Is God a "Person"? - Philip Clayton

Philip Clayton - Philosophy of Religion

Philip Clayton

Philip Clayton is Ingraham Professor at Claremont School of Theology. His previous teaching posts include Williams College and the California State University.

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Philip
Clayton

Philosopher and Dean, Claremont Lincoln University

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Philip, I'm interested whether there's a God, and if there's a God, what that thing is like. And traditional theism, at least in the west, says that God is a person. Now I come to you as a philosopher, but particularly as a metaphysician, to start me on the process of how do I look at God.

Philip Clayton:

The starting point for me as a metaphysician wouldn't be to hand us God as a full-scale person analogous to human persons right at the outset.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

With intentions, beliefs, desires, and all that.

Philip Clayton:

Yeah. As, I think the philosopher of today, whether he or she is a professional philosopher or pursues it as an amateur sport, is somebody who has to be much more cautious, has to be worried about anthropomorphisms, projecting our own qualities onto the divine.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure, sure.

Philip Clayton:

So, let's start as minimally as possible. Let's start with a question, is this universe, as we see it, grounded in something in any way, or is it all you, what you see is what you get?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Good. Well that's the fundamental starting point. Yeah.

Philip Clayton:

So, let's imagine that I could convince you that it made sense to look for some sort of ground. So, we understand the things that we see around us as results of some fundamental ground in which everything holds its realities.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Four days a week out of the seven, I'm there.

Philip Clayton:

Alright, so let's take one of those days. It's Tuesday.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, right.

Philip Clayton:

And then I want to ask, how should we understand this ground and its relationship to all else?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

And just to get, we could talk about that for hours, but to get right to the question, are we justified in understanding this ground as more like a person, so with person-like qualities? Or more impersonal, or maybe a balance of the two?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, I would think even those who would say that God is personal would also have all those other magnificent, infinite, eternal characteristics that so supersede our way of understanding. I don't think there's any question about that. The issue is, is whether that entity that has this infinite, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everything, also has the characteristics of a person with beliefs, and intentions, and desires, and will, and all of these things that we characterize ourselves by.

Philip Clayton:

That's right. And I guess for the metaphysician of today, the starting point is probably it's impersonal, because you don't seem to need personal qualities to ground the physical laws that have given rise to emergence that have produced us. So, actually I would say the burden of proof is on people like me who think that that ground should be understood as having something like personal qualities.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, because the argument that we're getting, we look at what we have in the world, and we say there's a possibility that there may be something behind it, some mind of some kind, for lack of a better term. But now what do we do with that, can we make any progress? And you're saying that difficult but maybe we can? Or is it wishful thinking?

Philip Clayton:

Let me try to sketch an argument, and then you can criticize it. Right, here would be how it would go. We look to understand the evolution of persons. Well, if emergence is right, persons have evolved out of non-personal forces early on in the process. So, it doesn't, it looks like science has explained away personhood in terms of more fundamental laws, right? Well, then we ask what about the universe as a whole? This universe that has produced persons. Does it need to have a personal source? Is it finetuned for the projection of persons? Well as you know, it turns out that if there are many universes, then in a few like ours there could be persons, and countless infinite number of other universes, no persons at all. So, no argument to a personal God would seem to follow. But if it turns out that this multiverse theory is mistaken, there's only one universe, then the finetuning to produce persons would suggest a source or ground, that itself had person-like properties.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, you're saying that if personhood as we understand ourselves is something required, because if there's only one universe, then it would be that we're required because we know we exist. Even if our existence is an accident of evolution?

Philip Clayton:

Right. We would still have to ask why the universe was structured in the way that it is to produce persons. And that would lead us to postulate a structuring force with intentions which would be a person-like ground.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

When we look at persons that we can have the purposefulness, but what about the interactional, caring, and all of those kinds of things, that's, that seems like another step. Is that a bridge too far?

Philip Clayton:

That's right. For me as a metaphysician, that would be a big leap on further. It's a minimal quality of something like mind that I'm looking for. Let's consider the last possibility. Consider the possibility that there's a huge number of universes, called the multiverse theory, right? And then we ask, what would that lead us to conclude about the nature of this ground, right? And it seems to me that we have to ask about the laws that run across that entire range of universes. What's the source of those laws? If we follow to say that the standard position, that these universes go back to maybe some origin, and certain laws hold across the whole evolution of universes--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Certainly to generate them.

Philip Clayton:

Yeah. Right. Now what's the, where are those laws located? In what are they located, prior to the first universe?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Now that establishes your ground of being, if you will, but doesn't characterize that ground with any, any personal-ness, unless you're saying that because we exist as persons, therefore that, that ground must have personal aspects. Is that what you're saying?

Philip Clayton:

I'm looking for something more minimal. The theologians will give you a richer sense of persons and intentions. I want to know if the ground can be understood as mind-like. And it seems to me that if there are laws that cover over a whole range of universes, they must be located in some source which is more like mind than like non-mental reality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. Now can you then make the next step from mind to personal characteristics, intents, beliefs, purposes. Can you do that?

Philip Clayton:

You see, for the metaphysician of today--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

If you can't do it, you can't do it.

Philip Clayton:

We have to be more cautious.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

So, mind-like is already a huge step.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

For sure.

Philip Clayton:

Maybe that's as far as we can go.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

Maybe though, something that has mind might also have intentions, that is to plan, to intend something, and then to carry out that intention.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Is the nature of mind so strong that it entails intentions? Can you have mind without intentions? How are you defining mind? What's, if you have no intentions, no beliefs, no attitudes, what then is mind?

Philip Clayton:

See it wouldn't be mind in that case, would it?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I'm asking. I don't know.

Philip Clayton:

So minimally, I'm not looking for a full-bodied theory of personhood.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

No, of course.

Philip Clayton:

But the most minimal understanding of what that ultimate source of all things might be. And if I say it's more mind-like than object-like--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I'm giving that to you at this point. But what I want to see is what is the minimum characteristics of the mind? What is that, to make it defined as mind rather than something else.

Philip Clayton:

Three things.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What do you need? Okay, good, I'm listening. I'm ready to count.

Philip Clayton:

Intentionality, awareness, and thought or rationality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, now you need all three. You're defining mind as requiring all three.

Philip Clayton:

That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, I would think awareness is the first, just to, if I have to order them.

Philip Clayton:

Hard to say. I think they sort of come as a package.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, alright.

Philip Clayton:

You've noticed what I've omitted is any moral dimension.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, I don't care about morality at this point. I just want to understand what the characteristics of this mind has to be. So, if you have to, if you have awareness, and you have intent, and purpose, and you can't have mind with only two of those.

Philip Clayton:

I think that's true.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I don't know.

Philip Clayton:

And it's an interesting metaphysical position. I admit that it's minimalist. It's very cautious.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I think it's a lot to have all. I just want to be sure you need all three, you can't just have one. I want to see what the minimum condition of mind is before we move forward. And you're saying I've got to have all three.

Philip Clayton:

Yeah, I'm going to hold for all three.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

And then I'll say that that makes the better, can we call it a metaphysical hypothesis, to explain the, say this multiverse, this huge infinite number of universes, all arranged according to some fundamental laws.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah. Look, I think if you have a multiverse, or you have this one universe, and all different domains in this universe, and it's so huge that we can get to the same place in either way. I just want to understand what this mind is, as a philosopher, metaphysician, and with theological interests, that you have strong theological interests, what, how you then define this mind that I got the three characteristics. If those are absolutely necessary to have mind, now I know what I need to have mind. Now the next question, again, as we said, is can you go further than that? Can you have the personal kind of God who's personally aware about your life? That's a whole other kind of question. I think that would be much more difficult to get to.

Philip Clayton:

Yeah. And the reason why I would have us pull back from a robustly personal understanding of this ultimate, is we always have to hold, as a counterbalance, the positions taken by say Buddhists and Hindus, which is that the ultimate source includes personal and non-personal attributes. If we can understand the ground of all things as even being minimally mind-like, that may have to be our resting place.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's a huge step by itself.

Philip Clayton:

But at least that gives us the sort of framework that helps us to account for the existence of this universe or multiverse, and the sorts of laws that would produce us in the first place. That, I think, is a beautiful example of how metaphysics might work hand in hand with physics to do a kind of cautious, one step beyond reflection without diving into the whole detail of the conventional traditions.

Transcript

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Philip Clayton:

The starting point for me as a metaphysician wouldn't be to hand us God as a full-scale person analogous to human persons right at the outset...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

With intentions, beliefs, desires, and all that.

Philip Clayton:

Yeah. I think the philosopher of today, whether he or she is a professional philosopher or pursues it as an amateur sport, has to be much more cautious, has to be worried about anthropomorphisms, projecting our own qualities onto the divine. So, let's start as minimally as possible. Let's start with a question, is this universe, as we see it, grounded in something in any way, or is it what you see is what you get? Let's imagine that I could convince you that it made sense to look for some sort of ground. So, we understand the things that we see around us as results of some fundamental ground in which everything holds its reality. And then I want to ask, how should we understand this ground and its relationship to all else? Are we justified in understanding this ground as more like a person, so with person-like qualities? Or more impersonal, or maybe a balance of the two?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

The issue is, is whether that entity that has this infinite, eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and everything, also has the characteristics of a person with beliefs, and intentions, and desires, and will, and all of these things that we characterize ourselves by.

Philip Clayton:

That's right. And I guess for the metaphysician of today, the starting point is probably it's impersonal, because you don't seem to need personal qualities to ground the physical laws that have given rise to emergence that have produced us.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Right, right.

Philip Clayton:

So, actually I would say the burden of proof is on people like me who think that that ground should be understood as having something like personal qualities.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

But now what do we do with that? Can we make any progress?

Philip Clayton:

Well if emergence is right, persons have evolved out of non-personal forces early on in the process. So, it looks like science has explained away personhood in terms of more fundamental laws, right? Well, then we ask what about the universe as a whole? This universe that has produced persons. Is it finetuned for the projection of persons? Well as you know, it turns out that if there are many universes, then in a few like ours, there could be persons, and countless infinite number of other universes, no persons at all. So, no arguments to a personal God would seem to follow. But if it turns out that this multiverse theory is mistaken, there's only one universe, then the finetuning to produce persons would suggest a source or ground that itself had person-like properties.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Even if our existence is an accident of evolution?

Philip Clayton:

Right. We would still have to ask why the universe was structured in the way that it is to produce persons. And that would lead us to postulate a structuring force with intentions, which would be a person-like ground. I want to know if the ground can be understood as mind-like. And it seems to me that if there are laws that cover over a whole range of universes, they must be located in some source which is more like mind than like non-mental reality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay. Now can you then make the next step from mind to personal characteristics, intents, beliefs, purposes. Can you do that?

Philip Clayton:

You see, for the metaphysician of today--

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

If you can't do it, you can't do it.

Philip Clayton:

We have to be more cautious.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

So, mind-like is already a huge step.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's for sure.

Philip Clayton:

Maybe that's as far as we can go.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay.

Philip Clayton:

Maybe though, something that has mind might also have intentions, that is to plan, to intend something, and then to carry out that intention.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Can you have mind without intentions?

Philip Clayton:

So, it wouldn't be mind in that case, would it?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I'm asking, I don't know.

Philip Clayton:

So minimally, I'm not looking for a full-bodied theory of personhood.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

No, of course.

Philip Clayton:

But the most minimal understanding of what that ultimate source of all things might be.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What is the minimum characteristics of a mind? To make it defined as mind, rather than something else.

Philip Clayton:

Three things.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

What do you need? Good I'm listening, I'm ready to count.

Philip Clayton:

It's intentionality, awareness, and thought or rationality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Can you go further than that? Can you have the personal kind of God who's personally aware about your life?

Philip Clayton:

Yeah. And the reason why I would have us pull back from a robustly personal understanding of this ultimate, is we always have to hold, as a counterbalance, the positions taken by say Buddhists and Hindus, which is that the ultimate source includes personal and non-personal attributes. If we can understand the ground of all things as even being minimally mind-like, that may have to be our resting place.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's a huge step by itself.

Philip Clayton:

But at least that gives us the sort of framework that helps us to account for the existence of this universe or multiverse, and the sorts of laws that would produce us in the first place.