Atheists, Can You Refute This Argument for Theism?

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 7, 2009 in General Atheism

There are dozens of arguments for the existence of God that I cannot refute.

For some arguments, this is because I haven’t taken the time to read them through. But for many, it’s because I have read them but I don’t know what’s wrong with them. Often, this is because I lack the training to evaluate the argument at all.

An example is Robert Maydole’s temporal contingency argument for God’s existence from his chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Here it is:

irrefutableAtheists, can you refute this argument?

I suspect not.

I certainly can’t. At least, not yet. I don’t even understand it well enough to have a clue whether it can be refuted.

And there are probably about a dozen arguments like this for which it would require years or decades of study for me to even begin to know whether they are sound or not.

And here’s the thing. I don’t think there are arguments like this for the existence of Zeus. Or for the truth of astrology. Or for the existence of Yahweh, or Allah, or Waheguru.

Of course, we must realize this is an argument for deism, not for Christianity. Indeed, Waheguru is more consistent with “supreme being” arguments that Yahweh is.

But I don’t believe in a supreme being, either. Is this justified? Should I be less confident about the non-existence of supreme beings because there are so many arguments for their existence that I don’t know how to refute?

Remember, the above argument is a deductive argument. If it is sound, it doesn’t just increase the probability of theism relative to the evidence against theism from divine hiddenness or suffering in the world or whatever (neither of which can attack the existence of a supreme being, anyway, but only more specific notions of God). If Maydole’s argument is sound, it proves the existence of a supreme being, regardless of strong probabilistic arguments for atheism.

Should I be more open to theism than I already am because of the sheer number of arguments for theism that I cannot refute, even if I try?

Obviously, most theists don’t believe in God for good reasons, and aren’t even aware of most atheistic arguments. They should be less confident about their theism.

But what I want to ask is: Should we atheists be less confident about our atheism? Should we at least be more open to the plausibility of deism, given the number of arguments for deism that most of us are trained enough to evaluate?

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{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Carr July 7, 2009 at 9:01 am

A being without any limitations is necessarily greater than any other being.
God is limited in the amount of sin he can do, isn’t he?
God is limited in the number of mistakes he can make, isn’t he?


Reginald Selkirk July 7, 2009 at 9:15 am

T2 Only finitely many things have existed to date
Huh? I don’t think I can accept that without explanation or evidence.


mitch July 7, 2009 at 9:24 am

Yeah, alarm bells rang out when I read T2. It seems like just an assertion without any further backing.


Reginald Selkirk July 7, 2009 at 9:31 am

T3 – T4 – T5 – Confusing chain of terminology. Switches from “temporally contingent beings” to “everything that begins to exist at some time and ceases to exist at some time” to “everything.” What a freakin’ mess.
T5 is suspect: If everything exists for only a finite period of time,…
Up until then, he has been using “temporally contingent beings,” and now he widens that to “everything” without justification. Hidden assumption that nothing exists which is not a “temporally contingent being.”
T6 is suspect: If there was a time when nothing existed, then nothing presently exists.
I cannot accept that without explanation or evidence.
T9 Anything that has a sufficient reason for its existence also has a sufficient reason for its existence that is a sufficient reason for its own existence.
T10 No temporally contingent being is a sufficient reason for the existence of a temporally necessary being.
I need to see definitions of terms to understand this. “sufficient reason”? “Temporally necessary”? I accept that T3 constitutes a definition of “temporally contingent being.”
T11 Every temporally necessary being that is a sufficient reason for its own existence is a being without any limitations.
I object. I don’t see any reason to accept this. No supporting arguments and no data.
T14 It is necessarily the case that “greater than” is asymmetric.
… Paper covers rock. Rock smashes scissors. Scissors cut paper…
T15 There exists a supreme being.
No explanation of how he reached that conclusion.


Reginald Selkirk July 7, 2009 at 9:39 am

Alright, so that argument was just an illustration. The real question is, given the existence of many such incomprehensible arguments, should you abandon atheism? Of course not. All that is required is that your atheism not be dogmatic; i.e. that you are open to the possibility of changing your mind in the event that someone can present sufficient argumentation or evidence. That event has not been achieved.
If there really were an irrefutable argument for the existence of God, it wouldn’t be obscure. All the theists would agree on it, and it would be posted on bilboards worldwide.


TK July 7, 2009 at 9:40 am

It’s always seemed strange to me that people think journeys down these narrow, logical back alley-ways are really appropriate for proving the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent being. Even prima facie this seems wrong.
That said, I take issue with the following premises:
T6, only because I don’t know what he is trying to say by “presently exists”–read literally, this statement is totally without warrant, unless he means something fancy by that.
T7, because this premise affirms the consequent. “A being [that] is temporally necessary” seems to be a code word for “God”. This premise presumes that we can divide things in the world into two classes, TN and TC, and that TN is a) nonempty and b) has more than one member–otherwise it’s just a synonym for “God”, and the thing whose existence Maydole wants to prove is built into the argument itself!
T12, only because “greater than” doesn’t seem to mean anything.


Reginald Selkirk July 7, 2009 at 9:44 am

TK: b) has more than one member–otherwise it’s just a synonym for “God”, and the thing whose existence Maydole wants to prove is built into the argument itself!

I think that is what he is trying to address in T11 and T12. Rather than simply state that there can only be one such being, he is trying to establish critieria by which that conclusion would drop out. But the criteria themselves are not justified.


Sam Meyerson July 7, 2009 at 10:34 am

As a physicist, this argument and others of its genre strike me as pointless wanking with modal logic.   The notion of a “being” has been smuggled in at T3.  What is the distinction, if any, between a “being” and a “thing”?  And while we’re at it, what is a “thing”?  Is an off-shell particle-hole pair bubbling out of a quantum mechanical vacuum a thing?  Have there really only been finitely many such things?   If I lose a kidney, am I the same being/thing?  What if I get a new one?
Why must everything have a sufficient reason for its existence?  In physics and mathematics, special circumstances hold at singularities.  Within classical big bang cosmology (which is regarded as incomplete by essentially all experts, even with the addition of semiclassical inflationary models), the Universe began with a singularity.  Why can’t I simply assert that the Universe was then causeless?  The BB would be the sole exception to the metaphysical “rule” that every event has a cause — why not?  Singularities aside, the rule itself is apparently in trouble if we consider quantum fluctuations — what is the cause for an unstable nucleus to undergo decay at a *particular* time?  Within QM, we can only assess probabilities.
What are “limitations” and why must T11 be true?  And why can’t the “supreme being” simply be the Universe itself?
In my field, this fine argument would be ridiculed as nonsense — “not even wrong,” as Wolfgang Pauli was wont to say.


Steven Carr July 7, 2009 at 11:04 am

All these arguments are nonsense.
Every temporally contingent being begins to exist and ceases to exist at some time?
There goes eternal life for Christians, smashed to pieces by Maydole’s irrefutable argument that they are not gods and so will cease to exist at some time.


lukeprog July 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

Reginald, I think the deduction from premise to premise to conclusion is explained in the section below all that, but I don’t know if it’s valid.


mikespeir July 7, 2009 at 11:08 am

I don’t have a clue, and I’m not obliged to believe in  deity until I do.  Life’s too short.


Taranu July 7, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Here is another argument by Robert Maydole that uses similar language to the one from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Maybe it will be of some help. Basically this is how it goes:
Premise1. Every temporally contingent being possibly fails to exist at some time:

Premise 2. If all things possibly fail to exist at some time then it is possible that all things fail to exist at some past time:

Premise 3. It is necessarily the case that possible truths are explicable:

Premise 4. It is necessarily the case that something is explicable only if there was not a time when nothing existed:

Premise 5. Whatever is temporally necessary might be unlimited:

Premise 6. Whatever might explain itself is unlimited:

Premise 7. Nothing which is unlimited can be explained by anything else:

Premise 8. Everything which is unlimited is supreme:

Premise 9. Something is temporally necessary if and only if it is not temporally contingent:

THEREFORE, there exists a supreme being:

Perhaps the explanations given by  Maydole (at this link) will be of some use and would lead to a better understanding of his temporal contingency argument.


Paul July 7, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Is T3 true?  I am out of my element here but I am assuming that the universe itself is a “something”.  Assuming that the universe began to exist.  Is there anything that suggests it will cease to exist at some point?
Also I have a question about T5/T6 – if nothing existed then does that not also mean that time itself did not exist?  How could there have been a time when nothing existed?


Skepdude July 7, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Yeah, as previous commenters have hinted at, the problem with this sort of argument is the premises.  An argument can be good but if the premises are wrong the whole thing crumbles. On those grounds you’d want to ask whoever presents such arguments a simple question:
On what basis are you making assumption T2? The whole non-argument presented here rest firstly on that assumption. How can anyone presume to know how many things have existed? That in effect creates a nice circular reasoning. He assumes that there were only a finite number of things in order to show that at some point there was nothing. But he can’t know his assumption is true unless it rests on another assumption, namely that at some point there must have been nothing.
On the same basis you can question other statements in this non-argument such as T6 which rest on the major unstated assumption that something cannot come from nothing, which clearly agrees with our commons sense,but our common sense is based on what we have been exposed here on Earth. I think actually that some high level physics has already shown that something can at least theoretically come from nothing.
T7 doesn’t even make much sense. What does “temporally necessary” even mean? How do you support such a statement?
T9 again makes no sense, it’s essentially a circular statement that states the same thing 3 times in a row.
T12 is clearly false. A being without limitations is not greater than another being without limitations. They’re equal.
The whole thing crumbles once you question the premises. The premises must be true. So the burden of prof fall on whoever advances such an argument to prove firstly T2. Even if you grant them T2 that still takes only as far as T5 at best. Then T6 becomes another issue for them.
This is not a sound argument. It is basically a list of statements, many of which do not follow from or have very little to do with each other, meant to confuse the other side with sheer volume and word play. Not impressive by any standard.
Now to answer your questions: Yes we should always be open to the posibility of a God existing. We can’t be dogmatic and claim that we know there is no God or that we have proven that there is no God. If there was a good argument for a God existing and no one can reasonably critique it then yes that is good reason to rethink our position. But I’m sure you’ll find out that most, if not all, religious arguments turn out to be one logical fallacy or another or to be based on untrue premises.


tyson koska July 7, 2009 at 12:45 pm

yeah, i’m with others who dispute t3-t5, and here’s why:
What does it mean for a “being” to begin to exist, and what does it mean for that being to no longer exist? Is it based simply on the arrangement of matter? — that is to say, do i “not exist” when I’m dead, or only when my body has been consumed by other bodies… but even in that case, do i not still exist (albeit in many small and widely dispersed pieces)?

I challenge this whole notion of existing and nothingness — energy is neither created nor destroyed. We have never seen energy/matter come from nothing, and we have never seen it pass into nothing. All we have ever witnessed are reorganizations of matter/energy… perhaps that is all there is…


Ryan July 7, 2009 at 1:03 pm

T3 seems bogus, if the conservation of matter and energy is generally accepted(we can argue how strict this is but things don’t seem to randomly disappear with any great frequency). How many things have we seen cease to exist?
T2 has no support for it, and if infinities are possible, then it could be rejected. (Infinities can be regarded as possible given the logical possibility of the infinitesimal)
T5 is nonsense unless one posits an infinite period of time. If one posits the possibility of infinite time, then why not infinite objects? If one rejects the possibility of infinite time, then there does not have to be a point in time where nothing exists at all, so the argument doesn’t even follow at this point.
T11 is basically the premise under which God is smuggled in without real explanation, basically a loophole to allow God to escape T8, which to me just kills the validity of the argument, particularly since the existence of this property isn’t justified.
As such, I am not convinced by this argument. It is basically just the original argument from contingency made using more impressive sounding terminology, but it still seems bogus.


Reginald Selkirk July 7, 2009 at 1:08 pm

The Atheist Bible

With … questions they [atheists] can’t definitely answer,

There you go, lukeprog. You don’t need to look to a sophisticate like Maydole to find questions you can’t answer, Ray Comfort fills the bill.


Eric July 7, 2009 at 1:26 pm

It seems to me as if there’s an asymmetry between atheists and theists when we consider the arguments for and against the existence of god. For example, most atheists you encounter today claim to be atheists because there is no reason to believe god exists. However, it’s rather obviously problematic to make this claim if you don’t understand some of the more complicated arguments for god’s existence such as this one. The theist, however, doesn’t face the same problem since, as Luke says, he generally doesn’t believe on the basis of arguments. Hence, if there are arguments against god that the theist can’t answer, he can fall back on religious experience (or whatever), while similar options aren’t open to atheists who claim not to believe because there are no good reasons to believe.

So, my answer to the question is, *if* you claim to be an atheist because you believe that there are no good reasons to believe that god exists, then most definitely yes, you should be less confident about your atheism if you encounter arguments for god’s existence that you don’t understand.


EvanT July 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Hi folks, long time lurker and I’ll take a shot at this

T1: Something presently exists: Ridiculously vague for my opinion, but I have to assume that he means “temporal existence” (though I have to assume that he’s already explained this).

T2: Only finitely many things have existed to date <=> The universe contains a finite amount of energy. The multiverse hypothesis, which is still being tested, couple with vacuum energy throws this in the realm of “can we really be certain of this?” => agnosticism
T3: Every temporaly contingent being begins to exists in some time and ceases to exist in some time. This is used to erroneously lead to T5:  …there was a time when nothing existed and T6 which is reductio ad absurdum. Of course we do know of something that existed extra-temporally and still spawned every temporally contingent being, i.e. the Big Bang Singularity (remember that prior to the Big Bang time does not exist). True enough; exist is used here to mean “temporal existence” but extra-temporal existence is not even alluded to.  I should also note that this is the first clause that the word “being” is introduced and it’s not clear whether it means “living being”, “animal”, “sentient being” or simply “object”/”anything that exists temporally”. Since he continues with “things” I’m inclined to assume the last one.
T7 is a logical definition. Only something that does not depend on time can be necessary for time itself. Totally in tandem with modern cosmology.
T8: Everything has a sufficient reason for its existence. Sounds logical enough.
T10 basically states that nothing temporal can be the cause time itself. Equally valid as T7.
T11.  NOW we’re talking!! A being that is it’s own cause and also necessary for time is limitless. Doesn’t this expose an uncertain dichotomy? We have “time” and “outside time” but can we be really sure that the “outside time” is a uniform “realm” (for lack of a better word)? But really, if we were to assume that it were a single uniform “realm” then yes, we would need a self-caused being to avoid an infinite chain of causality. But since we have a very limited idea of what exactly might go on “outside time” the only logical stance should be agnosticism on this.
I’m also not at all happy with the sudden introduction of self-causation (which seems to be supported only by the author’s presupposition of the duality of temporal and extra-temporal) and a word as vague as limitless, which in this case means close to nothing.
T12: A being without limitations is necessarily greater than any other being [with limitations]. What about another limitless being? Can two limitless beings coexist in the extra-temporal realm? How many stripes on a Cheshire cat? Really, does it make at all sense to apply characteristics of temporal beings (such as limits) to a being that lies by definition outside time?
T13 and T14: No sh*t, Sherlock!

In my opinion, T15 should read: If the bipolar distinction between the temporal and the extra-temporal is accurate, then AT LEAST ONE supreme being should exist.
In my opinion, any attempt to argue at this point that two infinites (Supreme Beings) cannot coexist, since they overlap and gobble each other up is pointless as long as we’re talking about the realm of outside-time, which we have absolutely no experience of. For the Deist God we should remain agnostic till science opens the door to what lies “before” the Big Bang. For the Christian God…well… you don’t need to learn logical notation to disprove. The standard arguments are good enough, I believe.
As for the rest, take a look at this article for the logical symbols used, but the first 15 mumbo-jumbo sentences are basically the same 15 statements listed above.
P.S. By the time I finished typing this, I noticed a lot more people added their objections and most focus on T3 (no wonder)


Steven Carr July 7, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Premise 8. Everything which is unlimited is supreme:
God is very limited in how much sin he can do.
This is like shooting fish in a barrel.


Ryan July 7, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Premise 2 neglects the eternal universe scenarios presented by cosmologists.

Premise 5 contains a non-sequitor. There may not have “been a time when nothing existed”. For instance, maybe there was no “before” the Big Bang, and so everything exists for a finite time but does not have a beginning.

Premise 8 is not justified, and is perhaps self-defeating. If everything has a sufficient reason for its existence, then does the principle of sufficient reason also have a reason for its existence?


drj July 7, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Eric: So, my answer to the question is, *if* you claim to be an atheist because you believe that there are no good reasons to believe that god exists, then most definitely yes, you should be less confident about your atheism if you encounter arguments for god’s existence that you don’t understand.

Well, speaking for myself only, its simply an inductive leap.   Most arguments, to date, that I have encountered for theism have been atrocious, even if a few take a little work to refute.  I don’t suspect its changed at the hands of some ridiculously convoluted formal logic syllogism.
It works the same way with allegedly game changing science.  I generally maintain skepticism even when some scientist publishes an article which he heralds as paradigm changing.  Confidence in prior beliefs would not yet be shaken, even if the science was way over my head and I had no hope of comprehending it.  Until the paper has been properly vetted, or peer reviewed, etc, I see no reason to “worry” that my current position has been overturned.
In this sense, it seems we do become pretty hopelessly dependent on authority… but I don’t see anyway out of it.  We just have to hope we can acheive a sufficient level of layman’s expertise to judge the merits of authoritative endorsements or rebuttals.


Dace July 7, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Regarding whether atheists should be less confident with so many arguments floating ’round: the number of arguments is not a measure of truth, but a measure of how popular the conclusion is.


Duke York July 7, 2009 at 3:54 pm

An excellent, thought-provoking article, Lukeprog. I admire everyone else’s fisking of the intellectual wank-fest and I’d like to add one more, on T5. This asserts that there must have been a time when nothing existed. This seems to me to be physcially, if not logically, impossible. My understanding is that time requires matter to exist; time is what we read from a clock, that is. With “nothing” (that is, no matter, energy or space), there could be no time. If there was no time when nothing existed, then nothing never existed (or, rather, there was no time when there was only nothing existing). The very gramatical problems we have discussing this shows the idea is a bit trivial and ridiculous, I think.
More importantly, I wanted to bring this up:

Remember, the above argument is a deductive argument. If it is sound, it doesn’t just increase the probability of theism relative to the evidence against theism from divine hiddenness or suffering in the world or whatever (neither of which can attack the existence of a supreme being, anyway, but only more specific notions of God). If Maydole’s argument is sound, it proves the existence of a supreme being, regardless of strong probabilistic arguments for atheism.

It seems to me this is wrong-headed. There is no such thing as a “deductive” argument, only inductive arguments where the premises are smuggled in via the common infrastructure of language and cultural conditioning. We see this in Maypole’s careless use of words like “thing” and “being” and “exist” and “time” and “necessary” and “sufficient”. Really, everything except the conjunctions. He is operating in a linguistic system that is primed to see agency in everything (Think of it! We can have a rock in the same place in the structure of a sentence as a thinking human. How bizarre is that, if you don’t operate from our provincial human mindset?). Since he has his conclusion already decided, he can use the artifacts in place in the language to bring it about. An equally clever sophist could construct and equally convincing proof of anything she likes.
I realize the modal logic is an attempt to remove these artifacts, but it’s still based on the notion of “things”. Sam Meyerson already pointed out that’s sloppy reasoning, when compared to the real world.
Just my two cents, and possibly not of my sense.
Duke York


Frederic Dumont July 7, 2009 at 6:29 pm

As a mathematician (I am not a professional mathematician, but I majored in mathematics a long time ago), I’d say all these “proofs” lack the same thing: a clear definition of the objects they are about, and, if we want to relate these proofs to the real world, a definition of the mapping of these objects to real world entities or measures.
Lacking these, we cannot know that these proofs are correct (consider for instance the Russel Paradox), or when they are, that they are about anything in the real world (is there such a thing as a Aleph 3 set?  We can reason about it, but can we do anything with the concept?)
So we are left with an extremely confusing theorem that can be shorten to “I can’t figure out why there is something rather than nothing, and Baby Jesus loves you”.


Kevin July 7, 2009 at 7:25 pm

This has probably been covered in some form in the many comments that have been posted already, but here are the first few things that jumped out at me:
Several of the premises here seem at odds with modern cosmology (or what I understand of it, so correct me if I’m wrong).  For instance,
T1: Something presently exists.
T5: . . .there was a time when nothing existed.
As I understand it, there was no time before the universe, so there can’t have been a time when nothing existed.  Thus, it has always been the case that something presently exists.
Next, in T2-T4 it is not clear what he means by “thing” or “being”.  If the law of conservation of matter and energy is correct, then the number of things in existence has remained constant through all time (though I have a hunch that this may not have been the case in early eras of the Big Bang).  The same matter and energy have constantly been rearranging themselves (e.g., into new stars, planets, lifeforms, etc.).  So, when he says “things” or “beings” does he mean specific configurations of matter and energy, or fundamental things like atoms?  Either way, this premise endangers his overall argument I think.
What does he mean by “temporally necessary” in T7 ?  I’m used to the notion of a necessary being, but can you clarify what he means by “temporally necessary”?


exapologist July 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Agreed: Premise 2 is questionable (interesting sidenote: Christian philosopher Timothy O’Connor has recently written a book-length defense of the cosmological argument (<i>Theism and Ultimate Explanation </i> (Blackwell, 2008)), in which he argues that a supreme being necessarily creates an infinite number of universes; so if O’Connor’s right, then Maydole’s premise 2 would entail that, necessarily, God does not exist(!)).
In any case, I wanted to add that premise 8 is just the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), and although there are some recent attempts to defend it (e.g., Pruss), defending it is a tough row to hoe. I suppose I’ll have to read his defense of it, but I’m not holding my breath.


Evolution SWAT July 7, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Hey Luke,

When you prove something, you have a set of assumptions. If your assumptions are false, the entire proof collapses. For example, assume that there is a proof that A implies B. This means that “If A is true, then B is true.” However, if A is false, the proof does not tell us whether or not B is true. It is the same here. If T2 isn’t true, then everything else that depends on it collapses.

It would be nice to understand the complex notation that is supposed to prove the proof, but I want to second Frederic Dumont’s point that the proof already doesn’t have a clear definition of the objects, and the English part is confusing. I sincerely hope that the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology provided an explanation of the proof. If not, I think that’s a little cheap. With my B.S. in Mathematics, I could give a talk at a Christian school or Adult Sunday school class where I prove intelligent design mathematically using complex mathematical language and symbols and imaginary numbers. I would awe many people with my argument, but that would not mean that my point was valid, or that the adults who didn’t know about the complex plane but had read Kenneth Miller would need to worry about my arguments that they did not understand.

To get back to my point, it’s interesting to know that Steven Weinburg doesn’t know T2 is true. Does he have to read the weird symbols too?
I’m personally not very fond of these time/infinite time arguments. I think the real question is whether we can even ask these questions in the first place. And what is ‘time’ anyways? Is time finite? Also, what if time is an illusion and reality is more like a set of pictures? That’s certainly an interesting possibility (especially in the light of quantum physics).

Also, one thing I find very annoying is the fact that many Christians claim that there must be a deity because “if there were a moment when there was absolutely nothing, then it would have continued forever.” Oh really? Then how did the deity decide when to start the universe? After all, there was no ‘time’ before the beginning of time anyways. If he existed FOREVER then why didn’t he decide to start the universe an infinite number of years before? It seems that trying to solve this very human question about the world by proposing a deity raises many serious problems.

How sure should we atheists be? We ought to match our belief with the available evidence. We, including Richard Dawkins, are all Agnostics in one way or another. We don’t know what the ultimate reality is. Who knows, maybe there is a great, unimaginative truth out there that is transcendent to us. I’ll bet there is. I just believe that (for reasons I won’t get into here) whatever the ultimate truth is, it’s probably not the bloodthirsty pro-circumcision maniac I learned about at Church camp while growing up. We’re all agnostic, some of us lean so far towards Atheism that it is good to call ourselves atheists. I think you are just fine Luke. You are open to a better argument. If you find one, you will change your mind because you care about truth.

Well, I hope you enjoyed reading my response, despite my bad communication skills and the late hour in which I wrote it.

(Note: In these videos Weinburg discusses the human tragedy of knowing that we will never understand the ultimate nature of the universe: Very cool!)



Taranu July 7, 2009 at 11:14 pm

Kevin,”What does he mean by “temporally necessary” in T7 ?”

This is the explanation Robert Maydole gives when he makes his Modal Third Way Argument based on Aqunas’ The Third Way Argument for the existence of God:
Aquinas’ reasoning [...] of the argument is significant, for it strongly suggests that we replace the alethic concept of contingency with the new idea of temporal contingency, where something is temporally contingent if and only if it is possible to generate it or possible to corrupt it. Clearly it is true then that temporally contingent things possibly do not exist at some time:

He further says:

By definition, something is temporally necessary, then, just in case it is neither possible in the modern modal sense to generate it nor possible in the modern modal sense to corrupt it. A temporally necessary being is one [...] that neither begins nor ceases to exist in any possible world. Temporally necessary beings need not exist in all possible worlds, however. Rather, they exist eternally in every possible world where they do exist.


Derrida July 7, 2009 at 11:49 pm

A lot of the terms in the deduction aren’t defined. What does ~Gµµ mean?


Yair July 8, 2009 at 12:33 am

Why would you really need to refute the proof, when the assumptions are so horrendously wrong or unfounded? I can come up with a much shorter list of more reasonable assumptions that will necessitate god’s existence; “God exists” being one (much more likely than, say, T5, which is flat-out wrong).
I also hate the over-formalization employed here. It doesn’t really advance the argument or makes it clearer, it only uses occult modal logic to don the veneer of reasonableness. There is just no need to formalize the arguments in such a manner, saying them in plain English will do far better.
I also don’t trust modal logic proofs at all, since the abstraction only hides what you are talking about. What modal logic to use changes with your ontic and epistemic models, and theists often confuse and misapply it in my experience, e.g. conflating epistemic possibility and ontic possibility.
Behind all the bells and whistles, this is an argument straight out of the middle ages, with a medieval understanding of contingency, time, and relations that has no place in the thoughts of an educated man in our age. “Something presently exists”? Really? In what reference frame? What about stuff outside that reference frame? Sheesh, what shallow modes of thought.


Chuck July 8, 2009 at 8:47 am

T3 is full of words that just make no sense. What does it mean for a being to “begin to exist”? When it’s born? When the first cell begins to divide? When we know for sure the end result isn’t going to be twins?
The only thing we can really talk about is when the electrons, protons, and neutrons that now make up that being began to exist. Anything else is just a way convenient shorthand, concepts we use when we don’t want to get bogged down in (or are ignorant of) the details, but there is nothing mysterious about it. The only way I can make sense of this premise is if, by “being”, it means an invisible, immaterial soul.
Good luck proving that.


Kip July 8, 2009 at 1:48 pm

If the argument were sound, then why couldn’t the “supreme being” be Reality (the sum of all existence)?.  Nothing in the argument proves that the “supreme being” must be intelligent or volitional, does it?


bitbutter July 9, 2009 at 4:18 am

T5. If everything exists for only a finite period of time, and there have been only finitely many beings to date, then there was a time when nothing existed.

This is dodgy. If time as we know it had a ‘beginning’ (afaik, cosmologists aren’t sure) then there was no time when nothing existed.

T12. A being without limitations is necessarily greater than any other being

To borrow from the objectivists: A being without limitations is a nonsense. Because to exist is to exist as something in particular. To exist as something in particular is to be limited.


bitbutter July 9, 2009 at 4:20 am

should read: If time as we know it had a ‘beginning’, and time is coexistent with space.


NathanielFisher July 9, 2009 at 9:44 am

“But what I want to ask is: Should we atheists be less confident about our atheism? Should we at least be more open to the plausibility of deism, given the number of arguments for deism that most of us are trained enough to evaluate?”

Well, first it would be nice to, say, GET A DEFINITION OF GOD from William Lane Craig WITH AN EXAMPLE.

His definition is, imo, bogus. How can something intelligent, with a brain, not be killed?

How can the mind exist without the brain as Craig says it does?

Second I don’t **trust** Craig or a Christian to get it right. So it doesn’t shift my agnostic-atheism one bit, it just reminds me that I’m an idiot. But then so is Craig when it comes to math and science so I read/am told. ;)

“T2 only finitely many things have existed…” Wait, this is the “there is no actual infinite” argument right?

Anyway, no doubt mathematicians would probably be able to refute the arguments presented in Craig’s new book: Have you found any refutations of his new arguments Luke?


Reginald Selkirk July 9, 2009 at 11:37 am

Was there ever a time when time did not exist?


Badger3k July 9, 2009 at 6:50 pm

I’m glad others saw it, but T6 is an incomprehensible bs.  If  there was a time when nothing existed, then nothing presently exists?  WTF?  Hmm – “looks at computer screen” – something exists, so there must not have been a time when nothing existed, so therefore matter and energy must have always existed.  Hmm.  Looks like this argument proved that the big bang was not created from nothing, as creationists love to assert, but that the universe has no beginning.  ROFL.  Actually, that argument itself is probably flawed, but that goes to show you what intellectual wanking can get you.
As for “was there ever a time when time did not exist” – neat paradox, although you can technically say that on our sense of what time means, as a thing/measurement of events that is part and parcel of the structure of our universe, time started after the Big Bang, so yes, there was a time when time did not exist (using the first “time” in the sense of “one part of a chain of events”).  I do like the comment – maybe I can use that as a sig somewhere.  Mind if I quote it (or use it, if you’d prefer not having your name get spread who knows where).


Badger3k July 9, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Felgercarb (or is it “-karb”?) – looking further at this, it looks like some drivel Plantiga  puts out.  I may have to see if I have the book somewhere.


Reginald Selkirk July 10, 2009 at 5:56 am

Badger3k: I do like the comment – maybe I can use that as a sig somewhere. Mind if I quote it (or use it, if you’d prefer not having your name get spread who knows where).

Go ahead. It’s a pseudonym anyway.


Reginald Selkirk July 10, 2009 at 5:58 am

BTW, I just did a search on “a time when time did not exist” and it appears not to be original. Some guy named Augustine copied my idea before I even had it.


Andy July 11, 2009 at 6:41 am

“T6 …then nothing presently exists.”
Umm… surely if you can conclude this as part of your argument, then there should be a giant red flashing light with a loud siren going off, telling you that your argument sucks. It’s equivalent to a divide by zero in a mathematical argument. See here:


toryninja July 14, 2009 at 9:30 am

I find it funny how quickly people are dismissing his argument. It’s like a grade one student saying you can’t subtract 2 from 1 because that’s impossible (when, if the student was in grade 4 they would learn you can use negative numbers to subtract 2 from 1).

I’m not saying the argument is any good, valid or anything like that (like I could!). I just think it is funny that people think their one paragraph statement seems to refute the argument. I am sure a guy as smart as Maydole has heard every single objection you guys have stated and has a good reason to think you are all in error in your objections. Luke, you should bring the guy onto your podcast and bring up these questions people have. Even have him break down the argument in such a way that normal humans can understand it!

As to your question Luke. Someone above I think made a good point. Given that atheists are atheists for rational reasons (supposedly – in an ideal world I guess), then if they are presented with a rational reason to believe in a god/supreme being that they can’t refute then they should accept the conclusion of the argument. Did not Bertrand Russell say he believed in a god for a day because he couldn’t find any problems with the ontological argument? Of course, after the day when he felt the argument actually failed he then went back to “where the evidence led.”

Anyway, those are just my 2 cents.

My “supposedly in an ideal world” just comes from my experience that many atheists become atheists out of emotional reasons (just like religious people) and then try to use reason to justify their beliefs. I think we all do this. I’m not saying that atheists don’t have good reasons to be atheists or religious people don’t have good reasons to be religious I’m just stating that more times than not it is the emotion that leads to the use of reason, not the other way around.


Reginald Selkirk July 14, 2009 at 10:46 am


toryninja: Did not Bertrand Russell say he believed in a god for a day because he couldn’t find any problems with the ontological argument?


I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: “Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.”

He was only ~ 22 years old at the time.


Dan July 20, 2009 at 1:04 am

Keep believing what you truly believe, and honor your doubts.
Always embrace the freedom to switch sides without explanation or apology if it turns out you were mistaken.  If evidence for Christ turned out to be strong, I would embrace Christianity.  It just so happens that there isn’t much evidence


Robin November 16, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Not sure if anybody is still looking at this.

Yes, it can be very easily refuted by looking at T5. Clearly “a time when nothing existed” is a nonsense phrase since it would clearly mean “a time when there was no time”. It cannot be said to follow.


wissam February 24, 2011 at 2:54 am

There is an almost universal agreement amongst contemporary philosophers that the principle of sufficient reason PSR is a necessary falsehood, ever since Inwagen’s rebuttal. Anyway, Pruss defends the restricted version of the PSR, which is not what this argument uses. What’s funny is that Oppy showed that the weak PSR entails the strong PSR. It is with these arguments that you realize that theists are fucking desperate!


Sasha July 22, 2011 at 6:37 am

T5- If things have existed for as long as time has existed, and if time has a beginning, then there was no time in which nothing existed. Therefore, the argument falls apart at T5.

I don’t know what to make of T6.

T8- That sounds like mere conjecture. Unless it can be demonstrated to be true, the argument falls apart here. In fact, the more i think about it, the crappier T8 seems.

T11- No opinion on this due to the fact that it depends on the hot air of T8.

I also have to agree with others that T2 is pure conjecture.


Donald Hinckley October 5, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Can someone explain to me how a mathematical numerical equation can be given to something spiritual?
Someone explain to these atheist that as Christians we believe for 2 reasons mainly.
1. The first is we really took a step of faith towards accepting Jesus being our savior a step so simple as believing 1+1+1=3. The equation for us or the step of faith was this, believe what you do not know. At first as children we learned there was a number 1, but we did not know yet that 1+1+1=3. Then the teacher wrote it on the chalk board 1+1+1=3. We thought what is this….? It was and is by pure faith that a child accepts that 1+1+1=3 only because the teacher tells them to accept it as a constant in life. And so the learning journey begins as everything in life is related to math. As step of faith believers we did the same thing God+Holy Ghost+Savior Jesus= not going to hell and going to heaven instead.
2.Accept when we got to the end of our spiritual equation we began to experience through the help of one of the equation factors (The Holy Ghost) another of the spiritual equation factors that being Jesus. Unlike the one dimensional number 1 your looking at right now we began to experience Jesus in more than one dimension. Unexplainable things began to happen to us new believers (all of us, millions and millions of us over the ages) to help us not only stay believing in something we previously did not believe in, but to help encourage our wanting to learn more of God’s word. Which in turn when learning more of God’s word helped encourage us even more to want to learn more of God’s Word. Factors that no Christian will tell you never happened to them. These things have happened to all of us who call ourselves Christians to all of us who took that one simple step of faith like believing as a child 1+1+1=3 just because we were told we should believe it.
Do you think it’s easy for us Christians especially in these times to profess our faith? So why do so many of us state our belief knowing that most likely outside of the church or our church friends we will be rejected in the world and in worldly matters. You know us humans we dislike rejection very much. The norm is to go with the flow. So why do millions of us Christians go against the flow/the norm? We do it because we have actually experienced our step of faith spiritual equation. 1+1+1=3 is so easy to accept on a childs blind faith, why because there is no moral conscious involved. Not wanting to take even a baby step of faith you can be assured that the conscious is seriously involved.


Donald Hinckley October 5, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Please allow me elaborate some more. If you look at this number 1 you see just he number 1. However it takes 3 essential things to make this number 1, it takes the binary code that represents the number 1, it takes the program to show the binary code that represents the number 1, and it takes most important electricity to = the 1 you see right now. Each essential having it’s own distinct purpose but yet joined together into being one entity. The same with the factual concept of the Holy Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost=God. 3 essentials having their own distinct purpose but yet joined together into being one entity or to equal one entity. It’s as simple as that. it’s a simple as accepting that water is 3 entities, entities that we can not see. 3 atoms of gas that we cannot see=water that we can experience.


Christopher Wright November 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

This is an attempt to embed temporal logic inside standard predicate logic. Doing this out with temporal logic would be quite long, from what I’ve heard. I’m sure you can simulate temporal logic in predicate logic, but this would involve a pretty sizable expansion. This example uses additional predicates to shorten its work, which is understandable but hides a lot of the logic, which in turn gives an opportunity to hide contradictions.

It also makes the mistake of assuming that beings are ontologically basic, which needs a sizable defense to be allowable. I try to fix these errors as they spring up.

Let’s look in some more detail.

T2 is definitely not provable.

A ‘being’ is just a configuration of particles. So rewrite it as:
T3: Every temporally contingent configuration of particles consists of particles that were previously in a different configuration and will eventually be in another configuration.

I don’t know what ‘temporally contingent’ means. I assume that’s an escape hatch to exclude God from being caught by this clause.

T4 says that nothing can exist for an infinite amount of time and then stop existing. No configuration of atoms can hold for an infinite amount of time and then no longer hold. I have no idea what evidence we have to support that, since we can’t deal with infinities empirically.

T5 is unassailable.

T6 is a non sequitur, but we can rework it to make more sense:
T6a: if a particular configuration of particles is currently in effect, this configuration was necessitated by a previous configuration of particles.
T6b: If there does not exist any configuration of particles at any time T_i, then there does not exist any configuration of particles at any time T_j where j > i.

T6b is a straightforward extension of T6a. T6a forbids creation ex nihilo.

T7 brings back this ‘temporally contingent’ term that isn’t explained, and introduces a ‘temporally necessary’ term that isn’t well defined (unless this premise is the definition of that term).

T8 is a rephrasing of T6a.

T9 is confusing. Let’s try expanding it.
We have a configuration C1 which was necessitated by previous configuration C2. Is this law saying that C2 must be necessitated by a C3, where C3 is necessitated by C3? Or is it saying that C2 must be necessitated by C2? (Where ‘necessitated’ means ‘provided sufficient cause for’, mostly.)

The most charitable interpretation is as some escape from infinite regress clause — in other words, the ‘causative closure’ of any configuration is finite. However, this escape from infinite regress is reflexive causation — something caused itself; a configuration of particles was caused by that same configuration of particles.

Now, when I say ‘the same configuration’, this doesn’t necessarily involve time. So it could be the case that this is just saying there was a configuration of particles that was stable for at least some finite amount of time — not very controversial, though highly non-trivial; but it doesn’t give much power to this proof. So this is actually saying that a configuration C1 at time T1 is caused by C1 at time T1. And that looks very much like a violation of T6a.

T11 is highly unmotivated and deserves a sizable defense on its own.

T12 uses terms that are not defined. Is the greatest human the one who owns the most chicken eggs? The person with the most power? The kindest? The tallest? The heaviest?

T13 and T14 are fine, though they miss the fact that you might have a partial ordering of greatness. T15 also misses that fact.

Overall, I give it two out of five stars. A good attempt, but they used some confusing terms unnecessarily and had some pretty unmotivated premises. A long essay accompanying this might bump it up to three stars.


Robin January 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Hmm… since someone is claiming that T5 is unassailable let me point out again that T5 is not unassailable.

“A time when nothing existed” does not make sense – if nothing existed then there would be no time.

So the phrase would mean “a time when there was not time” – which is just gibberish.

This alone makes the whole argument fall apart.


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