Why would God bother at all?

It’s a very simple question and one I’ve asked a number of believers over the years, but have yet to get any kind of a reasonable answer. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of it’s been kicking around in my brain the past couple of days so I thought I’d take the time to write it down.

For the sake of the argument we’ll have to assume that God does exist and he has a reason for doing the things that he does. We should also try to define his basic properties; what we mean when we use the word “God.” To keep it simple let’s go with the basic assumptions present in most of the big religions:

  1. God is perfect.
  2. God is all-powerful.
  3. God is all-knowing.
  4. God is eternal.

Right off the bat with the first aspect of God we have a problem of motivation that I’ve never been able to get past. A common interpretation of the word “perfect” is: entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings, thorough; complete. A truly perfect being would need nothing and thus want for nothing and, logically, have no reason to do anything. All the usual motivations us mere humans have for doing things would be of no concern to a God. Our motivations are driven by needs, both real and perceived, and even when we claim we’re doing something for no reason that’s often not the reality of the situation. God wouldn’t need anything. Not food, companionship, entertainment, sleep, sex, or anything else.

So why would he create anything? He has no need for Heaven, angels, universes, planets, people, critters, and so on and he couldn’t possibly gain anything from the creation process he doesn’t already have because he’s perfect. If he needed any of those things or even if he just had a need to create he wouldn’t be perfect. If God has no good reason to create anything then why are we here? I recognize that this implies that God could exist and not be perfect, but most religions reject that possibility.

The second attribute of God invites all manner of logical paradoxes. Most folks interpret all-powerful to mean that God can do anything which invites classic questions like, “Can God make a stone so heavy he can’t lift it?” The obvious answer being no which means that there’s a limit to God’s power (it’s a limit on what he can do and thus not all-powerful) and at the same time if he could do it then there would still be a limit to God’s power (a limit to how heavy an object he can lift, but not how heavy he can create). Of course that assumes that God has a physical form to lift things with, unless you assume he does his lifting by some other means (telekinesis perhaps?), and the further your pursue that rabbit the deeper you’ll find the rabbit hole goes. Of course it’s a moot point in the face of attribute one which removes any need to create a heavy stone and then try to lift it. Still you can have a lot of fun thinking up various paradoxes like “can God get lost” which ties into aspect number three as well as two.

Speaking of the third attribute, this introduces yet more motivation and paradox problems. Most of the big religions consider all-knowing to mean that he knows everything there is to know from the past, now, and the future. Ask how this is possible and the most common explanation you’ll get is that God exists outside of the universe and thus can see the whole thing from beginning to end. The obvious logical contradiction this causes is in regards to free will. Most of the big religions believe that you have free will, but they also believe that God knows everything you will do before you’re born. God, being all-knowing and perfect, can’t be wrong so logically you have to live out the life that God knows you will live which means that you don’t really have a choice and thusly don’t really have free will, but the believers will insist that you do because otherwise you can’t be held accountable for your actions by God. It’s a paradox and one that people will happily argue with you about until you’re blue in the face without ever grasping that it’s a paradox.

But assuming for the moment that God went ahead and created everything for no reason and assuming that it’s possible to have free will in spite of God knowing ahead of time what you’re going to do, the fact that he’s all-knowing still makes the exercise pointless. Before God created even the first elementary particles for the first atoms at the very start of creation he already knew how it would all play out in the end. Again this begs the question of why even bother if it’s all just going through the motions? What does God gain from this that he wouldn’t have already had if he’d not done anything at all? Again, by definition, God doesn’t need anything and is complete unto himself. What value could an exercise like reality hold that would motivate a being who doesn’t need any of it to be complete?

The fourth attribute is an interesting one because it’s hard to really wrap your head around the concept of forever. We are finite beings and everything we see around us is also finite. Though bits of reality have mind bogglingly long existences that they may as well be infinite as far as the length of our puny lives are concerned, the point remains that everything appears to have a beginning and, at some point, an end.  The universe itself is finite as far as most of the big religions are concerned. It has a beginning and will have an end and while the length of its existence is beyond human comprehension it’s also ridiculously short in comparison to “forever.” Which brings us once again to asking why God would bother? Consider that God may have existed for countless eons compared to the universe (though most would argue that time is meaningless where God resides) and will continue to exist for countless eons after the universe is gone. What does he gain with the relatively short experiment with reality that he wouldn’t have had prior to it? Being perfect he doesn’t need anything and he was perfectly comfortable with existing on his own for, if you’ll pardon the pun, God knows how long prior to bothering with creation and he’ll continue to exist – unchanging by most religion’s definition – long after the universe has gone the way of the dodo. Reality is a pointless exercise on that time scale.

All of these problems are before we even start in on what reasons a particular religion’s take on God might have for the various rules and regulations he’s laid down, which, when you consider the source, are almost entirely arbitrary. These questions imply a single God, but most of them apply to religions with many Gods as well. Perfect beings, as a whole, would have no motivation to do anything. That’s the sort of thinking I do when my brain gets going.

21 thoughts on “Why would God bother at all?

  1. The only possible explanation I’ve ever seen postulated was in the Piers Anthony Series “Incarnations of Immortality” (don’t bother- a clever idea that runs out of steam, partly due to the writing) where it turns out that human souls are the was to ‘spin’ the fabric of reality to seperate the good stuff from the bad.

  2. Hussar can you edit and correct your last sentence. I would like to know what you mean.

    I have never really sat and pondered the logic of god’s properties but that was great Les. I also like the autumn/Half-Life orange the site is now.

  3. I’ve given this much thought also. My own view of god is a bit more general than your definition, and I am sure that colors my opinion.

    Much of this is was influenced/reinforced my the writings of Frank Herbert.

    I view god as something that exists outside our physical system/universe and had some role in creating it. The idea of “perfection” and “all powerful” are human concepts for an absolute, and since they were formed with human logic, they are subject to the logical problems like the “can god make a rock so big”. So I ignore them in my analysis of what god may be, or what his motives are.

    I believe it is possible to have free will and a known future to some “higher power”. It is clear from personal examination that I have free will. I could choose at any time to shoot someone that I dislike.

    If time is viewed only in a straight line fashion, as we humans must, the idea that a future is already set seems impossible. Imagine instead that we are all characters in a book. Each of our actions and thoughts are recorded in chronoligical order. For us, it is like the book is being written as we live, the past pages are contained in our imperfect memory,and the future inaccessable. Now imagine having the book in front of you. You could open to the last page, and see how it ends, perhaps even read backwards if that was our desire. To someone reading the book, all actions are set. To someone IN the book, they believe that they have free will. Both are true.  The cause does not produce the effect, the cause IS the effect and cannot be seperated.

    paraphrased from FH “To be a god can be boring. What better reason for the invention of free will. Surprises!”

    Perhaps we are gods “entertainment” (without the connotations that are attached).

    Perhaps at the moment of creation, god can see what will be, and not before. This might be the only form of something “new” to experience.

  4. The book analogy fails, though, because the character’s belief that he has free will is illusionary. No matter how many times you reread the book the characters will always do the same thing. If the character in the book truly had free will then it would be possible, even likely, that reading it through multiple times would result in different outcomes.

    Just as it is possible to believe in a God that doesn’t exist it’s possible to believe you have something, in this case free will, that you actually don’t.

  5. Perhaps we agree, but don’t know it. I don’t think of free will as a “mental dice roll”. Compare these two examples-

    You are confronted with some form of problem. Your brain comes up with X ideas to deal with said problem.

    Does it

    a) Make a decision at random with some sort of “internal dice throw” with probabilites somehow linked to perceived chance of success
    I need money
    1-3 Earn it
    4-5 Borrow it
    6 Steal it
    from a throw of a standard 6 sided die. Obviously this is simplified.
    Come up with the same X solutions, then make the ONLY DECISION that person would actually make according to the “essence”(for lack of a better term)of that persons life experiences and cognitive abilities.
    My basic arguement is even though we choose what we actually do, it was the only choice we could have made. We are in a cage, but do not see it, and thus make choices like we were free. But we do not see that the only choice that actually exists for us is the one that we will choose.

  6. You presented assumptions and stated that “he” must have a reason for doing the things he does.  I don’t think you disbelieve in God, but you reject the god that has been defined for you.  So do I.  I would say that God is eternal, but not the other statements.  My belief is that God is spiritual power, the manifesting power that is the root cause of events that we do not control or have an explanation for.  Very much like Mother Nature, in that you can’t fool Mother Nature and “her” effects will manifest whether you like it or not, and whether you can explain it or not.  Maybe whatever you strongly believe in is your God.  I can certainly live with that, because I don’t want anyone defining my god(s) for me.

  7. Let me be quite clear that I have no belief in God(s) of any kind which is why I used the phrase “for the sake of the argument” at the start of my entry. I used language and assumptions that are common to some of the big religions we deal with here regularly, but my statements shouldn’t be taken as an acceptance of those claims. While I find much to be in awe about in regards to nature, I don’t consider nature to be particularly spiritual or God-like.

  8. AA

    that human souls are the was to ‘spin’ the fabric of reality to seperate the good stuff from the bad.

    Should say are the WAY to seperate…

    Its been close on 20 years since I read the books, but as I remember it the raw ‘soul’ exists as ‘stuff’ that is woven (and here Anthony steals heavily from Greek mythos) by the three Fates (“With a tangled skein”) These become human lives.  How the person lives their life determines if it is good stuff or bad stuff that was used to make their soul, and so can be sorted accordingly.  This of course seems to deny free will- perhaps the free will stuff is God’s way of keeping us quiet

  9. Thanks Hussar. I like that, it seems poetic. As a large fan of greek mythology the imagery appeals to me.

  10. Now, if God is a man, the way most religions teach, how could you say he is “perfect?” If God created man and then She corrected Her mistake, the first postulate makes more sense.  tongue wink

  11. The idea of god itself is contradectory. A “being” can not exist outside of space and time. Those are the requirements for existance in the first place. A god would also have to be more complex than the universe itself. How does a god come into existance?… and with complexity already intact?  A god cannot create itself. If you have to be created then that means you didn’t exist in the first place and you can’t create if you don’t exist.

    Every thing in this universe starts off simple and complexity builds up over a long period of time.

    God is nothing more than an idea in our heads. It is not physically real. God is not needed for the universe and everyting in it to exist only physics is required.

    The easiest explanation for a god is “God doesn’t exist!” Problem solved!

  12. As far as “perfection” goes, I find the notion incoherent when applied to a being.  It goes in all directions at once and overlaps itself:  if God is perfect, are His Sneezes perfect, or doesn’t He Sneeze?  There’s no knowing- “perfection”, strictly speaking, can only apply to Nothing, which is Perfectly Nothingness.  As soon as there’s Something, there is some way in which it can be considered imperfect.

    And about free will: I’ve also had many discussions with believers who will admit, yes, since God is omniscient and omnipotent, our lives are exactly like those of characters in a book that He has already written, and He knows which of us are going to be cast into Hell, and He designed us in such a way that we would live as we do, knowing we would end up in Hell; but they still insist we have “free will”.  The believers usually end up saying something like, since God (or the Bible) says we have free will, then by God we have free will, even if it’s illogical.  Lip service to logic is the only point of common reference most believers try to hold on to in discussions with atheists, so at that point all rational discussion is over.  The only thing left is to break out the salsa, chips, and beer, and sigh.

  13. I’ve though about these things quite a lot too and I could write a long essay on the subject, but to address a few points ‘shortly’:

    Expanding on Zilch, perfection is always subjective. A thing can only be perfect with respect to a given property or set of properties. E.g. a perfect diamond as a flawless crystal structure. With God this is impossible, since people can’t agree what properties God should have. Especially it becomes nonsensical to say that God is perfect if one adopts the authoritarian Christian position that God is the absolute authority on morality. Essentially God would be perfectly good, because he said so.

    Perfection doesn’t rule out needs and desires, as one Christian property of God is that he’s loving, and perfectly so. Even perfect love needs an object. But since the world is finite in time and space, what did God love before Creation?

    Following vassago, as a fundamental property of the universe, free will makes no sense. If you consider a probabilistically deterministic universe, where any event is determined by a combination of previous events and random chance. How exactly would a universe with free will differ?

    If God knows the outcome of the Universe, the whole physical world would’ve lived through in God’s mind. How would we be able to tell whether we are the real thing or just God’s day dreams?

    I think that the properties of God that Les posted are intended to address specific issues only. So, God’s omniscience implies that he knows when you do right or wrong. His omnipotence makes him powerful enough to have created the universe and also means that you can put your faith in him, as he is one that can always help you when no one else can. Eternal and perfection are just two other things that are supposed to convince you that this God is better than the others. Overall, I don’t think that they’re supposed to make sense, just to feel good.

  14. Xav, I don’t disagree with your statements or your conclusion (it’s why I’m an atheist myself), but it doesn’t really address the question I posed if we are to entertain the idea that a perfect, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal God does exist.

    Flaky, I think you’re hitting the nail on the head when you say that the properties the big religions assign to God are more about feeling good than making sense.

  15. What zilch said. The combination of an omnipotent and omniscient creator makes the universe fully deterministic, which is incompatible with free will in any meaningful sense.

    And what Les said. All the arguments and counter-arguments aside, why an omnimax being would give a shit about humankind or indeed the universe is beyond me. I have asked that question in different forms on religious forums and what I got was replies, but no answers. Which sort of makes sense if believers accept the giving a shit as dogma—they can’t question it, therefore they don’t have any answers to questions of why.

  16. I’ve asked essentially the same question though not so much with regard to the specific attributes God supposedly possesses. I’ve been more interested in the reason for the ridiculous complexities and absurdities. If, for example, we were made simply “for God’s pleasure”, then what’s the deal with mosquitoes?

    And why atoms and photons and magnetism and electricity and so on? Surely an omnipotent God could have made it all so much simpler. Like why not make wood out of, say, wood and people out of, say, people? Why invent protons and neutrons and quarks and electrons and Higgs Boson particles and then make EVERYTHING out of various combinations of these same things?

    Are we just a massive Rube Goldberg machine?

  17. The only way I have every managed to get close to reconcile deterministic/freewill is to approach it from the direction of watching a sports game on some form of time lag.  The players had freewill, the result was unknowable, but when I watch it the result is fixed and known, despite free will.  Maybe god has us on DVD.

  18. Are we just a massive Rube Goldberg machine?

    The standard response to that is that you have to be one to know one’s purpose. We poor benighted humans simply don’t have the mental wherewithal to figure out the deep purpose behind it all.

    Which is bolloxspeak for “Oops. We just theologized ourselves into a corner and look—a shiny object!”

    You get the same kind of answers when probing theodicy, the Problem of Evil. God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omniwhatever, therefore evil serves a higher good that we just can’t grasp and it’s really all for our best.

    Les has nailed the most profound problem of traditional religious belief. Even if you accept it all for the sake of argument, it still doesn’t make sense.

  19. God is a very evil scumbag for not giving me a wife and family.

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