This week there was much exasperation and merriment in Catholic social media over a very silly op-ed in the New York Times that actually raised the age-old question — I swear I am not making this up — “Can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?”

Would you be amazed if I told you the writer, Dr. Peter Atterton, is a professor of philosophy?

The article raises the (perfectly proper and important) question whether the normal monotheistic understanding of God is conceptually cogent. Here is the passage:

You’ve probably heard the paradox of the stone before: Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted? If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it. On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone. Either way, God is not all powerful.

The way out of this dilemma is usually to argue, as Saint Thomas Aquinas did, that God cannot do self-contradictory things. Thus, God cannot lift what is by definition “unliftable,” just as He cannot “create a square circle” or get divorced (since He is not married). God can only do that which is logically possible.

Not all philosophers agree with Aquinas. René Descartes, for example, believed that God could do absolutely anything, even the logically impossible, such as draw a round square. But even if we accept, for the sake of argument, Aquinas’ explanation, there are other problems to contend with. 

On Twitter, Fr. David Paternoster, SJ offered this astute observation on this passage:

Fr. David went on to engage the topic of omniscience (one of the “other problems to contend with” raised in the op-ed; read the rest of the tweet thread).

I’d like to offer a bit more commentary on this business of the unliftable rock, and try to make it a bit clearer why St. Thomas and not Descartes is obviously correct, why it is not just “for the sake of argument” that we should accept St. Thomas’ stance — and why it seems kind of disingenuous for Dr. Atterson to treat the question the way he does in his op-ed. 

First, let’s note what St. Thomas actually says.

The divine existence, however, upon which the nature of power in God is founded, is infinite, and is not limited to any genus of being; but possesses within itself the perfection of all being. Whence, whatsoever has or can have the nature of being, is numbered among the absolutely possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent. Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: “No word shall be impossible with God.” For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.

That sounds complicated, I admit.

But you know, it’s really not. It’s actually dead simple.

Catch the bit toward the end: “Whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word.”

St. Thomas uses “word” here to mean something that Dr. Atterton should understand: i.e., a cogent concept, a meaningful idea we can talk about.

As Dr. Atterton’s op-ed implies, just because we’ve put a bunch of words together doesn’t mean we’ve expressed an actual concept. Words can be used in incoherent, meaningless ways.

For example, suppose I told you, “Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to quantum defibrillation sans magnifier betiding.”

Have I told you anything about my plans for tomorrow afternoon? Have I used words in a meaningful way at all?

Now suppose that, when you challenged this nonsensical remark, I countered, “Well, can God quantum defibrillation sans magnifier betiding?”

Guess what? I still haven’t said anything. I might as well have asked “Can God gyre and gimble in the wabe?”

Jabberwocky doesn’t suddenly become an actual concept because you prefix it with the words “can” and “God” in some order. And that’s all meaningless combinations of words are: jabberwocky.

As C.S. Lewis said, “nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”

In another context Lewis gives as an example of a nonsensical question “How far is it from London Bridge to Christmas Day?” To juice the nonsense, I like this twist on the question: “How many miles is it from yellow to Christmas?”

Once again, this is not an actual question about anything. Thus, asking “Can God tell us how many miles it is from yellow to Christmas?” is just as nonsensical. The concept of omniscience, of absolute knowledge, doesn’t turn a meaningless string of words into a meaningful question.

So let’s circle back to the “idea” of the stone that God can’t lift.

Stripped of the particular imagery, the conceit here is basically “a task that omnipotence cannot achieve.”

In other words, a task that the power to accomplish any task cannot accomplish.

See the problem?

There’s a conceptual incoherence here, all right, but it’s not the concept of omnipotence.

“A rock that God can’t lift” — like “a square circle,” “a married bachelor,” “a magnifier betiding,” or even “an uffish thought” — isn’t an actual concept. It’s just a meaningless string of words. And it remains such even when someone talks about omnipotence trying to do something about it.

Since the whole basis of Atterson’s article is questioning whether the idea of God is conceptusstally cogent, I find it fascinating (I don’t) that he throws out the old chestnut about the rock God can’t lift without directly raising the question whether this is conceptually cogent.

Almost as if he were the kind of professor who throws out seemingly profound or unanswerable questions he knows are nothing of the kind in order to stump the freshmen and muddy the waters so that it becomes easier to proffer his own preferred perspective.

Some things that seem simple are actually really complicated. Other times the opposite is the case.

See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The problem of evil | No salvation outside the Church