Does God have a body?

June 25, 2016

Dale writes:

A self is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships. A god is commonly understood to be a sort of extraordinary self. In the Bible, the god Yahweh (a.k.a. “the LORD”) commands, forgives, controls history, predicts the future, occasionally appears in humanoid form, enters contracts with human beings, and sends prophets, whom he even allows to argue with him. More than a common god in a pantheon of gods, he is portrayed as being the one creator of the cosmos, and as having uniquely great power, knowledge, and goodness.

Does this mean that God is a person? If so, does this mean that God has a body?

In The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel Benjamin Sommer argues that it was the normal view in Judaism and in other ancient near east religions that God does have a human-like body, based on Genesis 1. (‘made in his image and likeness’). See also the well-known passage in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God’s backside, but nothing else. “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” So God is able to move from one place to another, since he can ‘pass by’, and he also has a hand (and a face).

Sed contra: Deuteronomy 4:11 ‘Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.’

In this connection, I have been reading P.F. Strawson’s seminal 1959 work Individuals. Strawson writes (Individuals, p.58) ‘it is a conceptual truth that persons have material bodies’. Assuming that God is a self or a person, does this mean that God has a material body?

I looked at Strawson’s argument again, as far as I could make sense of it. It’s a transcendental argument, namely an argument that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y, that Y is the case, and so X is the case. Strawson defines the concept of a person as the subject of both M (material) predicates such as ‘weighs 200 lbs’ and P (psychological) predicates such as ‘is depressed’. This is merely a definition, but he goes on to argue (p.102) that the concept of a person, i.e. that which can satisfy both types of predicate, is logically primitive, whereas the concept of a subject who can satisfy P predicates is logically posterior, i.e. can exist only, if at all, as a secondary non-primitive concept, which itself is explicable only in terms of the concept of a person. Thus it is a necessary condition of our having the concept of a subject of experience that it must involve the same subject being able to satisfy material predicates like ‘weighs 200 lbs’ etc.; we do have the concept of a subject of experience; ergo such subjects must be persons as Strawson has defined ‘person’, i.e. a subject to which we attribute both P and M type predicates.

He adds (p.116) ‘It is for this reason that the orthodox have wisely insisted on the resurrection of the body’.

His reasoning is difficult to follow, but here is my interpretation. The predicate ‘depressed’ has the same meaning whether you say to me ‘I am depressed’ or I say, ‘you are depressed’, to you. The first is a case of self-assignment of an experience, the other is a case of assigning such an experience to another. This means that we have both the concept of an experience or state of consciousness, i.e. what is predicated by a P-predicate, and a concept of the subject of experience, i.e. the subject of the state of consciousness.

Now if I tell you that I am also depressed, it follows that different subjects can have the same experience, i.e. when you and I each say ‘I am depressed’ or, to each other, ‘you are depressed’, we are predicating the same thing of different subjects. But different subjects of experience must be distinguishable and identifiable (p.102) , and it is part of Strawson’s wider thesis that subjects can be distinguishable and identifiable only if they are embodied, that is, part of a unified spatio-temporal framework. Thus the concept of a subject of experience would be impossible if the concept were logically primitive. ‘For there could never be any question of assigning an experience, as such, to any subject other than oneself; and therefore never any question of assigning it to oneself either, never any question of ascribing it to a subject at all’. Thus the concept of a person, i.e. a conscious material being, is logically primitive.

This suggests that we can only have the concept of God as an individual being, i.e. a sort of extraordinary self who commands, forgives, controls history, predicts the future etc, if that concept also includes being the subject of predicates such as ‘has a human form’, ‘weighs X lbs’ and so on. Yet the people saw no form. How is that? Where does Strawson’s argument go wrong?

Ed Buckner
Ed Buckner studied and taught philosophy at the University of Bristol in England. He has a number of publications in the area of both analytic philosophy and medieval logic and philosophy. He is the author, with Jack Zupko, of Duns Scotus on Time & Existence, a translation of an early work by the philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus, with a comprehensive and detailed commentary. Now mostly retired, he curates the Logic Museum, a collection of primary sources in the history of logic.

3 thoughts on “Does God have a body?”

  1. Sommer’s book is really interesting. Lest one is too disturbed by his thesis, he notes at the beginning – and now I’m paraphrasing because I don’t have it in hand – that all he means by “having a body” is that sometimes he can be seen and otherwise physically interacted with (i.e. heard, touched). But this is compatible with the idea that God is essentially non-bodily. It’s just that he produces theophanies which either do or seem to involve his employing a physical body. Platonists and fellow travelers like Justin Martyr thought this absurd, that God should so directly interact with the physical world. But you don’t see such scruples in the Jewish Bible.

  2. Hey Ed,

    Great post. I think that the weak link in his argument is this (in your words):

    “different subjects of experience must be distinguishable and identifiable (p.102) , and it is part of Strawson’s wider thesis that subjects can be distinguishable and identifiable only if they are embodied”

    What different subjects of experience must be is… different, non-identical. Conceivably, there could be different subjects of experience even if there is no one who can distinguish or identify (refer to) either of them. It looks like he’s mixing up his metaphysics and his epistemology. Any two things are going to be *in principle* distinguishable and identifiable.

    As best I can tell, he hasn’t shown that, in your words, “the concept of a subject who can satisfy P predicates is logically posterior, i.e. can exist only, if at all, as a secondary non-primitive concept, which itself is explicable only in terms of the concept of a person.” To the contrary, it seems that there is a subject to any experience – the one whose experience it is. And then we have a concept of a physical object. It’s not obvious whether or not something can be both. I can’t see that he has a sort of master argument to once and for all refute dualism, the claim that the subject of human experiences is not the body or any physical part of it, but rather an immaterial soul.

  3. 2 Things I would say to this.
    1. God having a body has always seemed a problem for trinitarian Christians, not for philosophical reasons but for theological, since Jesus was bodily raise, and his body ascended into heaven, it would necessitate, that God, the Son, has a body right now in heaven, occupying Space, which then conflicts With many of the classical theories about God, and arguments dealing With God.
    2. I can say, “I am depressed” and I can also say “you are depressed” but the expectation is not necessarily that we have the same subjective experience, but rather the external state of affairs are similar. So for example I can say “I am depressed” but I can also say “my dog is depressed,” not because me and my dog have parallel subjective experiences, but becuase my dog is acting in a similar way that I would act if I was depressed, or I can recognize signs that signal human depression, it’s analogous.
    So I can say “God is jealous,” but really mean “as far as I am concerned there is a state of affairs such that how I should act and how I should think of God should be as thought he was jealous,” whether or not there is any recognizable subjective experience that we would recognize as jealousy.
    Does that work? Or am I missunderstanding the argument?

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