Today someone asked me whether I could imagine a world without God. They were not asking whether I had any doubts about God's existence but whether I thought it even possible that God not exist.
It sounds like a simple question. Like, "can you imagine a world in which your cat Monty did not exist?" That's easy, right?
Actually, it is a far more difficult question for me to answer than you might think.
What exactly am I being asked to imagine?
To me God is, among other things, the one who gives being to creation.
So a world without God is a world that is not given being (i.e., absolutely nothing).
But that is not "a world without God." That is . . . nothing.
Or perhaps I am to imagine that the world gives itself being.
Can I imagine that?
Not easily; perhaps not at all. I could if the cosmos was the kind of thing the essence and existence of which were identical but . . . surely it is not that kind of thing. I'd have to ponder that but I think that this suggestion would be riddled with problems.
Or perhaps I am to imagine a world that has being for no reason whatsoever. It did not have to exist but it does — it just is and that is all we can say.
Is that possible?
I have no idea. Maybe. Maybe not. It is certainly a bold claim! But perhaps it is possible. I just don't know. It may actually be impossible. (And it is certainly unsatisfactory when there is a better alternative, that the world has its being from God. And God's being is not a brute fact but is self-explanatory in a way that the being of the world seems not to be — God's existence and essence are identical)
My friend could not understand my dithering. Obviously we can imagine a world without God! After all, there are lots of people who see the world precisely like this.
But do they?
Do atheists really imagine a world without God? Perhaps, but I'm not sure.
Suppose, for arguments sake, that the sober metaphysical truth is that the only possible world without God is . . . absolutely nothing (and this may be true even if we cannot know whether or not it is). Then when atheists imagine this world in which we live as being "without God" they are simply confused. What they are imagining is actually a world with God (because it has being) but they are failing to recognize God's role in it. The real "world without God" is the world without being (i.e., no world at all).
This post is hopelessly bumbling around in terms of offering clear arguments but I have a gut instinct that I am on the right lines here.
So can I imagine a universe in which God does not exist?
Hmmmmmmmmmm. Not sure.
Perhaps not a universe. Perhaps just NOTHING.