Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Defining God

Sam Norton has started a series of post on "Reasonable Atheism", the intent being to see if the conversation between theists and atheists can be raised above that of Dawkins and company. The problem largely lies in the difference between how many atheists understand what is meant by 'God' and how many theists understand the word. The problem is compounded in that I had to use the word 'many' in both cases: the reasonable theist usually means something different from what most atheists mean, but also different from many of those who say they believe in God. Primarily, this disjunct lies in that (most) atheists think that theists believe in the existence of a being, while the reasonable theist says that God is not a being, and so the phrase "God exists" is problematic. (Note: by atheists' I am referring to secular atheists, not, say, Buddhists. Given the common usage in Western countries of the word 'atheist' as meaning someone who rejects all religion, a Buddhist might be better referred to as a 'religious non-theist' than as an atheist.)

What I want to do here is define some vocabulary that both reasonable theists and reasonable atheists can agree on. Or rather, suggest these definitions, and see what needs to be done in addition to either get to a common vocabulary, or to see where this attempt fails.

Firstly, I suggest making a distinction between the words 'real' and 'exists'. As I shall use the terms, something exists if (as its etymology suggests) it can "stand out", that is, can be an object of perception, in that it can be discerned from a background (where 'perception' is to be taken here more generally than sense perception, for example a mathematical object exists because it can be thought of, an emotion exists because it can be felt). The word 'real', on the other hand (admittedly despite its etymology) is to be taken as that which one takes into account in making decisions, in the way one lives one's life, and so forth. Needless to say, these definitions are rough around the edges, but I think they are enough to go on with.

I define God as at least the eternal (i.e., non-spatiotemporal), loving intellect that grounds all that exists. Thus, to believe in God (i.e., to be a theist) is at a minimum to claim that the ground of all that exists is to be characterized with these words (eternal, loving, intellective), while not believing in God is to claim that the ground of all that exists does not have these characteristics. And, given my distinction between 'real' and 'exists', while one runs into difficulties saying "God exists" (can something be its own ground? can the ultimate background "stand out"?), one can say without much difficulty, "God is real (or not real)".

Some comments:

I put in that "at least" because I recognize that many theists will demand that something more be put into that definition. In particular, the word "personal" might be thought to be required. But such objections, I think, are only relevant within the theological community. Similarly if words like 'omnipotent' are added -- additional argumentation is required to discern what is meant by such words.

On the other hand, I consider the three words used to be a minimum needed to distinguish a theist's God from, say, the God of Einstein. Also, just saying that God is "the ground of all that exists" does not make a difference that makes a difference.

Many theists may also object in that they take as given that God cannot be defined at all. To this I make two responses. The first, is that I am under no illusion that the definition I gave is final. It is only intended to provide a common ground for conversations between theists and atheists -- that is, to see if with this definition, the atheist can understand what the reasonable theist roughly means by 'God'. The second is to point out that all three words used to characterize God are themselves undefined. Again, my intention is to indicate that the difference between the theist and the atheist is in what each party considers the ground of all that exists is "like", and the three words serve as a minimum to understand roughly what is being claimed in saying that God is or is not real.

The effort that the atheist must bring to this is to understand that the words "loving" and "intellect" are being used analogically. Which is to say, we only know what these words mean insofar as they are applied to humans. Applying them to the ground of all that exists is, no doubt, problematic. And, of course, we are unable to imagine what non-spatiotemporal reality is like. But these limitations in our ability to think about God do not in themselves invalidate the possibility that God is real. They just indicate that the concept of God cannot be "thought through", which is to be expected concerning the ground of all that exists -- the same problem exists in trying to imagine a context in which a Big Bang might occur.


Anonymous said...

I just happened to come upon this, and wanted to cast in a line as someone who is buddhist.

To say God is anything is to take away from him, (eternal, loving, intellective). Would you place God in a box?

To indulge in converstaion in the effort to bring the two sides together, is to talk about nonsense.Your not doing the atheist any good by telling her/him what God is, or by trying to place new spins and perspectives on his nature. You are again, falling further away from God and merely complicating matters..... How does the idea of God make one feel?

I've found much in the matter of buddhism in the bible as I've read it over the years. However, by and large I find westerners continually queer the message with they're "talk". Perhaps, as I've always had a tendancy to think, this is due to the ingrainded/dogmatic traditions you've been passed down from Plato.

I find I'm at a loss and confused by it at times. I've found from speaking to atheists, that it is the vary nature of the definition that pushes them away - but there is only so much that can be said in the short times you have to spend with people. I find this unfortunate, we humans suffer for this.

Interesting blog by the way, I've enjoyed it.

scott roberts said...

My intent here was not so much to put God in a box, but to remove many of the boxes that many atheists have in their notion of God (mainly anthropomorphic concepts -- which, of course, many theists have as well). On the other hand, if I say that one can say nothing of God, then it is impossible to say what the difference is between a theist and a (secular) atheist. So I tried to find the minimum description I could. If one removes the words 'loving' and 'intellective' then one could hold that the ground of all that exists is meaningless, which means that the meaning we find in existence is also ultimately meaningless -- just illusions we foster to make ourselves feel better. Of course, that may be the case, but my assumption is that it isn't (based on revelation of mystics). Perhaps that is all I should say: that to believe in God is (at least) to believe that the ground of all that exists is meaningful, but as I see it, casting God as 'loving intellect' is a slightly more elaborate way of saying 'meaningful'.

Anonymous said...

I surely do not envy your dilemma.

Why couldn't you start with defining how god makes you feel? Without saying anything about what god is.

If I'm not mistaken I believe that it was the book of Ecclesiastes that began, "Meaningless meaningless says the teacher, everything is meaningless".

What does it mean to mean something anyway? Words "mean" things, but they only represent the idea of things, and not the things themselves. The fact that words mean things is ultimately meaningless, they merely exist for pragmatic reasons. Perhaps god is merely pragmatic to cause of sharing ourselves?

Anonymous said...

Scott I can't stop thinking about this... And I don't want to offend you in any way.

If you say, god is love, or god is loving for the sake of meaning... All you're realy doing is stating what that something (whether idea, concept or thing) isn't. Furthermore, to say that God isn't something, all the things besides love, is to reduce his foundation.

People, christians, may consider love to be the most powerfull thing of all. But love is nothing at all unless I have awareness of something on the contrary, something with equal power and equal force. Loves greatness, it's power, is always measured by the exerience of it's opposite.

If we lived in an idealistic society that was free from harm, strife, misfortune, hatred, so on; what knowledge would you have of love? If this were the case and we moved towards this lifestyle, we would have moved our children away from god and not towards.

Things in life are only understodd in relationship to something else. God does not stand in relationship to anything, therefore he defies terminology. An example of words for God would be the uses by those of the Hindu faith. Hindus have a plethera of gods, hoever it is well know amogst the Hidus that these are not individual gods per-se, but merely manifestations of his presence in our lives. Of which they are no doubt countless.

In the end, love, holds no more meaning to life then depression. If god never gave us a smack on the cheek, we'd never know we had a comfortable face.

scott roberts said...


In answer to your question "Why couldn't you start with defining how god makes you feel?", well, I don't feel anything. For me, the reality of God (as given in my definition) is purely a hypothesis, one I accept for the reasons given here.

You say: The fact that words mean things is ultimately meaningless, they merely exist for pragmatic reasons. I disagree. What I think is that words create by making distinctions, and in the same act unifying what they distinguish, and that meaning lies in this sort of creation. But I am going off on another topic, to which I hope to address a post or two.

On your next post, there are various things to say, but I think they can be summed up by noting that God's love is not human love, and God's intellect is not human intellect. In "fact", with God there is no separating love from intellect. But your last sentence (If god never gave us a smack on the cheek, we'd never know we had a comfortable face) is also an important thing to keep in mind. But what one gets are apparent contradictions, and so in my view the only way to discuss God (or Nirvana, or any other mystery) is with the logic of contrafactory identity (see here.)
But to use that logic takes practice. It is learning to think where every concept is suspect. Which is what I see as the path of reason.

Anonymous said...

Come on now Scott, that doesn't make any sense at all.
1.) You don't feel anything. That's convenient, but generally considered to be depression. Surely you feel some compulsion to search for the answer, whatever that may be in this case. Your not a robot android are you?
I have yet to read your link.

2.) On words existing for meaning - I hope to see you pick that up again. I'll let that go. For the record, we disagree.

3.) God's love is not human love, and God's intellect is not human intellect. Scott, this is rather ambiguous. I think I understand where your headed?

So your going to go to the atheist and say, "god is love"... But wait, "it's not the every day run of the mill human love, it's a different kind of love". So what's that love then? You may as well call god, crazlesnaffenhousen. That would be equaly ambiguous yes? You can't logically convince the athiest that god is "A", and then not define it. This is the vary reason you can't define god in the first place. Finally, if his love is not human, then how can you even presume that it's love? It sounds like your just making things up.

I'm not being mean here Scott, I really find your argument interesting and would like to understand it. You sound like you want to base everything on logic, but nothing here seems logical to me?

Anonymous said...

Christianity has emphasized the path of Love,

while Buddhism has put more emphasis on the path of Reason.

This could not be more untrue of buddhism.

scott roberts said...


I have the usual feelings. What I don't have is any feelings that I can say are God-driven. Maybe they are, but I can't tell that from the feeling.

On the ambiguity: just so. Remember, all I wanted to achieve with the definition was to continue the following conversation:

atheist: How can you believe in a God that sends people to hell for not sucking up to him? (Or whatever)
theist: That is not the God I believe in.
atheist: Well, then, what God do you believe in?

So with the definition I gave, I am not trying to convince the atheist of anything, just trying to get him or her to understand what the theist is thinking. Now the fact that the definition gets ambiguous when pressed (as it must) is really only a problem for the theist. The atheist can just forget about it. The way I deal with this problem is through the logic of contrafactory identity. Of course, this logic is not Aristotelian, but I call it "logic" in a more general sense: a way of thinking, which in this case is a way of thinking useful when that which one thinks about is a mystery.

On the Buddhists, it is from Buddhists that I learned about this logic. True, it is a stretch to say that most practicing Buddhists are following a path of reason. So perhaps I should modify what I said to say "Middle Way" Buddhists are doing so, based on the thinking of Nagarjuna, and perhaps most diligently pursued by the Gelukba sect of Tibetan Buddhism (of which the Dalai Lama is the head). The practitioner is not just told that the self has no inherent existence, but is told to convince himself of it -- by assuming it does and see that it leads to contradictions.

Anonymous said...

I got you now, absolutely.

I'm coming across your writing for the first time so the context with which I'm coming from is reading this one topic. So I appologize for sounding crude or intrusive...

psybertron said...

Scott - welcome to the blogosphere. I pointed the MoQ.Dicuss forum at Sam's reasonable atheism thread (they were, still are debating Sam Harris over there) but got no takers.

scott roberts said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for the welcome, though I still think of the enterprise (blogging, my blogging in particular) as an experiment, to be constantly re-evaluated.

Anonymous said...

ALL of the God and Gods of Man, whether "male" or "female" in their descriptive gender,are merly the personal and collective tribal, and entirely dualistic, or conventionally subject-object-bound myths and projections of the human mind.

This also, and perhaps especially, applies to mono-theistic god ideas, because the proponents of mono-theism most often, and quite wrongly, presume that their God is both superior to all other god ideas, and that it is non-dualistic.

They also thus presume that their "one-true-god" gives them an inherent right to convert by whatever means necessary, ALL other peoples and cultures of the world.

Christianity and Islam specialize in this attitude and tactic.

Savaty Lewis said...

If you are going to define "real" as a (subjective) decision, and "exists" as an empirical object, then what is "truth"? Is truth real because you decided it should be, or that truth exists because it is an empirical object? I disagree with your definition because it won't let me say as true that a thing exists, even if it is not empirical. "Real", or reality, is a set of objective facts the mind adheres to, it is not something a healthy mind has much choice about. To say that something is real is to state that it is objectively true, and that is not determined by a mere opinion.

You are misusing language. If you say "God is real", this language is stating it as objective fact, not that it is your opinion. To say "God exists" can be true even if there is no empirical evidence, so long as it has more weight compared to contrary opinions ("God does not exist") by having doubt to its truth removed.

Any definition you make of the word "God" is going to be arbitrary without some sort of revelation. The highest thing we can conceive of is a thing that transcends everything. You may want to start there when defining any god-like things. The only way we can access that transcendent thing is if it comes down to our level somehow (aside from becoming transcendent ourselves).

So, which statement is truer, that "there is a thing that transcends everything", or "there is no thing that transcends everything"? It is really impossible to tell without some sort of revelation.

scott roberts said...


You're misunderstanding me in a couple of ways. I am not saying "I decide what is real". I am saying that "I think X is real" is to say that I base my decisions on X. I could, of course, be wrong.

My motivation in making the distinction between 'real' and 'exists' is revelation, in particular the revelations of mystics such as Eckhart and Merrell-Wolff (and many others) who say that God is beyond the exists/doesn't exist distinction, beyond the subject/object distinction, and so on. So how can God be an object? Isn't treating God as an object idolatry? Is the perceiver of objects an object? With my distinction I can say that God is not an existent, yet is real. Likewise, the subject.

Bear in mind that I am not saying that this is what 'real' "really means". I am only saying that IF we use 'real' and 'exists' in this way, we can make the distinctions needed to have an informative discussion between atheists and theists. On the other hand, if we say "the real is the objective" we run into problems.