Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A complication in the stone argument


  1. If God can create a stone he can’t lift, there is something he can’t do—namely, lift the stone.

  2. If God cannot create a stone he can’t lift, there is something he can’t do—namely, create the stone.

  3. So, there is something God can’t do.

  4. So, there is no omnipotent God.

A standard way out of this, which I think is basically right, is that (3) is compatible with God’s being omnipotent as long as the thing God can’t do is metaphysically impossible.

But I want to note a rarely noted thing about the argument, which annoys me when I teach the argument to undergraduates because it is a red herring, but one that complicates the presentation.

The following is plausible:

  1. If God were to create a stone he can’t lift, there would be something he couldn’t do—namely, lift the stone.

But (1) does not follow from (4) without further assumptions.

One way to get around this issue is to weaken the conclusion of the argument to the claim that possibly there is something God can’t do. That might create trouble for God’s essential omnipotence. Of course, I do accept that God is essentially omnipotent. But it still weakens the conclusion. And it’s a nuisance in teaching to have to get into essential omnipotence when dealing with the argument.


Brandon said...

I find it interesting that you think it a red herring; I think it shows that the stone argument assumes that its (in)ability-ascriptions don't work like (in)ability-ascriptions actually do. Possibility and impossibility with respect to an ability are always affected that abilities can nest within abilities. For instance, I could have an ability to walk that I have the ability to nullify (say, by taking a paralyzing drug) that I have the ability to nullify (say, by taking an antidote). What's possible or impossible when talking about abilities depends on the track you're on, so to speak, given the ability you are considering. The difference between (1) and (4) is that (1) commits one to the position that any such nesting is irrelevant; (4) does not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I guess the reason I think it's a red herring is that I think God is essentially omnipotent.

Martin Cooke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Martin Cooke said...

I don't see why the red herring means that you have to address the essential character of God's attributes. I read (4) as saying something that could well be per impossibile, which seems to cohere with the standard way out (sorry for the deleted comments btw)

Domenic Marbaniang said...

Probably, more clarity comes from rephrasing the argument!?

The so-called paradox of the stone asks: “Could God (Who is omnipotent) create a stone so heavy that He could not lift it?” If so, then He cannot be omnipotent; if not, then He is not omnipotent.


The comparative “heavier” doesn’t apply to infinity; therefore, the question is contradictory and, consequently, meaningless.

1. Infinity is that which is without a beginning, a middle, and an end. Therefore, internal comparisons don’t apply to it.
2. Only a greater infinite can supercede an infinite; but, “a greater infinite” is a meaningless category, since infinite is the maximal superlative.

Heath White said...

I agree that getting into the semantics of counterfactuals with impossible antecedents is a complicated rabbit trail when teaching this argument, but ... just don't get into it?

And if someone brings it up, maybe you can point out that if God were a cucumber, he would be green; but that doesn't do anything to show that God could be a green cucumber. (More generally: we could always frame a plausible counterfactual beginning "If God [or I] were F..." for just about any F; this shouldn't convince us that God [or I] is possibly F.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mr Marbaniang:

As I phrased the argument, there is nothing about weight in it.

I actually think that in a sense God can create a stone he can't lift. It's very simple. He makes the tiniest pebble and promises that it will never move. Now he can't lift it, because he can't break his promise. But the inability to lift the stone is then not a limitation of God's power--it is due to the perfection of his will.

Martin Cooke said...

Alex, I'm glad you said that about the pebble: I said the same thing in my deleted comment but was not sure about it (I deleted the comment because I was just agreeing with you, and what's the point of that!)

Brandon said...


I'm not sure I understand how you are using the term 'essential omnipotence' in this context, since the question of the way the ability (the 'potence' part) works as an ability seems very different from the question of whether the ability is an essential attribute. In particular, the stone paradox assumes that all abilities will be on the same level -- that, if God can't do something given a given ability, then we can conclude, simpliciter, that God can't do something. But ability-ascriptions are not flat like this; and there's no plausible account of divine abilities that gets out of this. For instance, in your pebble example, God has an ability to move the pebble that he so to speak nullifies, giving himself an inability to move the pebble, which is the kind of ability-nesting. But the latter inability does not allow us to conclude that God is unable to do something simpliciter; you can't get a stronger conclusion from it than that, granted some set of conditions, God has some inability in terms of those conditions. This doesn't appear to be affected at all by the question of essential omnipotence. It is still relevant to the difference between (1), as used in the argument, and (4), though.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems that after the nullification, God would no longer be omnipotent, though?

Brandon said...

Only if you are assuming that abilities are all on the same level. Think of the paralysis case I gave before. You're no longer able to walk given the drug; but if you have the antidote, it makes perfect sense to say, even when you are paralyzed, that you can walk given the antidote. So can you walk?

(1) Given legs, etc., you can walk.
(1) Given the paralysis drug (nullifying the prior ability), you can't walk. (But this ability presupposes the prior ability to walk; it's a very different thing from being unable to walk, simpliciter.)
(3) Given the antidote (nullifying the prior paralysis), you can walk. (But this ability presupposes the prior inability; it's a very different thing from the original ability to walk.)

We don't have the latter two essentially (although perhaps we do have some such abilities essentially, e.g., the ability to nullify our ability to make a decision, by extending our deliberation), but God does have all of his abilities essentially, so if He has analogues of the latter, He would seem to have them essentially.

And one way of interpreting omnipotence (it would be very similar to some Cartesian ways of interpreting it, and something like it is required for kenotic theories of the Incarnation), God would have the ability to do A (analogous to ability to walk), the ability to nullify or impede that ability to do A (analogous to paralysis drug), the ability to nullify the nullification of the ability to do A (analogous to antidote), and so on infinitely. God is omnipotent (you can't identify any possible thing that God cannot do, simpliciter), and He is so essentially, since he has all these abilities essentially, but you can't talk about the ability to do this or that without relativizing it to the level you are talking about and taking into account the nesting of abilities. It ends up being like your pebble case, but unrestrictedly. It's omnipotence; it's just how ability, and thus possibility, is conceived that is different.