Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

There are many good arguments against various arguments for the existence of God. Lamentably enough, for the atheist, good arguments against the existence of God are few and far between. Many recent arguments from evil or hiddenness, for example, are far from persuasive. In fact, some offerings – particularly at the popular level – are almost laughably weak. Sometimes arguments rely on rather spurious subjective value judgments, or even little more than pure guesswork, as tends to happen with arguments of the form: observation X is “expected” on naturalism, but “surprising” on theism; therefore observation X is evidence for naturalism over theism. Other arguments rest on highly dubious noseeum inferences; or worse, claims about what God would or wouldn’t do if He existed. Few of these evidential offerings amount to much, interesting though they are.

There is also a second family of atheistic arguments, not quite so popular but common enough. These arguments are not evidential in nature, but rather attack the coherence of the idea of God. I want in this article to discuss one of the more popular ones, an argument which runs along these lines:

1. God is a “timeless person.”
2. If a being is timeless, then it does not possess properties X, Y, & Z.
3. If a being does not possess properties X, Y & Z, then it is not personal.
4. Therefore, a being cannot be timeless and personal.
5. Therefore, God (a “timeless person”) does not exist.

In his book Believing Bullshit, atheist philosopher Stephen Law puts this point succinctly: “the idea of a nontemporal agent seems to make scarcely more sense than the idea of a nonspatial mountain.”

Upon examining arguments from this family we find just how difficult it is to construct viable versions. This is largely down to the fact that theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes. In this connection, consider three main positions concerning the eternal mode of God’s existence:

A. “Absolute divine timelessness”: in which God exists timelessly by necessity.

B. “Absolute divine temporality”: in which God exists in time from infinity past (and if our own time began a finite time ago, then God existed alone in some other time stream).

C. “Creation dependent temporality”: in which God exists timelessly in the absence of creation, but temporally with the existence of creation.

From this (far too brief) survey it is clear that the objection to the existence of God from the supposed incoherence of the concept of a timeless person does not apply to all conceptions of God’s eternity. Option B above is immune to this criticism. The atheist advancing this sort of objection would therefore have to rule out B as implausible (and thus reckon with arguments from philosophers such as Swinburne, Davis & Wolterstorff who defend some version of it). Of course, he could attempt to do just that (and my sympathies lie with him). B raises all sorts of problems. Firstly, it raises infinite regress issues. Secondly, there is a myriad of philosophical problems concerning how God’s time relates to ours (which is probably not infinite). Thirdly, there is an intriguing objection raised by Leibniz: why didn’t God create the world sooner? God does not appear to have any reason to create at one time rather than another. This objection is an interesting (and, I think, formidable) one. Unfortunately I have no time to expound it here, so must leave it to the reader as homework.

So, eliminating B, the timeless person objection emerges. Is it a good objection? I certainly don’t think so.

There are two ways for the theist to rebut the argument. Firstly, the theist could argue that some stated necessary conditions for personhood are not in fact necessary at all. Alternatively, he or she could accept the stated necessary conditions for personhood, but attempt to show how a being existing timelessly can meet them. The argument therefore hangs on the criteria set down for personhood. There are numerous candidates touted in the literature. It isn’t possible to survey the whole terrain here, but it seems to me that the best candidate for the position of necessary condition of personhood is self-consciousness. JR Lucus reckons if God possesses consciousness then He cannot also be timeless, since, says Lucas, time is inextricably linked with consciousness.

Lucas is correct that if God’s mind is a succession of contents of consciousness then we would indeed have a temporal series. However, what if God’s mental life is unchanging, containing no stream of consciousness? God’s consciousness could well be composed of tenselessly true beliefs, which He never gains nor loses. Such a state of consciousness would be changeless, and thus timeless (at least on relational views of time). Lucas needs to show more than consciousness – as we experience it – is a temporally elongated process. He needs to show that this is an essential property of consciousness. Take, for instance, the activity of knowing. If God is timeless, then, on a relational conception of time, His consciousness would be an unchanging knowledge of tenseless truths, lacking the property of being temporally extended. The works of philosophers such as Paul Helm, Nelson Pike and Brian Leftow has revealed that knowing is not necessarily an activity which need take time. If knowing does not necessarily take time, then knowing oneself – self-consciousness – need not take time, and thus there appears little reason to think a timeless being cannot be self-conscious.

Unpacified, Robert Coburn reckons a being cannot be personal unless it is capable of things such as: “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally.”

Now, even if Coburn is correct that the capacity for such things is necessary for personhood, it would not follow that a timeless being cannot be a person unless we assume that timelessness is an essential property of a timeless being. On option C above God is contingently timeless. If timelessness is a contingent property of God, then He might well be capable of doing things such as “remembering, anticipating, reflecting, deliberating, deciding, intending, and acting intentionally,” even though it would be the case that if He should engage in such activities He would then be temporal, not timeless. By refraining from such activities he remains timeless, though capable of becoming temporal by so engaging in them.

I would go even further and argue that a being does not even have to be capable of these things in order to be considered, as God is supposed to be, a perfect person; and thus those who think timelessness is a necessary attribute of God can take some heart. Let’s look briefly at the things Coburn mentions.

Firstly, consider the act of remembering. Why should remembering be a criterion for personhood? True enough, humans who do not remember are in some way mentally deficient, but they are still persons. Is the idea then that God – a perfect person – would be somehow deficient if He cannot engage in remembering? Surely the act of remembering is not essential to divine cognitive perfection. The reason is rather simple – a timeless individual has no past to remember, and never forgets anything. If God, being omniscient, is a perfect knower, then there is no reason to think his perfect personhood would require memory. Something similar holds for the act of anticipating. A timeless individual has no future and thus nothing to anticipate. It seems that remembering and anticipating are only attributes a perfect person must have if he or she exists temporally.

What then of reflecting and deliberating? Such activities are only essential for beings who are not omniscient. God, by contrast, is omniscient – an infallible knower – cognitively most excellent. He does not need to reflect on a matter or deliberate with a view to finding the best answer or the truth – he already knows these things innately. Whether God is temporal or timeless He has no need of reflection and deliberation by virtue of omniscience, and there is no reason to think an omniscient being cannot be a person (arguably, omniscience entails it).

Lastly, intending, or acting intentionally, does not seem to be a necessary condition for personhood even with respect to humans, since there are moments in our own lives when we do not act intentionally, and thus wouldn’t be persons if we applied this criterion. Moreover, if we modify the criterion to say that a being must have the capacity for intentional activities, then a timeless God could possess such a capacity even if it were the case that should God exercise it He would then be temporal.

In any event, are intentionality and volition necessarily future-orientated? It strikes me as rather easy to think of counter-examples. For instance, a man trapped under water wills to hold his breath for as long as possible. A man gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel intends his present experience of aesthetic delight. A tourist on a beach on the Costa del Sol desires his feelings of rest and relaxation which he is currently enjoying.

If, then, there is nothing about intentionality and will that makes them inherently future orientated in the lives of human beings, why cannot we say of God that He wills and intends what He does timelessly? God, for example, wills and desires His own goodness – an activity that does not require time. Existing in the absence of creation God may will and intend to refrain from creating. In such a possible world God would exist atemporally with an eternal intention to refrain from creating.

Therefore, even if we concede that intentionality is a necessary criterion for personhood, there is no reason to think it is necessarily the case that if God is timeless then He does not exemplify intentionality. Ultimately where I think Coburn and others go wrong is in taking common properties of human persons – who exist temporally – and making them essential properties of personhood simpliciter.

From our survey of supposed necessary criteria for personhood it appears that the objections to the coherence of the concept of a “timeless person” are unsuccessful. It is either the case that the criteria offered are not in fact necessary for personhood, or else even if they are there is no reason to think a timeless being cannot fulfil them.

If an atheist could construct a good argument from this second family of arguments, the theist may well be in all kinds of trouble. However, as I hope I have helped to show, constructing such an argument is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

Stephen J Graham

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32 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Divine Attributes, God

32 responses to “Two Kinds of Atheistic Argument

  1. This article is nowhere near as polished as I would like, but I set today as my deadline for publishing it, so, there we go!

  2. As an atheist, I don’t feel at all compelled to construct any kind of argument against the existence of a god. I merely look for the evidence and find it lacking.

    • NotAScientist,

      But your argument against the existence of God put simply is:

      “I don’t see it, therefore it does not exist.”

      That argument makes atheism a total rejection of modern science and basic systematic reasoning.

      • “But your argument against the existence of God put simply is”

        Wrong.

        “There is no objective or empirical evidence for it, therefore there’s no good reason to believe it exists.”

      • NotAScientist,

        I will cite three areas of science that provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.

        1. Information Theory – information is a hallmark of intelligence. Life is information-based. Language is a way of expressing information. Mathematics is the language of science and therefore the laws of nature.

        Consequently, mathematics itself is evidence of the existence of God.

        2. Molecular Biology – The thousands and thousands that are factory produced by software-driven molecular factories inside living cells are all precision-made, specialized tools.

        Tool making is also a hallmark of intelligence.

        3. Cosmology – Modern discoveries in cosmology have proven that the universe is not eternal, but had a beginning.

        If something had a beginning, then it had a cause.

        The First Cause is God, by definition.

        Atheists are left not only denying the discoveries of modern science but having to accept the totally absurd notion that everything happened all by itself.

        Atheist, please explain your fundamental dogma:

        How can it be that everything just happened all by itself?

      • You will cite three things you are viewing through your religious lens that you think say things they don’t really say.

        Have fun doing that.

      • NotAScientist,

        I have not mentioned religion.

        I am speaking of science and scientific concepts woven together in a tapestry of reason and the meaning of words.

        Even so, the atheist must be able to explain how everything just happened all by itself since that is the fundamental dogma of atheism.

      • “I am speaking of science and scientific concepts ”

        You are speaking of your religious interpretations of science and scientific concepts. You come to conclusions that the science and scientists wouldn’t or can’t come to.

        “Even so, the atheist must be able to explain how everything just happened all by itself”

        No we don’t. All an atheist has to do is not believe in a god. Not believing in a god or gods doesn’t mean I know how everything happened. It just means I see absolutely no good reason to think a god did any of it.

      • NotAScientist,

        Tell me where in the Bible is there anything concerning the mathematics of the laws of nature, information theory or the structure and function of proteins in living systems.

        In fact, it is the atheist who views reality through the thickest most distorting lens which require that he reject the findings of science.

        Additionally, making the false claim that I somehow view science through the lens of religion when I have done no such thing, is not an argument.

        If you make a claim you must be able to back up the claim.

        And since there is nothing in any of my comments that depends upon or even mentions religion, your argument is irrational.

        The name of your particular brand of irrational is called “straw man argument.”

        It’s where you bring up nonsense, assign it to me and then demand that I explain it.

        I say, please explain your own nonsense and for crying out loud, please stick with the subject at hand which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do scientific evidence of the existence of God.

  3. NotAScientist,

    Typo in item 2. The specialized tools are proteins.

    Sorry about that.

  4. “theologians enjoy considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes.”
    That must be the understatement of the century. However, I fully agree with it, since it is saying “theologians can make up want they want in order to talk about God.”
    They always have done, they will continue to do so. This is all well and good for in-house discussions – believers theorising together. However, when it comes to arguing with an atheist, there are no common points of reference.

    “Lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly, lavender’s green,
    When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen.
    Who told you so, dilly, dilly, who told you so?
    ‘Twas my own heart, dilly, dilly, that told me so.”

    Hint – never argue with a heart!

    • Hi Richard,

      The reason theologians have considerable flexibility in constructing coherent accounts of God’s attributes is simply because their “raw material” – in the case of Christianity, the biblical narratives – do not prescribe a certain theory of God’s eternity, or omnipotence etc…

      SJG

  5. You need time to effect change.
    Change is key to being personal (to make decisions, act, respond and think)
    Thus, timeless things cannot be personal.

    God is timeless.
    Thus, God cannot be personal.

    It’s not a difficult argument to formulate.

  6. Gregory Hurd

    The only party required to put forth an argument or provide evidence is the one making the positive claim. Until a claim is demonstrated to be true, or at least, likley true, the default position is to withold belief in the claim. I am an atheist because theists have not demonstrated that a god exists. I make no positive claim that he doesn’t exist, but I see no reason to believe he does until I am presented with evidence. All this article does is try to shift the burden of proof on to the atheist, which is fallacious.

    • I haven’t tried to shift the burden of proof at all. I’m simply responding to actual atheist arguments.

      SJG

      • Gregory Hurd

        But what you are, in effect, saying is that “they can’t prove that god doesn’t exist”, as if that somehow makes your position more valid. Any atheist who tries to disprove the existence of god is foolish because it is impossible to prove a negative claim. I do think it is possible to logically disprove some gods (if they are properly defined) by pointing out inconsistencies in the way they are defined. What most apologists do when you point out inconsistencies with the god of the bible is to simply redefine him in a way that would be more logically consistant. All this amounts to is making god up as you go along! Even if you don’t find my argument compelling, it doesn’t really matter because the burden of proof is on the theist anyway.

    • Gregory,

      You have defined yourself as an agnostic, not an atheist.

      Atheism is the firm, positive belief that God does not exist.

      That means the atheist must be able to prove that God does not exist.

      My first comment cites three areas of science that provide evidence that God exists.

      NotAScientist tried to argue against the evidence by claiming that I was applying a religious worldview when I had not cited or mentioned religion at all.

      In other words, the atheist argued with himself and lost.

      I find that is usually the case sense atheism is the total rejection of science and reason.

      • Gregory Hurd

        I reject your definition of atheism. Atheism is the lack of a belief in God, which is not the same as asserting the positive claim “there is no god”. Agnosticism has to do with knowledge, not belief. So you are correct in stating that I am an agnostic. I am an agnostic atheist. This means I don’t know know if there is a god, but I don’t believe there is. You can also be a gnostic atheist who claims they know that god doesn’t exist so they don’t believe, but I think this position is intellectually dishonest because I don’t think you can know for certain that there is not some sort of god.

        As far as your scientific evidence for God, I reject it because it has been thoroughly debunked over and over. A quick Google search will show you that.

      • Gregory,

        You are using standard atheist tactics:

        1. Refine the well-known, obvious definition of the word “atheist” and declare victory.
        2. Claim that the opposition’s arguments have been “thoroughly debunked over and over” and outsource your responsibility to support your own claim to your opponent; “A quick Google search will show you that.”

        Really?

        If your claims are so simple to explain, why not do it yourself?

        The truth is you can’t. No atheist can or ever does.

        In infamous “Google search” is preposterous. Why can’t you just explain yourself to me, like I did to you?

  7. Yes, I would say atheists can’t prove God doesn’t exist. That’s got nothing to do with my shifting of the burden of proof. Some atheists think you CAN show God doesn’t exist and offer arguments to that effect. I argue these arguments do not succeed. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with trying to shift the burden of proof, it’s a matter of responding critically to actual arguments that are out there. As for “you can’t prove a negative,” actually you *can*, but that’s maybe another article for another day (in fact you contradict yourself in the very next sentence you write 😉

    SJG

    • Gregory Hurd

      I did not contradict myself. You cannot prove a negative claim. You can, however, expose logical inconsistencies in a definition that show it to be false. Ever heard of the law of identity? (a=a, ie., a thing is what it is, and is not what it isn’t) If, for example, I define a god as infinatley powerful, but also in my definition list things that he cannot do, then by definition, that god cannot logically exist.

      If you think you can prove a negative, then prove to me that leprachauns do not exist. I’m waiting…..

      • What you said looks very much like a contradiction to me. You claim:

        1. You cannot prove a negative.
        2.It is possible to logically disprove some gods.

        Now, take God X. Let’s say it is possible to logically disprove God X. Saying it is possible to logically disprove X is logically equivalent to saying we can prove that God X does not exist. In which case we can prove a negative – the non-existence of God X – and therefore your claims are contradictory.

        There are many other negatives that can be proven. Logicians and mathematicians routinely prove many types of negatives, for instance there are no things which have size but not shape, there are no 4 sided-triangles etc etc, ad nauseum. Moreover, if we move away from such purely logical uses of the word “prove” and speak in terms of proof as levels of probability then again we can prove negatives – there is no great pumpkin that flies across the sky at Halloween, there is no Santa Claus, there are no Leprechauns in my garden. These are all things that can be proven in terms of probability.

        In fact, to flog the goat some more your own statement “you can’t prove a negative” amounts to “there are no negatives that can be proven” – itself a negative statement, can you prove it? If not, you claim falls. If you can, your claim, once more, falls.

        “You can’t prove a negative” is a common statement, but you won’t find many atheist philosophers making such a blunder.

        SJG

      • Gregory Hurd

        Making probability statements is not the same as proving something. Proof requires absolute certainty. I think, given the evidence, the probability of the god of the bible existing is very low, so I don’t believe it, but I can’t prove it definitivley.

        What I was trying to say in my last comment is that you can show a particular definition or description of a god to be contradictory and therefore logically impossible. But you could not prove that there is not SOME type of god. That’s why I am an agnostic atheist rather than a gnostic atheist.

      • Gregory,

        So you think that the probability of the God of the Bible existing is “pretty low.”

        What does a statement like that even mean?

        Probability means odds, like 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 or a million to one.
        So what area of observation can you cite that quantifies God of the Bible as odds?

        Probability is mathematics and for mathematics to make sense there has to be some sensible basis upon which mathematical reason can act.

        But you, the atheist, commit the logical fallacy of establishing yourself as the authority for your own argument.

        Therefore, if Gregory the atheists says it, it must be true (that’s another of atheism’s basic dogmas, by the way).

        And how low is “pretty low,” Gregory?

        10 to 1? 100 to 1? 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1?

        And upon what do you base your reasoned selection of odds?

        That answer is, that there is no reasoning whatsoever behind your claim, thus proving my point once again that atheism requires the complete rejection of reason.

      • Gregory Hurd

        You seem to like word games. I’m not talking about mathematical probabilities, I’m using the word in the colliquial sense. If I tell you I’m keeping an invisible dragon in my garage you would be well within reason to judge that the likelihood of my claim being true is not probable based on induction. No math required!

      • Gregory,

        Here’s how probability really works. No word games I promise.

        I took your advice a few years ago and goggled paramecium cilium.

        Apparently, a single cilium of a paramecium has two hundred parts that all have to fit together exactly, all at the same time for the cilium to work.

        That means the odds of a single cilium on a paramecium evolving at random is 200! to 1.

        Yes, that’s 200 factorial to 1.

        200 factorial is 200 x 199 x 198 x 197 x 196 x 195 … x 2 x 1.

        There isn’t enough time in the universe for those odds to play out.

        That means there is a low probability of atheism being anything other than pure nonsense.

        No matter how you look at atheism, through pure reason, through mathematics, or through science, atheism just keeps coming up snake eyes.

      • In addition – here is an article by atheist philosopher Stephen Law on this very point: http://stephenlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/you-cant-prove-negative.html

        SJG

  8. With respect to the second type of argument, I agree it’s difficult. There’s too much metaphysical rope available to the theist for the atheist to be able to form a proper noose. There will always be room for the theist to slip out by adding or removing metaphysical assumptions. Good examples of this would be things like Christology or theological attempts to provide an account of the trinity. While the metaphysics required to solve either problem can indeed logically do the job, I’d think you could agree it would be a bit much to have an atheist or a neutral person agree that such metaphysical structures are plausible.

    I am however intrigued by your treatment of the first set of arguments. You say that these don’t amount to much, which is a statement I’m not quite sure if I agree with or not.

    On one hand, yes it is very easy to dismiss such arguments along the lines of disagreeing that “on theism/naturalism undeniable feature of reality X is more or less likely”.

    On the other hand, this kind of dismissal cuts both ways, since quite a few popular apologetic arguments rely on exactly this kind of underpinning, like design arguments of various stripes. What do you think?

  9. Hi CA,

    Thanks for your comment.

    “I’d think you could agree it would be a bit much to have an atheist or a neutral person agree that such metaphysical structures are plausible.”

    In some cases I agree. But, the issue isn’t about making the atheist see that God defined in some way is plausible. He obviously won’t. The issue is whether the atheist can come up with a coherence argument which defeats the God so-defined by the theist. We both seem to agree that that’s incredibly difficult.

    As for argument of the first type, I deliberately skipped over them because I have written about them a lot elsewhere – particularly the problem of evil on this blog (and will be writing about them more as the year goes on). I agree with your comment concerning the double-edged nature of dismissing this kind of argument. I’m not a massive fan of apologetic arguments either (used to be though!). If we think of atheist arguments as primarily aimed at theist, and apologetic arguments as primarily aimed at atheists, then I don’t think either side achieves much except maybe winning a straggler here and there. However, what I think apologetics can do is bolster theism to some degree. In other words, at the very least attempt to show that certain facts of reality are consistent with a theistic construal of reality, or at least not obviously contradictory of it. It’s in this spirit that I’ll be responding to Paul Draper’s argument from evil in the next few months. He offers his argument as an evidential problem for theists, but I’ll say that there’s little in his argument that amounts to a serious evidential challenge, and that the facts he points out are consistent with a theistic construal of reality.

    But I’m getting ahead of myself!

    SJG

    • I think there’s one wrinkle left with the “second” type of argument in that the concepts of a monotheistic god and the supposed attributes it would possess (Tri-Omni stuff) are very ill defined. The issue is that if any contradictions were ever found using a theists preferred definition of say omniscience, nothing stops the theist from redefining omniscience to avoid said contradiction, thanking the atheist for pointing out a flaw in their theology. Although perhaps this is just the root of having “too much metaphysical rope”.

      As for the first type of argument and your rejection of it, I just find that quite a bit staggering. This seems to abdicate making any appeal to evidence or apologetics at all to win a convert. It adopts a purely defensive stance. I’m left wondering how you intend to win converts, especially as most societies move forward and Christianity finds itself increasingly at odds with a society that rejects some of it’s teachings (particularly with regard to sexuality and morality).

      I hope to write a bit on that topic some myself, basically ancillary claims of various religions being false in terms of well being in this life.

  10. Cheers for the reply Gregory.

    I think you are operating with way too narrow a definition of proof. Proof is not just about certainty. Even in our justice system proof doesn’t operate simply in terms of certainty. So, for example, in a civil court (at least in the UK) there is proof “on the balance of probabilities.” The same goes for philosophy. Lots of propositions we hold are proven to some degree, and the degree doesn’t have to be certainty to count as “proof.”

    In any event I think you’ve usefully clarified what you mean when you say “I think, given the evidence, the probability of the god of the bible existing is very low, so I don’t believe it, but I can’t prove it definitively.” I think many philosophers would agree with this, and there are many atheists who construct arguments which they hope show that – at least on the balance of probabilities – some God, say the Christian God – does not exist. I think the ultimate point is that you don’t have to be able to show that X is certain in order to rightfully claim a proof.

    Thanks for engaging.

    SJG

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