What Does It Mean For God To Exist, Think, And Act?

It’s always comforting to (seemingly) settle hard questions in thirty seconds. But as a matter of logic, if space-time is the condition for existence, and existence is bound up with space-time (as Einstein proposed), then in what sense could God possibly exist, think, or act outside of space-time?

The very concept of being is itself entangled in questions surrounding space-time. So the problem with someone saying that God exists, thinks, and acts outside of space-time is in definition. What does it mean to say that something “exists” outside of space-time, or that something “thinks” or “acts” outside of space-time?

Because thinking and acting are processes, thinking and acting necessarily require space-time as a condition for their functioning. One’s thoughts shift in relation to space-time; one’s actions shift in relation to space-time. So when someone says that God exists, thinks, and acts, making a world, she or he must be using the words “exist,” “think,” and “act” in a manner that is very different from their conventional use. But by shifting the meaning of the words without redefining them to the new context, the person essentially talks gibberish. It’s akin to calling God “good.” In what sense is God “good” after having let the Holocaust happen?

If skeptical questions surrounding God’s existence and relation to the cosmos were as easily slapped down as religious apologists so frequently imply, then (one would think) the geniuses of the past several hundred years–from Spinoza to Stephen Hawking–would not have puzzled over space and time quite so intensively, and drawn such starkly different conclusions about what it means to “exist.” In a cosmos where God isn’t talking, the more honest responses to the question of God’s existence are “I don’t know” and “Define God.”

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About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, Genesis, God, God, Lucretius, philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What Does It Mean For God To Exist, Think, And Act?

  1. Anonymous says:

    If space-time exists. Why?

  2. Vincent says:

    For God, or anything to exist, it means there are self-existing principles that we have yet to understand. (That frequent question of why is there something rather than nothing?) It means it is more “natural” to exist than not to exist. So, is God the first “exister”? Or are we all “coeval”? But, if these self-existing principles brought about what we call God why not an infinite number of Gods? Why just one? If just one God, when did this one God decide He/She/It/Conscious Thing was alone? Where was God’s reference point? We all believe God is love. Well, love needs on object to love. So, did God “create” objects to love? Can this process of the creation of us be a form of reproduction? We see the process of reproduction all around us. Why would God(s) be any different in what may now be an eternal principle of reproduction. So, not only would we owe our existence to now God our father, we also seem to wonder why God also gave us what may be an eternal principle of “free agency” to accept or reject God’s love. But why? Well, if God is our father and we His children came about through His reproduction method it seems through an extensive learning period….children can grow-up to become like their Parents. Thus new Gods. We now get ready for the regressive infinity thought of who was God’s Father, and God’s Father Father………… (As a personal note to you, I am gratful for God’s reproduction-creation of a good friend named Santi who is getting well)

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Vincent,

      You wrote, “For God, or anything to exist, it means there are self-existing principles that we have yet to understand. (That frequent question of why is there something rather than nothing?) It means it is more “natural” to exist than not to exist. So, is God the first “exister”? Or are we all “coeval”?”

      You ask good questions here. But Nagarjuna, the Indian philosopher from about two millennia ago, had a provocative take on the idea that anything “self-exists” (the term you use) in the first place. He noticed that, since everything is actually changing as we speak, is interconnected, and consists of parts, then there is no self-existence. In other words, there are no (as you put it) “self-existing principles.” Existence and non-existence actually go together (everything is here and not here at the same time). Each thing at bottom depends on everything else–including nonexistence–for it to exist and is, therefore, actually empty of self-existence. (The Buddhist term for emptiness is shunyata.) You couldn’t have the pot (for instance) without the space of emptiness (nothingness) within the pot.

      So what is the pot: the clay or the emptiness?

      Nagarjuna’s formula for describing any object that gives the appearance of self-existence is to say that at one level it obviously exists, but at another level it clearly does not: “No flower in the flower.” Look closely at a flower, and it quickly dissolves into parts (petals, stem, cells, atoms, etc.).

      Thus Nagarjuna’s formula (which he would also apply to gods) is fourfold, and he puts it in the following manner: “Everything is real (tathyam), not real, both real and not real, and neither real nor not real.”

      That’s all one can ultimately say about any existent being, according to Nagarjuna. So even if God exists, God is webbed-in with our own existence. God as an idea is part, as it were, of the jeweled net of Indra. Spinoza is a nice example of a western intellectual who drew a similar conclusion to Nagarjuna’s. He thought it was a matter of logical necessity that all existent things, if put in theological terms, exist as modes of God. So when you ask, “Are we all coeval?”–that is (if I understand your point), are we all together in this (the creator and the creation, the pot and the emptiness, etc.), then I think you’re intuiting what Nagarjuna and Spinoza did, and that the answer (in their terms) is yes.

      But Catholics, following Thomas Aquinas, have a different take. Aquinas argues that all things have real essences; that things self-exist. God also self-exists, independent of the creation. God doesn’t need the creation to exist. So the question becomes a delving into Aquinas and Nagarjuna (and Spinoza), and asking which of these thinkers makes the most sense to you.

      I’m inclined to go with Nagarjuna’s fourfold analysis. It is decidedly ecological in sensibility, which I like, and you can make each of these statements plausibly, in turn, at a certain level of focus: “Everything is real (tathyam), not real, both real and not real, and neither real nor not real.”

      But the rest is silence. To try to say more than this is to reach beyond the power of language to apprehend ultimate reality.

      In this sense, Nagarjuna also strikes me as fitting rather nicely with Heisenberg’s insight surrounding uncertainty in particle physics: you can measure and say something about the speed of an electron, or its location, but not both at the same time.

      God is a ghost bird, akin to an electron, as are we all. Who, ultimately, is the you that reads this? Who, ultimately, is the me that writes this? Where, exactly, can we be pinned down as self-existent, separate from everything else in the cosmos? Aren’t we all–even God–like ghost birds that are here, not here, both here and not here, neither here nor not here?

      If you’ve never seen this documentary, I recommend it. It is a trope for Nagarjuna’s philosophy and the God question, in my view. Lots of fun.

      Nice talking with you! Feel free to keep the conversation going. : )

      • Anonymous says:

        So loud and medley on my computer that I am going to cut it off in apkjgjewv;j /////

  3. Vincent says:

    Hello,

    Yes! It is “Lots of fun.” (Anonymous, put in your ear plugs)

    Okay, I had to Google Nagarjuna. Using him as a reference point for one’s reality in dealing with life and with other people and all other living things is an okay thing. I do wonder about the end result of our life on this earth with the Buddhist belief. I still tend to want purpose in our current existence with an individual eternal existence. I’m still trying to intellectually digest the phrase: “Everything is real (tathyam), not real, both real and not real, and neither real nor not real.” This alone leans me toward Thomas Aquinas but this could be a cultural thing as I was brought up Catholic. I also have some lack of a purpose issue with Spinoza and his un-loving, un-passionate, everywhere Nature essence of his God. Seems impersonal. I like the duality of Descartes.

    I have a basic view on the diversity of philosophy and religions in this world. I want to go through life with a belief in a God. This feels more grounding. I believe that no one book, or one man, or one philosophy or religion on earth speaks exclusively for God. I also believe that any philosophy or religion is acceptable to God that does no harm, that allows others to believe as they wish, that allows freedom of thought and expression, which is equal to both men and women, holds all life sacred, and does not include a belief in a God who would allow any form of eternal suffering.

    The above beliefs are not without challenges. Diversity, freedom of thought, free-will bring about the challenge of handling tensions and conflict. But, if a key aspect of living in the eternities is Diversity because of free-will, then this is purpose. This means I believe in life after death. For if there is not eternal life that sustains our individuality then this life has no meaning.

    I know all this may sound morally didactic but look at this as one person’s reality to get through this life. One more thing on evil and suffering in an eternal perspective; I also believe we should not grieve too much from the suffering and injustices which men do to each other on this earth. This, I believe, is the result of the eternal law of free agency. God is not involved and does not choose who suffers and who does not. (Yes, a Spinoza thought) Viewed in the eternal perspective these tragedies are a mere incident in time. For, I believe, there is no tragedy, no accident, and no human atrocity that God cannot bake right in the hereafter.

    The above I can digest, I’m happy. If Nagarjuna is somewhat right, then this is my delusion. Let everyone live their delusions as long as they do no harm to mine. One day we will know. Oh, another delusion.
    Vincent

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Vincent,

      My chief critique of what you’re saying above is that you’re too unillusioned to pretend that you are illusioned, as when you write the following: “Let everyone live their delusions as long as they do no harm to mine.” The very fact that you know that your illusions are forms of wishful thinking (eternal life; it all comes out okay in the end) means that you are insufficiently illusioned for these beliefs to really be of powerful benefit to you. It’s as if you’re drinking watered-down wine. You only get the full buzz if you’re wholly illusioned. That’s the gift of the gods–full, delirious illusion. They bring us suffering, but they also bring us a compensation: wine (ala the god Dionysus, the god of illusion). Lose the wine (the delusion), or water it down, and you’ve become Hamlet, and all 21st century people are Hamlets–even fundamentalist Muslims and Christians. No one can escape the suspicion that they might be wrong. In the Internet age, no one can isolate themselves sufficiently to dodge other plausible vantages for seeing. An opposite vantage is always just a Google click away. (Nagarjuna’s “Everything is real (tathyam), not real, both real and not real, and neither real nor not real” carried on with a vengeance via the mad dash of electrons across the worldwide web.)

      In ancient Greek tragedy, a character is not tragic, strictly speaking, until the spell of Dionysus breaks for the character (they emerge sober after a night of drinking; the mother who thought she was reveling with other women in the forest at night, hunting a lion, realizes that she was in fact hunting her son, etc.). (That latter is the punchline of Euripides’ great play, The Bacchai).

      Put another way, by being ironic about our illusions (that is, by being 21st century, disillusioned people), we’re now tripping together over Kafka’s rope. Kafka has a little parable that goes like this: “The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked along.” I take this to mean that this is God’s malicious joke on us. Whatever we say about God, suffering, etc.–and however we choose to live–we invariably find ourselves too near to the ground (limited in perspective) to really know we’re on the right intellectual track or really doing the right thing, and so we experience the dis-ease of always being wobbly, unbalanced, struggling for some sort of control (or illusion of control). We are condemned in this life to never really walk with anything like perfect comfort or stability. We’re either, if we’re paying attention, realizing that we’re about to fall from what we’ve hitherto taken to be the “true way”–or, if we’re not paying attention, the true way is passively in-waiting, ever-ready to trip us up, like a tripwire (fresh data–inconvenient facts–don’t fit the path we’re on, rudely disrupting it).

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Hi Vincent,

      Another quick thought. I totally agree with you about the impersonal nature of Spinoza’s God and Buddha’s barely concealed nihilism, and how unsatisfactory these make their views on an emotional level, but I also think Nietzsche would then ask us to take a very deep breath and face head on nihilism and God’s impersonal nature (or perhaps even nonexistence). Nature and God care for us not, it is quite evident. But Nietzsche’s solution is not Spinoza’s or the Buddha’s. Nietzsche’s solution: become an active, Trump-like Nietzschean!

      Become, in other words, “a killer,” (to use Trump’s favorite phrase)–not a passive Buddhist or gentle follower of the gentle Spinoza. “Roll your cart over the bones of the dead,” wrote the poet William Blake in an apparently giddy, proto-Nietzchean mood.

      For role models, Nietzsche turned to the ancient, pre-Socratic Greeks. (Nietzsche thought Socrates was too wussy for a model of how to live). But those original warriors (“killers”) of Western civilization; the proto-fascist promoters of both marshal virtues and manly virtues–and creative, passionate living–Nietzsche liked. Follow the path of the Spartans or Athenians! They were so unlike the womanly Christ, etc.

      But once we let Nietzsche into the conversation, things get really complicated, don’t they? What to do, what to do, Hamlet?

      I like the following exchange between Bodhidharma (the Indian who first brought Buddhism to China) and the emperor of that time:

      Emperor: “What is the highest meaning of the holy truths?”
      Bodhidharma: “Empty, without holiness.”
      Emperor: “Who is facing me?”
      Bodhidharma: “I don’t know.”

      The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to get comfortable with uncertainty; a life of doubt as a spiritual path (the heat one chooses to work with as opposed to papering life over with implausible and false hopes).

  4. Vincent says:

    Hello again,
    Now Nietzsche!!! Nililism was his god which was very much “not dead” in his life. The search for a God or a non-god seems to have been around since the beginning of earthly time. What a great forum to discuss these things. Now a story and what may sound like a little preaching but is really just a personal view point.

    There was a young man who wanted to find God. Pondering that God was in the heavens he proceeded to build a tower to reach Him. He consulted many scientists, philosophers, and builders for his project and design.

    He worked day and night building his tower, only stopping to eat and rest. As his tower reached a great height he climbed to the top and called out “God, God, Where Are You?” Not receiving an answer he continued to build his tower higher and higher, stopping periodically to call for God to answer him.

    The young man’s search for God was done at great sacrifice to himself and to his family and friends. For the singleness of his task caused him to withdraw from normal social and family interactions. The young man was so sure of what he was doing that he actually felt others should be helping him and joining him in his labor of building the tower.

    Much time passed and the young man’s tower was so high that the top of it could not be seen by the people below. The young man became very weary from his labor and from his calling for God to show Himself from the top of his tower.

    Finally the young man decided to complete his tower upon reaching its next level. The young man climbed to the top of his tower and with every strength of his being yelled, “God, God, Where Are You?”

    And God answered…”HERE!”
    “Where? Where?”… the young man replied, looking up.
    And God answered…”Down here among the people.”

    Individuals build many types of towers to find God, or a different reality. Some take drugs, achieve academic heights, others seek power, and some immerse themselves in religious doctrine, rites, and customs. Any of these taken to an extreme will alienate and cause a person to withdraw from the main stream of where the people are. I like the elements of a balanced life approach used by many therapists:

    A problem which disrupts a person’s total life is an indication of an imbalance between four major areas. For a person to be balanced, grounded, or centered, he/she must be functioning in all of the following:

    1) BIOLOGICAL: Good nutrition, exercise, rest, sexual release.
    2) PSYCHOLOGICAL: Emotional needs met, self-worth, to love,
    feeling loved, being loved, bonded with mate.
    3) SOCIOLOGICAL: Friendships, recreation, social involvements,
    hobbies, courtship.
    4) SPIRITUAL: Belief system, hopeful, sense of purpose, service
    to others, spiritual union with mate.

    A person having difficulties in life usually is unbalanced in one or more of the above areas. You must be functioning in all four for a healthy balanced life.

    The reality of our current existence encompasses physical, social, and spiritual elements. To fulfill the measure of our current creation we must learn to function within all these basic environments somewhat equally. We should not become so obsessed with one element of any single aspect of these environments that it causes us to isolate and limit us from experiencing the true purpose of our current reality.

    There is no question that we are functioning on a physical plane in this reality. I am sure there are existences in our past or future which are based on a more spiritual plane, but, that is there and not here and now.

    It is assumed by some that God lives and functions strictly on a spiritual plane and that He wants us to try and live on that plane while we are in this physical plane. Who says so? Certainly there are stresses involved in trying to live outside our natures.

    I like the well known passage of Ecclesiastes 3:1-5:

    “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose
    under the heaven…a time to be born…a time to die…a time to
    cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together…a time to
    embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”

    We do have the ability to recognize eternal truths of past and potential future realities. Having this knowledge does not mean that we have to try and live them in our current reality. To do so could cause us to function “out of season” and to “embrace” that which we should “refrain from embracing”.

    The purpose of our current reality is to experience physical life, to learn through joy and sorrow, and how to give service to others. It is not our purpose to isolate ourselves by building scientific, philosophical or spiritual towers away from the people…or away from our current reality. So, I like to keep it simple…. “If you’re thinking you are.”

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