Thoughts & Trees

In God & Rocks I wrote,

Even if we concede the doubtful proposition that God can think thoughts, those thoughts can’t get anything done. And we all know this. A thought of a tree can’t bring an actual tree into existence. Thoughts are simply incapable of being anything other than, well, thoughts. If anyone doubts this obvious truth, they can prove me wrong by simply imagining a tree into real existence.

Thoughts can’t move, create or destroy anything in the physical world. This is not because our human thoughts aren’t strong enough, or because we are “only human”. Rather, the limitation is inherent to the nature of thoughts. Thoughts can’t do any real, physical work because thoughts are a type of experiencing, and nothing more. We use thoughts to guide our physical actions, but it is those physical actions (using our hands and arms and legs and so on) which do all of our actual doing.

Thoughts, in other words, are useful only because we have bodies with which to carry those thoughts out. God has no body, and therefore God’s thoughts would be useless.

In face of such an obvious difficulty, how can theists continue to think that the concept of God as Creator remains viable? The answer, I believe, is that they have a very fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the world. This misunderstanding is encapsulated by the “principle of sufficient reason.”

The principle of sufficient reason is the idea that physical reality can be sufficiently — that is to say, completely — explained. It assigns a kind of magic to words, so that the right combinations of words, it is imagined, can equal the essence of something. In fact, the very word essence is often used to mean the sufficient reason behind a thing or object.

It is all a kind of word magic. Theists imagine that our explanations of the world somehow capture the essence of physical things, indeed that the essence is those explanations. This allows them to fancy that God can think the explanation behind physical things and in so doing bring those things into existence.

Explanations simply aren’t like that.

The first clue that physical things don’t have an explanatory essence of this sort lies in the fact that we have two types of knowing instead of just one. Some knowledge does indeed have an inherently knowable essence: when we acquire this such knowledge we recognize it immediately as necessarily true. The certainty that 212 + 212 = 424, the impossibility of married bachelors, the discovery that the interior angles of a triangle = 180 degrees; these are all examples of knowledge which is necessarily true. Philosophers call this type of knowing analytic.

But there is a different kind of knowledge, that which we acquire empirically about the physical world. This type of knowing is termed synthetic. There is nothing necessarily true about the colors of physical objects, nor about their shapes, hardnesses, and so on. We can indeed develop explanations why they have the color, shape, or hardness they have, but those explanations are never necessarily true.

In short, those explanations do not lock into an underlying sufficient reason or explanatory essence behind physical objects for the simple reason, I submit, that no such thing exists. Physical objects are, at least in this ultimate sense, unexplanable. It might be better to say it this way: there is a mismatch between explanations of the physical world and that physical world itself. Furthermore, such a mismatch does not exist for analytic knowledge. In the case of analytic knowledge, there is a match between explanation and essence.

If there are two types of knowing, synthetic and analytic, it suggests (strongly, I would say) that there exist two types of things to be known: physical things and concepts.

So now, let’s go back to the question of God creating the physical world by thinking it into existence. We know now that the principle of sufficient reason applies to concepts, but not to physical objects. This means that words should be capable — should be magical enough, you might say — to bring concepts into existence simply by stating them. This certainly seems to be the case.

But since the principle of sufficient reason does not apply to physical objects, it follows that there is nothing to state about them that could ever bring them into existence. Words belong to a different realm. Concepts likewise belong to a different realm. They are powerless to bring the physical things of our world into existence.

Thoughts and concepts cannot be a means of creating the world. This leaves God, who has nothing else, powerless.

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