Does John 1:3 rule out uncreated abstract objects?

metaphysics Philosophy Theology / Biblical Studies


A friend today brought my attention to his question, put to William Lane Craig, on whether or not the existence of uncreated abstract objects is compatible with biblical teaching. The question concerns a disagreement that Bill Craig has with Peter Van Inwagen of Notre Dame University. It might be helpful, therefore, if I outline the background to the disagreement.

Peter Van Inwagen believes in platonic or abstract objects. These are non-physical, eternal things that do not need to be created but just exist. Examples would include the number 1, properties, and even possible worlds. These objects exist necessarily, says Van Inwagen. They exist in all possible worlds. This means, for example, “that the number 510 would exist no matter what.”1

Now we should be careful how we characterise this notion of “existence.” Van Inwagen adds:

If the notion of an abstract object makes sense at all, it seems evident that if everything were an abstract object, if the only objects were abstract objects, there is an obvious and perfectly good sense in which there would be nothing at all, for there would be no physical things, no stuffs, no events, no space, no time, no Cartesian egos, no God. When people want to know why there is anything at all, they want to know why that bleak state of affairs does not obtain.2

Abstract objects, according to Van Inwagen, are not “out there” in the world of things in creation. If they were the only things that existed, then in the same sense that people ask why there is something rather than nothing, nothing would really exist. Speaking this way, then, “all things” that exist can be thought of in an everyday sense not to include abstract objects. This clarification is necessary in order to avoid misunderstandings of Van Inwagen’s view.

Bill Craig doesn’t think this is an acceptable position for a Christian to hold. He believes that the existence of uncreated abstract objects is at irreconcilable odds with both the Nicene Creed and – more importantly for most Christians – with the teaching of the Bible. The opening words of the Nicene Creed affirm that God is the creator of all things, both “seen and unseen.” What is more, the author of the Gospel of John, in chapter 1 verse 3, says that through the logos (seen as a reference to Christ)ings were made.” Van Inwagen then, holds to a view that is incompatible with historic and biblical Christianity, says Craig.

But Peter Van Inwagen thinks that he has a way out. People often speak in all-encompassing terms even though they have a limited scope in mind. Sometimes we say “everyone knows that…” knowing full well that not literally everyone knows it. If I address a piece of legislation about the standards that cars must meet before they can be driven on the road in New Zealand, and while I am speaking I say “all cars need to meet these safety standards,” you could always say that this isn’t quite true because cars that are not driven on the road don’t have to meet those standards. But in context I never intended to speak about those cars, so what I say is still true. According to Van Inwagen, we can read the Nicene Creed as only intending to speak in terms of concrete objects, and not abstract objects. The same would have to be said of biblical texts like John 1:3 that declare that God made “all” things. Recall that in Van Inwagen’s view, there is a straight forward sense in which if everything apart from abstract objects were to cease to exist, then nothing would exist.

Now, Dr Craig has historical objections to reading the Nicene Creed this way, and I will not be addressing that issue. My comments here are prompted by a question that appeared in the Q and A section of Craig’s Reasonable Faith website. This is a question about whether or not John 1:3 really poses a problem for Van Inwagen or not. Now let me be clear: I make no pretensions about being an expert in biblical Greek. I am absolutely dependent on the scholarly resources of others who are experts, along with my capacity to question the quality of the arguments they use based on the data that they mine from the Greek text. The question comes from my friend Andrew, and is listed as question 210. Andrew writes:

In order to provide theological evidence against van Inwagen’s contention, you cited John 1:3 to the effect that all things came into being through The Word. However, I am not entirely convinced that the verse you cite supports the strong stance you take against abstract objects. John 1:3 says: “Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made” (NIV).

When I checked the dictionary, something was defined as “made” if it was in some way “contrived” or “invented”. As such, it could be argued that the domain of universal quantification in John 1:3 is restricted to objects that are “made” and thereby contingent since it seems plausible to suppose that a necessary condition of an object being “made” is that it’s contingent.

Thus when John 1:3 says that “…without Him nothing was made that has been made”, it essentially says that without God, contingent objects would not exist but says nothing about the existence of necessary objects.

My question then, is “why is it illegitimate to suppose that the wording of John 1:3 does not itself contain a restricted domain of quantification (namely to contingent objects)?”

A good question! In fact after seeing this question, I checked all the translations of the New Testament that I have at home, and observed that as a pattern all the traditional translations of John 1:3 do make this qualification that the verse speaks only of the things that were created:

English Standard Version: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

King James Version: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

New International Version: “Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.”

New American Standard Version: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”

Revised Berkeley Version (Gideon Bible): “Through him everything came into being and without him nothing that exists came into being.”

The pattern is fairly consistent in all of these versions. In each case the translation committee has decided that when saying that without the logos nothing exists, the writer meant to refer to all the things that were created or came into being at some point. Thus, this particular verse does not present a problem for someone who thinks that there are uncreated abstract objects, for they would be beyond the scope of John’s claim.

Bill’s reply is twofold. Firstly he emphasises that the first half of the verse states that “all things” were created by God through the logos. He notes that this is what the Greek terms emphatically state and there is no ambiguity. Of course, this reply is largely unnecessary. Nobody has raised the suggestion that maybe “all things” doesn’t really mean “all things.” But just as we sometimes speak in universal terms in English when we’re assuming that people will think in terms of a limited scope when reading us, the same is perfectly possible in Greek. What is more, John 1:3 is a parallelism, where an idea is expressed by way of two statements, and details that are left out of one of those statements can certainly be filled in with the other. Thus, the second half that states the scope of the claim (i.e. only referring to things that have been made) can quite plausibly be seen as placing a limit on the scope of the first half, no matter how straight-forwardly the first half, all by itself, might appear to have a universal scope. I do not think there is any need, therefore, to dissect Bill’s claim that the first part of the verse states in a straight forward way that God made all things. Nobody disputes this.

The second part of Bill’s response is where I will focus, since this is what carries all the real persuasive force. His argument is that the final words “that was made” does not really belong to the sentence in verse 3, but it really belongs to the next sentence in verse 4. The majority of English translators, he says, have simply gotten it wrong. Although they were not unanimous, the majority of the editorial committee for the United Bible Society share this view, giving a B rating for the ending of this sentence with egeneto oude hen (“not a thing was made”). The B rating indicates strong likelihood (with an A rating indicating something like certainty).

There are indeed some translations that agree with what Bill claims, dividing these passage up differently just as he suggests, pushing the reference to “that was made” into the next sentence. The first such exception to the norm that I noted was the NRSV. Verses 3 and 4 of the NRSV read thus: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being (verse 4) in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

What? “What has come into being in him was life”? What does this mean? Perhaps realising that this is clumsy English with at best an unclear meaning, the translation committee for the NRSV add this footnote as an alternative translation: “And without him not one thing came into being that has come into being.”

The New English Bible also divides the sentences up this way, but in order to mould this strangely connected series of words into something that makes sense, it reads: “… no single thing was created without him. All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men.” This has the advantage of being more intelligible than the NRSV, but this intelligibility comes at a price, and it is not as faithful to the underlying Greek as the NRSV. There’s nothing penned by John that answers to “was alive.” This has been added to smooth over a sentence that would otherwise make little sense.

This, I submit, is the weakness of Bill’s exegetical argument here. He says that the end of the sentence should occur before ho genonen (“that was made”). He considers what verse 3 would mean with these words included, and what it would mean with these words excluded. But this may be a case of being so focused on the wood that one loses sight of the trees. What Bill does not do is to address the question: “OK, so if these words do not belong with verse 3, then exactly where do they belong and what do they mean?” Part of the argument for including them at the end of verse three is that they make sense there, but they make decidedly less sense when combined with the sentence in verse 4. If verse 4 reads, as most translations say, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men,” then it is relatively clear what is being claimed. Christ has life in himself, as John says elsewhere in 5:26 – “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” This life gives light to human beings (and elsewhere John speaks both of people passing from darkness to light and from death to life when they come to God through Christ). But if we follow the NRSV, which divides the verses in the manner that Craig suggests, we have John saying that through Christ life itself came into being as a created thing, and this life gives light to all people. But theologically this is quite out of place in John, who says (again, in 5:26) that the Father has life in himself, and hence life did not come into being as a creative act of God through the logos (now of course, this is not to say that life is an abstract object!). That this division of sentences causes both awkwardness and a theological tension within John’s Gospel should give Craig pause, and a reason to give a little more consideration to the eminent Greek scholar and textual critic Bruce Meztger’s rejection of the argument that he advances. Disagreeing with his peers on the UBS editorial committee, Metzger noted that John frequently begins a clause with en, which begins the traditional reading of verse 4, and also offered the more technical observation that the perfect tense of gegonen requires the present tense estin in verse 4 rather than the imperfect en. Metzger makes the observation that we can also make about the NRSV, that if the sentence really began with ho gegonen then what we would have is an “intolerably clumsy and opaque” sentence.3 It is reduced to difficult reading and a highly uncertain meaning.

I haven’t said that uncreated abstract objects really exist. But what I am quite certain of is that John 1:3 does not mean that uncreated abstract objects don’t exist. In the first place, as Van Inwagen noted, they are not to be construed as existing out there in the same way that other things exist in the first place, and if they were the only things that exist then we could honestly say in normal English that nothing exists. Secondly, John really does limit his scope in 1:3 by adding that it is specifically speaking about the fact that through the logos everything that was made – was made. Nobody else created anything else, so if anything at all was created, God did it through the logos. This does not inform us one way or the other on whether or not there are abstract objects that do not belong to the category of things “that were made.”

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Peter Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality: Essays in Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 58. []
  2. Van Inwagen, Ontology, Identity, and Modality, 58. []
  3. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, D-Stuttgart, 1994, 2nd ed.), electronic edition. []
{ 66 comments… add one }
  • Geoff April 26, 2011, 6:21 pm

    I’m trying to get my head around this.. I think I have inhaled too many paint fumes over the weekend..

    So.. to Inwagen says there are “things” that must exist because if they did not, neither would God?
    It seems odd to me that he would choose “1” and “properties”. “1” is a “name” for a single thing, not a property. For example, a triangle is a 3 sided figure, and in another world it might be called a “chubbawamba” but it still has the property of “a three sided figure”. Likewise in a possible world a single object might be called a “doo” and if you add a “doo” to a “doo” you get a “wop” and if you added another “doo” you might get a “diddy”.
    So, I guess I must be missing something there..

    Then is what Craig saying that if anything has a property, then that property is defined by the one who created it, that is, “exists apart from all that is created”? To my mind, if something has a property that causes it to exist and that property did not arise from “creation”, then that something is divine in its own right.

    In the past I have had this discussion with Open Theists, some of whom believe that time exists independently of God, and concurrently with God. This effectively gives time the ability to restrict God – some thing external to God controlling his nature.
    So, if there are things that just exist, then God is bound to the nature of those things. Right?

    I’m pretty sure I read something by WLC about this a few years ago, on – but I cant remember what exactly (old age!)

  • Glenn April 26, 2011, 6:26 pm

    Van Inwagen’s not saying that God couldn’t exist without abstract objects.

    And “1” is not construed as a name by Van Inwagen, but as a thing. Same for any number. Assuming that Van Inwagen is right, I’d say: The property “having three sides” is not the same as the number three. Not everything associated with “3” has three sides. We would just say that anything that has three sides is participating in the number three.

    Craig denies that there is any such abstract object as the number three. He’s a nominalist, and says that “three” is only a name that applies to things that resemble each other in a certain way.

    Nobody at all construes time as an abstract object, as far as I know.

  • Geoff April 26, 2011, 6:37 pm

    Hmm, in that case I’d have to agree with Craig..

    Yep, I guess it wasnt the paint fumes, but the paint stripper..

  • Andrew April 26, 2011, 6:49 pm

    heh cheers for the mention there Glenn XD

    I’m still kinda psyched about the fact that Bill actually responded to my question!

  • Grant Dexter April 26, 2011, 6:54 pm

    Here’s how I see it:

    “Life” can be an abstract concept (or it can refer to living things that were created on Earth). God didn’t create the abstract idea called life else God would once have not had life.

  • Grant Dexter April 26, 2011, 7:01 pm

    Nobody at all construes time as an abstract object, as far as I know.

  • Andrew April 26, 2011, 9:32 pm

    In general I agree with you Glenn. Nonetheless, for the sake of charity it might be possible to interpret Craig’s adjusted reading of v.3 and v.4 in terms of Salvation.

    Hence it would become:
    v.3. Through Him all things were made, without Him nothing was made.
    v.4. What has come into being In Him was life, and that life was the light of men

    Perhaps the way to read v.4. is to say that “life” refers to salvation in contradistinction to “death” or, as you would say, annihilation. What came into being through Christ was the possibility of Salvation.

    Not saying I believe it. In-fact I don’t, but i’m just saying it seems like a valid possibility.

  • Glenn April 26, 2011, 10:01 pm

    Craig doesn’t even offer an adjusted reading of verse 4.

    But true enough, he might think that it means “life” in the sense of salvation. But I think that this succumbs to a point I made above. That adjusted reading would fall foul of John’s usage of terms elsewhere. If that’s what John 1:4 said, then it is similar to what Jesus said in John 5 about the son having life in himself. The trouble is, John 5 also says that the Father has life in himself, so whatever the “life” is that is in the logos, it did not come into being in him, in John’s theology. That saving life that people can receive through Christ has always existed, as it is essentially a participation in the life that comes from God.

  • bethyada April 26, 2011, 10:57 pm

    I am not certain that I grasp the difference between Craig’s and VI’s “1”. But all things that come into existence were thought of by God prior to them being made. God understood a triangle to be a 3 straight sided figure in Euclidean plane space before he made anything in the universe.

    More importantly it seems like matter is being confused with information. Information existed before anything was created.

  • Glenn April 27, 2011, 5:31 pm

    bethyada, those who believe in eternal abstract objects do not think that they are made of matter. Their being abstract means that they cannot be so made.

  • Andrew April 27, 2011, 8:47 pm

    van Inwagens position is that there are these abstract objects that exist necessarily a se. He is as such a realist about abstract objects.

    Craig rejects this and is a nominalist about abstract objects. He argues that Christian orthodoxy is incompatible with the existence of abstract objects.

    My question to Craig questioned the scriptural basis for his strong stance against abstract objects.

  • Glenn April 27, 2011, 9:03 pm

    Well, it’s not nominalism “about abstract objects.” It’s nominalism about properties, which in turn no longer has a need for abstract objects.

    (Just being annoying)

  • bethyada April 27, 2011, 10:05 pm

    I think John 1 is referring (only) to material objects (matter/ energy). And I would favour Glenn over Craig concerning the location of “that was made”.

    But a triangle is still real, as is 8; even if matter does not exist.

  • Grant Dexter April 28, 2011, 12:31 am

    Right, Bethyada. Things can be real without being physical or material. Ideas are real. Thoughts are real. Memories and emotions are real. Things like life, love and time are real even though they are not physical realities.

  • Glenn April 28, 2011, 9:15 pm

    Well Grant that’s a little off track. Even realists about abstract entities don’t claim that there’s an object called “love” or “time.”

  • Grant Dexter April 29, 2011, 12:17 am

    I thought I was reinforcing what has been said. Apologies.

    Nominalists (Like Dr. Craig is, right?) would have to say that “time”, “love” and the number 510 are not real in any sense. But I say they are.

    Or do I misunderstand?

  • Glenn April 29, 2011, 1:09 am

    Well, nobody says those things are real in the sense that distinguishes realists from nominalists – except for the number 510. The platonist would not say that time is time because it resembles the ideal time, the form of time. Time isn’t any sort of object. Craig and Van Inwagen are in agreement there. Numbers, on the other hand, are in the category of things that some believe are abstract objects while nominalists like Craig does not.

    What do you mean when you say that time is real, Grant? Surely you don’t think there’s an object out there in the inventory of existence called “time.”

  • Grant Dexter April 29, 2011, 1:36 am

    Hmmm .. I’m not sure why ‘time’ and the number 510 are categorised as different classes of things. Can you explain that a little more?

    I consider time as real in the same sense that we can consider a number or a concept like love or life real. All these things do not have a physical component, but all are necessary by-products from the existence of rational minds.

    And given that God has always existed, so have all these things.

  • Geoff April 29, 2011, 7:38 am

    What is the base property of “time”? A measurement (of durations) – therefore a “thing”.
    What is the base property of “510”? A measurement (of 510 somethings) – therefore a “thing”.

    Neither “thing” can actually exist without creation, because only in creation is something to measure.

  • Reed April 29, 2011, 9:25 am

    Does John 1:3 rule out uncreated abstract objects?

    Hmmm… “abstract objects” is a contradiction in terms (ie. by definition an abstraction is not an object and an object is not an abstraction.)

    Does John 1:3 rule out the possible existence of silent noises?

  • Glenn April 29, 2011, 9:47 am

    Grant, when asking whether or not something is an object, we can’t settle the question by just asking whether or not there is any such thing.

    Happiness exists. There is such a thing has happenes. It’s a real phenomenon. But it’s not an object. The property of “travelling at 50 kilometres per hour” is real, in the sense that this really does go on in the world (like time does). But obviously nobody would ever dream of saying that there’s an object out there called “travelling at 50 kilometres per hour.”

    So even if we believe in abstract objects, we don’t say that everything that exists in language to refer to real events must be referring to an actual entity. If you believed that, say, “travelling at 50 kilometres per hour” was a real abstract object, you would be saying that whenever something travels at 50 kilometres per hour, it does so by virtue of the fact that it starts to resemble the object that is (i.e. is identical with) “travelling at 50 kilometres per hour.” You’d be saying that there is one exemplar of that property, and ideal version of “travelling at 50 kilometres per hour” out there (Plato would say in the world of forms) that things can resemble and hence be themselves travelling at 50 kilometres per hour.

    But people who believe in abstract objects do not say this. Similarly, they do not say that “love” or “time” are real abstract objects (or objects of any kind at all).

    Now if you take the view that numbers are exactly like this – if you think that there’s an actual entity lurking out there beyond the reaches of the Universe called “23,” then you do believe in abstract objects called numbers.

    If however you think it’s only a concept, then you’re not a realist in this strong sense at all.

  • Glenn April 29, 2011, 9:49 am

    “Hmmm… “abstract objects” is a contradiction in terms (ie. by definition an abstraction is not an object and an object is not an abstraction.)”

    No, this is not the case by definition, Reed. Now of course, you might believe that in fact there are no abstract objects, but they are certainly not ruled out by definition.

    This might help you (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

  • Basil Wellington April 29, 2011, 11:13 am


    Help me out. I believe I am a nominalist, while being a practical realist. I think that for something to exist in any state it must be conceived of, or instantiated. Hence, my nominalism.

    However, I believe God is a logically necessary being, and all numbers, propositions, colors, and etc are apart of God in one way or another. So, in a sense I am a realist when it comes to whether a HUMAN conceives of the number 5, or whether there are 5 rocks to instantiate 5 prior to humans coming on the scene.

    Could you please add some insight for me, as I am trying to work this out.

  • Basil Wellington April 29, 2011, 11:24 am

    One quick follow up…

    I wonder why he [Dr Craig] did not use Colossians 1:16?

    For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.


  • Glenn April 29, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Basil, all theists (obviously) believe in God whether nominalist or not. This isn’t a problem, since God is a concrete object, not an abstract object.

    If you believe that numbers, colours etc are not just names but are actually part of God, then you’re not a nominalist at all. What you’re describing is neoplatonism.

    A strict nominalist believes that numbers, colours etc are just words. They are names for things and that is that. You could always find a middle road with the likes of William of Ockham and his outlook, called “conceptualism.”

    As far as Colossians 1:16 goes, My guess is that a any realist about abstract objects, including a neoplatonist (like you) would say that abstract objects aren’t included in that because that list is only talking about concrete objects. Indeed, if you think that colours, numbers etc are part of God, then you yourself would have to deny that they are included in the scope of that verse.

  • Basil Wellington April 29, 2011, 12:21 pm


    Thanks. I enjoy acquiring more labels for myself!

  • Grant Dexter April 29, 2011, 3:09 pm

    Hi, Geoff.

    You said, “Neither “thing” can actually exist without creation, because only in creation is something to measure“, but if God exists then those things can exist without creation. Unless you think God cannot count or tell the time. 😉

    Glenn, I think numbers and time are of the same nature. There is no ‘object’ out there that they must conform to. So I guess I’m not a realist in that strong sense. 😀

  • Geoff April 30, 2011, 12:17 am

    Apart from creation God has no need of counting or telling time…

  • Grant Dexter April 30, 2011, 3:25 am

    Hi, Geoff.

    I believe you just made that up. 😉

    But let’s pretend God never had the need before creating to count or to wait. It does not matter that He did not. All that matters is that He could have.

  • Geoff April 30, 2011, 8:57 am

    The possibility that something exists does not make it exist.

    In a battery there is a potential for electric current. The actual current does not exist until something occurs to make it so (making a circuit).

    The potential for time or counting does not mean they exist.

  • Reed April 30, 2011, 12:42 pm

    Abstract: existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.
    Object: a material thing that can be seen and touched.

    Abstract object: A combination of two mutually exclusive terms.

    Does “510” exist:
    – as an abstraction (idea)? yes.
    – as an object? no.
    – as an abstract object? Nonsensical.

    Do ideas exist independently of minds? No.

    The question of “the existence of uncreated abstract objects” just looks like bad thinking to me. If abstract objects were to exist then the abstract objects wouldn’t be abstract. To attempt to make sense of the question it is necessary to equivocate “existence”.

  • Glenn April 30, 2011, 1:48 pm

    “Object: a material thing that can be seen and touched.”
    That may be the problem. Actually there are two: First, you’ve just assumed that materialism must be true (apparently by definition!). Secondly, and to be fair to other materialists, they don’t define object that way. They just claim that this is the only sort of object that actually exists. But even a materialist philosopher sees that “do abstract objects exist” is a real, coherent and meaningful question. It’s certainly not nonsense even if the answer is “no.”

    Did you read up on abstract objects at that link? It doesn’t sound like it. I think, with all respect, that the strong response you gave is just the result of a lack of familiarity.

  • Grant Dexter May 1, 2011, 4:30 am

    Hi, Geoff.

    It’s true that the possibility that something exists does not make it exist. And a battery in existence doesn’t mean there is a current. But there are a couple of things that you are not responding to in the spirit they were presented. First of all, batteries and currents are physical things and processes. Time and numbers are ideas. Thus I would say that the potential for One measuring time or counting does mean they exist. If God is real, then the idea of numbers and time is real. If God exists, so does time.

    Thanks for the discussion. 🙂

  • Grant Dexter May 1, 2011, 4:35 am

    I think I’d agree with Reed. It’s silly to talk about ‘objects’ when talking about ideas. Perhaps it is done and has been agreed on as standard usage, but it’s still pretty silly. 😉

  • Reed May 1, 2011, 8:14 am


    Which of the following statements are true according to your definitions?

    All abstractions are not objects.
    All objects are not abstractions.
    Abstract objects are both abstractions and objects.

  • Geoff May 1, 2011, 8:29 am


    I cant see it. Sorry. The “idea” of something does not make the “thing” exist. You might be capable of creating and want to have children, but unless you have sex you wont create any (and I know there are sperm banks but ignore them for the moment).

    God can create order, for example, give measurement to durations in creation, because that is what God does (create order). But that potential for order does not mean the order exists apart from the actual “ordering”. You have to have some thing in order to realise potential. Just like in the battery, you have to complete the circuit in order for there to be current. You have to have something “in time” before you need to measure it. You need to have something physical before you need to measure it. You need to have one or more objects before you measure them.
    The measure does not “exist” in nothingness, only in “somethingness”.

  • Glenn May 1, 2011, 1:30 pm

    Reed – OK, so you’ve changed the subject. I wonder if you realise that you’ve done this.

    Earlier you were talking about what “abstract” and “object” mean. You were talking about whether it even makes sense to speak about abstract objects.

    NOW you’re talking about something different. You talking about whether or not any of the objects that exist are in fact abstract. That’s still an interesting question, but it is different in kind from the question you were talking about earlier.

    Therefore it’s misguided to ask “which of the following statements are true”? Let me explain: Let us assume that there are no abstract objects. Let’s assume that our knowledge of terms is sophisticated enough that we both realise that “abstract object” is not a contradiction in terms. Now let’s look at your list of statements, bearing these two statements in mind:

    “All abstractions are not objects.” – Well, if there are no abstract objects then this is true, because there are no abstracts that are actually objects.

    “All objects are not abstractions.” – Again, if there are no abstract objects then this would be true as well, since there would be no objects that are abstract.

    “Abstract objects are both abstractions and objects.” – Again, this would be completely true. Abstract objects are by definition objects that are abstract.

    So all three of these statements are logically compatible. Since it sounds like you think there are no abstract objects, you should say that all three of these sentences are true.

    Now of course, if there are some abstract objects, then the first two are false, and the third sentence is true.

  • Reed May 2, 2011, 8:29 am

    Reed – OK, so you’ve changed the subject. I wonder if you realise that you’ve done this.
    Am I not still talking about the meanings of words?
    I offered definitions that I thought were sufficient which you rejected – I then asked for clarification regarding what you mean when you use the words.

    According to your definitions which of the following are true?

    Abstract objects are abstractions.
    Abstract objects are not abstractions.
    Abstract objects are objects.
    Abstract objects are not objects.
    Abstractions are not objects.
    Objects are not abstractions.

  • Reed May 2, 2011, 12:16 pm

    Note: It is unusual for definitions to be contingent. 🙂

  • Glenn May 2, 2011, 5:16 pm

    “Abstract objects are abstractions.” This just states that abstract objects are abstract. Every abstract Q is a Q, no matter what Q is. It’s true by definition.

    “Abstract objects are not abstractions.” False by definition. Everything that is abstract is abstract.

    “Abstract objects are objects.” True by definition. Every object is an object.

    “Abstract objects are not objects.” False by definition. Every object is an object.

    “Abstractions are not objects.” OK! This is the first statement that doesn’t merely trade on definitions. It just says that everything that is abstract is not an object. This one is synthetic, not analytic, so it’s worth asking. The answer depends on whether or not there are any abstract objects (something that may or may not be the case, but is definitely not ruled out by definition). And to be honest, I haven’t settled on whether or not I believe that there are abstract objects. I’m agnostic on that one.

    Bear in mind, too – this is not about “my” definitions. I didn’t create any of these definitions. There’s no correct definition of “object” that just rules out abstract objects from the start. Again I really do suggest you read the article that I linked to, which explains what an abstract object is.

  • Reed May 2, 2011, 10:49 pm

    I agree that there are no correct or incorrect definitions there are however conventional or unconventional definitions.

    IMO by conventional definitions objects are external to the mind and abstractions are not.
    The proposed idea of “something being both an abstraction and an object” is a contradiction.
    The proposed idea of “an abstraction external to the mind” is a contradiction.

    Consider the following question…
    If abstract objects were to exist would they exist external to the mind or not?

  • Glenn May 3, 2011, 12:29 am

    “I agree that there are no correct or incorrect definitions”

    Who are you agreeing with? That’s not what I’m saying at all. If you think that by definition objects are physical and not abstract, then you have your own definition. In the literature on metaphysics, an object is not so defined. The question is only whether or not any abstract objects really do exist.

    And yes, if abstract objects did exist, then they would exist external to our minds.

  • Grant Dexter May 3, 2011, 12:46 am

    So I have to say there is no such thing as an abstract object. And I guess Reed does too. Do you think there are such things, Glenn? And where would Van Inwagen and Dr. Craig stand?

  • Jared May 3, 2011, 1:34 am

    Reed said: “IMO by conventional definitions objects are external to the mind and abstractions are not.”

    Reed, is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony an object? If not, then what is it? Can I touch it or see it in a museum? I don’t believe it would do to say that the original manuscript or any of the countless printed copies of it that are out there is the Symphony itself. Those are are just representations of it, as are CD’s, phonographs and mp3 files of it. Does it make sense to speak of the Symphony (or any other song, piece of music, or literary work) apart from human minds? Without these existing as mental entities in the minds of one or more humans or other sentient beings (like God, angels, etc.), then they have no existence.

    In a more subtle way, this could also be said of software programs as well. Is Word Press an object?

  • Jared May 3, 2011, 2:10 am

    Now that I think about it, I would also suggest that individual words themselves are abstract objects. For instance the word “abstract” and the word “object” are themselves abstract objects.

    I only got part way through the article Glenn linked to on the Stanford Encyclopedia web site (life got in the way before I finished), but I intend to finish it later. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend it.

    It seems like one criteria for something being an “object” or not would be if it has a certain amount of independence or autonomy which is capable of being retained in a certain form, either physically (as with concrete objects) or mentally transmitted from person to person or within one’s mind (as with abstract objects). That’s just my own take. I’ll be better informed after reading the article in its entirety.

    I think this topic has meandered off from the issue of John 1:3, but it is relevant, because if abstract objects don’t exist, then the whole question about the scriptural reference becomes moot.

  • Kenny May 3, 2011, 3:49 am

    The whole debate here about what counts as an “object” is rather pointless. Those who speak of “abstract objects” are using the term ‘object’ as the most general count noun. On that usage, if there are xs, xs are “objects”. Of course, on other uses of the term ‘object’ (e.g. a usage by which ‘object’ is synonymous with ‘substance’), abstract entities aren’t objects. But big whoop either way. There’s no substantive metaphysical debate to be had here. The more interesting, substantive question is “Are there any abstracta?”

  • Reed May 3, 2011, 11:14 pm

    Who are you agreeing with? That’s not what I’m saying at all.
    Sorry. I misread your post.

    If you think that by definition objects are physical and not abstract, then you have your own definition.
    I accept that “object” may refer to non-physical things like space, time and energy.
    I don’t accept “object” as referring to things within the mind.

    …if abstract objects did exist, then they would exist external to our minds.
    … and it turns out neither do you.

    Which means you must consider “abstractions (ideas) external to the mind” a sensible idea – whereas I consider “abstractions (ideas) external to the mind” a contradiction.

  • Reed May 3, 2011, 11:31 pm

    …if abstract objects did exist, then they would exist external to our minds.
    Glenn – If I think of “510” would it still be an abstract object? 😉

  • Glenn May 3, 2011, 11:32 pm

    Having an existence independent of the mind is compatible with somebody thinking of that object and so apprehending it in/with their mind.

  • Reed May 3, 2011, 11:55 pm

    But if it’s in my mind, by definition, it couldn’t be an abstract object.

  • Glenn May 4, 2011, 12:00 am


  • Reed May 4, 2011, 8:25 am

    Is the following proposition analytic or synthetic?

    510 is an abstract object.

  • Glenn May 4, 2011, 9:18 am

    Reed, well that clearly depends on whater or not one thinks that numbers are abstract entities by definition.

    Where are you going with this?

  • bethyada May 4, 2011, 11:41 pm

    Glenn, looks like you need to write a nuts and bolts on this.

  • bethyada May 4, 2011, 11:42 pm

    Your new layout doesn’t work (in firefox at least). The sidebar is above the posts.

  • Glenn May 5, 2011, 5:38 pm

    bethyada – not for me it’s not, or any other system I’ve used with Firefox. What’s your operating system?

  • Reed May 5, 2011, 10:48 pm

    Reed, well that clearly depends on whether or not one thinks that numbers are abstract entities by definition.

    If one’s definitions are indefinite then two can not know clearly what one thinks.

  • Glenn May 5, 2011, 11:19 pm

    “two can not know clearly what one thinks”

    Woah… my hands are like, totally huge dude….

  • Reed May 6, 2011, 7:08 am

    Are you mocking me?

  • Reed May 6, 2011, 11:48 am

    Mockery is a fruit of pride.

    If one’s definitions are indefinite then two can not know clearly what one thinks.
    I thought my play on words might be too cryptic (I did check by asking a friend if he understood my meaning before posting.) I suppose there is some irony there.

    When you said “that clearly depends on whether or not one thinks that numbers are abstract entities by definition” you distanced yourself from any definition – making the definitions contingent and thus inviting equivocation.

    If one’s definitions (i.e. your definitions) are indefinite then two (i.e. me or some other person) can not know clearly what one (i.e. you) thinks.

  • Glenn May 6, 2011, 1:59 pm

    Sorry Reed. I actually did assume you were trying to be funny.

    The reason I distanced myself from actually taking a stance is that the point of this blog entry was never to argue that abstract objects really do exist. I was merely showing why one objection to Van Inwagen’s position does not work.

  • Reed May 6, 2011, 2:49 pm

    No worries dude. I was like, totally ignoring Van Inwagen.

  • Tim May 7, 2011, 10:19 pm

    When other possible worlds are mentioned, is that a suggestion of another world that might exist without God?

    And, steeped though we are in the workings of our own world, can we really assume that another world cannot exist where the numbers one, or 510, do not necessarily exist? something so completely alien to us that concepts such as numbers or time are irrelevant?

    “These objects exist necessarily, says Van Inwagen. They exist in all possible worlds. The means, for example, “that the number 510 would exist no matter what.””

    What is the proves this statement?

  • Glenn May 8, 2011, 12:05 am

    Tim – The idea of a possible world is really just a device for talking about the world as it could have been. The earth might have been a different size, I might have been a lawyer, you might never have been born etc. Saying that “X exists in all possible worlds” is a way of saying “it’s impossible for X not to exist.” That’s not a suggestion that there is a possible world in which God doesn’t exist. Whether there is such a possible world is another question.

    As for the second question: If numbers are really abstract objects, then they exist necessarily (in all possible worlds). For example, even if 510 physical objects don’t exist, the number 15 does, so that if 15 things did come into existence, we’d be able to count them (well…. assuming there was somebody in that possible world to do the counting).

    If you want a proof that abstract objects exist… well, books have been written on that, and a brief comment here wouldn’t do the trick!

  • Grant Dexter May 8, 2011, 6:36 am

    The reason I distanced myself from actually taking a stance is that the point of this blog entry was never to argue that abstract objects really do exist.

    Might we have that discussion? 🙂

  • Tim May 8, 2011, 2:35 pm

    hard to get ones head around… I’ve always viewed numbers simply as (something like) adjectives – in that they’re meaningless without an object to decribe, or at least the concept of the same.
    If a number’s existence is dependant on there being something to count, …then

    oh don’t worry

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