Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Naming and taming

After having jumped into amateur astronomy, the sky has lost some of its aweful majesty to me. It's beautiful, but not aweful. I think this has something to do with the way that by having names to attach to objects and having ways of classifying them, there is a way in which we have tamed them. That beautiful glow over there—that's "just" the Lagoon Nebula. There is a way in which this is deceptive. We encompass a whole galaxy in a word, completely ignorant of the billions of fascinating lives that, for all we know, are unfolding there. But there is also a way in which the galaxy itself, leaving aside any life in it (I think it would be strange to talk of a dog, much less a human, as "part of the Milky Way Galaxy"), really is not aweful. It is a creature of God, and in itself not as wondrous as a human being with reason and volition.
I think the above gives me reason to be even more sympathetic to the Thomistic doctrine that God is not a member of any of the genera, and the early Christian insistence on God not having a name.

6 comments:

Enigman said...

Is not "God" being used as a name of God there? If not, what is it? And if we say that Jesus is a divine person, then Jesus is one of the divine beings, and also one of the beings that are people; he is a member of those two classes. So I'm not sure what your conclusion is, sorry.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe "God" is not a proper name, but a definite description. Maybe a rigidified one.

A class is not the same as a genus. But yes, Jesus, qua human, is a member of the genus human.

Enigman said...

The problem with thinking of 'God' as being short for 'the (actual) god' (or 'the actual divine being' or anything like that) is that the semantic question is, how do we use 'God,' and I think that we do actually use it as a proper name.

We may have different ideas of what a divine being is, and many of us may use 'God' to mean 'the person referred to by 'God' in the Bible' and so forth, so it does not seem that 'God' is used as short for any particular definite description. And being a label for lots of relatively definite and rigidified descriptions is (arguably) just what proper names are. Analogous might be 'the (actual) son of John' becoming 'Johnson,' and that becoming a name via social practices.

And if 'God' is short for 'the (actual) god,' it would be right to say that you might not believe in God. But I do like the idea of Jesus as the Name of God, as I can picture that as analogous to a human author including a character based on himself in his story.

Derrick said...

Question: If God doesn't have a name, what does that make of the commandment to not take His Name in vain? That is, what would count as taking his name in vain if He has no name? Also, if the tetragrammaton isn't God's name, what exactly is its significance?

Alexander R Pruss said...

The full phrase I am thinking of, attributed to Attalus the martyr and which he shouted when he was roasted in an iron chair and asked the name of his deity, was: "God has no name as a man has." This does not preclude God's having a name, but precludes God's having a name in the way we have names. Perhaps the idea is that God does not have a name that distinguishes him from other members of his genus?

One can take God's name in vain without using any proper name for God. If one falsely swears by "the being who created the universe", one is taking God's name in vain, without using any proper name, just a definite description.

As to the idea that "God" is a name, that would seem to allow the possibility of someone saying: "I believe in a necessarily existing, essentially Triune, unique, omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good and loving, personal, infinite, simple, etc. deity. But I don't believe in God." Yet that seems absurd. Someone who believes in an essentially Triune, unique, omniscient, omnipotent, etc. deity is a theist, and a theist believes in God.

Enigman said...

On the other hand, there are lots of different definitions of a divine being, so how could "God" be short for a (for one) definite description? One who is a theist by some definition (e.g. the one given) may not believe in God (by their own definition).

And suppose I meet God (soul to soul) and use "God" as God's name, to refer to he who I met. I may be unsure as to whether or not he satisfies any such description (or even be unable to understand them).

Still, having said that I'm not now so sure that "God" is a name. Is it standard to treat "God" as short for some description ("the uncreated person"?)?