The Fallibility of First Principles

The Fallibility of First Principles, by Gunther Laird (

The late Norman Geisler was one of the most popular proponents of Evangelical Christianity, wedding Calvinistic argumentation with technical concepts drawn from the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas.[1] His son David Geisler continues his work, and recently contacted John W. Loftus with a syllogism for God’s existence Norman had made in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. David asked my editor if he had “any atheistic friends that would be willing to critique this more comprehensive argument for God’s existence and explain what’s wrong with it,” and I was one such friend, so John contacted me. 

What follows is a brief critique of the entry “First Principles” in the Encyclopedia, which David copied verbatim in his email to John. The entry is quite substantive, as Norman Geisler provided very detailed descriptions of a variety of first principles, such as the Principle of Noncontradiction, the Principle of Causality, and the Principle of Contingency, and explains why they cannot be coherently denied under any circumstances.

For the purposes in this essay, I will not contest any of those assertions, except in the case of one, the Principle of Analogy. Instead, I will show that Norman’s (forgive the informality, but this is to distinguish him from his son, who is also Dr. Geisler) entire argument founders upon that single principle, even if all the other first principles are incontestable. The way he lays it out in both his “First Principles” entry and the one dedicated specifically to it leads to absurdity and self-contradiction as an explanation for the attributes God is supposed to have.

Once again, in the interests of efficiency, I can concede nearly all of Norman’s first principles and skip over his extended description and justification of them. I’ll instead head directly to the formal demonstration provided in David’s email to John and on page 253 of my edition of the Encyclopedia:

“1. Something exists (e.g., I do) (no. 1).

2.   I am a contingent being (no. 11).

3.   Nothing cannot cause something (no. 5).

4.   Only a Necessary Being can cause a contingent being (no. 7).

5.   Therefore, I am caused to exist by a Necessary Being (follows from nos. 1–4).

6.   But I am a personal, rational, and moral kind of being (since I engage in these kinds of activities).

7.   Therefore, this Necessary Being must be a personal, rational, and moral kind of being, since I am similar to him by the Principle of Analogy (no. 12).

8.   But a Necessary Being cannot be contingent (i.e., not-necessary) in its being which would be a contradiction (no. 3).

9.   Therefore, this Necessary Being is personal, rational, and moral in a necessary way, not in a contingent way.

10.   This Necessary Being is also eternal, uncaused, unchanging, unlimited, and one, since a Necessary Being cannot come to be, be caused by another, undergo change, be limited by any possibility of what it could be (a Necessary Being has no possibility to be other than it is), or to be more than one Being (since there cannot be two infinite beings).

11.   Therefore, one necessary, eternal, uncaused, unlimited (=infinite), rational, personal, and moral being exists.

12.   Such a Being is appropriately called “God” in the theistic sense, because he possesses all the essential characteristics of a theistic God.

13.   Therefore, the theistic God exists.”[2]

We can see a fairly obvious problem with this syllogism at steps 6 and 7. Again, let us concede all the previous steps (that a Necessary Being exists, that it is identified with God, and so on). Step 6 correctly notes that humans are personal and rational beings. Now, step 7 goes on to say that since we humans are personal and rational, God must also be personal, rational and rational, because the Principle of Analogy combined with the Principle of Causality states that a cause must be similar, at least analogically, to its effect, which means that God must be similar, at least analogically, to his creations (humans) in the sense of being personal, moral, and rational.

A moment’s thought will reveal the problem. To take myself as an example, God (in Norman’s view) created me and/or sustains me in existence—he is my cause. And since I am personal, rational, and moral, God is also personal, rational, and moral. But I’m plenty of other things in addition to personal, rational, and moral. I’m short, hairy, and fat (in my own defense, so is Danny Devito, so I’m not too broken up about that). So if an effect must always be similar to its cause, and I am the effect and God is my cause (in some sense or another), then God must be similar to me in being short, hairy, and fat as well as personal, rational, and moral.

Needless to say, I doubt this is a conclusion Norman or David Geisler, or most other apologists for that matter, would be eager to embrace, though personally I would be quite flattered.

Still, there are quite serious reasons this can’t be the case. God is supposed to be immaterial, and being short, fat, and hairy are physical qualities possessed by material things. The same applies to more ‘positive’ material qualities as well—God cannot be white or black or brown, even though he caused and sustained European, African, and Asian people in existence, because those are skin colors and God has no skin. He can’t be tall or muscular or bearded or clean-shaven or any of that for the same reason, no matter how positive those traits are. Yet premises 6 and 7 of Norman’s demonstration imply he must be, because he is the cause of black or white or tall or bearded people just as he is the cause of personal, rational, and moral ones.

Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the Principle of Analogy those premises rely on to understand what Norman was getting at. Alas, we find that even the detailed background he gives on those principles does not help much to save his argument. Paragraph 12 of the “First Principles” entry, to which Premise 7 of the demonstration referred, stated

“The principle of analogy. Since nonbeing cannot produce being (5), only being can produce being. But a contingent being cannot produce another contingent being (6). And a necessary being cannot produce another necessary being (8). So only Necessary Being can cause or produce only a contingent being. For to “cause” or “produce” being means to bring something into being. Something that comes into being, has being. A cause cannot bring nonbeing into being, since being is not nonbeing (4). The fact that Being produces being implies that there is an analogy (similarity) between the cause of being and the being it causes (8). But a contingent being is both similar and different from a Necessary Being. It is similar in that both have being. It is different in that one is necessary and the other is contingent. But whatever is both similar and different is analogous. Hence, there is an analogy between Necessary Being and the being it produces.”

Even if we accept this (and as we’ll see in the latter half of this essay, we shouldn’t), this doctrine of analogy refers only to the relationship between “necessary being” and “contingent being,” that is to say, the former and the latter are similar because both are being. It says nothing about specific types of being (so to speak), like being rational, moral, or personal. So even if you accept all of Geisler’s other presuppositions, you can still deny that the necessary being would have to be rational, moral, or personal, in which case it wouldn’t be God. It would instead be perhaps a demiurge or an unthinking Ground of All Being, perhaps a pantheistic idea of the universe or spacetime as the necessary ground of all being, which atheists like Richard Carrier support.[3] Now, if Norman would have argued, or if David would argue, that the necessary being—whatever it is--must be rational, moral, and personal because human beings are rational, moral, and personal, they would also have to argue that the necessary being is tall or brown or hairy or whatever because it also causes tall, brown, hairy, or whatever beings to consist. There does not seem to be any non-arbitrary reason why the factors Norman described in his outline of the Principle of Analogy apply only to positive traits like moral goodness, personality, and rationality and not mundane traits like hairiness, height, and so on.

Or is there? Elsewhere in the Encyclopedia, under a different entry dedicated entirely to the Principle of Analogy alone (which I should note that David did not quote in his email to Mr. Loftus), Norman stated

“Only these characteristics (authenticity, compassion, freedom, goodness…wisdom) apply to human actuality rather than human potentiality. So only these flow from God’s efficient, essential, principal, and intrinsic causality…Only these characteristics may be appropriately applied to an unlimited Being. Things are like God in their actuality, but not in their potentiality, since God has no potentiality. He is Pure Actuality. So, only their actuality is like God.”[4]

Bluntly stated, this makes no sense to me whatsoever. Readers who have dealt with the Catholic tradition of Thomism before (Norman was not a Catholic, but as mentioned above, he did draw heavily from that religion) will recognize the terms “actuality” and “potentiality,” which originally come from Aristotle. It would be far beyond the scope of this blog entry to address Aristotelian metaphysics (though I do touch on the subject in my recently-published book, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory, available here. The only thing I will say here is that it is entirely mysterious how “authenticity, compassion, freedom, [and] goodness apply to human actuality rather than human potentiality.” Nowhere in the Encyclopedia did Norman really define what “actuality” and “potentiality” are really supposed to be—I assume he meant them in more or less the same way Edward Feser (another Thomist of whom I’ve read more extensively; my aforementioned book is primarily a critique of his work) does. There are no entries in the Encyclopedia for the words “actuality” or “potentiality.” The closest Norman came is under his entry for Aristotle, where he stated “Aristotle’s understanding of reality involved what actually is (actuality) and what it can be (potential).”[5] So as far as I can tell, Norman was saying this: Human beings are actually, in real life, right now, moral, rational, and so on, which means that God, as Pure Actuality, would have to be responsible for those actualities and thus be moral, rational, and so on (as described in the text of the entry for the Principle of Analogy). But it’s equally obvious that human beings are fat, hairy, short, and so on right now, in actuality, not in any potential sense. As I sit here, and as Danny Devito sits wherever he is, we are actually, in the real world, at this very moment, fat, hairy, and short. Those properties are our actualities, how we really are in the present, and therefore God, as Pure Actuality, must be causing them. But since a cause must be similar to its effect, God must then be fat, hairy, and short, even if only in an “analogous” sense.

Perhaps Norman meant actualities in the sense of ways a thing is supposed to be. This, again, is a complex subject that touches on the theory of Forms; there’s not enough time to deal with it here, though I am delighted to say that I also touch on the subject in an essay critiquing one of Feser’s articles in John’s upcoming anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. But for the purposes of this post, let’s say that the Necessary Being, as the source of everything that exists, is also the causal source of things being “good” in the sense of actualizing not just any old potentiality, but potentialities entailed by their Forms[6] (I also hasten to add that this is not Norman’s argument but rather comes from Feser’s essay, “The Thomistic Dissolution of the Problem of Evil,” which I assume but would not declare that Norman would have agreed with). So assumedly, God is good, moral, and rational because human beings are “supposed to be” good, moral, and rational as entailed by our Forms. On the other hand, human beings might actually be tall or short or white or black or whatever, but our Forms don’t entail we’re “supposed” to be any of those things specifically, so those are just material potentialities God wouldn’t possess.

The problem is, God created a lot of things besides human beings, and each and every one of them possesses actualities relevant to their Forms that God, by extension, would also have to possess. Take trees, for instance. Being green, tall, and capable of photosynthesis are a tree’s actualities to the same extent and for the same reasons being rational, moral, and so on are a man’s actualities—those are what a tree is “supposed” to be as determined by its Form. A tree that isn’t green (in the sense of having green leaves) is either sick or preparing for fall, a tree that isn’t tall is either sick (for the same reasons) or actually isn’t a tree at all, being a shrub or bush or something. So being tall, having green leaves, and photosynthesizing are a tree’s actualities since they relate to its goodness. Thus God, being Pure Actuality, is the cause of those actualities. But if, as Norman asserted, a cause must be similar to its effects (analogously or otherwise), God would therefore have to be green, tall, and capable of photosynthesis (at least analogically). But that is obviously absurd.

Absurdity is bad enough, but I’d say there’s an even worse problem with the argument Norman provided in “First Principles,” namely that it’s internally inconsistent. From the syllogism found there combined with the background information on the Principle of Analogy and the definition of God as a “necessary being,” we can formulate this smaller syllogism which, I believe, captures the spirit of the larger Thomist argument (which both the Geislers and Catholic apologists like Feser would rely on). In this syllogism, the word “creature” refers to any created thing (not just animals or humans) that isn’t God. Here it is:

1: God is Pure Actuality (possesses no potentiality).

2: God is the sole cause of creatures. (emphasis important!)

3: A cause cannot provide what it does not possess.

4: Creatures possess potentiality.

5: Therefore, from premises 1-3, God cannot provide creatures with potentiality.

So then, if God does not possess potentiality, he could not pass it on to his creations. Something else must be the cause of the potentiality obviously present in creatures. But that falsifies premise 2, that God is the sole cause of creatures. If you introduce something other than God to explain a certain cause at the most fundamental level (and the distinction between necessary and contingent being is quite fundamental), you approach polytheism rather than monotheism, which defeats the point of the meaneuver. The only alternative, so far as I can see, is to admit that God can cause potentiality without possessing it himself. But that contradicts what Norman previously said, that a cause must possess its effect.

Now, Norman also stated that “[s]ince God cannot produce another Necessary Being like himself, he must produce contingent beings…Hence, while God is pure Actuality, everything else is a combination of actuality and the limiting potentiality not to be.”[7] I’d be willing to bet Catholics like Feser and other theists of any stripe who also take Aquinas seriously would use this response as well. The problem is that this doesn’t solve the contradiction contained in these “First Principles,” it lays them cleanly bare. What the elder Dr. Geisler said is exactly right. A Necessary Being cannot be created, otherwise it wouldn’t be a Necessary being (one that could not have failed to exist at any time at all). So not even a necessary being could create another necessary being, as that would be an incoherent contradiction (we’ll not get into the debate over omnipotence or what God could or could not do at this time, we can just accept Norman’s conception of omnipotence as only what is logically possible counts as a power). Thus, in that sense, Norman would be correct: If the necessary being could not create other necessary beings, the only thing it could create are contingent beings.

Yet, for the reasons I have described above, the necessary being could not create contingent beings either! A necessary being, again, is pure actuality, without potentiality, while a contingent being, again going by Norman’s definition, possesses potentiality in addition to its actuality. So if the necessary being, or God, created contingent beings, it would have to possess potentiality, or contingency, to give or “communicate” to the contingent beings it created or caused. If an entirely non-contingent being was somehow able to cause contingency in other beings despite possessing absolutely no contingency itself, that would violate the very principle of causality Norman said was fundamental.

What would we have instead? This scheme isn’t entirely incoherent. You could argue that Pure Actuality or a Purely Necessary Being existed, but it was completely incapable of creating anything at all, based on purely metaphysical reasoning. It would just exist, by itself, forever, without creating anything. You would, in fact, end up with something very similar to the sort of God Aristotle himself believed in! As Feser has pointed out, “Aristotle famously thought that the divine Unmoved Mover of the world contemplated himself eternally, but took no cognizance of us.”[8] Now, it seems to me that Aristotle didn’t go far enough—such a purely actual unmoved mover would not necessarily be sapient or good, for reasons we went over in the first half of this blog post. But in any case, examining Norman’s argument, we can plainly see that a necessary or purely actual being would have to be causally inert, incapable of creating anything, because it could not create other necessary beings, but it also could not create contingent beings because it would have to give them something it did not possess (potentiality).

Can “analogy” solve this problem? No. Norman stated in his entry,

“The fact that Being produces being implies that there is an analogy (similarity) between the cause of being and the being it causes (8). But a contingent being is both similar and different from a Necessary Being. It is similar in that both have being. It is different in that one is necessary and the other is contingent. But whatever is both similar and different is analogous. Hence, there is an analogy between Necessary Being and the being it produces.

Two things, then, are entailed in the principle that Necessary Being causes being: First, the effect must resemble the cause, since both are being. The cause of being cannot produce what it does not possess. Second, while the effect must resemble its cause in its being (i.e., its actuality), it must also be different from it in its potentiality. For the cause (a Necessary Being), by its very nature, has no potential not to be. But the effect (a contingent being) by its very nature has the potential not to be. Hence, a contingent being must be different from its Cause. Since, the Cause of contingent beings must be both like and different from its effect, it is only similar.”[9]

This simply restates the contradiction while pretending it isn’t a contradiction. Created or contingent being “resembles” necessary being in the sense that it is being, but it’s different because it’s contingent rather than necessary. Fine. Yet we have to ask, from whence did that difference arrive, or more specifically, what caused that difference? It’s not very satisfying to say that difference is just inexplicable, and besides, we have a necessary being that’s supposed to explain things like that, don’t we? But if the necessary being caused that difference, necessary being would have to possess that difference (potentiality) itself, again on pain of violating the principle. And if something else other than necessary being caused that difference, then necessary being would not be the sole cause of things.

I can’t deny that my own objections to Norman’s argument raise a whole host of philosophical problems of their own. The principles he sets out—of analogy or causality, of non-contradiction, of necessary and contingent being, and so on—do seem to be both true and foundational to reasoning. But if they contradict each other in the ways I’ve described—and throwing everything into the “analogy” bucket doesn’t solve this contradiction—it’s necessary to go back to the drawing board and give these principles another look. That would be a task for another time and perhaps a more professionally trained philosopher than I, though who knows, if nobody else steps up to the plate eventually I might write something to give them a nudge. But it is enough for today to answer David Geisler’s question about what specifically is wrong with the argument his father made.


[2] Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000),253. The numbers refer to previous paragraphs where Norman outlined the principles on which these premises rely.


[4] Geisler, 21.

[5] Geisler, 54.

[6] Feser, “The Thomistic Dissolution of the Logical Problem of Evil,” Religions 12: 268. , 2.

[7] Geisler, 22.

[8] Edward Feser, Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 300.

[9] Geisler, 252.