An Alternative Definition of God

30 Jan

Most people these days understand the meaning of the word “God” as follows:

God is a supernatural being who knows everything, can do anything, and is perfectly good.

We can call belief in “God” according to this definition “classical theism.”

I want to propose a quite different way of defining “God”, as follows:

God is the thing that is known in true mystical experiences (if there are any).

We can in turn define a “mystical experience” as follows:

A mystical experience is an experience which, for the person having it, seems to directly reveal something which is:

  • unchanging and eternal
  • ineffable, i.e. its nature cannot be put into words
  • of great value, and such that the awareness of it is the supreme value of human life

Mystical experiences have existed in all cultures throughout history, and such experiences have inspired much of our greatest poetry, such as that of Wordsworth and T. S. Eliot. Whether there are any true mystical experiences, that is, whether there are any experiences which really do reveal something eternal and ineffable, is of course controversial. However, understood simply as psychological episodes that may or may not be delusions, the reality of mystical experiences themselves is beyond doubt.

Why define “God” in this way? Because I’m inclined to think the primary basis of religion throughout history has been the mystical experiences of various prophets and sages, such as Moses, Jesus and Buddha. Some of these prophets might have also (for whatever reason) taken God to have certain more specific characteristics, e.g. it seems that Moses and Jesus took God to be some kind of supernatural person. Still their primary way of fixing on the thing they called “God” was via their mystical experiences, and hence it is appropriate to capture what they meant by “God” in terms of these experiences, rather than in terms of some more specific definition.

My definition of God allows that our understanding of God might evolve over time. Primitive people tended to anthropomorphise the things they experienced, e.g. attributing personality to the moon and sun. We might see primitive religion likewise as anthropomorphising God, taking God to be some kind of supernatural being with the characteristics of a person. But even if this was a mistake, it doesn’t follow that God does not exist. When they gazed up in the sky, primitive people experienced real things, i.e. the sun, moon and stars; they just misunderstood their nature. Similarly, it could be that in his mystical experiences Moses experienced something real; he just misunderstood its nature. Yahweh might really exist, even if the Old Testament prophets were radically wrong in certain respects about what Yahweh is.

Thus, my definition of God has considerable flexibility. But it doesn’t make the existence of God entirely vacuous. If could turn out that all mystical experiences are delusions, in which case God does not exist. However, we cannot prove atheism simply by demonstrating the falsity of classical theism (e.g. through the problem of evil), or even by proving the non-existence of anything supernatural (e.g. by inductive argument that the physical world is a causally closed system). For it could be that:

  • Certain gifted individuals, from Moses to Wordsworth, really do have direct access to an eternal and ineffable reality,
  • The eternal and ineffable reality experienced by such individuals is nothing other than the essential nature of the material universe.

In this case, it would turn out that the great philosopher Spinoza was right after all: God and the material universe are one.

18 Responses to “An Alternative Definition of God”

  1. david January 31, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

    If God is conceived in this way, what kind of a relationship does one have toward God? Can one still look to God for solace, guidance,meaningfulness, etc?

    • conscienceandconsciousness February 1, 2016 at 8:25 am #

      Thanks David, good question. Two points in response: (i) It’s suppose to be minimal conception of God which could be shared by both the classical theist and those with an impersonal view God, (ii) Those undergoing mystical experiences say that what they experience reveals to them that life has meaning and purpose, and in some sense guides their action. So I’d say that an impersonal conception of God can in some sense provide these things.

  2. thomatk February 3, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Hi philip – thanks, this is interesting. ‘If [sic] could turn out that all mystical experiences are delusions, in which case God does not exist.’ Does this sentence not contain an non-sequitor? i.e., surely just because no-one has expereinced God does not mean that he does not exist. Maybe it does follow given that you take yourself to have given a ‘definition’ of God not merely an account of how we have epistemic access to God. But, if that is the case then your definition of God rules out there being a God that we cannot experience. But why do a thing like that?

    • thomatk February 3, 2016 at 11:30 am #

      *sequitur*

    • conscienceandconsciousness February 5, 2016 at 12:15 pm #

      @ThomatK Thanks for this. Given my definition of ‘God’ is does follow that God (so-defined) does not exist if there are no mystical experiences. As I say in the post, my reason for favouring this definition is that I think the primary basis throughout history for religion has been the mystical experiences of various sages and prophets. Defining God in this way allows one the option of accepting that Moses, Jesus, Buddha, etc. experienced something real, without accepting their specific beliefs about it. It allows for a conception of religious belief which is open to the possibility that the understanding of God — taken to be the object of true mystical experience — can evolve over time.

      I wouldn’t claim that this is the only possible definition of God, or that it is suited to all purposes, but I think it provides space for a broad and attractive conception of religious belief (one that covers religious beliefs as traditionally conceived, but more as well). As I said in my last blog post, I’m frustrated at the rigid dichotomy of dogmatic religion and reductionist atheism.

  3. Simon February 4, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    “God is the thing that is known in true mystical experiences (if there are any).”

    Are you really *defining* or are you merely identifying God here? If you are *defining* God then God’s nature didn’t seem to be ineffable at all – you have just put it into words! So I think if this is a definition, it must be a self-contradictory one.

    • conscienceandconsciousness February 5, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

      Thanks Simon, I’m giving an account of the reference fixing of the term. Maybe that’s not strictly speaking a definition, but it’s an account of the meaning of the word. I take the word ‘God’ to function like a phenomenal concept: we refer to God in virtue of direct awareness of her in the mystical experience (or indirectly by deferring to the mystic’s concept).

  4. Mark February 6, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Hi Philip,
    One worry I have about your definition is that it would make good less relevant to people who believe in (or are just interested in) the classical theism version, but have never had a mystical experience, and maybe are sceptical about their ‘truth’. Such people, believers or not, can get to grips with a god who has defined features that can figure in thought or argument, but will struggle to understand what god is in your version. Mystical becomes plain mysterious if you’ve never experienced it.

  5. Nino February 7, 2016 at 3:53 am #

    The problems I have with the three conditions are:

    – The first condition says “unchanging and eternal”, apparently bringing together two terms that should be, in my opinion, two distinct conditions.

    – The first condition also unnecessarily eliminates all forms of process theology, at least seemingly, as I do not see the need for God to be unchanging in order to be considered divine.

    – Ineffable – Does this mean something like what is commonly associated with Daoism (the real Dao is ineffable as every expression is a negation of its true nature)? If it means that we cannot comprehend the full nature of God, then that seems to apply to every conception of God, right?

    – “Of great value, that the awareness of it is the supreme value of human life” – I agree with this only if “value” means epistemic value, as in the spinozistic notion of amor dei intellectualis, given that some conceptions of God do not necessarily see God as an omnibenevolent being or as a source of morality.

  6. Phil February 8, 2016 at 7:26 am #

    I might note that when Einstein entered the US, he was asked what God he believed in. He replied, “The God of Spinoza.” I do note an inconsistency between the attribute “unchanging” and the idea of God as “the material universe,” which would seem to require a process theology approach, i.e., continual change, though perhaps with an eternal source beyond the change. A source like Kabbalah’s concept of Ein Sof, the ground of all being, which precedes even Yahweh.

  7. conscienceandconsciousness February 11, 2016 at 5:10 pm #

    Good point Mark. On the other hand, I suspect there are many people are put off classical theism, e.g. by the problem of evil, who would find this definition more attractive. One think I’m trying to do is just open up more options between classical theism and atheistic reductionism. I also want to say that paradigmatic experiences of beauty are kind of mini-mystical experiences, which potentially opens up this form of belief to a greater number of people.

    Thanks Nino, interesting thoughts. I suppose I do think mystical experiences seem to involve awareness of something unchanging and eternal (good point, they’re separate things), although I should think more about process theology (next class!). If we include experiences of beauty as mini-mystical experiences, then it connects awareness of God up more closely with the ultimate human good.

  8. conscienceandconsciousness February 11, 2016 at 5:16 pm #

    @Phil Yeah, I want the Spinozistic option to be more widely known. People think they have to choose between Dawkins or the Pope. You’re right to pull me up on these things, and still thinking it through, but I suppose I’m thinking of God as the unchanging essential nature of the universe. Need to read up on Kabbalah!

    • Mark S. February 18, 2016 at 6:21 am #

      Get rid of God! How many more centuries of God bullshit do humans still have to endure?

      • conscienceandconsciousness February 18, 2016 at 8:54 am #

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mark. There is always a tension between revising and eliminating, but I tend to favour the first strategy. Is there a core concern which survives with this new definition?

  9. David Morey February 18, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    I think the idea of god has been used to explain the overall context of existence, the fact that there is becoming and begoing as well as transient and finite being, god is a name we have given to openness and all the ways we respond intellectually and emotionally to this openness. So even us atheists need to get a handle on this openness, this is what philosophy is for. Science is the study of closure and repetition. See Hilary Lawson’s Closure and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.

  10. David Morey February 18, 2016 at 10:54 am #

    I think the idea of god has been used to explain the overall context of existence, the fact that there is becoming and begoing as well as transient and finite being, god is a name we have given to openness and all the ways we respond intellectually and emotionally to this openness. So even us atheists need to get a handle on this openness, this is what philosophy is for. Science is the study of closure and repetition. See Hilary Lawson’s Closure and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.

    Robert Pirsig’s LiIa also analyses the deep relationship between openness and closure suggestion this is even more crucial than subject-object dualism to philosophy. Deleuze is also interesting on openness.

  11. David Morey February 18, 2016 at 10:55 am #

    Of course AN Whitehead is interesting on this too.

  12. Alan March 18, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

    Hi Philip

    Just wonder if you think we are only just beginning to contact this God (I’m leaving out purported!) as our minds are not typical in a universe thought to contain many intelligences (given that planets around other stars are being discovered all the time) and we’ve only had a few thousand years of thinking and experience notched up. So mystical experiences, yes, but to suit us for our time. So I kind of think discovering God (I guess one could say is the biggest fact there could be) develops over tremendous spans of time.

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