The theist standardly claims to believe that there exists an all-powerful, wilful, immortal and profoundly benevolent entity whom we happen to call God and who is the creator of the universe and everything in it. The atheist asserts, to the contrary, that no such entity exists, and that the universe is the product not of a wilful creator but of natural and scientifically discoverable forces. The agnostic claims to be unsure, one way or the other, and awaits further evidence.
I believe each of these positions to be incoherent. With respect to God, there is only position that makes sense, only one position that’s possible for us coherently to adopt. I call this position “aprolepticism”, and I want to suggest that deep down we are all aproleptics.
I use the term aprolepticism to denote the view that in talking about God we’re talking about nothing at all. I intend this quite literally. The word “God” does not express an intelligible concept; it is without meaning. God-talk of whatever kind is, and can never be other than, nonsense. It is pure gibberish, always and forever.
The argument is, in a sense, straightforward, though its ramifications turn out to be tricky in ways that can only be hinted at here. It begins by acknowledging what I think we must acknowledge, namely, that it’s impossible for us truly to imagine anything existing in the world that wasn’t caused to exist by something else. Everything that you see, touch, feel – every object, without exception – is an effect of a cause or set of causes, hence has been brought into existence by something other than itself. The idea of encountering an object that has appeared literally out of thin air is an idea we can’t have. As Lucretius says, nothing can come from nothing – at least according to our lights.
Of course, things that cause other things to exist are themselves things that were caused to exist by still other things. The rainstorm outside my window wouldn’t exist – and couldn’t possibly exist – without the atmospheric conditions and processes that produced it. But those atmospheric conditions were themselves necessarily the result of other, previous atmospheric conditions, which were the result of still other, previous atmospheric conditions, and so on. And here’s a problem. For if everything that exists is preceded in time by something other than itself, by something that caused it to exist, then there must – absolutely must – have been something that existed before everything else, something that got the world going, some First Thing that caused the second thing and thus launched the whole process. It’s impossible for us, operating under the logic of cause and effect, to imagine that the world didn’t start. We must believe there was a beginning, a cause.
And why is that a problem? It’s a problem because if we must believe in some First Thing that got the whole process going, then we must also believe that this First Thing existed; and if everything that exists must be caused by some previous thing other than itself, then the First Thing, like everything else, must have been caused by some previous thing other than itself – in which case the First Thing cannot have been the First Thing. Under the logic of cause and effect, we can’t think otherwise. No thing springs from nowhere, not even the First Thing. So if something caused the First Thing, then we must, absolutely must, believe that there was a Pre-First Thing – or a Really First Thing – that caused the First Thing to exist. In which case, of course, the First Thing wasn’t actually the first thing at all. It was the second thing, not the first. The thing that caused it to exist must have come first. But of course, the Pre-First Thing or Really First Thing must also have existed, hence must have been caused by something prior to it – a Really, Really First Thing. And so on, ad infinitum.
The logic of cause and effect absolutely requires a First Thing, also known as an Unmoved Mover. We can’t do without it. But the very same logic of cause and effect also absolutely rules out an Unmoved Mover – since if the Unmoved Mover existed, then something must have caused it to exist, in which case it wouldn’t be an Unmoved Mover. So the Unmoved Mover – God – is that which absolutely must exist and absolutely cannot exist. But of course, we cannot have the idea of something that exists and does not exist at the same time. There is no such concept. To say that something necessarily exists and necessarily does not exist is to speak nonsense.
I call this aprolepticism. I haven’t seen the term before; perhaps I’ve simply missed it. But in any case, I use it to express the idea of not having an idea. It is the concept of the absence of a concept. According to aprolepticism, it’s impossible to believe in God, impossible to disbelieve in God, and even impossible to have doubts about God, all because there is no idea to which belief or disbelief or doubt might attach. The question of God is, thus, not really a question at all. Since there is no such concept, there is literally nothing about which to ask.
Now there are, to be sure, different kinds of impossibility. For example, some things are Physically Impossible. It’s Physically Impossible for objects (on earth) to fall upward; gravity won’t allow it. It’s Physically Impossible for an ant to defeat an elephant in a fight; the elephant’s too big. It’s also the case that Santa Claus – the Santa Claus of popular imagination – is Physically Impossible. It’s Physically Impossible that one jolly old man in a red suit could collect the wish lists of millions and millions of children, buy or make or otherwise acquire millions and millions of toys, pack all of those millions and millions of toys onto a single sled and then fly around the world using reindeer power and distribute all those toys – via millions and millions of narrow chimneys – to every one of those children, making sure the right child always gets the right toy, all in a single evening while, in the process, eating millions and millions of cookies and drinking millions and millions of glasses of milk.
Other things, however, are Conceptually – rather than Physically – Impossible. Given Euclidean premises, it’s impossible that the internal angles of a triangle could add up to either more or less than 180 degrees. The concept of a triangle won’t allow it. The problem is not physical, it’s conceptual. The idea of a triangle having internal angles of more or less than 180 degrees is not really an idea at all. It’s nonsense. In a somewhat different vein, the notion of justice having weight in ounces and pounds is also incoherent. It’s not that justice weighs zero. Justice is not, in that sense, weightless. Rather, justice simply isn’t the kind of thing that can be weighed on a scale. The concept of justice having weight in ounces and pounds is not a concept at all. It is Conceptually Impossible.
Aprolepticism says that God is Conceptually Impossible in roughly this way. Under the logic of cause and effect, the universe cannot exist without an Unmoved Mover. Something exists that must have started everything else. But if the Unmoved Mover exists, then it too must have been caused by something other than itself, in which case it’s not the Unmoved Mover. The logic of cause and effect that tells us that God must exist and cannot possibly exist, and that’s Conceptually Impossible. It’s a thought we cannot have. Nothing can be what it is and what it isn’t at the same time. It may seem that we can have such a thought, just as it may seem that we can have the thought of a triangle having more or less than 180 degrees or justice weighing a quarter of a pound, but these are linguistic illusions. The fact that we can construct grammatically correct sentences that appear to express concepts doesn’t mean we’re actually expressing them. And in the case of God, we’re not. Talk about God – whether for, against, or on the fence – is mere noise.
I myself am currently aware of only one author who has argued for something like aprolepticism. That would be, perhaps surprisingly, Herbert Spencer. Of course, Spencer today is largely forgotten; and to the degree that he’s remembered at all, it’s usually in order to be reviled as the originator of the phrase “survival of the fittest.” In his First Principles (1862), however, he presents a view remarkably like mine. With respect to the origins of the universe, he contemplates three possible answers: the universe is either “self-existent,” “self-created,” or “created by external agency.” He rejects all of them as being literally inconceivable. The idea of self-existence requires us to form a conception of existence without a beginning, but Spencer insists that “by no mental effort can we do this,” by which he means that the idea of self-existence is not an idea at all. Similarly, the hypothesis of self-creation is “incapable of being represented in thought;” and as for the notion of an external creator – an Unmoved Mover – Spencer asks, as I ask, “how came there to be an external agency?” For him, all three formulations, though “verbally intelligible” turn out to be “literally unthinkable,” and I disagree only to the extent that, in my view, the literally unthinkable cannot be verbally intelligible.
But is not aprolepticism, whether Spencer’s or mine, merely another form of atheism? If God is Conceptually Impossible, doesn’t this amount to an assertion that God does not exist? In fact, I think it does not. Here it will be useful, I believe, to compare Santa Claus with another, somewhat different kind of case, namely, a so-called round quadrangle. We all think that Santa is impossible, and so we all assert that Santa does not exist. We are a-Santa-ists. With respect to Santa, we are non-believers. But notice that in affirming our non-belief, we know what it is that doesn’t exist. We have the concept of Santa – jolly, white beard, reindeer, belly that shakes like a bowlful of jelly – and so the assertion that Santa doesn’t exist is, in fact, perfectly intelligible. That is what doesn’t exist. The impossibility of Santa is physical, but it’s not at all conceptual.
Consider, on the other hand, what Hobbes has to say about things like a round quadrangle:
“[O]ther Names, are but insignificant sounds…. [as] when men make a name of two Names whose significations are contradictory and inconsistent; as this name, an incorporeall body, or (which is all one) an incorporeall substance, and a great number more. For whensoever any affirmation is false, the two names of which it is composed, put together and made one, signifie nothing. For example, if it be a false to say a quadrangle is round, the word round quadrangle signifies nothing; but is a meere sound. So likewise if it be false, to say that vertue can be powred, or blown up and down; the words In-powred vertue, In-blown virtue, are as absurd and insignificant, as a round quadrangle.”
For Hobbes, we cannot deny the existence of a round quadrangle, and this because, unlike in the Santa case, there is no concept to which such a denial could possibly refer. To use the expression “round quadrangle” in a sentence is to speak gibberish – “meere sound” – and we can neither affirms nor deny nor question the existence of that which cannot even be thought. And so too, I suggest, for God – i.e., something that must exist and cannot exist at the same time.
Another way of seeing this is to recognise that we can imagine – though perhaps just barely – a world in which Santa actually could exist. Of course, such a world would be governed by a very different set of physical laws, but with enough thought we could describe at least roughly what the differences would be. On other hand, I submit that we cannot imagine any world in which it would make sense to talk about a round quadrangle. The idea itself is not really an idea at all. And so too, I believe, for God. Given the logic of cause and effect under which we all operate, there is no world in which we could intelligibly talk about something that must exist and cannot possibly exist at the same time. “God,” like “round quadrangle,” is just noise.
Note, in this respect, that the force of aprolepticism is to dismiss, as incoherent, not only theistic cosmologies but scientifically atheistic ones as well. The logic of cause and effect – which is, among other things, the logic of science itself – both demands and rejects the idea of a First Thing, which means that science is exactly as powerless as anything else to explain the origins of the universe. In the paradigm case, for example, the idea of a Big Bang begs the question, for there must have been something that banged – in which case, of course, we are led to ask where that something came from and so on, ad infinitum. Or we agree that Higgs’ particle is the building block of physical matter, we nonetheless cannot but wonder where that particle came form in the first place. Here, then, I agree with Bede Rundle who, in his excellent Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, recognises that scientists “have something to say only once their subject matter, the physical universe, is supposed in being.”
Since, moreover, my view is that aprolepticism is entailed by the logic of cause and effect, and since we are all necessarily committed to that logic, I suggest that we are all, deep down, aproleptics, even though we might not explicitly know it.
Perhaps one might want to argue that aprolepticism, as I have described it, is really a form not of atheism but of agnosticism. Again, however, this would be a misunderstanding. Just as aprolepticism is neither theistic nor atheistic, so is it not at all agnostic.
Imagine that I ask you the following question: “Do you know who will win tomorrow’s football match between Chelsea and Tottenham?” Presumably you will answer by saying that you do not know – nobody knows – and this for the simple reason that we do not yet have sufficient evidence and will not have sufficient evidence until the match is actually played. The problem is entirely epistemic, which means that we are, with respect to the outcome of the match, agnostic. It is extremely important to recognise, moreover, that in such a case we know pretty much exactly what it is that we don’t know. For we cannot know that we don’t have enough knowledge unless we know what it would be to have enough knowledge, i.e., what kind of knowledge that would be. In the instant case, we know what a football match is, what it means to win such a match, how goals are scored, and so on. Thus, the question – “who will win the match” – is perfectly intelligible. We don’t have enough information, yet, to answer the question, but we know perfectly well what a good answer would look like.
But suppose I ask you a different question: “Do you know who will flobbo tomorrow’s match between Chelsea and Tottenham?” Here I would suggest that the proper response would be to ask me what is meant by “flobbo”; and suppose I respond by saying what is true, namely, that nothing is meant by flobbo, that the word is something I just made up, that it has no denotation or connotation at all but is, rather, a sound that simply came into my head such that it’s not really a word at all. All words have semantic and syntactic properties that connect, one way or another, with concepts, but “flobbo” connects with nothing. It’s gibberish. I would suggest that, in such a circumstance, the question “Do you know who will flobbo tomorrow’s match” is not a question at all. It has no meaning and so it’s impossible even to imagine what an answer might look like. The problem is a matter not of epistemology but of intelligibility. Aprolepticism suggests that God is like this.
Now God does seem different from flobbo in that flobbo has no content at all, whereas God appears to have at least some content. The trouble, however, is that, in the case of God, the content is, again, self-contradictory, incoherent. And it’s for this reason that while flobbo is, I’d suggest, a good way to get at the basic idea of aprolepticism – the concept of not having a concept – the round quadrangle turns out to be the better analogy. Here we have content, for we know what it is for something to be round and we know what a quadrangle is; and so, for example, we might know how to find the area of a circle or the area of rectangle. But if someone asks us to find the area of a round quadrangle, the question makes no sense. With respect to the area of a round quadrangle, as with respect to flobbo, we are not at all agnostic. The problem is not a lack of knowledge, a dearth of evidence. The problem is that there is no concept to which the question refers. The question is not a question at all; and so too, I am suggesting, for any putative question that one might attempt to ask about something that absolutely must exist and, at the same time, absolutely cannot exist.
But to what extent are we really bound by the logic of cause and effect? Haven’t the frontiers of science pushed beyond that? Isn’t aprolepticism a kind of dinosaur, an anachronism? Isn’t it now quite clear, for example, that the world need not have had a beginning and that there’s nothing at all incoherent about a universe that goes backward in time, ad infinitum?
At this point, I cannot but defer to my scientific colleagues. I do so because they raise possibilities that I, at least, am unable to comprehend in the most radical sense, meaning that perhaps I don’t know what it is that I don’t know. I find myself very much in the position of Ivan Karamazov, who says: “It is not for me to understand about God. I humbly confess that I do not have any ability to resolve such questions. I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world.” But I also do wonder who among us can truly transcend the earthly standpoint of view such that to talk about an uncaused world – a world without a beginning – is not simply another linguistic illusion.
My doubts are shared by Hannah Arendt who, in her famous essay on “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” considers Niels Bohr’s claim no longer to be frightened by the prospect of defying the “prejudices” of causality, determinism and the necessity of laws. Arendt says that “what defies description in terms of the ‘prejudices’ of the human mind defies description in every conceivable way of human language” and this because “the categories and ideas of human reason have their ultimate source in human sense experience.” For Arendt, as for the aproleptic, the “human brain which supposedly does our thinking is as terrestrial, earthbound, as any other part of the human body.”
What, then, does aprolepticism have to tell us about issues of faith, spirituality, ethics, the mystery of the universe, and the like? As I have suggested above, the ramifications are complex and far beyond what can be treated in a brief essay. I can only say here that such ramifications compose the subject matter of my book, The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers and even Agnostics Must All be Wrong; and it is in that book as well that I demonstrate exactly why it is that this – the world of cause and effect, the world that we can think about intelligently, the world as we know it or could ever hope to know it – cannot possibly be all that there is.