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

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics 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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18 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.


  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:

    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:

    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.

  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?

  9. Aron Wall says:

    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

  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:

    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.

  13. Mr. C says:

    Dear Aron,

    As I keep investigating your (awesome!) blog, a couple of questions arise. Here’s one considering divine omniscience.

    Can God know both the position and velocity of a particle? You wrote that God knows things directly, but what about particles that obey Heisenberg uncertainty principle? As I remember, we even can’t associate definitive position and velocity to them, as if they do not exist until measurement.

    How, do you think, omniscience is applicable here?

  14. James H says:

    “Can God know both the position and velocity of a particle...As I remember, we even can’t associate definitive position and velocity to them, as if they do not exist until measurement. How, do you think, omniscience is applicable here?”

    I don’t know what Aron will say on this question, but imo the answer is “we do not/cannot know”. God is generally seen as being able to do anything that it is logically possible to do. It does not *seem* that it is logically impossible to know the position etc. of the particle (although it is currently empirically impossible for us). So we might expect that this is something God could, in principle, know. However, God could conceivably have set up physical reality in such a way that it is logically impossible for Him to know the position etc. of the particle (in just the same way as he might have set up physical reality in such a way that there is no physical infinity-although this, of course, is contentious). So we cannot answer the question.

  15. Mactoul says:

    As per Bohr, quantum mechanics is only what we can speak about electrons and other small particles. Physics in any case attempts to model things--physics is not things themselves.
    So, physics is relative to us. In absolute terms, who knows if electrons exist. An electron is simply something posited in physics. We do not perceive electrons directly.

    So, we need not ascribe fundamental reality to entities that are posited in physics. These entities exist in physical models. These models merely help us to understand behavior of things--that we perceive directly.

  16. Aron Wall says:

    Mr. C
    What I was arguing is that there is no gap between God's knowledge and the reality of the situation.

    So it depends on your interpretation of QM. If you think that particles really do have an objectively defined position and velocity, and we just can't measure them both, then God would know their position and velocity.

    If on the other hand, you think that particles don't have specific positions and velocities (at least not most of the time), then God wouldn't know their positions and velocities. Not because of a limitation in his knowledge, but becasue the reality does not have such properties. This is similar to the statement that "God does not know that Mars is the closest planet to the sun".

    There are lots of paradoxes and puzzles associated with the question of what is objectively true in QM. But I don't see any how there are any additional puzzles related to God's omniscience of quantum systems, since the answer is that, whatever turns out to be true, that is what God knows. As I said in the post:

    "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."

  17. James says:

    Good stuff.
    One of my favorite quotes is from Paul quoting another philosopher
    "In Him we move and have our being"

    I've always thought one of the biggest obstacles in understanding some of the deeper truths about the nature of God is people tend to reason as if they were God or how "a god" would do things.

    An example is.. The way God knows the future is because he can go to the future or past, or He's timeless so he's already in the future(meaning God uses mechanism) . They never consider that God simply knows all truths in his infinite nature apart from any mechanism to achieve that.

    When we dream - the characters live & move within our thoughts. In that sense there need not be a copy of the universe inside God, as all of reality is already contained within him. This is not pantheism, even though for some reason people make a quick claim that it is, as you said.

    In fact, it's hard to conceive of any other way it could be. God is all there is. He's the only one who truly exists. It's not like God is over there on the left and he creates and places the universe on the right. There simply is no place to put reality, because God is Reality itself.

    In regard to the Trinity, I agree it is a pickle to many . A few ideas I've thought of have helped in imagining the glory of God. Many people have such trouble with the "Son" of God. There are heresies, misunderstandings... When we think of Father & Son, we compare God to the human example. We say sons are born, they are individual people etc., and make God into a personality disorder or even worse - created son.

    Hence the question , when the Father said : This is my beloved Son - did Jesus' lips move?

    One, is we have it backwards.
    If we turn that around, we find that "we" are the not the Standard for Father & son, God is.

    God is the I Am, he's the One we were created to be in his image. He is complete. He is not alone. Our sons are not fully in us and we are not One perfectly with them. They are completely separate. Our sons are created, God's is not. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a demonstration of the true Glory of God and illustrates perfect being. Although "We" is sometimes used, This perfect Being can be properly referred to as "I".

    Last, I do find that there is possibly a corollary to our nature and God's triune nature. Again, with the example of dreams, and I am a very vivid dreamer, we engage with different characters every single night. We speak to them, and we do not know what they are going to say. They tell us things we have never heard..... and they are us. We are communicating within one being.

    It may not even be possible to reason, or figure out complex problems without this dynamic of bouncing ideas off ourselves. So we may have, even if only in a small way, a type of dualistic dynamic (for lack of a better term) that is demonstrated in our dreams, or when reasoning intensely, that could be a taste, or even simply a teachable picture of God's Glory. Anyone who has clear recollections of their dreams should grasp this mystery of communication in your being. It is like there is another You working in the background, setting up the scene.

    Love the website

  18. RC1 says:

    Dear Professor Wall,

    This account of divine omniscience and knowledge in some ways seems evocative of, IIRC, Thomist conceptions of non-univocity in theological language. To that end, it does seem to avoid many of the contradictions and paradoxes that a univocal idea of the divine nature would entail.

    I wanted to ask a bit more specifically, if you think that these positions (that God’s knowledge is both non-representational and that God has knowledge, or the other attributes, only analogously rather than univocally) would dodge the arguments for the incoherence of theism (for example, that perfect moral goodness, freedom, and omnipotence are incompatible, given that the former would render the latter incapable of performing evil acts, thus not being omnipotent?) raised by Michael Martin in Chapter 55 of the Blackwell Companion of Philosophy of Religion ( )?

    Martin seems to focus on omniscience in that specific article, but cites a number of attacks on the various other attributes of God. Specifically, he claims for example that omniscience (having all knowledge) would be contradictory with an incorporeal God because said knowledge would include knowledge of how to do physical acts of the body (procedural knowledge) despite not having a body, or knowledge of the feelings of lust and envy despite not being sinful, or knowledge of fear and frustration despite being omnipotent.

    Martin also claims that restricting omniscience to merely factual knowledge leads to the paradox of creatures knowing more than creator, as well as the fact that omniscience would require searching through the infinite multiplicity of mathematical structures and the potentially infinite extent of the universe, a contradiction.

    I feel like the above argument should fail on the grounds of anthropomorphizing God and viewing God’s act of knowing as univocal to a person’s act of knowing. Would the response to both the above, as well as the general arguments regarding the coherence of theism, hinge on the idea that as the infinite, necessary, simple entity, God does not have the properties that threaten incoherence in the same ay people do, but in a more fundamental, non-univocal way?

    I apologize if I’ve wittered on a bit, I just wanted to check that my intuitions on this matter are in some way sensible, or if I’ve missed something.

    On the topic of coherence, I was also wondering if you had given any thought to, IIRC, William Rowe’s No Best World argument against either divine freedom or divine unsurpassability?

    Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.

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