Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes

Examining Some Alleged Divine Attributes February 21, 2012

Jaime: Okay, so why do you believe that your god is a good explanation for the universe?

Robin: Because everything that exists needs an explanation and the universe is no exception.

Jaime: But then why doesn’t your god need an explanation? Aren’t we just headed for an infinite regress unless you just admit that something doesn’t need an explanation?

Robin: Well, yes, that’s exactly what I believe—that there is something which does not need an explanation, and that is God. 

Jaime: But a moment ago you said everything needs an explanation. But now it’s okay that your god doesn’t? You’re just changing the rules for your god.

Robin: No, the point is that something must not need an explanation but must exist of its own accord—but that cannot be anything from within our space-time since it cannot account for itself. So, it must be a being that exists outside our universe, and whatever that being is, is God. Metaphysically speaking, that’s all we can mean by God. All our inferences about God’s nature that don’t come from the Bible must come from the implications of the concept of this metaphysically self-causing being.

Jaime: Why not just say that the universe itself is eternal and self-explanatory? It’s simpler. That way there’s no need for a superfluous extra super-being with superpowers that cannot be accounted for. We just say the world we know just exists on the most basic level uncaused. Cause and effect relationships are meaningful for interactions by which the universe we know morphs itself into different arrangements of beings but the universe itself is eternal and not the kind of thing that gets caused into being as the effect of other agencies or events. Cause and effect are just confused categories for dealing with the origin of the universe itself in that case. They only apply to particular events within the basic eternal constituent features of the universe itself. Something must mysteriously exist with no further cause, so whatever it is, it’s just fundamental to the universe itself.

Robin: But the universe does not seem to be eternal since it has a beginning. So the eternality must be in something outside the universe.

Jaime: Well, just because we do not know what came before the big bang does not mean that in some sense the universe could not be part of a larger eternal multiverse or an eternal sequence of universes or that the universe cannot be eternally expanding with a big bang and then contracting with a big crunch and reexpanding with a big bang, etc. There are any number of plausible explanations of our universe being eternal or part of a larger eternal arrangement. At least these all involve dealing with the known, rather than positing an implausible super-being that just happens to have complex human traits like personhood in a supposedly simple and uncaused being. Everything we know about personhood is that it arises as a later, complex development. It is the result of natural selection processes and it is a functional operation that arises in beings who are composed of trillions of cells, each of which are made of something like 10^14 atoms! And the atoms are further composed of subatomic particles, etc., etc. To posit a simple, timeless, spaceless, eternally existing being which serves as a placeholder of “cause of the universe” is one thing. It’s a speculation which can be defended and challenged on any number of grounds, much like other speculations about fundamental metaphysics. But then to conceive of it as a person like us? That’s as implausible as saying numbers have personalities or that the most basic rudiments of existence, whatever they are, have personalities. Personalities are based on compositions of those basic building blocks of reality, it’s wholly unlikely they would exist on the most basic level of reality.

Robin: But the concept of a personal God is not incoherent. And neither is the positing of a timeless and spaceless being incoherent either. Numbers, for example, are timeless and spaceless. They are not created at any specific date. One might think propositions are too. Whether or not they are true or not may hinge on circumstances, but their meanings don’t seem to.

Jaime: But the problem is this, you say that your god is timeless and yet that the universe does not always exist. But for the universe to not always exist that means that your timeless god must have not created the universe at one moment and then at another moment created it. In which case, your god would be temporal after all—not creating one moment but then creating the next moment. Then you have a temporal being but you claim your god is timeless.

Robin: Well, no, God does not create at a moment, God is always timelessly performing the action of creating the universe all at once.

Jaime: So the universe is always existing, there with your god? So it has no beginning after all, it is eternal on your account!

Robin: But it is of finite duration. It has a beginning moment and a last moment. It is a finite set of moments, whereas God is timeless and not constrained to a set of finite moments.

Jaime: But it is existing eternally, even if it is limited to a finite number of moments? So you’re saying its temporality—its having moments—is compatible with its being eternal but before you said that its having a beginning and, so, presumably a finite number of moments, required it to not be eternal. But now your god can make the whole set of finite, temporal moments exist eternally. So why not say that some feature of, rather than one outside, the universe (or a multiverse) allows it to be eternal despite its also having a temporal beginning.

Robin: Because that makes no sense, if it has a beginning it starts being at some point in time, so it can’t be eternal.

Jaime: But you just claimed God is eternally creating it and it has a beginning point. So it is possible on your account.

Robin: It’s possible if some other being is causing it to both eternally be but to be limited to a finite set of moments in a way that an independently eternal being is not. But if it were its own cause then either it has to be its own eternal cause making itself exist infinitely and not in a finite number of temporal moments, or it really wasn’t there before its beginning and then the question is how it could have poofed itself into existence and then in any meaningful sense be worth calling eternal and not just, say, everlasting. It makes no sense though to say that it just came from nothing. We have to posit an eternal something or there would still be nothing. So, since the universe has a beginning it is likelier to say that the eternal something is not within the universe but exists independently of it and has no beginning itself.

Jaime: But then your god does not freely choose to create the world. It just always does this as a necessary, eternal expression of itself.

Robin: No, there is no necessity in the concept of the eternal, self-subsisting being that necessitates He also be a world creator. From the fact that He has created a world it is clear he could do it, that it’s within His power. But He didn’t have to.

Jaime: But “He” just eternally always does this.

Robin: Yes. In that sense God is free to create or not. The concept of God, as far as we understand it, is not identical with the concept of the world. Therefore, it is not the essence of God to express itself in the world. They are distinguishable concepts. There are alternate possibilities that involve the principle of being, i.e. God, creating different worlds or no world at all. In that sense, this world must be chalked up to a choice by God—even if that’s a different, non-temporal kind of choosing, distinct from any kind we do as temporal creatures.

Jaime: How is it a choice if it’s made eternally and timelessly? All choices we make happen through a process, be it conscious or unconscious. There seems to be a fundamental disanalogy between the notion of a fundamental being principle which is outside the universe conceptually being able to either create or not create different possible worlds and a personal being making such a choice. A personal being is one that goes through a thought process that is temporal to make a choice based on things like desires, emotions, personal relationships to other beings, etc. What you describe could have no substantive similarity to such a being. You’re basically saying that whatever the eternal thing is, it’s not part of the universe and conceptually we cannot assume it needed to either create our universe or any other universe. But even if we grant this being existed, we cannot know (a) that it didn’t generate all universes and not just ours, (b) that something inaccessible to us about it did necessitate it create our universe (or, even, that it necessitated that it create all universes) or (c) that it was personal. In fact, as soon as you say it is timeless, I have to say it is impersonal as all other timeless abstract objects—like, again, numbers. And so metaphors of choice are misleading.

Robin: Well, impersonal forces can make choices. Your computer goes through decision procedures and makes choices all the time.

Jaime: True, but it’s not timeless. It’s the timelessness, that makes both personality and choice impossible. It just eternally would be making one of its eternal choices or eternally expressing a non-choice. But there would never be a moment of alternate possibilities followed by a moment of selection of one over others. And even then it is hard to see in what sense we could assume this being has any choices. All things in our experience are constrained by their natures. Why would not this being which timelessly makes an eternal choice for a world (or worlds) to instantiate not also be expressing an eternal essence the only way it possibly can when it instantiates the world or worlds it does?

Robin: God would be free because He would be outside the causal nexuses of our experience within the world. Determinations only occur within the constraints of nature. But God is beyond nature and not bounded by a nature. He is omnipotent, not finite in power.

Jaime: But the concept of a being with no constraints placed on it by a nature of what it is is incoherent. Either it has a set, whether finite or infinite, of powers, each with coherent natures that have specific means of performing actions or not performing them, or it cannot do anything. A god would have to have a nature that made it what it was and it could not create its own nature too without exercising powers it had through that nature itself.

Robin: Well, God is just the being who exists identically with His nature. He just always exists how he exists. And is not (like humans) just a hypothetical being with a nature that may become instantiated or not. He and His nature eternally are just both there.

Jaime: But then your god has a nature and is subject to its logic. So the logic of your god’s nature is a deeper reality than your god itself. It constitutes and constrains your god.

Robin: But no—God’s nature is not complex. It’s not made of parts. God’s nature is utterly simple, so God and His nature are identical and the most rudimentary being. It’s not like there are further parts of God. God is not made up of numerous powers, each with their own natures, which compose Him as an aggregate being. That would have God made of parts, even if not spatial parts, and that would make no sense. In some way, God must be radically simple such that all his powers are all identical with Him himself.

Jaime: But then you’re saying all your god’s powers are not distinguishable powers but are the same one simple thing. So your god’s love equals his creative power, which equals his destructive power which equals his power of intelligence. Then the powers are incoherent and make no sense.

Robin: But they do. From one respect we can see God’s power as love and from another we can see it as creative force. This is because God’s love is expressed in His creating and God’s creating is the expression of Love.

Jaime: That’s trivial. You can find specific acts that you could attribute to more than one power at once, but that does not make those powers identical in nature. Either you have separate powers, explicable by parts which create them or you don’t have any differentiations. Your god needs parts to make any sense. And those parts have to be spatial since even those activities like “willing” and “loving” and “personhood” and “knowing” which we think of as “non-physical” in all known reality are scientifically seen to emerge only out of essentially bodily components. They cannot exist anywhere in the universe in disembodied form. There is no reason to project such traits into a non-spatial, non-temporal being. These are powers that are rooted in bodily processes. We have these multiple powers because of the multiple processes that our brains can carry out. Some of the powers overlap, probably in no small part because they use some of the same constituent brain parts and processes to function. But they are distinguishable by function and by the uses of at least some different brain features.

Robin: But if the source of all being did not have rationality in it, then how could it create a rational world explicable by rationality? Even though for us rationality is something temporally carried out through reasoning processes, it must be able to exist in some non-temporal way as a basis of the universe itself for the universe to be rational at all. But to make the universe rational, you need a rational mind to start with.

Jaime: But you don’t! For there to be things at all, it just requires that they be the things they are and not other things—at least in their most basic constituent parts. Obviously complex beings are multiple things. But whatever multiple things they are cannot be mutually exclusive. In other words, each thing cannot be another thing that it would involve a contradiction for it to be. There are conceptually graspable limits on what different kinds of beings a particular being can simultaneously be or not be at the same time. This is just basic to there being anything at all. Were there no inherent constraints on beings, at the most rudimentary levels of the world, then there could not be anything. All would be an inherently formless and unformable chaos. So some basic universal categories according to which things differentiate must eternally simply be part of reality and make its expressions into different kinds regular and rationally explicable.

Robin: But how could those categories exist without a rational mind to make them? How could there be multiple of them, all coordinating logically with each other to make a universe or universes without utter unformable chaos?

Jaime: It’s no clearer to attribute all those universals to eternal existence in a radically simple and (puzzlingly) personal being either. There is a fact of multiple universals and rationally explicable laws of their conceptual relationships and laws of the interactions among physical kinds, etc. This multiplicity seems basic. Or if it’s not basic it would be explicable at least in terms of deeper, impersonal, more rudimentary realities. Even a god would have to be composed according to these basic laws of being and composition. And in such a case, positing such a being is wholly unhelpful and superfluous. It still would not explain why those basic ontological realities, through which it itself emerged, themselves existed.

To be continued...

Your Thoughts?


Previous Debates Between Robin and Jaime:

Hell as the Absence of God

God and Goodness

Is It Just A Mystery Whether God Exists?

More Debates Featuring Jaime:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

Atheist Fundamentalism?

Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

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