Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

One possible objection to Theism is this: in the case of human or animal minds, we think using our brains.  This is a rather complicated chunk of matter, that has—at the very least—a rather large amount to do with determining what our thoughts are.  Assuming that there is a divinity which transcends the material world, and everything else, it wouldn't and couldn't have anything like a brain.  So how could God possibly think?

The problem is aggravated all the more if we decide that the fundamental reality should be simple in the sense of not being composed of any kind of parts (this is a technical term in theology, not to be confused with "simple" in the sense of easy to understand or unsophisticated).  Since if it were composed of separable parts, it would be natural to seek some explanation further back about how these parts got to be stuck together.

Recall, however, that I only proposed that God is like a mind, not that his mind works in the exact same way that ours does.  Because we have brains, our knowledge is necessarily limited (because there's a limit to the information capacity and reliability of a finite piece of matter) and also indirect (because we experience things in the outside world by representing them as particular patterns of firing neurons).

If God does not have a brain, then there is no physical mechanism to determine which things he knows and which he doesn't know.  So it seems likely he would have to know either nothing or everything.  (Aristotle stands up to propose the compromise that God knows only his own act of thinking, but let's ignore him.)  Since our original motivation for Theism was that God is like a mathematician who can appreciate the mathematical elegance of the physical world, it seems only the omniscience option will do.

Unlike us, God knows things directly, rather than by the mediation of a perceptual apparatus and neural processing.  For if an omniscient being knew things by representation, then he would need an exact identical copy of the entire Universe in his brain.  If he is omniscient, the copy would be exactly like the original, which seems absurd on grounds of redundancy: everything in the world would exist twice, once in reality and once exactly the same in God's mind.  Better to say that God just knows whatever is true, or rather that God is such that his knowledge and Truth are one and the same thing!  (This, incidentally, also provides a general recipe for dispelling almost any supposed logical paradox about omniscience.  Just replace all instances of “God knows X” with “X is true”, and then you will have a new paradox which must have a solution, even if you are an atheist.  That solution is then also available to the theist.)

Some readers may think that this view of God is a form of Pantheism, because in some sense the world is a part of God's thoughts.  But I don't think this is true.  The views which I am articulating here are a form of Classical Theism, which has historically been the most important view of God in the philosophy of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  This view might come a little closer to Pantheism than people think, but it differs in some essential details.

If God is the fundamental reality, then he exists quite apart from the world and does not depend on it for his existence.  His wisdom and power are eternal, and eternally he knows himself.  Because he is omniscient, and does not need representations, what he knows about a tree must be exactly the same as that tree (together with its context), but that is not to say that his pre-existing ability to know is identical to the tree, still less that he himself is made out of wood, like the idols that have no understanding.

A brief digression:  In Christian theology, there is one possible exception to my argument here, namely that God's knowledge of himself might well still be representational.  We believe that there is also a Divine Son who is the Word and Wisdom of God, that he eternally pre-existed with his Father before all Creation.  “Word” (λογος) is a metaphor for an expression of some idea, and this suggests that in some sense the Son is involved in God's act of knowing himself.  So, although this is getting into very deep waters here, maybe even God can't fully understand himself without recourse to a representation.  Since God is omniscient, this representation is in some sense an exact copy; fully accurate to who he is, yet distinguishable by the fact that it is the copy, not the original.

In fact, we believe that God is so full of life that there are actually two distinct self-expressions springing up out of the Father's being, namely the Son and the Holy Spirit.  When an artist paints a self-portrait, the image of himself is an expression of who he is, and in a different way his artistic style—the “spirit” of the work—is also an expression of who he is. Yet there is only one portrait, and there are not three artists but only one.  Since as Monotheists we believe that God is also One, we do not regard these as three parts of God but rather use the language of three persons within the unique divine Being.  (A person is something which can be in a loving relationship with another person.)

However, most Christian philosophers (e.g. St. Thomas Aquinas) have thought that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from armchair reasoning alone!  (Though after we learn the fact, we can say something about how it might make sense given God's loving nature.)  Especially since it sits rather uncomfortably with the idea of divine unity; our theologians have their work cut out just explaining why the Trinity is consistent with the idea of Monotheism which we hold in common with Jews and Muslims, let alone demonstrating it from sound metaphysical reasoning.  Thus these last three paragraphs are NOT part of my main argument; I cite them only to avoid some confusions about how what I've said might fit in with what God has revealed about himself in the Bible.

Next: The Hard Problem of Consicousness

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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12 Responses to Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

  1. charlie says:

    I've heard John Polkinghorne (addressing a similar question of how God interacts with the world), suggest that the universe needs to be holographic, and then God interacts with the fundamental layer of existence (the information which is then projected outward). But I've been wondering, since information is projected into a universe, couldn't God speak (maybe not with a voice and lungs) that information? For example, didn't Jews believe God spoke the universe into existence? That's probably quite speculative.

  2. TY says:

    Dr Wall,
    The very first article of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Anglican/ Episcopal church says:
    "Of Faith in the Holy Trinity. There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

    Intuitively I can see the positive relationship between the need for explanation (Y) and the number of parts of an entity (X). But are we confusing complexity with parts? Does zero parts mean zero complexity? It seems that as we move toward the origin of this graph, one has to set aside reason and simply believe that this entity -- omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent -- yet "without body, parts, or passions", is simple.

    I wonder if I'm misinterpreting the meaning of simple. To me, it makes more sense to say that an entity possessing those attributes must be rather sophisticated or complex that our human minds cannot begin to understand.

    TY

  3. Dr. Wall - We have been hoodwinked into thinking Classical Theism is Deism on stilts. It's more like Pantheism Plus (at least as a first approach to understanding it). All contingent reality emanates from an uncaused Source. He’s the writer, producer, director, special effects team, star, projectionist, and harsh critic of his own John Ford epic. Reality is the ultimate representation. We receive our lines and directions through every thought and action until we die, none of which could have been different. Then there’s a Second Act, its roles long since cast. This is not some obscure New Agey, crystal-draped fever dream. It’s one potent flavor of old-school Theism, a position held by Jonathan Edwards, among others. We went from this to some distant Watchmaker dropping off species not found in the fossil record. What happened!?

    One big question in Classical Theism is the nature/possibility of secondary causes. In what meaningful sense can contingent beings have "self-determination"? Once you take Divine Determinism seriously, you notice how the boundary between it and Occasionalism and Continuous Creation are porous. All three are instances of old-school Theism with a Pantheistic vibe. (Maybe Pantheism is a means of keeping the mystical features of Theism without all that "judgy" stuff. I don't know.)

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Dear Petronius,

    Thanks for your comment. However, if God is a "harsh critic" of his epic, that rather sounds like things don't always go the way God would prefer. Which means that there is secondary causation. So I do not believe that God determines everything. I think that God can create creatures who are genuinely free to choose.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    TY,
    The word "simple" has changed it's meaning with time. I am specifically using it in it's older meaning of "noncomposite". If God is without "body, parts, or passions" then he is simple in the older sense of the word.

    It does not mean that God is unsophisticated or easy to understand, or anything like that. I have edited the post to make this more clear.

    Similarly "complex" used to mean composed of parts (as in a "housing complex"), not difficult to understand. It is interesting that the meaning of the words has evolved in such a way that they are still opposites.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    charlie,
    I'm not sure what St. John Polchinghorne could have been referring to. It would certainly seem quite speculative to try to deduce something like the holographic principle of quantum gravity from some sort of theological necessity. But I'm sure that wasn't it since from what I've read he's a sensible person.

    Genesis 1 refers to God speaking various aspects of the world into existence; but that can't possibly refer to a physical exictation of airwaves since God is not a physical being with a voice and lungs, and there wasn't any one with ears or brains to hear it anyway. It must refer to something deeper. My two references to "logos" in this series give my own thoughts about what it might be.

  7. TY says:

    Dr Wall,
    I get it. Your technical definition of “simple” and “non-complex” has the same meaning as the teaching, God is spirit and invisible (John 4:24, Colossians 1:15, First Timothy 1:17, etc). The Trinitarian theology introduces a complication: God is complex in His being also God in human form, Jesus Christ, but I guess this is a discussion for another blog post.
    TY

  8. TY says:

    Dr Wall,
    A further comment that you can merge with m y previous response: Is simplicity (a non-composite, spirit being) a necessary condition for the fundamental entity to be infinite?
    TY

  9. Aron Wall says:

    TY,
    Simplicity just means "not composed of parts". "Invisible" means impossible to see: I don't see why there can't be invisible things which are made of parts. The Nicene Creed says that some of the things God created are also invisible.

    The word "spirit" is a more subtle word which is correspondingly more difficult to define. While some philosophers would say that a "spirit" must necessarily be simple, this seems to me a difficult question. In any case I would resist the idea that God is "Spirit" in the exact same sense that humans or angels have or are spirits. As the Creator, God is wholly other from his creatures.

    Moderns usually think of "infinite" as a quantitative word. God does not literally have a size or quantity given that he is simple. His knowledge and power are infinite in the sense that they embrace more than a finite number of facts/abilities, but more importantly they are infinite in the sense of not having any limits at all. Cantor taught us that even infinite quantities can be understood and defined by mathematicians, and that there are infinities of different sizes. God's infinity is "bigger" than any of these mathematical infinities.

  10. TY says:

    Dr Wall,
    I'm fully with you on Cantor’s host of infinities (sequence of alephs of higher order):
    N0 < N1 < N3 < ……….Nn < ……
    And hence the more important point "God's infinity is "bigger" than any of these mathematical infinities.
    Thank you
    TY

  11. Carmel says:

    I'm curious about a couple of points made here in the comments, and please excuse my limited understanding. I am simply attempting to cross reference my personal thoughts with those of others.

    Is it possible to define 'invisible' as merely unable, as opposed to 'impossible', to be seen? The translation of the Nicene Creed I am familiar with uses the word 'unseen', which to me implies that just because we cannot see or understand it, does not assume we never will.

    Also it seems your reference to 'the sense that humans or Angels have or are spirits' is based on an understanding of 'spirit' that implies its individuality and separateness from other such spirits. Would you consider the theory that these spirits are actually referring to the existence of a single, transcendent spirit, and that our previous attempts to make sense of it has, like so many concepts the human mind has struggled with, separated a single concept into more comprehensible elements that do not necessarily exist as separate elements?

    By the way, I am thoroughly enjoying these discussions, so thank you to all participants for your intelligent, thoughtful and especially respectful contributions.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    Carmel,
    The Nicene Creed was originally written in both Latin and Greek, and as far as I can tell from looking up the words in online dictionaries, in both languages the words are ambiguous. They could mean either that which is not currently seen, or that which cannot possibly be seen. Both are equally possible translations.

    But I don't think it matters all that much, because the point of saying

    I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible [seen] and invisible [unseen]"

    is to say that God is the creator of EVERYTHING. The two contrasting pairs (heaven / earth), (seen / unseen) are each meant to include everything that exists. So however we define "seen", the word "unseen" just includes everything else.

    So why doesn't it just say "maker of all things"? Well first, that would be more boring. By breaking it into multiple terms it is more poetic, it actually helps us to imagine and feel how extensive God's act of creation is, to first think about the planet and then the sky, and to first think of mundane physical reality and then all the spiritual realities which are beyond our understanding.

    Also, it is a safeguard against certain mistakes. If somebody tried to say, for example that God only created the physical universe, or only the spiritual univese, they would be wrong. For example, the Gnostics thought that the matter was evil, and created by a lesser God. On the other hand, pagans might believe in gods who just fashion material things out of chaos, but the ultimate spiritual forces are beyond them. But the Christian Creed says, no God is the Creator of all things. Both the body and the spirit are essentially good; they may be corrupted by sins, but they are created by our loving Father, the Lord of the whole universe. And if there is anything outside of our universe, he made those things too!

    Speaking of spirits, you also ask about the relationship between our own selves and that "single transcendent Spirit" (i.e. the Divine or Holy Sprit) which pervades all things. In Christianity we do not identify ourselves with the person of God, since God is uncreated, morally perfect and eternal. Whereas we are created beings, sinners saved by grace. So I reject Pantheism.

    Nevertheless, even if we are not identical to God, it is also true that we are not fully separate from God. All things that exist depend for their existence on God, and in particular we human beings are created in "the image and likeness of God" as the Book of Genesis says. So the mystery of each human personality---including our connections to each other---are ultimately rooted in the mystery of Deity. Christians can say that we are meant to be the Temple in which the Spirit of God can dwell. Ultimately we each have our own personality, which was created by God to enjoy him forever. We will not lose our individual identity, or if we do it is only in order to regain a fuller, deeper, and more individual identity in God. Death and resurrection.

    But it is a struggle! As St Paul says in Romans 8:1-17, at the present stage there is a conflict between our flesh (our ordinary selfish selves) and the Spirit of God dwelling within us to make us like Christ. In a Pantheistic worldview, we just have to realize that we are already perfect. But the Christian worldview, we are far from perfect, but there is a perfect God who is willing and able to sanctify us (that is, make us holy) when we place our faith in his Son, who died and rose again to save us.

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