Thursday, March 20, 2008

Is God Conservative or Non-Conservative?

I originally wanted to have the title to be Is God Conservative? but that title might give the mistaken idea that this post is of a political nature, which it is most definitely not. This is rather a post about the ultimate nature of God. Thus the question is, “Can God be considered to be subject to the law of conservation?” I hope to show (briefly) the implications of this question and possible answers.

If we consider God as an absolutely simple being, as described by St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Thomas Aquinas and others, then that may answer some questions regarding the existence, omnipotence and omniscience of God, but tends to create other questions that must also be answered. If we consider the law of conservation, specifically the law of conservation of energy then we are confronted with the question, “Does God operate under conservative principles?”

If we consider a particle, a water molecule for example, in the Red Sea. Then when Moses parted the Red Sea, God caused the water to move. No matter how we look at it, the water moved. Moving the water required energy to come from somewhere to move the water. Even if we say that God used the energy in the water or from the environment then the energy did come from somewhere. If we trace the energy all the way back to the creation of the universe then that energy did come from somewhere. So now if we consider God having used the available energy to move the water then He can be considered to be conservative, meaning He observed the law of conservation of energy. If the energy used to move the water was created at the moment when it was needed to move the water, or even if the energy (and the energy/matter that would become the water) was created by God ex nihilo then God is non-conservative, meaning he is not subject to the law of conservation.

If God is non-conservative then He cannot be considered to be bound by any law, including the law of non-contradiction, which is fundamental for existence. If God is not bound, governed or held to any law then we must conclude that He is utterly unknowable by us, through reason or any other means because He is wholly other. There is no mechanism (because a mechanism requires regularity, which is a product of law) that can allow us to know a non-conservative God.

But on the other hand if God is conservative then He is bound by the law of conservation (and all the associated laws, i.e. non-contradiction). For some this creates a problem because as one philosopher pointed out “As far as I can see, a view that commits one to holding that God is subject to laws...that are neither created by him nor identical with him, is a view that commits one to holding that God is neither sovereign nor omnipotent.” (If you want names and references, contact me) When we consider God to be conservative then He must have a form of some kind. If we consider God to be pure energy then we must also say that God has a body of some form, because energy with out particles does not make sense and contradictory. Also, if we give up the idea that God is not bound by law then there is no problem to acknowledging that He has a body.

Thus a non-conservative God must be incorporeal and a conservative God can have a body. There is only one way to resolve this question and that is to have God reveal Himself and find out if God has a body or not. But if He does not then He may not be able to reveal Himself to us and we will only be able to apprehend His existence by His giving us the idea of His existence, but we will never understand or know Him. I leave it to you to judge which God you believe in.

I acknowledge that this is an extremely simplified argument and could fill an entire book (and it already has). But it is an interesting topic to understand so if you meet someone from the “other side” you can understand their thought and their faith or lack there of.


  1. This could also go into other discussions like, is God part of the universe or does He exist outside of it. Then we could discuss more about Godel's theorem as well. I am curious though about the meaning of the law of contradiction. What is it?
    Also, what can we say about entropy and Moses parting the sea and how God plays into the entropy change, any ideas...anyone?

  2. The law of non-contradiction is simple. Something cannot both be true and false at the same time. Another way of expressing it is you can't have A and ~A (a contradiction). Bertrand Russell made a famous proof that involved a contradiction to prove that he was the Pope. In other words, if you do not hold to the law of non-contradiction then anything is possible, even the existence of non-existent things. If that seems like a bad way of thinking then you probably hold to the law of non-contradiction (along with the rest of universe).

    As for entropy my next post will cover entropy and it's role in creating order in the universe.

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  4. Is this statement true or false?:

    "This sentence is false."

    If you say it is a true statement then it must be false, but if it is a false statement it must be true!

    I'm sure you've seen the above before but it is always fun to see again.

    Or this one:

    "Does the set of all sets that do not contain themselves contain itself?"

    If it contains itself, it can't contain itself, but that means it must contain itself!

    I know about formal set theory eliminates this, but it is still fun to think about.

    You can read more if you read the Pulitzer Prize winning book: Godel Escher, Bach.

  5. Lastly, this story may be apocryphal, but going with previous comments I heard Bertrand Russell gave a proof he was God starting with a contradiction as follows:

    Russell said he could prove anything if he started with a contradiction. Someone said prove you are God starting with 1=2.

    Russell said consider the set of 2 elements, {Me, God}. Since 2=1 the set only contains one element. I am therefore God.

  6. Sorry, the story should have read, he could prove anything as long as he started with a false statement. 1=2 is a false statement.

    Contradiction would be A is true and A is false.

  7. In response to Joe's three comments:

    1. That problem was worked out by Ludwig Wittgenstein (and also previously by Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas) who showed that paradoxes like that result from a mistaken understanding of the function of language. In effect the paradox comes because we assume that language is the ultimate authority on what is true and what is false. But as Aristotle pointed out, the foundation of reality is reality itself, that is, the actual matter that makes up reality, because that can neither be true nor false, it just is. He called it primary substance.

    2. & 3. That's a true story (as far as I can tell, but I don't have a direct reference to prove it), and the concept is used in logic to complete proofs, called indirect proofs.

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  9. Hmmm... Well, you bring up some interesting arguments, but I have to admit that I don't really follow your logic in some places.

    First of all, are we considering all laws of physics and logic, as now understood, to be on the same level?

    For example, if we again refer to the example of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, asking "where did the energy come from?" now, we would tacitly understand that we are referring to mass-energy, because modern physics understands these to be two aspects of the same thing. However, if we were to have this same discussion, say, 150 years ago, aside from the fact that it would be via pen and paper, we would be considering energy as independent of mass. The point I'm trying to make is that our understanding of physical laws changes significantly, while I doubt the actual physical laws and the laws that the Lord obeys change much at all. Is it possible that any current classification of the Lord as "non-conservative" simply says more about the fact that we really don't understand the fundamental laws that govern the universe than it says about the nature of Deity?

    Furthermore, if we assume that the Lord is not strictly bound by the law of conservation of mass-energy (again, as now understood), does this alone classify Him as "non-conservative" as also applied to laws of logic such as non-contradiction? I guess I'm showing my lack of philosophical understanding here, but I don't follow the logic. Perhaps I am mis-understanding the original line of thinking. Anyways, my resulting question would be is it possible for Him to be essentially bound by some "fundamental" laws as currently understood, but not others? i.e. Is your distinction of conservative vs. non-conservative Boolean-valued or real-valued?

    This is turning into a really long comment, but there are a couple of other points that I don't fully understand. "If God is non-conservative then He cannot be considered to be bound by any law, including the law of non-contradiction, which is fundamental for existence. If God is not bound, governed or held to any law then we must conclude that He is utterly unknowable by us, through reason or any other means because He is wholly other. There is no mechanism (because a mechanism requires regularity, which is a product of law) that can allow us to know a non-conservative God." I suppose this might be true if we consider Him as some sort of physical system, but if we consider the Lord as a person, then we might still be permitted to know Him, irrespective of the presence or lack of governing law. I may not understand the laws (or if there be any) that govern the behavior of some of my friends, but I could say I "know" them because I understand their personalities. So, I guess I don't fully follow this argument. Again, perhaps I am merely showing my lack of philosophical understanding, if so, please bear with me and enlighten me. Perhaps I need a more rigorous definition of what we mean by "law" and "knowing".

    "Thus a non-conservative God must be incorporeal and a conservative God can have a body." Again, I don't follow this. Are you saying that a form or body indicates a fundamental unchanging nature, which would necessarily be a type of conservation law that He obeys? In other words, the fact that given a rabbit, that rabbit will continue to remain a rabbit and therefore must obey the "law of conservation of rabbit-ness"? If so, I suppose that makes sense.

    In the end referencing Joe's comments, it seems that yes, we can say that, if nothing else, there are laws that are co-eternal with Him, and it is these laws that He obeys. However, as a skeptical scientist, I remain unconvinced that modern science has ever discovered, theorized, or postulated any of the laws which govern the Divine. Rather it seems to me that "the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness." (D&C 121:36, emphasis added.) Now, beyond the revealed word regarding which laws are co-eternal with the Lord and to which He is subject, and which laws were created by Him and over which He has power, I don't know. Are there some laws which He obeys by mutual understanding, but are not considered "binding"? What does that even mean? Are there laws that He obeys except in unusual circumstances (here I would insert the modernly understood laws of physics), such that such exceptions amount to a set of measure $\varepsilon$? Again, what would this imply about our experience with this universe? We understand that there are certain laws that without obedience to which "God would cease to be God." (See, for example, Alma 42:25) Which are these, and does this indicate an inability to violate (as in our inability to violate physical law), or a punitive / cause-and-effect relationship (as in spiritual and legal law)? Are these the only laws that He obeys?

    Well, this has turned into a really long comment, but I would appreciate any additional insight / clarification you can provide.



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  11. Hey,

    I'm sorry if my comment left anyone with the wrong idea. Reading over it again this morning, I realized that it could very easily have sounded like me on my soapbox condemning all of modern science as a heresy and that we should all go read our Bibles. That was not in any way my intent. My main point was first that I didn't understand some of the logical steps, and second that I guess I do not fully understand the question and whether or not it is well-posed. I still have not gotten around to reading the King Follet discourse (I keep meaning to, but haven't yet), but I think you are definitely right in that there are definite laws by which the universe is governed, and to the as we understand those laws more, we are more able to bless our neighbors "until the perfect day." I'm also not sure how it all fits together, but it's really going to be interesting to find out.


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