philosophy science theology

god and reality

The problem with questions like is God “real?” or does God “exist“? is that the most basic understanding of God (let’s assume monotheistic belief for the moment) is that the sum total of existing reality (the Bible says ‘all things’) was created (caused, desired, effected, brought about) by Him.

If this stretches the mind (not to mention language) – then one is actually beginning to grapple with monotheism.

((Related recent post at ‘Just Thomism’: Proof’s for God’s existence))

44 replies on “god and reality”

just stumbled across your blog – nice simple post

even Dawkins admitted a while back that a rational case can be made for deism :)

Hi greg,

I think I saw that (quite surprising quote) a while back? The point here is that a Creator of the sum total of existing reality would have to be distinct from it – and obviously not contained within it.

No, he claims he was badly quote-mined. And having watched it myself I agree. That article and the follow-up comment by Lennox were pretty dishonest in my obviously completely unbiased opinion. The pertinent bits are from around 10mins to perhaps 30mins.

I’d be interested to hear your verdict too.

My verdict. :)

Like lots of things, what I think actually happened is more complex than a ‘dishonest’ ‘quote-mining’ charge. For clarity, Dawkins words are: “…one could make a reasonably respectible case for… {a Deist god)”.

Lennox never implies that Dawkins has indeed changed his mind, but rather (as I see it – please point out if I’m missing something?) shows how a) his admission that deism at least ‘could’ have a reasonably respectible case for it, doesn’t help b) his argument about complexity/design. Dawkins makes a rather large deal about his immediately following words (“…not a case that I would accept…”), but Lennox never says that he does accept it.

The same goes for Melanie Phillips, she says (which –interestingly– Dawkins doesn’t bother to quote in his quote-mining accusation of her):

“True, he was not saying he was now a deist; on the contrary, he still didn’t believe in such a purposeful founding intelligence, and he was certainly still saying that belief in the personal God of the Bible was just like believing in fairies. Nevertheless, to acknowledge that ‘a serious case could be made for a deistic god’ is to undermine his previous categorical assertion that
…all life, all intelligence, all creativity and all ‘design’ anywhere in the universe is the direct or indirect product of Darwinian natural selection…Design cannot precede evolution and therefore cannot underlie the universe.
In Oxford on Tuesday night, however, virtually the first thing he said was that a serious case could be made for believing that it could.”

By leaving out such clarifying slabs as that, one could turn the quote-mining charge back on Dawkins?

What both Lennox and Phillips are doing is ‘highlighting’ (at the very worst opportunistically, not ‘dishonestly’) what I think is fair to say is a bit of a surprising string of words, coming from one of the worlds best-known-of atheists.

Furthermore, (something Dawkins naturally doesn’t want to focus on?) it remains that Dawkins has admitted (I don’t think the following paraphrase is unfair) that the case for a kind of Deist creator can be a (regardless of whether or not he accepts it) reasonably respectible one.

He was saying that the concept of Deism is at least something he could have a serious discussion about but quickly followed it with by saying he doesn’t accept it and that all that was beside the point because Lennox believes in the kind of God who turns water into wine (i.e. NOT a deistic God).

Like you point out, I think you can, in fact, turn the charge back on Dawkins regarding that article.

But the point here is that the way in which he has been repeatedly quoted by the Christian community (i.e. “a rational case can be made for deism”) is dishonest because it makes it out that he believes in deism by quoting him out of context. He doesn’t believe it any more than Eddington believed that Maxwell was wrong. Lennox was misrepresenting Dawkins’ beliefs to ‘elbow in’ some wiggle room for the possibility of a God. I would also consider anyone reading this who continues to make the claim to be acting dishonestly too.

Back to your OP.

I think that what you are doing by saying that God is outside of the superset of ‘things that exist’ or ‘things that are real’ is that you are essentially saying that God does not exist and is not real. I realise you are hesitant to define a superset which includes God but it must be logically possible, even if this superset includes things/beings/entities that are incomprehensible. (And don’t dwell on the word ‘thing’ because I’m not using it in a way that suggests a ‘thing’ must be made of atoms).

As for quote-mining, etc.
The only thing I’d seen was the article linked to above. I’m quite sure others have perhaps used it hyper-opportunistically and bordering on dishonestly, though. I don’t follow your ‘elbowing in’ charge to Lennox, nor what you mean by which continuing ‘claim’ would be dishonest.

On your comment on my OP:
I honestly can see the logic there, but obviously I (nor any monotheists) am not saying that God does not exist and is not real. The Creator is as real as the creation. In fact, one might say that the Creator is more real (and more existant) than the creation. This is reflected by the name “I AM”.

I realise you are hesitant to define a superset which includes God but it must be logically possible, even if this superset includes things/beings/entities that are incomprehensible.

I realise you are hesitant to see the logic here, but it must be logically possible, even if the notion of God being more real/existant is incomprehensible. :)

So, can we agree that there is a superset which we might call ‘All real things’ which would encompass what you understand to be God if God is real?

I know you’ll find this frustrating, but if the word ‘God’ is to retain anything like it’s basic monotheistic meaning, then God (the creator of ‘all things’) cannot be encompassed (‘contained’) within all [real] things.

Why do we need this ‘superset’, which we wouldn’t seem to be able to define what it includes? Don’t we already have words like ‘universe’/’cosmos’/’multiverse’?

You’re right, I do find that frustrating. But you are going to find it even more frustrating when I return to you and say that if what you define is God is not within a superset of ‘All real things’ then you are logically saying that God is not real. I know you don’t believe that to be true but this is what you are saying when you place God outside of this superset.

If you want to equate ‘cosmos’ with ‘All real things’ then, sure, we can use that word. We just have to be careful to be sure we mean the same thing as words like ‘cosmos’ in theology come bundled with the assumption that it only includes ‘created things’ which, in turn, forces us to assume a creator and I don’t think we have justification for assuming this.

Dale, you should watch the talk in which Dawkins describes this and other quote mining incidents (link at Richard Dawkins at American Atheists 09). It is very clear – he plays audio/video of both his and Lennox’s statements. He puts it into context of Lennox really relying on Melanie Phillips’ article, rather than his own recollections, or even awareness, of Dawkin’s statement. The evidence is all there. It’s undeniable and I can’t see that anyone could have honestly quoted him the way Philips and Lennox do.

I saw it as all quite dishonest – but unfortunately very common.

I liked Dawkin’s idea of establishing a quote mining index. He gives some good examples of the misuse of quotes from Darwin and from his own writings. Unfortunately Darwin is very easy to misquote because in his writing he usually provides , often in detail, the arguments against his ideas – followed by a detailed refutation. So its very easy to quote out of context. And this is done frequently and cynically by the Wedge brigade.

It’s weird though. Surely a reader starts to think things are fishy when an article quotes Darwin to disprove evolution, of Gould to deny fossil evidence of transitional forms.

on ‘quote-mining’ and ‘dishonesty’:

quoting becomes quote-mining when a quote mis-represents its context.
and such quoting/quote-mining become dishonest when a quote is used to misrepresent the views of the person quoted.

In their quoting, both Lennox and Phillips don’t imply anything at odds with the context of Dawkins’ statement (that he doesn’t accept the case). They never say that he does. But it remains that he said what he said, and even within the context, he surely meant what he said. It’s annoying for that (surprising) admission of Dawkins to get swept under the rug of a quote-mining accusation. Sure, people other than Lennox/Phillips might have indeed used the quote dishonestly..

Damian (comment 13),

We just have to be careful to be sure we mean the same thing as words like ‘cosmos’ in theology come bundled with the assumption that it only includes ‘created things’ which, in turn, forces us to assume a creator and I don’t think we have justification for assuming this.

I also don’t think we have justification for assuming there is no creator. :)
We have to assess (not ‘assume’ a yes or no to) the idea of a creator as it comes – and the idea of a creator ‘behind’ (causing, wanting, upholding, order-ing) creation typically comes in this basic monotheistic kind of way. The very existence of real, existing reality/creation (in this basic monotheistic sense) makes the creator of it something even more foundational to ‘real’.

Now, rather than trying to reduce this monotheistic idea of God into something that will fit in a superset or not, we can just assess this monotheistic idea as it stands, and either reject it (critically or uncritically), accept it (critically or uncritically), or remain undecided (critically or uncritically). What seems not right, to me, is to reduce or skew the idea before criticising it.

I also don’t think we have justification for assuming there is no creator.

Good. So do we agree that we are better off not assuming either the existence or non-existence of a creator/God of some kind? That, if we are to discover that God really exists, we should not first assume it doesn’t exist and if we are to discover that it is really imaginary we should not first assume it exists.

What seems not right, to me, is to reduce or skew the idea before criticising it.

Exactly. And that is why I advocate for moving our starting assumptions back a notch so that rather than talking of natural/supernatural (which assumes there must be this special divide), talk only of ‘All real things’ because if God is real then at least we haven’t excluded the idea and if God is imaginary we haven’t skewed the argument in such a way as to assume it from the start.

I really don’t see why you hesitate to include your concept of God within a superset of ‘All real things’.


How is it possible to include God within an understanding of ‘all real things’, when the basic notion of God is that he is distinct from those things?

I really don’t see why you hesitate to include your concept of God within a superset of ‘All real things’.

…because I’m not sure it would be ‘God’ we’d be conceiving of if we did that?

Why not just a) try to be aware as we can be of our assumptions, b) admit the mind-blowingness (yet very intuitive to humans of many time-periods and intellectual levels) of the monotheistic concept of God, and c) assess this concept with whatever concept-assessing tools we find outselves with (reason, logic, emotions, science, tradition, experience, etc.)?

Dale, I presume you believe that your God is real. Do you think that the word ‘real’ used here is a different ‘real’ from the word ‘real’ in “All real things”?

Obviously I believe God is real – as I said earlier even ‘more’ real than the reality he created :) (so, yes, at a purely grammatical level, because the creator is distinct from –not the same thing as– the creation, the real-ness of the Creator would be different –more foundationally real, etc.– than the real-ness of the creation.)

But I don’t think one has to believe in God (or any conception of god-s) in order to understand and assess the basic monotheistic concept of God. It may stretch language, and/or seem counter-intuitive (maybe something like many models of sub-atomic activity?), but it’s not too hard to grasp and evaluate.

Sorry but for me this really *is* hard to grasp and evaluate. In fact, I genuinely believe the notion is incoherent. “God is real but doesn’t belong to a superset of ‘All real things'”.

I understand the seeming ‘incoherent’ nature of it. And I’ve observed something else that’s happening with the language – and it might even be helpful to our conversation :)

the word “reality” is a noun, whilst “real” is an adjective.

With this distinction in mind, if we only use the word as an adjective (a kind of ‘label’ to attach to things), then I think we can indeed speak of God being ‘real'(as a description of the quality of God, negating His ‘un-real’-ness) without contradicting the monotheistic concept. However as far as God being ‘within reality’, or ‘belonging to’ a subset of all real things (i.e. – merely one real thing among many others), that would no longer be the monotheistic God being described.

If God exists and is, therefore, ‘real’ and if other things exist and are also, therefore, ‘real’ then surely they both belong to the same superset which we have called ‘All real things’. And surely ‘All real things’ is synonymous with the word ‘Reality’?

Clearly, we’re being pretty technical with words here, which I don’t mind at all.

‘Real’ is an appropriate label (an adjective describing a quality/feature of something) for both God (creator) and ‘all things’ (creation), but here’s a key distinction: the quality of ‘real-ness’ which ‘all things’ has, comes from God, whereas the quality of ‘real-ness’ which God has comes from his own self-existent nature.

You use the phrase ‘belong to’, which is a helpful one. All real things ‘belong to’ God, but God does not ‘belong to’ all real things. Creation belongs to the Creator, but the Creator does not belong to the Creation.

((incidentally, it’s worth noting that the Biblical authors preferred poetic metaphor to this kind of technical analysis – but the problem with metaphor is that people will take them literally, rather than see the meaning that the metaphor is pointing to…))

The noun/adjective distinction didn’t help. I can not conceive of a use of the word ‘real’ that can not be extended to mean ‘reality’.

What I really want is for you to be able to agree with me on a definition of ‘Everything’ that will include God if, in fact, God really exists but which doesn’t start with the assumption that he does (which is what your incoherent concept of real-but-not-part-of-reality is actually doing). If we start with an assumption either way then I really don’t see how we will ever learn otherwise. I’m prepared to define a word (like ‘Everything’) that says nothing about the existence or non-existence of a God but I’m beginning to wonder if this is possible for a Christian to do.

I think I have some more distinctions that will help (no, really!) ;)

They are distinctions between what kind of tasks we’re talking about.

Task A – my original post: two components – a) start with the monotheistic understanding of God (the monotheistic assumption, if you like), and b) note the problems with asking the two ‘is God real?’ and ‘does God exist?’ questions. Paraphrase: “The monotheistic definition of God is such that there are wording issues with these two questions.”

Task B – your comments: two components – a) start with a term for ‘everything’, which doesn’t assume anything as to the existence or non-existence of a God – and then b) work from there. Paraphrase: “Let’s start with a word for ‘Everything’, and then think about whether or not God exists, etc.” (please correct this paraphrase if it doesn’t represent you correctly?)

If that were all there were to your task (B), I think ‘universe’ would be an appropriate term. But, you also want this ‘Everything’ to include all possible God(s) (whether or not they exist, of course). The problem here is that the monotheistic concept of God is emphatic that God is totally ‘other’ and distinct from all that he created. To say this as simply as I can conceivable put it: The monotheistic God won’t fit ‘inside’ an ‘Everything’.

Now, as I’ve said above, whilst God won’t fit inside a noun (‘all real things’ or ‘reality’), God can appropriately described with an adjective (‘real’, ‘existing’ -> or better still ‘the most real’ or ‘the ground for all existence’).

And now a question:

In an honest attempt to understand you, I’m curious – if I agreed to temporarily ignore the monotheistic concept of God and use the term ‘Everything’ to include ‘all real things’ (including any Gods if they exist or not), what would be the next step – or where would the discussion go from there?

The monotheistic God won’t fit ‘inside’ an ‘Everything’.

Then we must make our concept of ‘Everything’ bigger. Otherwise our starting assumptions will include a God and there will be no way we can discern whether this assumption is, in fact, true or not.

…what would be the next step – or where would the discussion go from there?

I’d suggest we’d move on to how we might gain information about things that are ‘real’ and try to find a method for learning about Gods (if they exist) in a way that could be agreed upon by anyone regardless of what God they currently believe in (or not as the case may be). It may well be that the method for learning about Gods is nothing like the scientific method but we should expect it to be such that we don’t have to presuppose any particular concept of God for it to be useful. For example, if it is true that the Hindu concept of spirituality is correct instead of atheism or Christianity we need to find a method that will allow us to get to that. If Christianity or atheism is correct then our method should not preclude any of those conclusions either.

But we can’t move on to any of these steps until we’ve found a common understanding which doesn’t presuppose that any of these paths are closed to us (or that any of these particular paths *must* be open). And this is where we ought to be able to define an ‘Everything’ that does not include an assumption for or against the existence of a God other than that he/it must be ‘real’ (or ‘exist’).

Do you see where I’m coming from?

Thanks for that Damian, your patience is much appreciated (and serves as an example to all of us bloggers).

OK – so in response (more or less) to my O.P., you are proposing to ignore (at least for the moment) the monotheistic concept of God, and rather start with a concept of ‘Everything’ and then proceed from there. Correct?

I’d want to say that this desired concept of ‘Everything’ need not say anything about any G(g)od(s) at all (especially if we’re not being concerned with any particular concept of God, and also if we’re not assuming existence or non-existence).

Is this compatible with what you’re saying? If not how?

When you say ‘ignore the monotheistic concept’ are you saying that you are unable to define an ‘Everything’ that includes what you perceive as God?

(Forgive me, but I won’t be here for the rest of the weekend so will get back to this Monday)

I think it’s the word ‘includes’ (as well as the fact that ‘everything’ is a noun) that makes anyone (including me) unable to define an ‘Everything’ that includes the monotheistic God.

but… again… Why the insistence on including God(s) in the idea of an ‘Everything’? It seems strange to insist on ‘including’ God(s), and then immediately trying to be ambivalent about whether or not the God(s) you’re including even exists. I’d almost want to say you have to define (even in principle) whatever you’re wanting to include?

Have a good weekend, sir. In case of frustration, etc., for what it’s worth, I have the feeling that we’re discussing things that are not often discussed, so maybe some encouragement can be found in that? :)

If you are unable to define an ‘All real things’ or ‘Everything’ that includes the possibility of your concept of God then there will be no way that you will be able to step back an objectively examine the possibility of the existence or non-existence of this God.

The worst thing is that there is no good reason not to be able to include this concept of God, if it/he is real, within a superset of ‘All real things’. If God is real then God belongs to a set of ‘All real things’ regardless of God’s relationship or superiority to every other ‘real thing’ in that set.

In your OP you suggest that this concept “stretches the mind”. I claim that it stretches the mind in exactly the same way as claiming that something is invisible and pink because, by definition, invisible things don’t interact with light and so can’t be ‘pink’. By definition real things cannot not belong to a superset of ‘all real things’.

how does including a concept of God in your concept of ‘Everything’ make it any easier to step back and be objective, etc.?

and – again – why must a concept of ‘Everything’ have anything at all to say about G(g)od(s) – whether he/it/they might be included/excluded or real/not?

and – again – I’m happy to say that God shares the ‘real’ label (adjective), but not happy about saying that God ‘belongs’ to anything.

how does including a concept of God in your concept of ‘Everything’ make it any easier to step back and be objective, etc.?

Because when we investigate ‘All real things’ to test for truth we’ll never be allow to question our belief as to the ‘reality’ of God. In a post not long ago I defined dogma as being “the belief you refuse to interrogate”. How would you propose you would interrogate the belief in a God who is supposedly real but is not a part of reality? You see the problem here? You have made logic and language incoherent in such a way as to give this belief immunity.

surely “the god belief” (TM) could be interrogated regardless of whether or not it is included into some notion of “Everything”? One can simply talk about ‘things’ and then talk about the way that G(g)od(s) may or may not relate to ‘things’ – and whether that G(g)od(s) may or may not be ‘real’.

Have a go. Pretend you have never heard of this concept of a God before and you want to interrogate it against my claim that God is real but not a part of reality.

if it’s a particular claim about God that you’re talking about, then why bother with the concept of Everything, and whether or not it includes any God(s), etc.? If I’d never heard about any concept of God before, then I don’t think it would be too crazy or strange for someone to speak of a being that is ‘other’ than this stuff that created it. Not hard to conceptualise.

The particular claim would be whether God is real or not (i.e. whether God exists). Saying that you believe God is real but not a part of reality removes God (incoherently, as I point out) from any investigation into the possibly reality of God.

Do you get the feeling that we’re beginning to go around in circles now?

And as I’ve said above, the ‘real-ness’ of God and the ‘real-ness’ of reality (or ‘Everything’) are different in that the real-ness of reality derives from God, and God’s real-ness derives from his own being, making God ‘most real’ and reality simply ‘real’ (and if you enjoy the Matrix, then you can get that – how deep does the rabbit hole go?) :)

Just read in Consolmagno’s ‘God’s Mechanics’ about this issue – in reference to the question “why is there something, rather than nothing” or (interestingly phrased) “why does existence exist?” The whole question is caught up with the (logical) necessity that whatever answer given must be distinct from the ‘something’ or ‘existence’. The ulimate/infinite regress leads back ‘past’ singularities, multiverses, etc. and simply asks why does anything exist? ((Of course at this level, the logical necessity is merely a deist god…))

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