“It’s turtles all the way down”
One of the many arguments put forward as evidence for the existence of God is that of necessity. That God must necessarily exist in order to explain and overcome certain questions and problems regarding existence. The problem of ‘infinite regress’ is one such problem for which God is posited in order to overcome. So what is the ‘infinite regress’ problem?
The ‘infinite regress’ argument posits that we cannot have an infinite amount of preceding events or causes. For if we have an infinite amount of preceding events then we can never get to where we are now, that there must ultimately be a ‘first cause’ or ‘prime mover’. An example that has been used to explain the problem is that of the soldier waiting for orders to fire.
If we imagine a soldier waiting for orders from the soldier before to fire at the enemy. The soldier at the front asks the soldier behind if they have permission to fire. That soldier then asks the soldier behind them, then that soldier repeats the same process. Eventually we must come to a soldier that gives permission to fire, otherwise the soldier at the front of line would never be able to fire. There must be a soldier who is the ‘first cause’, the one that gives permission to fire.
This argument is then transferred to the beginning of our universe by creationists. The claim is that we cannot have an infinite amount of preceding events that led to ‘The Big Bang’, otherwise ‘The Big Bang’ would never have happened as we would be caught in ‘infinite regress’. The argument is also used when addressing the question of ‘Who created the creator’. That there cannot be a creator to the creator, otherwise we are forced into another ‘infinite regress’. Does positing a God ultimately solve the problem of ‘infinite regress’ though?
Well if we simply declare God as the answer, then yes it does overcome these problems. If we simply say ‘God is the first cause’ then we have overcome ‘infinite regress’. However, upon closer examination of the claim we are drawn back to some of the same questions and problems that cause creationists to posit God as the answer.
We immediately come to a problem when we consider what God was doing before creation. For when we raise the question of what God was doing before creation we are led into an ‘infinite regress’. The problem comes from some of the attributes assigned to God by creationists, especially those assigned to God by Christians and Muslims. So what are the problems?
Well the first problem comes with the claim that God is ‘infinite’, or has no beginning. If we work backwards from the beginning of our universe we are left with the same problem as the soldier waiting to fire. We are left with an ‘infinite regress’ of God actively choosing not to create the universe. We are left with an infinite amount of time existing before God actively chose to create the universe.
If we consider it like this, the moment before creation God would have been creating the universe. We can ascertain that simply because the event could not happen before God performed it. Which means that the moment before that God was deciding not to create the universe. The moment before that the same thing; and so on, ad infinitum. We are simply caught in infinite regress. If a moment is decided arbitrarily that God could have begun from then we are left with the question of ‘What created that creator?’.
To overcome this there are those that claim that God ‘exists outside of time’. However, to me this feels like something of a non-answer, nothing more than a meaningless brush off. What does it mean exactly for God to exist ‘outside of time’?
If the claim is simply that God exists in a timeline separate to ours then we are left with the problem of ‘infinite regress’ once again. We can infinitely ask what God was doing before creating the universe. If the claim is that God exists outside of all time, then what exactly does that mean?
Well what is ‘time’ exactly?
This is something that philosophers, theologians, and scientists have studied and argued for a very long time. To discuss all the various arguments would take far too long, and for the purpose of this argument unnecessary. For the purpose of this argument we will focus on what I believe ‘time’ essentially is at the level of experience; an unbroken sequence of moments linked by cause and effects, or the moment before it.
I choose to define ‘time’ by how we experience it rather than by its mechanics because I believe this is how we recognise ‘time’; and I believe this Is how we would recognise it if the mechanics were different. ‘Time’ always appears in a sequence of moments to the viewer of time. This is also true of how we record it, how we measure it and how we discuss it. A recording of a small moment of time on video reveals a sequence of moments however long the recording is; each moment the effect of the moment before that caused it. If we were to then discuss this recording we would not talk about the mechanics of the universe that propelled the moments forward, we would discuss the moments that existed in the recording. Our discussion would always be an unbroken sequence of moments, each moment the effect of the moment before that caused it.
This means that, for me at least, if God existed outside of all time then it would be impossible for it to create the universe. It could not perform a sequence of events. It could never go from non-creation to creation. This means that for me, the claim that God exists outside of all time fails as an answer. While there are those that may say I simply do not understand the concept, I would love for them to explain it to me in a logical and intelligible manner how God could go from non-creation to creation without at least a moment of time. Even claiming that God created time does not solve this problem in my opinion, because to create time would take a moment of time.
The claim of ‘omnipotence’ does not cover the problem here for me either, as God cannot do something illogical. This means that God cannot break the law of cause and effect. If God is the creator of the universe the universe cannot appear before God creates it. This means that God needed at least a moment of time to create the universe, a moment of time for the cause to have an effect, and at least another moment to go from not being the cause to being the cause. God must exist in some form of time. This time can also then be measured against our standard of time, as he is at the very least 2 sequences of moments.
This means that God either had a beginning, and therefore a creator, or God suffers from an infinite regress problem. Each moment before creation was the result of it actively choosing not to create the universe; and those moments go on ad infinitum. This is one of the reasons I find myself unable to believe that this god concept could be responsible for the creation of the universe. It simply seems illogical that a being that makes choices, and is subject to cause and effect, that has existed forever could have created anything.
Hi, I’m Dave. As you can already tell, I’m one of the authors at AiR, as well as a member of the podcast. I’m also the Dave you see on our live streams on Twitch and YouTube. I am an atheist. I don’t use the ‘lack of belief’ definition though, and use the ‘belief God does not exist’ definition for me. I have always been an atheist, and have never been part of a religion.
While I do enjoy discussions around the existence of God, I try to post a wider range of content here. My focus is mainly on philosophy, as that is the topic I enjoy. I have a BA in Philosophy and Psychology, and am waiting on the results for my MA in Philosophy. Will find out in December whether I have been awarded the degree!
This is why my posts tend to focus more on the philosophy side of things. I try to post a wider range of topics than just those surrounding theism and atheism. You will also find articles discussing arguments from atheists that I find to be lacking, or poorly argued. This is mostly because I want to see the atheist community improve its arguments, and to see atheists give stronger and better arguments.
Hopefully you will enjoy some of my content, and I hope even more that it makes you look at certain arguments and ideas in a different way. Plus, hopefully some atheists that dismiss philosophy out of hand might actually see it’s more interesting than they first though. Philosophy is an awesome subject!