Picture: God. I worry sometimes about God. I suppose I’ve been a fairly consistent atheist all my life, though not particularly zealous: I realise that many people far cleverer than me have been committed believers in one religion or another and have written enlightening stuff about it which is well worth anyone’s time to read. I don’t really understand the apparently visceral hostility which people like Richard Dawkins display towards theism; for me it’s more that in itself it doesn’t seem a useful idea; instead it seems to be among the wilder pieces of metaphysics you could go in for (I enjoy wild metaphysics, of course – nothing better – but I don’t adopt it). Be that as it may, I used to think that certain conceptions of God were rationally available if you wanted them. ‘Geometrical’ Gods would be one example, where you just define something like ‘the universal total of awareness’ or ‘the origin of everything’ as God, and then stick to it even though on careful examination your defined entity turns out to bear no apparent resemblance to the one people talk to in church. A little more scary, Gods that are absent, indifferent, unkind, or systematically deceptive seemed viable enough so long as you realise they’re not really going to do any useful ontological work for you. They have a tendency to leave you with a theoretical mess slightly worse than the one you had to begin with, but if you want you can bring them along for the ride without egregious inconsistency.

Or so I thought: but in recent years I feel it’s been getting more difficult to accommodate the idea of a non-material conscious entity. In the old days, when we had no idea how any of this worked, God was useful as the source of consciousness: he’s got it and he bestows it on us. This view has not gone away and perhaps a modern version might be Peter Russell’s equation of God and consciousness. If our consciousnesses are God it puts a strangely introverted complexion on prayer; but I think what he really means is that our consciousnesses are fragments of the universal version which is God. For me, that has too strong a flavour of gnosticism (roughly, the belief that we’re all fragments of a divine being trapped by a ghastly cosmic accident in lumps of meat, and subject to a demiurge who falsely believes himself to be God. Why is gnosticism so popular, by the way? The secret esoteric doctrine always turns out to be gnostic. Come on, you heresiarchs: I was promised wild metaphysics!): I’m afraid for me gnosticism is one of those doctrines that resemble the legendary town in the mid-west of America that had a big sign saying Friend, if you’ve ended up here, you musta got on the wrong train somewhere.

At any rate, I find myself more in sympathy with Matt McCormick’s case that an omnipresent God wouldn’t be able to think because of his inability to draw the distinction between himself and the rest of the world. Although McCormick makes a cogent case, a determined theist could probably lash together a way of dealing with the problem of conscious omnipresence, but then there are others, possibly worse, associated with omniscience. God knows everything at once: he doesn’t suffer from our form of the binding problem (the issue of how our brain makes a smooth coherent sequence out of sounds, vision, touch, etc) because all the correct things are linked up; but has a worse one of his own because everything is bound with everything else. He can’t perceive some events as simultaneous and others as not, because he can’t stop thinking about any of them. How right the theologians were then, to say he lived in eternity rather than time: it was bound to look like eternity to him, at any rate, because he’s incapable of perceiving change.

But surely that’s all wrong: God can’t have a binding problem because the binding problem relates to the synchronisation of sensory data; and as a non-material being, he can’t have any senses (to see, you need material parts that can be affected by light, for example).  But then he needs no senses, because he already knows where everything is and what it looks like. What he has a problem with is coherence and progression. Consciousness, we know, is a stream, and thought is a sequence, but it seems God is going to be incapable of either because everything is constantly in his mind.

But again, perhaps that to is wrong, and we need to distinguish between what God knows and what he’s actually thinking about. We, after all, know lots of things without having them constantly in mind. That’s an attractive way of looking at it because it suggests that although God knows about your sins, he will most likely never get round to giving them any attention, given all the things he has to think about – a comforting if heterodox view.

Picking on the ‘omni’ problems – omnipotence has its own long-standing difficulties – may be attacking a soft target; unfortunately there are less abstract ones, too. We sort of know by now that consciousness is associated with the activity of complex neural structures, and an immaterial God hasn’t got neurons. We sort of know, too, that consciousness is associated with a family of cognitive abilities displayed in different degrees by different animals and arising out of a long process of evolution. We can see these abilites as being about the linking of sensory inputs and behavioural outputs, all the way from simple tropisms and reflexes through instinctive and thoughtful behaviour all the way to our largely detached meditations. We’ve already noted that God has no sensory inputs, and it’s a little hard to see how a non-material being can have material outputs either. Our minds grew out of processes intimately connected with the needs of a physical animal – the ‘three Fs’ of feeding, fighting, and reproducing, all of which seem to be at best optional extras as far as God is concerned. Why would an immaterial being ever go through cognitive processes primarily designed to facilitate existence in a domain entirely alien to it, and if it did, what could it use to implement those processes?

Perhaps a theist would say that I’m harping far too much on the lower aspects of consciousness: sure, it helps us avoid the sabre-tooths and chip flints, and obviously God isn’t much bothered in those areas; but what about the fancier aspects: what about qualia? A while back there did seem to be a move to recruit the Hard Problem as a crack in the otherwise solid wall of materialism which God might slip through, but it’s hard to see how God could have phenomenal experience. To begin with, it seems he doesn’t have sensory experience at all, for the reasons mentioned above; then again, if qualia are merely a matter of knowing what x is like he must have them in horrifying, mind-crushing, infinite simultaneous abundance.

What about intentionality, though? Perhaps God is a being composed of pure meaning, which would nicely account for his non-materiality. It looks attractive, but we surely don’t want God locked up in the Platonic realm where could have only the status of an inert abstraction.  Yet in the ordinary world intentionality only appears in two places: things made meaningful by us, and in those same old complex neural assemblies our brains, which God hasn’t got.

These random noodlings of mine don’t, of course, come near ruling out every possible conception of God (in fact the old man with a beard sitting on clouds starts to look pretty good, so long as he’s not immaterial); but he seems to be slowly getting more and more problematic. In the past it’s always been possible to shrug and take it that God is so far above our comprehension we shouldn’t expect all the answers; but the conclusion that God can’t be conscious seems too alarming and at the same time too clear to be dismissed.

47 Comments

  1. 1. Ariston says:

    This should not be surprising to any mildly sophisticated theist, because the idea of having humanlike deliberative consciousness—except in the person of Christ, for Christians—has explicitly rejected by multiple theologians over the years, perhaps most completely by the Byzantine figure Maximus the Confessor.

    The view of God here is one of the philosophical mythology—the God who makes passable the aporias. It’s the God of the deists, or Hegel or Whitehead, but not that of the traditional religions which posit God. The anthropological language here is probably meant to be comic, but it also is comic in a lower sense: “…he must have them in horrifying, mind-crushing, infinite simultaneous abundance.” I imagine that such simultaneity would be overwhelming; therefore, it is overwhelming for any imaginable entity called “conscious”. QED, or something.

  2. 2. Tweets that mention Conscious Entities » Blog Archive » God’s consciousness -- Topsy.com says:

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  3. 3. Steve Esser says:

    I know theologians will refute us with intricate arguments, but I agree. God can’t have consciousness or agency the way we do, since ours is inextricably tied up with our relating to our environment. God doesn’t have an outside environment. If he does, then he’s not the “highest one”, i.e. he’s not God.

  4. 4. Ariston says:

    Steve,

    That God does not have consciousness or agency as we do is exactly the point of long discussions within the theological tradition. There was an entire major council in Christianity over the issue of God’s will and human willing, noting in part that they were different enough that, in order for the doctrine of Christ to hold, he had to have both God’s will and a human–like will. The interesting corollary of this is that, by this, God has the experience of human–like cognition in–the–world, while also having the experience which is uniquely God–like. I am suspecting that the problem here is that ideas of sentience based on human–like cognition proposed in neuroscience or AI research has impoverished the range of consciousness we would possibly envision.

    What I find so disappointing about this piece in particular—I’ve been following the blog for a while—is that our host is highly intellectually honest and does not share the vitriol of the “New Atheists” towards any theological reading, but it does not seem to have occurred to him to look beyond the narrow range of theology that typically gets approached in modern philosophy departments. I showed this post to a friend of mine, and she mentioned that this is a peculiar way of thinking: We tend to look to our contemporaries and immediate forebears, but not far beyond, except in cursory ways, such as how ancient philosophy was approached in my undergraduate years. Within the confines of such thought, this is good enough; the problem is the poverty.

  5. 5. Matt McCormick says:

    Interesting post. This topic hasn’t received nearly the attention that it deserves. Thanks for noting my paper. I think you’ve just scratched the surface of the issue.

    Another really central and obvious problem: we have no encounters, no examples, and no research that would indicate that a mind without a brain is possible. As far as we can ascertain, there has never been a mind that has existed without a brain to generate its thoughts. A brainless mind might be logically possible, I suppose, but there is a substantial burden of proof to elevate that mere possibility to a likelihood that might be believable. So if God is conscious in any non-trivial and non ad hoc sense, if he has a mind, then where is his brain? It sounds like a silly question, but, seriously, why should we even entertain the idea that such a being with no physical brain has consciousness when we’ve got so much counter evidence? Unless there is a God brain, or some impressive evidence (besides metaphysical gymnastics from theologians) that he doesn’t need one, I don’t see any reason to take the notion of God consciousness seriously.

    Matt McCormick

  6. 6. Steve Esser says:

    Thanks Ariston: I understand the stipulation on the part of Christians that God must have both a God-like and human-like will, etc. The problem is that we need an argument convincing to non-religious folks. I’m not that well-read, but the philosophical arguments for God I have found most convincing lead to a impersonal sort of entity or power (the cosmological argument from contingency is my favorite). I endeavor to keep an open mind on this, and always appreciate suggestions for further reading.

  7. 7. Doru says:

    Since it seems to cover most of my answers, the inclination is towards the “Trinity” concept:
    Father/Son/Holly Spirit,
    Past/Present/Future,
    Metaphysical/Physical/Non physical,
    Though/Decision/Action,
    Cortex/Mammal brain/Reptilian brain etc.

  8. 8. Kar Lee says:

    Peter,
    I really enjoy reading your post. But I also understand why some readers may feel slightly uncomfortable. For the believers, theology (Christian or otherwise) has withstood the test of time many times over. It has achieved unprecedented self-consistency. Any inconsistency has already been “smoothed” out. For example, the concept of an all-knowing God and a human with free-will is intrinsically incompatible. But within theology, this has been “explained away” (I have to admit that I don’t follow the explanation.)

    Anyway, what I would like to comment on is to go back to “Friend, if you’ve ended up here, you musta got on the wrong train somewhere.”

    I have not heard of Peter Russell before. But following your link to his website and wah lah… I see a guy who is talking about the Universal Mind as God! This is probably not what you refer to as gnosticism. I can understand the talk of “divinity in us” through the lens of the Universal Mind concept. The idea that the “God” in us is what is responsible for the qualia we have looks extremely interesting. I can take this kind of god as the “God”. That’s why the claim: “We are God”, or rather, we are all just different points of view of the same God. Or “The Universe has different views of itself through you and me”(Max Velmans). And the universe has been elevated to the level of a conscious being and has become God.

    All these kind of talks will be completely unnecessary if not because of the Hard Problem. But with the Hard Problem, even more weird solution is imaginable.

    And of course, depending on where you start, you can end up with the conclusion that “God” cannot have qualia, along the line of argument of Matt McCormick. I would say that is an entirely different concept of God (actually the more traditional one, which you seem to have adopted).

  9. 9. Vicente says:

    Ah, whenever I think of God concept and attributes I end up in Spinoza’s Deus sive nature God bless him !!

    Peter your text evokes one of those M.C. Escher pictures….

  10. 10. Peter says:

    Matt – many thanks for the comment. Quite right about scratching the surface!

    Ariston – As Steve says, suggestions for reading are always appreciated, but at the moment I’m having a job seeing where you’re coming from on this. One of the things those old theologians spent a lot of time on was the nature of Jesus’ will: the Monothelites asserting he had only one, while the orthodox Chalcedonians, notably Maximus, took the view that he had two: one human, one divine, isn’t that right? I don’t see how to reconcile the divine will with an absence of divine agency. Moreover, isn’t the Bible full of God doing and saying things?

    Kar – I wondered what your view of that Peter Russell page would be! I take the point that you don’t actually have to be a gnostic to believe in a Universal Mind; perhaps I’m prejudiced.

  11. 11. micha says:

    Speaking as an Orthodox rabbi… In our tradition, there is a notion of Negative Theology — that deep down all we can say about God ends up referring to what He isn’t, or to how God appears to us through His actions. (Rabbi Saadia Gaon of Baghdad, Maimonides, etc…)

    In other words, when we speak of God as Omnipresent, we are really approximating the idea that location is a meaningless concept. Etc…

    And yet, we’re expected to have a personal relationship with this Deity.

    Fortunately, human emotions and reason aren’t so tightly coupled as to make that totally impossible. Although in practice it does lead to intellectuals who have a difficulty knowing God rather than knowing about God, and to masses who don’t really want to know more about God.

    My own way out of the thicket is to consider God’s Immanence to be the greatest expression of His Transcendence. An Infinite Deity who can manage the big picture is one thing. One who can do all that AND care about the fate of one puny lump of biochemicals on some rock out there in a not particularly notable location in pretty typical galaxy is far “greater”.

    But in any case, God as a Person is considered in Judaism an illusion. Something God provides because we need a Role Model to emulate. (Sometimes. Children dying of starvation is something He pulls off that I’m pretty sure isn’t for emulation.)

    -micha

  12. 12. Michael Drake says:

    Shorter Phenomenological Apologetics: The fact that God can’t be “conscious” on any arbitrarily well-defined, closely-articulated and soundly-justified conception of consciousness is just proof that God is even more mysterious than we thought.

  13. 13. Rodger Cunningham says:

    I believe it’s orthodox to say that God doesn’t have consciousness because God doesn’t “have” anything, since God is the cause of being rather than “a” being.

    IMHO all arguments for the existence of God are invalid or at least inconclusive because our minds are evolved to deal with particular existents and not the ground of existence. By the same token all arguments for atheism are invalid or at least inconclusive.

    The real question for religious adherents is how on earth, literally, the propertyless God of the theologians could ever get around to actually doing things, as opposed to just being there behind things. It seems an impossible imaginative stretch. But every time I say that, I’m nagged by the thought that this argument from unimaginability is just the one the Intelligent Design types put forward to say we couldn’t have developed from rocks.

  14. 14. Alex says:

    Hi Peter,

    A couple of points, which I hope don’t seem too naive or wrong-headed! I’m a long-time lurker and really enjoy this blog.

    —“They [impersonal conceptions of god] have a tendency to leave you with a theoretical mess slightly worse than the one you had to begin with”

    I like the idea that with or without these conceptions we still have something of a mess in terms of our “theories of everthing”!

    —“it’s been getting more difficult to accommodate the idea of a non-material conscious entity”

    It’s strange, because I would have said it was getting easier. I think quantum physics, cosmology, and indeed the hard problem have all opened up a space between glib conceptions of the material and current scientific theory. Certainly “spooky action at a distance” in quantum physics indicates that there are levels of connectivity in the universe beyond a simple reading of materialism, or particles/electrons/photons moving from one point to the next.

    —“At any rate, I find myself more in sympathy with Matt McCormick’s case that an omnipresent God wouldn’t be able to think because of his inability to draw the distinction between himself and the rest of the world.”

    To be honest, electrons are allowed to exist both as waves and as particles, I’m not sure why God can’t be both omnipresent and yet distinct enough to allow him to have a distance between himself and the rest of the world. God must have some kind of existence aside from the purely physical in any case as a pre-existing entity before the creation of the material universe. It would surely be possible for him/her/it to be fully ‘immersed’ in the totality of the material universe while retaining a centre or anchor outside or beyond it which allowed him to draw a distinction with it. Provided you believe that anything can exist in any way ‘beyond’ the material universe in the first place – if you don’t, your main objection is not really that god cannot be conscious but rather that he cannot exist, which is fair enough.

    —“Consciousness, we know, is a stream, and thought is a sequence, but it seems God is going to be incapable of either because everything is constantly in his mind.”

    I would have said that this is a limited view of consciousness. I think we can imagine a state of conscious awareness which is not a progression or sequence – mediation in some ways tries to approach such a state of awareness without ‘parts’ as it were, and certainly a ‘timeless’ and often ‘thoughtless’ quality is part of most mediative experiences.

    —“We sort of know by now that consciousness is associated with the activity of complex neural structures, and an immaterial God hasn’t got neurons.”

    It’s strange that here you use the same kind of line which others use to deny, for example, that machines could be conscious. It may not be the neurons but the pattern of connections that generate conscious thought, and surely such connections could exist in other ways and substrates than the old grey matter – spooky action at a distance involves a non-material (at least in the naive sense of being open to concrete measurement) connection, as would a quantum computer.

    “if qualia are merely a matter of knowing what x is like he must have them in horrifying, mind-crushing, infinite simultaneous abundance”

    We’re leaping into wild metaphysics here (always fun), but strangely qualia in infinite simultaneous abundance actually seems like a fairly good way of describing something like a ‘god’s eye’ perspective – why you state that they must be horrifying and mind-crushing is a little unclear to me. Certainly, it would be to me, but then I can only concentrate on so many things at once. That said, if I go swimming in the sea I have a large number of qualia flooding in at once – the five main senses in full flow but also additional, rather intoxicating sensations such as a perception of rolling, off-kilter balance via the inner ear. I don’t find swimming in the sea a cacophony of sensation, rather a fairly unified, merged sensation. Synaesthetics as well would argue that multiple qualia are not in some way more confusing or traumatic or even that they are less intelligible. A limited approximation, I know.

    The question here is really whether qualia are ‘material’ or not – and since this is just another way of stating the ‘Hard Problem’, I would say that the answer is still very much in doubt.

    So really I guess the idea that it’s somehow ‘clear’ that God can’t be conscious doesn’t come through to me from the musings you’ve assembled – although I very much enjoyed reading them and think they’re very thought provoking, regardless of substrate!

    best wishes,

    Alex

  15. 15. Vicente says:

    —”Consciousness, we know, is a stream, and thought is a sequence, but it seems God is going to be incapable of either because everything is constantly in his mind.”

    I would have said that this is a limited view of consciousness. I think we can imagine a state of conscious awareness which is not a progression or sequence – mediation in some ways tries to approach such a state of awareness without ‘parts’ as it were, and certainly a ‘timeless’ and often ‘thoughtless’ quality is part of most mediative experiences.

    Very interesting, it seems to me that both things are not compatible because we look at them from our human conscious experience, in which our attention focus or beam is very narrow, we cannot even pay attention to two items or task concurrently. If you say everything is constantly in God’s mind, means that God would have in his focus of attention all the events and items and stuff of EVERYTHING at any time and that blows the need for space and time, and flows and sequences, which result from our kind of consciousness.

    So to begin with we need a kind of consciousness that can pay attention to several “things” simultaneously. This we cannot picture. Discussions about God historically lead to attributes that human minds cannot handle. Although expert meditators claim to have reach states in which the ideas and concepts they “feel” to grab are very different from those in ordinary mind states.

    Nowadays the same happens with physics, relativity, quantum effects, entanglement, are concepts and ideas our minds can’t trully digest despite they can be mathematically handled.

    To me the real origin of God’s debate is not the question of whether qualia are material or not, to me the question is “why is there anything?”

  16. 16. Vicente says:

    Sorry second paragraph in #15 should be in italic too, it is from #14 Alex comment.

  17. 17. Peter says:

    Thanks Alex, good points. “something of a mess” is certainly what I’ve got.

    I take the point about contemporary physics having opened up some possibilities, but I’m not sure how they help. So far as I know even qualia enthusiasts like Penrose and Hameroff haven’t really been able to explain how quantum-aided consciousness really works. But still, yes, something might emerge.

    I have a job thinking of a completely static consciousness: it really seems essentially a process to me. I might be wrong about that, but thought at least is surely a progress, isn’t it?

    I did limit it to neurons, whereas other items with the same functional (or at any rate, ‘relevant’) properties would in fact presumably do as well. But what could an immaterial entity use? He hasn’t even got the proverbial beer cans and string.

    On the simultaneous qualia, I plead guilty to some hand-waving: but think what experiencing all qualia ever at the same time would be like. The phenomenal impact of every piece of music ever played and every noise, simultaneously, together with every smell, and the combined taste impact of every incompatible food item (and indeed, the taste impact of every possible non-food item as well – let’s not pursue that train of thought too far). It’s worse for God, because we only have so many senses, while he would presumably get the full benefit of every alien sense and perhaps every sense that might theoretically have existed too, and all the repugnant unimaginable things those unknown senses might possibly have detected.

    I wouldn’t claim to have proved that God can’t be conscious, it’s just that once I took it for granted that he could and now to me it looks increasingly difficult to see how that could plausibly be.

  18. 18. Kar Lee says:

    Peter,
    Surely, I don’t think you have to be a gnostic to believe in a Universal Mind either, unless you count the Buddhists as gnostics. When I commented earlier, I only read about a quarter of the page. So I have to read the page again in order to respond in a meaningful way. The particular page you referred to is quite interesting. But I think it has invoked a lot of concepts that are seemingly the same but in fact different. Sometimes, what Russell described is in essence the true universal mind. But sometimes, it seems to be different. For example, he quoted Shankara’s words:

    “I am Brahman… I dwell within all beings as the soul, the pure consciousness, the ground of all phenomena… In the days of my ignorance, I used to think of these as being separate from myself. Now I know that I am All.”

    That seems to be exactly what the CPU (the universal mind) would say of itself through an “enlightened” program (the individual conscious being who the universal mind is “role-playing”) it is running. And he said,”This concept of God is not of a separate superior being, existing in some other realm, overlooking human affairs and loving or judging us according to our deeds. God is in each and every one of us, the most intimate and undeniable aspect of ourselves. God is the light of consciousness that shines in every mind.” And it fits the universal mind concept extremely well.

    However, when he said, “I am the God of my universe. And you are the God of yours”, it is a little bit unclear. If “the God of my universe” is the same as “the God of your universe”, then it is the universal mind. But if the two are different, then it looks more like solipsism to me. (one solipsist talking to another)

    Even further deviated from the universal mind concept is when he later said, in the Forgiveness section, about true forgiveness not being the same as simply pardoning another person:

    “Instead we see that here is another human being caught up in their own illusions about themselves and the world around them. Like us, they feel the need for security, control, recognition, approval, or stimulus. They too probably feel threatened by people and things that prevent them finding fulfillment. And, like us, they sometimes make mistakes. Yet, behind all these errors, there is another child of God simply looking for peace of mind.”

    This “another child of God” thing seems to indicate that the God is being fragmented into many children of God (should we call them baby Gods?), with each individual getting a piece of Him. If we are true to the universal mind concept, it should have been phrased as “Yet, behind all these errors, there is another Instance Of Me simply looking for peace of mind”.

    It seems to me that the ontological nature of the God described there varies somewhat from section to section. But it seems to be a common problem when trying to re-interpret the nature of the Biblical God using Buddhist philosophy.

  19. 19. Vicente says:

    One of the problems with buddhist like understandings is that their explanations are not really based in any systematic knowledge architecture.

    Take one of the “quotes of the moment” of Peter Russell’s site.”Enlightenment is when the wave realises it is water, at that moment feels free of all its fears”, fine I get the concept. Now what is water, let’s talk about H2O molecules properties, why are there different waves in shape, height etc… This is were buddhism completely fails. You can see a new generation of Buddhist “authorities” like the Dalai Lama, or Matthieu Richard very interested in covering this gap, trying to underpin buddhist notions with scientific concepts, and I find it a fantastic and marvellous initiative.

    If you allow me a metaphor (incomplete of course), Buddhism teaches you how to drive a car, how to control the steering wheel, the gears… how to seat properly, etc, in order to be safe, enjoy the journey, respect other drivers, be happier in the driving overall, but tells nothing about car’s engineering, dynamics, fuels or human physiology….

    This is one of the reasons for which Buddhism is unsatisfactory for some westerners.

    Nevertheless, Buddhism claims to have found a path to achieve high order understanding of reality… and for that purpose, logical reasoning patterns/algorithms seem to be useful. It seems to be a direct way…

    Maybe, when talking about God we need to put aside logical thought… but then as the Buddhists say the knowledge gained cannot be conveyed through language, as they say: those who know don’t talk , clearly I’m not one of them :(

    My question is, do we admit that there exists an alternative way to gain knowledge through meditation, and that knowledge is of such a nature that cannot be expressed using language.

    Kar Lee: why would anybody would want to re-interpret the nature of Biblical God using Buddhist philosophy? maybe to analyse some of Jesus words in Buddhist terms could make sense, the rest. To carry out one’s own Bible exegesis is a sin !! The church is the interlocutor between men and God, now you know.

    Matt: As far as we can ascertain, there has never been a mind that has existed without a brain to generate its thoughts

    Well yes, but actually the only mind you’ve seen is your own one. You can say that we have seen brains generating behaviours but thoughts. Some faith is needed to say that too.

  20. 20. Shankar says:

    An interesting post. But when you say-
    We’ve already noted that God has no sensory inputs, and it’s a little hard to see how a non-material being can have material outputs either. Our minds grew out of processes intimately connected with the needs of a physical animal – the ’three Fs’ of feeding, fighting, and reproducing, all of which seem to be at best optional extras as far as God is concerned. Why would an immaterial being ever go through cognitive processes primarily designed to facilitate existence in a domain entirely alien to it, and if it did, what could it use to implement those processes?”

    I think it is too restrictive, in the sense it doesn’t accommodate ‘The Matrix’ analogy.

    God doesn’t need sensory inputs or any form within the simulated universe (of the form that is recognizable by the beings in that universe), but is yet able to observe every bit of the computer that runs it (and maybe even to change its state at His/Her will).

    Actually, the premise that our own consciousness is a product of the physical processes that happens in the universe observable by us is itself on shaky grounds (for example, our surroundings and indeed our own physical brains in dreams).

    So really, we cannot draw any conclusions at all. Unless you are a theist or a qualia denier, of course.

  21. 21. George Faulkner says:

    Following up on the comment by Matt McCormick, here is text from a letter to the editor of Discover Magazine regarding a “Physics of the Divine” article about John Polkinghorne’s theology in the March 2011 issue:

    It amazes me the extent that physicists attempting to justify theism are able to compartmentalize their own science and ignore one of the fundamental truths of evolutionary biology. The whole idea of “mind” and all of its associated elements — thinking, intelligence, planning, emoting, sensing, perceiving, etc. — only make sense as a brain, which is a biological adaptation to a challenging external environmental of physical objects and other creatures. The idea of a cosmic mind or intelligence makes as much sense as the idea of a cosmic heart or optic system. The argument that the principles of physics are “compatible with” one or more of these mental capabilities is already a weak one, but it is about as coherent as saying that gravity would allow for the Flying Spaghetti Monster. One can still have a reverential or “religious” orientation to the wonder and mystery of the cosmos, as Einstein did, without having to strain to justify a vestige of humans’ early animistic projections.

  22. 22. Peter says:

    Shankar – yes, I can see how that would work for a Matrix world. It would be a slightly different conception of God, of course, and I’d argue that the presumption there would be that he was material, in his own world.

    George – thanks. ‘The idea of a cosmic mind or intelligence makes as much sense as the idea of a cosmic heart or optic system’ encapsulates much better one of the points I was trying to make.

  23. 23. John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a unique Understanding of the non-humans via this essay and website.

    http://www.fearnomorezoo.org/literature/observe_learn.php

    And of Gods Consciousness

    http://www.kneeoflistening.com

    http://www.adidam.org/teaching/aletheon/truth-god.aspx

    http://global.adidam.org/books/ancient-teachings.html

    What is interesting about the above “Philosopher” is that he is equally unacceptable to both conventional religionists or theists (especially Christians), and atheists or materialist “realists”.

  24. 24. Peter says:

    Thanks, John.

    Therefore, Real (Acausal) God Is the Intrinsically Self-Evident Reality-Resort of all-and-All — and the Ultimate Potential and Possibility of all-and-All.

    I admire the clear denial of causal powers there, but the entity in question (whatever, if anything, it may be) looks like one of the ‘Geometrical’ Gods I mentioned above. On reflection, those are actually still sort of available concepts if you want them: I just wouldn’t be inclined to call them ‘God’. (It seems a bit unexpected that an acausal deity should have an avatar, too.)

    It’s possibly unfair to say so, but I also can’t help mentioning that my heart sank a little when I noticed that one of those sites you link to has a ‘Gnosticon’.

  25. 25. enigMan says:

    God doesn’t have to be timeless though, even on a Christian conception. And then He would have a sort of external world, in that His creation includes free-willed creatures like us. He would know all about the world around us, as it is itself (much as we know our fictional creations), but not all that we were going to freely choose to do.

    Re your “it’s a little hard to see how a non-material being can have material outputs,” it’s also difficult to see how a purely material being could have feelings. Maybe we could think of God’s creation of (and affecting of) matter as analogous to our creation of fictions; why is that harder than thinking of matter as giving rise to consciousness?

  26. 26. Peter says:

    Yes, fair point: I suppose we could also point out that non-material ideas are influencing the physical shape of the black marks on this material screen.

    I suppose I normally conceive of these things as operating on two levels. The material being’s feelings and our fictions may be non-material but there is always a causally-coherent corresponding material story to be told about neurons and brain events (I’m skating over some thin ice, but you see what I mean).

    In the case of an immaterial God, there doesn’t seem to be any corresponding material entity, and hence no viable causal account within the physical world

  27. 27. Kar Lee says:

    I think the quote by George Faulkner[21] above
    “It amazes me the extent that physicists attempting to justify theism are able to compartmentalize their own science and ignore one of the fundamental truths of evolutionary biology. The whole idea of “mind” and all of its associated elements — thinking, intelligence, planning, emoting, sensing, perceiving, etc. — only make sense as a brain, which is a biological adaptation to a challenging external environmental of physical objects and other creatures.”
    illustrates the confusion between the easy problems and the Hard Problem.

  28. 28. Kar Lee says:

    Vicente[19], “why would anybody would want to re-interpret the nature of Biblical God using Buddhist philosophy?”

    I think it is just human’s tendency to do compilation and cross-linking.

    The central theme in Christianity and the central theme in Buddhism are fundamentally different. In Christianity, God is God, humans are human. There should be no confusion between who is who. Even someone “feels” God in his heart, he is not feeling his own divinity. He is feeling the touch of an “external” divinity from within. But in Buddhism, humans are divine (or Buddha) in nature. Someone who is enlightened, he is feeling his own divinity. But I admit, if one mixes the Buddhist ideas with the Bible and look at the Bible in this new light, some interesting ideas will emerge.

  29. 29. Vicente says:

    Kar Lee, “In Christianity, God is God, humans are human” not really, in Christianity: God created men in his own image, Genesis 1:27. Start here and enter and enjoy the jungle of contradictions ahead…

    “some interesting ideas will emerge” , again falling in heresy, you naughty boy!!

    IMO, Christianity has little to do with buddhism. Buddhism is basically a life method based on a 3-fold axiomatic system. There is suffering, suffering can be avoided, there is a method to do so. Christianity is a power and governance system, deviced to control masses.

    As far as I have learnt Buddha is not divine, he’s just awakened isn’t he.

    Now, if you go through Jesus words on your devices, you might find many similarities with Buddhism, it is very likely that he spent long time learning with an Essene community, Jewish monks with oriental ideas (hava a look at Qumran papers)… Kingdom of Heaven = Enlightment?

    Also, many Christian mystics experiences could be analogous to those described by buddhist monks or Lamas…

    Don’t confuse Jesus teachings with the church…

    “He is feeling the touch of an “external” divinity from within”

    Key point !! I believe this is the point that makes the difference between the experiences of the Christian mystics and those described by buddhist monks/Lamas. Communication with an external entity vs. realising one’s ultimate being… external/internal… I believe the christina mystics were probably very much influenced by culture, and also the books had to pass through censorship/inquisition that would require the explicit mention of a third party God in order to allow publication.

    What I am interested in is in the direct channel to gain fundamental knowledge. Is it possible? I believe that it could only happen if we are not really learning, if weare recalling. Yes, just Plato, I know. In that case we could be fragments of God, suffering some “flesh complications”

  30. 30. enigMan says:

    You note, Peter, that “in the case of an immaterial God, there doesn’t seem to be any corresponding material entity,” but in the case of an immaterial God, the fundamental reality would be God, not the physical world. So a causal account could be God changing the physical world much as we might change a daydream.

    It’s in the nature of daydreams that they can’t be explained without reference to an external daydreamer; and the hypothesis of a God, whatever the reason for invoking it, could make physical causation analogous.

    I see that you like reducing all causation to physics, and I’m not saying that that’s not viable; I’m just saying that if there was a God then causation ought to reduce to His level, not the one you’re used to thinking about (whichever reduction turns out to have the fewest real problems).

    (Thanks for your answer to the question on my blog btw)

  31. 31. Peter says:

    Ah, but you’re stealthily changing the subject on me, aren’t you? -I didn’t say it was hard to see how a God who was the fundmental reality could create a material world!

    I like to think I’m comfortable with causation on many different levels of interpretation, but I admit I feel that a certain deference to the physical account, as the only one with laws precise enough to do the sums, is appropriate.

  32. 32. Kar Lee says:

    Vicente,
    My understanding is, in Buddhism, Buddha-hood is divinity (the equivalence) because there is nothing else. Those who are enlightened are the ones who have achieved understanding of his/her own Buddha-hood.

    Regarding whether knowledge can be gained by “direct channel”, I assume you are referring to self-knowledge as oppose to say, knowledge that the moon is this distance away from earth. I will believe that most major religions will say yes (including Christian’s knowledge by revelations because that involves no active learning on the part of the knowledge gainer. you might want to lump prayer with meditation….)

  33. 33. enigMan says:

    I don’t think I was changing the subject: You were wondering what an immaterial God could use to implement His thoughts; I said He could use the same facility He used to create the material world ex nihilo. And as you say, it’s not hard to see how He could do that. Still, maybe I was changing the subject; it’s a v. obscure subject, so it’s hard to tell.

  34. 34. micha says:

    Shifting from Jewish Rationalism (comment #11) to Qabbalah… In Qabbalah, as in Neo-Platonism, the thought precedes the material. For that matter, Aristotelians too, with their concept of Active Intellect. So, let me start over…

    In the classical worldview, this question wouldn’t exist. Instead one would ask why our thinking is course enough to have a physical shadow in the physical world, while higher intellects do not. It’s not that the brain is the seat of the soul as much as the brain is the 3D shadow, or maybe even the bottommost physical 3D volume “layer” of a more complex (but not really 4D or n-dimensional in the spacial sense) of a more complex entity.

    This notion drives a Qabbalistic explanation of the role of shoes in Judaism, such as when God tells Moses at the burning bush, “Do not come close to this place. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil.” (Ex 3:5, translation mine) And similarly priests in the Temple were not allowed to wear shoes. We have a custom of mourners not wearing shoes. Etc… Shoes are to the body as the body is to the soul. Thus, removing one’s shoe is emblematic of not just having an open mind, but having an open soul. (Although since psyche means soul, I don’t think mind vs soul would have been part of their worldview. Souls are “things” that do minds.)

    -micha
    (still a Rabbi)

  35. 35. Vicente says:

    Hi Micha,

    3D volume “layer” of a more complex (but not really 4D or n-dimensional in the spacial sense) of a more complex entity.

    not really 4-D? or maybe 11-D… M-Theory requires 11-dimensions, we could be 11-Dimensional beings constraint temporaly to the 3-D + time universe we dwell… we can be conic curves, like an ellipse is a 2D curve, that can be geometrically represented as the intesection of plane and a cylinder… Maybe are 11D cylinders constraint to an 3D ellipse for some time.

    Imagine the cylinder is rolling over a surface, from the ellipse point of view it is impossible to understand its own dynamics, unless it becomes aware of its true nature as part of a cylinder.

    Maybe our consciousness is in those other dimensions, so it is impossible to accomodate qualia in this physical 3-D subspace (monistically, following Peter’s definition) in order to solve the Hard Problem, for the same reason that in an orthogonal reference system a straight line segment parallel to z-axis projects into a point in the x-y plane, and if you are constraint to the x-y plane, there is no way you can measure the length of that line segment. We just have the point which is our phenomenal experience…

  36. 36. micha says:

    Consciousness is an abstract process. It doesn’t have a volume. The whole concept of “dimension” doesn’t apply. It’s like speaking about the number of dimensions of a computer process or “The Star Spangled Banner”.

    -micha

  37. 37. Vicente says:

    Micha, of course, it was just a metaphor….(like the shoes) probably not even “abstract” could be used as an adjective for consciousness.

  38. 38. micha says:

    Vicente, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say. Please elaborate.

    I wrote: “3D volume ‘layer’ of a more complex (but not really 4D or n-dimensional in the spacial sense) of a more complex entity.” (Should have said length/area/volume, but whatever…)

    To which you replied: “not really 4-D? or maybe 11-D… M-Theory requires 11-dimensions, we could be 11-Dimensional beings constraint temporaly to the 3-D + time universe we dwell… we can be conic curves, like an ellipse is a 2D curve, that can be geometrically represented as the intesection of plane and a cylinder… Maybe are 11D cylinders constraint to an 3D ellipse for some time.

    Imagine the cylinder is rolling over a surface, from the ellipse point of view it is impossible to understand its own dynamics, unless it becomes aware of its true nature as part of a cylinder.

    Maybe our consciousness is in those other dimensions, so it is impossible to accomodate qualia in this physical 3-D subspace (monistically, following Peter’s definition)…

    So it appears you do mean something more than the metaphoric use I opened with, but still “Micha, of course, it was just a metaphor….” So, can you explain what you mean by 11-D in particular, or conic sections, etc… Your expanded metaphor is opaque to me, I need the parable spelled out.

    -micha

  39. 39. Vicente says:

    Micha- you are are right, I admit the inconsistency… since many people around refer to “dual monism” or “monist dualism” showing no shame, I thought I could be a bit self-indulgent, but you are right, I am in contradiction. I keep the true physical approach, as an idea…. just looking for a place where qualia could monistically hide. The methophore side is that phenomenal experience seems to be orthogonal in geometrical terms to the physical world…

    I intended to fool a Rabbi… so naive !! :)

  40. 40. micha says:

    … particularly when picking a rabbi who is already a fool!

    -micha

  41. 41. ronmurp says:

    Interesting post with many ideas, and many more ideas in the comments.

    What is clear is that as imaginative as all these ideas are they are nothing more than speculations based on no evidence. That’s fine. It’s fun to speculate using reason in order to explore ideas; to consider possibilities. That’s how we expand our ideas.

    The first problem for the theist is that no matter how sophisticated his theology, he’s as much in the dark about all this as the rest of us. All theology is suspect reason heaped on speculation after speculation. Even when he constructs superb rock solid valid deductive arguments, they are founded on speculative premises.

    Ok so far. Speculate away. The second problem is that the theist then uses all this stuff as a guide to life, a reason for being, the core of his purpose. But worse, many a theist expects the rest of us follow his example, to conform to his concocted rules, to follow his divinely inspired dictats.

    This is why many atheists, like Dawkins, are ‘strident'; yet even then far less strident than many a theist.

  42. 42. Ben Chasteen says:

    Very humbly written Peter. I grew up with my father being a baptist Minister who actually encouraged me to find my own path. So I started to get into Buddhism a little. What I have learned through my travels is that we (as humans) think of God in human terms, which I personally feels is an insult. I think very few of us really understand it and you seem to get it. I look at the universe as a large box with a lock on it. It will only reveal its true self to those whose hearts are open and who focus on goodness. I think when are hearts are open and compassionate, God can reside in our hearts and we seem to know things we didn’t before which is why others have a hard time believing in what a lot of positive and good people people believe who try to help others.

    We think of terms of our world so small, and yet some view it as so large. I have learned that if you look at molecules orbiting nuclei and compare that to our solar system they would look exactly the same. I guess I am just saying that things are not always what they seem to be. I guess there is so much more in life still waiting to be discovered. However, I feel that the more man’s moral baseline slides down, the less people are to believe in God.

    Over all your post is encouraging to read. I have came across many things and read many books. However, I will say with all sincerity and with all my heart I have never found a book more profound then what is written in Zhuan Falun, the teachings of Falun Gong. The most intricate and profound things of our universe and our world is explained in a way that people off all races, beliefs, and ages would understand. If you are seeking and looking for answers, I found a lot were answered for me and I felt I knew more about my self then I have ever before. It is free to download on the website so you don’t even need to buy it. I am not trying to convert or change anyone, it was introduced to me in a profound way, and I know it can help others just like it has helped me so much on my journey in life.

    Looking forward to reading more from you.

  43. 43. SM says:

    Attributing physical and material based features to God due to its limiting aspects makes him non qualified to been prayed.
    A limited God doesn’t worth praying.

    God’s description should be drawn from his own true comments.
    I prefer to find it at Quran.

    Good luck buddy.

  44. 44. Peter says:

    SM – can’t lay my hands on the quote at the moment, but I think it was Hobbes who once said: of course God is physical – you think it’s a compliment to call him a ghost?

  45. 45. Richard J R Miles says:

    I have written a piece on ‘Why God?’ which can be read on http://perhapspeace.co.uk
    Some parts of it I have not seen elsewhere so on that basis it may be of interest to others.

  46. 46. Jack Seery says:

    Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this site? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be fantastic if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  47. 47. Theodore Hanzel says:

    i always believe that buddhism is sort of the religion of peace compared to other religions. buddhism speaks of peace all the time.;

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