Is God Just Too Great For Our Finite Minds To Understand?

I define faith as either an explicit or implicit willful commitment, to believe, hope, trust, or be loyal to an idea, a person (real or imagined), a group, an institution, or anything else more than the rational warrant justifies and even in the teeth of superior justification for contrary beliefs or in spite of a lack of justifying evidence altogether. In reply, theists often indignantly insist that by equating faith with a species of refusal to reason properly, I am accusing them too unfairly of all being irrational.

So, last week, I pointed out a number of areas where theists, specifically Christians–but I could have chosen adherents to any robust theistic religion to talk about–disregard canons of evidence and believe with greater strength and life commitment than any rational evidence warrants in a number of fantastic propositions. These include that Yahweh, the god acting in the Old Testament, is anything like the metaphysical concept of the Ground of All Being who is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, etc. Just thinking you can prove some metaphysical god concept is not grounds for saying that the Hebrew stories of Yahweh are at all about that being. It’s especially unlikely to be the case when Yahweh behaves flagrantly immorally (calling for genocides) and exhibits spatial characteristics (he has a body in the Old Testament and is “seen” and “heard” in various places) a temporal mind (such that he has changes of mind, expresses surprise, goes through emotional changes, etc.) If Christians are really rationally proportioning their beliefs like others do, then they would hardly be so dogmatically assertive and confident about this being whose characteristics are wholly incompatible with an eternal, perfect, ground of all being, was actually identical with that metaphysical principle. I also pointed out that there is no good reason to believe in absurdities like the existence of an eternal god that is simultaneously a temporal man. Believing in such an impossibility is not restraining one’s belief to what has rational warrant. And committing to this supposed being as the center of one’s life and commitments is not proportioning the strength of one’s commitment to belief to the degree of rational warrant for the belief in such a godman even were he to be conceptualized as minimally possible in some remote and unlikely way.

So, as should be uncontroversial, Christians do not proportion their beliefs to rational warrant. Instead they willfully commit to believing things for which they are well aware as soon as you get past the smokescreens are well beyond rational justification. It’s a misleading, maybe even willfully deceptive thing when they try to conflate all rational inquiry with their flights of arbitrary, self-serving believing as all equally “faith” as though there were no difference between restraining one’s beliefs to evidence as people do in any number of areas of life, on the one hand, and believing a set of remarkably fantastic, contradictory, unlikely, supernatural tales and imaginary concepts like everyone can clearly see religious people doing (at least when it’s other people’s religions than their own).

Now, in reply to various contradictions I raised that make the Yahweh=Ground of All Being story and the “existence of a godman” claim at least highly unlikely and at most impossible (and in either case unworthy of belief by people who actually proportion beliefs to rational warrants), I received the following familiar dodge from a commenter.

Why should God who is, as you granted in the article, “an eternal, immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, rational designing ground of all being” have to be completely understood by you a finite material person limited in: power, knowledge, and goodness? The fact that you can’t wrap your mind around all the aspects of God isn’t suprising, and should be expected.

There is a difference between something that is more complex than we can understand and something which is outright contradictory. We might be able to say that there are things which we do not know everything about how they work but we know in fact they must work in some way because of observations that are clear to us. In this case we have a genuine mystery. We know A is true. We know B is true. It does not seem like they can go together but some deeper, rational situation about things can explain them both and we are just, thus far unable to puzzle it out. This is a genuine mystery.

But if you think you have strong rational inferences that the best explanation of the universe is that there is an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, immutable, personal, ground of all being that exists distinct from the universe as its self-caused cause then presumably you have reasons to think these things. Presumably you must know something significant about the meaning of words like “eternal” and “immutable” and “personal” and “omni”. Presumably if you think you know enough rationally about metaphysics to say that it is the inference to the most rational explanation to say positively such a being exists and that agnostics are wrong to withhold belief and atheists are wrong to think this being doesn’t exist, then you are saying you know quite a bit about fundamental metaphysical categories.

So, suddenly, when I point out to you that what we can rationally infer about eternality precludes a fully eternal and immutable being being also, at the same time, fully a specific spatio-temporal person, you cannot suddenly say “our minds just can’t grasp such mysteries for what do we know about time and eternity?” For one thing your whole supposedly rationally temperate and careful reason for believing in God was supposed to be that the temporal cannot explain its own being without reference to a distinct being that is eternal. Now you cannot backtrack and claim that eternity and temporality are simply inscrutable and may violate all logic.

I mean, maybe you could if you had unavoidable evidence of something being simultaneously an eternal, immutable, incorporeal, atemporal being and a specific fully mutable, temporal, corporeal being. But where is this unavoidable evidence? Simply the fact that people who didn’t know the first thing about science, living in a superstitious age, deified a local preacher who did parlor tricks and appealed to their anxieties about being oppressed by the Roman emperor, and in order to reconcile the monotheism of his followers with Greek philosophy, and their deification of this human being, they devised a cockamamie meaningless idea that he was miraculously simultaneously fully a god and fully a human, fully the same being as monotheistic god and yet a different person? This belief is not some unavoidable fact that must be affirmed by a rational person if they are to make sense of experience. It is a piece of nonsensical, religious propaganda with no basis in fact, and which you would readily dismiss out of hand were you not raised in a culture that pressures you from numerous angles to worship and deify him.

Similarly, there is no puzzle about how Yahweh of the Old Testament can be simultaneously omnibenevolent and a commander of vicious genocides for the sake of assuaging his petty ego. The answer is simple. Yahweh is not a morally perfect character. He is the projection of an ancient people with barbaric tribalistic genocidal values. He has nothing whatsoever to do with moral perfection. That’s the simple, rationally likely answer. That is far more plausible and justified than that somehow an omnibenevolent expressed itself genocidally or was “misconstrued” to be genocidal by the very same people who supposedly were reliable authorities that he was the ground of all being intervening in history.

Why in the world are the ancient Hebrews assumed to be are reliable guides when claiming that Yahweh is the supreme being that created all things? Where is the slightest evidence you’re rationally proportioning yourself to scrupulously that they among countless ancient mythmakers identified the true creator’s true interactions with the world? Why is this assumption held to? Where’s the careful rational proportion of beliefs to evidence in clinging to this belief? Reason can conclude simply that even if there was a ground of all being it is not the kind of thing that goes around commanding genocides. It’s likely, if anything at all, an unthinking metaphysical principle that does nothing so personal as that. It’s likely no more personal than gravity or electromagnetism or abstract objects like the numbers. In order to vouchsafe Yahweh as the omnibenevolent personal ground of all being one would have to reconcile genocide with morally perfect goodness. But there is no good reason to assume that Yahweh is at all ground of all being intervening in history. Rather, it is simpler to just jetison the belief in Yahweh as the ground of all being.

That’s what rationally honest people do.

But people of faith, they pretend that the bare possibility that we might not understand things is a good reason to continue believing an implausible, and I would argue impossible, proposition and continue to redefine words to hang onto centuries old beliefs that had no basis in the first place and are false on their face in the 21st Century to anyone who was not intensively indoctrinated in a culture that reveres them.

Your Thoughts?

For much more on the problems with the very idea of God, see my post Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • BobaFuct

    You kinda hint at it in the part about Jesus, but the problem with god’s existence seems even more fundamental than the contradiction between “god is good” and “god is genocidal”. To me, there is an irreconcileable contradiction in the existence of an omnipresent being and anything else….I don’t just mean how can god be god and man at the same time, I mean, if god is literally everwhere (as in, eternal in space and time), how can he “create” anything that is fundamentally distinct from himself? This also extends to the trinity, because if one “part” of god is distinct from another, that means that it has something the other lacks and is, therefore, not perfect and not omnipresent.

    I’ve gotten the “we just can’t understand” argument from most Christians I know, but I’m wondering if any have tried to come up with a truly rational explanation.

    • Lane

      “how can he “create” anything that is fundamentally distinct from himself?”

      God would have to be distinct from Creation. Something can’t create itself; it can’t be the cause of itself. That would make it causally prior to itself, and thats illogical. So whatever is the cause of the universe has to also be distinct from the universe, and thus transcendent.

    • BobaFuct

      Okay, so based on sentences 2 and 3 of that paragraph, the concept of god is totally illogical. I concur, but I can’t help but think that wasn’t the conclusion you wanted me to come to…

    • Lane

      Not exactly. Something has to exist necessarily, exist by its very nature, for anything at all to exist. Obviously, there are things that exist. I would say that God’s existence is a necessity of His nature. And everything else that exists is contingent on God.

    • BobaFuct

      Putting aside the problems with the cosmological argument, your statement doesn’t reconcile the co-existence of an eternal, perfect being with anything that is not that. If the universe is distinct from god, it must contain qualities that god does not, otherwise it wouldn’t be distinct. In my head, the possible explanations are broken down thusly (although I fully admit that I’m not a philosopher and I don’t claim to be authoritiative here, this is just my thought process):

      A) God exists and is omnipresent, onminsicient, and omnipotent. If this is case, then nothing else can exist apart from god. However, we exist. Therefore god does not.

      B) God exists but is distinct from the universe. If this is the case, god lacks certain properties that the universe has. If god lacks some quality, he is not eternal. If god is not eternal, then he does not exist (in the purest sense, anyway).

    • RobiDon

      Why not: Nothing else can exist apart from god; we exist; we are a part of god.

    • Lane

      You seemed to be confused with the attribute of omnipresence.

  • Lane

    To be fair, the quote above (btw thanks for the shout out) was not saying that you can’t know anything about God, but rather you can’t understand everything about God. It was directed at the mystery of such things as Jesus being both man and God, and God existing as the Trinity. The evidence for these views is the Bible. The Bible being a record of God’s interactions with humans with regard to the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration arc of humanity; its God’s special revelation of Himself containing the necessary information for your salvation. If you reject special revelation there is still natural revelation. Natural revelation (science, natural theology, philosophy) can not by itself give us understanding of all aspects of God; special revelation adds to the picture. However, natural revelation taken by itself, I believe, still gives warrant for the existence of at least a necessary uncaused timeless spaceless immaterial personal creator of the universe: god. So I don’t think it should be seen as backtracking to say you as finite person “can’t wrap your mind around all the aspects of God”, you can come to know some aspects.

    • Pofarmer

      The problem here is that the whole Creation-fall-redemption-restoration thingy is wholly theological in nature. There is no evidence any of it ever happened, or that human nature fundamentally changed somehow. There is no actual evidence of how things would have been before the fall. History simply points to things continuing on pretty much as they always had.

    • John Kruger

      It is odd that you cite the Christian Bible as the source of the holy trinity, when it makes no specific mention of it at all(cite the passages if you think me incorrect). In fact in the Gospel of John there are more than a few quotations from Jesus that are completely incompatible with a being that is simultaneously a man and a god, in that he would exclude things from himself in deference to “his father”.

      John 5:30 By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

      John 7:16 Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.

      John 14:28 “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.

      Clearly the Bible in fact contradicts the idea of the holy trinity, so will you now discard the idea, or were you mistaken in why you consider it truth?

    • Lane

      You only point out passages that demonstrate the distinctness of members of the Trinity, but exclude ones that demonstrate their unity. There are plenty of books and websites and articles that discuss this. Here is one that list verses:

  • mikmik

    I do not think most Christians are being disingenuous when they say that God is beyond our understanding AND perfect. They have to have the intellectual capacity to understand the logic you, and others like most of us that read you, present, in order to understand the incompatibilities in their thinking.
    Your arguments are merely the words of an authority that are mysterious to them. They make the simple choice between authoritative explanations, and it is much easier to see others as unable to understand what they are talking about also, when it comes to God.
    All arguments are equal in their eyes. The aura of ancient holiness is just too dramatic to be placed on equal footing with mortal thought, which using reason and logic they don’t understand tries to do.

  • John Evans

    The shorter version I use: “If you’re going to say your god(s) is/are beyond human understanding, please stop trying to convince me you understand them.”

    • mikmik

      That is perfect!

    • Lane

      God is not completely beyond understanding, He has revealed Himself to us. However, the argument that goes like: I don’t understand how Jesus can be both God and man, therefore God doesn’t exist; is not very good.

    • Pofarmer

      That’s probably why pretty much no one makes it.

    • John Evans

      Lane, you say god is not completely beyond understanding. Others have told me he (she, it, they) is/are. My response is aimed at those people.

      Further, pointing out that claiming an entity is simultaneously mortal and immortal, simultaneously one and two entities, doesn’t make much sense is not intended as a disproof of god. It is intended as an indication that the stories being told about this supposed god don’t make much sense.

    • Lane

      Fair enough.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I don’t understand how Jesus can be both God and man, therefore God doesn’t exist; is not very good.

      The argument, “There is no coherent way for Jesus to be understood to be both god and man” does not lead to “God doesn’t exist”. It leads to “the proposition Jesus is both god and man quite possibly could be a contradiction and I do not know how to determine that it’s not so, SINCE I AM SOMEONE WHO PROPORTIONS MY BELIEFS TO RATIONAL WARRANT, I will not affirm that Jesus is both god and man since I don’t even know IF it’s possible, let alone that is true if it might not even be possible.”

      THAT’S HOW being a rational person who proportions beliefs to rational warrant works. It’s NOT proportioning belief and strength of belief to both affirm Jesus IS god and man and to worship him and build a host of other beliefs on the claim when you do not even know how it makes sense or WHETHER it can be made to make sense and when PRIMA FACIE on the categories you supposedly used to derive the existence of God, the proposition is an outright contradiction.

      If you want credit for being someone who proportions belief and strength of belief to rational warrant, you have to behave like it. Just saying it is empty words.

    • Lane

      Things like Jesus being both God and man, and God being a Trinitarian are conclusions derived from other premises. Such as Jesus was a historical person; He fulfilled prophecies; He worked a ministry miracles; He claimed and demonstrated the authority of God; He was resurrected; and so forth. These, if accepted, lead to the conclusion that He is both God and man. But since I accept these premises, I have to accept the conclusion – even if I may not fully understand how the conclusion works! This, I claim, can be done by a rational person. I realize that you may deny these propositions and thus the conclusion, but jumping to end and denying the conclusion out of hand seems wrong to me. Its not like its an explicit contradiction such as I love you, and I do not love you.

      You come across a similar situation with light, which I mentioned earlier. Light acts like a particle. Light acts like a wave. So we conclude that light is both a particle and a wave. However, looking at the conclusion it doesn’t seem right, its a mystery – and that’s okay since I don’t fully understand everything that’s going on with physics and reality.

      If you gave me a logical proof that God does not exist, and I accept all the premises and then also deny the conclusion, I would agree with you that I’m being irrational.

    • mikmik

      “These, if accepted, lead to the conclusion that He is both God and man”
      Sigh…. No, they don’t. He could be an agent of God bestowed with abilities. That is the logical conclusion. The opposite of what you claim.

    • Lane

      Sigh, He claims the authority of God such as the forgiveness of sins. He claims if you know Him you know God the Father. He accepts people worshiping Him…. He is God.

    • mikmik

      I don’t understand ‘x’; therefore ‘x’, is a meaningless statement. “I don’t understand parts of God; therefore God, is completely unacceptable as an argument. It is the equivalent of saying, “Just because you can’t disprove it, it is a justifiable belief.”
      See invisible pink unicorns, garden faeries, and Russel’s teapot, for instance.
      These arguments are tedious, no matter how they are worded.

    • Lane

      I wasn’t making that argument, and I’m not aware of anyone who does.

    • mikmik

      I was remaking the statement that Lane made – the one you didn’t answer. If you don’t understand part of God, how can you say that you understand that He is all Good?
      Maybe the part that has been ‘revealed’ to you is a lie(which I would bet on). You only partly see(understand) God, but you cannot extrapolate that into knowing(understanding) the whole.

  • Brooks Rickard

    I think they can’t understand, and that they want to believe they are rational, and intelligent. So they project their confusion onto us.

    You touch on it a bit with having a god with emotions. Surprise, anger, and jealousy are not possible with an “all knowing” god. If a deity is omniscient then it knows why and has no reason to be angry, surprised, or jealous.

    It would have no reason to test Job, Abraham and others as it would know the outcome before the test. It would have no need to prove anything to Satan. It would have known the world it created with Adam and Steve would turn out that way, and would not drown every creature save a boat load. It hand selected every person to be alive before they were born, and knew exactly what type of person it was bringing into the world. It would have no one to be disappointed in except itself. And then maybe with a poof would be gone forever…

    The Jesus character would have at least known that slavery was wrong and said so. In fact he didn’t really tell us much other than he also could get angry and wonder(not omniscient like) and that he had no sense of direction, and like any good stereotypical male didn’t ask for directions as he proceeded to one city in the wrong direction.

    It would be far better if they just admitted believing in a god that will take care of them after they are dead makes them feel better, and that then gives them a purpose in this random undirected life. And kept their personal nonsense to themselves in private like the bible says.

    You’d think in this age we’d be long past the nonsense of our past, and that we as humans could admit our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents etc didn’t have a clue, but that at least we do(should) and it sure the hell isn’t coming from a completely fallible book.