Is the notion of “God” coherent?

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There’s been some discussion on this site and others whether it’s even useful to ask if there can be evidence for a god, given that the very notionof God is incoherent.  I’ve maintained that there can indeed be evidence that would provisionally convince at least me of the existence of a divine being. But others disagree.


One of these is the Dutch philosopher Herman Philipse, whose new bookGod in the Age of Science? I am much enjoying. It’s a bit of a tough slog, as it’s academic and heavily philosophical, but I can still understand it. Philipse’s thesis is that the notion of God is indeed incoherent, but he also allows that even if you think it’s coherent, there’s no evidence supporting God’s existence.  It’s a deeply thoughtful and powerful argument for atheism.

I’m not yet convinced that the question of God’s existence is incoherent, but Philipse makes some excellent points. Today’s lesson is how he argues for God’s incoherence.

Philipse takes as his starting point a widely-accepted concept of God, and it’s one adumbrated by a very respected theologian and philosopher of religion,Richard Swinburne. If it’s from Swinburne, it has street cred among philosophers. 

Written By: Jerry Coyne
continue to source article at whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com

17 COMMENTS

  1. The concept of an all-powerful God is logically impossible. It’s like the old adage, “there is an exception to every rule, including this one.” When encountering such beliefs, I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that we have logical proof that an omnipotent God does not exist.

  2. After reading several RD books, The God Delusion, The Greatest show on Earth and currently The Selfish Gene I have a “deeper” understanding of the complexity of evolution. I am challenged with understanding symbiosis of genes and microbes that live within our bodies. I have also read recently about the mind and am challenged to understand how brain chemistry influences thoughts and emotions. I accept that in nature, almost anything is possible and science offers explanations about how we got here. There may be something going on here that I should think about and study for a while before forming an opinion.
    That is what I have learned so far from Coyne. I’ve changed my thinking over the years and so has he.

  3. Swinburne’s definition of God:

    I take the proposition ‘God exists’ (and the equivalent proposition ‘There is a God’) to be logically equivalent to ‘there exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things.’ I use ‘God’ as the name of the person picked out by this description.”

    I find it fascinating he defines its existence as equivalent to the necessary existence of (etc.), which has “I’m gearing up for an ontological argument” stamped all over it. As for the necessity, rather than mere truth, of eternity, I wonder if he just wants God to sound cool.

    How can one meaningfully say that God listens to our prayers, loves us, speaks to us … if God is also assumed to be an incorporeal being?

    I think you can just about square those things with Swinburne’s definition, provided you take listening and speech to refer more generally to information transmission, and you postulate that an incorporeal mind can not only exist, but feel emotions. But perhaps that’s incoherent. I can see the case for that being made already (I don’t know how Philipse does it at book length): minds contain information, which has entropy, which implies an energy-temperature relation, which implies a physical form with particles.

    For the stipulation that God is an incorporeal being annuls the very conditions for meaningfully applying psychological expressions to another entity, to wit, that this entity is able in principle to display forms of bodily behaviour which resemble patterns of human behaviour

    So it seems Philipse’s approach is to argue psychology must be bodily. I suppose that’s on the entropy lines I just mentioned.

    he goes on to dispel Swinburne’s argument—in The Coherence of Theism—that the idea of a “bodiless person” is coherent

    More confirmation of the approach! I’ll have to go look up Philipse’s arguments in each book.

  4. There’s no logical coherence to the idea of a god that created everything, is perfect and omnipotent, and cares above all else that everyone believes in its existence, yet is so mind-bendingly incompetent at proving its existence.

  5. …….There is a God’) to be logically equivalent to ‘there exists necessarily a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, and the creator of all things.’ ……

    But he NEEDS money.

  6. Philipse’s whole approach is incoherent.

    The fundamental presupposition is that a body or matter is a necessary condition for the performance of any kind of action. This is based on the claim that matter has to be the ultimate reality, without which nothing could exist or occur. The problem with this view is that we don’t really know what matter is. Have we really exhausted our understanding of sub-atomic particles, so that we can confidently say that this is the ultimate reality? But even then, do we really know what this “ultimate reality” consists of? (I would hazard a guess that information would be a strong candidate). I would have thought that the problems of quantum mechanics should keep us humbly seeking, rather than jumping to premature conclusions.

    As science progresses, the mystery deepens. The atheist Peter Millican has acknowledged – in his attempt at a refutation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument – that human reason is limited, and when we try to understand reality at the cosmological and quantum levels, our logic inevitably gets to a point where it breaks down. Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss have made similar comments about the queerness or weirdness of the universe. From a naturalistic evolutionary point of view, human reason must be limited, if it is considered merely an emergent property of nature: a facility to enable homo sapiens to survive.

    Therefore it seems very strange to me that a professing atheist (who obviously subscribes to philosophical naturalism, and therefore a naturalistic understanding of the origin and development of human reason) should assume that human reason is almighty and can pronounce on all aspects of reality. The entire approach seems to be self-refuting.

    Mystery is not a religious cop-out, because the concept is frequently used by atheists, as I have mentioned. I don’t pretend to understand all the mechanics of how free will and mind interact with matter, but I do know (on the assumption that logic possesses objective validity) that mind and free will cannot be reducible to matter, because of the problem of determinism. Reason tells me that there does exist an interface between the incorporeal mind, consciousness and free will and the corporeal. Therefore I see no problem with the idea of an incorporeal God (the incorporeality of God being a huge assumption, by the way!) acting on and within matter. After all, there is a difference between being without matter and being above it, in the same way that being outside time and above time are not synonymous.

    • In reply to #10 by inoma_ilala:

      Hi inoma_ilala,

      Sorry, but you went a bit fast for me there. Would you please be so kind as to just clear up a couple of points for me?

      The fundamental presupposition is that a body or matter is a necessary condition for the performance of any kind of action.

      Right, that would include the action of thought – presumably?

      This is based on the claim that matter has to be the ultimate reality, without which nothing could exist or occur.

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “ultimate reality”? What about energy, time, geometry and infinities, where do they fit?

      The problem with this view is that we don’t really know what matter is.

      Granted, our descriptions of matter may leave something to be desired but that is a feature of the human condition, no? What I mean by that is; Sometimes I’m lost for words to describe things which only I can describe, like my love. I’m also frequently frustrated by other people’s descriptions of even the simplest things, like the wind, or the colour Taupe. I suppose what I’m trying to say is; where’s the problem?

      It seems to me that physicists describe matter in mathematical terms. That doesn’t mean they’re any closer to understanding it of course – but within that framework it seems to be a pretty precise description. We may find that description less than fulfilling, but nature doesn’t owe us an explanation.

      I would have thought that the problems of quantum mechanics should keep us humbly seeking, rather than jumping to premature conclusions.

      Totally agree.

      … human reason is limited, and when we try to understand reality at the cosmological and quantum levels, our logic inevitably gets to a point where it breaks down.

      I didn’t understand what you meant by “our logic”. Are you saying that logic is an entirely human construct? If that were true it would be no different than, say, Communism. Forgive my ignorance, but it seems to me that logic and Communism are very different. One works, the other doesn’t. One is applicable even in areas of discovery previously beyond human comprehension, the other struggles to be applicable even in well understood and controlled circumstances. What do you mean by “our logic” and where does it “break down”?

      … it seems very strange to me that a professing atheist (who obviously subscribes to philosophical naturalism, and therefore a naturalistic understanding of the origin and development of human reason) should assume that human reason is almighty and can pronounce on all aspects of reality.

      I have only read Jerry Coyne’s piece, not Herman Philipse’s book, but so far I can’t see a point where Philipse claims that human reason is almighty. Indeed, it seems to me that he must be saying the opposite. I would be most grateful if you could point out where he says that?

      Mystery is not a religious cop-out, because the concept is frequently used by atheists …

      Sorry! You lost me again there. I have given this a lot of thought, and I just can’t see how a typical Atheist’s acceptance of their ignorance, and of uncertainty in our knowledge of nature, is equivalent to a typical Theist’s use of mystery as shorthand for supernatural phenomena. But perhaps I’m missing your point?

      Of course if you were using the typical Theist’s shorthand, then that would be cop-out – so I must have misunderstood. Could you please explain?

      I don’t pretend to understand all the mechanics of how free will and mind interact with matter …

      That makes two of us. Blimey, it’s the blind leading the blind here!

      … but I do know (on the assumption that logic possesses objective validity)

      Oh dear, I’m confused again. Didn’t you say earlier that logic was a human construct and therefore, by implication, not objective?

      … that mind and free will cannot be reducible to matter, because of the problem of determinism.

      Well I’m not a Genie so you can’t have your wish: mind and matter are inextricably linked. I have not read all the scientific literature on this, but I am aware that neuroscientists, neuro-surgeons, neurologists, neuro-psychologists and many other professions are agreed on this point.

      Determinism is only a problem if you have some belief that determinism is necessarily bad. Which brings me to my question: Why do you think that determinism is a problem?

      Reason tells me that there does exist an interface between the incorporeal mind, consciousness and free will and the corporeal.

      Wow, that’s some claim. What evidence do you have? I can reason that my Sister is a Gorgon, does that mean I have just changed her into a Gorgon? Maybe she just is a Gorgon, and I have realised it by reasoning to the conclusion? If I can reason to the conclusion that my Sister is a Gorgon, you appear to be saying that it must be true? I have no evidence that my Sister is a Gorgon – does that matter?

      Therefore I see no problem with the idea of an incorporeal God (the in-corporeality of God being a huge assumption, by the way!) acting on and within matter.

      Would you be so kind as to break this down for me? A being without a body, yet which has intelligence and is therefore complex (against all the evidence that intelligence can only exist in complex bodies, really?), could exist within matter? How does that work? I mean, I can daydream and imagine an incorporeal ‘thing’ that passes through matter, but I see no fact that would suggest this is true. This goes back to my reasoning to a conclusion question, above.

      I can also see from the scientific literature that energy and wave-like particles pass through the Earth (including through my body), but I cannot see enough complexity for intelligence – nor even coherence, in the sense of acting together. Those waves, or particles, are in the standard model – which describes the facts. Where are the facts upon which you base a potential corporeal god?

      After all, there is a difference between being without matter and being above it, in the same way that being outside time and above time are not synonymous.

      Sorry, all at sea here. What do you mean by “outside time”? What do you mean by “above time”?

      I hope you’ll answer my Dunce’s questions, I’m always ready to learn.

      Peace.

  7. I see the incoherence of the concept of gods in the very common argument of complexity. As explained by Richard Dawkins, if one uses gods to explain complexity (of life, of humankind, of the universe) then one postulates more complexity than one explains. If you explain a fine tuned universe by a fine tuned god, you actually add mystery to the problem instead of explaining it. Receivable hypothesises must postulate less complexity than what they explain.

  8. I’ve never understood the theists’ argument that a god is “necessary”.

    But before I get in to that; the vast majority of believers, in my limited experience, appear not to realise that the very word god is incoherent. On the few recent occasions I have been taken to task on why I am an atheist I have begun to set out my stall by saying: Well, I don’t know that I am an atheist regarding your god. What do you mean by god?

    I find it most instructive to be open and honest about my ignorance of god, and to keep the question of what the Believer means with the Believer, when we discuss their beliefs.

    We should never accept the description “You know, the usual thing, Spiritual Ruler of the cosmos, blah, blah, Creator of blah, blah, exists beyond reach of science, blah, blah, Eternal Big Brother and Dictator blah, blah, … ” Never mind the spiritual ruler, what is a spirit? What was created? How do you know it was created? Do you know how big the universe is … ? How far away is this god then? What possible reason could a being so distant from us possibly want with us? Sorry, I missed how you know that?

    Over time I have learned that it is actually better to try and tease out of the Believer what they believe for as long as possible. Sometimes the incoherence of what they’re saying alone, makes them dry up. You don’t have to get into their faces about it, just keep asking questions and apologising for your ignorance.

    Eventually the smart ones (falling back on Aquinas, though most don’t realise it: “God is not knowable to us, because the essence of God is beyond our understanding … “). They bring up “God moves in mysterious ways”, or “He is so great that he is beyond our understanding”. To which I obviously reply, in Christopher Hitchen’s, memory: That which is asserted without evidence can be just as swiftly dismissed without evidence.”

    But getting back to ‘sophisticated’ theology; I would be most grateful if anyone here can explain what theologians mean by “A god is necessary.” I assume they mean the word necessary in the philosophical sense of: Inevitably resulting from the nature of things because the contrary is impossible?

    Forgive my ignorance, but, in what way are they claiming that the nature of nature demonstrates that a god is necessary because it’s not possible for nature to be the way it is without a god?

    Peace.

  9. inoma_italia says :

    . I don’t pretend to understand all the mechanics of how free will and mind interact with matter, but I do know (on the assumption that logic possesses objective validity) that mind and free will cannot be reducible to matter, because of the problem of determinism.

    HUH? What are you talking about? Mystifying the discussion can only show your incoherence.

    Mind is a product of what the brain does. The brain is made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, matter and energy. What so-called “freewill” has to do with anything is beyond me. It wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain piece of fruit from the tree of knowledge being eaten, would it?

    ISTM that the religios want it both ways. A God who is beyond space and time and who’s mind we cannot understand, and a God who physically interacts with the Earth, setting the odd bush on fire, and parting the sea, and indeed presenting a third of Himself as a man born of a virgin who was “sacrificed” to save us from ourselves.

    Well I am not a scientist, but I know enough science to know that both concepts are completely incoherent.

  10. In reply to #13 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

    In reply to #10 by inomailala:_

    .. that mind and free will cannot be reducible to matter, because of the problem of determinism.

    Well I’m not a Genie so you can’t have your wish: mind and matter are inextricably linked. I have not read all the scientific literature on this, but I am aware that neuroscientists, neuro-surgeons, neurologists, neuro-psychologists and many other professions are agreed on this point.

    Determinism is only a problem if you have some belief that determinism is necessarily bad. Which brings me to my question: Why do you think that determinism is a problem?

    I thought determinism was mitigated by Chaos Theory. That interactions of matter and energy are probabilistic rather than totally predictably determined! “Free will” looks like a theological fantasy anyway!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos-theory

    Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general.[1] This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved.[2] In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

    Therefore I see no problem with the idea of an incorporeal God (the in-corporeality of God being a huge assumption, by the way!) acting on and within matter.,

    Would you be so kind as to break this down for me? A being without a body, yet which has intelligence and is therefore complex (against all the evidence that intelligence can only exist in complex bodies, really?), could exist within matter?

    . . .. . Could inexplicably exist within matter or any of the well studied energies – as explained in great detail by the laws of thermodynamics – without being detected?

    How does that work? I mean, I can daydream and imagine an incorporeal ‘thing’ that passes through matter, but I see no fact that would suggest this is true. This goes back to my reasoning to a conclusion question, above.

    I can also see from the scientific literature that energy and wave-like particles pass through the Earth (including through my body), but I cannot see enough complexity for intelligence – nor even coherence, in the sense of acting together. Those waves, or particles, are in the standard model – which describes the facts.

    It does seem somewhat getting it backwards, to claim that mind (ie brain and brain function) cannot be reducible to matter and measurable energies, when this has been confirmed in numerous scientific studies, .. . . .

    . . . and then claim that an” incorporeal God”, can interact in ways which do not show up ANY measurable INTERACTIONS with the physical matter and energies in contravention of the laws of thermodynamics.

    Where are the facts upon which you base a potential corporeal god?

    Good question! (Try gap-hunters perhaps?) Data storage requires some form of structured matter or energy. Interactive intelligence more so!

    • In reply to #15 by Alan4discussion:

      Hi Alan,

      I hope you won’t be offended that I’m disappointed – you’re not inoma_ilala. Many thanks for responding anyway.

      I thought determinism was mitigated by Chaos Theory.

      Chaos theory, surely, only tells us that we cannot precisely predict the outcome of a series of initial conditions if those conditions are sufficiently large in number, and have a series of broad enough potential, within the reference frame of a universe within which the arrow of time operates (i.e. in a universe like ours)?

      In my limited understanding: The number of potential starting positions (even where they are all known), the potential of resulting conditions (including intermediate conditions – a.k.a. interactions), and the potential for multiple frames of reference (jncl. time frames – after Einstein) each multiply the complexity of the computation of any forecast. This is a natural curve (possibilities plotted against the time series for the forecast reference frame: The complexity of a forecast will grow exponentially with regard to number of inputs, as above) such that even a relatively unambitious forecast of known phenomena may demand resources greater than computational elements available (i.e is incalculable) and / or may require too much computational time within the Forecaster’s frame of reference to be useful.

      Assuming, for the moment, that my summary of chaos is a usable approximation of the state of the science today … chaos does not, it seems to me, mitigate determinism in the mind of the average theist. I make no pact with theists, their understanding of the science of chaos and probability (on the basis of what they say – or more often don’t say – about it) appears shallow.

      … That interactions of matter and energy are probabilistic rather than totally predictably determined! “Free will” looks like a theological fantasy anyway!

      I’m sorry Alan, but I can only claim to be ignorant of the theists’ position. Whether free will is fact or fantasy is merely a temporary position – pending clarification from theists. You may counter that we have been waiting at least 1,500 years for the most recent abrahmic religion (longer for almost all other religions) to provide the evidence that our universe is non-deterministic. I cannot argue with that fact.

      Therefore I see no problem with the idea of an incorporeal God (the in-corporeality of God being a huge assumption, by the way!) acting on and within matter.,

      . . .. . Could inexplicably exist within matter or any of the well studied energies – as explained in great detail by the laws of thermodynamics – without being detected?

      Ah Alan, much as I share your frustration at inoma_ilala’s confusion of the same thing in different forms being different things I can see an upside. Suddenly Homer Simpson is looking like an inspired, safe, choice as Supervisor of a nuclear reactor. What could possibly go wrong?

      Peace.

      • In reply to #16 by Stephen of Wimbledon:

        Assuming, for the moment, that my summary of chaos is a usable approximation of the state of the science today … chaos does not, it seems to me, mitigate determinism in the mind of the average theist. I make no pact with theists, their understanding of the science of chaos and probability (on the basis of what they say – or more often don’t say – about it) appears shallow.

        That is the essence of the theist misconceptions. They equate determinism with predictability, and then invent “free-will”, as a negation of the “predictability strawman”!
        Perhaps it would have been clearer if I had said, “Chaos Theory mitigated perceptions of determinism”.

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