The Rock God Can’t Lift
“Here’s a question that will make you think. Can God make a rock He can’t lift?”
-an anonymous atheist, on EfNet #bible-debate
“Oh, for pity’s sake, not that stupid freakin’ rock argument again.”
-me, moments later
Can God make a rock so big, that He can’t lift it? Anyone who has spent any amount of time arguing about theism — whether their position is pro or con — has probably heard this conundrum more times than he or she can count. Here, I hope to finally lay this particular atheistic objection to rest. Why, you might ask — after all, I am myself an atheist, so why would I attack an argument against theism? Well, simply because it’s a very silly argument that I’m very sick of hearing.
I suppose I should first explain the sense in which this is an argument against theism. The basic idea is that neither the “yes” or “no” answer is supposed to be satisfactory for the theist. If they say, yes, God can do that, then they admit that God’s omnipotence is self-contradictory. If they say no, God can’t, then the arguer is supposed to pounce in with “oh, so I guess God isn’t really omnipotent after all”. In other words, this is an argument meant to prove that a truly omnipotent being cannot exist — and, by extension, that the purportedly omnipotent Christian God cannot exist.
This probably seems a valid enough argument at first glance. And indeed, its refutation is a fairly complicated matter. It involves understanding the basic nature of logic and language.
Consider this apparently irrelevant question: can a square triangle exist? Your answer should, of course, be no. “Square triangle” is a self-contradictory term, because it would denote a four-sided shape with three sides. And self-contradictory things, naturally, cannot exist. But ask yourself this further question: why is it that self-contradictory things cannot exist?
The answer is that statements about self-contradictory things are meaningless. Remember, a statement is only useful or coherent if it corresponds to some meaning. A self-contradictory term like “square triangle” cannot even theoretically correspond to anything in the real world, because it just doesn’t mean anything. “Do square triangles exist” is no more sensical a question than “do bloborfic splinks exist”.
Now, having followed me on that little tangent, consider again the question “can God make a rock He can’t lift”. The God in question is supposed to be omnipotent, meaning that He can do anything — and, hence, that He can lift anything. So, “a rock God can’t lift” is, like “square triangle”, a self-contradictory matter. Hence, “can God make a rock He can’t lift” is equivelant to “can God make a splink so bloborfic that He cannot yibble it?”
So, there is no answer to “can God make a rock He can’t lift”, for the simple reason that the question itself doesn’t ultimately make sense. This “conundrum” does not prove that omnipotence is impossible. It simply proves that we are capable of producing linguistic entities (like “square triangle”, etc.) that cannot even in theory refer to real things. And that, in turn, should already be a foregone conclusion.
by Mike Hardie, 1998. All Rights Reserved.