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Ineffable Face of God



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Explain either the temporal or modal version of the cosmological argument.  Then argue for whether it is or is not a sound argument for the existence of God.



In this essay I shall argue that the modal version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God is either not sound or not a problem for atheism.

Briefly on the Concept of ‘God’

For the purpose of this essay I assume that by ‘God’ we mean a sentient entity in possession of all the classical omni- characteristics. However, it should be noted that any sentient force, which could be said to have brought about the world, as we know it, would do. Admittedly, as religious commentator, Alan Watts, says in one of his lectures ‘sophisticated Christians […] think beyond images’ and ‘[do] not imagine that God is a cosmic male parent with a white beard sitting on a golden throne above the stars (Watts, 1996, p. 74).’ Suffice it to say that if by ‘God’ we do not even refer to a personal creator but something more ineffable still, then I take no issue with that other than on a trivially semantic level, and my critique ceases to apply. However, it also ceases to be a problem, since such sophistry is atheism in anything but name.

The Modal Cosmological Argument

I shall base my analysis loosely on the modal cosmological argument as it is presented in Arguing for Atheism (Le Poidevin, 1996, pp. 8-9). With that in mind I shall take some liberties of my own. These are intended as an attempt at strengthening the argument against my own critique and will hopefully not misconstrue it.

Arguably the question at the heart of cosmological arguments is ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ Modal logic is the study of expressions pertaining to necessity and possibility (Garson, 2009). That we are able to ask the question seems to imply that it is conceivably possible that nothing would have existed at all. Therefore, the fact that there are existing things, which do not necessitate their own existence, leads to the conclusion that their existence requires an independent, necessarily existing explanation. In my own words:

1.    Everything, which could have failed to exist, requires an explanation for why it does.
2.    Only necessarily existing things are self-explanatory.
3.    Therefore, there must be a necessary ultimate explanation for every contingently existing thing.
4.    (An inclusion I would rather avoid for reasons I shall make clear) ‘The universe’ is such a contingently existing thing.

Why the Concept of Causality is Irrelevant

In Le Poidevin’s rendition of the argument the word ‘cause’ is consistently used. I should like to abandon it in favour of ‘explanation,’ since the former is unnecessarily problematic. ‘Cause’ implies a temporally preceding chain of events. There is no reason to assume that creation from God’s perspective should be temporally situated at the farthest preceding event from ours. That is not to say God must have an entirely atemporal existence, as this too would be unnecessarily problematic. God just need not be located at the beginning of our timeline. Consider this by analogy of computer-simulations. It is entirely possible to program a computer to count numbers but start it off at say 354. From the programmer’s perspective the simulation began at some time – or perhaps multiple times in the case of repeated runs – on our timeline and began at 354 in the simulated timeline. However, for a hypothetical person living in the simulation it all started at zero. Or perhaps it stretches infinitely back into the negative integers.

The Universe

I have also sought to avoid mentioning the concept of ‘the universe.’ The word seems to be taken for granted. However, my intuitive understanding of it would wreak havoc on the cosmological argument. To me it just means something akin to ‘the set of everything there is.’ In this sense it would simply be ludicrous to insist that the existence of the universe requires an explanation, as ‘the universe’ is not an existing entity in itself but simply a word used to collectively denote all existing entities. Moreover, it would make no sense to speak of something existing outside of all there is. Clearly I must give the theist the benefit of the doubt and conclude that she means something radically different from what I do.

As with the word ‘cause’ I should like to replace it with something less problematic – but what? I must admit being at a complete loss. Supposedly we could replace it by ‘everything physical.’ However, this raises equally problematic questions as to what ‘physical’ means, and whether the fact that every particular physical entity is contingent – if granted – can be extended to physicality in general. Also it seems to beg the question to a physicalist, to whom the very idea of non-physical existence requires prior justification. Not to mention that it would invite a problem reminiscent of dualism’s mind-body problem (Robinson, 2008), in that it is unclear how something non-physical could explain physical existence.

A Face on the Ineffable

We could simply revert back to the initial question of why anything would exist at all. However, this would do the theist no favours since the modal cosmological argument is precisely an attempt to render this very question meaningless. If the ultimate explanation of all other existence itself exists necessarily, then there could not possibly have been nothing. The contingency of existence would therefore have to be localised and not applicable to all existence. Are we then speaking of different categories of existence? If so, how do we distinguish them?

The theist could still insist that the universe is contingent. I should then be very interested in learning what this intriguing word entails. However, I would posit that it poses no problem for the atheist. Atheism does not require one to deny the existence of everything other than the universe – regardless of what is meant by ‘universe.’


If the theist can appeal to the necessity of existence, then so can the atheist. Inasmuch as this is all the argument shows the atheist can simply refuse to acknowledge a personification of the ultimate explanation. It might be a sound argument albeit not one for the existence of ‘God’ as previously defined.

The theist would be required to justify that ‘God’ understood specifically as a sentient creator is, in fact, necessary. However, if such an ontological argument were to be achieved successfully, there should be no need for cosmological arguments.

…if by ‘God,’ one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity (Sagan, Carl).



The quote is widely attributed to Carl Sagan and cited in numerous books, yet oddly enough never with the inclusion of a proper reference. As such I have included it by virtue of its own merits regardless of its dubious authenticity. A possible origin of the quote can be found in:

Sagan, Carl, Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science (Ballantine Books, 1993, CA, p. 330)


Le Poidevin, Robin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Routledge: New York, US, 1996)

Watts, Alan, Myth and Religion: The Edited Transcripts (Tuttle Publishing, US, 1996)

Web Pages:

Garson, James, “Modal Logic”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/logic-modal/>.

Robinson, Howard, “Dualism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/dualism/>.

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15 Responses to “Ineffable Face of God”

  1. With regard to Carl’s quote which I assume you agree with, how can you Then claim atheism?

    I know you tried to disclaim at the beginning, but “such sophistry is atheism in anything but name” sounds dismissive to me.

    Atheists in my experience tend to deify physics in the sense that they use it to answer the fundamental question you are exploring here, which is the core psychological point of religion, alleviating fear via answers.

    In so doing they reject entirely the problem implied but not addressed by the quote… What enforces the rules?

    Atheists also in my view tend to ignore this problem with vigor equal to to theists’ willful ignorance of scientific or logical evidence.

    By addressing the issue, and there by showing the hole, and terminating with the quote with the quote, you seem to shoot yourself in the foot in that you expose how inadequate or incomplete the atheist picture is.

    Is there room for a new personal descriptor? If I’m not an atheist, and deism doesn’t fit, then then what am I for purposes of label?

    I of course prefer Cryptarin being that it is a term of my own design, but if there is a preexisting term that I am unaware of I’d love to hear it.

    Clearly something is out there, I know because I exist, this is indisputable.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I always appreciate feedback. Well, first of all I have to point out that this particular essay only addresses a very specific line of argument for the existence of God; namely the modal cosmological one. Many of your raised points – while certainly worthy of consideration – fall outside the scope of that.

    As to how I can claim atheism, my response can only be ‘by definition’. I certainly did not intend to be unduly dismissive, merely reasonable. I am more interested in exhausting my efforts on underlying concepts than on non-constructive word-games. If you wish to put the word ‘God’ to the task of encompassing everything, nothing, and the kitchen sink, that is your prerogative. However, I then entirely fail to see the point. What use is a word, which denotes so much that it ceases to mean anything?

    I “claim atheism,” simply because I do not believe in gods – i.e. I see no reason to slap a human face with a white beard onto the numinous, the laws of physics, the ineffable “rule-enforcer” etc.

    What you wish to call yourself is entirely your business. However, I can only wonder why so many people seem to display such a disproportionate amount of aversion toward what to me is a perfectly innocuous word. As if ‘atheism’ is poised to throw anyone into eternal damnation at any instant, if they dare to utter it without 5 ‘Ave Marias’. Likewise, it would seem there is no shortage of atheists, with whom I would have no actual disagreement whatsoever, save for the fact that they insist on clinging to the dead-weight of a silly three-letter word, which they then contort into entirely unrecognisable shapes in an attempt to – what? What is the underlying rationale here?

    I am at a complete loss. If you by ‘God’ mean something else entirely than 99% of the world, why is it so important to chain the poor word to the mast of the great ‘SS Faith’ even after the ship has long since smashed into pieces against the ocean floor?

  3. No I’m not saying god IS everything I’m saying god DRIVES everything and I’m saying it’s a god because by definition it can be nothing but, it is super natural, and responsible for everything. What would you call it?

    It does, and we are. It is not us, we are separate, I suspect inviolately so. God is why stuff is, science is how stuff works.

    This thing which we (Theists) call god is outside the laws of physics, it could very well be outside logic since logic is merely a layer of cognitive laws describing reality’s behavior.

    All our abstract systems are based on the behavior of the physical system we live in, those behaviors are axiomatic, 1 = 1 is simply because it is. It’s only a universal truth because it is true. But WHY (not how) it should be true, is unanswerable. What stops me from making square circles? The fabric of our reality stops me.

    The wonder of the mind is that while I may not be able to picture it, I can grant the possibility. Ironically thanks to abstraction.

    It’s not a mere word game, it is a facet of reality that is straight up being ignored for reasons of (incorrectly) assumed practicality and personal incredulity or desire. Much like how we ignore the free will problem. Because it crushes the system of punishment and reward our society and our sense of identity currently requires to function.

    But as you know, and for the record, I do not ascribe ANY traits to god beyond its existence and one of its actions, namely enforcing the physical constants.

    It may very well be merely a property of an external realm that simply cannot be accessed from here, and as tempting as it may be to pretend I just finished that thought with “therefore don’t eat pork, donate 10%” I did not and am not.

    Granted this data may be easily misused in that way, as the notion of an outside realm leaves room for literally anything, but that is not my problem, nor is the solution to that problem ignoring it.

    Atheism by virtue of its growing social acceptance and desire for political respect is becoming more and more homogenized. Herding cats? Since the definition is religiously centered, in that it names itself for the absence of religion, I suspect it will move through the social time scale in much the same way religion did. I predict first unification, and then schism, followed by a panoply of new classes.

    Subclasses must be established for clarity of understanding. You may scorn semantics, and dismiss its importance but it is the only tool we have for exchanging these ideas, and dismissing it therefor is akin to disregarding the sky because it comes to you though sensory organs you by definition can’t trust. There lies the solipsism pit.

    My definition of god is not different from 99% of the world, it is a refinement. My definition of god is the absolute skeletal minimum we ALL can agree on, theists certainly, atheists as well if they choose to recognize rationality and logic.

    Only when claims of its existent or actions in the observable universe are made do I become an atheist of sorts. Reality forbids a paradoxical god by its very nature, and miracles can’t exist because their existence makes them a part of nature and degrades their status from miraculous to merely rare events of extreme subjective value.

    The knee jerk reaction to the horrors caused by religion is understandably total annihilation, our minds are designed by evolution and gene competition to kill enemies, not assimilate them, but this is very seriously a baby and bathwater scenario. The fact is religion predates science, and it asks some fundamental questions which its rational offspring simply can not answer. The irony being that this offspring is the reason we have the tools to demonstrate its own limitations.

    These questions are not pointless just because we want them to be. Accurate vision of reality is required for survival in the long term, that can not be disputed.

    I can actually demonstrate the hole, rather than being merely content to assert it as religion was/is. Others can carry it forward to an even greater degree of certainty. You’ve read Gödel, Escher, Bach. There are holes in the fabric of reality that we just kinda over look. And that’s fine until you begin to say there positively are no holes, or those holes can be patched with knowledge, as the vast majority of atheists seem to claim in their effort to renounce religion entirely.

    Which is why I cannot claim atheism despite our shared hatred of most things faith based. And nor can you if you claim to respect the logic consistent with the observable universe.

    P.S. I absolutely love discussing this stuff with you. I still think you are better with words than I am. You may also be more intelligent, but lucky for me that won’t stop me from debating you if I think I have a point. 🙂

  4. Magni Joensen says:

    quite enjoyable reading material… the subject makes me automatically switch to more sophisticated english… I do not know why… 2 hellz wit it.. Heini.. spot on! you got the lot on.. too tired to make a sensible rhyme..

  5. More intelligent than you? Hardly. I am afraid that I shall be able to do your elaborately verbose comment no justice, since I feel I should merely be repeating myself.

    I think I have already explained my reasoning thoroughly. Suffice it to reiterate that if by ‘God’ you mean something more ineffable still than a personal creator – which you evidently do – then I take no issue with that.

    Atheism does not commit me to materialistic monism. There might well exist any number of ineffable otherness on the outskirts of reality. Atheism, to me, just entails a failure to see why such ineffable otherness should wear the visage of a human face.

    You ask of me what I would call it? Is it required of me to call upon it? Does it listen? In any case I’m partial to ‘Tao’ but that is merely due to personal nostalgia. I do not take an issue with you or anyone else calling it ‘God.’ Do what you must. As long as we are clear on what we are speaking of and you do not demand of me adherence to your personal linguistic quirks.

  6. Magni, your rhymes are never sensible regardless of how much you’ve slept. 🙂

  7. Magni says:

    my rhymes make sense
    in the same way that air is dense
    my voodoo vocabulary
    is the reason my ass is hairy

    now.. Mr. Data how long?
    how long must we sing this sooong


  8. Magni says:

    is this me?

  9. Atheism does not commit me to materialistic monism. There might well exist any number of ineffable otherness on the outskirts of reality. Atheism, to me, just entails a failure to see why such ineffable otherness should wear the visage of a human face.

    I think you should test that. Go post that sentiment on RichardDawkins.com or something.

    The majority of atheists I’ve encountered do treat atheism as a cosmology which states the universe requires no cause and therefor possessed no “otherness”.

    I think you are unaware of just how elevated your thinking is.

    By admitting that otherness, we agree. Yeah I call it god because like I said what else is there to call it given that it made/makes/is everything (English doesn’t have sufficient words to sum up quickly, you know what I mean)?

    I planned on going into it more but I’m overwhelmed at the moment. I have substantial debates happening everywhere, and your massive PM response is still on the table.

  10. So if all pigs are mammals, then all mammals must be pigs?

    I think you misread my statement. I claim that atheism does not commit to materialistic monism, not that no atheists commit themselves to it. The former is undeniable per definition. The latter is just plain foolish, as I know for a fact that most atheists seem to derive their disbelief in gods from a general disbelief in anything non-material.

    Therefore, taking survey from atheists about beliefs not encompassed by the concept of atheism can hardly be considered a viable test. To return to my example of all mammals being pigs, just because all materialist-monism entails atheism, it does not logically follow that all atheism must therefore entail materialist-monism. If the Dawkinsians are all materialist-monists that is incidental. I would surmise that they are also all human, yet I would never claim that being human is a prerequisite for being an atheist. prot from K-PAX is (arguably) not human, yet is every bit the atheist I am.

    As for the otherness, I have yet to admit it. I am just trying to make a point that I do not explicitly deny it. The reason I do not profess materialist-monism is because it seems tautologically incoherent given the impossibility of defining “materialism” such that it makes a falsifiable claim. If we discovered the existence of ghosts tomorrow, a materialist could just insist that these ghosts were material.

  11. *facepalm* This is utterly pointless.I never ever expected to encounter this. Clearly atheism has become a religion.

    So because my position is by definition immune to falsification it must therefor be false? What if it were merely one of godel’s little hole, true yet unprovable?

    The very facts that existence exists and the laws of physics universally apply forces my contention to be true, but yes I suppose I can’t prove it and similarly you can’t disprove it. So yeah if you can comfortably claim victory in such a shady manner, be my guest.

    I’m sorry if I can’t provide a proof that 1=1 but that does not mean there is a chance of 1=2.

    Stick with the idea that our reality as we know it came from/in enforced by, nothing.

    I reject that on clear logical grounds, the fabric of our universe does not permit fabrication of physical constants from absence, therefor an external fabric is required.

    How hard is it to grasp that while it is clear our reality did not come form nothing, an external reality that does not play by our rules could have? Oh right, I can’t already tell you everything there is to know about that external reality (beyond the fact that it MUST exist) so I lose.

    To put it in terms you might understand, I’m saying I don’t know what color the turtle is, or whats under it, but I know there is AT LEAST one because our universe is clearly made of of a substance that can be nothing but shell.

    For all I know in the turtle verse there are no rules, and there doesn’t need to be a turtle under, or a ground.

    If that doesn’t do it, then I’m done. This is like trying to run Internet explorer on an ipod. The processor is there, there just is no compatibility.

  12. pgexivhc says:



  13. uv bulbs says:

    Do you truly believe that is true? You did a good job sharing your point, but I believe you should put some more thought in this discussion and perhaps post an answer to the other side of this story.

  14. uv bulbs, thank you for your comment but I’m afraid I don’t follow you. Could you elaborate? Why would I not believe that this is true? And what do you mean exactly by your suggestion that I should post an answer to the other side of this story? What story are you talking about?

  15. Thank you very much, MMM. My website’s looks is due to my own dislike of text on white background on the internet. I wish people would understand that a screen is not a sheet of paper (unless you own a Kindle). It makes me happy that someone appreciates my choice (people usually comment that my website is too dark or gloomy).

    Yes, RSS should most definitely notify you when I update. Do tell if it doesn’t because then something is wrong. I should warn you, however, that I don’t update frequently enough. Mostly because I’m a procrastinating idiot.

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