The Language of God: Cosmology and the God Hypothesis

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins concludes this chapter by tying his overview of cosmology to the god hypothesis. He states that “[c]learly, the scientific view is not entirely sufficient to answer all of the interesting questions about the origin of the universe, and there is nothing inherently in conflict between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed” (pp.80-1). We’ve already addressed this god-of-the-gaps mentality before; just because one hypothesis (scientific explanation of the origins of the universe) might fail, that does not by itself validate any competing hypotheis (god did it). Likewise, we have seen conflict between what god has “revealed” and what science tells us – just read Genesis. But the point of Collins introducing the final section of this chapter is to have his readers build upon the foundation they’ve constructed thus far. Too bad that foundation is crap.

Collins presents an argument for how the theist can seek a god who created the universe but also cares about us personally (I numbered the premisses for later reference):

(1) If God exists, then He is supernatural
(2) If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws
(3) If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time
(4) If He is not limited by time, then He is in the past, the present, and the future.

Collins draws a number of conclusions from this. First, God can exist prior to and after the universe. Second, God has perfect knowledge of everything, including the formation of planets, biogenesis, and our thoughts and actions. I’d like to explore his argument in more detail before discussing his conclusions.

Collins’ argument begins like a tautology, based on his definition of God. Let’s leave alone the first two premisses and grant them as true based on the definitions of “god” and “supernatural.” Premiss (3) is problematic, and it’s here that I think Collins’ argument loses soundness. I don’t think it follows that not being limited by natural laws means there’s no reason one should be limited by time. I think my problem is in ambiguous language. I think I understand what it would mean to not be limited by natural laws: you don’t need to be under gravity’s thumb; you don’t need to abide by the Law of Conservation of Energy; you can shirk conservation of angular momentum whenever you wanted to. Now, I see those examples as immensely flawed, but at least I understand them. I’m not sure what it means to not be limited by time.

The concept of being outside time (or timeless) is problematic. Drange (1998) considered timelessness as just one of many incompatible properties traditionally ascribed to God. It goes along with the pair of attributes of god being immutable (unchangable) and creating the universe. It boils down to this: In order to create, one must have the intention of creating, then perform the act of creating, then no longer have the intention of creating. For example, I want to bake brownies. I bake the brownies. I no longer want to bake brownies because I’m too busy stuffing my face with the brownies I just made. Smith (1996) also pointed out how the concept of a timeless god is problematic given temporal causation: with time not existing, how can any temporal causation occur?

Premiss 4 also confuses me. I first considered the concept “not being limited by time” as being outside of time or timeless. William Lane Craig usually uses “timeless” as a property of God, as well as spaceless, immensely powerful, and personal. But now I read Collins’ concept “not being limited by time” as meaning “able to flow anywhere in time.” I think Collins is equivocating different notions of time. To me, this poses a big problem, as I think it means God can know opposing propositions in the same context. Let’s say God goes to the past, before I was born. To God, the past is now his “present” and he knows the proposition “BJ Marshall does not exist.” Well, God then decided to zip forward in time to a new “present” and he knows the proposition “BJ Marshall exists.” I say “in the same context” because both knowledge statements are in God’s “present,” which is to say the time in which God currently exists.

Despite the confusing argument, Collins draws conclusions about God’s omnipotence leading up to God knowing every thought and action we perform. I think this also means that God knows well before we’re born whether he’s going to roast us for eternity (trillions of years?) for transgressions we made against an arbitrary set of moral laws over a span of 80 years or so.

Collins has more to say about marrying science and religion, and he speaks very briefly about the wrongheadedness of Young Earth Creationists. He ends by quoting Saint Augustine:

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it” (p.83).

If only the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research heeded this advice. It sounds a lot like Augustine is proposing using reason and evidence to back up positions of faith. Of course, one problem I have is trying to figure out how positions of faith can be backed up, given there’s no way to verify or test those positions. It reminded me of George Smith in “Atheism: The Case Against God”: “There can be no knowledge of what is good for man[kind] apart from the knowledge of reality and human nature – and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason” (p.4).

Earlier, Collins had asserted that religions were rusty containers and that perhaps the water held within the containers comprised the articles of faith that form the core beliefs of corruptible religions. I wonder at what point scientific discoveries will throw away enough buckets of bathwater until people eventually toss out the baby of faith altogether.

Other posts in this series:

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  • Kevin Morgan

    Despite the confusing argument, Collins draws conclusions about God’s omnipotence leading up to God knowing every thought and action we perform. I think this also means that God knows well before we’re born whether he’s going to roast us for eternity (trillions of years?) for transgressions we made against an arbitrary set of moral laws over a span of 80 years or so.

    This is one of the arguments I often make when talking God with people who insist on doing so. How can we have free will if God already knows the outcome of every decision we’re going to make? Sounds like the game is rigged to me. Why bother converting people if its already known they aren’t going to convert? Or, if they ARE going to convert, then shouldn’t they just spontaneously do so on their own at the appropriate time?

    Medicine is also a waste of time. If someone is known by God to have made it out of a well, then just leave them in the well. They’ll either get out or not.

    Of course, then you get the “God works through people…” argument. But still, if we decide not to have rescue agencies, police, fire, ambulances, etc., then that was something already in the books and there’s nothing we could have done about it anyway. So it’s God’s will that there be such things (police, fire, etc.) because that’s how he rolls (and yes, God is a He, how dare anyone argue anything else?)

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    Q: What is the product of zero and infinity?
    A: Zero.

    Kind of an analogy… Imagine the zero as the base premise. Imagine the infinity as the apology for or against atheism, theism, or anything else. If the base premise is flawed, the rest comes to naught.

    It seems to me that if God exists, it does not come that we can know anything about God for certain. Not even that God is supernatural! There is nothing in this universe that I can see that is marked with a label that says that God revealed it, in spite of the fact that people say it is so, such as in the case of numerous scriptures.

    In addition to all this, apologetic literature is using human language to discuss things that, if they exist, are potentially indescribable using language.

    The fact that people get their knickers in a twist over this is crazy. I don’t think it’s really about religion. I think it’s about power, and being right and belonging, all human needs.

  • http://theuniverseisanatheist.blogspot.com Joseph Patton

    I just hate arguing with religious people because they honestly don’t care what you have to say. You are wrong, and that is that. They have an omnipotent deity on their side, an imaginary one, yes, but they still think they have a God on their side. I mean, how do you rationally argue with that? Mind you, I do argue with religious people all the time, I guess just making them think about their preconceived notions of what a god would be is all I can hope to achieve. Sigh.

  • paradoctor

    Actually… the product of zero and infinity is zero divided by zero; the indefinite ratio. No information. Which, I think, is a typical consequence of theological reasoning.

  • Valhar2000

    and yes, God is a He, how dare anyone argue anything else?

    That is something that strikes me sometimes, but I never hear anyone talking about it: the extraordinary conceit that a supreme being, all powerful and creator of all things seen and unseen, has a gender. The concept of gender is irrelevant to the vast majority of the universe, including most lifeforms, but since it matters to us, it must matter to God. Then again, it is not anymore ridiculous than the idea that God worries about where we put our naughty bits.

  • Explorer

    I don’t think you have the best grasp of the physics of time. I don’t profess to either, but I do grasp enough of hyperdimensionality to be able to see that the timelessness of God is arguably less nonsensical than it might at first appear.

    The talk around God’s omniscience is a potentially dangerous battleground though, since determinism must be the default position for scientists as well.

    While we’re on the topic though I’d like to share an epiphany I once had about the nature of the universe: Consider a photon, travelling at the speed of light. Consider that at that speed, according to the Lorentz contraction, to the photon the universe has no length. Now consider that if the universe has no length, the photon crosses it in a subjective instant. A single photon could vibrate itself to every position in the universe in literally no time at all. Could the big bang and everything that came of it be simply the movements of a single photon, vibrating at c and interacting with itself? Perhaps not. As I said, I’m no physicist.

    If there is any truth at all to my epiphany, what does that say about time, causation, the heterogeneity of substance in the universe? And could the photon, the single photon which is the entire universe, be in any way equated with God?

  • colluvial

    (1) If God exists, then He is supernatural

    I don’t think I can even get on board with #1. Is there any reason to think the authors of the Bible thought that God existed outside space and time? And why do believers today hold this opinion, when a highly-developed technology could conceivably reproduce any miracle reported in the Bible? Is claiming God to be supernatural just a way for religions to keep him away from scientific scrutiny?

  • lpetrich

    There’s another problem. A god that’s outside of time would be absolutely static. That’s not the sort of God the Bible describes, who regrets some of his actions.

  • BJ Marshall

    @Explorer: You may be right; I might not have the best grasp of the physics of time, but I haven’t seen anything in your post to suggest where I might be amiss. Maybe you could expound upon hyperdimensionality to make God’s timelessness seem less nonsensical.

    Common Sense Atheism has some posts about the A-theory and B-theory of time. I need to read up on this stuff more to really understand it, though.

    Reasonable Doubts has a series (I think three) of podcasts on determinism. Listening to podcasts like these make mundane chores like doing the laundry so much fun. (For me, anyway.)

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    1: If god exists, then he mustn’t be supernatural.

    After all, if it exists in a natural world, then it must, in fact, be natural. Once presupposition 1 is gone, the rest must, of course, be cast into more significant doubt. Even using the more layman term of Natural, the choice is not Natural or Supernatural, but Natural or Synthetic.

    And yes, I think many of us here agree, gods are Synthetic: Man-made objects and inventions.

  • anna

    I notice that God, although not limited by time or natural laws, is limited to the male gender.

  • Jim Baerg

    1: If god exists, then he mustn’t be supernatural.

    That depends on how you define supernatural.

  • Explorer

    @BJ: Of course, by “less nonsensical” I don’t mean “more sensible”, only that statements about God being timeless or eternal could have truth value, rather than being logically impossible in the manner I interpret your OP to suggest.

    The logic of your baking analogy, for example, makes sense only within the context of time-bounded causality. If we assume that God is not time-bound, then the logic of intention-action-satisfaction doesn’t necessarily follow in the normal causal order in the mundane timeline.

    That said, you are clearly somewhat versed in time as well, so perhaps it’s me who is confused.

  • BJ Marshall

    I’m not sure what causality would look like without being time-bound. My mind jumps to imagining that the food I’m eating changes – without any cause at all – to an xBox 360. And then I wonder if my food could exist as not-food co-temporaneously if we shirk the “mundane timeline”, which I think would violate some principle laws of logic.

    I think I’m sufficiently versed in time to get myself into trouble by misrepresenting it to others. Life was so simple when I was ignorant to things like A-theory and B-theory of time. Now, I think I need to get advanced degrees and become a Michio Kaku of sorts before I can understand time.

  • TEP

    I notice that God, although not limited by time or natural laws, is limited to the male gender.

    Well, as Yahweh was once married to the goddess Asherah, he has to be, because we all know how much Yahweh hates gays. Unless, of course, ‘she’ is a dirty great big hypocrite. Oh, wait . . .

  • jack

    just because one hypothesis (scientific explanation of the origins of the universe) might fail, that does not by itself validate any competing hypotheis (god did it)

    Especially when the competing “hypothesis” is not a hypothesis at all, because it is not testable.

    Well, as Yahweh was once married to the goddess Asherah, he has to be, because we all know how much Yahweh hates gays. Unless, of course, ‘she’ is a dirty great big hypocrite. Oh, wait . . .

    The idea that the invisible, immaterial Yawheh must have a penis is just more evidence that humans created God in their image, not the other way around. The same goes for all the Goddesses of the world’s religions and their private parts.

    The talk around God’s omniscience is a potentially dangerous battleground though, since determinism must be the default position for scientists as well.

    Sorry, Explorer, but you lost me there. No rational scientist who has taken a basic physics course believes that we inhabit a deterministic universe. We gave that up in the 1930s.

  • Explorer

    That’s not my understanding of it, Jack. Sure it’s indeterminable by science (because of the uncertainty principle, and the resulting resort to probability functions), but whether that means the universe is actually non-deterministic is less clear.

    I must admit I’m not deeply read in this field, but my understanding has always been that the apparent randomness and chaos to the universe is (likely to be) merely a matter of Heisenbergian uncertainty. While we cannot simultaneously *know* both position and velocity, both quantities none-the-less have factual values.

    In any case, at the macro scale, we can say with some confidence that there is little which is not deterministic to all intents and purposes. Do you think uncertainty at Heisenberg scales has significant impacts on cognitive function? Even if it does, does that mean we have “free will” or just slightly random behaviour? Because that’s really what this issue usually boils down to. Do we have “free will” in any real sense? (Of course, whether that actually matters a jot is another question.)

  • jack

    Explorer,

    Prior to the quantum revolution of the 20th century, it was possible to imagine that the future of the universe was in some meaningful sense contained in, and completely determined by, its state in the present. In this view, the future is not in practice predictable, because we lack the technical means ever to know the momentum and position of every particle, but in principle the future is determined by the present.

    The uncertainty principle utterly demolished all of that. The future is not contained in the present. It is not determined by the present. Ours is not a deterministic universe. You don’t need to take my word for it. Read Feynman’s Lectures on Physics, or any good text on quantum mechanics.

  • 2-D Man

    While we cannot simultaneously *know* both position and velocity, both quantities none-the-less have factual values.

    This is incorrect.

    And could the photon, the single photon which is the entire universe, be in any way equated with God?

    Sure… if you feel like worshiping an electromagnetic wave….

  • Explorer

    I have read quite a bit of quantum physics (articles and summaries mostly, not whole textbooks). All I’ve ever seen is explanations for why we can never know both the position and velocity. While I’ve seen it claimed that this means that the two quantities are thus not determined in the underlying sense, I’ve never seen anyone actually explain why this should be so.

    I understand that we will never be able to measure both beyond the limits of Heisenberg uncertainty. I understand (at a rudimentary level at least) the concept of wave functions. None of this tells me why the position and velocity of the particle/wave centre are not *actually* determined. It only tells me that we *can’t* and *will never be able to* know both at the same time.

    As for worshipping the god particle, that would be absurd, for most definitions of the word “worship”.

  • jack

    While I’ve seen it claimed that this means that the two quantities are thus not determined in the underlying sense, I’ve never seen anyone actually explain why this should be so.

    I can’t explain why it should be so. No one can. That’s just the way reality is. I’ll do the best I can to explain how it is so, and how we know it, within the constraints of a comment on a blog. If each subatomic particle had an exact position and momentum at each instant in time, this would specify, or determine, a unique path that particle will travel in the future, like a billiard ball on a pool table. But the double-slit experiment shows that subatomic particles do not behave in this way. When we set up an array of detectors on the other side of the barrier in which there are two slits, we don’t see two sharp spots where all the particles fall, as paths through the slits would predict. Instead we see (after many particles have been detected and the locations of their impacts plotted) a smooth and wavey distribution of impacts. This behavior can only be explained by describing each particle as a complex-valued, probability amplitude wave function. The interaction of these with the slits results in interference, as the waves cancel in some places and add constructively in others.

    This way of describing subatomic particles explains not only the 2-slit experiment, but a host of other mysteries that confounded classical mechanics, like the behavior of electrons in an atom (as manifest in the regularities of the periodic table and chemical bonding behavior), radioactive decay, and much, much more. The evidence for the reality of it is overwhelming. Subatomic particles are not like billiard balls. They do not have exact position and momentum. They are not really “particles” at all. They are not really “waves” either. They are simultaneously both and neither. If you have trouble wrapping your mind around that, then welcome to the club. That’s quantum mechanics.

  • 2-D Man

    Explorer, particles do not exist. [insert boilerplate pedantry]

    As for worshipping the god particle, that would be absurd, for most definitions of the word “worship”.

    Rats, I was trying to point out that it would be absurd for most definitions of the word, “God” (note the capitalization).


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