I am suggesting, therefore, that we can reasonably continue with our common practice of asking what it is that accounts for what does not, absolutely speaking, have to be there in our world, and there in the way that it is. So let us now consider just how far this practice can take us - starting with Smokey, my cat, whom I first encountered in a shelter for stray animals.
I wondered where he came from. The people who ran the shelter had no answer. Yet they did not, of course, assume that there was no answer. They did not suppose that Smokey popped into existence uncaused where the person who brought him to the shelter found him. They assumed (and rightly so, surely) that Smokey had parent cats. We can reasonably wonder about the feline sources of cats of our acquaintance (while presuming that there are, indeed, such sources). In a similar way we can ask (while assuming that there are true answers) who people's parents are, or who (or what) produced the buildings we see through our windows.
But we might now push our questions onwards a stage - to move beyond particular individuals belonging to a single kind or class. Suppose that I were to discover that Smokey is the offspring of Caesar and Cleo - two real (or once real) cats. Knowing this fact would explain, to some extent, how Smokey is there for us to talk about. But it would not explain how cats, as such, are there. So we might now ask 'How come cats?' How did cats get going in the first place? And what keeps them going? These are surely reasonable questions. Indeed, so one might say, they are questions which ought to be raised. And, perhaps (and as I think many people suppose), there are answers to them which make good scientific sense (answers in terms of evolution, genetics, and whatever in the universe helps to support or promote the lives of cats). We naturally seek to account for the existence of kinds of things, and we presume (or, at least, many of us presume) that we can, in principle, account for this scientifically -in terms of what exists in the universe.
Yet what about the universe itself? If it had a beginning, should we not also seek to account for this causally? And, even if we suppose that it had no beginning, should we not seek causally to account for its existence at any time? If we suppose that the universe did have a beginning, and if, against Hume, we conclude that whatever begins to exist has a cause, then we should presumably posit a cause, or a collection of causes, for the beginning of the existence of the universe (a cause, or a collection of causes, which would have to be distinct from the universe).
Yet why should we suppose that there is a need causally to account for the existence of the universe at any time? It seems (at least to many people) natural and proper to ask what within the universe accounts for what it contains at particular times. So it does not seem especially strange or unreasonable to ask 'How come Smokey?' or 'How come cats?' (or 'How come mountains, oceans, deserts, people, the planet Earth, the conditions that exist on Earth, or on the Moon, or on Mars?' - and so on). But what are we to make of 'How come the existence of the universe as such?' I use the phrase 'as such' here in order to highlight the fact that 'How come the universe?' is not asking 'What accounts (or accounted) for the fact that the universe began to exist?' but 'What accounts for the existence of the universe at any time?' The question seems to amount to 'How come any universe at all (regardless of whether or not the universe is something that had a beginning)?'15
This is a puzzling query, to say the least. Be that as it may, however, I now want to suggest that we absolutely do need to ask 'How come the universe, whether or not it had a beginning?' My argument for doing so is a fairly simple one and goes as follows:
(1) Take any object in the universe you care to mention or of which you can conceive (while supposing that it is real).
(2) Any such object has intrinsic properties or qualities - i.e. proper ties or qualities which it has in and of itself. (Of X we might say that 'John finds it frightening', but being frightening is not a property that is intrinsic to anything. Being mammalian, however, is such a property, as is being human, being made of wood, being a whale, and so on.)
(3) The intrinsic properties of any object are, in principle, ones that can be had by other objects. There are more mammals than one. Many individuals count as human beings. Lots of things are made of wood. There are many whales. And so on.
(4) Therefore, knowing that real objects in the universe have whatever properties they have is not to know that they, as the individual things that they are, actually exist. In this sense, we can distinguish between what real objects in the universe are and whether or not they exist (we can distinguish, if you like, between their existence and their nature).
(5) But if the existence of something is not part of its nature (if it is not something's nature to exist), the thing's existence cannot be accounted for in terms of its nature and requires an external cause. And if the existence of nothing in the universe is accountable for in terms of its nature, the existence of the universe as a whole (and at any time) requires an external (agent-) cause.
In short, we can know what something in the universe (e.g. Smokey) is without knowing that it has to exist, which means that its existence has to be derived, which, in turn, means that the existence of the universe as a whole is derived.
Objections and replies
Can we fault this argument?
(1) is not a premise; it is simply an invitation to think about something. So I cannot see that there is anything to quarrel with here.
(2) might be thought to raise questions about what counts as an intrinsic property. But the examples I give surely indicate what (2) is saying and that (2) is true. It is focusing on what one might say while trying truly to describe what something that exists is actually like. It is not drawing attention to any old predicate that we might use when seeking to say something about something. '_is identical with itself, '_ is either bigger or smaller than something or other',
'_is loved by James', and '_is to the right of the tree' are all examples of predicates that we might use when trying to talk about something. But none of them tells us what anything might be in itself. They do not describe - in the perfectly ordinary sense of 'describe' that we have in mind when we say, for example, 'Tell me what your pet is'. If someone were to say this to me then I would briefly reply somewhat along these lines: 'My pet is a cat. He is male. He has grey fur. His dimensions are thus and so. He is energetic and healthy.' This answer first places my pet into a species (of which there are detailed scientific descriptions available). It then goes on to note positive features that he has which some members of his species lack. In this sense, my answer describes what he is actually like in and of himself. So it seems perfectly proper to say that objects in the universe can be thought of as having intrinsic properties or qualities.
We might, of course, ask 'What should we count as an object?', and that is a difficult question, largely because 'object' (one can say the same of'thing') is what Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) once called a 'formal concept'.16 If you are only told that such and such is an object, you learn nothing when it comes to what it actually is. And even if you think that you know an object when you see one, and if you give an example of what you take to be an object, you might be argued into agreeing that it is really many objects. You might, for example, say that a telephone is an object. Yet even the simplest telephone has many parts. So might not each of these be thought of as objects? And might not their microscopic constituents also be thought of as objects? Given that 'object' is, indeed, a formal concept in Wittgenstein's sense (and I do not deny this), one might well wish to conclude that we have no idea as to what objects there are.
To do so, however, would surely be to end up with a pretty odd belief. Think, once again, of Smokey. He is a single living being. He has parts, of course, and these might be thought of as objects.17 But, considered as a living and breathing cat, he is obviously an entity in his own right. He is a natural unit. Or again, think of a carrot, or a cabbage, or a stone, or a shell, or a planet, or a star. These are things which are also naturally referred to as entities in their own right. The same can even be said of distinguishable individuals which are not naturally occurring ones - like houses, books, or cars.18 The same can also be said of everything that makes up our world. We live in a universe in which things can intelligibly be singled out as subjects to be studied, categorized, analysed and described. We live in a universe made up of distinguishable, concrete things (some made up of distinguishable parts, some not), things we can refer to and to which we can apply predicates. There have been philosophers who have denied this, but most (with differing levels of interpretation and elaboration) have affirmed it.19 So, for present purposes, I am going to suggest that (2) is not a particularly dubious premise on which to draw and that it is, therefore, acceptable even in spite of the formal character of 'object' (for which, also, read 'thing').
(3) seems to be an equally tenable premise to employ. Anything we can predicate of something can also, in principle, normally be predicated of something else. It is, of course, easy to think of possible predicates which could only apply to one thing. Examples would be
'_ is the one and only human being who knows about the imminent alien invasion', or '_is the only daughter of James and
Maria Smith'. When we describe things, however, we are rarely picking out features, or descriptions, which are not shareable, and we are not completely doing that even as we use predicates like the two just mentioned. There may be only one human being who knows about the imminent alien invasion, but (a) being a human being, and (b) knowing about an imminent invasion, is what could in principle be truly afflrmable of more than one individual. And though James and Maria Smith might have only one daughter, she shares what she is in herself with millions of others (e.g. she is human and female). In so far as we are concerncd with what I am calling intrinsic properties (what we can predicate of something as we analyse it and attempt to describe it scientifically), we are concerned with things that are not, in principle, unique.
If this is so, however, we can, following (4), surely draw a serious distinction between what something is and the fact that it exists. One true answer (I am sure that there are more) to the question 'What is Smokey?' is 'A cat'. And we know what cats are (though, while some of us know a lot about them, most of us know only relatively little). Knowing what cats are, however, does not help us in the slightest when it comes to knowing whether there is any such cat as Smokey. The same is true when it comes to other things.
Notice that I am not here suggesting that, it is impossible to deduce the existence of cats from something like a nominal definition of 'cat' (i.e. a definition which tells us what the word 'cat' means). That suggestion is different from what I am now proposing. Let us suppose that, along with standard English dictionaries, we take it for granted that 'unicorn' means 'a horse-like creature with a horn on its forehead' (or something along those lines). In that case, there is obviously a sense in which it would be false to say 'It is not the case that: a unicorn is a horse-like creature with a horn on its forehead'. If I talk about unicorns as though they were exactly like dogs, then I am clearly labouring under a delusion and you would be justified in correcting me and insisting that I am somehow in error. But none of this implies that there actually are any unicorns. The fact that the meaning of a word seems to name or designate an existent object does not imply the existence of such an object (as critics of a famous theistic argument commonly called 'the Ontological Argument' have often observed).20 Yet I am not denying this. I am suggesting that with respect to actually existing things in the world we can distinguish between what they are intrinsically and the fact that they exist. Understanding their natures, I am saying, does not involve understanding that any particular one of them exists. You can, for example, know what cats are (you can be scientifically expert when it comes to cats) without knowing that Smokey exists.
Does it therefore follow, however, that things in the world cannot account for their own existence and that the same is true of the universe as a whole at any given time? In other words, is (5) true? I can think of at least live reasons why someone might argue that it is not. These can be expressed as follows:
(a) Even if the existence of particular things in the universe needs to be accounted for with respect to something other than what they are, it does not follow that the existence of all particular things, or the existence of the universe as a whole, needs to be so accounted for.
(b) Even if we grant that the existence of some object does not follow from its nature (and even if we grant that something other than the object accounts for its existence), we need not suppose that there is something distinct from the universe accounting for its existence at any time. We need only suppose that for anything in the universe there is something else within the universe accounting for its existence.
(c) It is wrong to ask what accounts for the sheer existence of anything. We can sensibly ask what accounts for something having a particular nature or a particular property, but we cannot sensibly ask what accounts for something simply existing. For existence is not a property of objects or individuals.
(d) Even supposing that an object's existence cannot be deduced from a knowledge of what it is, there is no reason to suppose that the object's existence is brought about by anything. Why not say that objects in the world can exist uncaused? Why not say that the universe as a whole exists uncaused?
(e) There is no serious alternative to the universe not existing. If we ask 'How come the universe as a whole and at any time?', we must be supposing that there not being a universe is some kind of possibility that might have been realized. Yet the alternative to there being a universe is there being absolutely nothing, which is not an alternative at all.
Yet these lines of thinking are unacceptable, as I shall try to explain by discussing them in order.
In defence of (a) one might argue that (5) commits the fallacy of composition. If every brick in a wall weighs two pounds, it does not follow (and is, in fact, false) that the wall as a whole weighs two pounds. What is true of X, Y, and Z, taken individually, might not be true of X, Y, and Z considered as a collection. Sometimes, however, what is true of members of a collection taken individually is true of the collection as a whole. If every brick in a wall is yellow, the wall as a whole is yellow. If every fibre of a rug is made of wool, then the rug as a whole is made of wool. And, so it seems obvious to me, if every object in the universe needs something other than itself to account for its existence, the universe as a whole does so as well. If the universe is nothing but the sum of the objects that make it up, and if each of them in turn needs something other than itself to account for its existence, then the same must be true of the universe itself. You might say that a brick wall is nothing but the sum of its parts and that, just as we should not conclude that if every brick in a wall weighs two pounds, the wall as a whole weighs two pounds, we should not conclude that if every object in the universe needs something other than itself to account for its existence, the universe does so as well.
Weighing two pounds, however, is only attributable to particular bricks in a wall of which each brick weighs two pounds. Depending for its existence on something else is, by contrast, attributable to the universe as a whole if everything in it depends for its existence on something else.21 One two-pound brick plus another two-pound brick leaves us with what weighs four pounds. One thing which depends for its existence on something else plus another thing which depends for its existence on something else merely leaves us with what depends for its existence on something else.
(b) might be thought plausible on the basis of one or both of two assumptions: (i) the universe never had a beginning, and everything now existing has a series of (agent-) causes within the universe going back infinitely into the past, and (ii) anything having a cause of its existence owes that existence to an infinite series of agent-causes within the universe. Now (i) and (ii) here clearly depend on assumptions about infinite collections of things. In the case of (i), the assumption is that there could be an infinite series of completed past events, states, or times, or something along those lines. In the case of (ii) the assumption is that there could be an infinite series of causes acting simultaneously. Neither assumption seems plausible to me, but I shall quarrel with neither of them here. For, even if true, they do nothing to refute what I am arguing at present. Whether backwardly or contemporaneously infinite, the universe is still a collection of objects the natures of which do not entail the existence of the objects having those natures. This, I am suggesting, ought to leave us asking what accounts for the existence of the universe as a whole and at any time.
(c) brings us to a very tricky topic, one much discussed by philosophers especially since the time of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). According to him, 'Being is obviously not a real predicate, i.e., a concept of something that could add to the concept of a thing'.22 Kant's statement here, and the subsequent justification he provides for it, might seem somewhat opaque, but he appears at least to be claiming that we do not describe something in any way when we say that it exists - a claim which has received its most sophisticated elaboration and defence in the late C. J. F. Williams's book What is Existence?23 And the claim clearly has merit. Obviously I do not tell you what something is when I say that it exists ('There are rats in the New York Subway' does not tell you what a rat is). Also, statements of existence are veiy commonly nothing but assertions to the effect that certain predicates (none of them being '_ exists') are truly afflrmable of something. If, for example, I say that 'Horses exist', I am not saying anything about any particular horse. I am saying that'_
is a horse' is truly afflrmable of something or other.
But this does not mean that we are not making true affirmations about things when saying that they exist. It does not mean that'_
exists' cannot be a genuine predicate of individuals. The reason most commonly given for supposing that it cannot is that thinking so allows us to make sense of negative existential propositions such as
'Blue daffodils do not exist'. In such propositions, the predicate '_
do(es) not exist' cannot tell us something about anything (cannot be a predicate of individuals) since the propositions themselves are telling us that there is nothing to which any predicate can be truly assigned. And, with this thought in mind, it has often been suggested that'_exists' is not a predicate of individuals either. But that suggestion assumes that negative predications carry existential import, that they imply or state that something exists, which is open to question. In other words, we do not have to suppose that 'Blue daffodils do not exist,' implies the existence of blue daffodils and amounts to a contradiction on the supposition that'_do(es) not exist' (like '_exist(s)') is a first-level predicate (a predicate of individuals). All we have to suppose is that 'Blue daffodils do not exist' is true if nothing is a blue daffodil, and false if some daffodil is blue.
In any case, it clearly does sometimes make sense to say of something that it exists. It makes sense, for example, to say 'The Great Pyramid still exists, but the Library of Alexandria does not'. It makes equal sense to say 'The Statue of Liberty exists, but the World Trade Towers do not'. And it makes perfect to sense to say that, for example, Smokey exists - meaning that he is actually there to be examined, petted, fed, cleaned up after, and so on. This is the sense of 'exists' that Aquinas has in mind as he employs the Latin term esse. For Aquinas, something can be said to have esse in so far as it is actually there to be analysed or described.24 He does not think of esse as a distinguishing quality or property of things (so he denies that to know that something has esse is to know n hal it is). At the same time, however, he thinks that we can distinguish between, say, Smokey and the last living (but now dead) dinosaur. Smokey, for Aquinas, would be something actual, a genuinely existing individual, and, so far as I can see, such a view is hardly unreasonable. In that case, however, one can fairly claim that existence is something we can reflect on causally. It makes sense, for example, to ask what accounts for Smokey's exist ence at any time, and the existence of any other object, for that matter.
Yet, do we need to do this? (d) suggests that we do not, that we might take the existence of things in the universe, and the existence of the universe as a whole, not to raise questions about agent-causality. The fact of the matter, though, is that we just do seek causally to account for what exists but does not intrinsically have to, and we take seeking of this kind to be the mark of a reasonable person. When asked if he would speak of the universe as 'gratuitous', Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) once famously replied, 'I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all.'25 His position on that occasion was based on three stated assumptions: (a) that the word 'universe' does not stand for anything that has meaning, (b) that something in the world might arise without an agent-cause (or agent-causes), and (c) that, while it might be legitimate to ask what in the world caused some object or event in the world, there is no warrant for asking what causally accounts for the world as a whole. Yet (a) here is plainly false, if only because 'universe' is a word that people use in conversation. I have already commented on (b). With respect to (c), all I can say is that it seems arbitrary to stop asking causal questions unless we arrive at a cause (or causes) the existence of which is somehow necessary or self-explanatory. I have argued that the existence of the universe is not necessary or self-explanatory since we cannot account for the existence of any object in the universe in terms of what it is. So I now suggest that we ought to presume that the existence of the universe has a cause (or causes).
What kind of difference, however, would such a cause (or causes) be making? If it (they) account(s) for the existence of the universe as a whole, it (they) cannot be making the kind of difference which agent-causes within the universe typically make. Without exception, these achieve their effects only by bringing about a change of some kind. Artists produce paintings by moving bits of paint around. People write books by fiddling with computers, pens, or typewriters. Tropical storms wreak havoc by modifying the environments they hit. And so on. Yet for something causally to account for there being any universe at all cannot be for it to change the universe (or anything in it) in any way - since nothing can undergo change unless it exists to start with. So if anything accounts for the existence of the universe, then it must simply make the universe to be. It cannot be altering the universe in any way. Rather, it must account for there being a universe as opposed to there being nothing at all.
Yet how can we sensibly think of there being nothing at all as a genuine alternative that we might have in mind when wondering why the universe exists at all? Here we come to (e). The position I am defending could well be expressed as 'We are entitled to ask and, therefore, entitled to suppose that there is an answer to the question "How come something rather than nothing?'" (e) represents a challenge to this position since it denies that there being nothing is a genuine alternative to there being something. And it is easy to see the force of (e). For is there really an intelligible distinction to be drawn here? Can we take nothing to be a genuine possibility to be set beside something? We may speak of there being nothing in the room, or of there being nothing between Australia and New Zealand. But here we mean something like 'There is no furniture in the room' or 'There is no land between Australia and New Zealand'. In other words, the notion of there being absolutely nothing is not one with positive content. So why suppose that there being something rather than nothing is something to get worked up about?
Yet is the notion of nothing really so problematic in this context? Suppose that we are searching through the drawers in my kitchen. I open one of them and I say 'Well, there is nothing in here'. You will understand what I am saying. You will know that I am saying that there are no knives, forks, spoons, and so on in the drawer. In that case, however, can you not equally well understand me if I were to claim that there is nothing at all? I would obviously be speaking falsely. But would you not be able to understand why that is so? Would you not take me falsely to be insisting that there are no nameable and describable individuals? Surely you would, and rightly so. We do not have a concept of nothing as we have a concept of longevity or tallness or liquidation. But might it not be thought that we do have a concept of nothing in so far as we have a knowledge of things that there are in the world, and in so far as we might think of them just not. being there'? And might it not also be thought that there being nothing at all is a genuine possibility in so far as the 'all' we are concerned with is what we take to make up the world or universe? It has been said that 'There might have been nothing' is not a believable proposition since there is no alternative to being. According to Bede Rundle for example,
When we say 'Nothing is ...', far from talking about nothing, we are talking about everything. Nothing is immortal; that is, everything is mortal. Nothing might have been here - neither you nor I, the cat, the dog, and so on indefinitely ... We cannot conceive of there being nothing, but only of nothing being this or that, and that is a use of 'nothing' that presupposes there being something. Intelligible contrasts are within ways of being - near or far, long or short, young or old. Existing and not existing fit into the scheme -existing now, not existing then, and, more radically, there being a so and so and there being no so and so - but the contrast is still within how things are: at least one thing's being a dragon, say, and the failure of every single thing to be a dragon. This is as far as it goes, there being something and there being nothing not being contrasting poles with respect to the way things might be.2fi
Yet saying that there might have been nothing need not amount to claiming that there being nothing is a way things might be, or that there is something called 'nothing' which might be thought to be in some way. To say that there might have been nothing could, and as far as I am concerned does, amount to the suggestion that nothing in the universe is such that its nature guarantees its existence - this also being true of the universe as a whole.
Of course, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is an unusual and radical question. But that is not a reason for dismissing it. The asking of unusual and radical questions often leads people to expand their intellectual horizons and to make serious intellectual progress. One might suggest that the question is intrinsically silly or ill-formed. But is it? Questions like 'How thick is the Equator?' or 'How much money does algebra earn?' certainly make no sense. Another example of an intrinsically absurd question occurs in an amusing dialogue reported by Peter Geach:
Two Rabbinical scholars were reading the Law. They had not got very far - in fact not beyond Genesis 1,1, which contains the word
'eretz' ('earth'). The initial question of the dialogue which follows is like asking in English: Why should there be a letter G in the word 'earth'? - gimel being the corresponding letter in Hebrew.
Why should there be a gimel in 'eretz'?
But there isn't a gimel in 'eretz'.
Then why isn't there a gimel in 'eretz'?
Why should there be a gimel in 'eretz'?
Well, that's what I just asked you!2'
Is the question 'Why is there anything at all?' intrinsically absurd, however? I do not see that it is. One might side with Bertrand Russell and assert that things are just there and that there is nothing more to be said. Yet (going by his writings in general) Russell would never have suggested that, for example, cats are just there. He would have asked how cats came to be and continue to be. So why should we not ask why there is anything at all? Why should we not ask 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' It might be said that we have not familiarized ourselves with the answer to this question and that this is a reason for fighting shy of it. But not understanding what the answer to a question might be does not justify refusing to ask it and refusing to suppose that there must be an answer to it. The earliest scientists who puzzled over the world had not acquainted themselves with realities that we now casually refer to in giving what we take to be accurate scientific answers. They were venturing into the unknown. Yet we commend them for their efforts and are seriously indebted to them. They might have said that X, Y, or Z was 'just there'. Fortunately, however, they did not.
If I am right in what I have just been saying, then we ought to suppose that the universe is caused to exist for as long as it exists, which is what those who believe in God have traditionally believed.28 Or, to put it another way, people have traditionally used the word 'God' in order to talk about what produces the sheer existence of the universe, that which makes the world to be (at any time). And, of course, in doing so they have used the word 'Creator'. God, they have said, is the Creator of all things. Hence, for example, we find Aquinas writing: 'It is not enough to consider how some particular being issues from some particular cause, for we should also attend to the issuing of the whole of being from the universal cause, which is God; it is this springing forth that we designate by the term "creation".'20 Similarly, the recently promulgated Catechism of the Catholic Church says: 'God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being.'30 So I shall henceforth use the word 'God' to mean 'whatever it is that makes thing's to be for as long as they are'.
Yet what understanding of God should we take ourselves to have on that basis? Some have suggested that we pretty much know what God the Creator is. Indeed, so it is often said, he is somewhat like us. Hence, for example, Richard Swinburne (who believes that there is a God) tells us that God is something like a 'person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe'.31 Like many philosophers, especially since the time of René Descartes (1596-1650), Swinburne thinks that people (persons) are composed of two kinds of stuff -mental, incorporeal, indivisible stuff (mind) and physical, extended, divisible stuff (body). On this account, the real me is my mind (or soul), and so I, like all persons, am essentially incorporeal. I am causally connected to what is material, but I am not myself a material thing. I am a spirit. And, so Swinburne thinks, this is what God is - a 'person without a body'. Of course, Swinburne (and those who agree with him) do not think that God is just like any human person you care to mention. They take him to be, for example, more long-lived than we are. They also take him to be uncaused, and more powerful and knowledgeable than we are. So they think of God as an extraordinary person. Yet they still presume that God belongs to the same class as people (or persons). He is, for them, one among many, and with this thought in mind they have said that we have a fairly good idea of what he actually is. We know what people are, they reason; so we have a fair understanding of what God is. Swinburne, indeed, suggests that we can actually imagine what it is like to be God. God, says Swinburne, is not just a spirit; he is an omnipresent one, and we can understand what it is to be such a thing. Says Swinburne:
Imagine yourself, for example, gradually ceasing to be affected by alcohol or drugs, your thinking being equally coherent however men mess about with your brain. Imagine too that you cease to feel any pains, aches, thrills, although you remain aware of what is going on in what has been called your body. You gradually find yourself aware of what is going on in bodies other than your own and other material objects at any place in space ... You also come to see things from any point of view which you choose, possibly simultaneously, possibly not. You remain able to talk and wave your hands about, but find yourself able to move directly anything which you choose, including the hands of other people ... You also find yourself able to utter words which can be heard anywhere, without moving material objects. However, although you find yourself gaining these strange powers, you remain otherwise the same - capable of thinking, reasoning, and wanting, hoping and fearing . . . Surely anyone can thus conceive of himself becoming an omnipresent spirit.32
Speaking for myself, I have to say that I cannot imagine what Swinburne is here telling me that I can.33 But that is neither here nor there for the moment. The point to grasp is that Swinburne thinks that an understanding of people takes us a long way towards an understanding of God, and the same can be said of many other writers.
Yet why should we suppose that anything with which we are acquainted gives us an understanding of what God is? Biblical authors often speak as though God is very much like a human being. In the Old Testament, for example, he is depicted as having hands, eyes, ears, and a face.34 He laughs, smells, and whistles.3,5 And he has emotions such as hatred, anger, joy, and regret.36 Yet we also find biblical passages stressing the difference between God and anything created. A classic one is in Isaiah:
To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?
To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? Says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these? (Isaiah 40:18, 25-26)
Here we have a text which seems strongly to say that God's creatures provide no serious model at all for what God is. It seems to imply a sharp distinction between God and creatures. My view is that this is a distinction we need to respect, given that we take God to be the source of the being of everything other than himself, the Maker of all things visible and invisible (as the Nicene Creed puts it). For if that is what God is, then must he not be radically different from anything with which we are acquainted - so different that seriously using any creature as a model for God is simply absurd? In the next chapter I shall argue that the correct answer to this question is 'Yes', though I shall also suggest (not only in the next chapter but in subsequent ones) that we may truly speak of God while using terms (words) that we employ when talking of creatures.
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