God and the Infinite Regress

“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.

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About Dave Rowlands

Hi there! I'm Dave, as my username suggests. I am a life long atheist, having never developed a belief in God. That is not to say that I do not enjoy a good discussion about God, and discussions involving the philosophy of religion; I just do not believe in God. I have an undergrad degree in Philosophy and Psychology, though my heart lies more in Philosophy than it does Psychology. Which is why I am currently doing a masters degree in Philosophy, which I (hopefully) should finish next year. It is also part of the reason I enjoy discussions involving God and the philosophy of religion, so long as those discussions are curteous and two way. The question of whether God exists is a large one, and impacts our foundational beliefs, and much of what we believe is impacted by whether or not we believe God exists. However, my interests go much further than simply philosophy of religion of course, and I enjoy discussing a wide range of philosophical topics. With some of my favourite topics being things the self, philosophy of mind, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics. I spend much of my time studying, but I also enjoy reading philosophy outside of my studies too. I also enjoy reading horror and scifi. I am also a big fan of films, with my favourite genres being horror and scifi there too. There are also lots of TV shows and video games that I enjoy too. While I don't do quite as much of it these days, I also like writing my thoughts, with the best of those writings being published here on AiR. I would also be happy to discuss any topics with any of our readers, so long as those discussions were courteous, two way, and with the intention of exploring topics, rather than simply talking at me. For those that have taken the time to read my work, I thank you, and am very grateful that you have given me a slice of your time.

5 Responses to God and the Infinite Regress

  1. Thomas Scott Benefield says:

    I enjoyed reading this post as I have been actively reading about infinite regression. You bring up some interesting points. I present perhaps some counter points?
    Regarding God existing outside of time and our universe: I think this means that God is not bound by the same constraints that are definable in our known universe. For example, if we say time as it is defined in our universe is a product of space and movement. Neither of those being applicable to whatever you want to call outside our universe. Basically trying to apply the same rules, logic, etc. to something outside our universe may (or may not be) applicable. It may seem a cop out and you could easily say well “I believe that a big fluffy unicorn existed outside our universe/reality… created everything…” and to that I would say you could be right…I believe it was God but I would never categorically say it couldn’t be what you said…that is where we branch out into theology.
    Saying God had to have a creator or is subject to infinite regress again proposes that definitions and the like are applicable outside our universe are categorically true I don’t think you can categorically say that. Again some would say it’s a cop out, but I don’t think you can flat out dismiss it as not a valid argument?
    I probably have no business commenting here. While I’m educated in entirely different fields and by no means am a student of philosophy, I am inquisitive and try not to be dismissive of anyone, and I liked what you said about holding conversations! (So many times both arguments devolve into shouting and trolling matches and no one is better for it!)
    Thank you for your time and the ability to comment! Regards!

    • Alan The Atheist says:

      Everyone is free to comment. We appreciate you taking the time do do so, and you are on the money. The problem is the assertion that anything is outside of time and space, as you mention it is a bit of a cop out and untestable for now so this raises the question of why should we consider it as a truth…

      Thanks again for the comment

    • Hi Thomas! My apologies for taking so long to reply, free time is something I find myself lacking in at the moment! First and foremost, thank you so much for taking the time to both read my stuff, and for commenting and offering couterpoints. It is very much appreciated! I completely agree that both arguments devolve into shouting and trolling matches, and it is something I do my best to try to avoid. Discussion is important to me, as it helps me understand the arguments of others; and while I find the dynamics of in-group/out-group dynamics as something fascinating to study due to my interest in psychology – they are trappings I do my best to avoid.

      The problem with declaring God to be out of time, for me at least, is that it is simply a declaration. When asked to flesh the argument out further it starts to become incredibly fuzzy. For instance, what would it mean for something to exist entirely without time? Without time can there be any kind of action, or movement, or thought? If you would not feel it too rude of me to ask, what is your belief in a creator? Are you Deist, Christian, Muslim, etc? For now though I will use the Christian belief as an example of what I mean.

      What we see when we look at the creation story from the Bible is that God spoke and the universe was. Here we see a sequence of events happening, as delineated by the ‘and’ in the statement; there is a before state and an after state. One could argue that the universe happened as God spoke, but it would still denote a sequence – there would still be a before and after state. What is a ‘before and state’ except moments of time? Could we describe different states of existence with it involving time?

      Which is why it becomes unconvincing to me to describe God as being outside of time. One could argue that what is meant is not that God exists outside of all time, and what is meant is that God is outside of our time. However, that would still lead to an infinite regress problem. The only way to escape the infinite regress problem is to describe a being that exists outside of all time, however that leads to the incoherence described.

      I do agree that it could be argued that this is a category error. I am trying to apply the logic of time to a being that exists outside of time. However, that accusation ignores the way God is described beyond the claim of being outside of time. It ignores the idea that God has thoughts, and performs actions, and is described as doing them in a sequence of sorts. The question of whether God could create the universe before he created the universe becomes relevant here. Could the universe have appeared before God chose to create it, and if it could, could it really be said that God chose to create the universe? In what way then has God been involved in the creation of the universe? What I am doing is not so much trying to apply the logic of time, and the rules of our universe, to God, but showing that the way God is described is incompatible with the claim that God exists outside of all time. It is not so much a category error on my part, but me describing a problem with the claim of the category that God is put into. The claim that God is outside of all time is not just incoherent according to the way our universe works, but is also incoherent according to the way God is described by those who claim God exists outside of time, but also created the universe and made the decision to do it. Of course I am always willing to listen to arguments that might make this coherent though!

      Am looking forward to your response! And of course you are qualified to have this discussion. That you are not a student of philosophy is neither here nor there for me. In fact, in some ways, it expands the conversation and the idea a little as the thought process is formed in different ways. What is important to me is your ability and willingness to hold a civil discussion, and that you hold the belief that you do! Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment, it really does mean a lot to me.

  2. Very well argued. You captured in writing what I had in a verbal discussion about the hubris that God could have been doing nothing and quite satisfied with that and then suddenly change from a do nothing God to a Calvinists style do everything right down to managing the waves states of each electron!

    But there is another philosophy based on a concept found in at least one modern religion (maybe a few others) , the Mormon faith, that describes God and events “an eternal round.” They posit that intelligence matter and energy have always existed rather that having an abrupt start. It makes a whole lot more sense than a Big Bang whether talking about matter or even God as an intelligent actor. Still its a mind bender. I’ll be contemplating how that might address the logical inconsistencies brought up in your note on regression.

  3. Hi Steve. Thanks for the comment, and for the compliment, and many thanks for taking the time to read it. I really appreciate all of it. I would be interested in seeing how the Mormon faith might address what is brought up here, so if after contemplation you can address it I would be really interested in hearing it. Hopefully we could have a discussion about it.