(This continues my last post: How I Became an Atheist)
My high school apologetics class dealt with its subject matter as rigorously as any other class I took there. The purpose of the first unit was to clarify for us the concept of God, to get a look at the idea’s nuts and bolts and figure out exactly what is meant by “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” We started with the most basic apologetic arguments for deism: arguments for god as First Cause and Ground of All Being, on the grounds that rejecting this hypothesis leads to the the dilemma of positing an eternal Universe or an infinite regress of causes. Once a theologically precise definition of God had been established, we went on to see what followed from this definition and what could be inferred about God from the world, as well as examining the evidence for the divinity of Jesus and the reliability of the Bible. It was all interesting material, but I found it abjectly unconvincing from the start. While I came into the class as an agnostic deist, this exposure to a rigorous analysis of what I kept telling myself I believed was enough to push me over the edge into full-blown Strong Atheism (the positive belief that there is no God). In this post, I’ll explain why I find even the most basic conception of God philosophically untenable.
While the paradoxes following from the nature of God as described by the major monotheisms are numerous, the most troubling class of problems for me are those concerning God’s relationship to the physical world. The first problem I noticed was the problem of how God was able to create the Universe (here defined as the whole of physical reality, be it a single universe or a multiversal ensemble). What’s curious about this problem is that it seems to refute most conceptions of God before they even get off the ground: it reveals certain problems that arise if God is defined as the Creator of the Universe or that which caused the Universe to exist. Apologists the world over use as a philosophical starting point the idea of God as the First Cause who created the Universe from nothing. The most common and intuitively compelling argument is that “something can’t come from nothing,” which is presented not as a merely contingent thing-that-never-happens but as a logical impossibility. Apologist William Lane Craig sums this position up in his review of physicist Lawrence Krauss’s book, A Universe From Nothing, saying in response to Krauss’s use of the term “nothing” to denote a quantum vacuum:
Nothing is a term of universal negation—it means, not anything. It’s Dr. Krauss who wants to redefine the word nothing to mean something, like the quantum vacuum or a state of affairs in which classical time and space do not exist. . . . So this is, I think, just completely wrong, and it illustrates, again, that he’s not answering the same question that Leibniz asked when he said ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Dr. Krauss is redefining the terms. Now, it’s also very interesting when he says the potential for existence is different than existence. The point is that potentialities lodge only in things that exist. . . . Non-being has no properties; it has no potentialities. So the very fact that he’s talking about the potential for the existence of a universe shows that he is talking about something. He’s not talking about nothing. He’s talking about something that has potentialities and powers. And therefore this just underlines, again, that fact that he’s not dealing with the fundamental metaphysical question ‘why is there something rather than nothing at all?’
But this puts theists in a bit of a bind, because Craig’s idea of nothing is that from which God is supposed to have created everything. So while some claim that something can’t ever come from nothing, others claim that God has brought about exactly this state of affairs. What theists mean, evidently, is that something can’t come from nothing unless God does it. Even claims of omnipotence can’t save God from this problem, because the typical definition of omnipotence holds that God’s abilities are at least limited to what is logically possible, and the believer has yet to establish that it is logically possible for anyone to create something out of nothing. The intuition that the Universe must have had a Cause is no more robust or empirically supported than the intuition that it is impossible to create something from nothing, and these two notions are plainly contradictory, so it seems that something has to give. But theists are adamant that the Universe must have a Cause, and that this entails the existence of such a Cause, which must be able to create something out of nothing. Without a motivation to conclude God’s existence, the contradiction here would be apparent, but apologists have been giving us the run-around for so long that people have lost sight of this objection to the idea of God. Ultimately, either the Universe can come from nothing, meaning absolutely nothing – in which case, by definition it doesn’t need any Cause – or it can’t. And if the Universe can’t come from nothing all by itself, I don’t see how the causal influence of God (Influence on what? On all the nothing that’s around, presumably?) makes the situation any better.
Furthermore, if the Universe comprises everything physical, and God is external to the Universe, then God must be non-physical. Similarly, because spacetime is part of the physical universe, God must be outside of space and time. These are not controversial claims among theists; these are ideas I was taught in my apologetics class, and they are standard fare for popular apologists. The mainstream answer to the question of how this is even possible seems to be that God exists “in some difficult-to-articulate way” independent of any space and time, in some state that allows for the existence of things that aren’t made of anything. The idea that such a “being” can exist in any meaningful sense is already spurious, but on top of that, the popular holy books claim that God has performed terrific physical feats right here on Earth. This poses another problem: in addition to the power to create the Universe out of literally nothing, God has the power to cause extreme changes in the physical world, at scales ranging from the subatomic to the celestial. Although these two (sets of?) abilities strike me as dissimilar enough to be divided into independent categories, the fashion among theists is to sweep both of these metaphysical tangles under the rug labeled “omnipotence”, usually defined as the ability to do anything that is logically possible. But this totally dodges the real question, as it leaves open the question of whether it is logically possible for a non-physical being to influence the physical world, and using the phrase “God is omnipotent” to describe this problem doesn’t make it any more tractable. The effectiveness of God’s will cannot simply be asserted; it must be defended.
“Omniscience” is another word that’s almost universally used to describe God. Like “omnipotence”, it’s very easy to throw around when treated like a black box, but the impression of rigor given by Latin names is paper thin. Just ask someone to explain what these terms really mean. Short explanatory statements like “God can do anything!” and “God knows everything!” might satisfy a believer, but I’m always left asking, “How?” How can a being with no physical existence do or know anything at all? Perhaps God’s mind contains a perfect representation of the Universe, such that He is eternally aware of what’s going on at every point in spacetime, but such a representation would, by definition, be as complex as the Universe itself. The amount of information God’s mind would need to contain is literally astronomical, but I’ve never heard theists discuss a mechanism by which God has this information. For us humans, information is pretty easy to come by. We have incredibly well-calibrated instruments that detect photons, air pressure waves, airborne chemicals, substances in contact with our skin or teeth, and a wide range of other things. These sensors give us a wealth of information about our environment by undergoing physical changes from interaction with it, and we store this information in various ways. Whether it’s neurons in our brains, pixels on a screen, ink on paper, or transistors in a chip, the information we have is always represented by patterns in some physical substrate. But I’ve never heard God described as having anything like that. All of God’s knowledge is, somehow, just kinda there. Theists present God as a simple, unified whole, not a hugely complex symbol system. Maybe they’re right and God just plays by different rules than we corporeal beings, but that’s a huge metaphysical cop-out. Every instance of information that we have observed has been somehow physically implemented and manipulated. The whole idea of an immaterial being containing a Universe’s worth of (presumably) immaterial information strikes me as a contradiction, and I doubt anyone would ever have said a non-physical being could know anything if nobody were precommitted to believing in an immaterial God who knows everything.
Minds are complicated things, and I find it just ridiculous to hear people say that God is a mind without a body that has all these wonderful properties. So many of the most general arguments for God present the Universe as the product of God’s intelligence and will, but these arguments were developed long ago, when people understood far less about what is meant by mentalistic words like “intelligence” and “will”. There’s a whole lot of stuff that minds do, and much of it depends on being able to interact with the external world. The concepts we think about are embodied in the structure of our brains and are manipulated by gazillions of biochemical reactions among brain cells, and we have mountains of evidence that changes to a person’s brain – physical damage, drugs, hormonal changes, etc. – cause changes to their mind as well. As far as anyone can tell, people’s minds are destroyed when their brains are, and I don’t think any abstract “mind-ness” that works independent of any mind’s physical instantiation is even coherent. Now, I don’t have a proof that matter is necessary for mind, but it would be a huge coincidence if our bodies turned out to be unnecessary for knowing things and interacting with the world.
I must admit here that I’m a pretty staunch physicalist, but as I tried to make clear in my last post, I didn’t start out that way; it was arguments such as the ones above that convinced me that our minds don’t have a non-physical component and that such a thing wouldn’t even make logical sense. An immaterial spirit can’t even control our bodies, let alone the entire Universe. At this point, I am roughly as convinced that God does not exist as I am that 2 + 2 =/= 3. Of course, it’s possible that I am committing the philosopher’s fallacy of concluding the logical impossibility of a concept from my inability to understand that concept, but at the very least, I can’t be asked to believe propositions that don’t make any sense to me. If you want to convince me of God’s existence, you have to explain God in terms that make sense to me. Maybe this is small-minded of me, trying to subject the infinitude of God to my finite reasoning. Maybe I’d be right to conclude that God is impossible, except that God belongs to a special class of being for whom logical inference works differently, but in such a case, no statement about God would be justifiable, and knowledge of God would be impossible in principle. You can say I’m being dogmatic, and I’ll admit it’s possible for God to exist insofar as it’s possible for my conclusion that God is impossible to be mistaken, but it pisses me off how apologists wave away God’s most philosophically troubling characteristics with appeals to mystery and poorly defined properties that amount to nothing more than “God can do anything because He just can.” If I am to change my mind about this, I will need to hear arguments for the possibility of these properties of God, because any God that has impossible properties, I can dismiss unequivocally (after all, one’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens). So perhaps I’m not a Strong Atheist in the strongest sense of it, but at the end of the day, I have to take some action, and I act as if there simply is no God. I know too much probability theory to be a gambler, but if I had to bet, I would bet without hesitation that a mind with no parts, that created everything physical and knows all about it and can change anything whenever He wants to – let alone one that loves us or talks to us or makes moral laws – is not a real thing.