For a long time most people have believed that there is a God, a greatest conceivable being, or an omnipotent deity. For centuries even questioning the existence of such a being could be grounds for death by your peers. A select group of people did think about this being’s existence, it’s purpose, and what it is, but rarely they spoke of it to others for fear of their safety. As times and culture evolved and became what it is today, a lot of people can almost always question anything to do with God without persecution. There have been many different arguments for many different God related things. They vary greatly.
Who Or What Is God?
The first important thing to argue before one can decently think about God’s purpose or anything else is defining who or what God is. To Plato, God is the highest and most perfect being. Aristotle believed God to be immaterial, but only in his pure form. Plotinus, a philosopher born in Egypt 204 C.E., described God as “the principle of knowledge, and all things are dependent on him.” Plotinus further goes on to say that God is neither material nor spiritual and is above all understanding, which is similar to Aristotle’s belief. Augustine (354-430) regarded God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally good and is „most beautiful”, and “most blessed“. With the exception of Plotinus, looking at these descriptions of God there are commonalities. It is generally agreed upon that God must be a larger, better human that is perfect in all aspects that humans are flawed in. God would be of perfection so great that we can only see and understand glimpses of his being, if that. He is so perfect he is beyond understanding and our perception.
Thomas Aquinas, a Catholic theologian, describes God in something called the Quinque Viae, or the Five Ways. In this, Aquinas said God was the Unmoved Mover (God was responsible for the first movement that caused movement for the rest of time since all things need something to move it), the First Cause (God was the first cause of all things since everything needs a cause that made it happen or exist), the Necessary Being (God was a necessary being that existed to create all that there is now when nothing but God existed since if nothing existed nothing can come into existence), the Absolute Being (God is the absolute being since gradations exist in things), and the Grand Designer (God designed all natural things since non-natural things come into existence by a designer).
Descartes described God as being perfect. When Descartes explored his own knowledge, he at first doubted the existence of his body and mind. He then came to the conclusion that if he could doubt his body and mind, he certainly could be a doubting being. Later, he came to the conclusion that if he was a doubting being then he surely could not be a perfect being. Descartes then asked where the idea of a perfect being came from if there was no such thing as one. Somewhere, someone or something must create this idea of a perfect being, or in fact be a perfect being for the idea of a perfect being to exist according to Descartes. This is why Descartes felt God must be perfect. Further on, Descartes also concluded that God must also not be a deceiver as deception would mean God, the perfect being, would in fact have a defect.
Plato doesn’t really define what he means by describing God as “highest” being. Highest can have so many meanings. His intention is probably to say that God is the highest being on a heiarchy of beings consisting of humans and animals. It is a bit of a flaw not being able to define “highest”. It is quite a big flaw though in describing God as “perfect” too. No one has been able to define “perfect” very well. The best argument, which is quite subjective, would be that perfect is better then humans or better then other similar things in existance (or on the hiearchy?). This of course is a matter of opinion, and arguably there is no proof “perfect” even exists beyond an idea of “perfect”, except for the argument that we [people] cannot have a concept of “perfect” if it did not exist.
Aristotle says God is immaterial in his pure form. A flaw in this is that Aristotle does not say whether this means God is immaterial in all forms and perceptions. Modern science shows that things that humans percieve to be solid and material are actually made up of atoms; atoms consisting of empty space more then anything else. So, according to Aristotle, is God immaterial to human perception, or is God immaterial in all forms and ways? Also Aristotle never really said much about what God is when God is in his pure form. Could it be said that when God is in his pure form, he is immaterial, and when God is immaterial he is in his pure form? It is not a helpful tautology. Plotinus shared the idea that God was immaterial, but said nothing about God in a pure form. He instead said that God was above all understanding (by humans?). Maybe this is why it is hard to define God in his pure form other than in a tautological claim.
Augustine, who also went for the idea of God being perfect also never really defined perfect. Augustine didn’t directly call God “perfect”, but referred to God as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and morally good. “Most beautiful” and “most blessed” are not defined either. Is Augustine trying to say that God is the most beautiful among all things? Is God the most blessed of all things?
Thomas Aquinas says God, the Unmoved Mover, was responsible for the first movement in creation and maintaining motion. Aquinas never said what caused God to make something move. Also, in describing God as the First Cause, he doesn’t explain how God could be the first cause of all. In fact, Aquinas never said how or why God, the Necessary Being and Grand Designer in fact became. He states that God is the first designer of all, but who designed God? Or is God undesignable and just is. If God just is, why is it necessary for other things to have a designer. Aquinas never goes into the depths of what he said to fine tune his ideas.
A big flaw in Descartes’ description of God is that Descartes presumes God is not a liar because of God’s perfection. First of all, Descartes gave no justification for why God is perfect and therefore would not lie. Descartes just says that God is perfect since God is all powerful and omnipotent. And it is also very subjective to say that to not lie is part of perfection. And if God was perfect, would God not be able to tell the perfect lie? Also, again the problem of perfection occurs. Descartes did not define perfection beyond saying that perfection was an attribute of God.
What Does God Do?
One thing that has varied greatly in peoples perceptions of God is what are God’s intentions, and what has he done or does he do? For Plato, God uses archetypes that exist in the mind of God to fashion an eternal universe. He [Plato] believes that this fashioning of the universe is limited to imperfections of the material world, and that flaws in the material world are not divine purposes by God that we misunderstand. Plato also believed that God was not the creator of all evil, but that God does inflict punishment to the evil because it helps the evil become lesser of an evil. Plato believed God is the highest being, although not loving (the not-loving idea was also shared by Spinoza), who spent his time in contemplation about himself. For Aristotle, God passively changed the world. Aristotle believed that all things seek perfection, and believed seeking perfection to be an attribute of God’s. Aristotle agreed with Plato that God spent his time in contemplation about himself, and added that this constant thought about Himself leaves him with no awareness of the world. This added view by Aristotle almost gives the impression that God is self-centred.
Another view of God is that of Plotinus who stated that God (Plotinus referred to God or greatest conceivable being as “The One”) is the source of all the universe. The universe, according to Plotinus, is an overflow of divinity (emanation) from God. The first stage of this emanation is emanation of the Nous. The Nous is intelligence and unchanged thoughts. These thoughts the Nous had are about God, itself, and ideas that are in the Nous’ spiritual nature. Next came the World Soul from the Nous. This World Soul was comtemplative and plastic. It created things of the universe that were according to the ideas the World Soul is comtemplating in the Nous. From this World Soul came The Universe. Plotinus said that it would have to be like this, and not purposeful creation , because creation would entail consciousness and will, both of which would limit God.
Spinoza’s thought that God is neither outside the world nor is he not in the world. He claimed God is the world, and this idea relates somewhat of Plotinus’ emanation idea, although the comparison starts to fall apart near the end. This is because of Plotinus’ view of the Nous. The Nous emanates the World Soul, and from the World Soul comes the Universe. So the Universe wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Nous. And yet the Nous is an overflow from God. So God is not outside the world, nor is he not in the world, but he is the world (and creator). By not being intentional and direct in the creation of the Universe God is not in the world. But since the Universe is an emanation (similar to light off a light bulb) indirectly from God, he cannot be outside the world. It wouldn’t do though to say that the light off a light bulb is the light bulb though, no matter how unintentional and indirectly the light bulb gives off the light, so this is where Spinoza and Plotinus differ.
Taking this emanation idea slightly differently, George Berkeley, a philosopher born in Kilkenny Ireland in 1685, said that matter does not exist; what we see are ideas from God. Matter does not exist physically, only mentally according to Berkeley. Because these ideas we have are God’s ideas, we have no real perception of external reality. We only have ideas of the external reality. Berkeley further went on to say that if God stopped thinking of the external world it would no longer exist. This is quite similar to the World of Forms from Plato. Plato says that we already know everything, but when we feel like we are learning something we are actually just recalling something we already knew from a World of Forms. This World of Forms is a world of perfection, where everything that we see right now exists in a more perfect form. This World of Forms could be compared with the idea of there being God’s ideas, and God’s world. Then, because we are just recalling what we already know (from the World of Forms) it could be said that we are recalling ideas from God.
Unlike some philosophers, Berkeley also thought that God was not the architect of an entirely mechanical universe; Berkeley did not believe that God would create a universe that could sustain itself and then [God could] sit back at a distance and watch (which Spinoza thought as well). Berkeley, in saying that all we percieve are Gods’ ideas, says that God is actively involved in the universe. By constantly thinking about the universe, God sustains the universe.
When Plato says that God uses archetypes that exist in the mind of God, Plato assumes that God has a mind for the archetypes to exist in. There has been no irrefutable proof that God has a mind, or that God is a thinking being at all. Plato also says that God spends his time thinking about himself, which was a shared idea with Aristotle. Again, it cannot be said God can in fact “think”. With the addition that Aristotle added (that God, in thinking about himself, was not aware of the world), how could it be said that God, if in fact God was a thinking being, was aware of himself. It seems Aristotle would allow God to not be aware of such a large expanse of space such as the world, but would not let God have moments lacking God’s self-awareness.
George Berkeley made a similar flaw in argument that Descartes did. If in fact what we see, feel and generally experience are projections from God, how is it not possible for God to not be lying to us? The only argument stated is that God is perfect, which brings us back again to the problem of where we get the idea of perfection. Perhaps the idea of perfection is an undeveloped idea in the human psyche.
It is obvious to see that there is no one answer to who God is and what does he do. Ideas shared and disputed by great philosophers leave us with many startling things to think about. In defining who or what God is, philosophers possibly raise more questions than they answer. And in defining what God does, it again leaves the philosophers more questions to answer, and leaves a befuddled audience.
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Douglas Noel Adams