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God, Rocks, and Square Circles

15

June 17, 2013 by mattfradd


can-god-create-a-bigger-rock-that-he-can-lift

Yes, the creator of this meme misspelled “than.”

During the Q&A period of a recent talk I gave in Indiana, I was asked the question, “Can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?”

The girl who posed the question did so with an air of triumphalism; as if she had got me! As if she had asked the question which, not even Thomas Aquinas had thought of, and who would have probably abandoned Christianity if he had.

Despite the initial brain cramp you might experience, this isn’t a difficult question to answer. It demonstrates a common misunderstanding of omnipotence.

Omnipotence does mean “all powerful,” it does not mean the ability to do the logically impossible.

There are certain things God cannot do. He cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), he cannot change (Malachi 3:6), etc. To do so would be to contradict his nature which is impossible. God would have to suffer some imperfection in order to lie or change; thus, he cannot do these things precisely because of his infinite power and perfection.

The answer to this girls question, therefore, is no he can’t. And this is so not because he is not infinite in power and perfection, but because he is!

Another way to think of this is to say God’s omnipotence means God can do all things that are real and possible. But because something that is logically impossible isn’t really a thing at all, it’s impossible to do.

The words of St. Thomas Aquinas—yep he knew the answer—may be of help here. He wrote, “It is more exact to say that the intrinsically impossible is incapable of production than to say that God cannot produce it.” (Summa I, Q. XXV, a. 3)

Square Circles

Last night I was explaining all of this to my five year old son.

“What else can’t God do?” He asked

“He can’t make a square circle.” I said.

“Could a transformer draw a square circle?” He said.

“No.”

“Batman?”

“No. No one can, because it’s impossible; logically incoherent.” I said.

“I bet could draw a square circle.” He said.

Smiling, I got him a marker and a piece of paper. Here’s his attempts:

image

Liam no longer believes that it’s possible to draw a square circle. Not even for God; or Batman.

If everything I’ve written up until now is as clear as mud, fear not. It’s time to hear it summed up by the master. C.S. Lewis wrote:

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. There is no limit to His power.

If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prifex to them the two other words, ‘God can.’

It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

15 thoughts on “God, Rocks, and Square Circles

  1. Chris Byrum says:

    So at the end of the post you seem to be indirectly (or maybe very directly) making a comparison between the square circle and what you view as the logical impossibility of the Calvinist view of election. I’m curious, what are the Catholic interpretations of scriptures like Romans 9 (a classic Calvinist election support scripture)?

    For the record, I am not a Calvinist nor share their view on the interplay of God’s sovereign will and man’s will, but I am curious what the Catholic view point is.

    • Joan Carrozza says:

      No, but if He wanted to, he could change its form into something else, just because He is God.

      • OK, but can God cheat like that?
        God Bless you

        Patrick
        working4christ2

      • Chris Byrum says:

        To me this is the less productive side of philosophy and logic. I’m very interested in both and I wouldn’t suggest that Christians turn away from studying these subjects (logic is one of the homeschool subjects I am teaching my son); however, in both areas people have a tendency to get lost in abstractions and lose the forest for the trees. At some point I feel like stepping back and saying “hey are we even discussing a real thing anymore?”.

        The question has been around for a long time and I know it is posed in seriousness, and I also know that it is sometimes posed as a “gotcha” question, so this is a good and welcome post and Matt gave the only really good answer there is for this logical paradox in my opinion.

        I just hope people don’t feel as though they aren’t prepared to give a reason for the hope that is inside of them if they get stumped on this one. I’ve seen too many people trying to memorize arguments from their favorite apologist (no offense Matt), so that they can defend themselves against Richard Dawkins fans. These arguments never find and endpoint, and certainly Paul engaged the Greek philosophers where they were, but most of us aren’t Paul.

        I still think the best testimony before anyone is to be ready at all times and with gentleness to share the hope in the salvation that comes through Christ, and for those you come into contact with to see the radiant fruit of the spirit in everything you do.

      • roman says:

        Gee if God said 2+2+ 4 , does the sum of 4 always = 2+2 ?

        i have seen so many Catholics that think they are working4christ2 , and they can’t even, function out side of a commentary some one else taught them..

        probably the most amazing thing about being raised a catholic– is that the roman catholic priests are still trying to rat tionize why their homily is boring–

        where as if you go to a protestant teaching or preaching– then you can use reason and spiritual decernment to understand the value of the information..

        start out with a dumb question– end up with a answer4dummies

        whic is easy to accomplish is you are a coman catholic– as the Holy Cross brothers said “the church is dumbing down the parish”

        so keep up the process– because i not exactly sure where in scripture that question is asked — or where it is answered–

  2. Why would God want to make OR pick up a rock that heavy in the first place? He would have to be very stupid, and that He is not. This is a childlike question coming from an actual child (Matt’s son), but from a young adult, only childish.

  3. Bill B. says:

    Good article. What this all boils down to is someone asking “Can God stop being God?” Of course not!

  4. bzkoss says:

    I’ve heard other “simplistic” answers to these questions such as
    Rock: “Yes He could, and then He would lift it.”
    Square Circle: “Yes, it’s called a square.”

    Though, if you think about it, Jesus is God, and while on earth, in his human nature, I’m sure there were rocks he couldn’t lift.

    • Cephas Martin says:

      That’s interesting considering that Jesus told the Apostles that if they had faith, they could tell this mountain to uproot itself and be hurled into the sea. You forget that even though Jesus had a human nature, he is still God.

      • cat says:

        The moving of the mountain immediately came to my mind reasing this post. It is possible, or impossible? I am interested in what your thought are.

  5. Well done Matt!

    And no doubt your son is a budding artist.

    Another reason the answer is NO! is this brief defination of God:

    God is all Good things perfected.

    The key words here are “good and perfect”

    GREAT post

    Thanks,
    Patrick
    working4christ2

  6. Joe K says:

    To the moderator…please post this one vice the other one. I somehow cut and pasted the wrong one which was nto spell checked. Thansk you….

    I’d like to start off by stating that I am a Catholic who struggles with this question and think that sometimes we Catholics tend to trivialize the answer and even the individual asking the question. I chalk this into the “I believe, help my unbelief” category. Here is why I struggle with it.

    To say that God can NOT do something, even the illogical, says that God is bound to our human understanding of logic. I think we have to be very very careful when we say God can not do something. He is God after all. If God wanted to create a universe where He could draw a square circle, He would have or maybe he has but we can’t perceive it. After all, He is three people one God. If He wanted to create a universe where He could create a rock bigger than He could lift and then lift it, He would have.

    Being a Physicist by education, an engineer by trade and a philosopher by hobby, I tend to look at the world in way not normal to the avg human. My wife laughs at me sometimes for this. Looking at this problem from that perspective, I recall from my days pursuing a graduate degree in Physics, that there are more than just the four dimensions of time and space. From a philosophers perspective we realize that, much like our inability to fully comprehend the trinity, we can not fully comprehend these higher dimensions. But as a bullheaded engineer, if we look at it from a reverse engineering perspective and we see that in a two dimensional world we can have an object that is simultaneously a square circle depending on our perspective. Imagine a cylinder in a flat world. If we look at it perpendicular to the axis we see a rectangle, make the long axis of the cylinder equal to the diameter of the cylinder you’ll see a square. Start to change the perspective on that cylinder and the edges of the square slowly morph into an oval then a perfect circle when we are looking down the axis of the cylinder. Could the square circle or the really big rock be just that, a reality that uses other dimensions we really do not understand or comprehend? That would allow us to understand how God could do something we think unfathomable, like make three equal one.

    • mattfradd says:

      Thank for adding to the discussion, Joe.

      To say that God cannot do something because it is illogical is not to say that God is bound to *our* human understanding of logic, but that he is bound to *what is*.

      Imagine if someone were to say that because God is God, he therefore does not need to abide by the law of non-contradiction. God could both be God and not be God at the same time and in the same respect. I’m sure you would agree, Joe, that that is absurd.

      To say that a thing can be a square circle depending on out perspective is to say that it can appear to be a square circle, not that it is one.

      Something cannot be both (to use the dictionary definitions) “A plane curve everywhere equidistant from a given fixed point, the center.” And at the same time, “a rectangle having all four sides of equal length.”

      I agree with you that we must be careful when we say that God cannot do something. But a square circle, a married bachelor, etc., is not a thing.

  7. Natalja Corboy says:

    Hi Matt, I came across your blog through a friend’s post on facebook regarding the Aussiemite scandal. You’ve got some great posts and I really like the way you write – in normal every day language! Not sure if you if write posts to answer people’s questions but I’d love to read an article on the Church’s current views on lay-led communion services. My husband and I have moved to a remote mining town in Queensland. Our parish priest services 6 parishes all within 600kms and does a great job. He can only say mass in our town twice a month, the other two weekends there is a lay-led communion service. On these weekends, we go to pay a visit but never receive communion. Before we moved up here we never went to a communion service in our life! I might add my background was 100% sspx until 4 years ago and my husband had a pretty strict Catholic upbringing as well (although not SSPX). On another note he was always told as a child not to receive the Precious Blood from the chalice. We both have friends that are gluten intolerant and receiving the host makes them very sick so I can see the necessity to have the chalice available otherwise they are unable to receive communion. At the same time I don’t receive both, I have received the Precious Blood when I can’t receive the host from a priest and I find queue jumping in church awkward and frustrating at times! I don’t think receiving the Eucharist from a minister is wrong, it’s just personal preference and I still receive Communion on the tongue as anything else for me would feel strange. Anyway if you are short on ideas for your next post, this would be a good topic 🙂 I see the need to still gather at church on the weekends when our priest can’t come otherwise the weekend goes by and it’s easy to forget to make time for Jesus on a Sunday. I just don’t see how necessary the communion service part is. I thought I heard somewhere that Rome was trying to limit these? Kind regardsNat

    Natalja Corboy07 4194 999704 0273 3014

    Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2013 18:49:45 +0000 To: n.corboy@hotmail.com

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