Because “The question ‘what is God?’ is impossible” (amended version of comment at @thinking_reed’s blog)

The alternative view is that the question that the worthy gentlemen and clerics are attempting to answer is an absurd question. “The question ‘what is God?’ is impossible” (Rosenzweig). The biblical and other stories that seem to depict a simply personal God likewise could be said to traffic in impossibilities and, strictly speaking, falsehoods, but the prophet, the priest, and the believer escape the indictment, since applying a “strict” standard, or a philosophical standard, is merely another version of the same supposed error, or is the reverse error, and the only error, the error from the presumption that the words were uttered, or written, or are recited as though referring or ever possibly referring to the merely possible, rather than, employing the inherently inadequate logical forms, in regard to the ground of possibility, or that which precedes possibility, or that which makes possibility possible, questioning possible, or any “what” whatsoever a what at all ever. In the linked post, Fr Kimel begins with the tentative assertion that “We all know what human persons are,” but that assertion is unacceptable because fully prejudicial to the inquiry or circular (circulus in probando): It is not just a dubious assertion, it is the assertion of the answer to the same question, or the claim already to have demonstrated that which is yet to be demonstrated. The inquiry into what we mean when we invoke the name of the deity would both determine and be determined by the result of the inquiry into what we mean when we refer to ourselves. They are nearly the same inquiry, or two different aspects of a single inquiry, which is at the same time an inquiry into inquiry – the possibility of inquiry at all and the point of inquiry at all. Put differently, to presume we know who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is, is already to presume possession of the answer, and to circumscribe and pre-determine the interpretation that would tell us who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is.

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17 comments on “Because “The question ‘what is God?’ is impossible” (amended version of comment at @thinking_reed’s blog)

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  1. In terms of my recent-ish Buddhist-y posts at AG, perhaps the question of What is God can be reduced, as an exercise in reduction, in the spirit of experiment, to the idea, (or the imputation of the idea onto whatever appears), that anything at all exists inherently, that is, in an independent non-contigent way. In which case, God becomes as much as Self, the object to be negated.

    God then becomes the hoped for irrefutable faith/proof that things exist the way they appear ie inherently existing, having an essence, a soul, that things are things. God then becomes the disembodiment of our own individualized vivid experience of consciousness.

    • God or “God” – the quotes denoting the untenability or possible untenability of this god concept – as a “mere what” would be that disembodiment. Or: God misunderstood as “body” disembodies. That “God as body” disembodies all would be the logical result of the illogical statement, the sign of its absolute infirmity – “infirmity” being the condition of the supposedly “firm” existent detached from its being “firmed” (affirmed, confirmed, formed): de-realization of reality. I understand de-realization of reality to be another version of the Buddhist thought, its paradoxical de-objectifying objective or unmotivated or demotivating motive. The monotheistic idea could be understood in this context or in this format as the de-paradoxicalization of the non-objective or de-objectifying objective, or the completion of the all-as-nothing as things-at-all after all: “God” is or would be or would also be the word for that which alone and indispensably confirms the object in its objectivity, which really is only an in this sense divine and divinized objectivity. God endows the verb “to exist” with transitivity, or you could say that for God and God alone “to exist” is a transitive verb (same for “to live”). The Buddhist thought would be that the rock as non-contingent existent is illusion or delusion. The monotheist thought would to agree except that God in the monotheist thought would be the enablement of the non-illusive mode of existence of the rock, or non-delusionary comprehension of the existence of the rock, the causing of the actual existence of the rock, or the transitive-existing of the rock.

      • The “monotheistic idea” reminds me of Aquinas’ characterization of God as “existence alone”. Only God is this, everything else is existence and some particular nature that define and limits it.

        The paradoxical method of much of Buddhism is dominant in Zen and some schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Tsonkapa’s project was to use reason to avoid the recourse to paradox. This is what lead to his refinement of the description of Emptiness.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “the transitive-existing of the rock”. Is it either the rock’s share of existence endowed by God limited by it’s nature, or the rock as process, arising and ceasing according to how causes and conditions line up, or am I not getting it at all?

        • I wonder what word Aquinas actually used for “existence.” You can get a flavor of the Heideggerian treatment of the term from the etymology dictionary entry:

          existence (n.) Look up existence at
          late 14c., “reality,” from Old French existence, from Medieval Latin existentia/exsistentia, from existentem/exsistentem (nominative existens/exsistens) “existent,” present participle of Latin existere/exsistere “stand forth, appear,” and, as a secondary meaning, “exist, be;” from ex- “forth” (see ex-) + sistere “cause to stand” (see assist).

          So the word “existence” still carries with it, I think, the aspect of something produced either by God or by our minds or the particular interactions of our minds and infinity to produce finitudes, but is not Being or the All, and not even the entirety of “material being” or “mere being,” since much of “mere being” is hidden from us or unimaginably remote to us, as when we speak of the “existence” of galaxies whose light reaches us from billions of years ago. We guess that something like what we imagine that galaxy to be or have been may still exist in some vicinity whose precise location we can theorize, but for all we know there’s no there there at all anymore, or there’s a road sign the size of supercluster that flashes on and off saying “Eat at Joe’s.” We don’t know, and will never know. The theory of the galaxy’s existence is more what is “existent” for us, and if someone comes up with a better theory tomorrow, the galaxy will flash out of existence as far as we’re concerned, never to be thought of again, or maybe to be found a billion light years over to the left. So when we say “existence” we indicate what “stands forth” for us as it does or can – the computer screen as I watch my words appear on it right now and the unimaginably large unimaginably old unimaginably distant galaxy as I imagine I imagine it or the unimaginably tiny microbe or atom of a microbe.

          The key point in this digression is that if God is “unseen” or in some major aspect the “hidden one,” then the absurdity of searching for his or her or its “existence” becomes more plain. We’re asking for snapshot of the invisible.

          The “transitive-existing” of the rock is the “standing forth to someone” of the rock, or the actual being of its supposed being. “Mere being” is something we theorize and pre-suppose, but never actually encounter, the tree falling in the forest without anyone hearing it. We can’t really believe in forests unless we trust that they’re going to be there with their falling trees whether or not we happen to be observing them – the problematic that absorbed so much attention from Berkeley, Hume, and stoners in general, and that Descartes sought to answer. So we have to believe in a kind of passive, mute, non-contingent, etc., unobserved existence of existence, of rocks that will remain rocks whether or not a living being ever encounters them, but we never encounter a rock that’s never been encountered. All actually existing existence is encountering of existence in eternal presence, and this encountering is always multi-sided, exactly equally “creation” of what we can henceforth refer to as existence as though of independent existents.

          The divine principle as “Creator” is that all-encompassing process or source of the process that’s more than a process because it’s all-encompassing, and is always subjective as well as objective, always uniquely “individual” and “particular,” yet absolutely universal – all that ever “really” “is.” So we believe the rock “is” passively. The divine principle or god concept or God in this framework is the is-ing (“to be” as a transitive verb) of the rock to us or anyone. We conventionally understand “to be” and “to exist” as intransitive verbs: “states of being,” but certainty of the (non-)thing whose “existence” our conventional modes of speech lead us to doubt is in this sense the only certainty at all or conceivable. The state of being is what’s always in doubt, or is nothing until and unless it is created being. It remains nothing and infinitely in doubt except as created to created beings.

  2. I really enjoyed your response to my last response. Following is a quote addressing your question about Aquinas’ terminology. The rest may not be wholly responsive to your point, but it’s what I’ve got right now.

    From Aquinas, Thomas and Ralph McInerny. On Being and Essence. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings

    We must take a moment to backtrack and examine more closely the terms that Aquinas uses in the quote above. What are rendered as “to exist” and “existence” above are in Latin represented by esse (“to be”). When Aquinas speaks of “being as being”, in Latin he writes, “ens qua ens” (ens is expressed as “that which is”). It is difficult to render the difference between these two terms in English. Another attempt, by Dr. Walter Redmond, renders ens as “being” and esse as “be-ing”. The difference is subtle, and does capture some of the difference in meaning. It does not, however, quite capture the difference between the uses of the two terms. In his commentary on the De Hebdomadibus of Boethius, Aquinas says, “First he says that to be (esse) and that which is (ens) are different. This difference is not now to be referred to things, of which he does not yet speak, but to the notions or intentions themselves. For we mean one thing when we say ‘to be’ and another when we say ‘that which is’, just as we signify one thing by ‘to run’ and another by ‘runner’.

    Part f the Tsongkapa distinction is that “existence” does indeed carry the implication of, in the terms of this discussion, God, or in his presentation. the word” existence” carries with it in unexamined usage and experience the modifier “inherent”. This is the illusion or delusion.

    In this approach things exist/appear as the unity of “mere clarity and awareness” . So the becoming of the rock, it’s becoming clear to perception, and awareness together, simultaneously, is rock as “what is”.

    • I enjoyed writing it, bob, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to set such thoughts down to pixel in dialogue. Just wish I had the free time to devote sustained attention to the questions (or to complete the now 1-year pending 3rd part of the Voegelin essay on this subject).

      For now, I think you might be saying that the actual or indefeasible contingency (or inherent non-inherency) of supposedly non-contingent existence suggests a point of agreement or at least of parallel thinking between the philosophical monotheists properly understood, the radical doubters properly understood, and the Tsongkapa Buddhists properly understood. If so, then it wouldn’t answer everything, and the agreement would be subject to collapse as soon as one side or the other of the dialogue slipped into the conventional delusionary mode even for a moment, but it might be a starting point.

  3. By Bridger’s understanding, but that is not Augustine’s, why is it so hard for you to understand the plain text of a thing, you think you will come away with a different message?

  4. Put differently, to presume we know who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is, is already to presume possession of the answer, and to circumscribe and pre-determine the interpretation that would tell us who we are, what knowing is, what what is, what is is.

    Well, I’ll only point out that statements like this are themselves rather audacious presumptions of knowledge. Which is to say, that they presume possession of the answer, and to circumscribe and pre-determine the interpretation.

    “The question ‘what is God?’ is impossible” (Rosenzweig).

    The question certainly isn’t impossible. Aquinas certainly didn’t think that either the question or the answer to the question was impossible and that ought to count for something. Doesn’t fairness require that, in speculations such as these, recourse to figures such as Rosenzweig or Peirce (both of whom I’m willing to hold in high regard) be counter-balanced with figures who express strongly the alternate posture (such as Aquinas)?

    There’s a subtle difference between the questions “what is God” and “what would God be like”–so subtle, in fact, that it would seem the latter formulation exists in order that agnostics may pose the former question without admitting the existence of God. Aquinas might say that God is just the sort of thing that would be like something that must necessarily be.

    Well, I’m actually not intending to weigh in on this debate other than to say that militant agnosticism is every bit as problematic as militant atheism or militant theism. I do think, however, that there is a strong link between atheism and nihilism. I hold opposition to the latter to be mandatory and therefore I find the former concerning. Since you find Kojeve’s construction of Hegel to be compelling and you raised the issue of Kojeve’s asserting Hegel to be an esoteric atheist, I couldn’t help but wonder what you think of that.

    • Rosenzweig certainly understood that uttering the question was possible, so was aware that the question is possible in that sense, in that it is possible to ask it. He also did not identify as an agnostic, and even less as an atheist. What I would say he meant is that the question is not possibly a sensible question, since it assigns a mere “what,” or a finitude, to the being defined as other than a what or as infinite. The discussion we had last year regarding Aquinas suggests the he was quite aware of and in fact quite interested in these difficulties, which are logical difficulties already known to and exhaustively examined by the ancient philosophers.

      Aquinas might say that God is just the sort of thing that would be like something that must necessarily be.

      I don’t think that’s what Aquinas would say. As I understand his argument, it cannot identify God as any “sort of thing” as “like something.” It would be an exercise requiring the utmost care in language and logic, but the statement of the necessarily true for Aquinas could be demonstrated to be fully compatible with, to imply and to be implied by, the statement of the necessarily impossible for Rosenzweig.

      I find Kojeve compelling, but I don’t accept his definition of atheism to be an adequate definition. I think he might be right about the necessary implications of Hegel’s views regarding particular alternative theological statements or theological concepts, but that his proof also puts in doubt “what an atheist would be.”

      • Rosenzweig certainly understood that uttering the question was possible, so was aware that the question is possible in that sense, in that it is possible to ask it.

        And Aquinas certainly understood that the question (and not the mere utterance thereof), as well as the answer to the question (and not the mere utterance of an answer), was not only “possible” but had, in fact, been realized.

        Now please don’t misunderstand me; I find the points you make in your reply to my comment to be, for the most part, very well taken–even the notion that there is a great deal of common ground between Aquinas and Rosenzweig. But your comment implies that it was not only impossible for Aquinas to ask the question “what is God” (let alone to answer said impossible question), but that Aquinas himself agreed with that implication–and I think that’s misleading.

        As I said though, I don’t want to weigh in on this particular controversy any more than I already have. What really interests me is the prospect which you have unveiled that “Hegelianism is an atheism.” I do hope you’ll clarify your understanding of this matter someday.

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