An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

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4 thoughts on “An Impersonal God?

  1. nokareon

    I like how you have arrived at this conclusion through the channels of Aquinas and the like. One issue that atheists frequently raise in the discussion of the arguments from natural theology (say, the Cosmological or Teleological arguments) is that it can only conclude the existence of an impersonal God rather than a personal one. In regards to the Cosmological argument, Dr. Craig would disagree on the basis that there are only two other non-personal entities that could fit the bill—abstract objects like numbers, or some sort of physical law. But numbers are causally effete, and if it were a physical law, the effect would be co-eternal with the cause. The physical law would cause there always to be a universe and could not initiate the beginning of the universe at any given point in time (as is stated in the premises of the Cosmological argument). If God is not an agent but rather a physical law, you run into Leibniz’s question: “Why wasn’t the universe created sooner?”

    I was intrigued by your statement about information always originating from the actions of an intellect. It reminded me of John Lennox’s argument that the semiotic nature of the DNA code shows that there must be an intellect behind it, especially considering how vast and intricate that code is. Francis Collins, co-director of the Human Genome project, agrees on this point. I’m curious to see if you would consider DNA to count as information that would need to be explained by an intellect, as John Lennox does. And, if so, how would you respond to the reply of evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins who would claim that DNA is not really information at all, but just a certain arrangement of chemicals and proteins that has evolved under natural selection to foster adaptability and survivability?

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    In one way I think the question, “Must the information encoded in DNA come from a mind?” is a distraction from the strongest evidence. I know that the “code” in DNA is information because I can understand it. The only experience I have with the creation of information is the operation of my own mind. The reason the question above is a distraction is that it makes questionable what we cannot doubt, that is, that our own minds create information. Empirical examination apart from that assumption cannot but be reductive. But if I begin with that intuitive and internal certainty of the operation of my own mind, my presumption will be to see all intelligible aspects of the world as the product of mind. You’ve got to start somewhere! Why ignore or make doubtful the best and most direct access to the operation of mind? If I really know I have a mind, the operation of mind in nature becomes transparent in need of no proof other than our ability to think the information that forms nature into meaningful things. If I begin with doubt about the irreducible reality of my mind, I can never dig my way out of that hole.

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  3. Chris Highland

    A whole pack-full of assumptions you’re running with here. The elephant in the room is: even if you conclude (without any evidence, I would say) that there is a “universal mind” or a “personal god”. . .which one? I would rather go with Thomas Paine’s deistic creator than simply choose the Christian God over a “personal” Hindu, Muslim dot dot dot deity.

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    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Chris:

      Assumptions, yes. Gratuitous assumptions I don’t think so. No one begins with a blank slate. This piece is preceded by about 14 posts that get us to this point. I don’t think you are correct to say my conclusion is “without evidence”, unless you have read the previous parts of the argument and found no evidence or found it unpersuasive. Perhaps you would find it so. That is the nature of discussions among fallible mortals. As for Thomas Paine’s deism versus one of the millions of Hindu gods, if that were the only choice I were given, I’d probably choose as you do. I don’t know. I have embarked on a year-long series of arguments whose force (such as it is) will be cumulative. In my view, arguments in this area (perhaps all areas) are fallible. If one insists on eliminating all alternative explanations absolutely, one will never be convinced. I understand that, and take no offence at criticism. If you are interested in reading the previous posts, and in, perhaps, checking in periodically for the continuation of the argument, I’d appreciate your assessment. After all, I do wish to be held to rational standards. But as I say in Post #16, “Reason has its limits.” It cannot reason about something not given to it in some way. Peace.

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