think you can figure out what arguments this would entail. As this is a major theme of the blog, you will see such arguments advanced in due course.

    You say that you trust the historicity of the Gospels, so apparently you believe the earth is 6000 years old and Noah had dinosaurs on his ark.
    The Mormons trust the historicity of their holy book, the Muslims trust theirs, etc.,etc.etc.

    No, I do not have a literalist take on Biblical inerrancy. If you think affirming the historicity of the Gospels entails Young Earth Creationism, then you have a lot to learn about both theological hermeneutics and logical entailment.

    So, Dan, do you have a theory as to how the blood that spilled out of a butchered man in the ancient Middle East desert had the “magic” power to atone, or offer restitution, for the “sins” of humankind? Did the blood of all those animals in the Old Testament suddenly lose its “sweet savor to the Lord”? . . .

    Atonement is a difficult doctrine to understand, but I will try my best to explain. Since God is, by definition, a maximally great being, all honors, worship, and obedience is due to Him. Sins are acts of disobedience to God. But since man owes God all honors, worship, and obedience, it is impossible for man to repay the deficit incurred by sin. Anything we do for God is already owed to God and so cannot be applied to our debt. Christ’s sacrifice was a supererogatory act of obedience to God which was done out of love for both us and the Father. This is why the old blood sacrifices of the past were insufficient and remain insufficient today. I do find human sacrifice and animal sacrifice done today to be morally wrong because I do not think God asks for such sacrifices. However, the universal need or desire within humans to offer sacrifices to gods is, to me, a sign of our desire to honor the divine. I do not see how this explanation is insane, or logically incoherent. You are free to think it is false, but I believe it is true on the basis of the historicity of the resurrection, which I take as divine confirmation of Christ’s claims, and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies. It would be more helpful for you to explain why you think the doctrine of atonement is immoral. You’re using a lot of emotive language with rhetorical flourishes, but your arguments remain unstated. You say Christ’s atonement is immoral and vile, but you offer to explanation of your moral system. So you’re going to have to do a bit more leg work, if you want to have an honest discussion on this matter.

    And as far as L. Ron Hubbard goes, at least we have “quotes” and writings from the man himself. Which is far more than we have for your beloved Jesus. Who, assuming he even existed, was either illiterate or too clueless to bother actually writing anything down.

    This would be a red herring. I offer an answer to the question of why I think Christianity is more plausible than Scientology and then you rebut my point by saying that Jesus should have written things down. Should he have? I don’t see the relevance of the point. Yet, there is sufficient evidence that Jesus was highly trained within a Rabbinical school. He knew the Torah and the Gospels report him reading from Isaiah. Socrates is another example of a literate person who never wrote down his teachings. Plato reports that Socrates read books by Anaxagoras, so we have good reason to think he could read and write. I am sure there are historians who doubt the existence of Jesus and Socrates, but I remain unconvinced by their arguments (cf. Robert Price). Many more historians think there is sufficient evidence to think Jesus existed, even skeptical historians like Bart Ehrman agree. So I am not sure why you mention this point at all.

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  7. goliah,

    I am not sure what this new interpretation is, but I will check out what you have to say. I do think you are incorrect about scripture and tradition not demonstrating or affirming God’s omnipotence. There is ample evidence that both do so. Arguments for God’s omnipotence can be found in Anselm and Aquinas, just to name a few. Scripture affirms God’s omnipotence, Revelation 19:16 (KJV):

    And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.

    This scripture should be familiar with anyone who has heard the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

    On what basis do you contradict this?

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  8. For the first time in history, the means to access by faith, a direct, unambiguous, cause and effect, demonstration of omnipotence and omniscience power has been revealed. I’m testing it now, or I should say it’s testing me! The potential is too great to ignore.

    For as I turned there greeted mine likewise
    What all behold who contemplate aright,
    that’s heaven’s revolution through the skies.

    Dante

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  9. History is a mere setup! Scripture a trap for the unwary. Two thousand years ago, what was revealed by Christ failed to take root and was lost. The theological attempt by history, called religion, to recover the loss was never going to be more than an intellectual self-deception, reflecting the most profound unknowing, reducing ‘God’ to the limitations of a corrupted human nature, subject to a material, evolutionary root, while the original intent was always to ‘raise’ mankind to a ‘Life’ above that nature.

    God to remove His ways from human sense,
    Placed Heav’n from earth so far that earthly sight,
    If it presume, might err in things too high
    And no advantage gain. Milton

    Now to expose just have far reasoned ignorance and carry the step of man, the most perfect and incontrovertible moral insight has been revealed to ‘test’ and judge the potential of virtue within every human being. Not subject to the scrutiny of reason but testable by perfect faith; designed to confront the unholy truth of man himself. That within the darkness of a divided heart, carrying the burden of a conflicted spirit, man is wholly without wisdom, spiritually dead, deaf, dumb and blind, to righteousness and living truth of the living God.

    Open thy mind, take in what I explain
    and keep it there, because to understand
    is not to know if thou dost not retain.
    Two things are requisite, the deodand
    and the vows self, to make the sacrifice;
    these two essentials all such rites demand.
    The latter cannot be in any way
    discharged except by thy performance; so
    twas this I meant when I was thus precise. Dante

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