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I recently learned about ignosticism, which is the idea that the notion of god is ambiguous, and then the question of the existence of god(s) is meaningless. That is quite surprising to me since the concept of god had been (and still is) an important topic of discussion in philosophy, studied by Descartes, Pascal, Spinoza, or Bertrand Russel to name a few.

Also, my personal definition is fairly broad: a god is a sentient entity that was responsible (alone or as part of a group of deities) for the creation of the Universe and its physical laws. It can still be intervening on the Universe (through miracles for example) or not. The rules of the Universe most likely don't apply to it.

This last property usually inclines me towards agnosticism.

Hence my question: what are the main definitions of the concept god used in philosophy?

  • Too glib to be an answer, but too elegant to pass up: a quote from Stranger in a Strange Land. "Short human words were never like a short Martian word — such as "grok" which forever meant exactly the same thing. Short human words were like trying to lift water with a knife. And ["god"] had been a very short word. Smith still felt that he had grokked rightly the human word "God" — the confusion had come from his own failure in selecting other human words. The concept was truly so simple, so basic, so necessary that any nestling could have explained it perfectly — in Martian. – Cort Ammon Jul 7 '16 at 1:54
  • "The problem, then, was to find human words that would let him speak rightly, make sure that he patterned them rightly to match in fullness how it would be said in his own people's language. He puzzled briefly over the curious fact that there should be any difficulty in saying it, even in English, since it was a thing everyone knew else they could not grok alive." – Cort Ammon Jul 7 '16 at 1:54
  • this might be an interesting website. or maybe you can get it on some weird PBS channel. – robert bristow-johnson Jul 7 '16 at 5:49
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Some of the main conceptions include:

  • "God of the Philosophers" AKA "The Unity of All Perfections": An abstract, intellectualized conception of God as representing the unity of all perfections, immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good. This view of God is found in the neo-Platonic tradition, as inspired by Plato's Ideal of Good, and is integrated into Christian theology via St. Augustine. This conception of God underlies many of the classical arguments for the necessary existence of God.

  • God personified: This is not a specifically philosophical viewpoint, but traces back to the diverse religious traditions that conceive of God not as an abstract impersonal force, but as an active Being that thinks, decides, commands and creates. Many theologians of many different faiths have done work to try to reconcile their faith traditions with a more abstract conception of God --St. Aquinas is a notable such figure in Christianity.

  • Deist God: The Deist God is much like Plato's demiurge, He creates the universe but after that leaves it alone to run by itself. He is not an active force in the universe's unfolding, but only in its architecture.

  • Pantheist God: The pantheist God is present everywhere and in all things. All of the the universe is God and only God, God is the ground and the foundation for all things.

  • Panentheist God: The panentheist conception of God is as containing the entire universe, yet greater, perhaps infinitely greater, than the totality of the universe. The philosophy of Bishop Berkeley, who described the universe as existing solely inside the mind of God, is arguably a form of panenetheism. In this conception, it is not so much the case that God intervenes in the world, as it is that the world's entire existence is maintained, moment to moment, solely by God's Will.

  • The Unknown (or Unknowable) God: Many philosophical schools argue that God is either unknown to us, even to the extent that we do not know even whether God can or does exist. Some additionally argue that God is unknowable to us, even in theory.

  • The Unnamed God: There are non-theistic traditions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, that arguably have a conception of the ultimate nature of the universe and its organizing principles such that it could be identified with a highly abstract conception of God, i.e. the God of the philosophers.

  • The Progressive or Historical God: In this conception, stemming largely from Hegel and his followers, the unfolding of the world, as played out in world history, is the process of God coming to full self-awareness. The world, therefore, is God's way of coming to know God's Self.

These above views of God, although distinctively different, are not necessarily contradictory --if we take it as a given that we cannot understand God in God's fullness, then it might be that different people in different times and places would perceive God in these disparate ways without actual contradiction. That is essentially the view of the "perennial philosophy".

  • Lastly, and most recently, we might add the God of the Technological Singularity. We might see it as a variation on the progressive God, it's a version of the conception that technology is progressing via exponential growth towards a point of theoretically infinite power. As imbued with religious overtones, this view foresees humanity and technology merging in the foreseeable future into a godlike "singularity." Under some conceptions, this is likely to have already happened, in which case our entire existence is a technological simulation of reality. Depending on how this is conceived, it would lead to a state of affairs strikingly similar to either Deism or Panentheism (depending on whether the simulation was created and then left to run, or whether it exists as a part of the singularity itself).
  • Thanks. It helps. I have difficulties to understand the Historical God. Is it just a consequence of Pan(en)theist God? If God is everything, then (in the modern conception of physics) space, matter and time. Or is the Historical God a representation of destiny as being decided by God? – Taladris Jul 8 '16 at 4:35
  • It's a difficult concept, and I'm not much of a Hegel expert. You might try asking it as a separate question. – Chris Sunami Jul 8 '16 at 12:57
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I'd say there's two or three main streams of thought about God in philosophy (narrowing for the purposes of this question our definition to Western philosophy):

  1. Aristotle's definition of thought thinking itself (in Metaphysics but recurrent throughout his works). Here, we have a God that is primarily sui causa and unaffected by anything else. This is largely the source of considering God omni* (-benevolent, -potent, -scient) and having perfections.
  2. Plato's idea of the demiurge vs. the high god (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demiurge). The demiurge creates according to the patterns of the forms but is moved by the unmoved God. This is one source of the idea of God as creator.
  3. Abrahamic monotheism - a major source for Western philosophy has been Christian doctrine and the stories we find in the bible. Judaism itself is a minor source (see for instance Spinoza), and Islam is a medium strength force depending on where you're drawing the line in philosophy (some very important medieval philosophers like Ibn-Sena (Avicenna) are Muslim. And then attempts to merge this with things from 1 and 2 since that's what philosophy was. (Again, God is creator but also as commander and perfect -- at least in some ways).

So for instance Augustine can be seen (in the broadest strokes) as trying to merge 2 and 3, Aquinas as trying to merge Augustine's 2 + 3 with Aristotle.

Among these, a demiurge is bound by the laws of the universe. For 1, it's not bound because it does not relate. For 3, much will vary depending on whose philosophy we are looking at and how they understand the Christian God.

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