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What Does It Mean to Believe In God?

By: for Radical Academy on May 27, 2010
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Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher who wrote extensively on religion.
There are three notions that are essential to the conception of God.

They are that God is transcendent, that God is a necessary being in contrast to the contingent being of all other things, and that God is the cause of the being of everything else that exists.

The First of the Three Basic Notions

As noted, the view that God is transcendent is the first of the notions in the concept of God. The meaning of "transcendent" can perhaps be more dearly seen when it is viewed through the focusing lens of a conjectural question. If God exists, what is God like?

The three possible answers are exclusive and exhausting. They are that:

* God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
* God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.
* God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know.

There is no fourth possible answer. Rather, what comes into play is the rule in logic which holds that if answers to a question are confined to three alternatives, and if two of them are untenable, the one that remains must be the right one. So we must now determine which two among the three answers given a moment ago must be rejected, and which is the one left that we must accept.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? "God" then becomes a word devoid of meaning. Why? To convey a meaning, a concept must have something in common with other concepts we have in mind when we use other understandable words in our vocabulary. The concept of "animal," for example, has something in common with other understandable words such as "lion," "bear," "dog," "horse," "cow." But if the concept of God has nothing in common with anything else we can intelligibly describe, it is as senseless to deny the existence of God as to affirm it. Atheism becomes as meaningless as theism. In fact, the only question that would then be worth asking about God is how men ever came to use so meaningless a word and why they still everywhere continue to use it, as they do in the new theology and all current forms of atheism.

What are the consequences of saying that God is totally like everything else in nature that we know or are able to know? God would then have to be conceived as corporeal, finite, sensible, mutable, contingent, along with all the other attributes that we ascribe to the natural things we know. But if those attributes are ascribed to God, are they knowable in the same way as other things we know? Can God, for example, be investigated in the manner of the natural sciences where a hypothesis in physics, chemistry, and biology can derive its validity from the outcome of controlled tests and experiments? It is enough merely to ask the question to see that God cannot be known in the same way we know the attributes of other things. So we must rule out as false the proposition that God is totally like everything else in nature.

If the first two answers are not tenable, then we are left with the third one -- that God is both like and unlike everything else in nature that we know or are able to know. It is like everything else in that it must be thought of as a being. I am not here asserting God exists. I am only saying that God must be conceived as a being about which we can meaningfully ask whether or not it exists, just as we must conceive of a mermaid or Hamlet as a being about which we can ask that existential question.

While God, conceived as a being, is thus like all the other things about which we ask whether or not they exist, God is unlike everything else with respect to this mode of being. We conceive of everything else in nature as material or corporeal beings, as mutable beings, as sensible beings, as finite beings. All the italicized words refer to their mode of being. But if God were like everything else in mode of being, God would be totally like everything else, a proposition we have already rejected.

What is meant by the "analogy of being" is central to an understanding of the concept of God as a being who is at one and the same time like and unlike everything else in nature. Two things are analogous if, in any given respect, they are at once the same and diverse.

Take, for example, the analogous meaning of the word "sharp." When we say a "sharp" sound, a "sharp" point, a "sharp" taste, all three things are "sharp," but they are diversely so. Furthermore, you cannot say what it means to be sharp apart from your understanding of what it is to be a sharp sound, a sharp point, a sharp taste. You cannot abstract the meaning of "sharp" from the diverse sensory qualities of taste, sound, and touch. In the same way, you cannot understand what being is, apart from your understanding of mutable and immutable being, material and immaterial being, finite and infinite being. These are analogous in being, just as a sharp taste, a sharp sound, and a sharp point are all analogously sharp.

The Second of Three Basic Notions

The second notion of the conception of God is that God must be thought of as a necessary being. There is no space here to trace the evolution of this concept from the time it was first formulated by St. Anselm in the eleventh century, through its amendments by St. Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant and other critical writers. Without putting too fine a point on the matter, something maybe gained on the side of understanding by means of the following statement. St. Anselm pointed out that when we think about God, we must have in mind a Supreme Being than which no greater can be thought of. We must also think of God as existing necessarily, because if we did not, we could think of a greater being. God, therefore, must be conceived as the only being that cannot not exist, though the question would remain whether the necessary being we have thus conceived does in fact actually exist. In other words, we must still discover whether there is in reality -- outside our minds -- anything that corresponds to the concept of God we have formed in our minds.

The Third Basic Notion

The third basic notion in the conception of God is that God is the cause of the existence of whatever else that does in fact exist. No natural causes ever cause the existence of anything; rather, they are causes of change or becoming. The simplest way to grasp the point quickly is to consider animal progenitors or human parents. These do not cause the existence of their offspring, but only their coming to be -- their generation.

Now the existence of whatever exists in the world must have a cause -- must have a reason for its existence, either in itself or in another. The point being made here is reinforced by the principle of parsimony which governs all our scientific and philosophical thinking, including our thinking in natural theology. The principle says that we cannot affirm the existence of anything we conceive unless we can show how its existence is needed to explain what we already know exists. More immediately, the same principle says that unless God is conceived as the only cause of the existence of whatever exists contingently, and so needs a cause of its existence, we cannot prove that God exists. The proof depends on the truth of the factual proposition that this cosmos as a whole exists contingently -- which is another way of saying that it is capable of not existing at all. If the latter proposition is false, there is no valid argument for the existence of God.

This article is an excerpt from the author's paper entitled "Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion"
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