What is God

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The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all affirm theism - the belief in God. In practice, while religious people claim to affirm this belief as true, most have never seriously considered the question "What is God?" The problem is that merely stating that "God is real" says nothing about what God actually is. Claiming to believe in something without defining what that something is, is close to believing nothing at all. When pressed to describe specifically what they believe in, the average person only can repeat claims about God's actions, or about God's love for humanity. Even assuming that said actions actually happened, or that said relationship actually exists, this says little about the nature of God; it really only tells us about a particular historical incident, or about how people describe their relationship to the divine.


Excerpt from Larrys Text. Wikification is invited.

So what is God? I am that some of you might have the reaction: "I don't know -- no one knows. And that's as it should be. God is totally beyond the comprehension of mere finite beings such as ourselves, and we should not go about pretending that we can know what God is." If this is your view, I'm not going to tell you that you are wrong, but I am going to point out a little paradox about your position. Namely, if you think that the nature of God is totally unknown, but you nevertheless say you believe that God exists, then you cannot even say what it is that you are believing in. Honestly, how much sense does this make, if I say, "I believe that God exists, but I have absolutely no idea of what God is"? If you don't see the paradox, let me draw a comparison. Suppose I say to you, "I believe that flibits exist, but I have absolutely no idea of what flibits are." How would you react to that? You'd probably say that I was babbling. If I have absolutely no idea of what flibits are, then I'm talking nonsense if I say that I believe that flibits exist.

If I say that I believe that something exists, I have to some conception -- not necessarily a perfect conception, but some conception -- of what that thing is. So I will make a bold assertion, which I think is absolutely incontrovertible: If you claim to believe that God exists, then unless you are talking nonsense, you must have at least some minimal conception of what God is.

Now when I put it like that -- at least some minimal conception -- then maybe you'll concede that you have at least that much of an idea of what God is. After all, if you have anything like a traditional Christian belief, then in fact you do have some conception of what God is: God is an eternally existent spiritual being who created the world, and so forth. In fact, if you are indeed a traditional Christian, you may want to add to this, and say, "There is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so that there are three aspects to God, and while we may not know the precise meaning of this doctrine, nonetheless we can know that it is true." Well, however all that is, we don't want to complicate the discussion with particular doctrines of particular versions of theism; what we want to look into is what the God of any traditional Jewish, Christian, or Islamic faith is; if you prefer, we want to know what sort of being God the Father is.

Now we have already seen, after discussing the problem of substance and the problem of universals, that these "What is" questions often oversimplify or cover up more specific sorts of questions. And it's no different when we ask, "What is God?" So how can this question be cashed out? What is it exactly that we are asking when we ask this? If all we wanted were a definition of "God," well, we've got that; so what more do we need?

What we need is to understand the definition. It's one thing to give the traditional sort of definition of "God," but it's quite another really to understand what it is supposed to be describing. Now let's read the definition, as I formulated it, again: "God is an eternally existent spirit which exists apart from space and time, which is the creator of the world, and which is therefore all-powerful, and which is also all-knowing and all-loving." There are a lot of aspects of the definition that need at least some explanation. There are, as I see it, two different kinds of questions we might raise about aspects of the definition. First, what do various important terms in the definition really mean? Second, how could we possibly get the very concepts of certain properties, described by those terms, properties which are not properties of anything in our ordinary everyday experience? So what I will do next is present a few of these questions. I'm not going to be exhaustive at all in this list of problems, these are just samples. I will begin with two relatively minor problems and then present one much more important, overarching problem.

First, we say that God is eternally existent. Now some people would take this to mean that God is timeless -- categories of past, present, and future just don't apply when we?re talking about God. But other people would say that "eternal existence" means, instead, that God exists at all times. In other words. If God is eternally existent, he has already existed for an infinite amount of time, and he will continue to exist for an infinite amount of time -- his existence never began and will never end.

So let's take a look at this latter concept of eternity. It is, I suppose, rather common to observe that we finite human beings cannot really conceive of the infinite. If that were the case, then we could not understand what God's eternity was; an eternity is an infinite amount of time. But others say we have some notion of an infinity -- at least a potential infinity. The idea here is that we do, after all, have the notion of a series that begins and has not ended. A series of times that has begun and not ended is potentially infinite. But does this give us a full-bodied notion of an actual infinity, which is what God is supposed to be?

Well just suppose we say, "No -- in fact, we can't understand what an actual infinity is. Therefore we can't understand what eternity is." In that case, part of what God is, is to be eternal, then we cannot understand what God is -- or at least, we cannot understand that aspect of what God is. Now, we want to have some notion of what God is that is adequate or robust enough for us to be able to say we understand what we mean when we say that God exists. Right? We aren't just babbling, when we say that God exists: and the mere fact, if it is a fact, that we don't understand eternal existence, may not, by itself, be enough to show that we don't know what we?re talking about when we say that God exists. Maybe we could still make sense of the claim, "God exists," without any clear notion of eternal existence. Or maybe we could make do by understanding God's eternity by way of our closely related concept, of a potential infinity.

Here is a second problem. We say that God is "all-powerful," or to say the same thing, omnipotent. Some philosophers have brought up some puzzles which are supposed to cast some doubt on whether the notion of omnipotence is really very clear. The basic notion can be understood well enough it seems: something is omnipotent, or all-powerful, if the being can do anything you think of. Well, OK, here's something I seem to be able to think of: a square circle. I may not be able to imagine a square circle, and I know very well that such a notion is self-contradictory. But I know what a square circle would be: a shape that is both square and circular. But if God can do anything, then he could create an actual square circle, couldn't he? Or how about this rather hackneyed problem: Is God's omnipotence such that he could create a stone that he could not lift? Well, he's omnipotent, so he could create anything; but if he created this stone, then he couldn't lift it. It doesn't solve the problem to say that, just as a matter of fact, God doesn't make square circles, or stones he can't lift. Because the question isn't whether or not God does such things, but whether he could do such things. The claim that God is omnipotent is, after all, a claim about what is possible, about what God has the ability to do, not about what is actual.

I suspect we would be right to think that this puzzle about omnipotence really isn't very serious. What theologians and philosophers often say is that God can do whatever is logically possible. God can't create contradictions, they say, but that's no real limitation of God's power; to talk about an actually existent contradiction is just nonsense, they claim. I personally think that's a fair assessment. I mean, if we say that, indeed, God cannot create a stone he cannot lift, or that God cannot create an actually existent square circle, is that really any serious limitation of God's power? I doubt it. So we could say that God can do anything that does not imply a contradiction.

Well, not all questions about the nature of God are as apparently frivolous as this. Indeed, by comparison, the next problem is rather serious, large, and complex. I can sum up this problem in the following question: How are we to understand what sort of thing God is? Well, consider these three things we say about God: first, God is a spirit; second, God is the creator of the world; and third, God exists apart from space and time. All three of those things are said of the same being. And the fact that all three are said of the same being gives rise to some very difficult puzzles about the sort of thing that God is supposed to be.

For a moment let's just take the first claim, that God is a spirit, by itself. "God is a spirit." Now, what does this term "spirit" mean? Please note: if we regard our definition of "God" as a genus-and-difference definition, then the genus of God is "spirit." Right? God is a particular kind of spirit. The rest of the definition of "God" is supposed to tell us what kind of spirit God is. So, if we don't understand what spirits are supposed to be, then in a very strong sense we have no grasp on what sort of thing God is. So we had better understand what it means to say that God is a spiritual being, or else we clearly won't have an adequate handle on what sort of thing God is supposed to be.

Suppose then we say that the word "spirit" means simply mind. We know what minds are, because we are all intimately acquainted with our own minds. I then have a concept of what God is: God is a mind, like my own mind, only much more powerful. Now if we say this -- that God is a mind -- then clearly we have some explaining to do. Let us now bring up the second and the third claims about God that I listed: God is the creator of the world; and God exists apart from space and time. So now what we are saying is that it is a mind that created the world, and this mind exists apart from space and time. But how can we understand what a mind is supposed to be that creates physical bodies out of nothing, and which exists timelessly? Let me elaborate the problems here.

Do we understand what it means for a mind to create anything physical? Look here, we do have a notion of what minds can do, based on observation of our own minds. Our own minds can think thoughts, perceive the world, experience feelings, make decisions. The decisions we make result in the actions of our bodies. The only way in which we are familiar with minds impacting the world is via the bodies that are associated with those minds; in other words, it's only when we decide something, or have a strong feeling that causes us to act out of excitement or anger, that our minds cause our bodies to act.

But now compare that with what is being claimed about God. God is supposed to be a spirit, which at present we are understanding to be a mind, a divine mind; this divine mind is supposed to have created physical objects, the physical objects that make up the universe, out of nothing. We certainly do not have any experience of minds creating physical objects out of nothing. And from a first-person perspective, we have not a clue as to what that would even be like.

Now, I suppose what we do, in order to understand the notion of a mind creating something out of nothing, is to use our imaginations in a certain way. We imagine someone thinking very hard, with nothing in front of him; and then the next moment there is something, like a tree, in front of him; and, whatever this would mean, we imagine that his thoughts have caused the tree to appear in front of him. And remember, since God is suppose to be just a mind, without a body, that we shouldn't imagine a human being sitting there and looking like he's concentrating hard just before this tree pops into existence. That wouldn't be an accurate representation of the situation. We would have to imagine a mind, somewhat like our own mind, all by itself causing the tree to pop into existence. Now, we may be able to imagine this, in a way; but the question is whether we really are imagining a mind creating a tree out of nothing. Because, when we get to the part about a particular decision that causes the tree to appear out of thin air, we draw a blank. We have absolutely no experience of anything like that sort of decision. So I would doubt that, in fact, what we really are doing is imagining the creation of the tree with a mere decision.

So that is one problem about the notion that God is a mind -- namely, it is hard really to understand the very notion that a mind can create physical objects out of nothing. We might imagine that we understand this, but I don't think we really do understand it.

But now here is another problem about the notion that God is a mind. Now we said that God exists eternally, and that "eternal" has two different interpretations, meaning either existing timelessly or existing at all times. Well, suppose, as many people do, that God's mind is supposed to exist timelessly. In other words, when we think about what this divine mind is supposed to be, we can't apply categories like "past," "present," and "future" to it. God's mind does not pass from earlier thought to later thought; he doesn't make plans and then, later, act on those plans. To say those things would be to imply that God's mind does not exist timelessly.

But see here, this makes the very notion of the divine mind exceedingly strange. Think now of how you understand what your own mind is: it is, as far as you can ascertain, a series of experiences, thoughts, judgments, feelings, decisions, and so forth, coming one after another. We are saying that God's mind, or rather the mind that is identical to God, has no such series of thoughts, decisions, and so forth. Because the divine mind is timeless: the categories of before and after just don't apply here. So it is hard to say that the divine mind even has such things as thoughts and judgments, because a thought, in any sense of this word that we are familiar with, is, presumably, something that has a beginning and an end. God's mind is sitting in the same state for all of eternity. A very complex, grand, incomprehensible state. It is hard to call this state, or any part of it, a thought or a decision or anything like that.

It's worse than that, though. Because ordinary traditional Christianity, for example, holds that we can pray to God and God answers prayers; that God speaks to prophets and perhaps even to us individually, sometimes; and so forth. But in order for God to do these things, God must, at least in some sense, exist in time.

Let's step back now and consider what is being claimed about God. God is a mind, but this mind differs radically from the human mind, because, first, it has the ability to create physical objects out of nothing, just with a thought; and, second, it does not have any series of thoughts at all, but remains in the same mental state, apart from time, or as it were throughout eternity. And yet, straining our powers of interpretation, God is supposed also to perform individual acts, such as doing miracles and answering prayers, at particular times. Those, at least, are the claims we?re examining at present. They stem from the basic notion that the sort of thing that the divine spirit is, is a timeless, creative mind.

But honestly, then, can we really call this being, that differs so radically from the human mind, a mind at all? If God is in a single state throughout eternity, and with a pure spiritual act can create a tree, then surely it would be, as Hume says, an abuse of terms to call God a mind. Minds have successive thoughts -- thoughts that succeed one another -- God is no such thing. God is supposed, at least by many people, to be unitary, and simple, and unchanging. And so we would be most accurate not to call the divine spirit a mind but instead to stick with the word "spirit."

Well, I'll bet you know what I'm going to say next. Remember, what we?re trying to figure out now is what sort of thing God is. We say that he's a spirit; and we have concluded, for the time being, that God's spirit is not a mind. What, then, is a spirit, if it isn't a mind? Do we have a concept of this non-mental spirit, and if we do, then how did we come by this concept?

Now there are some people who will throw up their hands at this point and say, "Too many questions! This is pointless! No, God is not knowable. God is a mystery. We do not understand what God is. Maybe people who have visions and go into mystical ecstacies and so forth can, somehow, understand what God is, by coming into some close contact with God. But ordinary people using our finite, ordinary, worldly concepts just cannot fathom what is divine and otherworldly." People who say they believe that God exists, but who also believe that we cannot have any concept of what God is, except by a very unusual sort of experience, are known as mystics and their view is called mysticism. The unusual sort of experience which they say gives them some insight on the nature of God is called a mystical experience.

How are we to react to mysticism? Well, I can tell you anyway how I react. The trouble with mysticism, as far as I can make out, is something I've already hinted at. Namely, if the mystic thinks we can have no concept of God whatsoever, then it is contradictory for the mystic to claim to believe that God exists. If I have a belief that something exists, then I have to have a concept of the thing that exists. If I believe that Elvis still exists among us, then I have to have some acquaintance with who Elvis is supposed to be. If I hold that unicorns exist, I have to have a concept of a magical horse with a horn. And so forth. But if I have absolutely no concept whatsoever of God, then it is literal nonsense for me to say that I believe that God exists. Beliefs, in order to be beliefs, must have contents. It is nonsense to say that I believe in something of which I have no notion whatsoever.

It seems to me that the only way I could, as an extreme mystic, honestly maintain that I believe in God, is if I have a mystical experience and come to experience directly what God is. Then I may not be able to describe what God is to other people, but, having had an experience of what God is, my concept of God has some content. Then, when I say that I believe that God exists, I can be understood to mean: "That indescribable divine being which I experienced exists." I am just not going to take the time to examine the plausibility of this view. Really, this attitude is beyond the purview of philosophy: if the nature of God cannot be described or conceived of by ordinary concepts, then evidently there is nothing for any philosopher, who like myself is equipped only with ordinary concepts, to examine. I suppose I might try to try to raise some objections to the very idea that someone has any mystical experiences; but I am not going to try to do that. That would take us far afield.

But why not accept a less extreme mysticism, a moderate mysticism if you will, according to which a few things can be understood about God. That, for example, God created the universe; that God is spiritual; and so on. In other words, we can understand the gist of the definition of "God" that I gave before; but we cannot understand the details. The idea then is that we have some vague, fuzzy notion of what God is, but we cannot elaborate, when pressed, on many essential parts of this notion, such as what a "spirit" is that is not a mind, and so forth. I will leave it up to you as to whether you ought to think that any such vague notion is good enough, so that indeed you can honestly think that you have a notion of God. I won't tell you what to think about that.

But some of you may hear all this and say, "By George, this is excellent reason to reject mysticism. If a mystical view of God really does mean that I don't know what I'm believing in, and thus that I really can't honestly be said to have a belief at all, then I am going to compare God more directly to humans. I will say that God is not "timeless," but that he does have successive thoughts, feelings, decisions, and so forth. That is, after all, more consistent with many elements of a traditional faith."

This point of view on the nature of God may be described by a term often constrasted with "mysticism," namely anthropomorphism. The term "anthropomorphism" comes from two Greek words, anthropos meaning man, and morphos meaning shape or form; so "anthropomorphism" describes any belief according to which something non-human, such as God, animals, and plants, is thought of as being like human beings. Usually this term is taken as a term of abuse -- an insult. It doesn't have to be taken that way, but I think it usually is. So if you call someone an "anthropomorphite" you are accusing him of being a little stupid or silly in a way, because he thinks that something that is totally non-human is like human beings. For example, when children attribute feelings to thunderstorms -- "The thunder is mad at us," they say, not understanding that, unlike humans, the weather doesn't have feelings. Hardly anyone believes that God has a human body, but of course many people historically have believed that their gods had bodies and that those gods could roam the earth. We could use the phrase "physical anthropomorphism about God" to mean the belief that God has a body. But then we might also use "spiritual anthropomorphism about God," meaning that God has a mind something like a human's.

The idea then is that we get our concept of God's qualities -- his ability to create, his knowledge, his feelings for us, and so forth -- by analogy with experience of our own minds. Of course, even the anthropomorphite isn't going to say that God's mind is exactly the same as a very smart human mind, of course. There are some extremely important differences. But God's mind is enough like our minds that we can make good sense of the claim that the sort of thing that God is, is indeed a mind. Now we've already looked at some of the problems for this view, and I don't plan to go over any others. If you think those problems, and other similar problems we might raise, can be overcome, that's fine. I've just given that view a name, spiritual anthropomorphism, in order to contrast it with mysticism.

But what if I conclude, after trying to make sense of what God is, that the word "God" is really nonsense? What if after consideration I decide that I really can't understand what people are talking about when they use this word? There are a good many philosophers this century who have come to this conclusion -- philosophers like the Englishman A. J. Ayer, and other so-called positivists. I mean, suppose that I do my very best, trying to understand what this definition of "God" is supposed to mean. And I end up saying to myself: "The extreme mystical conception of God is not a conception of anything at all; the moderate mystical conception of God is too flimsy, because it just gives up explaining what the definition's terms mean at a certain point; and the anthropomorphic conception of God is totally implausible simply because it is not a conception of a mind at all. Therefore, as far as I can tell, no good sense can be made of this word, ?God?." For convenience, let's call this the no concept view of "God" talk; it's the view that we, or I anyway, have no genuine concept of what "God" is supposed to mean. Now if I come to that position, am I an atheist, an agnostic, or what?

Maybe this view could best be considered a kind of agnosticism, for the following reason: it rejects both the belief that God exists and the belief that God does not exist. But this is a totally different sort of view from an ordinary agnostic. An ordinary agnostic does believe she has some at least rough-and-ready conception of God; she simply doesn't know whether or not such a being exists. Either she hasn't decided; or she thinks the evidence is equally weighted on both sides and she thinks it's most responsible to suspend judgment; or, in the most extreme case, she thinks she cannot know whether or not such a being exists. Those are the usual sorts of agnosticism.

But if I take the no concept view, and say that talk of God is really just nonsense, it's not as though I have trouble making up my mind whether or not God exists; it's not even as though I believe that the existence of God cannot be known. Rather, I would not think the question, "Does God exist?" made any sense at all. For the question, "Does God exist?" to makes sense, the word "God" would have to be given some good meaning. So if my opinion is that the word "God" in fact cannot be given good meaning, or at least that I don't understand its meaning, then I would give you blank stare if you asked me whether God exists. As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether God exists is ultimately no more comprehensible than the question of whether flibits exist. So I would neither affirm, nor deny, nor suspend judgment on the question of the existence of God. It would be better to say that I would want to unask the question. All this is why I think that the no concept view is best regarded as a distinct, fourth view in addition to theism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Let me be fair to the theists among us now. I am quite sure that defenders of traditional religions including Christianity would, after our discussion so far, want to say that the no concept view is unduly critical, fastidious, or exacting. Such people will, I suppose, either believe that moderate mysticism is correct, and provides a sufficiently clear notion of God for human purposes; or that spiritual anthropomorphism is correct, and that it really does give us a way to conceive of the divine mind.


At the moment, I think that the following should be discussed in this entry. As good as Larry's essay is, I think we can include a few other points of view.


Biblical definition of God The Tanach (Hebrew Bible, aka Old Testament) is notable for not describing God's nature. No attempt is made to give a philosophical rigourous definition of God, nor of how God acts in the world. The New_Testament offers only a small discussion of such matters.


Aristotelian and Neo-Aristotelian definitions of God

Many medieval philosophers developed the idea of approaching a knowledge of God through negative attributes. For example, we should not say that God exists in the usual sense of the term; all we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. We should not say that God is wise, but we can say that God is not ignorant, i.e. in some way God has some properties of knowledge. We should not say that God is One, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.


Kabbalistic definition of God


Process theology and process philosophy definition of God: Panentheism


/Talk