Monday, April 21, 2008

The Philosophers' Stone

An old, and rather silly paradox: Can almighty God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it? If He did create such a stone (the paradox goes) then there would be something that He could not do (i.e. lifting it), but that cannot be because (since He is almighty) there is nothing that He cannot do. Hence He did not (and will not) create such a stone—but therefore there is something that He cannot do (i.e. creating such a stone). Consequently (the paradox concludes) no such omnipotent being (a being for which nothing is impossible) could exist; but several replies are possible, most obviously that "omnipotence" should be defined in such a way that impossible things do not have to be done by omnipotent beings. The paradoxical reasoning can then be taken to be showing that such a stone is impossible—since an omnipotent being could move any possible weight of stone, so no such stone is a possible object. It is certainly hard to get any sense of what such a stone would be like (e.g. were it filling all of an infinite space, it could not then be lifted, but then it would not be too heavy, so much as too big to lift).
......God might even be contradictory (so powerful His powers transcend our mundane powers of linguistic description) of course, although I personally think of God as almighty in the sense of His being able to do (at least) whatever He wants with His Creation (which is at least this Cosmos) and presumably much more besides (although presumably God could not do what He did not want to do with His Creation, and the idea of God possibly wanting something that He does not actually want is rather obscure, whence the modalities are also obscure); but what strikes me about this paradox is how odd it is, to think of Him lifting stones at all (like He was like Hercules, only bigger)—far more impressive is His creation ex nihilo of a pebble. Now, traditionally God not only creates, but also at each moment keeps all created things in existence, which raises the question: Why bother with all of that (in the case of purely material objects, like stones) just to generate the phenomena sensed by sentient creatures; why not generate the latter directly? One theistic argument for Idealism (the topic of this fortnight's Philosophers' Carnival) is that material objects do seem a bit pointless (e.g. they might be less deceptive than mere appearances, but only if modern physics has got them very wrong).
......Creation itself seems a bit gratuitous though; so, one might ask: Could almighty God create an object that He did not have to keep in existence, from moment to moment, which was instead self-sustaining, to some extent? Maybe (since that does not seem to be contradictory), but God is also traditionally eternal in the sense of existing atemporally (a bit like numbers do), so it is hard to see what difference that would amount to. Still, for all we know God (and all Creation) exists more in the manner of a person—fully (if mutably) in the immense present—whence we might ask: Could almighty God create an object so self-sustaining that even He could not destroy it? He can create souls (as well as stones) it seems, and with such free will that even Satan is a possible object; and the giving of such freedoms, to His creatures, involves the voluntary limiting of (what we naturally regard as) His powers, within Creation (on this view of eternity), so maybe He could—such an object does not seem to be contradictory. Maybe, like the aforementioned stone, it is no more than a Philosopher's plaything, but such a perfectly indestructible object could conceivably be something that God would want to create (maybe our lovely Creator knows better than to be certain that Beings with powers akin to His, but of which He is, as yet, unaware, do not exist).

16 comments:

Oryx3 said...

"Can almighty God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?"

Define the word "lift" in this context.

As a stone gets larger, it eventually becomes a planet, then a star, then a black hole, etc. "Lifting" can only mean moving such a "stone" farther away from an even larger source of gravity. I have no problem believing that Almighty God could manipulate space/time/gravity in such a way as to increase the distance between two massive objects. So this is not really a paradox.

To claim that the word "almighty" means that God has to be be able to perform any expressible action, even "create a stone he cannot lift" is pure sophistry.

Anonymous said...

I think oryx3 is exactly right. The way I usually express my objection to the "paradox" is this:
Most of us don't expect that almighty-ness or omnipotence entails the creation of paradoxical entities. We don't say "God, you're really not omnipotent, because you can't create a square circle or a married bachelor." Omnipotence is not actually the ability to do anything, it's actually the ability to do anything do-able (possible, whatever.)

On a different note: There are some who argue that the soul is the sort-of understroyable object that you mention. The grounds for this argument is mostly in the fact that traditional Christianity does not hold that God destroys souls at all; it certainly seems on the surface that non-existence would be preferrable to the descriptions we're given of damnation. If one wishes to hold on to the idea that God is loving it leaves one with the conclusion that God does not destroy souls because he can not.
To restate from above: This only constitutes a limit on God's omnipotence if it's theoretically possible to destroy a soul in the first place and God simply lacks the ability.
The idea is that there is something about being created in God's image which necessarily leads to being self-existent.
Assuming we buy that being made in God's image entails self-existence and being undestroyable by God we might then embark on questions around whether it was worth the tremendous risk. However, because I've taken the faith step(s) to affirm the truth of Christianity, for me this is most appropriately a journey of discovering (to whatever extent is possible) God's mind set, rather than questioning it's basic goodness or logic in the first place.
Jeff
(By the way, I published this as anynonmous because when I clicked the URL button I didn't get the cool little spaces to actually put that info in... Probably might be temporary, or it might be on my side, or it might be a change you intended, but just want to make you aware.)

Enigman said...

Hi Jeff, I don't know what the URL problem was, it seems OK here now. Let me know if it's still there, when you answer the following question: To say that God can do anything do-able is, I guess, to say that if God can't do it then no one can. But do we really believe that?

That this Creation has only one Creator ex nihilo is an obvious meaning of such an assertion, and I'm not questioning that; just noting that we really have very little knowledge of the divine-in-itself (aside from it being lovely). Is it that we believe that for sure, there are no other Beings like God (possibly with their own Creations), or is it that this Creation was, we believe, the work of only one God (or Three)? (Given a valid ontological argument, there would be a reason to believe in one Supreme Being, but such arguments are no better than these paradoxes.)

And of course, even in our mundane languages we can say that, e.g., de Sade could torture innocent children for fun, which is something that, in some sense, God can't do. We want to say that He can but does not want to, but the word "can" there is not expressing physical possibility (since God is not a physical creature) and it is not allowing God to do it in any possible world... So although in a sense it is a silly paradox (how Herculean) it may have hidden depths.

I like your suggestion about the soul. I'd wondered about ending my post on such a note ("and you, the reader, are one such fabulous thing") but then I recalled stuff about Satan being utterly destroyed from Revelation, so I didn't bother; but yes, that's the sort of thing I was thinking: If the object was a responsible agent, would it be worth the risk? But of course we know next to nothing about our own souls anyway (it's remarkable how little we know about even what we're directly acquainted with; I'd blame our externalistic language except that I find that I really don't know) so maybe...

...and also said...

...the combination of self-sustaining (or self-existing) and self-forming (or soul-building) seems a bit unstable; cf. the Fall story, where our moral freedom is assigned mortality (existential dependence?) as its due desert. (And re self-knowledge, our indestructibility seems unlikely because we fall asleep every night.) On the other hand, I'm also wondering if Satan self-destructs under the hopelessness of hellfire (since the ability to suicide when up against subsuming enemies would be useful, and nice)?

jeff said...

Hmmm. I'm going to be a little picky with words here and say things differently than you did.
I think it's true to say the following two things:
A) God can do anything do-able
and
B)if God can't do it then no one can.
I'm not sure that premises A. and B. are logically connected though.

I think it might be more fruitful to explore the idea of anything do-able in terms on logical contradiction: God can do any thing which is not a logical contradiction.

On a philosophical level, I would posit that there is only one God for the same reason that I believe most of the people I know are not identical twins. I recognize that it's theoretically possible that there are two entities, not one, but I don't multiply entities when positing only one will do.
On a more personal level, I would posit that it sometimes makes sense to think of this single entity as having three different facets/aspects/person because this nature is alluded to in scripture and my life experiences have lead me to trust scripture.

I think it's exactly right to notice that when we object that humans can do things that the divine can't do, the whole thing turns on a different sense of the word "can" than the use of the word in the discussion of omnipotence.
It's a valid use of the word "Can" to say that God can not do evil. This is similiar to the useage of the word if I said "I could not eat bugs on the reality show fear factor" In some sense, it simply isn't true... Strictly speaking, I could eat the bugs.

I wondered about the soul thing and Satan as well. Revelations does seem to imply Satan will be destroyed. One thing worth noting is that there's no evidence that I'm aware of that angels are made in God's image. It's unclear how this plays out. They clearly have some semblance of free will. They are potrayed as more intelligent and powerful as humans.
But it's humans who are made in God's image. Maybe the meaning is exactly identical to the discussion here: being made in God's image is to be made immortal. Perhaps the angels for all their wisdom and power are destructible, dependent on God in some primal sense that we are not.
(I am clear that we humans are dependent on God in some moral sense... I am suggesting here that angels are dependent on God in some additional ontological/metaphysical sense.)

The other thought I wanted to throw into the mix was to question the claim about all things requiring God's continued mantainance of. I don't have any real reason to dispute this claim. But I also don't see a reason to support it. Is there a reason to think that existence requires God to continually will things to exist? Isn't it equally plausible that once a thing is created God is done with this act and it now exists on its own? It seems like things break down with out God's continuous renewal... but couldn't we look at God's renewal like gas in a tank, or better yet, a person mantaing their car? The car will of course have gradually increasing problems without maintenance. But it does not cease to exist when not mantained.
(Have you ever read Martin Buber. He might be described as a Jewish mystic. Fascinating, frustrating stuff. He held the position that the original act of creation is ongoing; He is still engaged in the same act as he was at the beginning of time. I've often wondered how this jibes with the idea that God rested on the 7th day.)
The blog name thing is working now... I experienced a similiar problem earlier today on another blogger.com site but it seems to be fine now.

Enigman said...

Off the top of my head, thinking of Creation as analogous to, say, daydreaming up a novel suggests that (i) the Creator would transcend physical time (cf. the fictional times the stories are set within) and (ii) Creation would be of each event individually (or of the novel as a whole, i.e. not just the first page); so, maybe some understandings of the traditional assumption of eternal timelessness provide reason to believe in that claim - I'm not sure, being inclined towards open theism (because of the personal God of the Bible, and because time just seems so fundamental, e.g. I think of time as a divine attribute, of the now as immensely bigger than classical spacetime).

But also, if anyone were to create a continuant, X, then time itself would seem to ensure its continuing being, so if time itself is created by a timeless Creator as a whole, then there is a sense in which that Creator is thereby maintaining X. Or, maybe the idea is just that, since God could destroy anything at Will, so everything's continuation requires God's willing of that, and so if He simply Wills stuff into being in the first place, then it is a very similar act of His that keeps it there. (This is an interesting question that I ought to know more about, so I think I'll bump Sorabji's Time, Creation and the Continuum up to the top of my to-read list; and put Buber into it ;-)

jeff said...

Interesting. I can't really wrap my brain around the stuff about God's timelessness/existence outside of time. I've never really seen the discussion about creation as an ongoing act as all that directly related, but I can see that it is as I look more deeply at it.
You more-or-less refer to the two-pronged dilemna that I see:
To claim that God is outside of time is problematic in that it creates problems with imagining that God is with us, involved in reality, participating in our growing, emotionally involved in the creation. I think, for example, most people want to mantain the idea that God was surprised and disapointed when Adam and Eve partook of the fruit.
To claim that God is within time is to create problems around the idea that God is ultimate and beginingless.

I wonder if you'd be kind enough to give me a working definition of "open theism"... It seems to be one of those terms like "post modern" that means lots of different things.

Enigman said...

For me it just means that, for God, the future is open, not known directly, and therefore more interesting for God. God can know the future of He/r Creation arbitrarily accurately, but is able to do more, like give us actual free will. Some people deduce open theism from our libertarian free will. Swinburne seems to see it as a matter of God being a person (or three). Alanyser is an open theist, but I don't yet know much about it.

Open theism seems to avoid your dilemma, since if only the present, the now is real (with continuants like ordinary objects - you and I, cars and trees - being wholly present now, having changed in the past that is no more, and having an uncertain future), then time could be a positive attribute of God, and derivatively the (temporal) way all created things are. God would not be trapped within time, carried along by it as we are, but rather time would be part of how God is, whence it carries us along.

God has then an infinite past, but that is not so weird as timelessness (one can imagine it being eternally heavenly, in infinite variety). He/r ability to change, to Create, to have proper relationships, to discover, to be pleasantly surprised... all seem positive rather than restrictive. Rather, timelessness seems like it would constrict people, and the supposedly greater omni-attributes seem overly linguistic and lifeless to me. For me, God is not so much immutable as incorruptible, not so much incapable of being disappointed, as acting always from perfectly lovely motivations; and similarly with the other traditional attributes, whence I regard He/r as almighty rather than omnipotent, as knowing all about He/rself and He/r Creation rather than as knowing some maximal consistent subclass of propositions (in some ideal language, such as I doubt is even possible). (I've gone back to using He/r and S/he since although they are a bit disjointed, I find that that nicely connotes the Trinity.)

The main reason why I'm an open theist is that I came to regard time itself as open when studying physics (and because revelation does not really contradict it). I regard time as open (a Presentist, or no-B-series, view of time) because not only is that commonsensical folk metaphysics (how we interact with the world, so much so that compatibilism seems like fakery to me), such is also implied by the most sensible view of quantum mechanics (Schrodinger's collapsing wavefunctions, bearing Popper's propensities), such physics underlying the Periodic table of chemistry whereas relativity theory (a B-series view of time, within spacetime) seems iffier to me (cf. the quasi-epicyclical subatomic particles/strings).

ChrisB said...

Short response: God can do anything. A nonsense is not a thing.

Infinite mass cannot exist in this universe. The question is a nonsense, on the order of one hand clapping, that is used to make the questioner feel smart.

jeff said...

Chrisb:
Can you help me understand the meaning of "a nonsense is not a thing."

Enigman:
Thanks for the explanation. I'd classify myself an open theist, based on your explanation, on the comparitively unsophisticated philosophical argument that omniscience should not be taken to mean "knows all things" any more than omnipotence should be taken to mean "can do all things."
Just as omnipotence is more reasonably understood to mean "can do all possible (do-able; non-contradictory) things" omniscience should be defined as "knows all knowable things."
If we truly have free will and not some illusion of free will, then God would not know with 100% certainty how we would respond to a given circumstance. I'm agnostic on the question around whether God chose to be ignorant on this or if it is in his nature to be so.
I suppose that this is part way to a resolution to the in time/out of time dilemna.
A further wrinkle to consider around the nature of revelation:
There are times when God is talked out of plans and prophecies which are averted. (Jonah's one place that this occurs.)

Enigman said...

Jeff, I suspect that Chrisb was agreeing that it is hard to make sense of "a stone so heavy that God cannot lift it." And were the question nonsense there would be nothing it was about. But in a sense God simply cannot make such a stone, since of any stone that S/he could make, it is simply true that S/he could move it about arbitrarily - its heaviness could not be the cause of its being unliftable (so to speak) by God. Even a stone made of condensed matter, lying on top of the core of a massive black hole, could (theoretically) be lifted slowly by its Creator, much as Jesus could (theoretically) walk on water.

There are details about the definition of "stone" and so forth; but anyway, open theism is basically God being able to change He/r mind. There seem to be several coherent conceptions of God (and associated interpretations of the Bible), which may all be legitimate, in the sense of not being disapproved of by God. I was recently defending the compatibility of open theism and literalism on a post of Parableman - we ended up dancing in circles (so to speak), but as an Inclusivist I was struck by how there are such fundamentally different conceptions of God within even the same religion.

Enigman said...

Incidentally, the stuff about Satan being utterly destroyed is ambiguous: Pruss says that, "death is the destruction of the body (often a corpse remains, but a corpse is the ruin of a body)," implying that destruction is just the removal of structure (obvious now I notice it), so that Satan's utter destruction could just be Satan going totally insane, as utter separation from God might well make him.

Enigman said...

Jeff, in his very readable Most Moved Mover Pinnock gave the following account of the openness of God:

In order to bring out the truth of God's rule over the world, the dynamic character of his nature and the openness of his loving relationships more effectively, myself and some colleagues offered the 'openness of God' model, so-called because it was an appealing and unused term. In it we portrayed God as a triune communion who seeks relationships of love with human beings, having bestowed upon them genuine freedom for this purpose. Love and not freedom was our central concern because it was God's desire for loving relationships which required freedom. In a controversial move, we also envisaged God making a world, the future of which was not yet completely settled, again to make room for the input of significant creatures.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the explanation and links. They are quite helpful. Pinnock's explanation doesn't seem nearly as radical as the open theists usually get potrayed.

Anonymous said...

Where is up?

How big is light?

Where is the universe?---Universe meaning one, whole, and indivisible.

Is God inside or outside of this Indivisible Oneness---or perhaps neither?

Enigman said...

Up can be a state of something, and then it may well be where that thing is. Like your mood may be up today, and your mood may well be where you are. Or up can just be, from where first person is, in the direction away from the action of gravity. Up can be lots of wheres.

Photons are in a sense tiny packets of energy, but they can be very spread out too. Light is of variable size, I think. But also, the light I see by is as big as what I see; and a light in the darkness of one's life can be a very big thing.

The universe is here.

God, being the transcendent creator ex nihilo of the universe, is beyond and hence outside it; but he is also an omnipotent actor within it, at will (as you may be in your vivid day-dreams), and so is inside it. So there are fairly ordinary senses in which he is both.

But that's just what I think. I also value koans for the way they point one towards less propositional responses...