How to make a stone so heavy that you can’t lift it

Most people will recognise the above reference. It’s to the infamous Omnipotence Paradox; can God (or other allegedly omnipotent being, if you prefer; when my father introduced me to it as a child, it was by way of Mr Impossible from the Mr Men books) make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it? Various answers have been put forward to this over the years; one of them, several years ago, came from my daughter.

We were at dinner. I can’t remember at all how old my daughter was, except that it was some years back and she’s now twelve. Maybe seven? Maybe not. I forget how this came up, but my husband decided to ask the children the version of the paradox that comes up in Babylon 5: can God make a puzzle so difficult that he can’t solve it? (The character in the show includes that it’s ‘us’; humans and, given the show’s context, assumedly intelligent aliens as well.)

“Well,” Katie suggested, “he could make the puzzle so that it changes him so that then he can’t solve it.”

My husband and I exchanged the sort of look you exchange when your primary-school-aged child has just solved a centuries-old philosophical puzzle. (On the unlikely off-chance that you have not personally had occasion to encounter that look, it’s basically “Did that just happen?”) He asked her the more traditional version of the puzzle, and, of course, she figured out how her answer would fit; God designs a rock that has the property of causing him to lose the ability to lift the rock. I don’t want to brag, but my daughter is pretty darned smart.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    The only experience I have so far is of the daughter of a previous girlfriend. She was no more than three years old (the daughter, not the gf), and we were out for a lovely walk along the river in the centre of Shrewsbury. It was a beautiful sunny summer day. Her mother, her brother and my parents were twenty metres or so ahead, and she was walking with me. After a while she was tired of walking, so I picked her up and carried her, baby-style, on her back cradled in my arms. She had a good view of the public park by the river, full of families having picnics, people tossing frisbees about, chasing footballs, or just sunbathing.

    She took in all this view for a couple of minutes, then looked up at me and said “Am I in everyone’s life?”.

    Mind. Blown. She’d just, right there, realised that all these other people were other people, like her and me, and that they had lives and stories too… and that she might or might not be part of those stories.

    Fifteen years on, my firstborn isn’t that old yet, but I’m hoping I witness moments like that with him when they come.

  2. mynax says

    My own favorite answer about the stone (which does not solve the Omnipotence Paradox) is that the question is meaningless. “Lifting” occurs in the context of a gravitational field. If the stone is made heavy enough (thru increased density or size), its own gravity will soon exceed that of the Earth, so you’re not lifting the stone, you’re pushing away the Earth with your feet. (Assuming the stone doesn’t become neutronium or a black hole and swallow the Earth.)

    My favorite humorous version is “Can God microwave a burrito so hot even he can’t eat it?”. It suffers the same problem; at sufficient temperature, it isn’t even a burrito anymore, it’s quark-gluon plasma.

  3. John Morales says

    Doesn’t work; if it changes god, then it’s not the god who made the rock who cannot lift the rock.

  4. Owlmirror says

    Two nits:

      • Babylon 5 (I wondered if there had been two sequels I hadn’t even heard of or something).

      • Given that Franklin is addressing an actual intelligent non-human being, I don’t think he intended “Humanity”, but rather, “intelligent life everywhere”.

    My own take on the chestnut, taking into account universal gravitation, was: Can God divide (and completely separate the two halves of) a black hole — better yet, a black hole of infinite mass?

  5. db says

    “God’s God”. YouTube. DarkMatter2525.
    • Is God an atheist ?
    • Can God know what it can not know ?

  6. wzrd1 says

    And a small child will teach them.

    @4, Owlmirror, can you define an infinite mass? For that matter, how does one lift an object that is not tightly gravitationally bound to another object?
    The actual imponderable question is, can God satisfy a spouse *and* mother in law? 😉

    I’ll just get my coat…

  7. Owlmirror says


    Owlmirror, can you define an infinite mass?

    I can’t even answer the question as to whether an infinite mass would necessarily take up infinite space (and therefore there would be no space for the halves to go anyway). Although that might be another imponderable: Could God fit an infinite mass into a finite space, as a preliminary to splitting and separating the infinite mass?

  8. StevoR says

    @Owlmirror : Babylon 5 (I wondered if there had been two sequels I hadn’t even heard of or something).”

    FWIW. There has been at least spin off sequel series – the rather unfortunately named Crusade :

    and I think there was also one about the Rangers too although I don’t recall seeing it? Seems it was considered but didn’t go ahead following one of the sequel movies.

    Rather a pity since Babylon 5 is still my alltime fave TV SF series and I love that ‘verse.

    PS. Isn’t infinite mass what you are theoretcially meant to have if you manage to somehow travel at lightspeed and not be a photon? Infinite mass plus zero time or something lke that if I recall my Einsteinian Relativity right?

  9. StevoR says

    PPS. It just occurred to me (as sadly tends to happen about a second after clicking submit) the the Drakh plague cure premise for Crusade (link above gives its intro sequence on youtube BTW) was kinda a precursor /model / similar to the Xindi sesaon /arc on Star Trek : Enterprise mirroring the way ST : DS9 sorta echoed or, arguably, copied* Babylon 5. Which ironically very nearly got typo’d as Babylon Percent (%) just now!

    Of course that sort of limited time-frame countdown to save Earth quest trope story has been been before both those elsewhere for instance with SpaceBattleship Yamato (exact title?) a.k.a StarBlazers – a fave anime /manga cartooon of mine as a kid. Which they’d later make a much darker and grimmer SF movie of too.

    * Influenced or inspired if we’re being polite maybe? Gtaher there was a bit of dispute / feuding here? 😉

  10. Dr Sarah says

    @Owlmirror, no. 4:

    ‘• Babylon 5 (I wondered if there had been two sequels I hadn’t even heard of or something).’

    Damn, you’re right; I had it mixed up with Blake’s 7 (having never watched either of them but only heard about them from my husband). I’ve corrected that now, so thanks.

    ‘ • Given that Franklin is addressing an actual intelligent non-human being, I don’t think he intended “Humanity”, but rather, “intelligent life everywhere”.’

    You’re right again; my husband gave the answer as ‘humanity’, but I checked the wording, and the actual quote is ‘What if it’s us?’ I’ll change that as well.

  11. Don Gakusei says

    I’m late to this, but the for me the primary question is: “SHOULD an omnipotent being be able to create a rock so heavy that it can’t lift it?” Without being able to answer the question, how can we draw a conclusion from the “CAN” question?

    For example: “Can an omni being create a rock so heavy it can’t lift it?” If I answer “No” (or “Yes”, either is relevant), then if you say, “therefore the being isn’t omnipotent”, I would say “How do you know?” If you say, “because an omni being SHOULD be able/unable to do that”, then the onus is on you to show that’s true. If you can’t, then how do you know my answer is wrong?

    So: Can an omnipotent being create a rock so heavy it can’t lift it? My answer: No. If you disagree, tell me what the correct answer is.

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