Adler On


Almost everyone uses the word "God," but almost nobody can say what they mean by the word, especially if they are pagans or persons without religious beliefs. If they are members of the three religious communities of the West -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- they have been taught how the word is used in the dogmatic of scared theology of their religion.

However, let us suppose that they are pagans -- persons who have no religious beliefs of any kind, and let us suppose that this entry is being written by a pagan for pagans.

As an exercise in philosophical theology, how shall we give meaning to the word "God"? For one thing, we know at once that the word "God" is a proper noun and that, as with any other proper noun, we must try to substitute a definite description for it.

As with the proper noun "George Washington," we cannot be introduced to the individual named and so we cannot learn how to use it by acquaintance. Instead we must substitute a definite description, such as "the first President of the United States." (See Classes, Kinds.)

Another preliminary point is that we can have no empirical concept of God. We have no experience of God, as we do have of cats, dogs, whales, and horses, from which we can abstract a concept of those kinds. Of inexperienceable entities, we must form theoretical constructs. It is of the theoretical construct "God" that we must now form a definite description.

We are helped in doing this by St. Anselm. He asked himself: When I use the word "God,": how do I give that word meaning? His answer was. Must I not say to myself that when I think about God, I am thinking to that than which I can think of nothing greater?

In short, the first step is to describe God as the supreme being. Not a supreme being, because there cannot be two supreme beings. Must I not also think of God as existing in reality, as well as existing as an object before my mind? Hence, God must be described as a really existing supreme being.

Now any being that exist in reality either is one that came into being and passed away, or is one that necessarily exists -- one that cannot not exist. If I am thinking God as the supreme being, I must choose the latter -- a being that cannot not exist.

To go further than this choice in my definite description of God, I must ask what the necessary, real existence of God is like. Three answers are possible: (1) totally unlike the existence of anything else we know as existing: (2) essentially like the existence of all the other things we know to exist: and (3) both like and unlike the existence of everything else the existence of which we know.

These three alternatives are exhaustive and if the first two must be rejected, we are left with third. The first must be rejected, because then the word "existence" can no meaning for us: and the second alternative must be rejected because than God's existence would be physical, mutable, material, and we would be unable to answer the question: Why do we not know God's existence in the same way that we know the existence of everything else?

To say we know that God's real existence is both like and unlike the existence of everything else the existence of which we know is to say that when we apply the word "exists" to the things of the physical world and to God, we are using the word "exists" analogically. (See Analogical Speech.)

This usage requires us to say that, in formulating a definite description of God, we must first use negative words, such as "immaterial," immutable," "imperceptible,": "inconceivable." and "unimaginable." "Infinite" is another negative word we must use, and give that word meaning by saying that God is not a particular individual, not a member of any class.

But to say that God really exists and that we human beings also exist is to say something positive about God. Since anything said of God and creatures is said analogically, not univocally or equivocally, we must always add that we do not exist as God exists, nor does God exist as we exist.

Three more negative words enter into the definite description of God. They are "independent," "unconditional," and "uncaused." God has real existence from himself alone. His very being is to exist. Whereas the existence of all dependent, caused, and conditioned physical things is ab alio (from another), God's existence is a se (from himself). The unusual word "aseity" applies to God alone.

Finally, we can ask about God's being alive, knowing, and willing. If these three positive attribute cannot be added to the definite description of God, then God is not the supreme being, for there could be a greater being than one who is not living, knowing and willing. But when we say that God lives, knows, and wills, we must add at once what the analogical use of these words requires: the God does not live as we live, does not know as we know, and does not will as we will.

The definite description we have formulated to give meaning to the proper noun "God" does not answer the question of whether God does really exist. Anselm thought it did constitute as affirmation of God's existence -- that the definite description of God and God's existence self-evident. That is an error made by Anselm and others who think that the so-called ontological argument make it unnecessary to question whether the object the definite description puts before our minds is also one that does exist in reality.

How to Formulate a Definite Description of God: Second Step
How to Think About God Chapter 9
Recommended Readings on
Theology and Metaphysics

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)
Great Ideas from the Great Books (1963)
by Mortimer J. Adler

Revised 4 November 2000