Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Paradox of the Stone and the Challenge of Defining "God"

This week in my philosophy of religion class we are talking about the concept of God. Since I have already expressed my views on how "God" should be defined in Is God a Delusion?, I don't intend to simply repeat myself here. But I do want to say a few words about some common challenges to the coherence of the traditional Western theological understanding of God--which, in the language I use in my book, is a "substantive definition" (one that defines God in terms of a set of properties) as opposed to an ostensive definition (which would define God by metaphorically "pointing," as Schleiermacher does when he defines God as the "Whence" of our feeling of absolute dependence) or a formal one (which sets out a procedure for arriving at divine properties, as Anselm does) or a functional one (which is what I tend to favor).

As I worded it in class, the dominant substantive definition of God in Western theology takes God to be "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is a transcendent, eternal, and self-existent person."

One common challenge to God thus conceived targets the property of omnipotence, arguing that it is incoherent to attribute this property to anything. Another challenges the co-possibility of divine omniscience and creaturely freedom. Of course, the most historically important objection to theism is the argument from evil, which in some of its forms challenges the possibility of there existing a being characterized by omnipotence and omnibenevolence in a world with the amount and kind of evil we find in this one (I won't consider this challenge here, since I will be devoting considerable attention to it later in the semester).

The main thing I want to consider here is what significance such challenges have for the devoted religious believer. For this purpose, let me focus on the challenge to divine omnipotence. In its most common form, this challenge starts with the so-called Paradox of the Stone, which asks, "Can God create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it?" The argument, roughly, is that however one answers this question one must reject divine omnipotence. Either God can create such a stone, in which case there is something He cannot do, namely lift said stone; or God cannot create such a stone, in which case there is again something God cannot do.

The traditional response to this argument is to define omnipotence in terms of the capacity to do whatever is logically possible--and then to note that it is not logically possible to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being that has the power to lift every possible stone. As such, on the assumption that God is omnipotent, God creating a stone God cannot lift is logically impossible--and since omnipotence is defined as the ability to do whatever is logically possible, the inability for God to create said stone is no restriction on God's omnipotence. It would be like saying that God cannot create a round square or make it true that two plus two equals seventeen.

Of course, if we define omnipotence as the capacity to do even what is logically impossible, then the paradox of the stone is a non-starter. If logical consistency is of no consequence to God, then God could do the logically impossible thing of creating a stone so heavy God could not lift it...and then lifting it (while it remaining true that God could not do so).

But while this solution to the Paradox of the Stone strikes me as sound insofar as it goes, it obscures what I find to be a deeper and more profound question raised by the paradox: Can an omnipotent being limit its power so that it ceases to be omnipotent? And if it can, would a God who did so thereby cease to be God?

How one answers these questions has some very interesting implications. First of all, it has implications for what one thinks about about the idea of "kenosis" that has been proposed (and vigorously debated) by some Christian theologians. "Kenosis" refers to a kind of divine "emptying" that some theologians invoked to help to make sense of the Christian doctrine of incarnation. The question at issue has to do with how Jesus' humanity is to be understood in relation to His divinity. If God is all-knowing, and if Jesus is God, does that mean the baby Jesus was born with a full knowledge of 21st Century string theory and could have explained it at three weeks of age to anyone who might have understood what He was saying?

Some theologians have thought that to answer "yes" to questions of this kind is to strip Jesus of his humanity. To be human involves living a human life--and to be born possessing all the infinite knowledge of the universe pretty much precludes that. Such a being would be a divine being wearing human skin, not a human being at all. But Jesus is supposed to be both fully human and fully God. Is there a way to make sense of this?

Some theologians, inspired in part by Phillipians 2:6-8, suggested that the solution was to suppose that in order to be truly human, the incarnate God "emptied" Himself of at least some divine attributes--in effect becoming limited in knowledge and power, etc. That is, in order to authentically share in the human condition and live in solidarity with God's finite creatures, God didn't just pretend to be a finite creature alongside us but actually took on real finitude.

This idea of kinosis took on different forms among its advocates. Some thought it involved a total abandonment of the divine nature while others distinguished among divine properties--distinguishing God's moral attributes from God's "physical" ones (such things as omnipotence, omniscience, and timelessness) and arguing that the incarnate God preserved the former while abandoning the latter.

What is important to note for my purposes here is that this kenotic theory has implications for how we are to understand divinity. Marilyn McCord Adams, in Christ and Horrors, puts the point in these terms:

If partial absolute kenosis (the theory that Jesus is emptied of God's "physical" attributes but not the moral ones) retains the traditional claim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could not exist without being God, it insists that not all the perfections formerly thought to be essential to Godhead were genuinely necessary to It. So-called physical attributes are allegedly the permanent but contingent possession of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and are contingently had, then abandoned, then repossessed by the Son. Thus, it seems, with respect to some perfections, Godhead essentially includes a capacity for them but not their actuality. (Italics in original)
Here we have a theology which, metaphorically speaking, maintains that God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it--that, in other words, it is in the power of God to impose real limits on God's capacity to exercise power (as well as on God's knowledge, eternity, immunity from harm, etc.) but that the God so limited remains God.

Another variant of kenosis can be and has been posited apart from the uniquely Christian concern with making sense of the incarnation. Specifically, some have argued that the very act of creation is an act of the divine imposing limits on itself--that a divine withdrawal and abdication of power is essential for establishing the "otherness" of the created world, thus preserving its status as a reality distinct from God that can evolve on its own terms and eventually acquire (in accord with its own rules) the capacity to autonomously enter into a self-other relationship with God. This is an idea articulated, for example, in the kabbalistic notion of Tzimtzum, and it is also expressed in the writing of Simone Weil. Put simply, the idea is that the existence of a universe that isn't simply swallowed up into God requires the establishment of a kind of boundary or demarcation between God and the created world, one which implies limits on what God can do in relation to that world. On this view, in effect, the act of creating the universe is an act of creating a stone that God cannot lift.

The question then becomes, does God remain God after creation if the act of creation necessitates divine limitation? Or, perhaps better, do those who ascribe to theological views like Tzimtzum have to give up calling the object of their religious devotion God? I don't think so, but if not it makes little sense to insist that "God" just means what is expressed in the traditional substantive definition above. The fact is that people who believe in God can disagree about just how essential the various properties ascribed to God in this definition really are.

And someone who thinks God in fact possesses all of the properties identified in the traditional definition may well agree that these properties do not define God. For example, you might well think that my eyes are a particular shade of blue. But suppose someone demonstrated to you that it was physiologically impossible for human eyes to possess that specific shade, given the manner in which eye color arises. Would you conclude that I don't exist? Surely not--because, although you thought I possessed this specific property, it was never a property that you took to be definitive of me.

Likewise, there is presumably room to accept that a certain property you had formerly attributed to God is one you must give up on, without thereby being forced to give up on the claim that there is a God. But this raises in a new way the question of what, precisely, a theist is asserting when they assert that God exists. If someone ceases to be a theist--what, specifically, are they denying that they had once believed? And why is it that some undergo radical reconceptions in their beliefs while still professing to be theists? What is it that they still believe that warrants holding onto the "theist" label?

This is what I think a functional definition--a definition in terms of the role or function God fills in the life of the devoted theist--is helpful for. In class the other day, a student defined God, roughly, as that in which he could place his hope in times that otherwise would call for despair. This is a functional definition. Given this understanding of God, the believer might radically change their idea of God--but so long as God, thus characterized, could be a source of hope in the midst of despair for those who believed in it, it would still qualify as "God."


  1. To question whether God can create a stone so heavy that God cannot lift is not like saying that whether God can create a round square. It is true that creating a round square is logically impossible. But the paradox of stone is not asking God to do something logically impossible because an ordinary man can easily create (make) a stone (e.g. cement used in construction) so heavy that he cannot lift it. So why an omnipotent God cannot do something an ordinary person can?

  2. Eric,

    I’d like to make two more general critical observations before discussing the paradox of the stone.

    In his book William Rowe defines philosophy of religion as “the critical examination of basic religious beliefs and concepts”, but then proceeds to only discuss beliefs and concepts related to God. Religion is a broader concept than theism, so I think that his book (and your course) should be called “philosophy of theism” or perhaps “philosophy of Western religion”.

    My second observation is I think especially relevant: The concept of God is often discussed as a concept that refers to one more claimed existent. So the existence of God is discussed in the same terms that the existence of apples or of electrons or of numbers or of time is discussed. I think that’s a fundamental and very misleading mistake, for theism is not the claim that beside a lot of other things one more very special being exists. Rather theism is a claim about the very structure of reality and of all that exists in it. “God exists” is not a claim about God (namely that “God” refers to something that exists), but a claim about what existence is (namely what is God-willed; alternatively one could say that theism is the claim that reality is God-structured). Both the theist and the naturalist agree that “apples exist” or “apples fall when left free in the air” are true propositions, but the metaphysical meaning they ascribe to these propositions is different. My criticism, in short, is that philosophy of religion as waged today trivializes the concept of God and is thus misleading at its very inception. The concept of God that the scholastics used (as far as I understand it) was much more appropriate. One way or the other, the concept of God as referring to how the whole of reality is, comports better with St Anselm’s definition (namely that God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived), is epistemically much more powerful, fits better with the sense of “faith” you defend in your book, fits better with the beginning of John’s gospel, and so on.

    Now you define God as "the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator of the world who is transcendent, eternal, and self-existent.” This definition though lacks the primary attribute of God, namely that God is a person (or, strictly speaking, not less than a person). As we too are persons, starting the definition of God by stating the personal nature of God (and hence the personal nature of all of reality) helps one reach a basic understanding of how God is, an understanding which I think helps dispel several of the apparent paradoxes related to the other attributes of God. So, for example, the issue of personal power, i.e. about what one can or cannot do, makes sense when speaking about us, for our condition is such that we cannot do all things we wish to do. Omnipotence then is kind of a negative concept which means that God’s personal condition is not subject the that limitation ours is subject to. So God can (and does) what God wishes to do, and God can abstain (and does abstain) from doing what God wishes not to do. (As St Augustine writes in his City of God: "[God] is called omnipotent on account of His doing what He wills".) We see then that God, being rational, will never wish to do something absurd or pointless – which takes care of the heavy stone paradox.

    Here’s another apparent paradox: Can an omnipotent and omniscient being forget something? The answer is I think obvious. Which helps one understand how God’s victory over evil can be complete.

    Similarly with the issue of kenosis. If God wishes to divest Him/Herself of some attributes, then God can (and does) do so. Indeed I find the idea of the incarnation so beautiful, that a God who had not wished to divest Him/Herself of the various divine attributes and incarnate as a humble human being to genuinely doubt and suffer with us would be less great than that I can conceive. And that's a major reason why I am a Christian.

  3. Anonymous: It is logically possible for an ordinary person to create a stone so heavy that the ordinary person cannot lift it. But is it logically possible for any being (ordinary or otherwise) to create a stone so heavy that it cannot be lifted by a being who, by definition, is omnipotent and so can lift any conceivable stone? If not, then it is not logically possible for God to do so.

    In other words, one is asking about whether the act of creating a stone too heavy for X to lift is possible if X is taken to have the property of being able to lift any stone of any weight. But the property of being too heavy to be lifted by a being who can lift any stone of any weight is a logically incoherent property, akin to round-squareness.

  4. Dianelos,

    You make several important points. The first has to do with what has simply become a fact, for better or worse, about the "philosphy of religion" field as it has come to be understood in Western philosophy departments (or at least US philosophy departments): it emphasizes critical discussion of questions that are of particular relevance to the Western monotheistic faiths that dominate the local culture: questions about the concept of God, arguments for and against God's existence, the concept of "faith" and questions about the epistemic status of religious beliefs, the challenge to the coherence of religious belief based on the fact of religious pluralism, etc.

    This is not to say that philosophy departments in the US do not engage in and teach philosophical reflection on non-western religions. They do--but it's called Non-Western Philosophy. Most philosophy departments of any substantial size in the US have a specialist in Asian philosophy on staff who teaches courses on Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc. Some have specialists in African philosophy or Native American philosophy. It is telling, however, that they don't have people designated as specialists in Western or European philosophy. Those folks are called specialists in ethics, or epistemology, or metaphysics, etc.

    All of that said, I do try to approach the traditional topics in philosophy of religion in a manner that opens the discussion beyond Western theistic religions and makes substantial room for thinking about how such things as the theistic arguments or alternative notions of faith might have bearing on non-theistic religions.

    But you've got me thinking now about how great it would be to devise a team-taught "philosophy of religion" class with my colleague who specializes in Asian philosophy, one which really approaches the topic of religion with neither a Western nor an Eastern bias. Unfortunately, fiscal concerns about efficient use of faculty resources make such courses hard to realize.

  5. Your point about the meaning of "God exists" is one I have a great deal of sympathy with--and will be part of the discussion in class on Friday (when I move away from the question of what we mean by "God" to what we mean by "God exists," using Anthony Flew's classic challenge to the meaningfulness of claiming that God exists as a springboard for the kind of issue you raise here.

  6. Helpful discussion here. I'm curious, have you read Sarah Coakley's essay on Philippians 2 and kenosis in _Powers and Submissions_? She argues from a feminist perspective that we should interpret it is as referring to a kind of power or a particular exercise of power that God _never_ makes use of, rather than imagining that it's something that the Son has, sets aside, and picks up again later. If you've read it I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  7. There is a short (less than 9 minutes) Twilight Zone episode on this very theme. To save his soul, a mathematician must find a task that a daemon (essentially omnipotent and omniscient) cannot perform. An interesting and very funny alternative to the Paradox of the Stone.

  8. One thing that I find difficult with definitions of what we might mean by God is why we have a tendency to help ourselves to the assumption that God will in some sense be knowable. What I mean is this. We might propose a sort of logical necessity for God, where we might decide that existence itself needs explaining, why is there something and not nothing? At this point we can use God as place holder for that thing which by necessity exists (physics may in time have something to say on this I suppose). Or we might use God as our way of holding open the possibility that our brains are incapable of understanding all there is to be understood, a kind of higher realm argument.

    Neither of these conceptions though require that we are able to understand or experience anything of God. Theism, from this outsider perspective, seems to wish to grant God qualities that are within our comprehension. There is a good functional reason for doing this, such a conception offers more to us in terms of meaning, satisfaction, motivation etc. Is there a non-functional reason for doing this though? Other than saying 'because this is how I would like God to be' what drives us to the style of hubris that brings God down to our level?

    Eric, the functional take on God has strong attraction, but I get snagged at this point: are we at this point reducing the concept of God to the same level as the concept of Santa Claus? We share with our children the story of Santa Claus, so making him real for them, for potentially quite beautiful functional reasons. It is a pragmatic, and in this case brief, belief. I suspect that your brand of functionalism is getting at something more than this but I can't readily see what it is.