Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Language of God, Chapter 3

By B.J. Marshall

Collins concludes this chapter by tying his overview of cosmology to the god hypothesis. He states that “[c]learly, the scientific view is not entirely sufficient to answer all of the interesting questions about the origin of the universe, and there is nothing inherently in conflict between the idea of a creator God and what science has revealed” (pp.80-1). We’ve already addressed this god-of-the-gaps mentality before; just because one hypothesis (scientific explanation of the origins of the universe) might fail, that does not by itself validate any competing hypotheis (god did it). Likewise, we have seen conflict between what god has “revealed” and what science tells us – just read Genesis. But the point of Collins introducing the final section of this chapter is to have his readers build upon the foundation they’ve constructed thus far. Too bad that foundation is crap.

Collins presents an argument for how the theist can seek a god who created the universe but also cares about us personally (I numbered the premisses for later reference):

(1) If God exists, then He is supernatural
(2) If He is supernatural, then He is not limited by natural laws
(3) If He is not limited by natural laws, there is no reason He should be limited by time
(4) If He is not limited by time, then He is in the past, the present, and the future.

Collins draws a number of conclusions from this. First, God can exist prior to and after the universe. Second, God has perfect knowledge of everything, including the formation of planets, biogenesis, and our thoughts and actions. I’d like to explore his argument in more detail before discussing his conclusions.

Collins’ argument begins like a tautology, based on his definition of God. Let’s leave alone the first two premisses and grant them as true based on the definitions of “god” and “supernatural.” Premiss (3) is problematic, and it’s here that I think Collins’ argument loses soundness. I don’t think it follows that not being limited by natural laws means there’s no reason one should be limited by time. I think my problem is in ambiguous language. I think I understand what it would mean to not be limited by natural laws: you don’t need to be under gravity’s thumb; you don’t need to abide by the Law of Conservation of Energy; you can shirk conservation of angular momentum whenever you wanted to. Now, I see those examples as immensely flawed, but at least I understand them. I’m not sure what it means to not be limited by time.

The concept of being outside time (or timeless) is problematic. Drange (1998) considered timelessness as just one of many incompatible properties traditionally ascribed to God. It goes along with the pair of attributes of god being immutable (unchangable) and creating the universe. It boils down to this: In order to create, one must have the intention of creating, then perform the act of creating, then no longer have the intention of creating. For example, I want to bake brownies. I bake the brownies. I no longer want to bake brownies because I’m too busy stuffing my face with the brownies I just made. Smith (1996) also pointed out how the concept of a timeless god is problematic given temporal causation: with time not existing, how can any temporal causation occur?

Premiss 4 also confuses me. I first considered the concept “not being limited by time” as being outside of time or timeless. William Lane Craig usually uses “timeless” as a property of God, as well as spaceless, immensely powerful, and personal. But now I read Collins’ concept “not being limited by time” as meaning “able to flow anywhere in time.” I think Collins is equivocating different notions of time. To me, this poses a big problem, as I think it means God can know opposing propositions in the same context. Let’s say God goes to the past, before I was born. To God, the past is now his “present” and he knows the proposition “BJ Marshall does not exist.” Well, God then decided to zip forward in time to a new “present” and he knows the proposition “BJ Marshall exists.” I say “in the same context” because both knowledge statements are in God’s “present,” which is to say the time in which God currently exists.

Despite the confusing argument, Collins draws conclusions about God’s omnipotence leading up to God knowing every thought and action we perform. I think this also means that God knows well before we’re born whether he’s going to roast us for eternity (trillions of years?) for transgressions we made against an arbitrary set of moral laws over a span of 80 years or so.

Collins has more to say about marrying science and religion, and he speaks very briefly about the wrongheadedness of Young Earth Creationists. He ends by quoting Saint Augustine:

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it” (p.83).

If only the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research heeded this advice. It sounds a lot like Augustine is proposing using reason and evidence to back up positions of faith. Of course, one problem I have is trying to figure out how positions of faith can be backed up, given there’s no way to verify or test those positions. It reminded me of George Smith in “Atheism: The Case Against God”: “There can be no knowledge of what is good for man[kind] apart from the knowledge of reality and human nature – and there is no manner in which this knowledge can be acquired except through reason” (p.4).

Earlier, Collins had asserted that religions were rusty containers and that perhaps the water held within the containers comprised the articles of faith that form the core beliefs of corruptible religions. I wonder at what point scientific discoveries will throw away enough buckets of bathwater until people eventually toss out the baby of faith altogether.

Other posts in this series:

Avatar photo

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...