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Monday, March 14, 2011

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Dr. Vallicella,

If you're not already aware, you may find John Leslie's book Value and Existence interesting. I see you reference Universes, but Value and Existence is basically a book-length defense of the title of this post.

Thanks for the reference, Mr McIntosh. Does Leslie say something different from what he says in Universes?

'Both arguments appear circular or question-begging. Since a maximally perfect being is possible if and only if it is actual, to know that the possibility premise of the modal ontological argument is true one must already know that the conclusion is true. But then the argument begs the question.'

I think this is confused. Grant that A iff B and you deny that B.
You appear to be saying that any grounds put forward for accepting A must beg the question against you since you cannot consistently accept A without denying B.

But surely the relevant question is: do these grounds exert their force independently of a belief in A or B? Not whether you can consistently accept what they suggest about A without denying B, of course you can't.

And it seems clear that the deontic grounds you appeal to do carry their force independently of the claim that God exists - their force is intuitive. An atheist can consistently believe that

1) Intuitively, a perfect being ought to exist.

You don't need to know that God exists before you can know this, as you appear to suggest.

Bill,

An excellently rich and intriguing post, as usual. While there are many fascinating themes I would have liked to examine, I will focus here on your concluding remarks. Your final assessment of the Argument seems to be that while it cannot be taken as a proof, in the strict sense of the term, it nonetheless has merit. The question arises: What are the Argument’s philosophical limitations and what are its merits?

The principal merit of the Argument is that by means of rational discourse it can take us as far as countenancing the conceptual coherence of the notion of “creative axiological requirements.” The limitation of the argument seems to be that it cannot take us any further. That is, the Argument cannot establish the conclusion that whatever is axiologically required to exist in fact does exist. The upshot is that while the Argument succeeds to navigate us by means of rational discourse to the threshold of an important conceptual knowledge, it cannot gratify our yearning to discover whether a maximally perfect being actually exist. You say: “Thoughts that enter this dimension taper off into mysticism and leave the discursive precincts of philosophy behind.” In other words, ultimately our yearning to know whether a maximally perfect being actually exists can only be fulfilled by mysticism.

If I am correct in my understanding of your post, then the following concern arises.

The principal purpose of arguments for the existence of a maximally perfect being has always been to reinforce faith in the existence of such a being with a rational argument. The inevitable question arises: What considerations compel the need to supplement faith with reason? The common answer to this question is that while faith is a type of propositional attitude that is self-legitimizing, in the sense that it requires no evidence for its legitimacy, it would nevertheless be helpful to have an independent argument for the existence of a maximally perfect being.

But this won’t do, at least not as a rationale for the need to buttress faith with reason. For if faith is indeed a belief that requires no evidence for its legitimacy, then being in a state of mind that faith provides and recognizing the self-legitimizing character of this kind of state of mind ought to dispel the need to seek any further support. It is therefore unclear what explains the need for an argument over and above the presence of faith that a maximally perfect being exists and in what respect could such an argument be helpful.

I suspect that ultimately the appeal to reason has been driven by an altogether different thought or suspicion: namely, that faith alone cannot underwrite propositional knowledge. By ‘underwrite’ here I mean something more fundamental than merely that faith alone does not require nor is it sufficient to provide adequate *evidence* for the belief that a maximally perfect being exists. I rather mean that faith alone is not a propositional attitude (e.g., a belief) at all. And if faith is not a propositional attitude, then it cannot be propositional knowledge either.

If faith is not to be counted as a propositional attitude at all, then what sort of attitude is it? So far as I can see, the only alternative to faith being a propositional (or cognitive) attitude is that it is a species of a non-cognitive attitude that is based upon a blend of certain kind of sentiments. Thus, having faith in the existence of a maximally perfect being is a non-cognitive attitude, an emotively based state of mind, a state of mind that by its very nature neither requires nor admits evidence. Once we see faith in this light, it becomes clear in what sense an argument for the existence of a maximally perfect being might reinforce faith. Such an argument is not intended to provide support for the attitude of faith. Rather it is designed to justify a parallel cognitive-attitude of belief that a maximally perfect being exists and thereby supplement, rather than justify, the already existing faith in such a being.

The trouble is that if the axiological Argument falls short of justifying a cognitive belief in the existence of a maximally perfect being, as distinguished from the coherence of this notion, then it cannot serve to justify a parallel cognitive-attitude of belief that a maximally perfect being exists. And your concession that the Argument can only takes us to the doorsteps of mysticism seems to suggest that any further rational inquiry is impossible. And this means that at the very crucial step where faith needs the assistance of reason, the axiological Argument leaves us at the very same place that faith already occupies. It therefore fails to supplement faith in the manner it is needed the most. But this means that it is of no use whatsoever as a supplement of faith.

I recognize that the above conclusion relies upon the assumption that mysticism cannot yield a belief in the existence of a maximally perfect being. I suggest that this assumption is indeed correct. Thus, I maintain that whatever attitude mysticism yields, it cannot be a propositional-attitude. Rather mysticism can only enhance the non-cognitive attitude of faith spoken of above. These considerations of course lead us to the question of whether mysticism can underwrite propositional attitudes in general. I suggest that we need to discuss this matter in a separate post. Meanwhile, the present conclusion is that the axiological Argument, even if it is cogent, offers no assistance to that which faith already provides.

So I think your argument does raise the plausibility of the possibility premise, but not by much. I think the atheist will always be sceptical that the 'ought to exist' and 'ought not exist' predicates are really just roundabout ways of talking about intrinsic value or the sort of obligations that would be binding on agents were such agents around.

Also, W.L. Craig has dealt with the circularity/question begging criticism here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=8139

He says it confuses logical equivalence with synonymity.

Matt,

Bill says: "Since a maximally perfect being ought to exist if and only if it is possible, and since it is possible if and only if it is actual, it follows that a maximally perfect being ought to exist if and only if it is actual. But this is just to say that the argument begs the question."

I am not sure why you think that this is confused. The bi-conditionals, if true, merely insure matching truth values for both sides of the bi-conditional. Bill's point is that even if the bi-conditional is true, we cannot tell whether either side is true without knowing that the other side is true because they both could be false.

Moreover, no one should accept your (1) unless one is certain that a maximally perfect being is possible. But how do we know that?

Matt writes, "1) Intuitively, a perfect being ought to exist." I make the same objection as Peter: how do you know that it is possible that a perfect being exist?

Peter,

Thanks for that thoughtful response. You raise a number of fascinating questions. One is whether faith needs rational support or "buttressing" as you put it. (Figuratively speaking, does Jerusalem need the help of Athens?) I would say the following quickly and dogmatically.

1. Faith needs reason (philosophy) for the articulation of its own content.
2. Faith needs reason to show that what the believer believes is not logically incoherent and is thus possibly true.
3. Reason has veto power over faith. E.g., if the Trinity is logically impossible, then it cannot be true and one ought not believe it on pain of violating the ethics of belief.
4. Faith supplements reason by providing us with (possible) contact with reality that cannot be had either empirically or by argument.
5. Faith is inferior to knowledge, but on certain topics knowledge cannot be had and so faith is needed. Better reality-contact via faith than no reality-contact at all! (This is a highly controversial claim)
6. The existence of God cannot be strictly proven or disproven.
7. But it doesn't follow that the theistic arguments are useless. They help in the articulation of what the believer believes if nothing else. They also show that theistic belief is rationally acceptable, or at least the good ones do. For example, the argument presented above is very deep and powerful. It puts the atheist in the position of having to make the drastic claim that the existence of God is impossible.
8. It is folly to oppose the God of the philosophers to the God of Isaac, Abraham, and Jacob as Pascal and Buber do.
9. There is a difference between believing-in and believing-that. To believe in my wife is to trust her, etc. It cannot be reduced to believing that she exists and has various properties. Nevertheless, I couldn't believe in her if I didn't believe that she exists and has properties. Same with God. This is why the God arguments are not irrelevant to believing IN God.
10. To hell with fideism!
11. The knowledge that completes and fulfills faith is mystical knowledge.

On this quasi-Tractarian note, I bid you all a good night.

Peter,

'Bill's point is that even if the bi-conditional is true, we cannot tell whether either side is true without knowing that the other side is true because they both could be false.'

I read Bill's point as being that because the biconditional is true any attempt to present one side as a reason for accepting the other side will beg the question. I called it confused because it suggests a confused coneption of what it means to beg the question. What matters is whether the one side can have support which doesn't depend on truth of the other side, the biconditional is neither here nor there.

Then you both ask what grounds one can have for holding that God is possible that is independent of his existence. But the answer to that is simple: conceivability. If Bill's argument is correct then we can also add intuitive deontic considerations.

'no one should accept your (1) unless one is certain that a maximally perfect being is possible.'

I've no idea why you think this is true. In general, one can consistenty believe both

(2) Intuitively, P
and
(3) ~P.

It happens all the time.

It might help to place yourself in agnostic shoes: if you have no fixed opinion on whether God is possible or impossible, then it is not too hard to see how you might be swayed to think God is possible when presented with the evidence of conceivability.

Matt,

"Then you both ask what grounds one can have for holding that God is possible that is independent of his existence. But the answer to that is simple: conceivability."

Nope! Conceivability is not a sufficient condition (nor is it a necessary condition) for possibility. See several past posts Bill posted regarding this matter. I don't remember the exact dates, but they may appear in the Categories section on the right side or request Bill to direct you to the appropriate posts.

"In general, one can consistenty believe both

(2) Intuitively, P
and
(3) ~P."

If so, then 'Intuitively that-P' is certainly insufficient for the truth of P, for it is not even sufficient for the belief that-P. Hence, your original (1) offers no help.

Peter,

I agree that neither 'conceivably, P' nor 'intuitively, P' entails 'possibly, P', but it does not follow from this neither offers any reason for believing that 'possibly, P'. I think most people think they do.

But my objective here isn't to defend the Modal Onto. Arg. Merely to point out that the reason Bill gave for its failure is not a good one.

Matt,

Sure, one might be swayed to think that God is possible because conceivable. But as I said my paper conceivability is no sure guide to possibility. Some of what we find conceivable is impossible.

The issue is whether the modal OA PROVES its conclusion. I say it doesn't for the simple reason that we have no way of supporting the possibility premise in a non-question-begging way.

Adding the deontic considerations doesn't help. We both agree that
1.The concept of a perfect being is the concept of a being that ought to exist.

and

2. Whatever ought to exist is metaphysically possible.

But the conjunction of (1) and (2) is consistent with the nonexistence (and thus impossibility) of a perfect being.

Matt,

Nothing you have said gives me any reason to change my view. But I'm glad you agree that conceivability does not entail possibility.

The task for you is to explain how 'Conceivably, a perfect being exists' gives one a good reason to believe 'Possibly a perfect being exists' given that the being in question is noncontingent and the second proposition is necessarily true.

Can any fact such as the fact that we have the ability to conceive of a perfect being raise the probability of a noncontingent proposition?

Bill,

While I may grant that it is not outright incoherent to postulate that locutions such as 'x ought/ought-not exist' in non-agential contexts, I wonder under what conditions would such locutions be true? Surely the mere existence of x does not constitute a sufficient condition for 'x ought to exist'; likewise, the mere non-existence of x is not a sufficient condition for 'x ought-not exist'. So unless we are clear about the truth-conditions of such locutions, it is difficult to determine the conditions under which your bi-conditionals are true.

Thus, in the absence of at least some idea as to the truth-conditions of non-agential locutions of the 'ought/ought-not exist' type, it may not be possible to determine the status of the above argument.

>>Surely the mere existence of x does not constitute a sufficient condition for 'x ought to exist'; likewise, the mere non-existence of x is not a sufficient condition for 'x ought-not exist'.<<

Aquinas would disagree with your first clause. To be, as such, is good. Ens et bonum convertuntur. Schopenhauer would take the opposite tack. To be, as such, is evil. Ens et malum convertuntur.

Bill,

So Aquinas' view is that:

(1) if x exists, then x ought to exist;

But this leads to absurd consequences. We know that killer earthquakes exist. Does Aquinas suggest that, therefore, they ought to exist? Or consider these examples: houses built unsafe due to negligence, corruption, or whatever exist; so do drunk drivers. Does it follow that house built unsafe or drunk drivers ought to exist?

Rather than go off on a Thomistic tangent, recall the example I gave of a world with sentient beings in it, but no moral agents or free beings, the sentient beings being in a constant state of pain that they cannot free themselves from, a pain that serves no good purpose. Would you agtee that that world ought not exist? If yes, then that would be an example of a non-agential ought-not.

My main point, however, was not to defend the notion of non-agential oughts and ought-nots, but to show that even ifthey are allowed they cannot be used to make of the modal OA a genuine proof.

Both arguments given above are valid, and they may even be sound; but they are not proofs because we cannot claim to know that the premises are true.

Bill,

While a posteriori necessity can interfere with inferences from conceivability, I think the reason most people don't become modal sceptics as a result is because they think that thoese cases are a minority - it is still true that most of what we conceive is possible. So if we say that

1) In 80% of cases, if 'conceivably, P' then 'possibly, P'.
2) Conceivably, God.
Ergo,
3) Pr(possibly, God) = 80%
4) If 'possibly, God' then 'necessarily, God'.
Ergo,
5) Pr(necessarily, God) = 80%,

we seem to get by.

That said, I'm not at all up on the literature on conceivability, so I might be way off.

Bill,

The point was not to dispute the main thrust of your argument. I only wanted to raise the question about the truth-conditions of "ought/ought-not exist" propositions. i.e., under what conditions propositions of the form "x ought to exist" true/false?

Note that we at least have some sense about the corresponding "ought/ought-not do": e.g., x ought to do e just in case in a morally perfect world x does e.

One might adopt these tc for ought to exist: i.e., x ought to exist just in case in a morally perfect world x exists.

My problem is whether this will work for necessary beings? e.g., God ought to exist just in case....what? "In every morally perfect world God exists"? But God's necessary existence extends beyond morally perfect worlds. So this won't do and I do not know what alternative would do in such cases.

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