The Incoherence of Theism (I)

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.

Non-Cognitivism

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.)

Incorporeality

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.)

Aseity

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.)

Eternality

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.)

Omnipresence

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.

  1. Since God is omniscient and has unlimited mental capacity, he knows and is fully aware of what is happening at every point in space.
  2. 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.

25 thoughts on “The Incoherence of Theism (I)

  1. “……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.”
    Can you expand a little on this? At first (and second) glance it seems incoherent. Thank you.

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    1. So, let’s call “State 1” the state of reality in which God exists alone, experiencing an infinite, perfect conscious state.
      Now consider two different possible courses of reality: Reality A, which consists of State 1 and nothing else, and Reality B, which consists of State 1, followed by State 2 (in which God creates some things), followed by State 3 (in which more change occurs) and so on.
      In Reality A, nothing at all changes. There is a single unchanging state. There is effectively no time, no beginning or ending. Reality B, on the other hand, contains change and time.
      But from God’s perspective in Reality B, the first moment of time (State 1) is not intrinsically different from the timeless state of Reality A. God could have chosen to refrain from creating anything, so that Reality A would have been actual instead of Reality B. Because of this, it doesn’t make sense (from my perspective) to say that God began to exist even in Reality B, since the first moment of time is no different to him than a timeless state in which he did not begin to exist.

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      1. You are right that God does not _need_ to create. Most Christian theologians would agree with that statement wholeheartedly. That doesn’t conflict in any way with the belief that he is able to create if he so chooses, nor the possibility that he would so choose.

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      1. Yes, you’ve attempted to hand wave it away. Once again, the state of perfection implies no lack. The perfect Pizza needs nothing. So the act of creation itself strongly suggests imperfection. If there’s no lack, why create in the first place?

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      2. I’m not hand-waving anything. You need to clarify how creation implies a lack or imperfection in God, because there is no logical implication there without additional premises. Aren’t you capable of doing things that you don’t need to do? Why shouldn’t we believe that God has the same freedom?

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    1. Why not? As I already said, God does not create to fulfill any need, and if he chose not to create he would be completely satisfied existing alone in his infinite perfection. In that sense, God has no unfulfilled desires to act on. But that doesn’t logically imply that he cannot create, or that he would not choose to create. (Is it an imperfection for an artist to decide to create a beautiful painting, even if he would be perfectly happy doing nothing but meditating and contemplating beauty instead?)
      You have to bring out some further premises to find a contradiction between “God is infinite and perfect” and “God would choose to create”.

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      1. Think of an undulating surface with peaks and valleys. There will be a global maximum for this surface, any movement must necessarily be a shift from that global maximum.
        Similarly with a perfect entity, any action must necessarily be a move away from perfection. A perfect entity is incapable of action.

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      2. “Why not? As I already said, God does not create to fulfill any need, and if he chose not to create he would be completely satisfied existing alone in his infinite perfection. In that sense, God has no unfulfilled desires to act on.”

        – If you admit that God has no need or unfulfilled desires to create anything. Then the question becomes: Why does God create anything at all?

        “But that doesn’t logically imply that he cannot create, or that he would not choose to create.”

        – So why logically would he create anything? Why would he choose to create?

        “Is it an imperfection for an artist to decide to create a beautiful painting, even if he would be perfectly happy doing nothing but meditating and contemplating beauty instead?”

        – Are we talking about infinite and perfect beings or are we talking about humans?

        “”You have to bring out some further premises to find a contradiction between “God is infinite and perfect” and “God would choose to create”.”

        – And you need to justify why an infinite and perfect being would choose to do – anything.

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      3. The point of the analogy is that since there is no (apparent) contradiction in our zen artist choosing to paint a picture even if he would be completely satisfied not painting it, I similarly fail to see why God would not have the same freedom – the possibility that he would choose to create, even though he would be completely satisfied not creating.
        The point of this post is to evaluate supposed contradictions in the concept of God. You allege that there is a contradiction between “being perfect” and “choosing to create”, but you haven’t actually made clear what the contradiction is. Something like “all acts of creation are attempts to satisfy or make up for some imperfection in the creator” would be a suitable implicit premise to bring out the contradiction – but I see absolutely no reason to accept such a premise. (And to the extent that we have other reasons to believe in God, we have reasons to think that God is a counterexample to such a premise.)

        As for what reasons a perfect God could have to create, the answer is very simple: creation is good. There is moral and aesthetic value to be realized in creation. God doesn’t need to bring about that value – he already has infinite value in himself – but he can if he chooses to, and that additional value provides the reason for him to so choose.
        I’ve already mentioned this in another comment, but I really do recommend Alexander Pruss’s paper “Divine Creative Freedom” for an explication of this issue.

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  2. Just a comment, the threading here is a little clunky and hard to follow.

    “Something like “all acts of creation are attempts to satisfy or make up for some imperfection in the creator” would be a suitable implicit premise to bring out the contradiction – but I see absolutely no reason to accept such a premise.”

    But you don’t need that at all. Look, since what you’re doing is defining your god into existence, it’s you who used the term “perfect” Let’s just look at a few definitions of perfect

    ” : being entirely without fault or defect : flawless a perfect diamond

    b : satisfying all requirements : accurate

    c : corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman

    d : faithfully reproducing the original specifically : letter-perfect

    e : legally valid

    2 : expert, proficient practice makes perfect

    3a : pure, total

    b : lacking in no essential detail : complete ”

    I don’t know what html code works where, so I’m not going to try to use any bold or italics or anything.

    So, once again, you are defining your God as perfect and infinite. O.k. fine. So, sure, a perfect infinite being possibly could create. But how does it do it in such a way that doesn’t move it away from perfection? Why would it do it in the first place, I mean, it’s perfect. It lacks nothing, it needs nothing, there would be no creative desire. It’s perfect, So ANY action would indicate something that is not, indeed, perfect. What you are doing, is simply trying to fit your pre-existing theology into your definition of God. It’s non-contradictory, and more logical, to define a perfect, finite, god, who, in a last act, created the Universe and all we see to continue on it’s glory. You could also create an infinite, imperfect God, who existed in anguish, wanting to create, and yet know that his creation would be finite and imperfect. And when he couldn’t resist any longer, when the agony became too great, he created. And I would say, given the biblical works, and the history of life on earth that THAT one would be a lot more realistic and logical than the infinite/perfect god who creates just ’cause.

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    1. “Just a comment, the threading here is a little clunky and hard to follow.”
      Agreed, my apologies. I’m not sure if that is something that I could fix by fiddling with the settings, or if it is just something I’m stuck with by using the WordPress template that I am using. Thanks for participating in the conversation anyways. 🙂

      “Since what you’re doing is defining your god into existence…”
      There is no such thing as “defining God into existence”. What I am doing in this post and the next is exploring the concept of God to see if there is anything logically incoherent about his existence. But since you are correct that I am the one who used the word “perfect”, perhaps I should clarify the sense that I mean for that word: of the definitions you provided, the first is probably the closest (“being entirely without fault or defect”). I might also define it as “having no essential non-logical limitations” or “being maximally valuable”.
      With that in mind, I see no way in which choosing to create exhibits a defect, limitation, reduction of value in God. So, no contradiction between God’s perfection and his choosing to create the universe.

      “So, sure, a perfect being could possibly create.”
      I’m glad you agree. This is really all I am trying to show. If a perfect being could possibly create, then there is no logical contradiction between perfection and creation, and therefore there is no argument that God does not exist on the basis of such a contradiction.

      “But how does it do it in a way that doesn’t move it away from perfection?”
      Because not every change is a change in perfection-status. There could be changes that are “horizontal” with respect to perfection, not just “vertical”. Why should I think that the change from “not having created” to “having created” must be accompanied by a loss of perfection? Or what if creation produces no intrinsic change in God at all – only an extrinsic, relational change that does nothing to affect his perfection?

      “Why would it do it in the first place, I mean, it’s perfect. It lacks nothing, it needs nothing, there would be no creative desire.”
      You are implicitly assuming here that God must have a need or an unfulfilled desire in order to act. I don’t think that is true even for human free will, much less divine free will. As for the reason that God would create, I gave it in a previous comment already: creation is morally and aesthetically valuable.

      “ANY action would indicate something that is not, indeed, perfect.”
      Why? What is imperfect about God’s choosing to create?

      “What you are doing, is simply trying to fit your pre-existing theology into your definition of God.”
      As I explain in the post, what I am doing is deriving my concept of God from the arguments of natural theology, and yes, from religious tradition, to the extent that I see good reason to accept that tradition. Then I am exploring this concept to see if there is any logical contradiction. I have yet to find an alleged contradiction that stands up to scrutiny.
      The concept of God that I am working with includes necessary, eternal existence (supported by the cosmological, axiological, and ontological arguments that I have previously explored on this blog, as well as by religious tradition) and perfection (supported again by the axiological and ontological arguments, and tradition) as essential attributes. Following the cosmological argument, a “finite god” would be a contingent being, therefore dependent on another being for it’s existence (because of the principle of sufficient reason), therefore not God. Following the axiological argument, an “imperfect god” would not be the standard of objective value, and would therefore be distinct from the being who was the objective standard of value (by inference to the best explanation of how value is ontologically grounded), and therefore would not be God.
      So I completely disagree with you that your alternative conceptions of divinity are more logical or coherent than the one I am presenting here, and I have reasons for my disagreement.

      “… the infinite/perfect god who creates just ’cause.”
      Just to reinforce the point, it is not my belief that God creates “just ’cause”. God creates because of the value in creation. There is also value for God in _not_ creating – the simplicity of his perfection existing alone, for example. God has the free will to choose between these two distinct and distinctly valuable alternatives. (And the free will to choose between the many distinct and distinctly valuable sub-alternatives of different acts of creation.) Where by “distinctly valuable” I mean “valuable in different ways” – that is the key point of Pruss’s paper that I keep recommending.

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      1. “I gave it in a previous comment already: creation is morally and aesthetically valuable.”

        Why? You have a perfect, infinite being. What moral and aesthetic value would creation have to such a being?

        “ANY action would indicate something that is not, indeed, perfect.”
        Why? What is imperfect about God’s choosing to create?”

        God is PERFECT remember. PERFECT. Creating would accomplish absolutely nothing for this being. How could it. It’s PERFECT.

        “a “finite god” would be a contingent being”

        Not necessarily. Do we really have the evidence to say that a finite immaterial being would be more contingent than an infinite immaterial being? Could an infinite being create another infinite being?

        “an “imperfect god” would not be the standard of objective value, ”

        I’ve seen no evidence of “objective value” so, personally, I don’t see where that is a problem.

        :”God creates because of the value in creation.”

        If there is value in creation, then God lacked that value.

        “There is also value for God in _not_ creating – the simplicity of his perfection existing alone, for example. God has the free will to choose between these two distinct and distinctly valuable alternatives. (And the free will to choose between the many distinct and distinctly valuable sub-alternatives of different acts of creation.)”

        Now you’re making declarative statements about an infinite, perfect, immaterial being. See the problem here?

        O.K. I’ve enjoyed this actually. And I’m probably going to sign out, actually. I don’t want to badger you on your own blog. If you want to discuss issues, you could go to disqus, I think, and search for Pofarmer. If you are interested in interacting, there is also a blog or two I could recommend but I won’t gaurantee the format will be favorable for you, but the commenters are intelligent and interesting.

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      2. Well, clearly we have some differing metaphysical beliefs – about modality, about objective value, about immaterial reality – that lead us to different evaluations about the coherence of the concept of God. Seems as good a place as any to wrap things up for now. Thanks for the conversation, Pofarmer!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Couldn’t resist making some parting comments…

        “What moral and aesthetic value would creation have to such a being?”
        Creation has objective value by reflecting the truth and goodness and beauty of God in a way that can be experienced by creatures.
        This value is, in a way, located in creation and not in God: so it isn’t adding or subtracting anything from God’s perfection, but the distinction between God and creation means that God can have a coherent reason to create.

        “Creation would accomplish absolutely nothing for this being. How could it. It’s PERFECT.”
        On the contrary, what creation accomplishes is precisely… a valuable creation, as I’ve said.
        Continuing to assert “God is perfect and therefore would not choose to create” is not the same as giving me a reason to believe that assertion.

        “See the problem here?”
        Nope. Concept of God looks coherent to me! 🙂

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  3. “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 incoherent, and we don’t.

    Since you like reading lessons, perhaps you could try. The Soul Fallacy.

    Written by a neuroscientist. Every theory of mind, every one, involves around physical interactions within a physical brain. The idea of the “immaterial mind” is completely dismissed as having no kind of functionary meaning. There are more problems with the idea of “immateriality” than this, and Sean Carroll deals with them at some length.

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    1. Unfortunately, while I have only recommended a 20-page paper, you have gone and recommended a nearly 300-page book! Perhaps, since you have read the book and I do not have time to right now, you can help summarize some of its key arguments for me. Earlier in my blog (starting here: https://structureoftruth.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/the-realm-of-the-mind/) I have several posts exploring my reasons for believing that there is an immaterial component to reality, and I address some common objections to that belief in another post (https://structureoftruth.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/dualism/). I’d greatly appreciate it if you could comment on those posts, pointing out how Musolino’s book undercuts my reasons for belief in the immateriality of the mind.

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      1. Yeah, so here’s the deal. Apparently email notifications aren’t working. So, in order for me to comment on multiple posts, I would have to individually bookmark and periodically check those posts for comments. Quite frankly, I’m not willing to make that time expenditure at this point. Your commenting system makes it very hard to participate. A blog that allowed something like Disqus comments would be much preferable. That’s just the way I see it.

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