The Immovable Rock and Silent Tree

By Tim Butler | Posted at 1:40 AM

Jennifer mentioned the ever present discussion of whether God can create a rock that He cannot move and the (even more pressing) question of whether a tree falling with no one to hear it would make a sound. That gave me an idea, what if Aquinas had answered that first question and Anselm, the second? I think it'd sound like the following.

Of course, Thomas — being the Angelic Doctor — already actually deals with the issue in Summa Theologica 1.9.1 under the first article of the question concerning immutability. But, I decided it would be more amusing to have Aquinas deal with the issue directly, so hear is how I expect it would have gone:

We thus proceed to the first article.

Article 1. Whether God can create an object too large for him to move?

Objection 1. It seems that God can create an object too large for him to move. For as the Philosopher says (Metaphysics ii) “matter is in everything which is moved.” However, as was already admitted in an earlier objection (ST 1.9.1), there exists things that are not made of matter. Therefore it seems God could create an immovable, immaterial rock.

Objection 2. Further, it seems that movement belongs to only things that are not already perfected, but it cannot be said that nothing God creates is already perfect. Therefore it seems that God can create an immovable rock.

Objection 3. It is clear from the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium of the Church that God is perfect and all powerful, for as the Evangelist reports, the angel said to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Therefore it seems that God can create an immovable rock.

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Nat. Boni. i), “God alone is immutable; and whatever things He has made, being from nothing, are mutable.” Therefore no creation of God can be immutable.

I answer that, although God is all powerful, He is also simple (ST 1.3), therefore all of God's essence and existence are one. If God's essence and existence are one, He cannot do anything in His will that would cause His essence to be in conflict with His existential actions. The resultant action of discord from God creating something that He Himself could not move would bring his existence into conflict with His essence, but a thing cannot be and not be in the same substance.

Moreover, a thing that is in conflict with itself is not as perfect as a thing that is not in conflict with itself, but we know that God is perfect, for as the First Principle, He is pure act and pure act is most perfect. If He were not pure act, He would not be the First Principle, but rather a Second or Third Principle, as is clear from the Philosopher. But, it is written “Be you perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Therefore God is perfect and, as pure act, can move anything that is not pure act, which is everything other than Himself.

Reply to Objection 1. As I have related before, the immutability of something depends not only on the physical movement of matter, but also the ability of the object to be made more or less act. Everything that is not the First Principle does not have necessary existence, therefore, there is some time that the rock did not, or will not, exist. Therefore, because philosophers treat conversion from potency to act as movement, the immovable rock is only immovable so long as God grants it act, which he may cease to grant it at any time.

Reply to Objection 2. Although something may achieve its ends, and therefore cease movement, it only achieves it thusly as God has intended it. Nevertheless, anything that can possibly not be, will not be at some point, whether prior or future, and therefore the rock is not immovable regardless of whether it ceases movement at the achievement of its end.

Reply to Objection 3. Nothing is impossible with God, but the impossible cannot be because it is nothing. For something that conflicts with its own nature cannot actually exist, and therefore does not actually exist, nor can the idea of its existence even be pondered. Anything that has existence neither in potency or actuality can be said to truly be “nothing” and therefore, is not something that is impossible with God.


Anselm's Lost Appendix in Fides Quaerens Intellectum Dealing with Falling Trees

“The fool says in his heart, 'if no one is around to hear a tree fall, it does not make a sound.'”

O most perfect newly fallen tree, how marvellous it is that you should fall with clarity and make it so that even a fool can see his folly in this statement! For it is clear that you could not have fallen without making a sound. For you are the most perfect fallen tree that can be imagined. However, the most perfect fallen tree that can be imagined is a fallen tree that has made a sound as it fell. For if the most perfect fallen tree fell but did not make a sound, then a more perfect fallen tree, which did make a sound, could be imagined, and you would not be the most perfect fallen tree.

But you are the most perfect fallen tree, not because someone happened to be around to hear you fall, but rather because your status as the most perfect fallen tree made it necessary that you should make a sound as you fell. The fool denies the obvious when he makes the claim, for to say that the most perfect tree could fall and not make a sound, because he was not there is foolishness! To suggest that the most prefect fallen tree is only most perfect because of something outside of its perfect falleness is contradictory to the idea of the most perfect fallen tree, for if the most prefect fallen tree were only perfect because someone was there to hear it, I can easily imagine an even more prefect fallen tree that was perfect without need for someone to hear it.


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