As Real As God's Thoughts

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Mark at Hyleninja suggests that, with a few tendentious premises (one extremely tendentious, given the thousands of years of work on the problem of evil, another less so given theism but still weird), we can get the conclusion that this world isn't the actual world, just one world among many that God considered, and thus we're just God's thoughts. I think this view makes a lot of sense, at least on some readings without these premises. In fact Berkeley had similar enough views, and Malebranche wasn't far from this sort of thing. My friend Wink (who sometimes comments here) at least at one point wanted to say that we are in fact God's thoughts, but not in the way Mark's post offers. Wink's view is that God's creative powers are something like storytelling, and God is telling a story through creation. We're the characters in the story, and he's writing our lives out (though in the story we have freedom, which was one of the motivations for this metaphor -- which I think he took to be not a metaphor at all but more proximate to reality than the way we often think). In a way, if this view is right, then we are God's thoughts, but it's not as if there are realities that God did create while not creating us, as Mark's proposal goes. According to Wink's view, God did create us by thinking about us, and the only thing that makes us real is that God is still thinking us. It gives new meaning to the doctrine of continuous creation.


Thanks for the hat-tip, but, to be fair, the idea in this form came from an article by Ken Gemes. (also, since my permalinks feature doesn't work, you have to scroll down to March 14th) Although I did deal a bit with God speaking/thinking Lagadonian in the March 1st post, which is in part why I posted the March 14th one). Ken's article really gives the basis for thinking we're not actual, my thesis of God thinking in Lagadonian is merely meant to give it some defense. The idea that God might speak/think in Lagadonian is independent, however, from the thesis we're not actual, and has some independent support (mainly due to the omniscience-supportingness of thinking in Lagadonian...this way, God gets out of some epistemological problems...yes, that's right. Imagine you're God, and have whatever experiences God has (I'm making some major assumptions about the apophetic tradition here) seems that, according to classic epistemological difficulties, that even God would have the same problems. (these problems really have to do with 'the egocentric predicament')

I think I said this in the March 1 entry on your blog, but doesn't the problem get solved immediately with Alston's view that God doesn't have beliefs but just have direct knowledge of everything through being immediately connected with all the facts?

The strange consequence of this is that knowledge doesn't even require beliefs, but Alston says this is only true of God and not us. We would still have knowledge through having beliefs plus some other conditions. There are people who don't even think that's true, and I'm quite open to the idea even, but it's not a popular view.

I don't know enough about Alston in regards to this. It seems hard to imagine what it would mean to have knowledge but no beliefs. If God has some knowledge and we are thinking that God is a person in some sense, then it seems he would have propositional attitudes, and knowledge would entail belief in some sense. Let's think about God supposing that p (where 'p' is false in the actual world). This seems possible. If he's thinking in Lagadonian, then his thoughts that p correspond with, or, more properly, overlap with, those non-actual worlds where p obtains, or, even more correctly, overlap with just those parts of the possible worlds where p obtains (I just realized how some of this vindicates Frege in certain respects in regards to correspondence theories...I'll leave this hanging). Now, what is the sense of 'knowledge' but not 'belief' doing here? God certainly doesn't 'know' that p, since p isn't true. Do God's suppositions all become knowledge? You know, I just realized how many issues are arising here, and just how complicated this is becoming. I was thinking about deleting this, but perhaps something good can come of it, and perhaps I can come back to it later...sorry about this rambly nonsense...

Good memory. I think I only told you this theory once, and that on the phone.

I still hold this theory, or at least I still think it is a contender.

As you have nicely summarized it, we are God's thoughts. Or more precicely, God's thoughts are our reality.

Imagine a universe...any universe. In relation to this universe, you are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent for if you can imagine it, you can impliment it in said universe (even if logically impossible...who said that the universe needed to be consistent?), you know everything which happens in said universe, and you (or your thoughts at any rate) is present everywhere in said universe.

So take this thought experiment and extend it to God; cannot we be a universe existing in His imagination?

Ah, but you protest, "But my imagined universe isn't real! And by analogy, God's imagination isn't real either." Not real in what sense? It is real to you; do you deny that you have imagined it? It is real to the denizens of said universe (if you have imagined them to consider that universe as real). Though it is not "real" in the same sense as a this-worldly table, it is "real" in a sub-creation sense.

In "our" universe, we have stories. In those stories, characters within those stories are "real" to each other, even if they are not "real" to us. Take for example, ST:TNG...Picard is "real" to Riker and vice versa, but neither are "real" to us in the same sense that you are "real" to me and vice versa. Now go the ST:TNG universe, they also have stories; specifically, they have the holodeck. Characters in the holodeck are "real" to each other, but not to the characters of ST:TNG.

Now we have 1)our universe, 2)the ST:TNG universe, and 3)the Holodeck universe. This could of course continue ad infinitum. So which one is the "real reality"? They're all real, but "real" in different senses.

"You know what I mean." I can hear you protesting, "Which one is the really real reality." Well, the top one, right? Sure. But ask yourself this: how do you know that "our universe" is the top one?

Wouldn't it make more sense for God's universe to be the top one?

"But then we aren't really real!" you protest. Sure we each other and to the rest of Creation. "But we aren't really real to God!!!" Yes we are, in the same way that imagination is not nothing. Dissatisfied? Don't be. Did you truly have the hubris to think that you are real to God in the same way that God is real to Himself? Remember, He is Creator. He transends our reality altogether. Of course we aren't as real to Him as He is to Himself.

But that doesn't mean that He thinks of us as being unreal. We have denigrated Story and Imagination as being un-real. C.S. Lewis did no such thing. He called those acts of sub-creation, and our exercise of them were acts of worship. God's exercise of Story and Imagination should be venerated.

And it is clear that He does not think of us as Nothing: He has died for us. Just because we aren't really really real doesn't mean that we are not real at all.

But what of freedom? How can we have freedom if we are merely figments of a divine imagination? Imagination is not incompatible with freedom. Let us extend the metaphor once more: consider dreams. Dreams are a kind of imagination. Yet the charaters in our dreams show a kind of freedom that is not present in our ordinary imaginings. If we as creatures can have imaginations which include freedom, why wouldn't God? Freedom does not necessarily entail, but it is certainly compatible.

As Jeremy said in his post, I think that this isn't merely metaphor, but "more proximate to reality than the way we often think".

"Now God being perfect would not create a world containing evil."

This is a axiom which I don't understand. Or rather, I understand it perfectly, but I don't understand why so many people accept it as a axiom.

If the universe is as I think it is (see my rather long comment above), then why would this axiom be true? God would be less concerned about evil never existing and would be more concerned with what makes a good Story.

Good Stories, at lest from what we can tell, usually involve some sort of conflict lest it be Boring. Conflicts generally require some sort of evil (unless we are in a sit-com, in which case all of the conflict would well be just-a-big-misunderstanding).

So why do we think that God would create a universe in which there was no evil whatsoever? Doesn't a universe where Good triumphs over Evil make a much better Story?

Mark: The Alston no-belief knowledge is supposed to be direct acquaintance. God doesn't have propositional knowledge and therefore doesn't need to have propositional attitudes either. His argument is that beliefs and other propositional attitudes are like obligations, which Kant said is the kind of thing the very having of which indicate an inferiority of some sort. Alston thinks of beliefs as the same kind of thing. We don't say someone has a belief unless we don't want to say it's knowledge. (I know you can solve this with pragmatics, and I think that may be a problem with Alston's argument for this, but I don't see it as a weakness for the view.)

I guess the idea is that God has direct acquaintance with everything and therefore knows everything in the sense of knowledge by acquaintance, which isn't knowledge that but knowledge of. It's like saying God has all sorts of de re knowledge but no de dicto knowledge.

Wink: Why isn't a big misunderstand in some sense evil? It's certainly unfortunate, and unfortunate things count as evil in the context of the problem of evil (particularly when they have seriously bad consequences).

One problem with thinking in this way is the degree of God's caring for us. It's true that an author cares about his characters, but God cares about us to a much greater degree than any mere author would. Entering into the reality you've created and dying, which most theologians would interpret as involving a severing of the connection between the Father and the Son through the spiritual death of the Son. That's another whole can of worms, I know, but it at least provides some difficulty for your picture.

Also, I'm not sure how your view of the atonement (with the primary work being done by our being identified with Christ) fits with this. Jesus is both God and one of the characters in this story (in an ontological sense). How are we identified with someone outside the story who is somehow also in the story. Are we identified with him only in the story, or are we somehow outside the story also since he is? Also, how are we seated with Christ in the heavenly places (as Ephesians says)? Are we therefore outside the story?

By the way I ran your description of this by a friend of mine steeped in historical theology, and he says not only that your theory is orthodox but that it's what people all along meant by substitutionary atonement and that the standard arguments against the substitutionary view misunderstand it. It's only in virtue of our being identified with Christ that he takes our place. It's not like someone standing in for you to die when you deserve it but he doesn't, as mere substitution would involve. It's more like someone first becoming identified with you and then taking the judgment as your representative. In that sense we were with him on the cross.

Jeremy - Of course, I am also convinced that my theory is orthodox...otherwise why believe it?

However, to say that this theory is what is (and always was) meant by substitutionary atonement seems a bit off-base. The profs at my seminary are very insistent that I am wrong and that substitution is right. Hardly the arguement that they would make if substitution really was identical with my theory. And it is not like my profs are ill-informed or under-educated.

Furthermore, substitution is a fairly new idea in the atonement world. It is an offshoot of the Satisfaction Theory, which most historians credit to Anselm and his Cur Deus Homo. Meanwhile, my theory, as far as I can tell, goes back to at least Athenasius. If substitution really is the same thing, then why was it even necessary?

Lastly, even if my theory was "what people all along meant by substitutionary atonement" originally, it certainly is no longer the case. And when everyone misunderstands a word or phase in exactly the same way, it is fair to say that the meaning of the word or phrase has changed. These things happen in living languages. I am constantly hearing phrases like "He took your place on the cross", "You were spared the punishment/wrath of God", and other phrases which demand mere substitution and do not allow for union or identification with Christ.

Jeremy - As for the difficulties you raise with my metaphysics:

As for why God cares so much about us. First of all, what He cares about is His perogative. The rationale behind it may not ever be explicable to us. That said, I think that there is a very understandable reason why He would care so much about us...He has entered His own Story and thus is quite invested in its outcome.

How can one enter one's own story? That is the other reason why I introduced the idea of a dreamer (the first being to preserve compatability with freedom). A Dreamer is cabable of being both the Creator of the Dream and a charater within the Dream. Thus we have an easily graspable analogy of incarnation.

Christ, from what I can tell from the Bible, after His birth, remains incarnate for all of eternity. He is forever integrally intertwined with the Story (which makes sense since this is His Story after all). Thus, I don't think that it is a problem to say that we are indentified or united with the incarnate Christ, the in-Story Christ. I don't think it is entirely fair to minimize that union by referring to it as being "only in the Story"--the Story is our entire existence after all.

As for how my metaphysics fits with my theory on atonement, I simply must claim "mystery". That's about all the explanation that Paul gives it in Eph 5. The union we are referring to is called "mystical union" for a reason. However, after being united, we are united eternally with the incarnate Christ. It seems unlikely to me that such a union would pull us out of the Story, but I guess anything is possible. Theologians like to discuss the communication of divine attributes through mystical union, and I guess you could invoke that as an explanation of how that would happen. But I don't think it is entirely necessary (or even desireable) for us to get pulled out of the Story. Christ is eternally in the Story, so why do we need to seek Him ouside of it? And I'm not sure, given my metaphysic, that we could even comprehend the out-of-Story reality--especially if it truly transcends space and time.

One problem with your argument and that of your professors is that traditionally people haven't always thought of the atonement as only doing one of these various things. My sense is that most people have traditionally thought of the atonement as having multiple aspects, including the substitution aspect and the identification aspect but also other things (like peace with God, for instance). Athanasius was a respected defender of what had become orthodoxy by the time of Anselm, and I'd be very surprised if Anselm didn't think what Athanasius said was right. He thought of himself in the Athanasian tradition and was giving a refinement of the Athanasian position by including substitution in the mix. (Also, that it was a later development in explicit terms doesn't necessarily mean the biblical authors weren't thinking it when they wrote, just that it hadn't been put explicitly.)

I think you're right that many people nowadays do tend to ignore the identification aspects (and this is also true of the peace with God aspects when thinking of the atonement, though perhaps not at other times). That doesn't mean the view of most traditionalists is mere substitution and not substitution + identification + peace with God + whatever else. It just means that they don't emphasize it as much as they could (or maybe should).

If I say "Jesus died in my place", do I necessarily mean the only element of the atonement is that Jesus died in my place, or just that it's true that he died in my place whatever else may be true?

On "you were spared the punishment/wrath of God", I'm not sure why you even question that. Isn't that Romans 3? Even the New Perspective folk like N.T. Wright will affirm that, and they don't think substitution is correct for even more radical reasons than yours.

My big problem with substitution is that I believe that it is mutually exclusive with being united with Christ.

Substituion by definition means "instead of". Such an "instead of" denies the possibility of "together with", the definition of union.

To say that substitution can somehow incorporate the idea of union, or even be in some way compatible with it, is to do violence to the very definition of substitution.

Basically, I deny that there are substitutionary aspects to the atonement. I don't see evidence of it in the Bible, nor in Early Church writings. I don't even see it in Anselm (though I hardly agree with him). Substitutionary ideas are relatively new, and I think unnecessary (or, more strongly, downright wrong).

Thus when I hear that union with Christ is "what people all along meant by substitutionary atonement" and that I merely "misunderstand" the substitutionary arguement, I am skeptical. I don't really think that the two ideas are really reconcilable.

It's not as if he substitutes for us in some absolute way, and we identify with him in exactly the same sense. It's only inconsistent if the substitution and identification are in the same sense.

The substitution is with respect to sin. He substitutes for us with respect to taking our sin. Our identification with him is in virtue of his taking our sin and bestowing on us his righteousness. So the substitution actually generates the identification. I just don't see how that's inconsistent.

We've wandered pretty far afield from the original metaphsics which was the basis for this post.

Most people I've talked to raise the same defense: they are not incompatable becuase they are meant in different senses. Then they proceed to do what you have done...list examples which are of the same sense. Substitution in respect to sin, and identification in respect to sin. Sounds like the same sense to me.

At any rate, this topic is a bit to big to get into on a blog comment. I'll just have to send you a draft of my thesis.

If we can entertain the idea that we are nothing more than a figment of God's imagination, and I say that with an emphasis on God's imagination being our realty. Then wouldn't we have to toy with the idea that when God sent his Son, Jesus, into our world, our reality... that what he actually did was to insert himself into His own imagination, thus becoming a physical part of our own reality?
Think about this for a moment. What if you had the capability to do this? While you are sitting and imagining something in your mind. You could actually insert yourself into that image. The closest I can say we experience this is in what we experience in our dreams. There is a fine line between what we imagine and what reality is. Then we look to faith. I would say that we would have a very hard time exercising faith without using our imagination. One in the same. God said that he made us in his image. Do you think that perhaps, while God can imagine us into reality, that He also gave us the ability (in his image) to invite Him into our own imagination (through faith) and thus we share our reality with Him? Something to think about.

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