The gods that can and can't exist

by Marcus Loane


In my earlier article I said there was no evidence for any gods existing. However some types of god are logically possible while others are impossible.

The gods that can exist.

You cannot prove the Invisible Pink Unicorn does not exist so are you going to believe in Him (bless His holy horn) ?

It could be argued that some types of completely invisible, undetectable gods are possible because the fact that we cannot detect them is consistent with the hypothesis. However it is also consistent with the more parsimonious hypothesis that such gods do not exist. There is an infinite number of such theoretical entities so to be consistent we would have to consider them all. We would need to consider Thor, Ra, Zeus, Allah, Osiris, Hindu gods, Volcano gods, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, the Universe-Making Computer and the God-Who-Only-Rewards-Atheists. I'm sure you can think up some more of your own. How about the God-Who-Always-Agrees-With-Me? That is a very common one. Now some of these gods contradict each other because they claim to be the only one. We need to use some selection criteria. However they all have no effects that cannot be explained by natural means, so there is no way to test them. They are all more or less equally probable. They cannot all exist but some of them may exist. If one of them does exist, the probability of guessing the correct one is close to zero because the number of theoretically possible gods is infinite. They are completely invisible and undetectable so there is no way we can have any knowledge of them or claim such entities exist. Nobody can rationally give us any information about them or claim that they exist even though they may be logically possible.

I have heard it said that atheism is not reasonable because you cannot be certain there is no god. That is simply not true. You cannot be certain that there are no cows on the moon because we have not examined every inch of the moon's surface. However it is still reasonable to assert that there are no cows on the moon. The arguments against the existence of god (or at least the popular conceptions of god) are good. I have yet to hear any argument for the existence of god that cannot be refuted. We do not even have to have arguments against the existence of god to be rational in saying there is no god. The absence of evidence or arguments, for the existence of god is all that is required to be reasonable when asserting there is no god. God is the theist's hypothesis so the onus is on the theist to provide justification.

The gods that can't exist.

In some cultures there are an awful lot of (fantastic) assumptions attached to the word God. Some of them are:

It is a person
It is a male
It is intelligent and sentient
It created the universe
It is all powerful
It is all knowing

It is all good, loving and just
God is interested in humans
God can interact with human brains and can even be influenced by prayer
God has some human characteristics (we are made in his image)
God intervenes in human affairs
God can break the laws of physics
If God exists we have a soul (whatever that is)
If God exists there is an afterlife
If God exists we are the most important thing in the vast universe - the universe exists for us

There are probably more. As an aside I should point out that the above list is peculiar only to certain religions. Even within those religions not all the assumptions are accepted. Some religions believe in a creator god who has no interest in us. Some believe god is female. Some believe god is not a person. There is no consensus on any single issue. Now I have heard the argument that the universe needs a creator (why not creators plural?), and the proponent thinks that if we accept that, then all the assumptions above automatically follow. That is nonsense. If it can be argued that the universe needs a creator or creators then all we have shown is that there is a creator or creators. The nature of a creator cannot just be assumed to comply with a particular culture's religious traditions. Any hypothetical creator may still exist now, or it may no longer exist. It may be a thinking agent, or a sphexish algorithm. A creator may have devised the universe as an amusement or as an experiment. It may have created the universe for humans or for some other life. Perhaps a creator is unaware of our existence. We could be an incidental by-product. Perhaps a creator enjoyed the fireworks display of the early universe, and life developing in its dying embers is nothing more than a bug in the creator's program. Even if we were the most important things in the universe (a very arrogant assumption), a creator may regret any suffering or it may derive enjoyment from it.

The impossible trinity of infinite power, knowledge and goodness.

The gods that can't exist are the gods that most people believe in. In the past, warring tribes would like to boast that their god was more powerful than their enemies'. This would lead to ever escalating claims of the powers of gods. Not surprisingly this has led to claims that present day gods have unlimited power and unlimited knowledge. God is usually said to be a person (anthropomorphism raises its ugly head again). Theologians like to tell us the most important attributes are:

Omnipotence (all powerful)
Omniscience (all knowing)
Omnibenevolence (all good)

The existence of evil is the biggest problem for those claims. If a god is all powerful it is ultimately responsible for everything including evil. When it created the universe it knew exactly how it would turn out (it is all knowing). The existence of evil and suffering is exactly how god wants it. It had the power to create a universe which would turn out differently but it did not. The Christian god for example, set up a universe with the full knowledge that most of the humans who ever lived would end up being punished eternally. Yet we are told that this god is also all good! A god cannot simultaneously have the three attributes above.

Isaiah 45: 6-7:
"...I am the Lord, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and
create evil; I the Lord do all these things."

The biblical god commands genocide of women and children (and rape?)

Numbers 31. 17-18
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the woman children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

These are the sort of actions which if carried out today would be condemned as absolutely evil. Some Christians try to redefine good as "anything that god does". So is it good or not to command genocide of children? They will say god did it for the greater good. Well is it OK to command genocide of children for some greater purpose? They answer "No, unless you are god, in which case yes it's OK". So is it evil or not? I thought good and evil were absolutes and god cannot, due to his omnibenevolent nature do anything evil. There is a clear contradiction here.

A quote from mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell:
"The usual Christian argument is that the suffering in the world is a purification for sin and is therefore a good thing. This argument is, of course, only a rationalisation of sadism; but in any case it is a very poor argument. I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children's ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy in himself all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes. No man who believes that all is for the best in this suffering world can keep his ethical values unimpaired, since he is always having to find excuses for pain and misery."

Let us throw out the omnibenevolence attribute.

If we have a god which is all knowing, it knows the future and that includes knowing what itself will do in the future. This means it is powerless to do otherwise! If it changes its mind then its foreknowledge was wrong. So if it can change its mind it was not all knowing. If it can't change its mind it is not all powerful. The two attributes cannot coexist. A being which knows everything knows its "decisions" in advance. This means that it has no potential to change its decisions, and therefore lacks free will.

While on the topic of free will, there is the Christian "free will defence" of the existence of evil whereby the blame is shifted on to humans. In what way does human free will affect a volcano erupting and causing pointless suffering? Even ignoring this, God (so the story goes) created us with our nature in the full knowledge (it is all knowing) that we would sin. If it wanted it any different it could have created us differently. God created us so that we would sin and then it proceeds to punish us for it. God foresaw the sin and the punishing - it must be exactly how it wanted it. Anyway, introducing free will causes more contradictions. We cannot have free will if an all knowing god exists. For example if a god knows I will have Wheetabix for breakfast tomorrow, do I have the free will to do otherwise? If I have free will and have Bran Flakes instead, then the god was not all knowing. If I must have Wheetabix then I have no free will.

So a god, given these typical attributes, cannot exist. It is a logical impossibility like a square circle or a married bachelor.

Marcus Loane