It’s sometimes said that “you can’t prove a negative,” meaning, it is impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist – but in fact, that is not true. If you can show that the concept of a thing is logically contradictory, then that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the thing does not exist.
The easiest way, then, to disprove God’s existence would be to show that the concept of God is logically incoherent. There have been many attempts at this. Nevertheless, I can say fairly confidently that none of them have been successful. The basic concept of God is logically coherent, and none of the alleged contradictions hold, so far as I have seen.
Before I begin to address the main topic of this post, I want to briefly mention a somewhat related position known as theological non-cognitivism. This is the position that sentences about God are literally meaningless, and that whenever people express something about God, there is actually no propositional content to their expression. Non-cognitivists of this stripe would say that when someone says “God loves you,” for example, they are really just expressing emotional content, like sympathy for that person’s plight, or something.
I think it hardly needs to be said, but this position is false. “God exists” is not a meaningless statement expressing one’s hope for some abstract kind of well-being. It is a claim about reality that is fairly well-understood by most English-language speakers, and believed to be either true or false. (And I’m sure you could say the same about the translation of that sentence for speakers of other languages as well.)
If you don’t understand what someone means when they say that God exists, then hopefully, this post and the next should help to clear things up for you.
The Concept of God
In order to assess whether the concept of God is logically coherent, we have to know what concept we are talking about, which means we need to know what source material we are using for our ideas about God. So here they are:
- Scriptures and religious tradition
- Arguments for God’s existence from natural theology
- Reflection on the concept of God as a perfect being or the greatest possible being
Since I find the historical argument gives good reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore the truth of Christianity, I put the Bible and Christian tradition in the first category, though theists of other religions may use different sources. (Sometime in the future I will be writing a few posts on exactly why I believe we can know about God from the Bible, but that will have to wait.) I have already written a lot about the second category on this blog. And the third category can be seen as an important subset of the second, with a focus on the ontological argument.
With that being said, it is important to recognize that the Bible is not a work of analytic philosophy and does not use words like “omnipotent” or “omniscient,” much less provide precise definitions for such terms. Scripture and religious tradition do not fully specify the attributes of God, which means there is room for philosophical reflection to develop the concept of God in a coherent way.
And since the motivation for ascribing terms like “omnipotent” or “omniscient” comes from the basic concept of a perfect being or greatest possible being, we can be flexible in coming up with the precise definitions of these terms as well. Omnipotence, for example, means having perfect power or the maximum possible degree of power. As long as we can formulate a precise definition along those lines that is not logically contradictory or theologically problematic, it is coherent to include omnipotence in the concept of God.
With that, I think the best way to show the overall coherence of theism is to survey the attributes that make up the concept of God, and deal with incoherence objections as they come up.
(Note: I am not intending here to deal with any objections to the coherence of specifically Christian aspects of the concept of God, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. I will have blog posts about those further down the road, when I explore what I believe and why regarding Christian doctrines.)
One of the most basic aspects of the concept of God is that he is a personal being without any material body. God is a spiritual entity, not a physical entity. (You could say “mental entity” in place of “spiritual entity” if you like, as long as by that you do not mean something like a concept, instead of an immaterial being with the capacity to think about concepts.)
Hence, God is something like an immaterial mind or soul. This is only incoherent if the concept of an immaterial mind is incoherent, and I see no reason to think that is the case. In fact, as I’ve written on this blog, I think there is good reason to believe that we ourselves have an immaterial component.
It is occasionally contended that God, as an immaterial being without a body, could not interact with the physical world. This is analogous to the interaction problem raised against the existence of immaterial minds in general. But there is no logical contradiction here. It is simply among the basic causal powers that God has to be able to interact with the physical world.
(Note: this is similar to the way, I believe, that it is simply among the basic causal powers of our own minds to be able to initiate bodily actions. However, this does not mean that we should think of the universe as the body of God, since he is not otherwise related to the universe in the ways that our minds are related to our bodies.)
God is widely believed by theists to be uncreated or self-existent, rather than deriving existence from some other source (in the way that we believe the universe and everything in it derives existence from God). This in turn is often taken to imply that God’s existence is metaphysically necessary, rather than contingent. Moreover, it is generally believed that God is the only being with this property.
The notion of necessary existence is logically coherent, especially if you consider the causal account of modality to be reasonable, as I do. (Since the causal account implies the principle of sufficient reason, which in turn implies the existence of a necessary being via the cosmological argument.) Moreover, necessary existence is often attributed to many kinds of abstract objects. So necessary existence is not problematic.
However, the ascription of necessary existence to abstract objects creates a challenge to the idea that God is the only necessarily existent or self-existent being. But this challenge is only problematic if you think that abstract objects really exist (rather than just being conceptual devices that we use to think about the world). I myself am not in that camp.
Even if you do think that abstract objects really exist, the worst case scenario for the belief in God’s aseity is that it has to be qualified in the following way: that God is the only self-existent being among non-abstract objects. Which is not really all that problematic, in my mind: in this case God is still the creator of all spiritual and physical reality (outside of himself).
In addition to necessary existence, an important aspect of God’s nature that is generally associated with aseity is that he is completely self-sufficient: he has absolutely no needs whatsoever, not for his continued existence or his satisfaction. God can act for reasons of bringing about certain goods, but none of his actions are undertaken because he lacks something, and in some sense none of the goods that he brings about fulfill any desire that he has which is not already fulfilled in himself.
(The Christian doctrine of the Trinity makes this self-sufficiency more plausible, since God already experiences perfect loving relationships within his being: he has no need to make creatures to fulfill relational desires.)
There are basically two different views about God’s relationship to time. One is that God is timeless, existing outside of time. The other is that God exists at every moment within time.
One’s view on the nature of time plays a major role in assessing which of these two options is the most coherent. As I have written in earlier posts on this blog, I find that a presentist, A-theory of time is the best way to understand reality. For various reasons (which I might go into more detail about in a future post) this leads me to believe that God exists within time, rather than timelessly existing outside of it. The fact that God’s existence is necessary then implies that he exists at every moment in time.
However, I still have to consider some of the implications of God existing timelessly, since I also believe (for reasons that I touched on when I wrote about the cosmological argument) that God could have existed in a timeless state if that’s what he wanted. (And though I wrote that last clause in the past tense, it really should express a tenseless counterfactual mood; but that is hard to express clearly in English.)
This brings me to one of the major objections to the logical coherence of the concept of God: it requires us to make sense of the concept of a timelessly existing being with personhood and agency. This is admittedly difficult to comprehend, but it is not logically contradictory, as far as I can see.
Since God’s intellect is unlimited, it seems to me that he could have a full conscious life, sufficient to satisfy any reasonable definition of personhood, in a single changeless mental state. If God were to maintain such a mental state and refrain from creating anything temporal, this state would plausibly be a timeless one. “Maintain” and “refrain” in the last sentence refer to the will of God, which is logically and explanatorily prior to the instantiation of whatever reality is actual.
To elaborate on that last point, agency is evident in this timeless state by recognizing that God has counterfactual control over it: the explanation for why that is the state of reality is that it is God’s will, and if God were to have willed a different state, that different state would have been actual instead. (Again, the past tense here is really meant to express a tenseless counterfactual.) In the “initial state” of reality, God exists with his infinite conscious life and either wills to maintain that state changelessly (in which case it is timeless), or he wills that state to change (in which case the “initial state” really is the first moment of time).
This point of view is commonly summarized by saying that God is timeless without creation, and that he exists within time from the first moment of creation. And because God would have existed even if time did not, he cannot be said to have come into existence at the first moment of time even though technically it is the first moment in which he exists. Thus, I see no logical incoherence in the belief that God exists throughout all time without beginning or end.
Philosopher William Lane Craig is known for defending this view in his writings (a number of which can be found on his website, here), for anyone interested in more detail.
One other alternative to the view that I have just presented, if there is no philosophical incoherence in the concept of an eternal past, is to say that God is necessarily temporal and past eternal. This avoids any possible contradictions in the concept of a timeless person, and only requires us to explain why God chose to create the world when he did, as opposed to any of the infinite moments that had passed prior to the time of creation. The best answer to that question is probably that God, because of his essential freedom, is able to simply choose a point in time out of the infinite possible options at random, since the points are indistinguishable. (An incoherence in that suggests a more general incoherence in the possibility of an eternal past, which brings us back to the view of contingent timelessness.)
One of the most commonly stated attributes of God is his omnipresence, the idea that he is present everywhere. But what exactly does that mean? Theists generally maintain this does not mean that we should think of God as being spread out through space like some kind of diffuse ether. Rather, in some sense he is wholly present everywhere. But again, in what sense?
Since God is incorporeal, I would say that technically speaking, he doesn’t have any spatial location. (In comparison, the immaterial component of a human person is embodied, and so can be said to share the spatial location of the body.) Here, however, two other attributes of God come into play.
- Since God is omniscient and has unlimited mental capacity, he knows and is fully aware of what is happening at every point in space.
- Since God is omnipotent, he is fully capable of acting at every point in space. (And if he actively maintains the universe in existence, as many theists believe, then he is acting at every point in space in a complete way.)
These two facts seem sufficient to me to cover the biblical, theological, and philosophical motivations for attributing omnipresence to God. Hence, omnipresence can be thought of as a function of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, and it is logically coherent if those two attributes are both coherent and compatible with each other.
In my next post I will explore further properties that make up the concept of God to look for potential contradictions, including what are perhaps the three most important properties of God: perfect knowledge, power, and goodness.