Can God be thought of as physical, material or corporeal?

From How to Think About God, by Mortimer J. Adler:

“To say that God’s existence is essentially like that of everything else known by us to exist is tantamount to saying that God’s existence is physical, material, or corporeal, and that, consequently, it is a mode of existence which can be known to us either by direct perceptual acquaintance or by scientific inference from empirical evidence.

“What is wrong with saying this? The simple indisputable fact is that the existence of God has never been a subject of scientific inquiry. It has never been supposed that the problem of whether or not God exists can be solved by the means and methods at the disposal of the experimental or empirical natural sciences.

“Why not? Because the means and methods of natural science are applicable only to physical, material, or corporeal objects and God is not a physical, material, or corporeal object.

“‘How’s that again?’ or ‘Not so fast,’ some of my more critical readers may interject at this point. In saying that the existence of God cannot be an object of scientific investigation because God is immaterial or incorporeal, have I not assumed the very point that needs to be established?

“The fact that natural science so far has not used its means and methods to investigate the existence of God does not preclude the possibility of its doing so in the future, by techniques not now imaginable by us. Hence, there must be some other reason for thinking that God cannot be essentially like the physical things of this world, known by us to exist.

“Another line of reasoning is available. It takes its departure from our understanding of the cosmos as the totality of material or corporeal things and all physical occurrences and processes. As a totality, it is all-embracing. Nothing can be physical, material, or corporeal and exist outside the cosmos, for if it did, the cosmos would not be the totality of all such things.

“Now, if we think of God as physical, material, or corporeal, God must be thought of either (1) as a part of the physical cosmos, or (2) as identical with the cosmos as a whole. Or, (3), the cosmos must be thought of as part of God.

“The cosmos cannot be a part of God and remain the totality of physical things, occurrences, and processes. A part of something that is itself physical or material cannot be the totality of all physical or material things. This eliminates the third alternative.

“God cannot be thought of as a part of the physical cosmos and also be thought of as the supreme being; for then the physical cosmos as a whole, which includes God as a part of itself, would be greater than God. This eliminates the first alternative.

“We are left with the second alternative–that God is identical with the physical cosmos as the totality of all physical things, occurrences, and processes. But the physical cosmos, vast totality that it is, is certainly not that than which no greater can be thought of. Hence, if we identify God with the physical cosmos, we are no longer thinking of God as the supreme being–that than which no greater can be thought of.

“The elimination of all three alternatives as impossible brings us to the conclusion that God cannot be thought of as physical, material, or corporeal.”

How to Think About God, by Mortimer J. Adler, pp. 82-83.

[Note that earlier in the book, Adler had started with the premise that whatever God is specifically, he must be “that than which nothing greater can be thought of” as per St. Anselm.]

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2 thoughts on “Can God be thought of as physical, material or corporeal?

  1. God cannot be thought of as a part of the physical cosmos and also be thought of as the supreme being; for then the physical cosmos as a whole, which includes God as a part of itself, would be greater than God.

    One response to this would be to point out that “the physical cosmos” is not itself a being, but an aggregate of beings — and that no matter how we were to define God, it would always be possible to define an aggregate which included him. Even if we postulate that God is non-physical, and thus outside the physical cosmos, he would still be part of what we might call “the real cosmos” — defined as the totality of all that exists, physical or otherwise. So long as there exists something other than God (that is, so long as we do not subscribe to pantheism), it will always be possible to form the concept “God + something else,” to reify that aggregate (considering it as a being rather than as an aggregate of beings), and to declare it greater than God.

    But — and this is my second response to Adler’s argument — it wouldn’t really be “greater than God” in any important sense. Suppose God is physical. The physical cosmos would then necessarily be “greater” than him in one sense only — that of occupying more physical space. But when we say God is the supreme being, we certainly don’t mean that he occupies more space than anything else! (After all, orthodox theology denies that he occupies any space at all.) God is supreme in the sense of being most powerful, most knowing, etc. Would the aggregate “God + all other physical things” have any power which God by himself did not have? Would it have any knowledge of which God by himself was ignorant? No, and no. God would still be supreme in every important sense of the word.

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  2. I think you are using “supreme being” differently from how Adler means it. You seem to be using it to mean “the greatest individual being that exists”, whereas Adler is using it in St. Anselm’s sense of “that than which no greater can be thought of” (as stated in the footnote to my post).

    You point out in your own post [http://wmjas.wordpress.com/2010/06/06/the-mormon-idea-of-a-corporeal-god/] that if God is corporeal then he can’t have designed his own body but must have received it somehow, etc.: “[H]e cannot have created the basic framework of time and space, matter and energy, in terms of which his own existence is defined.”

    I think Adler is arguing basically the same point: That a corporeal God within the type of framework you describe, which he calls the cosmos, is subject to that framework and in that sense it is greater than he is.

    Thus I think he would say that you could, theoretically, have a non-supreme “god” who is corporeal, but that would not be God in the sense under discussion. Or as you say, “The God of Mormonism is not an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing….” The God who answers that question is one who merits the title “supreme being”.

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