On God as a “No Thing”

According to a favorite argument of religious believers, God must exist because otherwise the physical universe with all its wonders would be inexplicable. I have always considered it a very powerful argument against His existence that such arguments leave you with an even bigger problem. If you can’t accept the existence of the universe without a Creator, why do you accept the existence of a Creator to begin with? He must necessarily be even more complex and inexplicable than that which he created. In other words, you don’t gain anything by positing the existence of something more complex to explain something less complex. Jean Meslier used the argument in his Testament, and Richard Dawkins and others have included it in more recent works.

Moslems and some Christians use divine inspiration, or faith, to get around the argument. In the more extreme, Muslim version, God decided in advance who would have faith and who not. He created unbelievers in such a way that their minds would be hardened against faith in Him, and for the “sin” of being created that way, he intends to burn them forever. It’s all set forth very explicitly in the Koran.

However, Christians who imagine themselves more sophisticated than the rest, apparently never having read the bit in Matthew 18:3 about the impossibility of entering the kingdom of heaven except as a little child, have more “complex” arguments. One such is Paul Wallace, who set forth a version thereof at the website of Religion Dispatches.

Wallace begins with the well-worn argument that, if you don’t believe in God, you’re really just a religious horse of a different color. In his words,

The atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are often not more than mirror images—inversions—of the theisms they negate.

By that logic, if you don’t believe in fairies, you belong to the “anti-fairy cult,” and if you’ve never read Virginia’s letter, and lost faith in Santa, you’re a zealot in the “anti-Santa” religion. Winston in Orwell’s “1984,” was presumably a fundamentalist religious fanatic because he insisted he only counted four fingers instead of five when his torturer held up his hand.

Wallace is just warming up, though. Citing Yale theology professor Denys Turner, he explains that, if you don’t see the fifth finger, you’re just not trying hard enough:

Turner also writes that, very often, the theisms attacked by atheists are not very interesting; therefore, the atheisms of most committed, principled atheists are not very interesting. Why this is so is not clear; perhaps it is because in many cases theism was abandoned before it was allowed time to develop into something of substance.

He then focuses on the version of the argument presented in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion

In The God Delusion, Dawkins presents his central argument against the existence of God in the fourth chapter. His thinking goes something like this: The universe is a complex thing. Therefore the God of the Christians, who, Christians say, made the universe, must be at least as complex as the universe God made. Therefore we are left with an even bigger problem than before: Who made this ultra-complex God? A hyper-complex megaGod? It makes plain sense, according to Occam’s razor, to stop before we get to the first God. The complex universe is enough. Ergo, in all likelihood, God does not exist.

This argument, which boils down to Well, who made God, then?, assumes that God is a thing like any other thing. It assumes that God must exist in the same way the moon exists, in the same way Dawkins himself exists. As Terry Eagleton wrote in his now-infamous review of The God Delusion, Dawkins seems to think that God is “a celestial super-object or divine UFO,” a creature like other creatures, only bigger and smarter: a kind of überthing, but a thing nonetheless.

But nowhere does Dawkins get outside of himself and ask, Is my assumption that God is a thing like any other thing really necessary? On what is this assumption grounded? Where did it come from?

I’m no fan of Dawkins. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I was not enthralled by his quasi-racist anti-American ranting about the “U.S. Taliban” and overt bigotry against Christian fundamentalists in The God Delusion. Be that as it may, his argument doesn’t depend on God being a thing like other things. It only requires that God is a thing, as opposed to nothing. Nowhere does Dawkins suggest that God is a thing like other things, but merely that, whatever sort of thing he is imagined to be, if He is the creator, he must necessarily be more complex than that which he created. As a result, whatever kind of a thing believers of whatever stripe might imagine Him to be, the argument that He must exist because otherwise the remarkable physical world we see around us could not exist becomes absurd. It is assuming something more complicated to explain something less complicated. It doesn’t solve anything. Wallace, however, demures:

What is at issue here is, Dawkins refuses to examine the ground on which he stands: science itself. That is, Dawkins may change his mind about evolution, but nothing will change his mind about science. He will never question—in a serious way—the sufficiency of science as a guide to truth.

Here we see the familiar portrayal of “science” as a religious belief. In fact, it is nothing of the sort, but merely a systematic way of discovering and acquiring knowledge. There is nothing mystical about the word “science” at all. It is simply one way of reasoning about what is true. Continuing with Wallace:

He will never question—in a serious way—the sufficiency of science as a guide to truth. Perhaps he thinks the success of science makes it a self-evident choice when it comes to grounding his worldview; what he does not and will not consider is the very real possibility that science is so successful precisely because it is so limited. To reject this possibility out-of-hand is nothing but intellectual laziness. Dawkins is dogmatically rigid and fixed in place. He is a fundamentalist.

Fine. Science is limited. However, Christian fundamentalism, an “easy target,” is also limited. Dawkins just wasn’t aiming high enough. Forget the Christians as “little children” meme. If you want to “see through” his argument, it’s going to take some serious mental gymnastics. Wallace describes the process in terms of four levels of “God-talk,” with the third being the most important. Let’s let him explain:

The third level is the most difficult but the most important. This is second-order negation, or the inversion of the inversion. Here we would say, “God is not a fire, but God is not a not-fire either,” and “God is not love, but neither is God not-love.” God transcends the (human-based) distinction between love and not-love.

Also on this third level is found the insistence, made for centuries by theologians throughout Christendom, that God transcends the distinction of being and not-being. Therefore, if we use the conventional definition of existence, God does not exist. Our category of existence does not apply to God. Put another way, the word “exist” cannot be used univocally of things and God. These are artificial categories imagined and used by human beings; they are manifestly not divine attributes. In the end, to speak correctly, there are no divine attributes. Which means that God is not distinct from creation, nor is God not-distinct from creation. That is, in God there is no distinction at all, nor is there non-distinction. No affirmation or denial properly applies to God.

Or, in other words, God is neither a thing or nothing. This very convenient for believers, because it puts their God out of reach of logic. By the same token, I can say that fairies, Santa, or the Great Green Grasshopper God are neither thing or nothing, and no one can prove they don’t exist.

But atheists say that Christianity is false, that God does not exist. Asking them to defend their position in light of mature theology is doing nothing but taking them for their word and respecting their intelligence.

So atheists are wrong because, like Winston and his four fingers, they can’t imagine an entity that is neither a thing nor nothing. Wallace assigns them the task of disproving the existence of that entity, but without using language, because that would be too deceptive, and without reasoning, because that which is outside the union of “thing” and “nothing” is also outside the realm of rational argument. If they fail then, voila, the existence of God is proved! Of course, the author realizes he’s walking on thin ice. He admits as much:

Also, one may say that negative theology is content-free and useless because it nullifies the use of rational thought. In a sense this is a valid argument. But one can go beyond negative theology while bearing in mind its lessons. In fact, negative theology constitutes the central nervous system, if you will, of the entire Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas that Dawkins so happily and ignorantly mocks. In this work, Thomas employs analogical language in order to speak freely of God’s attributes without the possibility of confusing them with the attributes of, say, fire or kingship or love or being.

Since it’s obviously impossible to believe in an un-thing, the author, after assuring us that God is neither thing nor nothing, is suddenly speaking of Him as an object with attributes. I, and I daresay anyone else who speaks English fluently, would call an object with attributes a thing.

This is one of the most powerful aspects of negative theology: It cleanses the mind not only of assumptions about God, but of idols (like science, say) that can so easily replace God.

Again assigning some mystical quality to “Science.”  As noted above, science is just systematic reasoning.  What the above amounts to is the claim that anyone who dares to use their brain as something other than inert stuffing for their skull is an “idolater.”

We are required to have faith in no thing at all; only then will our faith have any chance of finding its true home in God.

There are, of course, different flavors of this “no thing.” The author should take care that he has faith in the right “no thing.” If it turns out that the Moslem “no thing” is the real one, he’ll be spending quadrillions and quintillions of years sizzling in hell, and that’s just for starters. I will leave that to the competing “no things” to sort out among themselves. Poor, deluded atheist that I am, I am left by all these arguments in direr straights than before. I will certainly end up frying in the afterlife regardless unless, without relying on logic or language, I somehow manage to figure out what “no thing” is, and that with alacrity, I being no longer the youngest. I gather from what the author is telling me that this will only be possible by virtue of reading Thomas Aquinas and a voluminous stack of other religious tomes. I suspect that such fare may not really be the path to divine enlightenment. Rather, it seems more likely that the author has been left in more or less the same condition by reading his own pile of books about religion as Don Quixote was left by reading a pile of books about knight errantry. Miguel de Cervantes provides a detailed psychological description in the first chapter of his famous account of that gentleman.

While I strongly suspect that Wallace is as deluded in matters of religion as Don Quixote was touching knights in shining armor, I am content to let him believe whatever he chooses as long as he accords the same right to me, and does not conclude, as so many others have done in the past, that his “no thing” requires him to burn people, or launch wars against those who believe in other “no things,” or fly airplanes into buildings on behalf of the “no thing”, or that the state should serve as an interpreter of the will of the “no thing.” As long as we’re clear about those things we should be able to coexist.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

2 thoughts on “On God as a “No Thing””

  1. It exists as a subjective construct in the brain, but that is beside the point. In my understanding of the language, at least, i is a thing, and therefore not in some limbo outside the union of thing and nothing. We can reason about it, derive logical rules about it, and put it to good use in mathematical formulae. Some of those formulae predict things about the physical world that can be tested in repeatable experiments that will turn out the same way every time if done correctly, no matter whether the experimenter is a Christian or a Moslem.

    In general, it is better to believe simple truths than convenient lies that can only be propped up by virtue of mental contortions about “no things.”

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