Is God a Person?



In the previous post, we established that due to logical argument and empirical evidence, the universe was caused to exist (we could say created) by a timeless (we could say eternal), non-physical (we could say spiritual) being with a lot of power (some would say omnipotent).  While that sounds a lot like the traditional view of God, there is a major element missing.  Once the above has been granted, there are two ideas of what could have brought about the beginning of the universe.  One is something that doesn’t think, consider, contemplate or plan.  That is a thing of some sort.  The other would be someone who does.  That would be a person, although it would be a person unlike the ones we normally come across.  So, is the creator of the universe a thing like the Force or a person like God?


What causes should we consider?


There are two types of causation that can make things happen.  The one that is the least controversial is event causation.  An event is simply something that happens, a state of affairs that comes to pass.  This can be as minor as a quantum level event in which some particle interacts with another particle to the Big Bang.  Event causation is when one event is caused by another.  The simplest example of this might be when one domino hits another.  There is no deliberation, consideration, delay or intention behind this event.  When sufficient conditions come about (the first domino coming into contact with the second domino with enough force), the event occurs (the second domino falls over).  The same goes for playing billiards, hitting a baseball, or just about everything that occurs in the physical world.  When an event’s conditions for being caused come about, the event happens.  Simple enough.


The other type of causation is agent causation.  This is when a conscious being initiates an event through an act of the will.  Anything that is conscious is capable of exercising its will and initiating an event of some sort.  It may be very limited (hermit crabs initiate things, just not very significant things) or it could be extensive (when the President enacts his will, the effects can be far reaching).  Most are somewhere in between.  The difference between agent causation and event causation is this.  In a row of dominoes, the agent pushes the first domino over.  In billiards, the agent hits the cue ball with the cue stick.  In baseball, the agent swings the baseball bat.  An event is a reaction to cause, whether that cause is another event or an agent.  An agent is the initiator of an event.


While it may have gone unnoticed before, it may be a bit more obvious now.  If a first event brought about a second event, it is not uncommon to ask what caused the first event.  We covered this line of thinking in our previous post, and the problem still persists for event causation.  We end up with an infinite regress of events unless we can find one that initiates on its own.  The only causes we know of that initiate things on their own are agents.  If event causation alone is logically impossible (infinite regress problem) and agents fulfill the criteria needed to avoid the problem (initiate events on their own), then it’s reasonable to assume the first event of the creation of the universe was caused by an agent.


Just what makes something an agent?


The question comes up, what makes a thing an agent?  (Yes, I saw that question coming.)  It’s a good question and one that philosophers have tossed around for centuries.  Lately, the idea that an agent could exist without a physical body has been challenged, but that seems to be based on the assumption that all of reality is physical.  While that is a widely held opinion it has problems which we will address more fully at a later time.  For now, we’re just going to address three things that seem to be necessary for a thing to be an agent.


First, agency requires a first person viewpoint.  It’s kind of weird that our experiences are fundamentally grounded in our first person perspectives.  No matter what any of us does, each of us perceives the world from his or her own personal, subjective point of view.  There is no way around it.  Everything we see, hear, sense or think, it is from each of our own viewpoints.  We can attempt to place ourselves in someone else’s place, but it is still each of us placing ourselves there.  However, the world as described by modern science is naturalistic, objective and exhaustively described from a third person perspective that is in some sense derived from our collective first person perceptions.  While this may be thought of as simply a coherency problem for naturalism, one might ask how one gets a first person perspective from a system that is grounded in a third person perspective.  An alternative that seems to make more sense is that the universe originated from a First Person.  Additional first person viewpoints become relatively simply and third person perspectives almost a given from that.  Of course, it does require conceding that God is an agent with a first person perspective.


Second, agency requires intentionality.  Agents do things for reasons.  They are trying to achieve a certain goal, whatever it might be.  Animals hunt and forage in order to eat food.  Rational agents have a thought process that seeks to be rational.  When we think, desire, feel and believe, we do not do so without something in mind.  Our thoughts, desires, feelings and beliefs are about other things.  They are directed toward something rather than just random or meaningless.  Agents pursue things to achieve particular ends.  In any case, agents do things for a purpose that events do not.  Why?  Because events lack intentionality (there’s no mind to intend anything) whereas agents have minds (or are minds if you want to be technical) and can direct their actions towards a final goal.  This is an intentional (top-down) way of thinking about things rather than unintentional (bottom-up).  In a naturalistic world, the only way offered is unintentional because that is how all of nature is believed to have developed.  However, the coherency of how intentional creatures can arise from a fundamentally unintentional system is problematic.  Yes, there are a lot of professionals out there that claim, “But that is how we evolved.”  To be brutally honest, every time I press them (and I’m talking about both the average Joe on the street as well as the professional thinkers), they make sweeping claims but have very little beyond smoke and mirrors to make their case, and sometimes not even the mirrors.  On the other hand, an Agent who created the universe to achieve some sort of end would do so intentionally and if He should create other agents, they would display that same sort of intentionality.


Third, and arguably this is the most critical point, agents exercise their will.  They do not do things merely because they have to.  They do not do things merely randomly.  They do so often because they choose to do so.  Granted, some decisions are fairly simple.  To borrow from Sartre, my decision to not commit suicide isn’t a difficult decision, but it is my decision.  Such a decision is not the result of any physical laws (there is literally no physical constraint to my making such a poor decision) and it’s clearly not random (if it was, it could just as easily vanish in the next second without any explanation whatsoever), but rather my choice to follow what seems to me like a good course of action (I’m pursuing something that seems better than the alternative).  Strangely, many atheists want to remove this option since it seems to indicate that there is some mysterious thing that is not physical that is making my decisions.  That’s all well and good, but in doing so they are using a first person perspective (their viewpoint) and exercising intentionality (their trying to be reasonable) and choosing between alternatives (exercising their will regarding accepting or rejecting propositions).  Surprisingly, acts of will are inescapable and don’t seem to have a place in a purely physical world.  We can talk more about that later, but for now it’s enough that we have wills and make choices.


“But what is a person?”


That’s not a terrible question.  Even if human beings are agents, it doesn’t seem that we are agents in the same way that other animals are.  Aristotle called human beings “rational animals”, recognizing that we are like other flesh and blood creatures, but there is a rational component that seems to escape the rest of the animal kingdom.  What is it that makes humans persons rather than just human animals?  To explore this, we have to look at the persons we are most familiar with, ourselves, and extrapolate from there.  How are humans different from animals?  There are a lot of ways, but we’re going to focus on the functional ones.  There are very few physical characteristics we don’t share to one degree or another with some other creature on the planet.  That means whatever the differences may be, they are probably not going to be physical.  (I know physicalists are going to cry foul.  Tough.)  What might those differences be?


First, humans are ridiculously complicated beings.  All animals have thoughts, beliefs, desires, hopes and dreams.  These are called first order capacities.  They are direct, simple, and typically can be met by the physical world.  Human beings, however, go further.  They have thoughts about their thoughts, beliefs about their beliefs, desires about their desires, hopes about their hopes, and dreams about their dreams.  These are called second order capacities.  Many people even develop third or fourth order capacities.  What this comes down to is an ability that humans have that seems to escape the rest of the animal world – abstraction.


Second, abstraction is the sort of thing that human beings grasp pretty early on, but animals never seem to.  We can categorize things, imagine paragon examples of things, even conceive of things that don’t exist at all.  To date, there don’t seem to be any non-human animals capable of this sort of thing.  For example, dogs don’t like cats, the flesh and blood creatures that run around and make life difficult for humans (we know that’s what they do).  However, dogs don’t have any concept of “cat nature”, whereas human being over the age of 4 could easily describe “cat nature”.  Dogs recognize a frisbee or a ball when you throw it, but most human beings recognize a circle or a sphere when you merely describe it.  That’s not merely a communication problem – that’s a conception problem, and animals don’t seem to have the ability to abstract.  This extends to the human capacity for logic and rationality, concepts and rules of thinking that are anything but empirical.


Third, humans have creative capacities that far outstretch those of any other animal.  While other animals might play or make noises, perhaps even out of joy and a sense of fun, you don’t see animals deliberately creating art, building complex machines, or even create music.  Even human use of communication far outstrips that of animals.  Koko the gorilla can use sign language to communicate pretty well, but it is understood that her use of language is by wrote and not terribly creative.  Koko uses words for things she has learned and will point to a thing if she doesn’t know what the word is.  She doesn’t create words for things.  Human children, on the other hand, will use words they have to make up words for things they see (I know kids that referred to “beer” as “Daddy drink”).  Anyone who says humans and animals are on the same level creatively is simply mistaken.


“Where’s the body?”


So human persons have second order capacities, can abstract, and are creative.  At the same time, they share physical characteristics with other animals.  It seems to lead to a significant question:  what role do our bodies play in our nature as agents and persons?  When we look at those characteristics, a very real possibility emerges – none at all.  The properties are not physical, so the only reason to assume there must be a physical cause is if physicalism is true.  I am going to dismiss that because we don’t have time to go into it here, but trust me, physicalism is false.  That means that while human beings are physical persons, it is possible for there to be a person that does not have a physical body.  After all, having a first person perspective, acting intentionally, exercising will, abstracting and creating are the sorts of things that don’t necessarily require a physical body.  If so, being a person does not require a body.  Additionally, it would be odd for an agent that is limited to first order capacities (like animals) which typically require a concrete object to exercise them to exist prior to concrete objects.  It is this line of thought that allows for the possibility of God.


Conclusion


The previous post established that a powerful, timeless, non-physical being created the universe.  Since event causation leads to the same sort of logical absurdities (that is impossibilities) that an uncaused universe does, the only alternative is that the cause of the universe is a personal agent.  If that is the case, then the universe was created by a powerful, timeless, non-physical Person.  That sounds a lot like the God of traditional theism to me.  Like most people, I think it’s safe to say that God has reasons He does things and it might be worth our while to try and find out what some of them might be.


FURTHER REFERENCES

Three Views on Personhood - Lyceum Philosophy Journal

Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? - Resonable Faith

God is a Person, We are Persons - Stand To Reason

Stepping Toward a Personal God With A Wallet and a Dollar - Cold Case Christianity

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