Perhaps you read the recent New York Times opinion piece in which a philosophy professor named Peter Atterton challenges the notion of an all-powerful God by, among other things, trotting out that old chestnut about God making a rock to heavy for Him to lift:
You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.
It’s a pretty thin and silly piece that was quickly dragged on social media, mainly because Atterton’s objections were the sort of “philosophy” one typically assigns to first-year students who’ve had a couple of bong hits.
Steven D. Greydanus — who, in addition to being an excellent film critic, is a pretty smart guy all around — has written an excellent response to Atterton’s column that examines the inherent nonsense of the professor’s questions:
Let’s be clear about something: Just because we’ve put a bunch of words together doesn’t mean we’ve expressed an actual concept. Words can be used in utterly meaningless ways.
For example, suppose I told you, “Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to quantum defibrillation sans magnifier betiding.”
Have I told you anything about my plans for tomorrow afternoon? Have I used words in a meaningful way at all?
Now suppose that, when you challenged this nonsensical remark, I countered, “Well, can God quantum defibrillation sans magnifier betiding?”
Guess what? I still haven’t said anything. I might as well have asked “Can God gyre and gimble in the wabe?”
Jabberwocky doesn’t suddenly become an actual concept because you prefix it with the words “can” and “God” in some order. And that’s all meaningless combinations of words are: jabberwocky.
As C.S. Lewis said, “nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
“A rock that God can’t lift” — like “a square circle,” “a married bachelor,” “a magnifier betiding,” or even “an uffish thought” — isn’t an actual concept. It’s just a meaningless combination of words. And it remains such even when someone talks about omnipotence trying to do something about it.
There are plenty of excellent and thorny questions that can be asked when discussing God’s nature and attributes, especially when it comes to issues like evil and free will. But “Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?” is not one of them.
Welcome to Opus. My name’s Jason Morehead and I’ve been blogging for 20+ years. To date, I’ve posted 4,107 articles on numerous topics including music, movies, anime, pop culture, web development, technology, and religion.
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