Punishment & Fear (ihobo)
Episteme vs Paradigm

Does God Exist?

This is a far simpler question than it first seems, but not for the reason usually assumed! Regardless of one's beliefs or experiences of God, it can be interesting to explore this issue as a matter of philosophy of language.

The answer to this question obviously depends upon what one means by "God" and "exist". When we ask "Do unicorns exist?" we are asking if there is a physical animal corresponding to the idea of the unicorn. But if we ask this same question about God, then clearly God does not exist since no-one claims that God is a physical entity (except, oddly, Dawkins in his complexity disproof).

So what does it mean to say that a non-physical entity exists? Does Switzerland exist? Well, yes and no; there is a physical landscape we call Switzerland, but the country itself is a concept of mind, a mental model of its borders and people (what Benedict Anderson calls an imagined community). Does Einstein's theory of general relativity exist? No, it's a concept of mind that models physical events. Similarly, for most people who believe in God, the word "God" is a concept of mind that models spiritual events. Paul Tillich sees God as "the ground of being", John McQuarrey as "being itself" and Emmanuel Levinas as "the unknown and absolute other". Not one of these ideas of God implies any claim to existence in the way this term is usually used.

So no, God does not exist. But this statement has nothing much to say about God.


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The one stumbling block to the above is, assuming you hold to the belief that Jesus was both man and God, you then have to answer the question "did Jesus exist".

I'll not go into the whole "does he still exist, and if so in what form" question, as that introduces yet another level of quantum.

When we ask "Do unicorns exist?" we are asking if there is a physical animal corresponding to the idea of the unicorn.

Are "we" (presumably the players in this game) actually asking that, or are you defining physical-existence-in-the-presumed-objective-reality as the sole meaning of "exist" for the purpose of this piece?

At least one large AI project (Cyc) had to modify the inference engine's beliefs based on context. Unicorns didn't normally exist, but did in some books, for example.

Sarah: ah, well there you get into a tricky theological space. I seem to recall in the middle ages there were some nasty conflicts over whether "God the father" and "God the son" were the same entity or merely aspects of the same entity. :)

Peter: well I want to open the floor to this question of what "exist" means - that might not be clear in the piece.

But I think, as the term is usually used, the presence of unicorns in literature would not meet the criteria of existence as it is normally used.

But I may be jumping ahead of myself in the context of establishing a meaning for "exist".

(Forgotten I had scheduled this piece to run - originally I hadn't planned to post it since it was just an idle thought concerning the unicorn/God analogy). :)

you know, normally this particular question just pisses me off. almost No one can come at it without turning it into a massive attack on one view point or another... and usually failing to actually answer the question. it's generally pretty nasty, at least that I've ever seen. and often hijacks books that are supposed to be 'introductory' philosophy stuff.

silly as this particular take on it is, I'm pleased to say it has none of the above problems, and amused me somewhat as well. have to agree though, that 'exist' is a kind of slippery word. seems to mean something like 'in the category of things that we are talking about, if one went looking for it in the usual manner for finding such things, would one find it if one looked in the right place?'
unicorns, if they rate as animals, no. they don't exist.
unicorns as mythical creatures [found in, you know, myths?] yes, they do exist.
kinda like 'the average person' doesn't exist, as an actual individual... and yet we still get values for them, because they Do exist, as a statistical position/location/measure.

so i think you gotta define what group one is looking in, and how one usually goes about finding things in that group, before one can say if something 'exists' or not.

good luck finding the appropriate 'group' for God though... hehe.

Well some insurance companies pay out for "acts of God", so in insurance policies, God exists. Or in the "group" (as Chargone puts it) of 'possible reasons for bad things to happen' hehe.

Chargone: thanks for your kind words here - as I've often stated, I try to make this blog a place where people of different beliefs can hang out together without it being war. The wording on this piece is supposed to provoke discussion not anger, and I'm very, very pleased that you found it amusing! :)

I like your observation that the use of "exists" relates to specific categories - this is a shrewd interpretation of how the word is used, and one that addresses Peter's unicorn-in-books objection rather well.

That the task of assigning a category to the concept of "God" is so difficult forms part of the language-challenge here, doesn't it? I feel people often forget that "God" collates many different concepts of mind, and is not really a single concept at all. :)

Katherine: ah, now here's an interesting case, isn't it? Force majeure clauses ("superior force") include "acts of God", which are usually defined as natural disasters. It's a very old testament God-concept! :) The question I'd want to ask here is: must an entity exist for it to be ascribed "acts"? If I say that Mother Teresa carried out "acts of compassion", does this mean that "compassion" exists? :-/ (Although I appreciate that if God is not the subject of the noun phrase "acts of God", you have to wonder what is!)

Best wishes!

i think that "God" in 'acts of God' is more like if you said 'acts of mother Teresa'. acts preformed by [belonging to] rather than of a particular nature [which is the case in 'acts of compassion'

seeing as how one doesn't preform 'acts of God'. unless one Is God, anyway. and compassion can't preform acts. though in both cases it's a possessive 'of' i guess.

but in the case of "acts of God" and can be flipped and restructured as "God's Actions", "acts of compassion" in that context would be restructured as "(mother Teresa's) compassionate actions" see?

isn't grammar fun? playing with it is one of the things i do to keep myself amused :)

Speaking of grammar, I dread the day I tell someone "I am a Theist," and they hear me say "I am Atheist."

But it's an interesting point that your post raises Chris :)


Did I miss something, or did you side-step my first question about the existance of Jesus, and in doing so opened another question as to the relationship between the three members of the Christian trinity, which you also side-stepped.

Sarah: Sorry, didn't mean to sidestep anything - the point of my observation was that your question moved outside of philosophy of language and into theology which is full of complex issues (it seemed to me you were acknowledging this in your own comment and weren't looking for further exposition).

I can see how what I wrote might seem like a dodge but it wasn't my intent. Because you were the first commenter I didn't want to set the tone of the conversation as theological until I'd had a chance to let some philosophy of language discussions kick off. Hope that makes sense!

It doesn't actually look to me that you asked a specific question, but I agree in the context of conventional Christian beliefs concerning Jesus you could ask "did God exist?" but that the answer would be presupposed: yes, if one has faith that Jesus was God (rather than the son of God or some other designation that was not specifically assuming the status of deity), then God did exist. (A Hindu would encounter the same situation via Krisna).

Did you have a specific other question you wanted me to comment on that I have missed or does that cover it? :)

Chargone: I suppose my claim is precisely the opposite of what you construct here - that the "God" in acts of God is *not* used in the manner of the subject of a sentence, but in a wholly metaphorical sense. Perhaps a better sentence parallel would have been "There have been many acts of compassion this year" since there is no express subject in this sentence to connect compassion to. (Grammar nerds - do you disagree?)

Of course, here we get into a difficult space since many people believe God is wholly metaphorical anyway so there is no disconnect. But since there are many people for whom God constitutes a real entity or phenomena, or (as in my case) consider God an ineluctable aspect of their reality (since not believing in God did not cause the phenomena being described to disappear) I question whether the "God" in "acts of God" really corresponds to God in the usual sense.

And following on from this thread, I am always surprised when people interpret natural disasters as caused by divine intent - the idea that human conceptions of causation would be adequate to explain the motives or perceptions of a deity of cosmic dimensions strikes me as a kind of naive and harmless blasphemy.

But I digress. :)

Katherine: to avoid this misunderstanding perhaps you could say "I have theist beliefs." :)

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