What is a mind? What a broad question! Perhaps it is easier to list the set of activities a mind does: a mind thinks, makes judgements, reflects, imagines, pictures, remembers, and perceives. Consider what makes human minds different from other animals. Geckos and eagles and pot-belly pigs all seem to have better sense of perception than human minds, but they do not appear to be able to reflect on mental images or thoughts of things as well as humans can.
Within the philosophy of mind, this ability to conceive of and think with mental representations is called “Intentionality.” Notice, “Intentionality” or “Intentions” in this context does not mean “The motivation as to why somebody acts a particular way,” but rather, intentionality is the sense in which a mind has thoughts, images, feelings, desires, memories, attitudes, prejudices about something. The intention is the “something” that we have in our minds when we think about anything. If you asked me to think about pistachio ice cream, I immediately have a mental image of a waffle cone with green-tinted ice cream. Additionally, I have a attitude that I will not eat anything like this dessert, because I’m a vegan and don’t consume dairy products. Lastly, I will almost certainly have an olfactory memory of walking into Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream when I was 18 and beginning my undergraduate education at the University of Wisconsin. This image, attitude, and memory are all memories about things, and yet they occurred spontaneously in my mind, which has no literal ice cream within it.
In a debate with Alex Rosenberg on the matter of whether faith is reasonable, professional Christian debater William Lane Craig invokes a unique argument for the existence of God, the Argument from Intentionality. Craig sees this as problematic for an atheist with a materialistic ontology (“Ontology” literately means “Study of Being.” It is a fancy way of saying “Worldview.”): the materialist believes that all of reality is physical matter, and can be understood and explained in its entirely by referencing physical processes. However, argues Craig, physical objects do not have intentionality, but human minds do. Thus, if minds have intentions, and materialism cannot account for them, then materialism fails to explain the world. Theism, by Craig’s measure, explains intentionality by positing that intentions are supernatural, non-physical states; intentional states of consciousness cannot arise from matter alone. From these premises he argues,
INTENTIONALITY IS SUPERNATURAL
P1 Intentionality requires a supernatural force (e.g. God and Souls), as intentionality cannot exist in a purely physical system
P2 Intentionality exists
C Therefore, a supernatural force must exist
I do not believe Craig’s argument is successful: even if we grant that intentional states are irreducible to physicalistic neuroscience, we might imagine that there is another category of nature that we need to figure out with a new set of methods, all without immediately invoking God. Contemporary defender of dualism and atheist David Chalmers argues just this, drawing comparison to how scientists initially attempted to explain electromagnetism in terms of either electricity or magnetism, and eventually gave up and just invented the term electromagnetism to describe that set of phenomena.
Other philosophers have argued that the mind and the brain are identical, thus all intentional mental states are physical states of one’s brain. Talk of beliefs, mental images, desires, hopes, feelings, and so forth could be paraphrased into language about such-and-such neural fibers, just as how a digital image could be broken down into colored pixels that by themselves stand for nothing. To use my example of pistachio ice cream again, my attitude of “I will not eat pistachio ice cream because of my moral convictions” comprises of a set of neurons, some of them in the memory region of my brain, some of them in the moral thinking region, and when they fire, it is me having that thought. According to this Mind-Brain Identity Theory, intentionality is simply a colloquial way of speaking about a purely physical process. After all, hunger and thirst are intentional states as well, but these seem pretty physical. Craig correctly argues that rocks and chairs and other physical things do not have intentionality, but if they had a neural network, they would have intentions.
As these two arguments demonstrate, it is not necessarily true that intentionally requires a supernatural force, such as a soul, to occur. In fact, if mind-brain identity theory is correct, then it would seem that a being would require a neural network of sorts to have intentionality. Some have made this argument to suggest that it is the structure, and not the material itself that makes for conscious states, thus it would be possible for a computer with a sufficient circuitry to be conscious and have intentionality.
Suppose then, the atheist turns the tables and presents Craig his own argument inverted:
SUPERNATURAL BEINGS CANNOT BE INTENTIONAL
P1 Intentionality is a colloquial way of discussing structures of a physical system; there is nothing mysterious or supernatural about it.
P2 A non-physical, non-corporal entity (i.e. God, angels, demons, souls) is dissimilar to a physical systems as it has no parts.
P3 Following from premise 1 and 2, an entity with no parts cannot have intentionality
C Supernatural entities cannot have intentionality.
Craig would almost certainly challenge premise one, and argue that it could be possible for an intentional state to exist without a corresponding physical system. Saul Kripke, a much better philosopher than Craig, argued just this. But without immediately resisting this argument, let us consider just how a supernatural, non-corporal being like God might be understood to have a intentionality. Or, as I will argue, how it may be possible for God to not have a mind at all.
There is a model of theism adopted by some Christians called “Panentheism” (not to be confused with Pantheism, which argues that nature or the universe is identical to God). Panentheism, which is Greek for “All-In-God,” argues that God is both wholly transcendent and wholly eminent: all the universe is within God, and God is within all of the pieces of the Universe. This is in direct contradiction to what 20th century theologian (and first non-Jewish professor to be expelled from a German university) Paul Tillich described as Supernatural Theism: the God of Supernatural Theism is removed and remote from Creation. The God of Supernatural Theism, while having total power over His creation, is not affected by it. The God of Supernatural Theism creates through inseminating the Universe. Conversely, the God of Panentheism creates by gestating; there is no possible event that occurs outside of the parameter of God.
Recall the argument that Craig made, intentionality is the ability for a mind to grasp things that are not literately within it. The mind must create a mental representation, whether through imagery or syntax or some combination of the two, because there is an ontological separation between the perceiver and what has been perceived. The God of Panentheism has no such separation. Not only is all of time and space within this God, so are all possibilities. This God, this Ground of All Being, to use Tillich’s language again, does not need to conceive of alternative possibilities, God actually is present in all things, no faculty of representation is necessary. God does not intuit or judge or remember or get thirsty; God simply IS. And as much traditional theology states, the Goodness and Holiness of God is an essential feature of God, it does not arise from reflection. Thus is it that much of a stretch to say that God does not have a mind? Mental faculties are for beings that have some sort of epistemological separation they are working through. God has has no separation from Creation.
What then about our language of God’s feelings, attitudes, desires, and other mental states? Are these simply metaphors? The Biblical text suggests that God has intentionality: God changes his mind at different points (Exodus 32:14), God makes judgements (Romans 2:5), and God feels regret (Genesis 6:6). Jesus prays to God the Father (Luke 22:41-44; Luke 23:34), which would suggest that God is self-reflective. However, Jesus has a human body, so it would make sense that He would have Intentionality. Traditional Christian theology believes that Jesus existed prior to His birth in Nazareth, thus the statements about God’s intentionality through the Bible could be references to Jesus’ emotions, reflections, attitudes, and so forth. This act of limitation allows for God to join human kind in solidarity, to experience the fallible intentional states common to all natural beings.
One of my favorite stories in the entire Bible is Jesus and the Syro-Pheonician woman (Matthew 15:21-28). In this account, Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman of Syrian descent (keep in mind, almost all of the people Jesus interacts with are Jewish), begging for Him to heal her daughter. Jesus rebuffs her, stating that He was sent “only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” As she begs for Jesus to rid the demon from her child, Jesus turns to her and says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Calling her a dog, it turns out, was an ethnic slur; Jesus literately said something racist.
The woman responds, “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” “How great is your faith,” Jesus replies, and heals the woman’s daughter.
In this story, Jesus exhibits intentionality: He holds a prejudice against the woman, He holds an attitude about his mission on earth, He makes a cruel play on words, and He changes his mind. As a preacher once stated in a sermon I attended, Jesus in this moment is healed of racism. Racism is an intentional state. So is fear, confusion, hate, delusion, misunderstanding, and all the problems that come when one’s mental representations clashes with another’s. Jesus, in His human limitations, experienced negative emotions, and that direct experience is part of the Godhead. Jesus’ growth, healing, and self-reflection, too, exists within the wholeness of God.
In short, God could be understood to both have a mind, and not have a mind. God does not have a mind, because God is not a supernatural being, and is not a being, so to speak, but being itself. God does have a mind with intentional states in that, Jesus Christ is God incarnate, and Jesus is a fully physical being with a mind that exhibits intentionality.
This is a paradox, but I must admit, I do not expect God to fit within my intentions. Perhaps I can seek to simply be without conceiving of.