What Do We Mean By ‘God’?

If I were to tell you that a ghreasch exists, a look of confusion would undoubtedly come across your face. Without knowing what a ghreasch is, you have no possible way of comprehending the meaning of my statement. All you can gather from the information provided is that some unknown thing occupies a place somewhere in our physical universe. Now suppose I told you that this ghreasch cares deeply for you and is the most important thing in all of existence. Odds are good that you will try to imagine what this thing is. If it cares for you, it must be loving, and this means it is a being, not an object. Furthermore, love is an emotion displayed by beings which possess a high level of consciousness and mental ability, so this ghreasch must be a sentient being. Then I tell you that this ghreasch transcends the natural world, it is above and beyond anything found in our universe, so our finite minds functioning in this natural world will never really understand it. What have I actually told you about the ghreasch? The only description I have communicated is flawed by my own admission, characterized by vague naturalistic concepts that cannot accurately describe a supernatural (read non-natural) being. In short, we are right back at square one.

The question of god’s existence is an age old issue, but it is preceded by one far more important question. Before we can determine whether or not any god exists, we must determine what is being posited. To assert that god exists without defining god will leave the door open to sheer speculation and a whole assortment of differing opinions on the identity of god, and this is precisely what we find in our world. The West has a very different view of god than the East. Ancient cultures had a very different view of god than modern cultures. Male dominated societies hold a very different view of god than female dominated societies. Obviously many attempts have been made to define god, but as this article will demonstrate, not a single one of them has any explanatory power. With no useful idea of what god is, it becomes nonsensical to state that god exists, and nearly all the doctrines and dogmas of every theology are cast into serious doubt. This is one of the greatest difficulties faced by theism: to dispel the troubling incoherence of god.

I. Defining the Undefinable

I know of no theist who would claim that god can be fully known by human minds. ‘His ways are higher than our ways,’ as they often state. The incoherence of god is not the product of irreligious reasoning, but it is implied in the beliefs of theists themselves. “[N]o one can fathom” the greatness or understanding of god, according to Psalm 145:3 and Isaiah 40:28. Despite the widespread profession that god is above human understanding, that he is indescribable, ineffable, and inconceivable, many attributes and characteristics have been attached to him, and countless theologians have attempted to define him. It is not surprising that such measures are undertaken, though, since it is extraordinarily absurd to have faith in something without some knowledge of what it is that you have faith in. If a believer encourages someone to have faith in god, and the person asks what god is, a response of ‘I don’t really know’ will not be satisfying, for obvious reasons.

Maintaining a belief in that which you have no knowledge of is untenable and unlivable. Evidence of this truth can be found from the definitions of god that have been provided by theists for centuries, incorporated into texts like the Bible as well. To believe in something requires an idea of what that something is, and even if there is nothing but a name, our minds will fill in details, perhaps subconsciously at times. When I conceived of the ghreasch, I thought of it as something green and greasy, because of the similarity of the words. God was introduced to human language as a label for the things we did not understand, like rainfall, the sunrise, lightning, and our own origins. Mystery is central to the etymology of god, yet for every unknown that we designate to god’s responsibility, we define god accordingly. Predictably, when the mystery is later stripped away by coherent explanations, god is deprived of some of its roles, and left as hollow as it began.

II. Finding Meaning in Definitions

The overwhelming majority of definitions for god involve negative statements, defining god by what god is not. God is said to be immaterial, which means he is not physical matter. God is said to be immutable, which means he is not able to be moved. He is said to be invisible, which means he is not able to be seen. Even saying god is eternal or infinite is negative, meaning that he is not temporal or finite. The ‘omnis’ of god (omnipotence, omniscience, etc.) are negative attributes too, because they describe how god is not limited in power, knowledge, love, or presence. Negative statements also presume to know what god is, because before one can claim to know what something is not, some knowledge must exist of what the thing IS. You can only say with authority that someone is not blond, for example, if you have observed that they are a redhead or a brunette. Consequently, negative attributes really tell us nothing about what a thing is. Taken alone, the statement ‘Lindsay is not blond’ does not give us any information about what her hair color really is. To truly understand what something is, we need positive attributes, and not just any kind.

Primary attributes identify the basic or fundamental nature of the thing in question. Every being has its own nature from which its capacities or characteristics follow. Without knowing these primary attributes, we only have the subjective outsider’s way of defining a thing, and there is a large margin of error. Secondary attributes are the characteristics and capacities of the thing in question. Examples of secondary attributes would be descriptions of a being that is powerful, intelligent, caring, and so forth. Relational attributes are how the thing in question relates or interacts with other things. Examples of relational attributes would be descriptions of how a being is tall, large, unique, etc. To say that a being is tall, large, or unique begs the question of what they are being compared to, because these descriptions do not make sense apart from relationships to other things.

Putting all these criteria into action, suppose I told you that the ghreasch is intelligent, not human, it’s greater, responsive, and beautiful. Does this tell you anything about what kind of being the ghreasch is? Not at all. It could be a dog, a dolphin, a butterfly, a lizard, or a bird. The possibilities are virtually endless, and so we still have no useful idea of what a ghreasch is. You might also notice that every attribute just mentioned can apply, and has been applied, to god. In fact, every definition of god suffers from these same problems. Saying that god is loving is a secondary attribute. Calling him just is also a secondary attribute. Saying that he is infallible is a negative attribute. None of this actually defines what god is. It may tell us about its personality, but until we can come up with some primary, positive attributes, we cannot know whether this personality really follows from god’s nature, or whether it is just the projection of human nature onto god.

However, another definition offered for god is what will unravel this question, once again to the detriment of those attempting to coherently define the supreme being.

III. Supernatural Incompatible

Think of what it may be like for an ant to come across a human being. If the ant could communicate its experience, what would it say? There is a good chance that it would describe the human exclusively in terms relating to the ant world. There is no reason to assume that it would know a thing about our nature, and so it might describe our ears as strange antennae, think that our hairy exteriors are bizarre exoskeleton coverings, and so forth. All creatures think and evaluate things according to their own perception of reality. Naturally, we human beings tend to anthropomorphize other animals and think of reality in a way that conforms to our egos. As the ant may think things of human beings that are totally off-base, could we not think things of a superior being that are also totally off-base?

God is not simply defined as a superior being, but as a supernatural being too. Supernatural refers to things that are outside the scope of the natural realm. Everything in the universe is natural, including invisible forces like gravity, because their effects upon the natural world can be observed and measured. Saying that something is supernatural is just a nicer way of saying that it is unnatural. A similar word describing god is ‘metaphysical’, which means that something is beyond the physical world. The usefulness of putting god outside of physical and natural reality is that he is impervious to scientific evaluation. A god that is invisible and indescribable, yet exists within our natural world, may just as well be said not to exist when evidence for it does not turn up. But a god that is invisible and indescribable, yet exists outside the natural world, is purportedly out of the reach of science.

Classifying god as a supernatural being has its problems, though. When attributes like love, justice, compassion, and grace are assigned to an allegedly unfathomable and supernatural being, we reduce the supernatural to the natural, because all those attributes are known to us only from the natural world. Love and justice only exist in the relationships between things, yet many Christians will assert that god is the ultimate source of love, that he was loving even before he created Adam and Eve. What are love and justice when only one being exists? What are any of these ideas when divorced from the context of human history in the natural world? When removed from that context, they all lose their meaning, because we have no way of knowing what any of these characteristics are like for a supernatural being to exhibit, since they are natural characteristics by definition.

The philosopher George H. Smith takes this realization one step further, to argue that a supernatural being cannot possess any nature or attributes whatsoever:

To be is to be something as opposed to nothing, and to be something is to be something specific. If a god is to have any characteristics (which it must to exist), these characteristics must be specific – but to assign definite attributes, to say that a being is this as opposed to that, is to limit the capacities of that being and subject it to the uniformity imposed by those capacities. A supernatural being, if it is to differ in kind from natural existence, must exist without a limited nature – which amounts to existing without any nature at all.1

Positing god as a supernatural being not only fails to tell us what god actually is, but it also prevents any coherent explanation from being made. Even if we grant the possibility that some people have had experiences with the supernatural, the fact remains that they themselves are still natural beings, and as a 3-dimensional figure would appear only as a line in a 2-dimensional realm, there is good reason to think a natural being experiencing a supernatural event would have a very distorted perception of the event – not to mention a naturalistic vocabulary that would struggle to describe even his own distorted perception.

IV. The Implications of Incoherence

Failing to define their deity, theists will almost inevitably retreat to claiming that man cannot comprehend god, and our attempts at understanding will always fall short. In their eyes, such a statement is a way to end the dispute when trouble arises, without owning up to the heavy problems involved in their faith. Their retreat is not into safety, though, because they indirectly admit to the incoherence of god. If man is so incapable of knowing god, the theist acknowledges that all of his own assertions are on weak and unstable ground. If we cannot know what his god is, then we cannot possibly know if it exists. The implications of this are not something believers like to contemplate. If you do not actually know what it is that you have faith in, you have faith in nothing. With no coherent and positive ontology, theism is nothing but a species of agnosticism in denial of itself.

 

Sources:
1. George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Prometheus, 1974), p. 41.