Let’s consider Jason Thibodeau’s objections to the claim that God created the world. Jason’s objections are found in the comment thread of my article “In their heart of hearts, do atheists really believe in God?” In one comment he writes:
“How can a non-physical being interact with a physical world? Yes, an omnipotent being can do anything that it is possible to do. But if it is not possible for a non-physical being to interact with the physical world, then God (if he is non-physical) is not omnipotent.”
In this statement Jason suggests that God could not create the world because creating the world would require God to interact with a physical world, and it is impossible for a non-physical being to interact with the physical world.
Alas, Jason seems to have conflated the state of being unable to see how x could be true with being able to see that x can’t be true. In other words, he begins by observing that he can’t conceive how a non-physical God could create (or interact with) a material world. And from this he concludes that a non-physical God could not create (or interact with) a material world. But of course the inability of Jason (or anybody else) to conceive how God would create or interact with a material world is completely different from being able to see that God cannot interact with or create a material world. So unless Jason can provide an argument to show that God cannot create or interact with a material world, I don’t see any reason here to think God cannot be the omnipotent creator.
In addition, I would suggest we consider here the important principle that actuality entails possibility. For example, a century ago the common wisdom had it that the universe must have always been here because an absolute beginning would commit us to the absurd position that the universe came out of nothing, and as everyone knows, ex nihilio, nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes). But the fact is that the universe did have an absolute beginning. And this fact requires us to reject the assertion that the universe could not have an absolute beginning.
Jason’s skepticism is rooted in the assumption that a non-physical being cannot interact with a physical world. I note, at the outset, that this principle has nowhere near the self-evident luminosity of ex nihilo, nihil fit, and yet that latter principle has already been shown to be mistaken. So this already provides a formidable set of cautionary quotation marks around Jason’s self-assured intuitions.
But this brings us to that fact of actuality. Any person who believes nominalism is false and thus that concrete particulars exemplify abstract universals is already committed to rejecting Jason’s principle since a universal is a non-physical being which interacts (by way of exemplification) with a concrete particular in the physical world. Granted, the exemplification of universals in concrete particulars is mysterious, but for realists it is also undoubtedly true, since we regularly experience such phenomena as attribute agreement (e.g. this red car, that red apple) and abstract reference (e.g. I believe in justice). And these phenomena assume the encounter with universals in concrete particulars. Though we don’t know how exemplification occurs, we surely know that it occurs. And that entails that Jason’s principle is false since universals are non-physical beings that interact with the physical world.
As I already noted (elsewhere) this is also true of our own minds which are non-physical things that regularly interact with the physical world. Jason countered by suggesting that the mind is really physical after all. It is at this point that I must turn the tables on my interlocutor: what reason has he to think that a non-physical entity like sensation or intention could really be identical to a physical entity like a brain state? Indeed, I would submit that I can see they cannot be the same thing because, for example, my taste of peppermint or my thought of the Eiffel Tower has different properties than the patterns of synapse firing that are intimately related with those thoughts.
In this way I’ve provided a reason to think that minds cannot be brains. This contrasts with Jason’s failure, to this point, to provide an argument to demonstrate that mental substances cannot interact with the physical world.
Let’s now turn to Jason’s additional argument. This argument seems to build on the assured results of modern science. Jason explains:
“According to our best science, the physical world is a closed system and the amount of matter and energy in it is constant. So, if there is a non-physical world, it is difficult to understand (I never said logically impossible) how that world could interact with the physical world. For the non-physical to interact with the physical is for the non-physical to move or in some way alter physical matter. But our best science tells us that physical matter is moved or altered through energy transfer. Thus, if the non-physical affects the physical, there must be energy transfer from the non-physical to the physical. I do not say that I know this to be absolutely impossible, only that our best science says that it is impossible. Thus it is difficult to understand how the non-physical could interact with the physical. Those who believe in a non-physical reality owe us an explanation of how it happens. Those who insist that theism can account for the problems I listed above, owe us an explanation of how God accomplishes these things.”
I’ll deal with this objection quickly.
Imagine a ballroom with grand chandeliers suspended 30′ over the floor and only one 2′ stepladder in the corner of the room. Based on that observation you might rightly conclude that the contents of the room are inadequate to change the light bulbs on those lofty chandeliers. But this doesn’t preclude the possibility that somebody might bring a much larger ladder into the room that would make it possible to change the light bulbs. Likewise, observations about what is possible within the universe under present observation does not exclude an external agent from interacting within the universe.