Does God Have a Mind?


Theists sometimes describe God as a mind without a body. In this paper, the history of the concepts of soul, mind, and spirit are reviewed in order to provide historical background to the denial that such terms correctly apply to God. The positions taken on the nature of mind and divinity are reviewed through the Greek philosophical tradition to Augustine and Islamic philosophy. It is shown that there are important theological traditions, including the dominant stream in Islamic philosophy, in which God is not understood as having a mind, but is nevertheless knowing, willing and living.

Keywords: God, soul, mind, spirit, psyche, nous, person, self, dualism, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Boethius, Augustine, Descartes, Ibn Sina, Mulla Sadra.


The consensus among contemporary writers of English seems to be that God does have a mind, or is a mind without a body.1 Some philosophers even consider this to be an analytic truth. God is defined as a person, and persons are defined in terms of minds or mental capacities. Such philosophers take it that to deny the existence of a divine mind is to be an atheist. The idea that God should be considered an “other mind” is featured in the title of a book by Alvin Plantinga, and was asserted a century ago by William Ernest Hocking as follows: “We have found God in the first place as an Other Mind, an individual Subject, wholly active: and no war of predicates can invade this certainty.”2

Psycho-physical dualists hold that everything is either extended in space or not; and that what is extended is corporeal, or physical, while what is not is mental or mind. Thus, the world is composed of bodies and minds. On this dualistic picture, human beings also have a body and a mind. The idea of dividing substance into the physical and the mental in this way is generally attributed to Descartes, hence, it is known as Cartesian dualism.

It puts God, angels, human souls, heaven and hell, together with sense impressions, pains, hopes, fears, and thoughts together in the category of the mental and mind— non-extended substance; while physical things are understood to include whatever takes up space. The division between the material and the immaterial was not made in this way by Plato or Aristotle, nor is it to be found in the Bible or the Qur’ān. The ancient Greek notion of the soul was that of a life principle, not that of immaterial mentality. In the fifth century B.C., Empedocles could write of perceptual mechanisms and thought processes without even mentioning the soul, psyche.3 If Plato, or any of the ancient Greeks were dualists, they were not Cartesian dualists.

For Descartes, human intellection serves as the model on the basis of which the divine intellect is to be understood.

… I readily and freely confess that the idea which we have of the divine intellect, for example, does not differ from that which we have of our own intellect, except in so far as the idea of an infinite number differs from the idea of a number raised to the second or fourth power. And the same applies to the individual attributes of God of which we recognize some trace in ourselves.4

When he attempts to explain that there need be no corporeal element to intellection, Descartes appeals to an abstract immediacy that may be attributed to both human and divine intellectual perceptions.

I am taking the word ‘idea’ to refer to whatever is immediately perceived by the mind…. I used the word ‘idea’ because it was the standard philosophical term used to refer to the forms of perception belonging to the divine mind, even though we recognize that God does not possess any corporeal imagination.5

But Descartes broke from the tradition by including perceptions and imaginations within the realm of the mental. Previously, these were taken to be held in common between humans and animals, and so, not distinctive of the intellectual faculty.6 Descartes was able to retain the idea that the human mind distinguishes humans from animals by denying any mental life for animals, taking the states of faculties that were previously considered common to both human and animals out of the corporeal realm and putting them into the mind.

Like Plato, Boethius (c.480–c.525/6) divides substances into the corporeal and the incorporeal in a manner that does not match the Cartesian division between physical and mental substance. Boethius divides the incorporeal substances into the rational and non-rational. He considers the animating spirits or souls of beasts to be non-rational incorporeal substances. God is taken to differ from other rational substances because He is by nature immutable and impassible, while angels and souls are only immutable and impassible by divine grace. To be a person, according to Boethius, is to be a particular substance that has a mind or intellect, or is rational, and he considers God to be a person insofar as He is an incorporeal particular substance with a mind.

Now from all the definitions we have given it is clear that Person cannot be affirmed of bodies which have no life (for no one ever said that a stone had a person), nor yet of living things which lack sense (for neither is there any person of a tree), nor finally of that which is bereft of mind and reason (for there is no person of a horse or ox or any other of the animals which dumb and unreasoning live a life of sense alone), but we say there is a person of a man, of God, of an angel.7

Boethius continues with the point that while substances may be particular or universal, only particulars are persons.

Like Descartes, however, Boethius considers God to be an incorporeal mind (that which possesses intellect or reason). As Boethius makes clear, being a person implies having a mind. However, when Boethius holds God to have a mind, he does not mean that God has what would be called psychological states, today, such as having desires, passing ideas, feelings, or any sort of mental image. So, despite the fact that Boethius asserts that God is a person and has a mind or intellect, it would be a mistake to attribute to Boethius the view that God has a mind and is a person in the modern senses of these terms.

Boethius considers God to be a substance; for all persons are substances, and God is a person. This is also a position on which there is no consensus. Avicenna (980-1037), for example, argued that God is not a substance; although he granted that there is a sense in which one could correctly say that God is a substance. If by “substance” one meant whatever is not an accident, then one could consider God a substance. This would be misleading, however, from Avicenna’s perspective, because it would suggest that substance could be considered a genus under which God would be included along with other substances. While Boethius places God alongside other rational substances (with the difference being that His immutability and impassibility are by nature rather than by grace), Avicenna considers the distinction between substance and accident to be a distinction in quiddity (or whatness), and since God lacks any quiddity other than His existence, it is inappropriate to consider God as a substance.8 Distinctions among quiddities into substance and other categories are only appropriate for contingent entities.

Avicenna provides reason for placing emphasis on divine transcendence: God transcends the categories applied to contingents. Phillip Blond’s reflections on Duns Scotus (1266–1308) lead him to a similar point. Scotus worried that the radical transcendence of God would make Him unknowable. In order for God to be known, Scotus argued that being is univocal (univocum) to the created and the uncreated. Blond finds this move reprehensible, and contrary to Thomist teachings:

This univocity [of being] of God and creature therefore marks the time when theology itself became idolatrous. For theologians had disregarded what Thomas had already warned them against, that nothing can be predicated univocally of God and other things.9

Boethius, however, had made being univocal to the created and uncreated centuries prior to Scotus, contrary to what Avicenna, and following him Aquinas, would advise.

If God is not a substance, it would follow that God is not a person, since, according to Boethius, a person is a substance with a mind. Hence, arguments against putting God in the category of substance, like those of Avicenna, Blond, Tillich, religious anti-realists, and others, could also be used to argue that God is not a person. Since only particular substances can be persons, and since a particular substance is a person if and only if it has a mind, if God is not a substance, then God does not have a mind.

The issue, however, is more complicated than such an argument would lead one to believe. Problems arise because the terminology used by philosophers to discuss the topic of whether God is a person or has a mind is highly ambiguous. As we survey the history of religious and philosophical thought from the ancient Greeks, the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths, Christian and Islamic philosophical traditions, up through modern and contemporary philosophies, we find important differences in how the key terms are used: person, soul, mind, intellect, and spirit. As a result, although Boethius and Hocking may appear to agree on the claims that God is a person and has a mind, what they understand by these claims are worlds apart. The problem is not simply one of verbal ambiguity, but of a developmental shift in how key terms are understood and applied. So, it would be advisable to briefly examine some of these terminological difficulties.

Biblical, Ancient Greek, and Arabic Terminology

If we are to avoid sinking to the level of mere verbal disagreement about the issue of whether God has a mind, we will have to make clear what is meant by “mind” and related terminology. Since our aim is to contribute to discussions in comparative Christian and Islamic philosophy of religion, it will be useful to examine the relevant terminology of Greek, Latin, English, German, Arabic, and Hebrew. One should bear in mind that the relevant terms are often understood (if not defined) in different ways by authors using a common language.

A good place to begin to understand how the concept of mind developed is with the translations of the Bible and Aristotle’s On the Soul. In these works, and their translations, we find the basic terms that would feature in descriptions of the concept of mind.

Aristotle’s book that is translated into English as “On the Soul” is “Περί Ψυχης” (Peri Psyches) in Greek, and is translated as “De Anima” (Latin), “Über die Seele” (German), and “اﻟﻨﻔﺲ ﮐﺘﺎب” (Kitāb al-Nafs) (Arabic).10

This already supplies us with a rich supply of concepts to investigate. The English and German words are derived from sawol or some cognate thereof. Neither sawol nor psyche were used in the sense of the source or possessor of what today would be called psychological states. Both psyche and sawol were used for what is lost or released from the body at death, likened to a vapor that can escape from a wound suffered in battle, and hence, identified with the spirit of the dead person. Likewise, the Latin anima is used for what animates living things (not to be confused with animus, which was used for the mind or intellect).

We can also relate these terms by means of translations of the Bible. Occurrences of psyche in the New Testament are translated as soul in the King James version of the Bible, and as Seele in Luther’s German. The same words, soul and Seele, are used to translate the Hebrew Bible’s נֶפֶשׁ‎ (nephesh), which corresponds to the Arabic nafs.

In the third book of Peri Psyches (De Anima), Aristotle introduces the notion of νοῦς (nous), which is translated as ﻋﻘﻞ (‘aql) in Arabic, and the Latin translation of Avicenna’s ‘aql is intelligentia (English, intellect). Parmenides had used nous for inner observation, and Plato described it as the “eye of the soul.”11 Aristotle compares nous to sensation. While the senses perceive, nous thinks; but what is meant by thinking here is a kind of intellectual perception, seeing with the eye of the soul. In Aristotle we can also find a source for the idea of God as Mind, for he cites Anaxagoras with approval, as holding nous to be the first mover.12

The English “mind” in the King James version of the Bible is used to translate nous and διάνοια (dianoia), but also other terms. In German, Sinn and Gemüt are used for both nous and dianoia; and sometimes Vernunft. Psyche and dianoia appear together in the following verse: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul (psyche, anima, Seele), and with all thy mind (dianoia, mente, Gemüt).” (KJV Matthew 22:37)13

The main Hebrew words translated as mind are nephesh, רוּחַ (ruwach), leb and lebab (both used for heart), corresponding to the Arabic روح (rūḥ.), ﻟﺐ (lub), and ﻟﺒﺎب (lubāb), respectively. The English word “mind”, from the Old English gemynd (German, Gemüt) is from the Latin, mens (the term Descartes used for mind), which is related to the Greek μένος (menos). In Proto-Indo-European, the verbal root men- had the sense of remembering, preserved in the English, “calling to mind”. The Greek menos was related to courage and anger.

Scholars of Homeric Greek have distinguished psyche as a “free soul” in contrast to the body souls: thymos, noos (which after Homer became nous), and menos. The body souls were taken to be active in the person when awake, but the psyche was thought to be active only when the person was asleep or unconscious. Each of the body souls was taken to have a location in the body, generally in the chest, while psyche was not assigned a specific location.14

Many of the terms associated with life, psyche, and other types of soul were represented as breath, vapor, or wind. In Homer’s Odysseus, the goddess Athena is said to have “breathed a great menos into” Laertes (the father of Odysseus) so that he could participate with spirit in the fighting against the enemies of Odysseus.15

There is also divine breathing of spirit in the Bible and Qur’ān, where the Hebrew word used is נשָׁמָה (neshemah), although this is also associated with ruwach.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath (neshemah) of life; and man became a living soul (nephesh). (KJV Genesis 2:7)

All the while my breath (neshemah) is in me, and the spirit (ruwach) of God is in my nostrils. (KJV Job 27:3)

So when I have proportioned him and breathed into him of My spirit (rūḥ)…﴿(15:29)16

The Greek word translated as “spirit” is πνεῦμα (pneuma); and pneuma is contrasted with nous in the verse: “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding (nous) is unfruitful.” (1 Cor. 14:14) In the Luther translation, spirit is Geist and understanding (nous) is Sinn, and in the Vulgate, we find spiritus and mens, respectively.

There is much more terminology from the ancient world related to this topic, e.g., the use of the first person singular pronoun and the reflexive pronouns to refer to the soul or some aspect of it, as with ego and self, the differences in the developments of the words intellect and reason, the concept of consciousness, and much more. There also remains the examination of the related concepts from the Indian and Egyptian traditions. However, the material briefly surveyed here provides enough of an introduction to recognize three groups of concepts that have featured prominently in the philosophical and religious thought of Christians and Muslims, the concepts of psyche, of nous, and of pneuma. The Greek terms are correlated with translations in the following table, but all of these terms are used in various ways by different authors even within the same language and period, so the inter-linguistic correlations must be considered very rough.

Table 1: Terms Related to Soul, Mind, and Spirit

Greek psyche nous, dianoia pneuma
Latin anima mens, animus, intelligentia spiritus
Hebrew nephesh nephesh, ruwach, leb, lebab ruwach, neshama
Arabic nafs ‘aql rūḥ
German Seele Gemüt, Sinn, Vernunft Geist
English soul mind, intellect spirit

What is clear from even a brief survey, and despite the meaning shifts and ambiguities of the relevant terminology, is that in the scriptural sources the terms used for spirit are used for both humans and God, while terms used for soul are frequently applied to humans, but less so for God, and terms for mind are generally used for humans but not for God.17 This is despite the fact that all the scriptural sources are rife with anthropomorphic imagery for divinity. In the Qur’ān, for example, ‘aql and its derivatives are used for human reasoning, but never applied to God. In the philosophical tradition, on the other hand, we find a long history of the application of terms for mind to both the human and divine.

God and Mind from the Ancient Greeks to Augustine

The idea of breath as soul is very ancient and can be found in many cultures. In the sixth century B.C., Anaximines declared the first principle of all things to be air or wind, from which all things come and to which they are resolved. “Just as our soul,” he is reported to have said, “which is air, holds us together, so breath and air surround the whole cosmos.”18 Because of this report, Anaximenes is taken to have taught the correspondence of microcosm and macrocosm based on his view of air as the first principle (arche) of all things and divine and as the stuff of the human soul.

Anaxagoras (d. 428 B.C.) elevated nous to the status of first principle while sidelining psyche. He is reported to have begun his book on philosophy with the words, “All things were together, then nous came and set them in order.”19 Nous sets things in motion and out of the swirl comes the physical universe, which is then ruled by nous. Anaxagoras also attributes knowledge of all things to nous, because otherwise it would not have been able to fashion and govern. He also describes nous as powerful. However, according to Anaxagoras, nous is not immaterial, instead it is described as being of the finest material so that it can penetrate everywhere.

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates expresses approval of Anaxagoras for considering nous as first cause, but is disappointed that so much of the speculation of Anaxagoras is about mechanical forces. Guthrie explains that the disappointment was due to the lack of any discussion of teleological causation, which would seem to be the only way nous could control nature.20

In the Republic, nous is distinguished from dianoia. Dianoia is discursive thinking, thinking that takes place step by step, thinking that wanders. Nous, by contrast, is all at once. So, the Muslim philosophers sometimes contrasted the knowing of dianoia and nous as detailed knowledge (‘ilm al-tafṣīlī) and concise knowledge (‘ilm al-ijmālī).

For Plato, what does not move is immutable and hence eternal. In the early dialogues, the soul and deity are both considered immobile, but in the later dialogues the soul is said to be self-moving. Finally, in the Timeus, there is an unchanging eternal God and a self-moving temporal but everlasting world soul. “The eternal God comprehends the entire realm of ideas—of pattern—and the world soul comprehends the entire realm of things.”21

The break with the idea of God as unmoving and impersonal is stated clearly in the Sophist.

STR. I understand, this at least is true, that if to know is active, to be known must in turn be passive. Now being (ousia), since it is, according to this theory, known by the intelligence (logos), in so far as it is known, is moved, since it is acted upon, which we say cannot be the case with that which is in a state of rest.

THEAET. Right.

STR. But for heaven’s sake, shall we let ourselves easily be persuaded that motion and life and soul (psyche) and mind (phronesin) are really not present to absolute being (pantelus onti), that it neither lives nor thinks (phronein), but awful and holy, devoid of mind (nous), is fixed and immovable?

THEAET. That would be a shocking admission to make, Stranger. STR. But shall we say that it has mind (nous), but not life?
THEAET. How Can we?

STR. But do we say that both of these exist in it, and yet go on to say that it does not possess them in a soul (psyche)?

THEAET. But how else can it possess them?

STR. Then shall we say that it has mind and life and soul, but, although endowed with soul, is absolutely immovable?

THEAET. All those things seem to me absurd.

STR. And it must be conceded that motion and that which is moved exist.

THEAET. Of course.

STR. Then the result is, Theaetetus, that if there is no motion, there is no mind (nous) in anyone about anything anywhere.22

William Reese comments that Plato’s theology turns upon two principles: “the pure being of the Forms and the supreme mobility or self-motion of soul.”23 Reese interprets Plato’s eternal God and world soul as distinct levels of ontological abstractness, so that “Plato’s assertion that the world soul and the eternal God are distinct divine natures and the assertion that deity possesses two aspects, one concrete and inclusive, the other abstract and independent” amount to the same thing.24 We thus find a duality introduced into the very notion of divinity that can be traced to Plato (at least on one interpretation25), and that pops up subsequently throughout the history of philosophical theology, when the essence of God is said to be beyond description, while at some lower level, God is described as having nous, or mind.

The passage in the Sophist is also important because it suggests one of the most persistent reasons for ascribing mind to God, and thus, claiming that God is a person: it would be too shocking to deny. After the ascription of nous, life, psyche, and motion follow.

Nous as divine comes to the fore, again, with Aristotle. Myles Burnyeat has forcefully argued that God as presented in Aristotle’s Metaphysics is the Active Intellect, explained in On the Soul. The Aristotelian soul is divided by its faculties into vegetable, animal, and human. Everything that has life has a psyche. The intellect, nous, is understood in terms of the faculties that are not shared with lower animals and plants. The animal soul is characterized by perception and will. This leaves only reasoning and abstract thought as features specific to the human soul. Descartes, on the other hand, denies that animals perceive by mental imagery, and, thus, is able to expand the mental to include perceptions and imaginations that were absent from the Aristotelian nous. The verbal form of nous, noein, did not mean thinking in the post- Cartesian sense, but intellectual knowing.

As Burnyeat explains,26 Aristotle divided humans from other creatures because of the possession of a certain kind of thinking: calculation and reasoning, λογισμὸν καὶ διάνοιαν, logismos and dianoia, while other animals live only by imagination (φαντασία, fantasia), and yet others do not even have that. Aristotle continues that nous presents a different problem. The distinction between nous and dianoia is made repeatedly. Nous, but not dianoia, is divine.

Aristotle compares the employment of nous to that of perception.27 In both cases there is a unity between the known and the knower. However, in perception this unity is achieved only with the activity of sensual perception, so that it cannot function apart from the body, while in the case of nous, the unity is achieved as soon as one develops intellectual capacity, and no activity of intellection is required. Scholars agree that there are no material conditions involved in the unification of nous and its known object, and that the intellect (nous) is separate from the body. They disagree about the nature of the relation between sensory perception and the body.28

In any case, since sensible objects are particular and external to the perceiver, unity of the knower and the known can only occur through a particular act of perceiving. Scientific knowledge (episteme), to the contrary, is said to somehow reside in the knower as soon as the intellect is sufficiently developed, so that knowledge of them is obtained as soon as the knower can make use of the appropriate universals, which occurs when the scientifically correct definition of an essence is mastered.29 Mastery of these definitions is no easy task, for it requires the grasping of the appropriate definitions as first principles of deductive science pertaining to the essences defined.

Aristotle also distinguishes nous, in contrast to dianoia, as being divine and immortal, as being like an extra substance that resides in a mortal substance, and as remaining unaffected by the death of its human vehicle.30 Neither is dianoia to be identified with nous, nor does it belong to nous. Thinking, believing, and judging are the work of dianoia. Nous is impassive and yet receptive to intelligible forms. Insofar as it is receptive, it is known as the potential (δύναμις, dynamei) or material (νοῦς, hylikos) intellect, and the intellect that actively makes things intelligible is the active intellect (νοῦς πολιτικός).31 The potential intellect is present in a person as soon as the person has the ability to acquire intellectual forms. The intellect becomes active when the forms are present in the intellect and available for application.

Light was not understood by Aristotle as energy in motion, but as the actuality of the transparent qua transparent, that is, as the condition that makes possible visible form. Nous is like light in that it is not in motion, but is the actuality of the intellectually knowable qua knowable, that is, it is the condition that actualizes what is potentially knowable so that it becomes knowable. It is a non-material medium through which intelligible forms become knowable in the human intellect, just as light is the medium through which perceptual forms become visible. This is the active intellect, and this, according to Burnyeat’s analysis, is what Aristotle considers to be God.32

Aristotle thinks of God as the prime mover and final cause. Likewise, active nous is the final cause and actuality of what is intellectually known.

What is special about the exercise of nous, the highest form of cognition that humans can attain, is that it is no longer a more or less distant imitation of the divine life. It is a limited span of the very same activity as God enjoys for all time.33

Nous, as active intellect and as divinity, is the immortal, impassible, immaterial actuality that comes to reside in us like a kind of separable substance, and this, Burnyeat tells us, “is the key to Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life.”34

As Burnyeat admits, his interpretation is controversial. Other interpreters have tried to construct a reading of Aristotle that is more in line with modern functionalism, and that tries to put distance between Aristotle’s psychology and theology.35 Regardless of the superiority of Burnyeat’s arguments against those of rival interpreters, his account would be worth our attention merely because it is in essential agreement to Alexander of Aphrodisias and other commentators who influenced subsequent discussions of the issue. On the other hand, it is generally admitted that the relevant passages are among the most difficult and obscure in the Aristotelian corpus and throughout the subsequent history of the discussion there is plenty of disagreement among commentators.36

The next stop in our survey of the attributions of mind to God among the Greek philosophers is Plotinus (c. 205-270). Emilsson explains that Plotinus’ doctrine of the intellect draws heavily on Aristotle and his commentators, especially Alexander of Aphrodisias; specifically, “Plotinus follows Alexander of Aphrodisias in unifying the account of God as pure thinker in Metaphysics XII and that of the active intellect in De anima III, 5.”37 However, for Plotinus, intellect is not what is highest, for it is second to the One; and when Plotinus contrasts nous to the One, his language suggests that the intellect is imperfect. The One is identified with the Good; it is totally self-sufficient; and it is the final cause of all things.

Emilsson argues that another difference between Plotinus and previous accounts of nous is that in the previous accounts, there is no indication that nous takes a subjective stance or considers itself as “I”, while in Plotinus, there is consideration of thoughts of nous expressed in the first person, “I am this,” in which duality is introduced through the difference between the subject and object of thought.38

Neo-Platonic thought is further elaborated by Proclus (412-485). The first principle of Proclus is the One, which is identified with the Good, and (as in Plato) is beyond thought and ousia. Ousia is generally translated as “being,” although the same word is used by Aristotle for substance, and it would make more sense to interpret the One as beyond substance than as beyond being.39 The second hypostasis is nous, and it is only here that self-knowledge occurs, for it is only through nous that there is the knowing (gnosis) that is the first principle (arche) of all knowing. The third hypostasis is psyche, through the presence of which bodies become self-moving. Hence psyche is that which is essentially self-moving.

An important source of neo-Platonic thought for Islamic philosophy can be found in the Uthūlūjiyā Arisṭūṭālīs (Theology of Aristotle), a summary of parts of the Enneads of Plotinus, and Kalām fī mahḍ al-Khayr (Book on the Pure Good), an Arabic commentary on Proclus’ Elements of Theology, attributed to Aristotle and translated into Latin under the title Liber de causis. When these pseudo-Aristotelian works are compared with their neo-Platonic sources, one finds a number of significant differences that make neo-Platonic thought more theistic.

For example, neo-Platonic principles are described as causes and the One is called “creator”. As in the neo-Platonists, God creates or emanates intellect directly, and then produces everything else through intellect. However, the Theology of Aristotle sometimes describes the first cause as an intellect, contrary to Plotinus and Proclus.40 Perhaps the confusion of intellect with the One has its source in the neo-Platonists’ ambiguities. With regard to Plotinus, Emilsson argues:

The One itself is in some sense a psychological entity too, even if Plotinus is wary of ascribing ordinary human psychological attributes to it, because they tend to be incompatible with its utter simplicity.41

However, Emilsson qualifies this claim in a footnote:

In any case, my point is not that Plotinus after all means to say that the One thinks. It is rather that whatever it does, it is so close to thinking that it is very tempting to apply the vocabulary of thought to it.42

The philosophical legacy from the pre-Socratics to the neo-Platonists is one that harbors numerous ambiguities regarding the intellect, nous, and the first principle or cause of all things. When this legacy was taken up by Christians and Muslims, the immediate tendency was to identify the first principle, first cause and prime mover with God, the Creator. As Gilson explains:

… any follower of the Jewish God would know at once that, whatever the nature of reality itself may be said to be, its religious principle must of necessity coincide with its philosophical principle. Each of them being one, they are bound to be the same and to provide men with one and the same explanation of the world.

When the existence of this one true God was proclaimed by Moses to the Jews, they never thought for a moment that their Lord could be something. Obviously, their Lord was somebody.43

Gilson continues to explain how when Augustine (354-430) read Plotinus, he interpreted the One as the Father, nous as logos, as the Son, and also found a place among the neo-Platonic hypostases for the Holy Spirit, the world soul. This sort of neo-Platonist understanding of the Trinity was not original with Augustine. Arians and semi-Arians were Christian theologians who accepted a Trinitarian doctrine in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were descending forms of divinity that appear to be modeled on neo-Platonist views. Augustine argued against this sort of understanding of divinity, not by philosophical argumentation, but by marshalling scriptural evidence for the equality of the three persons of the Trinity.44

God and Mind in Islamic Philosophy

In the Islamic tradition of philosophical reflection about God, the religiously grounded rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity facilitated a reading of neo-Platonist works according to which God would be identified as the One, and the subsequent hypostases would be considered creatures, the intellects (or intelligences), ‘uqūl. In this transformation, the active intellect drops from the divine position to which Aristotle had assigned it. Fārābī turns the active intellect into the tenth of a series of intellects, each of which is connected to a celestial sphere, and Avicenna explicitly condemns the identification of the active intellect with God in Alexander of Aphrodisias.45

For the Muslim philosophers, the active intellect operates on the potential intellect to bring it to actuality or activate it. The active intellect was taken to be a transcendent substance that could turn on the human potential or material intellect, either by lighting up the human intellect so that it can discern what is intelligible in the images of the imagination, or by sending intelligible thoughts directly to the human intellect. Herbert Davidson points out that in an Arabic paraphrase of Plotinus we find: “The intellectual sciences, which are the true sciences, come only from Intelect to the rational soul.”46

In Avicenna, the neo-Platonic hypostases of the One, intellect, and soul are interpreted in such a way as to correspond to God, angels, and human souls, with the angel Gabriel, the angel of revelation, associated with the active intellect imparting science to capable human souls.

Plotinus depicts the situation of the human soul vis a vis the cosmic Intellect through a metaphor that will recur over and over again in Arabic literature. The soul, he writes, contains a sort of mirror wherein images of thought and Intellect are reflected when the soul orients itself properly toward the higher world.47

For Avicenna, however, the work of the active intellect is not only to contain forms that would be reflected in human intellects; the active intellect is taken to emanate the matter of the sublunar world, to emanate natural forms on appropriate sublunar matter, and the emanation of human knowledge.48

While Avicenna’s theory of prophecy is centered on the notion of union with the active intellect, the idea can be glimpsed in Fārābī, as well, who argues that since the active intellect emanates from the existence of the First Cause, that is, God, it follows that God is the source of revelation for man through the active intellect.49

In the subsequent traditions of Islamic philosophical thought, there is an increasing emphasis on the transcendent nature of God, so that if Avicenna considered God to be the wājib al-wujūd (that which with regard to existence is necessary), by the time of Mulla Sadra (1571–1640), God is identified with pure existence. In this tradition, it is denied that God has a mind, intellect, personhood, or substantiality.

Of course, there are other traditions of theological reflection in Islam. The philosophical tradition offers perhaps the most transcendental conception of divinity to be found in the Islamic world. At the other extreme are literalistic scriptural theologies that consider God to have a body, since the Qur’an speaks of the hand50 and face51 of God, and of His sitting on a throne.52

The rejection of anthropomorphism and scriptural literalism that could be found among some early Muslim mutakalimūn (doctrinal theologians) became an important goal of Shi‘ite collectors of narrations, muḥadithūn. Kulaynī (d. 941), for example, reports explicit denials from Imams Ja‘far and Mūsā Kāẓim that God has body or form. The second chapter of Tawḥīd by Shaykh Ṣadūq (d. 991-992) is about divine transcendence: “On Tawḥīd and the Denial of Similarity.”

Other topics that are discussed in Shaykh Ṣadūq’s Tawḥīd include divine incorporeality and formlessness, that God is a thing (because to deny this would be to deny His existence), the senses in which He is invisible and visible, various divine attributes, e.g., power, knowledge, kindness, will, etc., the distinction between attributes of essence and attributes of action, what it means to be near or with God, the denial of place or time for God and any sort of motion, the difference between divine names and creaturely attributes, the denial that there are two gods, the denial that God is “a third of three”, and the senses in which God is unknowable and knowable.

In Shaykh Ṣadūq’s creed, the I‘tiqādāt al-Imāmiyyah (Shi‘ite Beliefs), the first two of forty-five chapters deal with tawḥīd and the divine attributes. Problems concerning specific attributes are reviewed in subsequent chapters. Here we find an explicit statement that the various anthropomorphic images that occur in the Qur’ān and hadiths must be understood as symbols. For example, he interprets “face” in
Everything is perishing except His face. 28:88

to mean “religion”; and he interprets “hands” in

Nay, but both His hands are outspread 5:64

to mean “the good of this world and the good of the next world.”53 More than half of the first chapter consists of such interpretations. The second chapter divides the attributes into those of essence and action. The attributes of essence are understood as denials of their opposites and are listed as: Hearing, Seeing, Knowing, Wise, Powerful, Glorious, Living, Everlasting, One, and Prior. Shaykh Ṣadūq understood the attributes of action to be attributes of which it is not permissible to say that Allah is always qualified by them. Among the attributes of action, he included: Willing, Speaking, Acting, Creating, Intending, Approving, and others.

One of the issues peculiar to Shi‘i kalām is that of badā’ (to appear as new). The origin of the issue is that the successor to Imam Ṣādiq (a) had been named to be Isma‘il, who died before he could become Imam. The Shi‘i theologians argued that God made it to appear by His eternal will as if God had changed His mind about the affair. Shaykh Ṣadūq says that the meaning of badā’ is simply that God can abrogate His commands and is free to command a thing at one time and prohibit it later according to divine wisdom and beneficence.

Shaykh Mufīd (d. 1022) endorses Ṣadūq’s solution to the problem, but is more explicit. It is not the case that God changes His mind, but He makes it appear to people as if He had done so. We are not to take the expression literally, just as we should not take scriptural ascriptions of surprise and anger to God literally, for this would be repugnant to reason.54 In this, and other issues, the sort of rationalism that is found in Shaykh Ṣadūq’s rejection of anthropomorphism is strengthened by Shaykh Mufīd, who explicitly allows that reason must judge where religious texts may and may not be taken literally. The legacy of Shaykh Ṣadūq and Shaykh Mufīd is to prepare the Shī‘ah to accept an even more philosophical approach to theology that would be developed by later thinkers in the tradition of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), such as Khwājah Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274), and that would come to be dominated by the work of Mulla Sadra.

In this Shi‘ite philosophical tradition, it would make little or no sense to say that God has a mind. One could stipulate that we will say that for all x, x has a mind if and only if there is something that x knows. Or, one could stipulate that for any x and y, if x is an intellect and x is under the power or control of y, then y has a mind. Or, one could define mind to be anything that is an actual existent but not a physical thing. In accordance with these stipulations, one could say that the Islamic philosophical tradition would endorse the claim that God has a mind; but these sorts of stipulations would be idiosyncratic and misleading. God is the creator of all intellects, and is beyond intellect. God does not think, but knows and wills without thinking.

Likewise, one could define “soul” in such a way that to say “x has a soul” would mean no more nor less than “x is living.” According to this definition, the Muslim philosophers would agree that God has a soul, for God is living. But soul (nafs) in this tradition is generally understood as involving more than an ascription of life. To have a soul is to be governed by some principle by virtue of which one can be said to have various powers or faculties, such as intellection, perception, volition, nutrition, reproduction, and growth.

With respect to spirit, too, the interpreters of the Qur’an generally hold that God created spirit, not that He is spirit. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī explains the words

and I breathed into him of My spirit (15:29)

as signifying that God gave life to Adam, and honored the spirit that enlivens Adam by calling it His own.

In short, the philosophical-theological tradition of Shi‘ite Islam denies that God is soul, mind, or spirit. The reality of immaterial souls, minds, intellects, and spirits are not denied (although some consider them to be subtle bodies are reserve absolute immateriality for God alone), but they are taken to be creatures of God.

Although a brief survey has been given of the historical background to the denial of the claim that God has a mind or is mind, no arguments have been presented. Furthermore, the twists and turns of the course of philosophical and religious thinking on the topics of mind and divinity that have been glanced upon here will not decide the issue of whether or not mind should be attributed to God in some sense other than the equivalent of nous, such as a sense appropriate to some modern form of dualism.

At the same time, the discussion of Islamic philosophy can provide some understanding of the sense in which the position could be taken that God does not have a mind. To see how this position fits with Shi‘ite theology, however, a few words about the divine attributes will be helpful.

Mind and the Divine Attributes

The main divine attributes discussed by the early mutakallimīn were Life, Power, and Knowledge. Each of these is related to the issue of whether God has a mind, for each of them, as applied to humans, is associated with soul, will, and intellect, respectively. So the human being is alive when body and soul are together, wills through the will, and knows by intellect. God, however, is alive, yet has no soul, wills without a will, and knows without an intellect. The Shi‘ite theologians and the philosophers offered ways to understand these attributes without positing faculties for God like those by means of which humans live, exercise power, and know.

The philosophers contributed to the flight from anthropomorphism in a number of ways, among the most outstanding and controversial of which was the interpretation of creation as emanation, so that God would be understood as entirely beyond the temporal realm. Of course, the view of God as atemporal was common in Christian philosophy from the time of the Church Fathers,55 although in the modern period there has been a tendency to see God as everlasting, but not beyond time altogether.

Concepts of mind that developed in modern philosophy after Descartes had relatively no impact on Shi‘ite theology. Contemporary with Descartes was Mulla Sadra who identified God with pure being while affirming the attributes of God with an interpretation that developed the philosophical tradition on these topics.

Since nous was considered to be the faculty of the soul whereby humans obtained knowledge, and since God is considered to be omniscient, it would be natural to consider God to be mind or nous. Even if Avicenna did not attribute ‘aql to God or name Him as ‘āqil (one who exercises intellect), his discussions of divine knowledge make use of ideas that can be traced to Aristotle, according to which the intellect is united with its object by sharing the form of the object without its matter. This gave rise to the accusation by Ghazālī that Avicenna limited God’s knowledge to universals.

With Mulla Sadra, God does not have representational knowledge at all. Instead of a hylomorphic model of intellectual knowledge, Mulla Sadra bases his analysis of divine knowledge on the idea of the immediate presence of the existence emanating cause to its effect. God’s knowledge is described as knowledge by presence (‘ilm al-ḥuḍūrī), as opposed to knowledge acquired through concepts (‘ilm al-ḥuṣūlī). So, God’s knowledge is not by means of immaterial forms or representations of the known, but, rather, His knowledge of them is identical to their existence, since He is existence and the cause of all lesser existents. Accordingly, God’s creation and sustenance of things is the same as His knowledge of them. Divine knowledge is the presence of whatever exists to the source of its existence.

Whoever attempts to prove His knowledge of things through one of his creations (maj‘ulatihi) such as the intellect and the soul, or says that His detailed knowledge is posterior to his Essence, this is due to the imperfection of his vision and weakness of his knowledge. The person who is deep in philosophy in our opinion is the person who proves His knowledge of all things with their multiplicity and detail in His Essence which is prior to all concomitants and external beings without there being any change in His Essence.56

With Mulla Ṣadrā’s analysis of divine knowledge, there is no room left for the attribution of mind in the sense of intellect to God. God does not make use of concepts. He does not have propositional knowledge, only presentational knowledge. This means that God does not have a mind and is not a person, at least according to the notion that persons are concept users, or substances with minds. If having a mind means knowing universals, or knowing things through universal concepts, God does not have a mind because He knows without making use of universal concepts, or anything else. God knows everything that exists, because He is the existence granting cause of everything, and Sadra argues that immaterial causes may be said to know their effects.

Does God Have a Mind?

A number of arguments can be given to show that God does not have a mind, in several senses of that term. The most ancient arguments along these lines would be that since God is immovable and since the operations of mind involve motion or temporal changes, God does not have a mind. Of course, this assumes a traditional view of God as being beyond time, and a view of mind that requires it to be in time. Both of these assumptions have been challenged. In order to defend the position I am merely describing here, these challenges would have to be addressed.

Cartesian dualism has been seen as unsatisfactory to many because it does not adequately explain the relation of mind and body. This has led some philosophers to propose improved versions of dualism and others to deny the existence of mind altogether. Yet others have proposed neo-Aristotelian hylomorphic accounts of the human person. Some atheists have argued against the existence of God on the basis of the denial that there can be a mind without a body, and the presumption that that is what God must be. The view that God is not a mind may be seen in this light as a way to avoid some of the problems that arise when Cartesian dualism is combined with the view that God is mind, and having a mind is taken to include things like thinking, judging, knowing, willing, and feeling compassionate and wrathful, in a manner similar to the way in which these states occur in the human mind.

Denying that God has a mind, however, will not solve the problem of how the material and immaterial are related. Furthermore, in the tradition of Islamic philosophy, although God is not a mind or intellect, there are other non-material intellects that pose just as troublesome difficulties as the belief in a disembodied divine mind. Some have proposed scrapping the theory of the intellects, especially since the theory as developed in Fārābī and Avicenna was tied to a cosmology that appears to have been refuted by modern science.

In Cartesian language, mental is contrasted with physical. The world is divided into physical things with their parts and minds with their contents. Since God is not a physical thing, and is not the content of someone else’s thought, He would have to be mind, or a mind. There is nothing objectionable about this, as long as mind is understood as connoting nothing more than what is non-physical. If, however, mind is taken to be thinking substance, then, Shi‘ite philosophical theology would deny that God is a mind on two counts: God does not think; and God is not a substance. Even if mind is considered merely as the non-physical, however, the division offered by dualism is one with which Mulla Sadra would not be comfortable.

In Mulla Sadra’s view, existence has a continuum of gradations, from the lowest material to the very essence of God, Who is pure existence and is purely immaterial (where immateriality may be understood as independence from material things). The human soul is considered to have a corporeal origin but to emerge and survive as spiritual. This kind of view of the relation between the corporeal and immaterial raises many questions: How do entities at different levels of immateriality interact? What is the nature of immaterial survival? What is the nature of emergence? In an introduction such as this, one can do no more than mention these issues.

If we were to stipulate that whatever can be truly described as having corporeal parts is itself corporeal, then on the basis of scripture, one could say that God is corporeal, for He is described as having hands and a face, and hands and faces are corporeal parts. Likewise, if we were to define as immaterial whatever is independent of material entities, then God could be counted as immaterial. Putting these together would yield the odd result that God could be counted as corporeal but immaterial. So, the general tendency in Shi‘ite theology is to distinguish between metaphorical and non-metaphorical uses of language. Then one could more plausibly stipulate that a thing should be called corporeal only if it can be truly and non-metaphorically described as having corporeal parts. This would yield the result that God is immaterial and non-corporeal.

Sometimes mind is used in such a way that it is nearly synonymous with soul. If soul applies to whatever is living, and God is counted as living, then God could be said to have a soul, and hence a mind. However, in the Aristotelian and Islamic traditions, soul is considered as that which possesses the various powers of living creatures, such as and memory, intellect (not to mention the powers of vegetable life). God, however, does not have powers, where powers are understood to be faculties on which the possessor depends for knowledge of the past and knowledge of universals, for example. So, in this sense, too, Shi‘ite philosophical theology would deny that God is or has a soul or mind.

Sometimes mind is used for that which is conscious. To be conscious is to be aware, or have presentational knowledge. God also has presentational knowledge, and so, in this sense, could be said to have consciousness and mind. However, consciousness is sometimes considered a sort of receptivity by virtue of which experiences are obtained, such as are described as qualia. Some philosophers argue that the experience of qualia is a result of the physical compositions of the central nervous system, or supervenes on states of the central nervous system. Since God does not have a central nervous system, if such theories are correct, then consciousness should not be attributed to God.

Sometimes mind is used for self. Various accounts of the self would then have to be reviewed in order to determine whether God could be said to have a mind in the sense of having a self. For example, one might take it that a self is what has a perspective and speaks in the first person. God speaks in the first person though scripture, and so this could be taken to indicate that God is a self, and a mind. However, in human beings, the first-person perspective is always limited in a manner that would not be appropriate for God. God does not know the world from a given perspective to the exclusion of others. Here, we might draw from far a field (Hegel) and propose that just as the limited first person perspective may expand in the form of various first person plural perspectives, we might take the first-person perspective of divinity to be infinitely wide and unlimited. In this way, one could ascribe selfhood to God and interpret the scriptural use of the divine first person.

Finally, mind and personhood are often ascribed to God because our relationship to God is an “I-Thou” relationship. It is held that this relationship can only be sustained between thinking and feeling persons. Therefore, God must be a thinking and feeling person, and hence, have a mind. To this one may raise doubts about the claim that the “I-Thou” relationship must be between thinking and feeling persons. Certainly, the most intense personal relationships with God have been developed among Christian and Muslim mystics and Sufis, while the theologies that typify these groups, as in Eckhart or Ibn ‘Arabi, are highly abstract and often provoke accusations of pantheism. Thus, it does not seem that a personal loving relationship toward God need rely upon a theology that attributes mind to God or considers Him to be a person.


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  • 1. See Legenhausen (1986), 307, fn. 1-4.
  • 2. Hocking (1912), 332.
  • 3. Laks (1999), 251; Guthrie (1969), 263.
  • 4. Descartes (1984), 98.
  • 5. Descartes (1984), 127. Descartes’ use of the term “corporeal imagination” here makes him sound more Medieval than Cartesian.
  • 6. Burnyeat (2008), 12-14.
  • 7. Boethius (1918), 83, 85. “Ex quibus omnibus neque in non uiuentibus corporibus personam posse dici manifestum est (nullus enim lapidis ullam dicit esse personam), neque rursus eorum uiuentium quae sensu carent (neque enim ulla persona est arboris), nee uero eius quae intellectu ac ratione deseritur (nulla est enim persona equi uel bouis ceterorumque animalium quae muta ac sine ratione uitam solis sensibus degunt), at hominis dicimus esse personam, dicimus dei, dicimus angeli.” Boethius (1918), 82, 84.
  • 8. See Legenhausen (2007), 124-125.
  • 9. Blond (1998), 3.
  • 10. See Arnzen (1998).
  • 11. Symposium 219 a, Republic 533 d, Theaetetus 164 a, Sophista 354 a. See Bremmer (1983), 40.
  • 12. Physics, 265b17-266a5.
  • 13. Also Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27.
  • 14. Bremmer (1983), 54-61.
  • 15. Bremmer (1983), 58.
  • 16. Also (32:9); (38:72).
  • 17. Terms for soul are used for God on some occasions, but more frequently for humans: “The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence His soul (nephesh) hateth.” (KJV Psalm 11:5) However, such exceptions seem more a matter of idiom than of attribution of the concept of soul to God. Likewise, see Isaiah 42:1 and Mathew 12:18, in which nephesh and psyche occur idiomatically to express divine pleasure. In the Qur’ān, nafs is rarely used for God, except pronomianally, as in (3:28, 30), (6:12, 54), and in the exceptional statement of Jesus (‘a) when he tells God that He knows what is in his soul, but ﴾I know not what is in Thy soul.﴿ (5:116). Terms for mind are more rarely applied to God. Neither “intellect,” ‘aql, nor any of its derivatives, is used for God in the Qur’ān.
  • 18. Guthrie (1962), 131.
  • 19. Guthrie (1969), 272.
  • 20. Guthrie (1969), 276.
  • 21. Hartshorne and Reese (1953), 57. In the preface of this work it is stated that the comments on Plato were written by Reese (with whom, it is an honor to say, I studied philosophy of religion as an undergraduate at SUNY Albany).
  • 22. Plato (1921), 383-385.
  • 23. Hartshorne and Reese (1953), 54.
  • 24. Hartshorne and Reese (1953), 55-56.
  • 25. For a different sort of interpretation, see Heidegger (1997), 332-334. Heidegger (albeit very tentatively) takes the shift in Plato’s views to be due to his encounter with the young Aristotle, but subsequent scholarship has shown that despite the fact that the Sophist is a late dialogue, when it was written, Aristotle had not yet come to Athens.
  • 26. Burnyeat (2008), 17-18. The passage in Aristotle that is discussed here is De Anima, I 3, 415a 7-12.
  • 27. De Anima, III 8, 431b 20-23.
  • 28. Burnyeat hold that for sensory perception material conditions are required, but not material processes. Burnyeat (2008), 22.
  • 29. Burnyeat (2008), 23-24.
  • 30. Burnyeat (2008), 32.
  • 31. The notions of active and passive intellect are obscure in Aristotle, and there is disagreement about what the interpretation among scholars. See Davidson (1992), 3-4.
  • 32. Burnyeat (2008), 42. Here Burnyeat sides with Alexander of Aphrodisias (fl. A.D. c. 200) against Franz Brentano.
  • 33. Burnyeat (2008), 43.
  • 34. Burnyeat (2008), 43.
  • 35. See Magee (2003) for an extended review and criticism of such lines of interpretation.
  • 36. See Davidson (1992), 3; Emilsson (2007), 110.
  • 37. Emilsson (2007), 167.
  • 38. Emilsson (2007), 111. The evidence that there is a first personal stance in the nous of Plotinus controverts Gilson’s view that this would only be introduced because of philosophical reflection on the Bible; although Gilson would be within his rights to argue that the idea would never have been fully developed if neo-Platonism had merely continued on its own steam without any serious confrontation with the Old Testament. See Hartshorne and Reese (1953), 57; Gilson (1941), 50.
  • 39. See the discussion in Rosen (2005), 262. Rosen argues that when Plato says that the Good is not ousia but epikeina tēs ousias, the traditional translation of the phase, “beyond being,” is problematic, because since the Good plays a causal role in Plato’s system, it cannot simply fail to exist. Rosen suggests that “beyond ousia” means that the Good “is neither this nor that of a separate and definable kind.” This sounds like saying that it is beyond being in the primary sense in which things are said to be, according to Aristotle, that is, beyond substance.
  • 40. See Adamson (2010), §4.2.
  • 41. Emilsson (2007), 70.
  • 42. Emilsson (2007), 71, n. 1.
  • 43. Gilson (1941), 39.
  • 44. Clark (2001), 94.
  • 45. Davidson (1992), 85-86.
  • 46. Davidson (1992), 24.
  • 47. Davidson (1992), 25.
  • 48. Davidson (1992), 34.
  • 49. Davidson (1992), 61.
  • 50. (48:10); (5:64).
  • 51. (2:115); (28:88); (55:27).
  • 52. (7:54); (10:3); (13:2); (20:5); (25:59); (32:4); (57:4).
  • 53. Ṣadūq (1982), 28-29.
  • 54. McDermott (1986), 336, quoting from Mufīd’s Awā’il, 53.
  • 55. See citations at:
  • 56. Asfar, III, 1, 248–249, quoted in Kalin (2010), 178-179; also see Kalin (2010)