God Does Exist After All — Part 3

Part 3. The Will of the Sofa

This follows on from part 1, whereas part 2 was a bit of background. In part 1 I described what it means to say that something like Marxism, or pacificm, exist. As we saw it is a strange type of existence: we can look at it as one amorphous thing, or many more specific things. Neither view is correct, Marxism itself is both one and many, both amorphous and specific.

I’m going to turn towards God now.

It will come as no surprise for me to say that I think God exists in the same way as Marxism and pacifism. God exists as a property of many human thoughts. At one level God is universal and ineffable. At another, God is personal and specific.

By abandoning the need to think about a God as an external, objective thing, this model allows us to take believers seriously, and understand what they think about the God they worship. Because, at least at some levels, what they think about God does define God. And at another level, all those thoughts flow into the amorphous world-spanning notion of God that humanity has given birth to.

I think it is a powerful model. And this and the next and last part will explore two features of it.

God the Agent

You don’t have to talk to believers for long, before you realise that they mostly agree that God has desires. I’ve met very few believers who were truly deist. Most want to claim, at least at some level, that God wants to influence the way we behave. God favours good actions over bad actions (for a suitable definition of Good and Bad).

Now this is a fascinating thing – because we’re now out of the territory of Marxism and pacifism, into new features of the God concept. One could certainly talk what it means to be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Marxist, and by implication that being a Marxism means you should prefer one action over another.

But you would not say (unless by metaphor) that Marxism itself wants you to behave one way or another.

We could dismiss this by saying that God is just a personified concept. But that would miss the point. The point is that believers believe that their God wants them to do stuff. And, crucially, they will therefore go out and do it.

So we have this strange phenomenon of a concept with not only desires, but agency: a concept that can get its desires fulfilled. God has no hands or legs, but God can mobilise human beings with hands and legs to act in the world.

In the comments to my first part it was suggested that this model applies to anything. At that stage it did. But now, not at all. A sofa can’t do work in the real world. God can. God can have constitutional rights rescinded in California, or organize a terrorist attack in New York.

Obviously it is human beings doing these things. That is true. But then, when you write a comment on a blog, it is fingers actually doing the typing.

My central thesis is that, by combining a large number of independent thinkers, each imagining and listening for God, and each in communication and tight feedback with each other, people inadvertently form the fabric of exactly such a thing – a God with desires and will. As long as we bear in mind the amorphous-specific distinction from part 1, we are justified in talking about the will of God.

Still just a concept, God can function as an actor and agent in the physical world.

This, I contend, is quite unlike most other concepts, such as Marxism, or Sofa-ness.

This mini-series is exploring the theological model I am using for some work I am doing at the moment. I am experimenting with different ways to express the core ideas, because I’m not sure what makes the most sense. I’d really appreciate feedback, suggestions and links to other similar work.

Oh, and I’m still an atheist 🙂

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “God Does Exist After All — Part 3

  1. At one level God is universal and ineffable.

    Big logic jump there — for it seems weird to say “Marxism is universal and ineffable.”

    God exists as a property of many human thoughts.

    You have to tell us what a property is vs. a product.

    the amorphous world-spanning notion of God that humanity has given birth to

    woooow, hold on! “World-spanning notion”

    But you would not say (unless by metaphor) that Marxism itself wants you to behave one way or another.

    The Hegelian part of Marx wants there be direction to the dialectic with purpose and in that way a sort of desire. No? Even if not, one can imagine all sorts of other teleologically inclined concepts besides a god. No? If you haven’t seen, though I am comfortable with your idea of god being internal and thus having properties in the individual, you want to make it into that Jungian thing we talked about. So I am waiting but putting up yellow lights as you bring in unsupported notions. Remember, Superman, Spiderman and Santa Clause have desires and act on the consciousness of those that value these fictions. Santa Claus wants little kids to behave and would be disappointed if not.

    people inadvertently form the fabric of exactly such a thing – a God with desires and will

    What the heck does it mean to “form the fabric” of something. Does Santa have a fabric? Does Gaia have a fabric? How many Gaia believers would it take to give Gaia fabric that the Dead Elvis doesn’t have?

    You seem like many philosophers sneaking in new uses of words and special notions as you go along.

    Still just a concept, God can function as an actor and agent in the physical world.

    Wow, there you go!
    So, in your new theology phrases, if you can say “Spiderman and Santa can function as actors in the physical world”, then you are at least being consistent though no more meaningful to me.

    I don’t get it. You still want to go somewhere and now you trying to bring in unreasoned new concepts.

    IMHO (sorry, busy day and after work, no time to soften it up — but I am sure you are fine !)

  2. I saw this quote a few minutes ago and thought of you:

    The faithful are not mistaken when they believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves. That power exists, and it is society… religion is first and foremost a system of ideas by means of which individuals imagine the society of which they are members and the obscure yet intimate relations they have with it.
    — Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917)

  3. Ian

    God exists as a property of many human thoughts.

    You have to tell us what a property is vs. a product.

    The distinction isn’t significant to me. Can you think of why it might be?

    the amorphous world-spanning notion of God that humanity has given birth to

    woooow, hold on! “World-spanning notion”

    Yes, that was the point of part 1. For a suitably loose definition of a concept, all people who have any conception of it can be thought to have the same concept.

    Spiderman…

    I’m not aware of there being billions of people wanting to put Spiderman’s wishes into practice, however.

    I think you’ve read into my thoughts some claim of ontological uniqueness for the concept of God. Quite the opposite. I do think, however, that it is the most significant such concept.

    Santa Claus wants little kids to behave and would be disappointed if not.

    Yes, exactly. Another example of a concept with agency. A similar, but much weaker form of the same phenomenon.

    teleologically inclined concepts besides a god. No?

    Yes. Although God is a fortiori such a thing. No? I think the concept of God is special, but certainly not qualitatively unique.

    What the heck does it mean to “form the fabric” of something.

    By this I mean that the constituent parts of the concept of God are the people who hold that concept. God is made up of lots of people’s thoughts.

    Does Gaia have a fabric?

    Gaia is different, because Gaia is an claim about an observable, objective thing. The ‘concept’ of Gaia may also be significant, but I think it is difficult to be clear about the two different things in this case.

    There is overlap, however. Lovelock’s thesis (as opposed to the conceptual baggage later attached to it) is similar to mine: he claimed that the interaction of the biosphere can give rise to large scale (globe-spanning) dynamics characteristic of a single living system. In his thesis, this process is no more mystical than the way that the interaction of the molecules of a worm give rise to the dynamics of a living worm.

    So, in your new theology phrases, if you can say “Spiderman and Santa can function as actors in the physical world”, then you are at least being consistent though no more meaningful to me.

    Yes, you could say that. But it would be weak. They are quantitatively quite different.

    If one wants to say that neuron’s give rise to thinking (as I’m sure we’d agree), then you could also say that the nervous system of a nematode means the nematode is capable of thinking. Sure, you could, and sure that notion could do some work for you. But it doesn’t strike me as a particularly useful thing to say.

    Whereas to say that the human neural network is capable of thinking. That does strike me as useful.

    So yes. In as much as the concept of the will of Spiderman causes people to put into practice that will, then the notion of the Will of Spiderman is valid in my model. But I really hope you’re not going to argue that the Will of Spiderman is on par with the Will of God.

    unreasoned new concepts.

    It is difficult to reason anything in 600 words!

    IMHO (sorry, busy day and after work, no time to soften it up — but I am sure you are fine !)

    Oh no. Somebody *has* to tell me where I’m full of crap. Otherwise I’m screwed. Never feel the need to soften it up, please!

  4. God exists as a property of many human thoughts. You have to tell us what a property is vs. a product.

    A property sounds like it belongs to and is inherent in human thought. Maybe not important but it all depends on where you are going and what nuances may ride in on this impressive word. Good word except when used by sneaky theologians and philosophers. Smile.

    “World-spanning notion”

    It does not touch everywhere.

    amorphous

    It has shape, albeit fuzzy edges like every idea.

    By this I mean that the constituent parts of the concept of God are the people who hold that concept. God is made up of lots of people’s thoughts.

    Again, this works for a huge number of object (agency-objects and non-agency objects).

    Yes. Although God is a fortiori such a thing. No? I think the concept of God is special, but certainly not qualitatively unique.

    So, spell out the uniqueness if not number or political implications. But if that is all there is to the uniqueness, then it seems a rather impotent uniqueness in a philosophical sense. Sure numbers matter in politics. But your you want to make God Real in some sense. I don’t get why still.

    [Concerning Spiderman and Santa] They are quantitatively quite different.

    There, you admits it is only numbers. But then, I guess you have some critical mass in mind.

    I really hope you’re not going to argue that the Will of Spiderman is on par with the Will of God.

    No, I get the politics, but here is all I here you saying:

    “We all agree God does not really exist except in people heads. But if enough people believe it and since it has desires then we get a lot of affect on the planet.”

    But gee, I just said it in two sentences without introducing new uses of words or hints at some Jungian theology. Am I missing something?

  5. Ian

    But your you want to make God Real in some sense. I don’t get why still.

    I don’t want to make it real. I think it is real, in a specific sense. I think (in the words of your summary later on) acknowledging there is an “it” is significant at all.

    I don’t feel the need to be politically correct in maintaining a ostentatious atheism, though. I’m happy to talk about the existence of God, and be clear about my atheism.

    There, you admits it is only numbers. But then, I guess you have some critical mass in mind.

    I believe that human cognition is only different from other mammalian cognition because of ‘only’ numbers. The numbers matter.

    I get the sense that you’re a compartmentalist. If things aren’t able to be split into different pigeon holes in some way, then their differences aren’t as important to you. It doesn’t bother me that dividing lines can’t be drawn at philosophically significant points.

    No, I get the politics, but here is all I here you saying:

    “We all agree God does not really exist except in people heads. But if enough people believe it and since it has desires then we get a lot of affect on the planet.”

    Well the ‘since it has desires’ is not something I’ve seen argued with any systematicity before.

    A meta-personal notion of will and desire. Its somewhat obvious when its been pointed out. But it wasn’t obvious to me, at least not 2 years ago.

    The fact that the will and desire belong properly to the concept, not to the individual conceivers. The fact that there’s an “it” in that statement at all, one that is significant enough to be having those planetary effects. That’s not intuitive, I don’t think.

    If you think it is trivial stuff, then you’re a lot smarter than me.

    I think you summarise where we’re at. But to me it is like summarising evolution with “well there’s variation, and some variation leads to things having more sex, and so survival traits propagate – am I missing something? – what’s the big deal?”

    Whichever way you describe it, it opens up a new way of doing theology (i.e. the analysis of the nature and desires of God, not just the practice of religion). It also provides a platform for solving a significant problem in theology: how to deal theologically with a massive diversity of belief. A topic that has traditionally been approached either with sectarianism, or amorphous generalisation (both of which, incidentally, become obvious consequences of this model).

    without introducing new uses of words

    I wasn’t aware I was trying to redefine stuff. Can you help me understand where I’m jargonising stuff?

  6. In much of Buddhism, we don’t imagine a deity with desires of pleasures and pains. How would you make a theology of atheist Buddhism then in a significant way.
    I’ll work on your other questions later mate, thanx.

  7. Boz

    comparing your post to marxism:

    The point is that believers believe that their political worldview(marxism) wants them to do stuff. And, crucially, they will therefore go out and do it.

    This is also a concept that can get its desires fulfilled

    Marxism can mobilise human beings with hands and legs to act in the world.

    Marxism can organise the 1917 “October Revolution”, led by vladimir Lenin.

    So, I contend, that the god concept and the marxism concept are not unlike each other.

  8. Ian

    Cool. We disagree.

    I am, for example, a humanist. A member of the community of humanists. I carry out actions for the sake of my humanism, for its promotion, or in support of other humanists.

    It would never occur to me, however, that humanism itself had desires, or wanted me to do things. I have never heard the voice of humanism, or received the judgement of humanism or felt the will of humanism.

    Yet believers in God have those experiences. And I think that is significant.

  9. Boz

    It looks like I brought up the same objection as sabio, and ian responded with “the god concept is not qualitatively different to santa(e.g.), but it is quantitavely different”.

    In this case, your claim of the special distinctiveness of the god concept is very weak, because the only thing seperating it from other concepts that produce actions is its popularity.

    so, I understand that you are saying: “the god concept is very unlike other concepts because it is popular”

    This is a dodgy claim.

  10. Ian

    your claim of the special distinctiveness of the god concept is very weak, because the only thing seperating it from other concepts

    No, that’s not right. There is plenty separating it from *some* other concepts. In fact, for *any* other concept, there will be things separating it, not just number.

    But specifically in the context of a concept having a will. Sabio raised Santa. And I agree. Santa is a concept that has a will, like God. But the scale of personal involvement in the two is staggeringly different. Quantitatively they are vastly different.

    Marxism, humanism, they are different not just because of their size (both are easily in the realm of the kinds of size I’m interested in), but because their adherents don’t perceive an independent will in them. They are qualitatively different, I contend.

    The concept of a sofa is perhaps shared by even more people. But it does none of the same work.

    Flip it over the other way, can you think of another concept that has some significant set of adherents who perceive it to have an *independent will* which must be followed to the point of death?

    Its clear, at least to me, that even if there were some, that group would not be large.

    And if there were a few others there, it wouldn’t bother me. I’m not wedded to God being somehow different or special cosmically. In fact, quite the opposite. But I can’t think of anything even *remotely* as significant that fits in that category.

    And even saying all that… for me the importance isn’t whether God is unique, or any such thing. But how this model allows us to think about God in a way that makes both theological progress *and* materialistic sense.

    This is a dodgy claim.

    No, I wasn’t saying that. But even if I were, how can the size of God-belief be at all contentious?

  11. I agree with Boz:

    Nazis could hear the voice of their Fuhrer heads. Nazism was loaded in followers heads not just with the concept but with the people (imagined or otherwise). American Liberals now are motivated by the voice of Obama in their heads (the more Charismatic, the more strong the voice that is added to the concepts they already owned). Marxist are lead by the voice (writings) of Lenin, Mao … Voices are just us talking to ourselves of what we think a leader OR a movement wants of us. All these movements have a will — the will of the leaders or the originators of the ideas. I think you are playing this will and desires of God thing far too much. But we could be wrong.

    Flip it over the other way, can you think of another concept that has some significant set of adherents who perceive it to have an *independent will* which must be followed to the point of death?
    — Ian

    I think we have done that.

    Boz and I both also need to understand why this “quantitative” issue is so important to make you create an abstraction of a uniquely special status.

    how can the size of God-belief be at all contentious?
    Ian

    And already, my contended notion has snuck in. There is not one God Concept and already you are speaking like there is one. I remember your model but your model had the purpose to describe ONE so you could take that fuzzy idea and put a fuzzy will in it and then have it actually act on the world. I just can not trust this theology. It feels just like the exact tricks of mind that make gods in the first place.

    This is fun debating with an Atheist — I don’t have to worry about offending something sacred to him — do I? 😆

  12. Ian

    Good push backs, folks. Thanks.

    I wrote a long response about uniqueness, but deleted it, because I have realised that you’re pushing me back on things I really don’t care much about.

    I still disagree with you in some important respects on how unique the concept of God is, but can I ask if we can park that for now? If you’re willing I’d like to reboot the discussion into what I am interested in. By presenting the question slightly differently.

    But before that, I infer from you, Sabio, that you’re frustrated that I seem to be privileging God. That’s probably to be expected from the atheist community on an atheist blog! And that is more than fair.

    I’m think I’m privileging God, because that’s what I’m interested in. That’s what this blog is about. I hope in the same way that a biologist privileges biology over physics (and would claim that biology is different to physics, in some ways qualitatively, in others quantitatively).

    I’m not (consciously) doing it because I feel the deep down need for a deity to worship, and I want to conjure up my personal Jesus. At least I really hope not 😀

    I do, however, want to get hold of a rational, structured and empirically plausible notion of God, to help me understand God-related-phenomena.

    I suspect this model might have legs in other places. Other concepts (such as Marxism) I don’t think function the same as God, but they may be similar enough that they could be illuminated by using the same idea. I don’t know. Outside theology I’m dumb. I don’t know enough to know if it would be useful. Within theology I’m convinced it can be.

    But even more generally, I am not aware of anyone who has looked at coherent cognitive processes that are distributed over multiple brains. Certainly not in those terms. Are you?

    So for me the uniqueness stuff is secondary. More important (at least until you push me back again) are these:

    Is this model a potentially fruitful way of understanding belief in God?

    I think so.

    Are there particular features of God-belief that make this a particularly fruitful model.

    Yes, I think very much so.

    I don’t have to worry about offending something sacred to him — do I?

    No. This stuff hasn’t had a good beating yet. I appreciate it.

    Already in the comments to part 1 and this part I’ve come further in understanding what is core/what is fluff than in the last year of faffing around this.

  13. Ian

    I do just want to add a very specific response:

    I remember your model but your model had the purpose to describe ONE so you could take that fuzzy idea and put a fuzzy will in it and then have it actually act on the world.

    Its regrettable that I gave that impression, because that is very, very much not what I’m trying to do. ONE is irrelevant for me. In fact, I think understanding God as one concept can only be possible when there’s virtually nothing interesting one can say about God. As I said in part 1, the really interesting signal comes when you’re at smaller scales. Sufficiently small groups of people so that their concept of God has some structure, sufficiently large so that it these meta-level effects are present.

    I think the ONE God concept has will, but it is so conflicted and nebulous as to be pointless trying to discern. The Will of the Allah of Mahdi Sunnism? Now, there’s a will you can talk about. Or the will of the Jesus of the NAE?

    Quantity for me establishes the topic generally as important (as opposed to Santa or Superman, which is the only context I’ve used the quantity argument).

  14. Ian

    And a final meta-comment — 🙂 — I’m changing topic and being mercurial because you’re genuinely helping me think about this stuff, and I want to shamefacedly use your brains to help me do so further. Don’t take it as evasion…

  15. Uzza

    Often I tell students to do a movement a certain way, because look, do it this other way, it hurts doesn’t it?, so that’s not just my opinion, it’s your body telling you. It’s nature’s opinion. It’s the universe telling you. It’s god’s opinion. Depending on the student’s outlook determines how I phrase it, but the point is that there is some real authority that provides this advice.

    You say Gaia is different, but I’m not so sure. Sure Lovelock’s hypothesis describes a physically existing system, but nature worshippers go beyond that to look at the driving force behind it. My car wants to start (sometimes), our computer want us to spell, the planet wants you to recycle: always the metaphor is just a stand-in for some actual real amalgam of forces. Some undeniably real force(s) created and/or sustain the existing cosmos as it is, and gods are just attempts to describe that. When we say Mother Earth wants x, it’s really shorthand for that driving force, which is really pretty indescribable.

    Of course that’s stripping away all the idiotic personal fetishes people tack on, and I wonder if at the highest level of heat mapping, anything is there at all. Can there be gods that are not creators, not eternal, not supernatural, not yada yada? Atheists admit the amalgam of forces, but they just don’t want to give it the handle “god”, so, is there any feature that a concept has to include in order to earn that title? If not, sectarian views are the only views, there can’t be a “one” like Sabio worries about.

  16. I worry about the one that Ian makes that allows a Theology. Even if it is a Heat-Map One/Many. He wants to explore ITS properties as if IT is detatched from any particular person’s belief.
    Well, that last sentence is probably not true but there seems to be something in Ian’s writing that tastes to me like some flavor of such Jungian/Platonic notion like that. I can’t nail it down — and the more terms and subtle philosophical moves, much like many theologies, the harder I imagine the untangling will be later.

    I could be totally wrong, but Ian likes the foils, and I like fencing !
    (off to the hospital — later I will post MY AGENDA on the model I have been developing. It will be curious to see how the models interact.)

    Uzza, I noticed you commented on my blog only twice — could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

  17. ahhh, I should explain.
    On my site (using wordpress) I can search comments and thus found 2 of Uzzas. I keep a list of friends that comment often and try to learn a little about them so we can build dialogue. And since I easily forget info, I build a Friend Tab to keep track. I like knowing a little bit about the folks I chat with — whatever they feel comfortable sharing, of course. And Uzza is a good commentor on this site.

  18. Uzza

    more random incoherent thoughts:
    “can you think of another concept that has some significant set of adherents who perceive it to have an *independent will* which must be followed to the point of death? “
    Honor. Justice.

    “Cognitive process distributed over multiple brains” sounds like culture. Every cultural meme is a social construct that dictates (‘says’ or ‘tells us’) certain actions are preferable.
    People often discuss language this way, as an artifact that exists and evolves independently of its users. Not talking about conveying specific messages. We follow all sorts of unconscious arbitrary rules that make no logical sense and could just as well be said differently. Our language wants us to use these constructions, and we do, because it is the will of English.
    language: “adjectives first”
    culture: “no cat steaks”
    justice: “share your toys”
    In these cases the will/desires seem to belong to the concepts, not the ppl. Seems ok to treat god like that.

  19. Ian

    Uzza: You say Gaia is different, but I’m not so sure.

    My phrasing was clumsy here. Gaia is different because there are two separate things at work there, and I think it would be difficult to talk about it without hopelessly misunderstanding what someone else ways talking about. The two things are:

    1. The *concept* of Gaia, as distributed over brains, according to my model.

    2. The meta-organism Gaia, distributed over the biosphere, according to Lovelock’s model.

    I think Gaia is probably a pretty good analogy of what I’m talking about, but because itself it is a theory of meta-processes, I think it is too fraught to talk about in this context.

    Uzza: is there any feature that a concept has to include in order to earn that title

    Yes, absolutely. For me, it is very simple. Its adherents have to call it that. The globe-spanning God is quite unlike anybody’s concept of it. The specific Gods are probably very unlike one another. So, I can’t think of any other criteria other than the fact that their believers believe they are believing in ‘God’.

    Sabio: the one that Ian makes that allows a Theology

    Please read the second of my 3 comments above. ‘One’ is not very useful way to look at the concept of God.

    Uzza: Honor. Justice.

    Back arguing about uniqueness again 😦

    But do you really think people perceive these things as having independent will. I always thought it was a conscious personification.

    Sabio: He wants to explore ITS properties as if IT is detatched from any particular person’s belief.

    Yes, that is true. Detached in the same way that thinking is detached from the action of any particular neuron. Or that the evolution of a species is detached from the life outcomes of any particular individual.

    Uzza: “Cognitive process distributed over multiple brains”

    I think you misunderstand what I mean by this. Cognitive as in the process itself has features of cognition. Not cognitive just because it is being done by brains.

    I mean that a cognitive process normally associated with an individual brain (such as planning, for example) is distributed over many brains, none of whom are necessarily trying to plan.

  20. Ian

    The last comment made me think of an obvious corollary I haven’t considered before.

    Free-market advocates claim that the selfish action of individuals trading with one another can lead to a market that is maximally efficient. The individuals aren’t trying to be efficient, and may be behaving in very odd ways, but overall the market may seek out goals that no individuals within it hold.

    Its an analogy. Not *quite* the same, but another example of an intelligent process distributed over multiple brains.

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