Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Ground of Being

Have you ever heard the phrase "whispering sweet nothings"?  It usually applies to the utterances of someone who says things that sound pleasing but are insubstantial or meaningless, in an effort to flatter or woo his lover.  I have often heard descriptions of God that strike me as nothing more than starry-eyed adulation.  God isn't simply the finest example of every attribute the theist admires - love, goodness, wisdom, etc, etc, - he is identical to each of those attributes.  For example, he isn't merely the ultimate example of a loving person - God is love itself.  And he isn't just perfectly good at some particular endeavor such as morality - he is "essentially perfect", which means, I suppose, that in one fell swoop, the theist has granted God perfection in all endeavors.  He is the perfect provider, the perfect judge, disciplinarian, bowler - whatever you like - he's just the bestest and the mostest.

And in the process of heaping superlatives on the object of their adoration, theists may tend to lose sight of what all those words really mean.  It may sound good to the theist's ear to say something like "God is love", but what is he really saying?  I always thought love was a state of mind that enhances the admiration one feels for another.  If God is love, does that imply that God is a state of mind, or are theists re-defining the meaning of the word?  If the latter is the case, what does it mean under this new definition?  The problem I have with language like this is that it's not clear to me just what it means.

What about the idea of God's essential perfection?  It is logically impossible to be the perfect exemplar of all things at once.  For example, something cannot be both a perfect circle and a perfect square.  If God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, don't those two things come into conflict with one another?  So if they want to be taken seriously by the rest of us, it would make sense for theists to tone down their praise of God just a bit by limiting the use of nice-sounding superlatives, and define his attributes with an eye toward logical reality, and the actual meaning of the words they use to describe this God.  Or they can just admit that what they're doing is whispering sweet nothings.

The word 'being' is another one of those terms that is applied to God in a way that distorts its meaning.  God is being itself, they say.  What is that supposed to mean?  In the most general sense, the word is synonymous with 'existence'.  The existence of some object can be regarded as a state of persistence or presence in the world.  If we try to apply that understanding to God, it doesn't seem to make sense.  We can say that God exists, or that God doesn't exist, but the idea that God is 'existence' itself doesn't fit with our everyday understanding of the word.  We could say that God is the source of existence of all things, but if that's what we mean, then why don't we just say that instead of "God is being itself", which is semantically inconsistent with the way we usually think of the word 'being'?

Christians believe that nothing can exist without God.  For that reason, it seems, the word 'being' has a special place in their lexicon.  God is not only "being itself", but God is the "ground of all being".  The latter phrase appears to be semantically more meaningful than "being itself" (as in "god creates all things"), but if you think about it, the ambiguity is simply shifted to the word 'ground'.  Ground is a word that establishes a fixed point as the basis of measurement in a relative relationship.  In electricity, it (arbitrarily) assigns a standard of zero electrical potential to something, which is then used to measure the relative voltage of other things.  Potential is always relative, as in one thing has a certain amount of potential with respect to something else.  There is no absolute potential.  This is similar to the idea that we call "sea level" the fixed point by which to measure the altitude of other things.

Applying this concept to "ground of being" seems to imply that being (or existence} is a relative term.  It seems to imply that one thing can have more or less 'being' than something else, and that being is measured as a relationship between those two things.  And of course, God would be the fixed point by which we can measure the being of other things.  But that's absurd.  Things either exist or they don't.  This is absolute.  There is no relative existence, even if it is God who creates things.  And there is no need for a fixed point by which to measure the existence of something.  The whole notion of "ground of being" is just meaningless gibberish if we understand the words to mean what they usually mean.

Nevertheless, for a Christian to say "God is the ground of all being" sounds really nice.  It sounds so deep and insightful, despite the fact that it really doesn't convey any useful meaning.  It is just one of those sweet nothings they love to whisper about their God, with whom they are deeply in love.  And that's fine.  But when they bring terminology like this into a logical argument, making metaphysical assertions that can't be parsed into something that is truly meaningful, then those arguments have no basis.  On the other hand, if they have a more concrete idea in mind, then their arguments would be enhanced by using different terminology that more accurately conveys the idea they are trying to express.  I humbly suggest that if they want a seat at the adults' table where they can be taken seriously, they should keep the sweet nothings between themselves and their God.  Those things have no place in serious logical argumentation.



    I agree that in modern terms the phrase "grounding of all being" is essentially meaningless but I think that our religious friends are using it the medieval modification of the Aristotelian concept of 'being qua being'.

    It is still nonsense but it is complicated nonsense.

    1. You're right, but even Christians don't have a consistent notion of its meaning (as can be seen here.

      Paul Tillich seems to be the biggest modern purveyor, and his ideas of it seem strange. For example, his claim is that God doesn't actually exist by his conception of being.