Philosophical Conceptions of God

NOTE: This post is based on my own similar post on Stack Exchange.

Philosophy is often associated with atheism, reflecting the fact that many of the most famous recent philosophers have been vocal atheists. Over the span of philosophy’s long history, however, there have been as many great theistic philosophers as atheistic ones. However, philosophical conceptions of God tend to be –shall we say? –a bit “different.” Below are a few of the major philosophical conceptions of God over the years:

  • “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 the “demiurge” described in Plato’s creation myth Timaeus. 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.
  • The unreal god:  Even for atheistic philosophers, the concept of God is often of central importance, if only as a social construct, or as for Nietzsche, as something to be explicitly rejected, or as for Sartre, as an absence which creates a new understanding.  Conversely, even a theist can sometime find new insights into God in the descriptions such philosophers create of the being they do not believe in.

Many of 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 what is called the “perennial philosophy,” a philosophical tradition that sees underlying unity in a variety of seemingly incompatible religious traditions.

  • 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).

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