God Belongs to No Genus

Last week I mentioned that I teach a class called "Cognition and Learning," a basic introduction to learning theology and cognitive psychology. 

In that series last week I used the notion of top-down processing to make an observation about faith and experience. In this post I want to share from Cognition and Learning a lecture about conceptual knowledge, a lecture where I make another connection between cognitive psychology and faith.

In cognitive psychology "concepts" are categories we use to organize our experiences and ideas. Some of these concepts are concrete, concepts like "cat," "car," or "house." Other concepts are more abstract, concepts like "truth," "peace," and "justice." 

A lot of research has been devoted to how objects become a member of a conceptual category. Often, membership is determined by definitions. If an object meets the definition of the category then it's a member of that class. If, say, a German Shepherd meets the definition of "dog" German Shepherds are "dogs." But what about a wolf? Is a wolf a "dog"? Sort of, but sort of not. True, both German Shepherds and wolves are members of the biological genus Canis. But some of us wouldn't include wolves in the category "dog."

The wolf/dog illustration shows how, beyond definitions, membership in conceptual categories is also made via family resemblances, comparing an object to some ideal type or prototype that defines membership in a class. Where definitional approaches to concepts have hard boundaries, you either meet the definition or not, family resemblances allow for shades of grey. A wolf is sort of like a dog, bears a family resemblance to the dogs we love at pets.   

Here's an example I used in class to illustrate these points. Think of the concept "emotional support animal." What examples of this concept come to mind? Most of our examples aren't definitional but are governed by prototypes. Prototypical emotional support animals are cats and dogs--smallish, furry, domesticated mammals with paws. We allow these prototypes onto planes and in public spaces to provide their owners emotional support. But what if I want to bring my snake onto the plane as my emotional support animal? Most people would balk at that. But why? From a definitional perspective if I claim that I get emotional support from my snake then, by definition, my snake is an emotional support animal. However, our objections to snakes on a plane (Samuel L. Jackson fans, did you see what I did there?) have more to do with family resemblances. A snake is far from the prototypes--cats and dogs--we imagine when we think of emotional support animals. So we reject snakes as emotional support animals.

So, there you go! You just got a lecture from my Cognition and Learning class about the different ways we create concepts and judge membership within those categories. And having delivered this lecture to my class I follow up with another lecture entitled "How to Think about God."

In my "How to Think about God" lecture I introduce my students to one of the great insights of the Christian mystical tradition: God belongs to no genus. God is a member of no class or category. God transcends all concepts. 

This notion is at the heart of "Hexing the Taliban," one of the four new chapters in the paperback edition of Hunting Magic Eels. Consider, I said to my class, the category "Things That Exist." We can list members of this category: dogs, cats, chairs, people, planets, computers, cars, quarks, black holes, even the universe. But then I write on the board "God." Can God be included as a member of the class "Things That Exist"? Recall, the rule is "God belongs to no genus." So, no, God cannot be a member of the class "Things That Exist." Which quickly brought my class to the apophatic conclusion: God doesn't exist. 

By "God doesn't exist" we mean, of course, that God doesn't exist the way objects exist, the way dogs or planets exist. God isn't a noun. God isn't a being among beings. God is, rather, the Existence that gives rise to existence. The Being that creates beings. God exists, but not in a way we can understand or fathom. God Exists, but doesn't exist.

Here's a second example, the one I highlight in the new chapter of Hunting Magic Eels. In popular introductory books about witchcraft you often find a chapter about pagan gods and goddesses. In these chapters you can find lists of divine beings, a jumbled assortment of Norse, Greek, Hindu, and Egyptian deities. So with my students I write on the board another category: "Gods, Deities, and Divine Beings." We start to add members to this class: Thor, Zeus, Vishnu and so on. And then we get to the question, can Yahweh be added to this list?

We're back to the rule: God belongs to no genus. So, no, God cannot be classed among other gods and deities. Again, should gods and divine beings exist (see, for example, Psalm 82), God is what gives these beings their existence. If Thor or Vishnu exist, God is what gives them their existence and upon which their existence depends.

Maybe it's foolish in a Cognition and Learning class with college sophomores to try to plumb the mystical depths of apophatic theology. But by the end of our 50-minute class I believe they start to get the hang of it, the notion behind "How to Think about God." Their imaginations start, often for the first time in their lives, to push beyond their physicalistic, materialistic, and scientistic notions of "existence," even beyond their notions of spiritual existence. They begin to to glimpse God beyond God. God doesn't exist like chairs or gods exist. How God exists is something that we really cannot imagine. God transcends all concepts. 

God belongs to no genus.

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