In a recent discussion with friends about the existence or nonexistence of God, it soon became apparent that there are very different definitions of "existence" being used, and that this seeming hair-splitting is unavoidable if one wants to make any meaningful statement about God's existence. For instance, the Eiffel Tower exists because it is made up of atoms, but no one claims God is made of atoms, so God clearly doesn't exist in the same way the Eiffel Tower does. France, on the other hand, exists as a collective understanding; that doesn't mean that France is a figment of people's imaginations, but it does mean that without people there would be no "France" in any meaningful sense. Many atheists would concede that God "exists" in this sense. But then in what sense does "information" exist? It seems to be a combination of material (which holds the information), and an intelligence (which interprets the information), but I'm not clear on this. I can't say with certainty in what sense concepts like "information", "order", or "truth" exist, or in what sense God is thought to "exist" by various theists. Can you shed any light on this, or can you point me to philosophers who have expounded on this theme?

I wish I had something helpful to say about this, but I don't know if I do. We should, however, try to get a little clearer on what is at issue.

Let's consider something a little simpler, like plays. I think A Comedy of Errors exists. That is, I think there is such a thing as A Comedy of Errors. But that play isn't a physical thing. You can't tear it up, burn it, or spill your coffee on it, though you can tear up, burn, and soak printings of it. If one wants to say that A Comedy of Errors therefore doesn't exist in the same way that its printings do, I suppose that's all right. But that's not because there is some special sense of "exists" at work here. It's because a play is a very different sort of thing from a printing of one. I take it that the same is true of God. God (if God exists) isn't a physical object, so one wouldn't expect God to be made of atoms.

What is it that even atheists will concede about God? Let's look at what you say about France. If you are thinking of France as a country, with a political system and the like, then there is a very obvious sense in which there couldn't be such a thing unless there were some people (or other intelligent beings) around. You need people to have a political system. But that's very different from saying that France exists "as a collective understanding", if that is supposed to mean that France only exists because people think about it. We need to distinguish between our concept of France, which perhaps exists because and only because we think about France, and France itself, which could exist as a political entity even if people didn't have any concept of political entities. Consider a different case: Families and other social groups can exist only if there are organisms around to constitute them. But there were social groups, perhaps composed of gazelles, before anyone had any concept of a social group.

Once we make that distinction, we can see what atheists are and aren't conceding. They aren't conceding that God exists in any sense at all, even as a "collective understanding". What they are conceding is that we have a concept of God. And what's at issue is whether there is anything in reality that answers to that concept.

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