The stone paradox

1.) Consider these analogues to the stone paradox:

If Mozart were a better musician he could write a song even he couldn’t play.

If Achilles were a faster runner he could set a record in the mile that even he couldn’t break.

If Aristotle was wiser he could write an argument even he couldn’t understand.

2.) Set aside physical limitations since these have no analogue with omnipotence. We can imagine, or at least talk about a musical piece that exceeds the possibilities of a human hand or even a physical system (like playing a Wagner opera in a nanosecond) but these are beside the point when talking about what spirits are capable of.

3.) Say we’re sympathetic to the stone paradox. It seems we have to say that capabilities develop to the point where they become incapable. But it is strange to the point of incoherence to call this a development of a skill or capability.

4.) Even if we look around for physical limitations, the description of a wisdom so great that it can’t understand what its saying is an extremely odd claim. We can make sense of a wisdom that understands its ignorance but not a wisdom that is constituted by its ignorance. Thus the stone paradox, when applied to the power of intelligence has consequences for omniscience, but they strike me as absurd consequences.

5.) Here’s an argument against omnipotence: any power that extends to something extends to its contrary. Vision sees colors and darkness, hearing hears sound and silence, etc. So the power over all that is logically possible is a power over all that is impossible. There is no such thing as a power over the impossible, and so also no such thing as omnipotence.

One response is that the possible and impossible aren’t related as light and darkness but as light and non-light. But “non-light” is undefined and undefinable since a thing need not even exist to be described in this way. To use “non-light” as a domain outside of light is not to specify any domain that pertains to sight, or even a domain that is definable. “Non-light” has a perfect analogue in “non-liftable stone”.

It is only accidentally true that we see non-light (that is, it is only true in a sense that also makes it false). This is how omnipotence relates to non-lifable stones.

6.) In classical theism omnipotence extends not to the logically possible as such but to logically possible composites. Divine power does not extend to making another instance of divine power (which is not contradicted, but in fact preserved in the doctrine of the Trinity.) In light of this the stone paradox translates into the question whether a simple power could ever give rise to a complexity that it had no power over. The claim is the equivalent of asking whether an atomic reductionist could say that atoms could give rise to atomic complexities that they could not explain. Such a state of affairs is incoherent since anything that counted as evidence of a complexity that did not arise from atomic simplicity would count as evidence against atomic reductionism. Taken in this sense the stone paradox needs to give way to the question of divine simplicity as a reductive source of angelic-cosmic-Incarnational complexity.

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2 Comments

  1. June 13, 2016 at 10:49 am

    It is obvious that if there is a first principle, and everything comes from that principle, then it is true that “Anything that can be, can be from the first principle,” because there is no other way for anything to be. And this is probably all that is realistically meant by divine omnipotence.

    But it is normal for people to assume that divine omnipotence has implications like, “God has the power to make that cup over there float in the air for the next five seconds.” If it did have this implication, one would have to ask how we know it has this implication, since we do not know that the cup can in fact float in the air for the next five seconds. The most obvious way would be to say that we know this is true because divine omnipotence means that God can make anything that we can describe. This would indeed have stone-paradoxical results, at least in some sense; e.g. it would mean that God might send all sinners to heaven, and all good people to hell, since this is something that we can describe.

    My personal answer is simply that we do not know that the cup can float, and correspondingly that we do not know that it falls under omnipotence in any sense.

    • June 13, 2016 at 11:09 am

      divine omnipotence means that God can make anything that we can describe.

      This is fine – I’d only insist that if we take it in this way we are no longer understanding the power as a sort of skill, like asking if some great painter has the skill to draw like a two year old (not as a clever example of something or as a joke but as a goal in itself). In some sense he certainly can, but only in the sense of ability that is not a skill. All we’re asking is, in effect, whether he can make mistakes.

      There were historical reasons for this shift to a consideration of omnipotence as raw power apart from any wisdom or skill, but I think the shift was a mistake. It’s true that if we want a raw power we might end up allowing that Go could throw the righteous in Hell and giggle with glee at their sufferings, but we’re no longer talking about power in the way intelligences are powerful.


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