Stephen Law’s Super-mountain Argument: Part One

Stephen Law, philosopher and senior lecturer at Heythrop College in the University of London, editor for the philosophical journal Think (published by the Royal Institute of Philosophy), in a March 6, 2010 post on his blog issued the following argument against the existence of God. I will take the liberty of reproducing what he wrote, and then responding to it:

“Suppose I claim there exists a super-mountain. Only it does not exist in space. It exists non-spatially. That idea might seem to make sense for a moment. But when we start to think about it, it’s nonsensical nature becomes apparent. A mountain needs a summit. By a summit requires one part be higher than another, and so do steep sides. The concept of a mountain is a concept of something essentially rooted in the spatial. Try to apply the notion of a mountain in a non-spatial setting, and you end up talking philosophical gibberish. We can know, just by thinking about, that there are non-spatial mountains.

“But now consider talk about a person existing outside of time. Does that make any more sense? The concept of a person is the concept of an agent who has beliefs and desires, and who performs more or less rational actions as a result. But the concept of belief is a temporal concept – a belief is a psychological state, and states have temporal duration. So do desires. Actions, too, require a temporal setting. You can’t do something if there’s no time to do it in. And so on. The concept of a person is a concept essentially rooted in the temporal. Persons necessarily exist in time, just as mountains necessarily exist in space. But then to talk of a person existing prior to the beginning of time, a person who designed and created the temporal universe, is also philosophical gibberish. It makes no more sense than talk of non-spatial mountains.

“Of course, religious people typically happily talk about God being a person in an apparently quite literal way until you point out this problem, when they tend to say – “Oh, how crude and unsophisticated you are! You have interpreted my talk of a person literally!” I am of course drawing an analogy. God is not a person like you or I, but something merely like – analogous to, a person.

“Of course, someone could say exactly the same thing about the non-spatial mountain. They are talking about something merely analogous to a mountain. But what, exactly? If, every time we ask them to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a mountain only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate about the possible existence of this mountain to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.

“Similarly, if, every time we ask someone who claims god is something merely analogous to a person to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a person only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate about the possible existence of this person to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.”

My Response

I want to affirm that God is a person, and that reference to his personhood is more than just an analogous use language. However one defines “person” the term should be expansive enough to include God. Law defines the concept of a persons as an “agent who has beliefs and desires, and who performs more or less rational actions as a result.” We could criticize this definition of personhood as a being with the attributes of (A) causal agency, (B) beliefs and (C) desires, as incomplete or imperfect. Nevertheless, let us accept his list of attributes a person must necessarily have as rough and ready, for it seems fair enough that a person is not without them, and that God, if a person, would possess them.

His argument is as follows;

1) “[(A): causal agency] is a temporal concept.”
2) Persons have A.
3) It follows that persons are temporal. (MP, 1&2)

[Parallel arguments can be run for (B) beliefs, and (C) desires]

Note that this is not an argument against God’s existence. Far from it. It is an argument against divine atemporality or timelessness. Law in effect presents a dilemma between God’s personhood and temporality. Note the following.

Dilemma

4) God is outside time (so Christian’s claim).
5) Therefore, God is not a person (in the manner people usually mean by person). (MP, 3&4)

To Law, to embrace (5) is engaging in philosophical gibberish, obfuscations and evasion. If 5 is unacceptable for the Christian one need only deny (4) and instead affirm the alternative (4`).

4`) God is a person (so Christian’s claim).
5`) Therefore, God experiences temporal duration. (MP, 3&4`)

Either deny that God is atemporal (4) or deny that God is a person (4`). The solution should be simple enough. Precisely why Law thinks that (5`) is problematic is not clear. Perhaps he thinks that the Bible paints a picture of God’s nature as exclusively atemporal. Perhaps he thinks that Christian theology is inseparably committed to a view of divine eternity as unqualified timelessness. Most Christian philosophers today however, in faithfulness to the picture of God they receive in the scriptures, believe that God is temporal with the universe. Indeed, one of their arguments for this is from (A): God’s causal interaction with the temporal universe.

Law does give us a clue as to why he thinks (5′) is problematic, saying that “talk of a person existing prior to the beginning of time, a person who designed and created the temporal universe” is just like talk of a non-spacial mountain – meaningless gibber. I can certainly agree that the phrasing “prior to the beginning of time” is incoherent. But why can’t Law charitably interpret this as a façon du palour – a manner of speaking, adopted by non-philosophers to suggest that God’s existence has a metaphysical priority or preeminence to creation and that his creative deliberation was not chronologically prior but logically prior to the beginning of the temporal universe?

More importantly, why should God existing somehow “outside of time” – as Law suggests Christians must affirm – imply an unqualified divine atemporality? Perhaps a model to explain how God can be both a person (and therefore, according to Law, a temporal being) and atemporal can be proffered to break the broadly logical incompatibility. Craig offers such a model, by suggesting God sans the universe is atemporal, while with the universe is temporal. If this is even possible it follows that the dilemma Law proposes above is broken. Or perhaps an alternative model can be proffered to explain how God can be “outside of time” and yet still be temporal. Isaac Newton suggested such a solution that posited a hyper-time or heavenly-time beyond our own. Alan G. Padgett offers an updated version of this model, and if it is possible, Law’s problem of a personal being “outside time” is solved.

So with respect to (A) there is no reason for denying God’s existence, or that talk of his personhood is meaningless. It does give us some reason to think that if God is a causal agent, he is a temporal being. None of this however is problematic for Biblical revelation.

In my next post I will look at Law’s reasons that purport to show the incompatibility between divine atemporality and personhood with respect to (A), (B) and (C).

3 replies
  1. Robert Smith
    Robert Smith says:

    Even if God is genuinely atemporal, the fact is that we are made in His image – not the other way around. In that sense it would be more accurate to call us temporal versions of the atemporal than vice versa. Whether an atemporal concept (which we can't really grasp anyway) can become temporal or at least have a temporal analogy seems to me an entirely different question than whether something temporal can go the other way.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hi there,

    I do agree with Law that the intuitive understanding of a person is a temporal one. But like you, it seems to me that we should be aware of our epistemological starting point during discourse on the nature of God, for these intuitions are based upon an limited understanding and finite experience.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Hi Joey.

    As you may know, God being a causally active in the world is used as a premises in one of the arguments for divine temporality. But I suppose one could affirm the idea that a timeless God causes things to exist, by upholding a B-thory of time where God upholds the entire space-time manifold in one eternal moment, such that if he were not the universe would not exist at all, and that our experience of this event coming and going or that existent thing popping into existence and then extinguishing were merely illusions of our temporally situated human consciousness and not real and objective.

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