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PHENOMENOLOGY

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Phenomenology

IX. Theology Without Prejudice[1]

1. Applying Logical Standards to Theology

2. Conceiving the Divine Attributes

3. Analyzing Omniscience and Omnipotence

4. Harmonizing Justice and Mercy

5. The Formlessness of God

1. Applying Logical Standards to Theology

Most theologians discuss God without telling us how they came to know so much about Him; they think that to refer to “revelation” through some prophet or other, or to their own alleged “insights” is enough justification. On the other hand, some science-minded philosophers do not admit of any validity to theology; they argue that the concept of God is a figment of mankind’s imagination and therefore that nothing of scientific value can be said about it. Both these approaches are logically improper. Or, as it is written in Proverbs 18:13:

He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”

Theology is undoubtedly a legitimate branch of philosophy. It is intrinsically speculative, in that we cannot ever hope to prove or disprove its basic premise that God exists, as I showed in Judaic Logic. Briefly put:

a. When we try to prove the existence of God with reference to the existence of the universe, or to some empirical feature (such as the order or beauty of things) or content (such as life or mankind) of the universe, we inevitably get into circular argument. For then the same standard of judgment has to be applied to the concept of God, i.e. we need to explain His existence or attributes and cannot take them for granted. All the more so, since He is less empirically evident than the things we have appealed to the concept of God to explain.

b. When we try to disprove the existence of God with reference to some empirical data or theoretical construct, we inevitably open the way to one-upmanship. However we depict the universe, the believer can always say: “well, that’s how God made it!” The scientist (physicist, cosmologist, geologist, biologist, whatever) may well argue that a Biblical or other account of things is incorrect according to current science, but the scientist will find no argument to deny the claim that the universe as he describes it may have its ultimate source in “God”. The scientist cannot deny “metaphysics” to the believer, without himself (i.e. the scientist) engaging in “metaphysics”. Claiming to know that something beyond the knowable is not, is as pretentious as claiming to know that it is!

The concept of God is indeed a theoretical construct, whether someone else’s or one’s own. This does not imply it to be invalid or irrelevant, for the simple reason that all conceptual knowledge is ultimately based on “theoretical construction”, including all orthodox science. A concept may be admittedly speculative, and yet of interest and relevance to human thought and action. On the other hand, it does not follow that the idea of God can be formed without regard to empirical and logical tests. Our discourse on this subject like any other has to be in reasonable accord with current knowledge and internally consistent.

Purely scientific knowledge follows the laws of induction very obediently: it generalizes when that is recommended and particularizes when that is recommended. When it does not find what it is looking for (e.g. a particle or a missing link) after diligent search, it assumes that what it sought was absent all along. By way of contrast, speculative knowledge remains a bit freer, refusing to generalize offhand from “not found” to “nonexistent”. Scientists also speculate, keeping their minds open on certain theories or predictions for a long time. Without this attitude, their thought would always be straitjacketed by excessive formalism.

Religious thinkers have a right to a similar allowance, and should not be discredited offhand by the very nature of their search by closed-minded pseudo-scientific totalitarians. Such rejection would not be science, but secularist dogma. Nevertheless, it is true that religious thought is very often excessively informal, and tends to proceed willy-nilly without regard for the rules of induction, ignoring empirical evidence and indulging in shamelessly manipulative pseudo-deductions. Here as in any other field, we have the right to demand honesty and sanity.

In particular, I would characterize as cretinism the debonair approach of some religious fundamentalists, consisting in simply refusing to accept the current findings and interpretations of science, like the Big Bang cosmological theory or the Evolution theory in biology (or in the not so faraway past, the Copernican system). Such theories are in no way (as far as I can tell) incoherent with Creationism, i.e. the simple idea that God created the material universe, even if some scientists provocatively declare them to be. Even the idea that the material universe is perpetual can be reconciled with Creationism, by considering it as a timeless emanation of God.

Such theories may well be in a state of tension with too literal a reading of the Bible or similar documents, however. In that case, the holy book defender ought not to discredit religion entirely by insisting on antiquated viewpoints, but should rather stick to basics and essentials, and progressively adapt his interpretations accordingly. Even if the current scientific theories are not definitely proved and scientists frankly admit to having difficulties with them, it is silly to fight a rearguard battle against sincere seekers after truth, by (for instance) forbidding the teaching of such theories in schools.

It is also worth stressing the immense riches of reflection involved in scientific thought. Those who resist progress should but consider the grand tapestry of evolving life taught by modern biology, which is just a continuation of the still broader narrative of the evolution of matter taught by modern cosmology. What a loss to humanity if these profound insights were lost, which teach us humility and solidarity.

The phenomenological approach to theology consists simply in remaining at all times aware of the processes through which our theological beliefs or disbeliefs are generated and built-up. Our reason can then evaluate the processes, and in a balanced manner (with neither excess rationalism nor excess emotionalism) arrive at moderate, non-ideological conclusions.

It is important to accept at the outset that God’s existence and attributes can, for us common folk who have not been privileged with direct and epistemologically indubitable experiences or visions of God, only be hypothesized, and indeed only be speculated upon. Concepts of God and His attributes can be built up and made cogent, but can never ordinarily be established. Some doubt always does and will remain, and this is where faith is brought into play (making certain actions possible despite legitimate doubt).

And by the way, if these limits to human knowledge are evidently true with respect to God and his defining attributes, how much more true they are with regard to all the stories, rituals and laws found in written and oral traditions. The latter do not follow automatically upon faithful acceptance of the former, and there are many conflicting theses (all the religions and sects).

2. Conceiving the Divine Attributes

The epistemological question as to how we humans conceive the Divine attributes must not be confused with the issue of proving that the Creator has them (granting His existence, which is not easy to prove[2]). Explaining the arising of a concept (if only for speculative purposes) is easier than, and of course prior to, proving it. It is widely understood, by believers, agnostics and atheists alike, that we conceive God’s attributes by means of extrapolation from our own limited attributes. Even God’s unity, uniqueness, ubiquity and infinity are so conceived. Any valuable or virtuous power found in us in limited degrees, is considered as present in God in unlimited degree. Thus:

Ø From our partial power of volition or freewill, we can conceive that God has or would have total power – omnipotence (or all-powerfulness).

Ø From our partial power of knowledge, we can conceive that God has or would have total power – omniscience (or total knowledge).

Ø From our partial power of loving-kindness and mercy, we can conceive that God has or would have total power – all-mercifulness (or complete kindness).

Ø From our partial power of justice, we can conceive that God has or would have total power – perfect justice.

Likewise for all values and virtues, we pass from our own imperfect qualities to God’s extreme possession of them. We generalize from ‘some’ good in us to ‘all’ good in Him. This is an ordinary inductive movement of thought, requiring no special justification. From a relatively empirical concept, we project a hypothetical concept, which is thereafter open to discussion (further confirmation or eventual rejection). We do not need to actually stretch our minds as far as the extreme, and personally experience infinity, omniscience or omnipotence, to be able to conceive it[3]. Just as general propositions are knowable[4], so are hyperbolic concepts. However, to repeat, conceiving does not imply proving.

Note that, inversely, with regard to faults or vices, while we have some, God has none. Here, we do not go from some bad to all bad, but to no bad. This is done to maintain speculative consistency: we cannot affirm extreme positives, if we do not deny the corresponding moderate or extreme negatives. Some people hypothesize both positive and negative gods (the Zoroastrian religion, or the currents of Christianity which believe in an independent devil); but in those cases neither proposed entity has stricto sensu extreme attributes, since they are in competition.

As it happens, while these generalizations individually are logically acceptable, in some cases taken together with each other or with other items of knowledge or belief, they may cause logical difficulties. We are then called upon to try and reconcile the conflicting theses. Notably, Divine omnipotence may be viewed as in logical conflict with natural determinism (in the case of Divine Providence) or human freewill (as an abdication of power by God). Or omniscience may be regarded as conflicting with the unpredictability of human freewill. Or again, infinite mercy and total justice can be considered as in mutual conflict, as well as in conflict with the apparent facts of unpunished vice or unmerited enjoyment, or of unrewarded virtue or undeserved suffering.

But as we shall see, our conceptions of the Divine attributes are not just generated by such simple extrapolations of human attributes; more refinements are involved in each case.

Ø Our concept of omnipotence is also based on the human analogy that just as a person (or group) can apparently interfere in the otherwise natural course of some events, so can God but only more so, i.e. whatever the events. Also, just as one person (or group) can physically or through mental (including verbal) influence delimit, force or block, incline or disincline another to engage in certain voluntary acts, so God can exercise His will on occasion without implying that Man in principle lacks freewill.

Ø On the other hand, whereas human freedom of will is naturally limited, i.e. there are natural laws and human events (and possibly Divine decrees) no person or group can circumvent or affect, in the case of God as we conceive Him no such limitation exists, He is stronger than all other forces combined. Though God could make Nature lawless or prevent any human freedom of choice, He usually chooses not to act thus, but only exceptionally (according to Biblical accounts of miracles) interferes in natural or human affairs. Precisely that is His apparent will, that there should be natural law and human freedom of will, since that is what seems to be occurring.

Ø Similarly, regarding omniscience, we can render our concept of God’s power more credible by considering the corresponding smaller-scale human power in greater detail. Some philosophers consider that Divine omniscience is logically incompatible with human freewill, since it would imply that God knows Man’s choices before he makes them. However, if we reflect, we can see on the human scale that these ideas are more compatible than that.

o A person can, through memory or by inferences, see his own or other people’s past acts of will: such hindsight by us of volitional events does not seem contradictory. If we conceive God as located at the end of time (our own or all history or eternity), looking back at all our acts of will, the problem dissolves. That is, the said problem arises due to an assumption of foresight (as would be the case for humans), but seems less intractable if hindsight (for God) is assumed.

o As I argue elsewhere (e.g. see chapter VI, 2.3), we can experience motion directly within the present moment, i.e. without recourse to memory. It follows that the present is for us extended in time (a moment), and not just a point in time (an instant). The extent of this experienced stretch of time is admittedly small in our case, but it is conceivably larger for God’s span of awareness, covering what is for us a big chunk of time at once. This thesis is all the more conceivable, because the present seems even for us of variable breadth.

o If God can thus overview human lifetimes or all of history or eternity in one grand ‘moment’, then He is always with regard to such stretch of time effectively in a position of hindsight, i.e. He can see our volitions without affecting them. Within the grand moment accessible to Him, all events are quasi-simultaneous, as if He could mentally travel instantaneously from its beginning to its end and back at will. Thus, what appears to us as paradoxical foresight would simply to him constitute hindsight.

Ø Note additionally that omniscience does not only mean the ability to know across time, but more broadly to know all events everywhere, as well as all timeless events (abstracts). Seeing events many places at once could be viewed as almost as problematic as seeing events in many times at once. Yet, just as human perception can evidently overview a considerable amount of space, so by extension it is conceivable that God can perceive all space.

Ø I think that a lot of the conceptual difficulty many have with the idea of God can be dissolved if we view God as positioned proximately and parallel to and at least coextensive with (and probably much greater than) the natural world we live in. By that I mean that the view of God as suspended far away from it all causes conceptual difficulty in relating Him to the natural world. But if we rather understand God as hidden behind (or underneath or above or next to) the natural world, separated from it only by the veil of our own blindness to Him, then He becomes more conceivable[5].

Ø To modernize these ideas with reference to Relativity Theory, we could speculate that God (as regards the world we inhabit, at least) resides at the center (or better, throughout the inside and perhaps also beyond) of the four-dimensional space-time ‘sphere’ (whose ‘surface’ is our material world). In this way, God would always be equidistant from (or better, contiguous with) all places and times, all points in this world. He would both transcend space and time, and be adjacent to (or even also immanent in) it. Perhaps this describes what mystics and deep meditators refer to as the “eternal present”. (Note also that Albert Einstein’s arguments refer to the immanent material world and the maximum velocity of light signals in it: he does not consider or deny that consciousness may transcend matter, nor that its scope might be instantaneous.)[6]

The above comments are not intended as exhaustive. See also, concerning the issue of God and causality, my comments in preceding chapters as well as Buddhist Illogic (2002) and The Logic of Causation (1999, 2003).

3. Analyzing Omniscience and Omnipotence

In Judaic Logic[7], I expressed some misgiving concerning the consistency of the concept of omniscience. The following is an attempt to analyze the issue further.

The form (a) “I know that (I know nothing)” is inconsistent, since it implies “I know something” and “I know nothing” (i.e. “I do not know anything”).

The following forms are, however, consistent: (b) I do not know that (I know nothing); (c) I know that (I know something); (d) I do not know that (I know something).

Strictly speaking, the paradox in (a) yields the conclusion (b), rather than (c), i.e. it does not exclude (d) at the outset. Unless we regard “I know nothing” as inherently paradoxical too, in which case “I know something” is implied: I think this is justified by reflection, i.e. once “I know nothing” is affirmed, we can classify it as a claim to knowledge, and thus reject it as implicitly inconsistent. Another way to the same result is to say that the “I do not know…” forms, (b) and (d), are implicitly claims to knowledge, about the state of one’s knowledge or ignorance, so that they imply (c).

Self-consciousness, even of one’s ignorance, implies consciousness, and therefore knowledge. Or simply put, (c) is logically true of all self-conscious beings (i.e. humans and God, at least – perhaps some higher animals too). However, we cannot claim (c) true for seemingly merely conscious beings, we can only say for them “they know something”.

The form of omniscience is (e) “I know that (I know everything)”. The simpler form “I know everything” implies the reflexive, because if you know everything, then you must also know that fact. This is self-consistent, and therefore claimable for God. The form (f) “I do not know that (I know everything)” is not self-consistent, since it both implies “I do not know something” and allows for “I know everything”.

Similarly, (g) “I know that (I do not know everything)” is self-consistent, as is the prior form “I do not know everything”, and this is the situation for humans and perhaps some higher animals (in both cases) and merely conscious animals (in the non-reflexive case). The form (h) ” I do not know that (I do not know everything)” implies both “I do not know something” and “I do not know everything”, the former of which implies the latter of which: there is no inconsistency.

The difficulty in the concept of omniscience is not deductive, but inductive. Granting you know everything, then of course you know that you know everything. But it is also conceivable that you have arrived at total knowledge gradually, by inductive processes, in which case, how would you know for sure that you know everything? And if the latter possibility exists, then whoever is apparently in a state of total knowledge (even by non-inductive means) is also a bit in doubt about it. That is, in practice, “I know everything” does not imply “I know that (I know everything)”, or more precisely, even granting the fact that so and so knows everything, it does not follow that so and so knows it for a fact. That is, omniscience does not necessarily include the reflexive knowledge of one’s omniscience. In a sense, this result looks paradoxical, but in a way it confirms my general suspicion towards self-inclusive classes.

There is also to consider the conceptual compatibility between the Divine attributes of omniscience and freewill. Theologians have considered the compatibility of God’s omniscience and Man’s freewill, though in my view not satisfactorily; that is, those who have sought reconciliation have not so far as I know really succeeded – it was rationalization rather than true resolution (I attempt a more convincing argument above). But have they at all asked how God could have both freewill and omniscience? If God knows everything, including in advance what He will do, how can He be said to freely choose what He does? I think my attempted answer to the first question (in the preceding section) can also be applied to the second. For God, all of time is one moment, so there is no before or after, and all knowing and doing are effectively simultaneous.

With regard to logical issues in the concept of Omnipotence, the following should be added. Omnipotence cannot be consistently defined in an unlimited manner, as literally the power to do anything whatsoever. We must rather say: God can do anything do-able in principle.

What distinguishes Him from all other entities is that whereas we finite beings can only do some (indeed, very few) of the things that are in the realm of the possible, God can do all that can conceivably be done. What He cannot conceivably do is illogical things like “creating Himself”, or “creating things that are both A and non-A, or neither A nor non-A”, or “annulling His own omnipotence”, or “annulling the factuality of past facts”. We might presumably add to this list the impossibility of His self-destructing (which would contradict His eternity), or of destroying His other defining characteristics. Moreover, I would personally — perhaps because I am a Jew (I say this so as not to offend the sensibilities of Christians, Hindus and others) — consider God incapable of incarnating, i.e. concentrating His being in a finite body, while remaining infinite.

It is not however inconceivable that God would eventually annul, circumscribe or reverse natural laws that are logically (as far as we can tell) replaceable. Here a distinction has to be drawn between natural modality and logical modality (see my work Future Logic, in this regard). In this context, local and temporary “miracles”, as are described in the Bible (e.g. the parting of the Red Sea) or other religious books, are quite conceivable – as punctual exceptions to natural law. Natural laws that are not logical laws may well be conditional upon the non-interference of God – this concept would in no way diminish their effective status as laws. Notwithstanding, it must be remembered that many such laws are logically interrelated to others, so that they might not be by-passed in isolation, but God would have to make multiple or systemic changes to produce a desired effect.

But we do not need to consider God’s every interference in the world as an abrogation of natural law. God might well have reserved for Himself a role as a powerful player within Nature.

This remark can be understood, if we consider the analogy of human will (or, more generally, animal will). The latter is conceived by us as able to overpower the natural (i.e. deterministic) course of event; furthermore, one human’s will may be more powerful than another’s. Humans (and other animals) are nevertheless considered as part of Nature, in a broader sense. We can similarly, by extension, on a larger scale and at deeper levels, regard God’s providence. To refer again to Biblical examples: He may have split the waters of the sea as we would make waves in our bathtub; He may have influenced Pharaoh’s decisions as we would suggest things to weaker minds.

If we limit our concept of Nature to deterministic events, then even human and animal will, let alone God’s will, must be classified as unnatural. But if we understand the concept of Nature as covering whatever happens to occur, then not even God’s eventual ad hoc interference in the ordinary course of events (deterministic or of lesser volitions) is unnatural.

Thus, to conclude, God’s omnipotence cannot be conceived anarchically. God’s will, in contrast to ours, is undetermined by “external” or “internal” forces and influences. But the concept remains, as for the other defining attributes, subject to consistency and other rational and empirical checks, i.e. to the laws of logic.

4. Harmonizing Justice and Mercy

Just as God’s existence cannot be proved (or disproved), so also His attributes cannot definitively be proved (or disproved). If an attribute could be proved, that to which it is attributed would of necessity also be proved. (If all attributes could be disproved, there would be no subject left.) We may however admit as conceivable attributes that have been found internally coherent and consistent with all known facts and postulates to date. (Conversely, we may reject an attribute as being incoherently conceived or as incompatible with another, more significant principle, or again as empirically doubtful.)

Among the many theological concepts that need sorting out are those of justice and mercy[8]. Justice and Mercy: what is their border and what is their relationship?

Mercy is by definition injustice – an acceptable form of injustice, said to temper justice, render it more humane and limit its excesses. But many of the things we call mercy are in fact justice. Often when we ask (or pray) for mercy, we are merely asking not to be subjected to injustice, i.e. to undeserved suffering or deprivation of well-being.

Justice is giving a person his due, either rewarding his virtues or punishing his vices. Asking (or praying) for either of these things is strictly-speaking not a request for mercy, but a demand for justice.

So, what is mercy? A greater reward than that due (i.e. a gift) or a lesser punishment than that due (i.e. partly or wholly forgiving or healing after punishing). In the positive case, no real harm done – provided the due rewards of others are not diminished thereby. In the negative case, no real harm done – provided there were no victims to the crime.

An excess of mercy would be injustice. Insufficient punishment of a criminal is an injustice to victim(s) of the crime. Dishing out gifts without regard to who deserves what implies an unjust system.

But in any case, this initial view of moral law is incomplete. Retribution of crime is a very imperfect form of justice. True justice is not mere punishment of criminals after the vile deed is done, but prevention of the crime. Our indignation toward God or a social/political/judicial system stems not merely from the fact that criminals often remain unpunished and their victims unavenged, but from the fact that the crime was at all allowed to be perpetrated when it could have been inhibited. In the case of the fallible and ignorant human protectors of justice, this is sometimes (though not always) inevitable, so they can be excused. But in the case of God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, this is a source of great distress and doubt to those who love justice.

There are, we usually say, two kinds of crime: those with victims and those without. The latter include crimes whose victim is the criminal himself (they are his own problem), or eventually crimes against God (who, being essentially immune to harm, and in any case quite capable of defending His own interests, need not deeply concern us here). With regard to crimes with victims, our concern is with humans or animals wrongfully hurt in some way. The harm may be direct/personal (physical and/or mental – or in relation to relatives or property, which ultimately signify mental and/or physical harm to self) or indirect/impersonal (on the environment or on society – but these too ultimately signify an impact on people or animals).

A truly just world system would require God’s prevention of all crime with innocent victims, at least – which He does not in fact do, judging by all empirical evidence, which is why many people honestly doubt His justice or His existence. To say (as some people do) that the failure to prevent undeserved harm of innocents is mercy towards the criminals, giving them a chance to repent, is a very unsatisfying response. It doesn’t sound so nice when you consider that it was ‘unmerciful’ (i.e. unjust) to the victims: they were given no chance. Perhaps, then, if not in a context of prevention, the concept of mercy has some place in the context of ex post facto non-retribution.

Avenging the victims of crime seems like a rather useless, emotional response – too late, if the victim is irreversibly harmed (maimed, killed, etc.). If the victim were not irreversibly harmed, his restoration and compensation would seem the most important thing, preferably at the expense of the criminal. But we know that vengeance also to some degree serves preventive purpose: discouraging similar acts by other potential criminals (raising the eventual price of crime for them) or educating actual criminals (so they hopefully do not repeat their misdeeds). To be ‘merciful’ to actual criminals with victims is therefore not merely to abstain from a useless emotional response, but to participate in eventual repetitions, of similar crimes by the same criminal or others like him.

It must be stressed that taking into account extenuating circumstances is not an act of mercy, but definitely an act of justice. Not to take into account the full context in formulating a judgment is stupidity and injustice. Perhaps the concept of mercy was constructed only to combat imperfectly constructed judicial systems, incapable of distinguishing between nuances of motive and forces. The law says so and so without making distinctions and is to be applied blindly without variation – therefore, ‘mercy’, an apparently ‘irrational’ exception to the law, is necessary! It would not be necessary if the law were more precisely and realistically formulated. Thusly, as well for allegedly Divine law systems as for admittedly human law systems. If the system and those who apply it are narrow-minded and inhumane, of course you need ‘mercy’ – but otherwise, not.

Another way the concept of mercy is used is in wish or prayer. We hope that the ‘powers that be’ (Divine or human) will indeed give us our due, rewarding our good efforts or preventing or punishing our enemies’ evil deeds, even though this is not always the case in this imperfect world. Such calls to mercy are a form of realpolitik – they are not really calls for injustice, but calls for justice clothed in humble words designed to avoid a more fundamental and explicit criticism the failure of true justice of the powers-that-be. Again, if absolute justice were instituted, there would be no need for such appeals to ‘mercy’; the right would be automatically done. Well, human justice is inevitably deficient: even with the best of intention and will, people are neither omniscient nor infallible, so uncertainty and even error are inevitable, and in such context ‘mercy’ is perhaps a useful concept.

But in the case of God, what excuses can we give? How can we justify for Him the imperfection of the world? We try to do so with reference to freewill – justice presupposes responsibility, which presupposes freedom of choice. But this argument is not fully convincing, for we can dig deeper and say: if the world couldn’t be made just, why was it made at all? Or if it had to be made, why not a world of universal and unvarying bliss – who ever said that freewill was required? For this question there seems to be no answer, and it is the ultimate basis of the complaint of theodicy. The counter-claims of ultimate justice – causes of seemingly unjust reward or punishment invisible to humans, balancing of accounts later or in a reincarnation or in an afterlife – seem lame too. If justice is invisible it is also unjust, and justice later is too late since for the intervening time injustice is allowed to exist. So we are left perplex.

Even when we see two equally good men unequally treated, one rewarded as he deserves and the other given better than he deserves, or two equally bad men unequally mistreated, our sense of justice is piqued. All the more so when the one with more free gifts is less deserving than the one with less free gifts. And all the more so still when the bad is not only not punished but given gifts and the good not only not rewarded but mistreated. For then all effort toward the good and away from the bad is devaluated and rendered vain. If there is no logic in the system of payment, then what incentives have we? Certainly, the resultant effect is not to marvel at the love and mercy of the payer, but rather at the injustice and lack of love that such chaotic distribution implies.

Perhaps then we should ask – what is good and what is bad? Perhaps it is our misconception of these things that gives us a false sense that injustice roams the world. The way to answer that is to turn the question around, and ask: should we construct our concepts of good and bad empirically, by simply judging as good all actions which seem to result in rewards and bad all actions which seem to result in punishment (the ‘market’ value of good or bad)? Such a pragmatic approach (which some people find convenient, until they bear the brunt of it themselves) is surely contrary to humanity’s intuitions. For in such case, criminals become defenders of justice (justiciers) and victimization should always be a source of rejoicing for us. This is the antithesis of morality, which is based on human compassion towards those who suffer indignities and indignation towards those who commit indecencies. These intuitions must be respected and supported, against all claims of religion or ideology or special interests.

Some say there are no innocent victims – implying (for example) that even those who perished in the Holocaust must have been guilty of some commensurate crime, in a previous lifetime if not in the current one. Some say there are no culprits – for instance, many Buddhists apparently hold this view, with reference to karmic law. These propositions are two sides of the same coin. As soon as you have a doctrine of perfect justice, divine or natural, you stumble into this pitfall. Only by admitting the imperfection of justice in the world can we become sensitive to the undeserved sufferings of people (others’ or one’s own).

5. The Formlessness of God

Finally, I would like to share an insight I recently had at the synagogue, an aspect of “emptiness” not previously discussed by me. The God of Judaism, and more broadly of similarly monotheistic religions, is absolutely formless – which means, devoid of any shape or form, devoid of any sensible or phenomenal characteristics. (More precisely, this God is conceived as having no phenomenal characters, but as quite able to produce them.) How then is He to be at all known by us mere mortals?

Standing in worship, I gratefully realize that I am not projecting any image of God, since I have none, none having been taught or allowed to me. The God that I (as a Jew) celebrate is formless, very similar in that respect to the “emptiness” presumed by Buddhists to be the root and essence of all existence. Observing myself thinking of God, I note an effort of “intuition,” an intention to see through the material and mental world of appearance and to some degree apprehend the formless Existent that I assume to be present.

Thus, “knowledge” of God by us is based on an analogy or a generalization, from the intuition of one’s own self. By abstraction from my own self, I can conceive of other people’s selves and of the Self of God. If we attribute to God powers like cognition, volition and valuation and affection, in their extreme forms (as omniscience, omnipotence, and perfect justice and mercy, utter kindness), it is because we have inner consciousness of such powers (in miniature degrees) in ourselves. Our philosophical concept of God is not a conceptual construction derived from experience of Nature, i.e. based on phenomenal appearances and causation, but a product of introspection.

Some might argue that just as our soul has or inhabits a body, God may well inhabit the world (pantheism, animism) or be incarnated in it in human form (Hinduism, some branches of Buddhism, and Christianity have this belief) or be symbolized and represented by inanimate images, i.e. statues or drawings (this is called idolatry by Judaism, Islam and some branches of Christianity).

According to those who reject it, the fault of idolatry (the word is etymologically rooted in Gr. eidos = form) is to ignore the inner source of concepts of divinity, and to misdirect people’s attention onto physical or mental images, i.e. on phenomenal characters. Just as it is foolish to identify oneself with one’s body or imaginations, so God cannot be equated to or known through a form. Granting theism (which of course remains open to debate), the psychological advantage of monotheism is precisely its focus on the formless.

With regard to the concept of incarnation of God, which is central to many developed religions, I personally find it unconscionable: I do not see how the immensity of God can simultaneously be (and not merely project into the world) someone or something so small as a person or an inanimate form. Consider too our tiny size relative to that of the universe; and speculate on the possible infinitesimal size of our universe relative to the infinity of its Creator. Conversely, the apotheosis or deification of a human or animal is in my view unthinkable: a part cannot become the whole. But of course, that may just be my Jewish education; each one is free to think as they see fit. I am not interested in promoting religious intolerance or conflicts, but only seek to clarify concepts and debate issues as a philosopher.

What I want to point out here is that the analogy between God and human soul is commonly regarded as having limits. For whereas most theists (though not necessarily animists or pantheists) consider God as creating the material and mental natural world, most believers in a human soul do not consider that soul as creating the body associated with it. The soul may be assumed an outcome of the body (as in naturalism, where soul cannot exist without body) and/or an inhabitant of it (as in certain religions, where soul may leave body), with some degree of control over the body and influence from the body, but it is not assumed to produce the body. On the other hand, one of the main reasons that God is posited, in the monotheistic world-view (rightly or wrongly), is to fulfill the role of first cause and prime mover of the natural world.

All such discussions are of course considered irrelevant by naturalists, many Buddhists, and other atheists. But rather than come to some doctrinaire conclusion on topics so speculative, I think the important thing is to keep an open mind and focus on comprehending all aspects, nuances and options.



[1] This chapter was left out of the first edition of Phenomenology.

[2] Or to disprove.

[3] My position here is intended to mitigate some of my statements in Judaic Logic, chapter 14.1.

[4] This is incontrovertible, since its denial is self-contradictory, being a general proposition itself.

[5] The Buddhist idea of an “original ground of being” (experienced in deep meditation) from which phenomenal existences appear to spring, is a useful image in this context. Another image we can use is the Kantian idea of a Noumenon underlying the Phenomenon.

[6] In this spherical perspective, we can conceive of Creation as timeless, and thus perhaps come to an agreement with Stephen Hawking. Creation would refer to the interface or transition between God (the spiritual core) and the material universe (the outer crust). Tangentially, within the four-dimensional surface, there would be no spatial or temporal beginning; but along the radius of the sphere, the surface has a beginning.

[7] Chapter 14.1..

[8] This essay was written in 1997, save for some minor editing today. Reading it now, a few years later, I find it unnecessarily aggressive in tone. I was obviously angry for personal reasons at the time of its writing. Nevertheless, I see no point in toning it down today.

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2016-08-23T09:54:02+00:00