Monday, March 13, 2017


Accounts of biological life characterize it by lists of features such as “reproduction, metabolism, functional organization, growth, responsiveness to the environment, movement, and short- and long-term adaptations” (SEP s.v. life). But Jewish, Christian and Muslim theists have reason to worry about such accounts of life in the light of the fact that our scriptures present God as the paradigm of a living being.

Here are some options:

Option 1: Modify one’s theology to make God fit with something pretty close to one of the biological accounts of life. Mormonism is a fairly radical example of this. A more moderate version might be some version of process theology, though one may need to jettison some features, like metabolism and growth.

Option 2: Trinitarians have this option available: The Son proceeds from the Father and the Spirit from the Father and/through the Son and these processions could count as reproduction. Moreover, because Trinitarian processions multiply persons but the resulting persons are one God, Trinitarian reproduction has an internality that might count as a kind of growth—not that the divine essence grows, but that the number of persons of the one God grows. This solution would have the important consequence that the Old Testament texts that present God as living are proto-Trinitarian. Obviously, this solution is unlikely to be attractive to Jews and Muslims, though there may be some Kabbalistic analogue that might appeal to some Jews. Moreover, unless one adopts some version of process theology, this solution still requires one to drop a number of the features in traditional accounts of biological life, such as metabolism, movement and adaptation.

Option 3: Replace the biological accounts of life with something radically different which makes God a paradigm instance of life. Here are three such possibilities for characterizing life:

A. Living things are ones that have some mental property like consciousness or purposefulness.

B. Living things have teleology.

C. Living things are ones that have a well-being, that are capable of being well.

Suboption A is pretty radical: it requires either saying that plants have a mental life or that plants aren’t alive. I think it’s not that crazy to say that plants have something like mental life. Maybe they are aware of their environment in a way that goes robustly beyond the mere data processing of a digital thermometer. And it seems plausible that one can ascribe a certain kind of purposefulness to plant processes.

Suboption B is pretty close to the purposefulness variant of suboption A, but teleology is a more general concept than mental purposefulness. For me, the main difficulty with suboption B is that I think all substances have teleology. And I don’t want to extend life to elementary particles. But those who do not think that teleology extends to all substances might like Suboption B.

Suboption C is, of course, related to Suboption B. I have the same worry about C as about B: I think all substances that have teleology have a well-being. Elementary particles have well-being—the only difference between them and organic substances is that as far as we can tell, elementary particles are always well. This is of course very controversial, and those who do not accept it may like C.

There are, no doubt, other options and suboptions. I am attracted to Options 2 and 3A.


William said...

The artificial intelligence futurist community seems to have no problems with considering a hypothetical future strong AI being alive and intelligent. So there seems to be an acceptable meaning of alive that transcends being a biological entity.

Jo F said...

Why not just agree with the biological definitions of life and take God as being a unique exception to the requirement of having one's consciousness organically housed? What's the consequence here, anyway--that God isn't allowed to be understood as a living being if He does not have the organic norms of biological life? Sure, if someone wants to say "God isn't alive as we understand it" then fine--God's not alive by the biological definitions of life. So what? Let's create an additional definition for living things that includes God and conscious but non-organic lifeforms. One may call God what he wants, alive or not alive, but God is a conscious agent--and it seems rather obvious that excluding the conscious agent that created all living beings from the category of things which are alive is absurd by any reasonable definition of life. After all, we have defined life based on rough similarities between certain things. God's clearly similar enough to us to warrant the description "living", though this type of life doesn't appear in the terminology of biology because biologists aren't concerned with transcendental, unobservable lifeforms.

Jo F said...

@ William

Well, for the materialist perhaps. But I wouldn't take the achievement of AI as being an artificially conscious being, assuming the efforts made for its development don't radically change. Nor would I ever take it to be alive.

David Bently Hart has done some excellent work on this:

Jo F said...

I fail to see how God ought to be seen as the paradigm instance of life, when what we understand as "life" is really the things which He created--which need not be seen as having many manifest similarities to God. Living things tend to be in many respects very different than Him because they are lesser than Him and were designed to be a certain way which, in many respects but not comprehensively, reflect God Himself. So I think looking for a trademark similarity between God and biological lifeforms is going to be an arduous task.

Alexander R Pruss said...


"The living God" is used to describe God in both the Old and New Testaments (28 verses according to

I suppose one could interpret this as an imprecise way of saying "the God with a functioning mind", but I think the connection between God and *life* is an important one for the Biblical authors. Our life is given to us by God, and God himself has life.

Kolten Ellis said...

Some mild support for 3a- Leviticus says that "the life is in the blood", such that israelites would be ritually impure for eating raw meat. There was, however, no similar prohibition for eating raw plants (or certain insects!). Having a circulatory system could be a necessary condition for a natural kind to be considered "alive", and mental processes sufficient. I'm inclined with Jo F to say that we might just be talking about different types of 'life'. Especially if you do not hold to univocal predication with respect to God, it shouldn't be surprising that God isn't alive like we are.

Even taking a Univocal approach, there can be a distinction between spiritual life (which God and regenerate persosns have) and biological life.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It's a very interesting suggestion that perhaps the biblical concept of life doesn't apply to plants and lower animals. If so, then perhaps "life" as used by biologists and "life" in the Bible are equivocal rather than univocal or even analogical.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A reason not to focus on reproduction is that as far as we knew, angels don't reproduce, but that doesn't affect the intuition they are alive.