In the Warren-Flew Debate* on God’s existence, which took place in the North Texas State University Coliseum from Sept 20 to 23, 1976, Anthony Flew identified 4 ways in which the existence of a postulated being might be challenged.
The first way, he said, is to declare that the being in question is simply not to be found anywhere. This is how most questions of existence get addressed. Are there wolves in Manitoba? Is there a sea monster in Loch Ness? Well, let’s do an exhaustive search and find out.
This is not a useful approach, Flew observed, for settling the question of God’s existence. And the reasons are obvious. For one thing, God doesn’t have a specific locale that we can go to and search; for another, God lacks an observable body. Both those who believe God exists and those who disbelieve would expect the same result from any such search: nada.
The second way the existence of a being can be challenged, Flew explained, is by asserting that it not only can’t be found anywhere, but that it’s existence is biologically or physically impossible.
The third way which Flew presented involves a different kind of impossibility: asserting that the being in question is logically impossible: a round square or married bachelor, for example.
Flew’s forth way to challenge the existence of a being will also sound familiar. It is to claim that the being in question has been qualified to such an extent that it’s existence is untestable. By way of explanation, Flew presented the claim that prayers are always answered. Yet when presented with a situation in which a prayer does not seem to have been answered, the believer replies, “Oh the prayer was answered, but you know, sometimes the answer is ‘No’.” When all possible evidence (whether negative or positive) supports a proposition, that proposition has been rendered meaningless.
In his debate with Warren, Flew challenged God’s existence using the 3rd and 4th approaches above. But what I want to examine here is an argument based on the 2nd approach.
An argument against God’s existence based on physical or biological impossibility might go like this: When we study the world we discover that thinking (and all mental activity) is the product of brains. We know this because we can associate patterns of thinking with various regions of brain activity if we scan the brain while the subject carries on mental activities of certain sorts. We also know that mental capabilities can be affected by food and drug intake, lack of sleep, damage to specific portions of the brain and so on. It is very well established, in other words, that mental activities are brain activities.
Now, God has mental activities—He must because He creates the world, He designs it, He gives it intentionality or intentional design, and so on. Yet by definition God does not have a brain. He doesn’t even have a body. God can’t exist, therefore, this argument goes, because it is physically impossible to have mental activities without a brain or without brain-like activities (such as brain waves) occurring.
Descriptive or Prescriptive
Now, any argument based on our scientific knowledge of the world has an inherent and significant weakness. Since all scientific knowledge is descriptive rather than prescriptive, it follows that the logician can never claim, on the basis of our scientific knowledge, that something is impossible. If we have a billion examples of thinking producing brain waves, for example, and none of thinking not producing brain waves, it is not impossible that in our next experiment we will find thinking which does not produce brain waves.
Even scientific “laws” such as Newton’s laws of motion or the laws of thermodynamics are in the end descriptive and not prescriptive.
A second objection can be made in the case of God. Since God is not a physical being, it should follow that a claim of physical impossibility can not be applied to Him. Beings belonging to Class A (e.g. physical beings) require brains in order to think, but it does not follow that beings belonging to Class Non-A (non-physical beings) have the same requirement. Or, to put it another way, it would have to be argued that both Class A and Class Non-A belong to a greater Class B to which the limitation (requirement of a brain to think) does apply: but to what greater Class B do both physical and non-physical beings belong? Whatever that class may be, it is not likely to be a class to which physical impossibility will apply. (It may be a class to which logical impossibility applies, however.)
The atheist is not without counter arguments.
The atheist observes that the real issue is that God is defined as belonging to Class Non-A, yet at the same time is credited with behaviors that are specific to Class A. In other words, God is declared to be non-physical and at the same time is presumed to behave physically. For example, thinking is a physical activity, yet God is claimed to think. Or God is said to create, yet creating involves manipulating physical things, moving things, and non-physical beings like God have no parts to move or to use to move things. In short, says the atheist, theists want to have their cake and eat it too.
We see from this that the pertinent question is whether activities like thinking or creating or moving, which are physical activities, can also be metaphysical activities. The atheist says no, the theists says yes.
Type 2 or Type 3?
The question we must ask ourselves at this point is whether the assertion that it is impossible for non-physical beings to engage in physical activities is a claim of physical impossibility, or of logical impossibility. That is to say, is our argument which began as Flew’s type 2 objection really a type 3 objection?
If it is a claim of physical impossibility, then the objection raised at the beginning of this section will apply. That objection was that scientific claims about the physical world are descriptive, not prescriptive. The claim that there is a brain behind mental activities is based on our past examinations, and cannot be used to logically rule out a different discovery in the future. In science there are no truly prescriptive laws.
But perhaps it is a claim of logical impossibility after all. Perhaps we are not really talking science when we claim that to have movement or change, there must be some “thing” that moves or changes: therefore since God contains no “things” it follows that God cannot move or change (God is the great changeless I AM, immutable and forever). But if God cannot move or change, then God cannot move or change things, which is to say God cannot create. And if God cannot create, then He cannot be the Creator. Perhaps we are talking logic rather than science when we make such an argument.
Yet it is not logic devoid of experience of the world. In fact, it is only experience of the world which gives words their meaning. Our experience of the world tells us that to create entails movement, and movement entails something which moves, and something entails “thing” and things are detectable and therefore physical.
Are Mental Activities Non-Physical?
But, counters the theist, if the mind is non-physical then we have an example of a realm where non-physical creation occurs routinely. And God creates the world as easily as we create a thought. Furthermore, God’s mental activity is only analogous to our mental activity (which relies on brains); or to put it the other way around, our mental activities are only a wan hint of what God does when He creates in his own non-physical way.
The Two Types of Creation
That won’t work, says the atheist, because it misconstrues thinking as a creative process. Thinking does indeed create in one sense of the word: thinking creates thoughts, ideas, concepts. But there is an entirely different class of creating, and it happens to be the class that pertains to the task at hand: creating the things of the world.
We know from direct experience that thinking of the table you will build does not, in fact, get the table built. Thinking may give us a guide to how we want the table to look, and a plan of activities to follow to actually bring the table into being from the materials and tools we have. But the table never, in fact, comes into being until we physically take up tools and work the wood into a table.
Thinking creates thoughts. It takes hands and tools to create things.
Even here, we never create out of nothing; we are limited to manipulating preexisting things.
Even if Divine thinking is analogous to human thinking, how can analogous thinking do anything other than create analogous thoughts. In order to create the world, we would have to jump to a completely different class of creating—we would have to jump from thinking to doing. God’s creative effort, therefore, has to be analogous not to the effort of our human minds, but to the effort of our human hands. But God, by definition, has nothing analogous to hands; He has no body or body-like aspect at all. He is non-physical through and through. And that is the problem.
God is constrained by His definition: by the way we define God’s being. Since God is non-physical and doesn’t have a body, the only “activities” God can engage in, at best, are non-physical activities. It is dubious that thinking is actually a non-physical behavior: all the evidence we have points to mental activities as products of the brain. Nevertheless, since science is descriptive rather than prescriptive, mental activity independent of brain or body cannot be ruled out: it is at least conceivable.
But there is a logical problem: mental creating has been confused with physical creating. We use the same term for both, but in fact they belong to two entirely different classes. The mind does indeed “create” but what it creates are thoughts. It creates an idea, a plan, a design. But thoughts do not create things. Minds do not create things. They only think things. And that is a completely different logical class than the creation involved with creating the world.
Here one needs materials, tools, and something to manipulate them with, something analogous to hands. Genesis, at least, provides God with raw material to work with: chaos, the formless void. But most modern theists don’t even give God that much. Lacking materials, tools, and hands, equipped only with the ability to think up a grand plan or design, God can’t get started. The actual creation of the world remains beyond his capabilities.
But Isn’t God Exceptional?
Hold on, says the theist. It is our experience of the world that tells us that you can’t think things into existence. But like the scientist’s descriptions of the world, our experiences can only be descriptive, not prescriptive. We can’t think things into existence, but it doesn’t follow that God can’t.
Thinking vs Doing
But what is really being claimed, counters the atheist, is that doing and thinking are the same. In essence, the theist is saying that thinking is a nonphysical activity involving the creation of nonphysical thoughts, and then in the next breath says that thinking is a physical activity that creates physical things. Yes, we know from experience that this is not the way thinking works, but we also know it logically. There is a flaw here, and that flaw is in pretending that non-physical creating and physical creating are one and the same.
This violates the rules of thinking, and the theistic argument is akin to claiming that just because the rules of thinking have always applied in the past, it does not follow that they will apply in the future, or will apply when the subject of our thinking is God.
This is nothing but special pleading, says the atheist. Furthermore, to say that the rules of thinking cease to apply because we are now thinking about God is only a roundabout way of admitting that if we follow the rules of thinking, we can’t get to God, we can’t prove God’s existence, and God remains a contradiction. And that confirms the atheist point of view, rather than challenging it.
It appears that our objection based on physical or biological impossibility morphed into an objection based on logical contradiction.
* The Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God, 1977, Jonesboro, Arkansas: National Christian Press. (Also recommended: The Warren-Matson Debate on the Existence of God, 1978, by the same publisher)