Can an omnipotent God go jump in a lake?

Atheist activist Michael Martin's recent article alleging the absurdity of Christianity contains a number of attacks on whether the idea of God is coherent.

Mr. Martin dwells at length on a series of arguments that are basically different forms of the old question, “Can God make a rock that he cannot lift?” Included in Martin’s grab-bag are: “Can a disembodied being have experiential knowledge of swimming? Lacking this is he omniscient?” “Can an omnipotent being have experiential knowledge of fear, frustration, and despair? Lacking these is he omniscient?” “Can a holy being have experiential knowledge of lust and envy? Lacking these is he omniscient?”

The basic approach of the “rock that God can’t lift” genre of argument is this: “God cannot experience imperfection, therefore he is NOT everything he should be as God.” But the intuitive argument goes very much the other way: that he is everything he should be as God precisely because he does not experience this imperfection. We’ll look at the logical form behind this next. But the first impression of the argument proves correct: that this is a word game, a smoke-and-mirrors trick to confuse people into thinking that imperfection and limitation would be a desirable trait in God, or even a necessary one.

There are basic logical definitions where, on the simplest level, we say that A = A (A equals A), which means that something is itself (obviously). That is generally regarded as unquestionably true and fundamentally coherent. The opposite proposition, A = ~A (that A is not A, or that something is precisely what it cannot be by its own nature) is generally considered the height of what is impossible, incoherent, and illogical. On standard lines of logic, the assertion that A = ~A (in this case, God = not-God) is self-contradictory and therefore nonsense. However, this genre of atheistic argument tries to turn it around and make it so that if God cannot be not-God, God isn’t really God. Let’s look at some examples:

Behind the question, “Can God make a rock he cannot lift?” is an assumption that any mere rock could possibly be beyond God’s power to lift. That is to say, the creation (the rock) should exceed the power of the creator, or the result should be greater than the power of its own cause. When you look at it from the standpoint of the creation exceeding the power that created it, or the result being greater than the cause, it becomes plain that the thing itself is self-contradictory and impossible. “Omnnipotent” is generally defined as being able to do things which are not self-contradictory, since self-contradictory things are inherently impossible. So "the rock that God cannot lift" is inherently impossible, ultimately going against the law of non-contradiction. Martin's series of arguments are on the same pattern. Martin would fault God for being holy and therefore unable to experience unholiness, powerful and therefore unable to experience fear, frustration, and despair, and – er, yes, and incorporeal and physically limitless and therefore unable to experience swimming.

None of these are relevant objections to the coherence of the idea of God. As we’ve already noted, a logical statement in the form A = ~A is usually (and rightly) seen as self-contradictory. It is not the concept of God that is absurd, it’s the objection that "God must be not-God in order to be God" that is fundamentally illogical. This whole type of attack on the concept God is based on an argument of the form if A is A, then A must be ~A (when A = God). In what other field besides attack on God would someone advance an argument of this form? In normal logic, we would hold that if A were ever to become ~A, it would cease to be A. But in the case of Martin's objections against God, the attempt is then made to transfer the illogic from the self-contradictory argument (A = ~A) onto the concept of God.

Suffice it to say two short things in summary: 1) that God having experiential knowledge of being not-God isn’t what Christian theologians generally mean by God’s being omniscient; for God to have propositional and vicarious knowledge of imperfection suffices for true knowledge; 2) the basic form of the argument, that A must equal not-A in order to be A (that God must be not-God in order to be God), is rightly dismissed as just a game which has a logical form but which has a fundamentally illogical content.


Anonymous said…
Well said. I've noticed this linguistic mysticism in other places as well... For instance, when someone who believes in an Impersonal Eternal describes "God" as doing things for them, speaking to them, etc...using words and phrases that communicate Personality to describe Non-Personality. But I guess if people are irrational enough to believe they can have a relationship with their pet, anything goes.

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