Two logical contradictions regarding the notion of “God”
This page is part of the author’s set of pages on religion
One day I asked a religious friend of mine this question: “What would it mean to you”, I said, “if it were understood one day, conclusively, that God does not exist?” My friend, after pondering for a short time on my question, answered: “I’d feel sad, because it would turn out that the world is not as nice as I was convinced it were, and disappointed, because it would mean that all this time I had believed ideas that are false. I would also feel sorry for the people I love, especially my parents, because they, too, have lived all their lives believing in something that is false. But tell me, what about you? How would you feel if you learned one day that God exists?”
Thus my friend turned the question on its head, for me to answer. I made then a feeble attempt to reply, but wasn’t satisfied by it. So I would like to try to give a more comprehensive answer to my friend’s question in what follows.
Let us note first that although it is impossible to know conclusively that God does not exist (for how can we, mere mortals, believe we ever know conclusively that God does not exist, if an omnipotent being such as God wants to remain forever hidden from us?), it is possible, however, to imagine a scenario in which we know conclusively that God does exist: simply, God is revealed in some physical way; for example, we discover that if we look at the Milky Way from a specific vantage point (outside of our galaxy) we see that a group of stars forms the words “I AM” (in plain English!). Silly, eh? I am sure the reader can think of at least one hundred more serious examples in which God is revealed to humanity in an unquestionable way. So, here we go: now we all know that God indeed exists. How would an atheist feel about this development?
My first reaction would be something like flabbergasted. No, not exactly disappointed like my friend, but utterly astonished. Stunned. Bewildered. Dumbfounded. How could I have been so wrong, for such a long time! I wouldn’t feel sad because, unlike my friend, I don’t expect the world to appear nicer with or without the existence of God; nor disappointed, because I don’t “believe” in ideas, strictly speaking, only try to select the explanation that fits most plausibly to the observations that are known to me at any moment. I’m curious and want to know what’s right and what’s wrong, that’s all; hence the astonishment about my grave misunderstanding of the world in which I live. A bit angry at my inability to derive logically what millions of other people before me have believed without much recourse to reason? Yes, a bit.
After overcoming the first shock of the new knowledge, my reaction would be to want to ask God a myriad questions. After all, if God were so kind as to take the trouble to be revealed to us, wouldn’t it be inconsistent if subsequently God avoided answering our questions? I will only attempt to explain a couple of my questions that would trouble me the most, below.
The most important question that I would want to ask God, I think, would be the one regarding time. Specifically, I wouldn’t be able to figure out what God’s relation with time is.
I am well aware of the fact that this is an ancient question, Thomas Aquinas most notably remembered for having asked it, but I don’t think the question has been answered satisfactorily — at least not to my taste — given our current understanding of time, which is very different from that of the time of Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274).
Suppose for a moment that time is not something that concerns God. (The opposite assumption is examined here, further in this page.) That is, time is a feature of our world, intimately related to the existence of space, energy, and matter. In other words, time is not an absolute and abstract notion that runs independently of the material universe, and there is no universal (Newtonian) clock ticking whether the universe exists or not; on the contrary, to be able to talk about time we need the existence of events, and events imply some kind of material or another, that will make the event possible; no material particles means that nothing happens, hence no notion of time. So, time is a material entity in this view, just as material as space, mass, and energy. (This is the modern physics view of time, by the way.) Assume, therefore, that God lives outside of material time and is not bound by the physics of it, as it should be if God is an immaterial entity.
Easier said than imagined. How can that be? A time-less God means, above all, a non-cognitive entity. We are talking about a God without a mind! Why? Because one of the most important properties that we attribute to a mind is that of a memory: we feel we are the same individuals like the ones we were yesterday because we have a long-term memory that stores events not only of yesterday, but also of past months and years, reaching back to our childhood. Subtract the memory from a mind, and what you get is a mindless automaton, a mechanism less interesting than the nervous system of an oyster, or an earthworm. What we perceive as “the flow of time” (or: “the arrow of time”, which points from past to future) is an effect of our minds, which possess a long-term memory capable of comparing and classifying events in chronological order. So, my reasoning goes like this: a mind requires the existence of a memory; memory requires the attribute of time; hence, if we extract time from the picture, we cannot conceive of a mind. But what is God if not a Super Mind? A God with no memory? One who doesn’t really know anything, because knowing implies memory? One who can’t remember how the universe was created, let alone yesterday’s prayer of the religious person who has placed all their hope in God? How can such an amnesic God respond to the prayer? How can a mind-less God ever be said to have any relation with our world? And how can we, after all, accept such a time-less, hence memory-less, hence mind-less God as the recipient of our worship and devotion?
I should point out here that many people regard such questions as meaningless. To them, the contradiction of accepting in the same breath a God with a mind and one that exists independently of time (does not include time as a feature) is a mere sophistry, a pointless philosophical exercise posed by an atheist thinker, who wants to shake the integrity of their beliefs. Not for this author. For me, such contradictions require a resolution, I ask them in earnest, I do not try to intimidate anyone, and I cannot close my mind’s eye to them. I trust that, by now, all people who prefer closing their eyes and ears to such questions have promptly exited this page, and therefore I am not harming anyone. This page is written for those readers who, like me, recognize a contradiction when they see one, and are willing to entertain such questions in their minds and seek a resolution.
Some people might claim that the time of our universe is all laid out in front of God — all events of both past and future — so that God doesn’t need to act in time, utterly knowing all events that happened and all that will take place in the future. I suppose that those who hold this view actually have not understood what the problem is: knowing implies a mind, implies a memory, implies events that take place in that mind in order to maintain the memory, implies time running along with and recorded by those events. I would like it to be explained to me how one can know and still have no time running in their mind.
Others replied to me, after reading the above, that maybe God’s mind uses (or exists in) another time-dimension, not the time of our universe. But the problem does not disappear simply by detaching God from the time of our universe. The problem with time and memory is inherent: if you have memory, then you need time (any time, some dimension with the material properties of time), hence you need material particles with which that time is registered.
I’ll tell you what, in my view, happened in reality, for there is a very simple explanation that avoids all the above slippery issues and contradictions. Since the ancient times, people, primarily believers of monotheistic religions, have imagined God as a Super Mind. But, knowing little or nothing about minds, they could not conceive of the idea that a mind (Super- or common) cannot exist immaterially, and that therefore the notion “immaterial mind” is a contradiction in terms. If one doesn’t know much about minds, one doesn’t see any contradiction. But if you do see the contradiction, you have to reject the possibility of a time-less God, because you want your God to have the properties of a Super Mind (omniscient, etc.).
So, then we can examine the opposite view:
Suppose now that God exists in time: the latter is as much an attribute of God as it is of people. In this case the problem of God’s mindlessness vanishes. A different problem emerges, however, in its place.
The problem concerns the “physicality” of God. It is an issue I already hinted at, above: for time to exist at all, events must be recorded, and an event necessarily happens when a material particle does something (e.g., changes its location), or something happens to it (e.g., absorbs another particle). An event without a related material particle is unrealizable. Of course, the human mind is capable of conceiving of lots of unrealizable ideas, such as square circles, flying hippos, and stationary photons; but the fact that we can dream of such things does not mean they exist, or are even possible. Such is the case for an immaterial event. Just because we can think of time ticking in the abstract does not make it any more real. So, an immaterial God with a Mind that acts in a dimension with our familiar temporal properties is a contradiction in terms.
Yes, I realize that the reasoning of most religious people is not bound by the constraints of logic. If they want their God to be both green and invisible, so it will be: an invisible green God. But I am bothered when such people want to convince me of similarly irrational thoughts, because they are oblivious of their irrationality. Suppose that somebody knocks on your door, you open it, and see a wretched, filthy person, full of skin diseases, missing most teeth, and so on. While you’re looking at this person with pity, he starts telling you how wonderful his life is, how fulfilled he feels with it, and how much he would like you to adopt his kind of life, because then, he assures you, you’ll also acquire this wonderful appearance that he has — in fact, he claims, you’ll earn an eternal appearance like his. Would you follow him? That’s what I feel with believers–preachers. I don’t have any trouble with my religious friends who don’t attempt to preach to me. What I view as irrationality, or maybe “thought defects”, they keep for themselves, and that makes them wonderful friends for me.
I have another question: it’s about God’s omniscience.
Does God know all events that will take place in the future? This idea has the serious flaw that it reduces human beings to deterministic automata: no matter what thought I make next, God knows it. There is nothing I can do that would take God by surprise (otherwise God would not really know the future, our future). Hence, human beings are deprived of free will, and here is why: suppose I am about to decide whether to order a sandwich or an apple pie. Did you think I am free to make any choice I want? Wrong! If God is omniscient and knows the future, what I am about to decide is already known to God. It may appear as an act of free will from my uninformed perspective, because the future is unknown to me, but in fact the future is already known to at least one cognitive entity (to God). For that entity, what I am about to decide is already known, determined, so how can that entity “expect” me to decide this or that on my own “free will”? If the matter with the sandwich versus apple pie doesn’t seem serious enough to you, what if I am about to decide whether to repent for my sins or not? How can God pretend that it is “expected” of me to repent, if it is already known what I will decide? From God’s perspective, I am an open book, a deterministic automaton, in other words, a machine with the illusion of free will.
On the other hand, a God who truly doesn’t know what decision I am going to make loses something of God’s divine image: It is a God that can be surprised by human actions, one that is not in full control of the world; because, after all, one of those human actions might be the one that pushes the proverbial “red button” for the launch of nuclear missiles, having one nation attack another, thus causing a global nuclear war and the end of what we know of as human species — and possibly of the entire biosphere on Earth. Does God really want to potentially be the recipient of this kind of surprise?
Another reader replied as follows: maybe God is able to know what we are about to decide, but chooses not to, out of discretion. Perhaps, to such people, decisions like sandwich-or-apple-pie seem harmless enough, so they think God can get away with choosing not to know about such trivial matters. Unfortunately, not only there is no sharp dividing line between trivial and critically important acts, but there are no trivial acts at all. Our world is a chaotic system, and this is usually best expressed by the dictum “a butterfly’s fluttering in Tokyo causes a hurricane in New York”. It is a trivial exercise in imagination to make up a scenario in which choosing to eat an apple pie instead of a sandwich today results in a nuclear holocaust a few decades later. Are you sure your God would prefer to exercise discretion?
There is another problem with God’s discretion, of a more philosophical nature: it doesn’t matter whether God chooses to be discreet with your personal decisions or not. The point is, there is a way, there is the possibility for God to know what you think you’ll decide — “freely” from your uninformed point of view. The mere possibility of God’s doing so (even if God chooses not to), annuls your freedom. To see this, consider this analogy: you are a god, and you walk on one side of a hill. On the other side of the hill, there live your subjects — er, excuse me, your believers. All your believers’ actions, decisions, wills, wishes, hopes, ideas, choices, etc., (what they think is their future) are laid out on their side of the hill, toward the summit. They don’t know them, however, because they can’t look toward the summit, but as they ascend they keep encountering them. Out of discretion, you choose not to go to that side and see their personal decisions, what appears as “future” to them. If you went there, you’d see their future. But you know that your believers are not choosing freely, they only think they do, because they don’t know their future. But you can know it if you want (you are omniscient, remember?), their future is written on the other side of the hill. Your going, or not going there to learn it, doesn’t change in the least the fact that what they call their “free will” is a cognitive illusion.
Another reader, after reading the previous paragraph, objected to the idea that the future is all laid out on the believers’ side of the hill. Time runs, said this reader, so why should the future be laid out on the hillside? All right, all right, let’s suppose for a moment that time runs (“flows”, although personally I do not share this view). So the future is not “written”, not laid out over the hillside. But you are a god, an omniscient god. You have some way of learning (if you want) your believers’ future, haven’t you? (Otherwise what sort of omniscient fellow are you anyway?) Perhaps you’ve constructed some machine, completely invisible to the believers, a contraption of your own divine making, so when you push a button on this machine it churns out your believers’ future choices. The method by which those choices can become known is of no consequence — whether they are written on the hillside or can be computed by a machine, this is irrelevant. Once you are in the potential position of learning your believers’ future choices, the believers are not deciding freely, by themselves. What they think they’ll choose by themselves can be computed by your machine, and they cannot fool it. (If they can, you did a lousy job with that machine — go back to the drawing board.) What appears to the believers as a bifurcation of choices is actually a one-way path that your machine knows how to compute. The problem is not the method by which you, the god, can learn your believers’ future actions; the problem is that their future is ultimately knowable (not known, but knowable). It has to be knowable because you are omniscient. If it’s neither known nor knowable, you’re not omniscient, you’re a charlatan.
The above are two of the questions I would like to ask and receive an answer for, if according to my friend we knew conclusively that God exists. And my present inability to find answers also explains partly why I am an atheist. So, there’s my preemptive strike to those who will contact me by email. I have lots of additional questions, but they are probably less important from my perspective, and I don’t want to tire the reader any further. I prefer, instead, to close with a quote, expressed more than 2000 years ago by one of my putative ancestors:
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