Gerald O'Collins writes in Rethinking Fundamental Theology, p. 20:

The attributes of God raise numerous questions and difficulties that deserve attention, especially from those with a philosophical cast of mind. Take, for instance, issues raised by space and time and the creation of a spatial, temporal universe. How can a totally spiritual, non-spatial Being who cannot be measured create — that is to say, make out of nothing — a material, spatial universe that we measure in many ways? [..] how can such a Being produce a world that exists 'in time'?

I don't get the philosophical issues with a creation that cannot prove its creator. For example, a table doesn't know of the carpenter (to avoid the program that doesn't know about the programmer).

Later on (p. 26), he writes about the concept that 'every agent brings about something similar to itself'. Is this the philosophical issue with the above? That something that cannot be measured cannot make something that can be measured? O'Collins does not make that link himself, so I don't think he is trying to relate the two.

What are the philosophical issues with a non-spatial, non-temporal Being creating a spatial, temporal universe?

  • Hindu scriptures do not use the word creation in the sense of creating something out of nothing. The Sanskrit word is 'srishti' which translates as 'projection'. The universe is a projection of Brahman, it is all Brahman. The Advaitic commentators agree and say it is not logical to say you can create something out of nothing. Jan 19, 2016 at 7:48
  • @SwamiVishwananda sorry, but what does that have to do with this question?
    – user2953
    Jan 19, 2016 at 8:10
  • 1
    @Keelan As long as O'Collins does not specify which "God" he means, every reader is free to substitue his favorite god or divine substance. Why not Brahman?
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 19, 2016 at 13:43
  • @JoWehler the question is tagged 'christianity' and if you would just do the slightest effort on background research this would be perfectly clear to you. Perhaps you should consider stopping nitpicking.
    – user2953
    Jan 19, 2016 at 13:45
  • 2
    your tag may say Christianity but your question says nothing of it. I didn't even look at the tag as many people put in wrong tags. Your question doesn't say anything about Christianity; it asks about a non-temporal non-spatial Being, which is in many ways a definition of Brahman. If looking for a Christian answer only maybe the question should be migrated to Christianity SE. Jan 20, 2016 at 8:43

6 Answers 6


There are no philosophical issues with a creation that cannot prove its creator per se. After all, we have theories that cannot prove their own consistency. Similarly a none measurable entity having measurable effects is entirely possible, since we already have non-measurable mental states that have measurable physical effects.

The problem is one of underdetermination: Since the creation cannot prove its creator, how can it make any statements about the nature or identity of the creator? As far as the creation knows, the creator can be one, two or 330 million agents combined.

This is was one of the main issues Al Ghazali had with medieval Arabic philosophers' attempts to prove God's existence (In his book "The Incoherence of The Philosophers"): All of the proofs they came up with could apply just as well to 2 or 3 gods as they did to one God. His solution was to declare that faith was separate from logic and "quantified sciences" (Presumably he meant empirical sciences).

The bigger problem is that agents have no business making claims and committing actions in the name of this creator that negatively affect others, if they cannot prove themselves anything about said creator.

In you table example, assuming the existence of microscopic self-aware table entities, it would be completely unjustified for such entities to start persecuting and hurting each other based on disagreements over the identity of the carpenter's name or hair color.

This is the problem I have with such a Fideist stance, and with Plantinga's properly basic belief reformed epistemology: It is perfectly fine to provide such arguments for God's existence, as long as one acknowledges that no one else can be convinced by them. It is an obligation of those who espouse fideist beliefs to be very explicit in promoting tolerance of other world views and making it very clear that no one else is bound by their position, otherwise their views become harmful.

  • Does it make sense "to provide such arguments for God's existence, as long as one acknowledges that no one else can be convinced by them"? You did not say "is convinced" but "can be convinced." In my opinion such attitude perverts the role of an argument.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 19, 2016 at 12:20
  • @JoWehler I make a distinction between an argument and a proof, the way you put it, it does pervert the role of proof, but it doesn't pervert the role of argument. Jan 20, 2016 at 20:03
  • Me too. Proof is stronger than argument. But why stating an argument when I acknowledge that it will convince nobody? - Possibly I am lacking some nuance of the word "to acknowledge".
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 20, 2016 at 20:27

I think you're missing the point with the "table doesn't know the carpenter" problem, but that is a valid concern. It seems O'Collins' argument hinges mostly on this question:

How can a totally spiritual, non-spatial Being who cannot be measured create — that is to say, make out of nothing — a material, spatial universe that we measure in many ways? [..] how can such a Being produce a world that exists 'in time'?

Some adequate worries we might have about such a being are as follows:

  1. The problem isn't with a immeasurably being creating measurable stuff, but rather an immaterial being creating material stuff (measurement is brought into this as a proxy for physicality, as all matter is measurable). How can a non-spatial/non-physical being cause physical matter to appear? Is there a possible mechanism of action that might explain how this would happen? In most theologies, the "creation" is essentially argued by fiat - that an all powerful being simply can do this. I (and others like J.L. Mackie) have aired problems about what happens to our concept of causality if we assume an immaterial creator being. To quote my college self, "how can a non-physical, non-spatial being kick a physical football?" It seems O'Collins shares a similar view: there is something deeply troubling about an entity that doesn't not exist in spacetime causing physical consequences. This problem relates to the causal closure of the physical.

  2. Creation is a temporal act: it seems implausible that a being could simply create everything in the instant at "time" dawned. Creation seems to require a time period during which the agent thinks out their actions and yet another time period where those actions are executed. How could a "non-temporal" being do this? Reviewing the Cosmological Argument and some critiques of it might be instructive here.

'Every agent brings about something similar to itself'.

  1. I find this quote troubling. Let's assume I'm an agent (if I'm not, we'll have slim pickings for examples here). In which way is the song I write "similar to me"? In which way is a splatter painting by Pollack like Pollack? In which way is a drawing of a Hippogriff that Harry Potter produces like Harry Potter? Tables aren't similar to carpenters and Computer programs aren't similar to computer programmers! I'd love to hear a critique of this argument. Also, see the Teleological Argument or the watchmaker analogy as this appears to be relevant.
  • 1
    The idea for pt. 3 is that good persons do good things and stuff like that, and in a way the table does reflect the style or even personality of the carpenter.
    – user2953
    Jan 19, 2016 at 8:09
  • @Keelan The table represents the carpenter's understanding of carpentry, among other things. That quote is not meant to be viewed as utterly and ultimately materialistic, like in Biology, for example (i.e. Cats beget cats). The table is an expression of the carpenter, therefore, it reflects something real about the carpenter. Whether Creator or Big Bang, this seems true. The answer to our origins is within the creation itself.
    – user10479
    Jan 20, 2016 at 19:12
  • Thanks for the input, y'all. Part of my problem with the "personality" line of thinking is that my creations may be from a template or may resemble someone else's work very closely. If that is the case, the it may be true that my creation bares little explicit relation to me and my personality. Other than that, seems reasonable. I like the assertion that "the carpenter's understanding of carpentry" is the quality that the table inherits. However, this seems to be an issue for a creator god, as we have some obvious physical flaws that would reflect on his expertise. Jan 21, 2016 at 1:56
  • @Derek A good point, however flaws are subjective, are they not? Certainly making a table is more than function. It is art. Perhaps what you see as flaws are appreciated by others. And a table only aware of other tables hypothetically can not possibly understand how to appreciate what it really is.
    – user10479
    Jan 22, 2016 at 17:06

I suggest you bracket the annoying [God] and [Attributes of God].

Stripped of this singular, proper name, the problem arises in all sorts of discussions. Why is there something rather than nothing? What came before the big bang? What is the nature of the set containing all sets that contain themselves? Is the Aristotelean unmoved mover another name for DNA? Etc.

So the "philosophical" problem is quite ubiquitous.Why is it a problem? Spacetime is somehow very fundamental to cognition. Hard to subtract. Is it a priori? Kant places it in a peculiar position "prior" to the categories that make "a priori" judgments and thus "experience" even possible.

Such transcendental appeals enraged physicists and the logical positivists. But they now find themselves back in a similar conundrum with a "big bang" that created space and time and mathematically attempting to to say how... what is the proper name of the creative singularity that came prior to space and time?

But, as your quote suggests, we are talking about not only what "came before" or "caused" space and time, but what is even more fundamental? To the extent that it could act as the "measure" of space and time? Since space and time are entailed in the most fundamental "measurements" of physics, what can "measure" them? What could possibly stand prior to them? What universal constant, such as "light," could be used to measure space and time?

Now, why return to an outmoded anthropomorphic proper name like [God]? Because whatever "created" spacetime must be "creative." Because we cannot deduce from any universe we know anything more "creative" than ourselves, who perform the deduction. Thus we wind up back at [God] or, if it makes you feel better, the anthropic principle.

  • 1
    I like your answer because it shows that our current understanding of the universe demands that we abandon the idea of a static, always existing universe, leaving even scientists to deal with this problem. How can nothing create something? How did God create the universe? How did the Big Bang create the universe? These are all the same question.
    – user10479
    Jan 20, 2016 at 19:24
  • @fredsbend The concept of an expanding universe is due to Alexander Friedman from 1922, it is not due to our current understanding. - Why do you consider the three questions from your comment all the same? Can you please give some arguments as explanation? Thanks.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 22, 2016 at 8:41
  • @JoWehler. I think it's fair to say that "expanding universe" is very much a work in progress, with Friedman's equations and Hubble's demonstrations all raising further issues. Even today, I believe "steady state" has a few holdouts among "notable" physicists. I do think these concepts, and original question, can be versions of the "arguments from first cause," which science is simply unprepared to answer, yet cannot fully shake off, since "causality" must be assumed. A big problem for science, by definition, is unique, singular entities, whether "God" or "Universe" or "first cause." Jan 22, 2016 at 14:12
  • @Nelson Alexander Science in general and cosmology in particular is always work in progress. But a static universe seems ruled out since Friedman on the theoretical and Hubble on the observational side. Who are todays notable physicists who defend the concept of a steady state universe? - I apologize for not sharing your assessment of the concept god: God is no problem for science, it is a problem of theologians. At least Christian theologians wrestle since 1.000 years to rationalize this non-rational notion.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 22, 2016 at 16:14
  • I was probably thinking of stubborn Hoyle and colleagues, but there is someone else who has alternate equations and theory of red shift. Can't recall. I certainly accept the evolving consensus, which is pretty much the only rational position of nonscientists like myself. Science has no problem with God, true. But many problems that remain relevant were once argued under the term "God," and I'd say arguments about "before big bang" or "nonspaciotemporal" causes of "spatiotemporal" entities wouldn't sound too misplaced in the medieval schools. Jan 22, 2016 at 22:31

Scientist, philosopher, and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) addresses and offers his own unique solution to these issues in his cosmological and highly philosophical work Divine Love and Wisdom, originally published in Latin, Amsterdam, 1763.

In this work, he rejects the traditional Christian concept of creatio ex nihilo ("creation out of nothing"), and instead posits a universe that is created out of the substance of God, and that therefore reflects the nature of God, without itself being God. Swedenborg therefore steers a middle course between traditional Christian theologies of creation and Eastern, pantheistic theologies of creation. To use a modern term, rather than being pantheistic, his philosophy of creation and the universe is panentheistic, meaning that God suffuses the universe and is in the universe, but is distinct from the universe.

In order to do this, he posits a God who consists of love, wisdom, and action, and articulates the principles of "correspondence" and of vertical and horizontal levels. Through these concepts, and several related ones, he describes a universe created by God, reflecting the being and nature of God, and yet being of an entirely different order and level of reality than God.

God as love, wisdom, and action

Fundamental to Swedenborg's entire philosophy and theology is the concept that God consists of love, wisdom, and action.

Swedenborg rejected the traditional Christian concept of God as a Trinity of Persons, saying instead that there is a Trinity of three "essential components" forming a single Person of God. In abstract terms, these "essential components" are love, wisdom, and action, which correspond to the more concrete biblical terminology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In simple terms, Swedenborg said that:

  1. Love is the substance of God.
  2. Wisdom is the form of God.
  3. Action is everything God does (and says).

These three can be distinguished intellectually, but in reality they can exist only together as one. Any one without the other two is a non-real, purely intellectual entity.

From these three "essential components" of God flow all other levels and modes of reality. And every mode and level of reality has an analog of these three "essential components" in it. For example, a physical object such as a chair has substance, form, and function, which correspond to the love, wisdom, and action of God.

In a very basic way, then, the universe reflects the nature of God while also being of an entirely different nature and order of reality than God.

Vertical and horizontal levels

Swedenborg identified two distinct types of levels in the universe, which he called "vertical" and "horizontal" levels, or "distinct" and "gradual" levels. Here is his description and definition of them in Divine Love and Wisdom #184:

There are two kinds of levels, vertical levels and horizontal levels. Knowing about levels is a kind of key to unlocking the causes of things and probing into them. . . .

There is no way to uncover these deeper, invisible features without a knowledge of levels. We move from outer to inner and then to inmost by levels, and not by gradual levels but by distinct ones. “Gradual levels” is the name we give to declines or decreases from coarser to finer or denser to rarer, or better, to gains or increases from finer to coarser or from rarer to denser. They are just like going from light to darkness or from warmth to cold.

In contrast, distinct levels are totally different. They are like antecedent, subsequent, and final events, or like the purpose, the means, and the result. We refer to them as “distinct” because the antecedent event exists in its own right, the subsequent event in its own right, and the final event in its own right; and yet taken together they constitute a single whole.

He then goes on to use different physical and spiritual phenomena to illustrate these two different kinds of levels.

Translating these into a single physical example, the different states of ordinary matter, solid, liquid, and gaseous, form vertical or distinct levels. They do not gradate smoothly into one another, but one "jumps" suddenly to the other when specific conditions of pressure and temperature exist; and each is distinctly different in character from the others. However, within each distinct level, there are horizontal or gradual levels in which temperature and pressure can increase or decrease in a smooth, gradual, and continuous way.

In the universe as a whole, Swedenborg states, there are three overall vertical or distinct levels of reality:

  1. Divine reality, which is God
  2. Spiritual reality, which is the spiritual universe, in which the human mind or spirit exists
  3. Physical reality, which is the physical universe, in which the human body exists

God, Swedenborg says, consists entirely of divine reality. All created things, by contrast, consist of spiritual and/or physical reality. These come about through God placing boundaries, or limits, on substances emitted from God's own infinite, unbounded, limitless substance.

In the act of placing such limits on substances emitted from God, God causes them to be non-divine, thus non-God, and instead to be first spiritual reality, which has fewer limits, and then material reality, which has greater limits. This process also involves slowing down and limiting the energy inherent in these levels of reality. In modern terms, the opposite end of the spectrum of reality from the infinite and unlimited energy and form of God is the point of absolute zero, at which point all motion stops, and matter itself comes to its ending point.

Through this structure of vertical and horizontal levels of reality, and nesting vertical and horizontal levels within each level of reality, God creates a universe that is an expression of the nature of God, and is continually filled with God, and yet exists on its own distinct levels of reality that are not themselves God.


The final basic concept that is essential to Swedenborg's philosophy of creation is the concept of "correspondences."

The original Latin term correspondentia is difficult to translate into English because no English term fully or accurately represents the meaning Swedenborg assigns to it. "Correspondences" have something of the nature of symbolism, with lower levels of reality "symbolizing" higher ones. But they go beyond mere symbolism to a relationship in which objects and actions on lower levels of reality express or manifest in their very nature the corresponding objects and actions on higher levels of reality.

To use a simple human example, when two people hug, it does not merely symbolize their love for each other, but expresses that love. Love, spiritually and interpersonally, is a force that draws two people close together in heart, mind, and spirit. A hug, similarly, draws two people together into close physical contact. So we can say that a hug "corresponds to," or expresses and manifests in physical reality, the nature of the love that draws two people together in spirit, or in spiritual reality.

This mechanism or principle of correspondence binds together the various vertical levels of reality, such that each lower level of reality expresses within its own nature and type of reality the specific attributes of each higher level of reality within its own nature and type of reality.

To use the earlier example of the three basic states of matter: water vapor, liquid water, and ice are each distinct from one another, in that they exist in different states. However, they also correspond to one another in that each has molecules consisting of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom chemically bound to one another, giving the resulting substance specific attributes that express themselves in all three of its states, gaseous, liquid, and solid.

With these general principles in mind, and using them as axioms, we can draw conclusions about the more specific issues raised in the question:

How can a non-spatial, non-temporal Being create a spatial and temporal universe?

This is possible because although there is no space and time in God, space and time correspond to attributes of God. Specifically, Swedenborg associates space with God's love, and time with God's wisdom.

Space corresponds to love

Love cannot be measured in a physical sense. But it does have a "vastness" to it in that it encompasses all the varying states of human life and emotion. Human emotional states vary enormously, and when we move between them, we move in the spiritual analog of space. For example, when we are angry at another person, we feel distant from that person emotionally, whereas when we are feeling affectionate toward another person, we feel close to that person emotionally.

So physical space is the physical analog, or correspondence, of love.

Time corresponds to wisdom, or truth

Spatial events unfold within an "arrow of time," in which there is a sequence events rather than all events taking place simultaneously.

In God, all things are simultaneous, since God is timeless. However, the wisdom of God expresses itself in the temporal unfolding of events in the physical world, and the apparent time of the spiritual world, which involves the development of the human mind, and its thought, understanding, and wisdom, through the experience of, and knowledge gained from, one event happening after another in a developing sequence.

So time is an analog, or correspondence, of the intellectual, thought, or wisdom component of the human mind, which develops over time or through a sequence of events, one building upon another. And what happens developmentally, or horizontally, in human beings (and by correspondence in physical events) exists simultaneously in the timeless state in which God exists.

How can something that cannot be measured (God) produce something that can be measured?

The above considerations should answer this question. Things that are non-spatial and non-temporal at the level of divine reality become "extended" in the spiritual analogs of space (different states of love) and time (sequential development of thought), and in the space and time that exists in the physical universe.

Though Swedenborg, living in the 18th century, had no science available to him that was adequate to support some of these concepts, today we know that space and time are not some superimposed gridwork in which the physical universe exists, but rather are properties of the physical universe. To speak of a time "before the universe existed" is therefore nonsensical. Time itself, along with space, came into existence together with the physical universe.

This means that God did not create the universe from a timeline that extended before the creation of the universe, in which God contemplated and planned out creation. Rather, God created the universe from a timeless state above and beyond the very existence of time and space.

In that sense, there is no temporal or spatial "starting point" of creation. Rather, physical matter and the space and time associated with it are created from within as expressions of different essential components of God, and specifically, as physical expressions of God's divine love and wisdom.

How does the universe express and demonstrate the nature of God?

Closely related to the other questions is the question of how the universe can express and perhaps demonstrate the nature of God.

The foregoing points and discussion should provide a general answer to this question.

Getting a little more specific, if still somewhat abstract, God's creation of the universe does not proceed temporally, such that, as Deists believe, God created and wound up the universe like a clock, and then left it to run on its own. Such an arrangement would require God to be contained in and bounded by time—an idea Swedenborg specifically and emphatically rejects.

We humans may think of creation as a temporal event since that's how we experience it. And due to the principle of correspondences, creation can be described in temporal, sequential terms, as it is in the book of Genesis.

However, what is actually happening, according to Swedenborg, is that creation proceeds, not temporally and horizontally, but atemporally and vertically from within and above. In other words, God didn't create the universe at some time in the past; rather, God is creating the universe from within at all points that we humans experience as space and time.

To reduce this to a slogan using the concepts presented above, according to Swedenborg creation is a vertical process, not a horizontal process.

Swedenborg's compact Latin statement to express this is:

Subsistentia sit perpetua existentia. (Divine Love and Wisdom #152)

This statement is difficult to translate into a correspondingly simply and direct English statement, but here is a stab at it:

Sustained existence is a constant coming into being.

In other words, the universe and everything in it is continually being created at every moment by God from within.

Because of this nature and characteristic of creation, every part of creation continually expresses something specific about the nature of God, because every part of creation is an ongoing creation that expresses by correspondence some specific aspect of the nature of God. (The existence of evil puts a wrinkle in this principle, but that's an entire vast discussion of its own.)

Does the physical universe prove or demonstrate God's existence? Not really, because that's a matter of human perception. What it does, rather, is express on its own level the nature of God as God exists on God's own level.


Even this rather long answer (by StackExchange standards) only scratches the surface of Swedenborg's vast, philosophical and theological conception of the nature of God, and of creation as an expression of God, presented in his work Divine Love and Wisdom. However, the concepts presented in that book do provide a systematic, comprehensive philosophical and theological perspective that addresses these and related questions in a unique and highly original way.

Short version:

By engaging in creation through distinct, vertical levels of reality, within which there are horizontal or gradient levels, and through the mechanism of "correspondences," by which higher levels express their nature in their analogs on lower levels of reality, God creates a universe that is both distinct from God in that that it manifests and operates on its own distinct and discrete levels according to its own nature and laws, and that also expresses the nature of God in that all of its substances, forms, laws, and events are expressions on their own levels of corresponding aspects of the divine love, wisdom, and action of God.


How does a "physical" entity recognize an idea? The "idea" has the idea of a physical entity, therefore it can recognize itself. Where does Idea come from? That question is just Itself stuck in a loop, believing the physical Not to be idea (and so "condemned" to look for it's own cause. Not different than asking "Can God make a stone that is too heavy to lift?"). Eventually enough suffering, the idea "loops out" (there IS a limit to that horizontal level). The Idea, I Am, values Itself, and no longer pushes the envelop (of creation) that IS suffering - that entertained that physical was anything but idea. This is why Compassion works in/for philosophers as much as physical hunger.


Apparently O’Collins has an affinity to big words:

1) What does he mean by „a totally spiritual, non-spatial, non-temporal Being“?

2) Where does he know from that the concept from 1) refers to God?

3) Which God – Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Hindu, etc. - does he mean in 2)?

4) Where does he know from that the God from 3) has created the world?

5) Where from does he know that the creation from 4) has been made out of nothing?

I do not find the answer to these foregoing questions in O’Collins quote. But before these preliminary assumptions have not been confirmed in a positive way, I do not see much sense in searching for an answer: First the data, then the explanation of the data. Not the other way around.

Questions alike to the question from your post are treated in courses on Christian theology, see the title Fundamental Theology.

I problematize the question: The only totally spiritual, non-spatial, non-temporal beings I know, are ideas. But ideas are not agents in the physical world. At best, they motivate agents in the physical world. They themselves do not act physically.

Hence I doubt already the premiss of the question.

  • 2
    This does not answer my question.
    – user2953
    Jan 19, 2016 at 8:01
  • @Keelan Please see my next to last paragraph dealing with ideas.
    – Jo Wehler
    Jan 19, 2016 at 10:55
  • Should this not have been a comment with a close vote then?
    – user10479
    Jan 20, 2016 at 21:38
  • @fredsbend Jo Wehler doesn't do close votes.
    – user2953
    Jan 21, 2016 at 20:34

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