CAN GOD CREATE A SQUARE CIRCLE?
BY CALLUM ISMAY
BY CALLUM ISMAY
We can find the concept of God in virtually every culture on Earth. Along with the basic idea of a God, we find similar consensus among differing world cultures as to the attributes and the character of God. From Christianity to Islam, Buddhism to Paganism, we observe similar words which describe God such as ‘powerful’, ‘loving’, ‘all-knowing’ that exist within the common discourse. In this article I will attempt to highlight some of the problems which arise out of the discussions we have about God relating to the definitions of the terms involved. I must stress this is NOT an attack on religion itself or its followers; this article represents a particular area of philosophical enquiry which I feel is not often or properly discussed, and thus I will attempt to shed some light on the issue.
The main argument I will focus on in this article is what is known as the omnipotence paradox. For those unaware, in the philosophical tradition a paradox arises when a statement gives rise to a contradiction, specifically a logical contradiction. The omnipotence paradox states that if we take the attributes of God (which I have labelled above) to be true, and apply this knowledge to certain situations, a contradiction arises. As the name suggests, the omnipotence paradox will focus on the specific ideas of God relating to ‘his’ proposed omnipotence – that is, ultimate power. There are numerous thought experiments which highlight the omnipotence paradox, but the one which I will focus on comes from the title of this piece – can God create a square circle?
On very simple observation, the very idea of a square circle not just seems ludicrous, but is very much a logical contradiction. One cannot begin to even picture what a square circle may look like, as the terms ‘square’ and ‘circle’ are mutually exclusive – a shape cannot have four sides of the same length whilst being completely circular. Definitions relating to shapes are what are known as analytic statements, that is, true by the meanings of the words involved. Similarly, suggesting that an unmarried man is a bachelor is also analytic, we need not do any experiments to prove that an unmarried man is a bachelor, it is purely a matter of semantics. This is also true of definitions relating to shapes. So far, it seems I have done very little. I have simply introduced the ideas of a square and a circle, and suggested that these two shapes cannot be merged together. Hallelujah – what a revelation! The flippancy ends here, time for some pure philosophical investigation.
While the above may seem trivial and obvious, what is not so obvious is the effect that this kind of distinction means for God, or at least the attributes we give to God. To remind you, the vastly held view of God includes ‘him’ to be all-powerful (omnipotent) and while there is some debate as to exactly what we mean by this, the generally accepted view is that God can do anything, that ‘his’ power is unlimited. If we accept this, and we accept the above comments made about annoying squares and circles, I ask you; can God create a square circle? You may, having understood and accepted the definition of omnipotence, be inclined to say ‘yes, God can create a square circle” – a perfectly reasonable answer, after all, God can do anything right? Conversely, you might suggest ‘no, God cannot create a square circle’ – another perfectly reasonable answer, a shape cannot have four sides of equal length whilst being perfectly circular. But actually, neither of the answers help us. Whichever answer you give, a contradiction arises – indeed, a paradox is created.
To help understand this point a little further, I will frame the same omnipotence paradox but instead through another thought experiment, which highlights the same point as the square circle debate. This other thought experiment invites us to ask whether God, relying on the same definitions of God given above, could create a stone that not even he could lift. If you answer yes to this question, then God has created something more powerful than he is, namely the stone. If you answer no to this question, then God is not omnipotent, as we have found something that God cannot do, create a stone which he can’t lift. There is no contradiction involved in creating something more powerful than its creator – we as humans have created many things which are more powerful than us (depending on your definition of power of course, but I’m sticking to the definition of power relating to strength, i.e. lifting strength). We have created buildings many times the height and weight of ourselves, tanks and aircraft carriers much more powerful than ourselves. So, what does God do? How does God get out of this situation – this paradox?
Hopefully you have followed this argument as I have laid it out thus far, and more so that you agree with me – we have discovered a problem. Unsurprisingly however, some reject that the omnipotence paradox highlights a problem at all. Some philosophers such as William Lane Craig suggest that possessing omnipotence does not mean having the capacity to do the logically impossible – but instead claim that possessing omnipotence means God can only do actions according to his nature. This I do not feel is a strong response to the omnipotence paradox however, as it seems William Craig is suggesting that doing the logically impossible is not in keeping with God’s nature – yet this is the very point the omnipotence paradox holds. To me, this further affirms the point – it does not refute it. Other philosophers claim the paradox itself is sophistry, that is, asking a meaningless question. These objections largely focus on the semantics of the terms involved within the debate, which depending on your view can be helpful contributions or they can be a hindrance. Others, such as Descartes, are much more bullish. They bite the bullet so to speak, and completely deny that the paradox raises any problem for God at all, as they maintain a strong commitment to God as being absolutely omnipotent. This view ties into the deeper understanding of God’s proposed nature as put forward by the ontological argument – an argument attempting to prove the existence of God through an appeal to semantics – which claims God must possess every perfection, including omnipotence and existence. While objections of this nature to the paradox are commanding, they are not in my view terribly effective, as they make an appeal to the nature of God in their defence, and it is God’s very nature that we are questioning here. It is, in my considered opinion, difficult to find an objection which accurately and successfully refutes the omnipotence paradox to any large extent. That is however a subjective opinion – and I encourage you to find your own.
I hope in this piece I have provided a comprehensive introduction into this rich area of philosophical discourse which often is overlooked in modern philosophy. To me, it is clear, the omnipotence paradox raises some extremely significant questions about the nature of God and how we should go about perceiving him. What exactly does this mean for God? Like much in philosophy – I will leave that conclusion to the eye of the beholder.