When a Red Ball is Not a Red Ball

He is not a male: He is not a female: He is not a neuter.
He is not to be seen: He neither is nor is not.
When He is sought He will take the form in which He is sought.
It is indeed difficult to describe the name of the Lord.
-- Poem from the Telugu, inscribed on a cult object in the Royal Ontario Museum

Part 1 - The Omnipotent God

I wrote an essay a few months back called The Nature of Omnipotence, where I attempted to present reasons for why an omnipotent God cannot exist and why I think of myself as an atheist rather than an agnostic. The response to this essay was varied. In some cases, I won agnostic converts and in other cases I won criticism for apparently making too many "unprovable" assumptions.

In many cases I was accused of denying the God concept for the simple reason that I found it to be incomprehensible. For instance, here is a copy of an email one of my friends sent to me:

I just finished reading it [the essay], and I have to say that you pose a few points.

However, I think I have to disagree with your final conclusion. Somewhere along the way, you decided that God cannot exist if he/she/it is beyond your scope of comprehension. (He exists in a way that would have to violate fundamental logic as I see it, therefore he cannot exist.)

By the end of it, I almost felt that you were saying that the only God you could accept as existing is one that lives within your own realm of understanding, logic and reality. At the same time, you have properly demonstrated that a truly omnipotent deity would be exempt from just about every rule... forget "just about," actually. He makes the rules, therefore He is exempt from them.

I found this piece quite enlightening, in that it showed just why one can only believe in God through faith. You cannot deduce his existence. If you start with the assumption that anything beyond your own realm cannot exist at all, then you can in fact deduce his /non/-existence. However, that is somewhat hasty an assumption.

You choose not to have the faith; however, that does not mean that he does not exist. The case is not closed; you simply don't have the right (mental) equipment for actually detecting His presence.

From what you say, combined with my spin on things, I would say that, rather than agnostics being "atheists without the courage of their convictions", it is indeed atheists who are agnostics who have made an assumption. :P

Oh, and you forgot to capitalize "he" a few times. :P

Two statements in the email that I think are worth repeating are:

  1. God cannot exist if he/she/it is beyond my scope of comprehension.
  2. God cannot exist if he/she/it exists in a way that would have to violate fundamental logic as I see it.

From what I can gather, these excerpts were peddled as two different ways of saying essentially the same thing. Unfortunately the two statements don't mean the same thing at all, but the mistaken belief that they do forms the basis of many objections to my claims. The fact that these two statements were written with the same conceptual breath demonstrates what I think is a very common misunderstanding of my views. The statement "God cannot exist if he/she/it is beyond my scope of comprehension." does not mean the same thing as the statement "God cannot exist if he/she/it exists in a way that would have to violate fundamental logic as I see it." though many people apparently think they do. This really isn't anyone's fault; English is a slippery language, and many words can have subtly different meanings depending on the context. I'll have a bit more to say about this later.

Let me try to make my attitude clear. I did not claim, nor have I ever claimed, that something can't exist if it is beyond my scope of comprehension. I don't deny the existence of something simply because it is counter-intuitive, or inconceivable. This is an obvious point. I'm a person of limited intellectual capacity and I will happily and cheerfully admit that the universe is home to many things which exist and which I will never get a conceptual handle on. I don't deny the existence of matter-energy, though I have trouble imagining just how matter can be energy, and vice versa. I don't deny the existence of hypercubes or higher dimensional space though, try as I might, I can't think in more than 3 dimensions (or, to put this another way, higher dimensional space is very likely inconceivable to me in the literal sense of the word). I have no idea how to even begin to visualize the perceptual experiences of a bat (what is it like to "see" with echolocation?), though I don't deny that bats do indeed have percetual experiences. I'll even go so far as to speculate that there may be some things in this universe to which we are all cognitively closed (to borrow a term from Colin McGinn). That is to say, I'll even admit the possibility that there may be some things in the universe that humanity as a whole will never fully grasp, because of the way our brains are built or structured. Heck, it may even be likely that human cognitive closure exists with respect to some aspects of the universe. I really don't know enough about the subject to make a more definite claim in any direction.

That being said, I wish to make it clear that admitting the possibility of human cognitive closure with respect to some aspects of the universe is not the same thing as denying that the laws of logic have a firm and immutable place in said universe. Saying that something is inconceivable is not the same thing as saying that it is illogical. This brings us to the second statement: "God cannot exist if he/she/it exists in a way that would have to violate fundamental logic as I see it.". I do claim that it's true. Unfortunately, the word "logic" (like most words) is a slippery one; people mean different things when they say it. Some people use the word as a synonym for "common sense", which I find annoying, since unaided common sense is often a blunt tool for exploring the universe, while cruel, cold logic (in the sense that I mean it) always works. Please bear with me in what follows. It may seem that I'm going off topic, but I assure you that it's all relevant. When I use terms like "logic" or "laws of logic", I am referring to the most basic laws imaginable:

These laws are pretty basic. They may even seem pretty stupid. But I don't think enough people acknowledge their importance. These laws permeate every facet of human thinking. They are the fundamental basis of human thinking as we know it. They are at the very root of such basic human concepts as "true" and "false". Without the laws of logic there would be no such thing as true and false. If the law of non-contradiction were not a constant in the universe, then I could claim whatever I wanted - I could say that black was white, that true was false, and that iron magnets were a type of blue cheese - and no one else could disagree, because contradictions would be allowed (the law of non-contradiction wouldn't be a hard and fast rule). In fact, you couldn't disagree with anything I say - you couldn't, for instance, utter a statement like "The laws of logic are not immutable" and claim that it's true - without implictiely assuming that the laws of logic are immutable. If they weren't immutable then I could simply utter a retort along the lines of "No, that's complete bosh. The laws of logic are completely valid and your mother wears army boots", and I wouldn't need any justification for my statement, because contradictions would be allowed. If you wish to communicate using any form of earthly language, and you wish to be understood, then you must assume that your words mean this and not that, which is to implicitely assume that the laws of logic are immutable. If you wish to hold a discussion, on any topic, then you must implcitely assume that the laws of logic are immutable. If you can read this essay and agree with it or disagree with it, then you implicitely assume that the laws of logic are immutable. If you want to claim that something - anything - is this way as opposed to that way, if you want to claim that something - anything - is true as opposed to false, if you want to claim that something - anything - has the attribute of existence as opposed to non-existence, then you implicitly assume that the laws of logic are immutable.

What would it mean for something not to be subject to the laws of logic? The question sounds innocuous enough until you think about it for a little while. What you're really asking is: what would it mean for a thing not to be itself? What could one say about such a thing? The answer is quite simple: nothing at all. Try it. Imagine a ball. Pretend it's red. If we then say that the ball isn't itself, then suddenly the ball doesn't have to be red anymore. Give the ball any attribute you like, including the attribute of existence, and that attribute suddenly disappears if the law of identity doesn't apply to the ball. Any attempt to fix a nature to the ball, any attempt to fix the "fundamental qualities or characteristics that together define the identity of the ball" (1), is thwarted if the ball isn't itself. A thing not touched by the law of identity couldn't have a nature. This is a strong statement, so I don't want it to be misunderstood. I'm not saying that a thing unsullied by logic would have an unknowable nature, or an inconceivable nature. I'm saying that it would have no nature at all. It could not have any fundamental qualities or characteristics that together would define its identity, because any and all qualities or characteristics that you think up go out the window if the thing is question isn't itself, as required by the law of identity. To put it more simply, to give something a nature is to claim that something is this way as opposed to that way. It is to claim that the thing is subject to the laws of logic.

I want to repeat this point, because it's important. It's tempting to claim that something beyond the jurisdiction of logic is, say, indescribable or unthinkable and leave it at that, but that won't do because saying that a thing is indescribable or unthinkable is a way of describing it and thinking about it, respectively. It's a way of establishing its nature. You would be saying that the thing is indescribable as opposed to describable or unthinkable as opposed to thinkable, and that would be subjecting it to the law of identity. In fact, the thing wouldn't even be a thing, per se, because that would also be subjecting it to the law of identity. It wouldn't be an entity. Actually, it wouldn't even be an it. It wouldn't be anything. Most importantly, it wouldn't exist, because even saying something that minimal would be giving it a nature. It would be making that statement that the thing exists as opposed to doesn't exist.

So what does all this have to do with the existence of God?

The claim is that God is not subject to the laws of logic, namely the law of identity and the law of non-contradiction. But this would mean that God has no nature. One couldn't say anything about God, including that he exists, or that he is Godlike, and make it stick. To make it stick is to claim that God is like this as opposed to like that. To say that God has the attribute of existence, as opposed to non-existence, to say that God exists, as humans know the term, is to force a nature on him, even if it is only the nature associated with existence. It is to subject him to the law of identity.

Allow me to repeat that part, because it is essentially my main claim. A God that is not subject to the laws of logic cannot exist, because to say that he exists would be to give him a nature and to subject him to the law of identity.

It is an understatement to say that human minds cannot conceive of things that have no natures, and therefore cannot even begin to conceive of a God beyond the touch of logic. But it is not this inconceivability, per se, that renders his existence impossible. The inconceivable does not imply the illogical. It is the fact that he would have to have no nature that makes him an impossibility in the universe. In fact, the claim is a bit stronger than that. The very structure of human languages in general won't even allow the concept to form. There's nothing there to even get a conscous handle on, even to give it a name. Human language is such that we can't talk about something without giving it at least a minimal nature. In the case of God, who has no natures, there can't be an it to talk about. He isn't an entity, he isn't a thing that exists, as humans understand the words; otherwise we'd be able to pin a nature on him. In fact, as a testimony to this fact, I should point out that I've been guilty all along of doing what I said one shouldn't do: by saying that God has no natures, I've been giving him a nature. It just goes to should that concept of God really is outside the bounds of language. We can't use a word (like, say, God, Yahweh, the Almighty, etc) to refer to God and then in the next breath say that he is beyond all words. It's an understatement to say he doesn't exist; like the red ball that isn't really a red ball, he literally isn't anything we can actually communicate, as human understand the word "communicate".

Before people start jumping on me, let me say at the outset that I am aware of what some people may consider rather large loopholes in my claims. For one thing, you may have noticed my tendency to use the phrase "as humans know the term" fairly often in my arguments. I have insisted, for example, that God is not an entity (and hence does not exist), insofar as humans understand the word "entity" and "exist". Some people will no doubt insist, at this point, that I have proven nothing at all, except the limitations of human languages when it comes to expressing divine reality. Even if the concept of God is inexpressible in human language, so the argument goes, he could still exist, perhaps in a way that humans don't or can't understand. These are often the same people who like to talk about "a different kind of logic", not based on the law of identity and its ilk, which allows contradictions and mysteries galore, with which God can be understood. God exists, but it's an existence that's completely unlike what we normally think of as existence - it's the kind of existence that can be exempt from the laws of logic.

Ignoring for the moment that these claims don't really address my point, namely that no attribute at all, neither existence, nor Godlihood, nor the attribute of being beyond the law of identity, could be given to God without subjecting him to the law of identity, I wish to make some further points regarding what I consider extremely misleading uses of language. I'm of the firm opinion that many misunderstandings in daily life could be avoided if only people would take the time to explain what they mean when they say the words they do, and to stick to their definitions. I hope I've done that in this essay, but it's quite possible I have not; feel free to point out any inconsistencies.

When two people communicate, they do so using words that have agreed upon meanings in the context that they are used. This has to be the case, if the communication is to convey any sort of information. I suppose one is free to argue that words don't have to have definite meanings, but in order to argue this, one has to employ words, and unless one assumes that they have meanings, it's going to be pretty tough to present one's case. Please note that I'm not saying that, for valid communication, a particular word must have a single, agreed upon meaning that's good for all time. I realize fully that many words (at least in English) are "overloaded", that they can mean complete different things in different contexts, that words can have subtly different connotations in the same context, and so on. But if words didn't have (at least) approximate meanings, then I would be free to interpret the sounds coming out of your mouth or the scratches produced by your pencil in any fashion I choose. I could claim that all those sounds and all those scratches expressed nothing more than a desire to swim in Marinara sauce and, if words didn't have meanings, you couldn't say I was wrong.

With that in mind, what exactly are we supposed to make of "an existence that's completely unlike what we normally think of as existence"? Can such a concept still be thought of as "existence"? If this form of existence were completely unlike any sort of existence that human could fathom, would we really be justified in using the word "existence"? In what ways are two concepts similar enough to justify using the same word? Yes, I realize that this is a semantic argument more than anything else; one is free to associate any string of symbols one pleases with whatever concepts one pleases. But then I have to ask: out of all the millions of symbol strings possible, why choose the word "existence" to refer to something that isn't at all like the normal concept of existence? I can think of a few reasons why one might do this, some of them innocuous, some of them not.

Let's say a man comes up to me and claims that he invented a square that is completely unlike any other square I have ever seen in my life. Out of my line of sight, he proceeds to draw this incredible invention on a piece of paper. He folds it in two so that I can't see what he drew, and hands the paper to me. My hands trembling with suspense, I unfold the paper and behold...a circle. Did the man really invent a different type of square? Of course not. There are certain criteria that must be met before something can be called a square, and that man didn't meet them. End of story.

Now, I realize that most English words don't have as rigid a meaning as the word "square". But they do have (at least) approximate meanings and it is possible to get a word completely wrong. The word "existence", for example, does not refer to a type of chocolate pudding. And unless you and the person you're communicating with have an understanding of the words involved, then it's going to be a pointless discussion. So I would insist that, if you're going to use use a word to refer to a type of existence that is completely unlike normal existence (a type of existence that is not subject to the law of identity), then you would be better off not using the word "existence".

As alluded to before, none of this, of course, actually makes any difference, because it doesn't address the problems of using words to describe a thing that is not subject to the law of identity. Even if you take my advice above and find a different word for this hypothetical type of existence, you still couldn't apply it to God, because that would be giving him a nature. And we're back to square one. I have come to the conclusion that God doesn't exist; the word just can't apply to him.

Part 2 - But What About Zeus?

In Part 1, I think I've made my position fairly clear. But that isn't the whole story.

There are some people, I suspect, who would agree with most or all of what I said in Part 1, but who would never even think of labelling themselves as atheists. Rene Descartes, for example, believed in what he assumedly thought was an all-powerful God, though it is doubtful that he thought this imagined omnipotence included the ability to make square circles. And this is likely how many people feel on the issue; of course God can't change the laws of logic (that would just be silly), but that doesn't mean he doesn't exist. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed in the divine reality, but their gods weren't exempt from the laws of logic. Zeus was not an all-powerful being. So where is this discrepancy coming from?

The word "God", like all English words, is extremely slippery; the main problem is that everybody seems to mean something different when they use it, and not all of those meanings are compatible with each other. I would submit that different human beings, in general, have different conceptions of what it means for an entity to be God and, more to the point, I suspect these all of these conceptions, every single one, differ in what sorts of supernatural powers they attribute to the entity in question (what sorts of miracles he is able to perform, etc). In fact, I think I could claim without too much controversy that there is a smooth continuum or spectrum of beliefs about the the nature of God, and that the main varying property along this continuum is the nature of the power that the divine is purported to wield.

I want to be clear on this point; I am not claiming that any sort of god or divine continuum exists. I am merely trying to guess, in a very rough manner, the structure of humanity's belief in what they call "God". I don't think I'm too far off the mark.

In The Nature of Omnipotence, I concentrated on one particular point of this spectrum, what I call the Logically Omnipotent God in Part 1 of this essay. I don't think I was clear enough about where I stand on the existence of entities on other parts of the spectrum, and I suspect that part of the criticism I got in the past and may get in the future stems from a confusion on what people (and myself) actually mean when they use the term "God". So, allow me to clarify what I mean by a "spectrum of beliefs" and to answer the question which may have occurred to some people who read The Nature of Omnipotence : Am I an atheist with respect to all Gods? The quick answer is "Not quite", but that requires slightly more explanation. Not including the Logically Omnipotent God, I would identify three broad classes of the divine concept; my stance to each of them is similar but not identical.

1. The Engineer

This God exists at the very bottom of the power spectrum. Such a being, so the story goes, created mankind and perhaps even the planet earth and the solar system. He, assuredly, knows biology and physics to such a degree that he is able to achieve feats of engineering that we couldn't even attempt with our current technology. Most importantly, such a God is not supernatural nor all-powerful. He is merely much, much, much more powerful than we are. We would, of course, have a lot to learn from such a God, but if we were to examine his accomplishments, we would not consider them magic or miracles. This sort of God works within the structure of natural law, and is subject to the laws of the universe, is a part of the universe, in the same way we are. We can even imagine ourselves becoming as powerful as such a God if we were just given enough time.

There are examples of such stories in popular culture. In the short story "Kindergarten" by James E. Gunn, the reader is introduced to a gifted youngster who creates, as part of a school project, a new star with nine planets. Just for fun, he creates life on the third planet from the sun. And he does it all in seven days! He's eventually chided by his teachers for letting his creation get out of hand. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fans will also be familiar with the story of the Vorta and the Changlings. The Vorta worship the Changlings as gods, their creators, even though it is quite obvious that the Changlings are not even close to being all-powerful; indeed, near the end of the series, they are almost wiped out by a human engineered virus.

I don't know how many people believe in such entities, who don't also believe that such entities would have to posses supernatural powers along with technological prowess. I suspect some people do, and unabashedly call the entity they believe in "God". That's fine, so long as one is explicit about what one believes in.

As alluded to before, the creative alien God is a natural God (as opposed to a supernatural God), and hence, in a debate concerning his existence, it is appropriate to bring in the concept of evidence. In other words, the determination of whether such a God exists is an empirical, and scientific matter. Is there any evidence for the existence of such a God? I honestly have no idea. Is it possible that such a God is so advanced and clever that we could never find any evidence of him even if we tried? I suppose it might be. There is nothing inherently illogical about such beliefs. It might be possible that at this point in our evolutionary life, by our very nature, the issue of the existence of such a God might be undecidable. Logically, therefore, with respect to natural Gods, I guess I'd have to shrug my shoulders and call myself an agnostic. I might be what some people call an empirical agnostic; I reserve judgment until all the evidence is in.

From a practical standpoint, on the other hand, I would still call myself an atheist. I live my life from day to day on the assumption that there's no God. My stance towards a natural God is similar to my stance towards unicorns. No, I can't prove that unicorns don't exist, and there's certainly nothing logically offensive about a horse with a horn on its head, but nobody's ever observed one, or found evidence of one, so I have to operate on the assumption that they're not real. Make of that what you will.

2. The Q

The Q in this designation is supposed to be a reference to the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. For those who are not familiar with the series, Q is a very powerful character who can bend matter and energy to his will, make people disappear in the blink of an eye, who can redefine gravity and travel backward and forward in time whenever he feels like it. I suspect that whenever most people think of the term "omnipotent", they think of a creature similar to Q. That being said, one notable ability that Q lacks is the ability to stop being Q (see, for example, Star Trek: Voyager). Also, although the series never really brings this up, I'll go out on a limb and say that Q is subject to the laws of logic. Q does not have the ability to make a square circle or a 4-sided triangle. This makes him less powerful the Logically Omnipotent God.

What is my stance towards the Q? I'm an agnostic, again, but a stronger one than before. It's quite likely that existence of such a God could never really been proven by empirical means. I suspect that this was the being that Arthur C. Clarke had in mind when he observed that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The existence of a Q God is not logically impossible, but, once again, does anyone serious believe that he exists? How can anyone not be, at the very least, a practical atheist on this issue? This is just me grumbling. All I can do is shrug :-)

3. The Hermit

This is the God that exists is some sort of non-physical realm of pure spirit which, in principle, could never be detected by humankind, no matter how advanced they became. Once again, there is nothing illogical about such a beleif, per se. That is to say, such a belief does not violate the laws of idenity or the law of non-contradicition. Such a God is called "The Hermit" because he supposedly exists in this undectectable realm, living an undetectable life, and never has any visible effect on the known universe. I would, of course be a complete agnostic on the issue of whether such a God exists. There's really no other logical stance available; if this God is, in priciple, undetcetable, then there's no way to prove the issue of way or the other.

But again, does anyone actually beleive this? My stance towards this idea of divine reality is like my stance towards someone's belief that their toilet turns into a small pink elephant when no one is looking. There's really no way to prove the person wrong, but you can't really live your life on the assumption that it's true.