“Which God?”

I get this question a lot in discussions on the internet. Atheists seem to think it is a devastating question.  It usually comes with a list, asking why, if you believe in God, you don’t also believe in Zeus, Thor, Athena, Horus, etc.  The “Which God?” question is obviously closely related to the sophomoric Village Atheist trope “I just believe in one less god than you do!”

The problem is, the question is A Category Mistake.

A category mistake results when one asks a question with its usual form, but which is actually a nonsense query, because of the nature of the thing being asked about.  That is, one has asked a question that makes sense for one category of things, but one which does not apply to the thing one is actually asking about.

For example, it is a category mistake to ask “What color is the theory of relativity?” or “What color is color itself?” or “What color is the number 2?” It’s a category mistake because these things are not the sorts of things that have colors. It’s a category mistake to ask “Where is space?” To ask this is to confuse space itself with a thing in space.  Space itself is not a thing in space that has a location in space—so it is nonsense to ask where it is. “When is time?” would be similar error. “How many sad are there?” would be another. “What does Bach’s St Matthew Passion taste like?” would be another.

Now, when someone asks “Which God?” they are making a category mistake, because they are confusing God with a god. They are assuming there is a genus of things (genus means “family” or “kind”) called gods, and that we are trying to identify which member of the genus we are talking about. This kind of question makes sense when dealing with a genus, for example cats. “Cat” is a genus or natural kind which has many members and it makes perfect sense to ask more specifically which cat we are talking about. But God is not a member of a genus. By definition, anything that could even in principle be a member of a genus would fail to be God for that very reason.

The problem here is that the questioner is assuming one or both of two false things.

He is assuming that God is a god, and therefore can be placed in the genus “god” along with such alleged entities such as Thor, Aphrodite, Apollo, Shiva, Anansi, Zeus, Odin, Kwan Yin, etc., which may or may not exist.

Or else he is assuming that disagreement about certain characteristics of God in different religious traditions indicates that theists in the great religious traditions are talking about different things. Neither of these assumptions is correct.

To address the second one first, an analogy should make it clear. When scientists have a disagreement about the way Nature is, they are not each talking about “a different Nature,” as if there were many competing entities each called “Nature.” Thus, it would be a category mistake to ask a physicist “Well, which Nature?” as if the scientific dispute were between “Nature A” and “Nature B”, rather than a dispute about what Nature is like. Neither scientist in the dispute believes in different, rival “Natures.” Each believes in the one Nature that he knows exists and studies; the dispute is about what Nature is like, about the correct interpretation of Nature: is it this way? or is it this way?

Similarly, within the great theistic traditions, the core understanding of God as YHVH or God or Allah or Brahman or the Tao or The One or The Good or The Prime Mover is essentially the same. The disputes between the various theistic traditions are disputes about what God is like beyond the basic core of agreement. They are not disputes about which God exists, which is a meaningless question.  Christians, for example, hold that God exists as Trinity; Jews and Muslims do not hold this. But we are not talking about different Gods. We cannot be, since God, by definition, is the one absolute source of all that is. We are disputing about what God is like or how God is. This is the province of theology and revelation. And just as all scientists (discounting cranks and pseudo-scientists) agree that Nature exists, is intelligible, has a mathematical structure, can be known by human reason, etc., all theists (discounting cranks and pseudo-theists) agree that God exists, is partially intelligible, is infinite, beyond time, space, and nature, the source of all things, the absolute reality, etc. We all agree about the one God (in the Latin of the Scholastic theologians Deo Uno), even if we use different words, and have differing particular interpretations (e.g. the Christian Deo Trino).  And often, the differences are not as wide as many suppose. It is not uncommon, for example, for a Chinese Taoist to become a Christian without much mental strain; he need not give up anything of his understanding of the Tao, but only needs to acquire the additional belief that the Tao itself took on mortal flesh and dwelt among mortal men and revealed itself (Himself) to them in this manner.  (In the Gospel According to John, Christ is clearly identified as the λόγος, and λόγος is rendered in Chinese as 道 Tao; Taoism is called “The Way”; so is Christianity, in the Acts of the Apostles; in Chinese The Gospel According to John begins “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God and the Tao was God.” ).

This brings us to the difference between God and the gods. If you don’t understand this distinction, you will literally never understand what serious theists are talking about.

God is, by definition, the Absolute. The one, absolute, unconditioned ground, reason, and source of all that is; the Alpha and the Omega, as Christian scripture puts it.  Perhaps there are, as Hindus believe, thousands or even millions of gods; perhaps there are not.  But if there are, these gods, like everything else, receive their existence and being from Brahman, which is the absolute reality beyond all (mere) gods, and as Thomas Aquinas would say, “Et hoc omnes intelligunt drum“, “and this everyone understands to be God.”

This is the reason we distinguish God with a capital G, from gods with the lower case g: gods are beings, entities, that—if they exist—exist as part of the totality of reality, the total ensemble of things that are. There can thus be many of them, or a few, or one, or none, and they may or may not exist, and these are all empirical questions: if they do exist, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. But God is not a being or thing or entity that exists in the total ensemble of things that exist; rather God is the ground, reason, and source of the total ensemble of things that exist. It is, strictly speaking, improper even to say that “God exists,” because the word “exists” fails to capture adequately the being of God (as does the word “being”; as do all words). This is also the reason why the existence of God is not an empirical question. It is not the case that God may or may not exist. If God exists, then God necessarily exists. Indeed, if anything exists, God necessarily exists. Existence or reality itself is an effect of God’s being.

When one talks about God, one needs to talk in a way that is utterly unlike talk about anything else, because God is not a thing among other things. One must say things like Plato, that “The Good is beyond being, exceeding it in dignity and power.” Or like St. Dionysius the Areopagite, that “It is wrong to say God does not exist. It is wrong to say God exists. But it is more wrong to say God does not exist.” This is not, as some will claim, a fallacy of special pleading. A fallacy of special pleading occurs when one asks that something which is the same as other things be treated as if it were different, or special. But God cannot be treated the same as anything else. If God were the same as anything else, or commensurate with anything else, He would not BE God. There is no special pleading involved in speaking of that which is utterly unique as if it were different from everything else; it must be so, and necessarily so, if it is at all. Even the dimmest atheist should be able to grasp this: IF there is a God in the way theists mean that term, THEN nothing else will be or could possibly be comparable to God. One thing God cannot be, if you have understood the term at all, is one among many, an entity for which it is anything other than a category mistake to ask “Which one of a kind is it?”

The answer must be either “Go learn what is meant by the term ‘God’” or else “Given that God exists, which theistic tradition gives the most adequate account of God?”

I subjoin two texts from the theologian David Bentley Hart, who draws the distinction between God and gods more clearly and succinctly that I can.  Please read them if you feel inclined.

HartGodvsgods3

From The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss:

HartGodvsgods1

HartGodvsgods2

Five Degrees of God

Modernity has lost sight of God in a great measure because it has lost the correct understanding of the meaning of the term “God.”

I will say this again and again: No one can discuss theism meaningfully until they learn not to confuse “God” with “a god” or “gods.”

There is a very good reason Western languages adopted the convention of spelling “God” with a capital G, but only writing “gods” for certain other kinds of beings.

Here are five possible gradations of the concept of God, courtesy of philosopher Edward Feser.

5LevelsOfGod

The Level 1 concept of God is very childish, and besides children, the only people who “believe” in this sort of God are atheists who insist that this childish idea is what theists “really believe.”

The Level 2 concept of God is the God of much of Protestant theology and of Enlightenment Deism.

The Level 3 concept of God is classical Western (and non-Western for that matter) philosophical and theological concept of God.

We cannot go higher than the Level 3 concept of God unless God chooses to reveal himself, as He has to the Prophets and Saints.  Level 4 will only ever be experienced by a very few.

And the Level 5 understanding of God is something reserved for the next life. Are there still higher levels?  Orthodox Christianity says “Yes,” that even after death, the beatific vision of God is not static but remains a journey into ever greater splendor, love, and joy.  Perhaps the infinite goodness of God will remain its element of infinite wonder and mystery ever after.  And atheists think heaven will be “boring”!

Be that as it may, until we recover a Level 3 concept of God, it will remain impossible to talk about theism in a serious way.

“The Gem” or The Worst Argument in the World

In 1985, Australian philosopher David Stove held a competition to find “the Worst Argument in the World.” He split the points between how bad the argument itself was, on its own merits, and how influential it has been in the history of thought. In the end, he awarded the prize to himself, for the following argument (or rather, argument schema), which he christened “The Gem”:

We can know things only if condition C, which is necessary for knowledge, is satisfied,

So,

We cannot know things as they are in themselves.

Condition C can be any number of things:

  • as they are related to us
  • under the forms of our perception and understanding
  • insofar as they fall under our conceptual schemes
  • insofar as they enter our minds
  • insofar as they are conceptualized by means of concepts
  • insofar as they are formulated in language
  • insofar as they are mediated by society or culture

As Stove points out, this argument is as good as the following argument:

We can eat oysters only insofar as they are brought under the physiological and chemical conditions which are the presuppositions of oysters being eaten by us,

Therefore,

We cannot eat oysters as they are in themselves.

Which is to say, we cannot eat oysters, or anything, without eating them.  And we cannot know anything without knowing it. “The Gem” poses one of those questions that at first looks profound, but upon closer inspection turns out to be nonsensical, namely, “What would it be like to know something without knowing it?”

Ever since Descartes, philosophy has fallen prey to a series of “Gems.” Descartes posed the question of how one could ever get “outside” one’s mind, the “sphere of subjectivity” and make contact with the “outside, objective world.” Descartes himself attempted to solve his own problem by means an appeal to a combination of divine intervention and the pineal gland.  Needless to say, his solution was not considered a success.

After David Hume effectively BURNT DOWN the Enlightenment with his skepticism, Immanuel Kant failed to have the good sense to let it die off and return to Aristotle, which is what a sane man would have done. Instead, Kant doubled down on modernity and produced the most influential Gem of all time: that we cannot escape our own sphere of mental experience, but our minds actually CREATE the world (as we experience it), which means we can know NOTHING about the world as it is in itself.  In other words, Kant replaced knowledge with “knowledge,” and never managed to explain how he knew we could only have “knowledge” rather than knowledge … except for his Gem:

Our knowledge of the world is our knowledge;
Therefore, it isn’t really knowledge of the world, but only “knowledge” of the “world.”

Nietzsche, unsurprisingly, and with malicious glee, completely ignored Kant’s arbitrary pleas to stop thinking at the point Kant wanted (Kant suspected that his critical project, if pushed too far, would end up self-destructing; his “solution” to this potential problem was simply to not push it that far, and tell everyone else not to, either; he was, of course, immediately ignored by everyone, including Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel).

Nietzsche took Kant and drew out the logical and radical consequences of “we create the world”. It entails that philosophy—contra Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—is poetry, rhetoric, sophistry; philosophy is making rather than taking; creation rather than discovery;  ποιητική rather than κτητική.

And the 20th century saw the playing out of the same drama in the sphere of language, with postmodernists such as Foucault and Derrida, and in a different way, the late Wittgenstein, telling us:

We can only talk about things by means of language;
Therefore, we cannot talk about things.

As my old teacher Stanley Rosen used to say, “Platonism, that is, realism, entails the thesis that we have the power or capacity to ‘somehow’ (πώς , Aristotle’s one-word epistemology) become in intellect the form of what we know. Intelligible form and intellectual grasp of form actualize together.”

More briefly: Platonism is the view that we can know things. (Aristotle is a rogue Platonist, but still a Platonist, broadly speaking).  If you deny the core of Platonism, you can’t know anything, including whether you should have denied Platonism. Kant has to know that we can only “know” and not know, but he can’t know this because by his own theory he can only “know” it; Derrida says that everything is just the interpretation of text, but of course, this is not true, but merely Derrida’s interpretation of text; Foucault says that all theories are mere constructions of power, but of course that means Foucault’s theory is a mere construction of power, not the truth of things. And so on. We could go on (indefinitely), but we need not. If anyone claims to know (or to “know”) that we cannot know things, look for a Gem argument. There will be one lurking nearby.