Are all infinite regresses (regressions?) vicious? Why the pejorative label? Of the many things I don't understand, this must be near the top of my list, and it's an ignorance that dates back to my undergrad Intro to Philosophy days. When I first read the Thomistic cosmological proofs, I found myself wondering why Aquinas had such trouble countenancing the possibility that, as the lady says, "it's turtles all the way down."
Without a first, there can't be a second... so what? It doesn't follow that there must be a first element to a series. What makes a temporally infinite series (of moments, causes/effects, etc.) impossible?
No, not all infinite regresses are vicious. Some are, if not 'virtuous,' at least innocuous or benign. The term 'benign' is standardly used. The truth regress is an example of a benign infinite regress. Let p be any true proposition. And let 'T' stand for the operator 'It is true that ( ).' Clearly, p entails T(p). For example, *Snow is white* entails *It is true that snow is white.* The operation is iterable. So T(p) entails T(T(p)). And so on, ad infinitum or ad indefinitum if you prefer. The resulting infinite series is unproblematic. Whether you call this a progression or a regression, it doesn't cause any conceptual trouble. Nor does it matter whether you think that infinity is potential only, or hold to actual infinities. Either way, the truth regress is a nice clear example of an infinite regress that is benign.
So some infinite regresses are benign.
Setting aside the lady and her turtles, suppose, contrary to current cosmology, that the universe has an infinite past, and that each phase of the universe is caused by an earlier phase. Suppose further thatthere is nothing problematic in the notion of an actual (as opposed to potential) infinity, and that there is a good answer to the question of how, given the actual infinity of the past, we ever arrived at thepresent moment. Granting all that, the infinite regress of causes is benign.
But note that one cannot explain why the universe exists by saying that it always existed. For even if there is no time at which it did not exist, there remains the question why it exists at all. The universe is contingent: it might not have existed. So even if it exists at every time with earlier phases causing later phases, that does not explain why it exists at all.
To say that the universe always existed is to say that it has no temporal beginning, no temporally first cause. But this gives no answer to the question why this temporally beginningless universe exists in the first place.
Here is where the theist invokes God. God is the ontologically, not temporally, first cause. Now if Mill asks, "But what causes God?" the answer is that God is a necessary being. If God were a contingent being, then a vicious infinite regress would arise. For one cannot get an ultimate explanation of U if one invokes a contingent G. And if there were an infinite regress of Gs, the whole series would be without ultimate explanation. Thts is true whether the regress is potentially infinite or actually infinite.
If we compare the truth regress with the regress just mentioned, we can perhaps see what makes the latter vicious. The viciousness consists in the failure to satisfy the need for an explanation. P if and only it is true that p. No one will take either side of this biconditional as explaining the other. But explanation comes in when you ask why the universe U exists. If you say that U exists because G caused it to exist, then you can reasonably ask: what caused G? The classical answer is that G is causa sui, i.e., a necessary being. The buck stops here. If, on the other hand, you say that G is contingent, then it cannot be causa sui, in which case the regress is up and running. Because the explanatory demand cannot be satisfied by embarking upon the regress, the regress is said to be vicious.
To answer the reader's question, there is perhaps nothing vicious about a temporally infinite regress of empirical causes. But that gives us no explanation of why a temporally infinite universe exists in the first place.
Schopenhauer, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (1813), sec. 20:
. . . causa prima ist, eben so gut wie causa sui, eine contradictio in adjecto, obschon der erstere Ausdruck viel häufiger gebraucht wird, als der letztere, und auch mit ganz ernsthafter, sogar feierlicher Miene ausgesprochen zu werden pflegt, ja Manche, insonderheit Englische Reverends, recht erbaulich die Augen verdrehn, wenn sie, mit Emphase und Rührung, the first cause, — diese contradictio in adjecto, — aussprechen. Sie wissen es: eine erste Ursache ist gerade und genau so undenkbar, wie die Stelle, wo der Raum ein Ende hat, oder der Augenblick, da die Zeit einen Anfang nahm. Denn jede Ursache ist eine Veränderung, bei der man nach der ihr vorhergegangenen Veränderung, durch die sie herbeigeführt worden, notwendig fragen muß, und so in infinitum, in infinitum!
I quote this passage in German because I do not have the English at hand, but also because the pessimist's German is very beautiful and very clear, and closer to English than any other philosophical German I have ever read.
Schopenhauer's claim is that a first cause (causa prima) is unthinkable (undenkbar) because every cause is an alteration (Veränderung) which follows upon a preceding alteration. For if every cause is an alteration that follows upon a preceding alteration, then the series of causes is infinite in the past direction, and there is no temporally first cause.
And so 'first cause' is a contradictio in adiecto: the adjective 'first' contradicts the noun 'cause.' Charitably interpreted, however, Schopenhauer is not making a semantic point about word meanings. What he really wants to say is that the essence of causation is such as to disallow both a temporally first cause and a logically/metaphysically first cause. There cannot be a temporally first cause because every cause is an alteration that follows upon a preceding alteration. And there cannot be a logically/metaphysically first cause for the same reason: if every cause and effect is an alteration in a substance then no substance can be a cause or an effect. Causation is always and everywhere the causation of alterations in existing things by alterations in other existing things; it is never the causation of the existing of things. For Schopenhauer, as I read him, the ultimate substrates of alterational change lie one and all outside the causal nexus. If so, there cannot be a causal explanation of the sheer existence of the world.
Here I impute to Schopenhauer the following argument:
1. The relata of the causal relation are changes. 2. Every change is an alteration. 3. Every alteration presupposes a substrate of alteration that does not change in respect of its existence and identity. 4. Some, but not all, substrates of alteration are non-ultimate, where a non-ultimate substrate is one whose coming into existence or passing out of existence is reducible to the alteration of an already existing substrate or substrates; hence there must be ultimate substrates of alteration. 5. If there are ultimate substrates of alteration, then they do not come into existence or pass away. 6. Because changes occur, there are ultimate substrates of alteration. 7. There are ultimate substrates of change that do not come into existence or pass away, and are thus sempiternal. (5, 6) 8. The existence of these sempiternal substrata are at the basis of all causation. Therefore 9. The existence of the ultimate substrata of change cannot have a cause, divine or otherwise. Therefore 10. Cosmological arguments, presupposing as they do that causation of existence makes sense, are one and all unsound.
What can we say in critique of this argument? (2) may be questioned. If every change is an alteration, then nothing can come into existence except by the alteration of some thing or things already in existence. That implies that there cannot be creation ex nihilo. But then Schopenhauer's argument may be said to beg the question against the theist at line (2) -- unless there is some independent way of supporting (2).
But is creation ex nihilo a change? In what? It cannot be a change in some stuff out of which God creates. For then the creation would not be ex nihilo. God is not a demiurge. Nor can it be a real change in God if God is unchanging. One might just say that the creation out of nothing of contingent beings is a change in the way things are. But this is tricky because this change would appear to have to be an atemporal change. There could be time without change, but how could there be change without time?
Consider the possible worlds in which no contingent beings exist and compare them with C, a world in which contingent beings exist. Suppose God causes C to be actual. Suppose further that C -- like all worlds -- is a maximal Fregean proposition or a maximal Chisholmian state of affairs. Now we have a substrate of exnihilation, namely, the the maximal proposition or state of affairs C. It is not that C is created, but that C is made actual. But it is not as if C 'goes' from being unactual to being actual. 'Going' is a transition, and transition takes time, and indeed time as involving temporal becoming. Given that time is contingent, there is no time at which there are no contingent beings and a later time at which there are. Divine creation is presumably not in time, but of time and of everything else that is contingent.
Well, perhaps we could introduce a notion of modal change which would be analogous to temporal change as the latter is construed by B-theorists:
Reality changes just in case it has different properties in different possible worlds.
Reality changes from not containing contingent beings to containing them iff there are possible worlds in which there are, and possible worlds in which there are not, contingent beings.
If every change requires a cause, then presumably the change just mentioned requires a divine cause.
To review the dialectic: if creatures are effects of a cause, and effects are changes, and every change requires a substrate, then what is the subject or substrate of exhihilation? What is creatio ex nihilo a change in? My very tentative suggestion is that it is a change in reality in accordance with the definitions just given.
Since the cause of this change cannot itself be a change, (1) must be rejected as well.
I have in my hands the Winter 2014 issue of American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. It contains (pp. 149-161) my review essay on McCann's 2012 Creation and the Sovereignty of God. Many thanks to Peter Lupu and Hugh McCann for comments and discussion, and to the editors for allowing me to expand my review into a review article.
I see that the same issue contains a reply by Peter Dillard to Ed Feser anent James F. Ross' case for the immateriality of abstract thinking. I'll have to study that for sure.
Another in the NYT Opiniator series. This one is particularly bad and illustrates what is wrong with later Continental philosophy. Earlier Continental philosophy is good: Brentano, Meinong, Husserl, early Heidegger, early Sartre, and a whole host of lesser lights including Stumpf, Twardowski, Ingarden, Scheler, von Hildebrand, Edith Stein, et al. The later movement, however, peters out into bullshit with people like Derrida who, in the pungent words of John Searle, "gives 'bullshit' a bad name."
This is the third in a series of interviews about religion that I am conducting for The Stone. The interviewee for this installment is John D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University and the author of “The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion.”
Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?
John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.
One could be forgiven for stopping right here, though I read the whole thing. First of all, it is simply false to maintain that one is a theist or an atheist or an agnostic "by virtue of an accident of birth." Some are brought up theists and become atheists or agnostics. Some are brought atheists and become theists or agnostics. And so one. It is also wrong for Caputo to imply that those brought up theist or atheist can have no reasons for their theism or atheism. Then there is the silly opposing of beliefs and desires, head and heart. And the talk of a form of life as if it does not involve beliefs. Then the empty rhetoric of desire beyond desire. Finally, the gushing ends with the contradictory "contain without being able to contain."
The interview doesn't get any better after this. But there is an insight that one can pick out of the crap pile of mush and gush: there is more to religion than doctrinal formulations: the reality to which they point cannot be captured in theological propositions.
Retractio 3/11. Joshua H. writes,
As one of your loyal "continental"-trained readers, I must say I agree that Caputo's performance in the NYT elicits a rather terrible odor of self-congratulatory BS. But surely "later" continental philosophy as a whole doesn't suffer from this unfortunate illness?! Gadamer, Frankfurt School, Ricoeur, among others? Surely Gadamer-Habermas and Habermas-Ratzinger are some of the most interesting debates the discipline has produced in the last 50+ years?
As someone who, back in the day, spent his philosophical time mainly on Gadamer and Habermas and Adorno and Horkheimer and Levinas and Ricoeur, et al., I must agree that Joshua issues a well-taken corrective to what I hastily wrote above at the end of a long day of scribbling. The later movement cannot be dismissed the way I did above. I would, however, maintain that the quality declined as the movement wore on and wears on.
I will also hazard the observation, sure to anger many, that just as one becomes more conservative and less liberal with age, and rightly so, one becomes more analytic and less Continental, and rightly so. It is the same with enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and Nietzsche. Adolescents are thrilled, but as maturity sets in the thrill subsides, or ought to.
I recall a remark by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his Philosophische Lehrjahre to the effect that the harvest years of a scholar come late. That was certainly true in the case of the Australian philosopher Barry Miller (1923-2006). His philosophical career culminated in a burst of productivity. In roughly the last decade of his long life he published a trilogy in philosophical theology: From Existence to God (1992), A Most Unlikely God (1996), and The Fullness of Being (2002). I reviewed the first two in the journals and made substantial comments on a manuscript version of the third. Miller kindly acknowledged my help at the end of the preface of the 2002 book. So I was pleased to be of some small service on Miller's behalf by refereeing Kremer's manuscript for Oxford UP and supplying the blurb below when it was accepted by Bloomsbury.
“Barry Miller’s philosophical theology clearly shows how a philosopher can think rigorously about God without caving into fashionable and facile refutations of theism. In this study of his writings, Elmar Kremer provides an exemplary account of his sophisticated arguments while discussing their value and cogently defending them against a number of objections. Kremer’s welcome book is both a fine introduction to Miller and a significant contribution to philosophy of religion.” – Brian Davies, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University, USA,
“Barry Miller was a brilliant philosophical theologian with an original argument for, and development of, the Thomist idea of God as the entity whose essence is existence. Unfortunately Miller's ideas have not been given the attention they deserve. In part this is because he made few concessions to the reader. In this book Elmar J. Kremer provides the 'clear, well-developed exposition' that Miller's ideas deserve. I recommended it highly to all interested in metaphysics, philosophy of religion, or theology.” – Peter Forrest, Retired Professor of Philosophy, University of New England, Australia,
“Barry Miller's penetrating work in philosophical theology has not received the attention it deserves. It is therefore with pleasure that I recommend the first book-length treatment of Miller's work, Elmar J. Kremer's Analysis of Existing: Barry Miller's Approach to God.” – William F. Vallicella, Retired Professor of Philosophy, USA,
“Kremer's book consists of philosophically acute, painstaking scholarship. It is a very fine introduction to Miller’s highly original work on the metaphysics of theism.” – Bruce Langtry, Senior Fellow in Philosophy, The University of Melbourne, Australia,
Gary Gutting recently interviewed Alvin Plantinga in the pages of The New York Times and brought up the business about Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. The following response of Gutting to Plantinga comes early on in the interview:
G.G.: You say atheism requires evidence to support it. Many atheists deny this, saying that all they need to do is point out the lack of any good evidence for theism. You compare atheism to the denial that there are an even number of stars, which obviously would need evidence. But atheists say (using an example from Bertrand Russell) that you should rather compare atheism to the denial that there’s a teapot in orbit around the sun. Why prefer your comparison to Russell’s?
Russell's comparison has long struck me as lame, and so I want to revisit and rethink this topic. What follows is an old post from August 2010 amended and substantially expanded:
Gutting, Dawkins, and Russell's Celestial Teapot
In his recent NYT Opinionator piece, On Dawkins's Atheism, Notre Dame's Gary Gutting writes, describing the "no arguments argument" of some atheists:
To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?
He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.
But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.
The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable to atheism.
I have a serious problem with Gutting's response to the Russell-Dawkins tag team. Gutting concedes far too much in his reply, namely, that it even makes sense to compare the claim that there is an orbiting teapot with the claim that God exists. Instead of attacking this comparison as wrongheaded from the outset, Gutting in effect concedes its aptness when he points out that, just as there could be (inconclusive) scientific evidence of a celestial teaspot, there could be (inconclusive) experiential and argumentative evidence for the existence of God. So let me try to explain why I think that the two existence claims ('God exists' and 'A celestial teapot exists') are radically different.
If someone asserts that there there is a celestial teapot orbiting the Sun, or an angry unicorn on the far side of the Moon, or that 9/11 was an 'inside job,' one will justifiably demand evidence. "It's possible, but what's your evidence for so outlandish a claim?" It is the same with God, say many atheists. The antecedent probability of God's existence, they think, is on a par with the extremely low antecedent probability of there being a celestial teapot or an irate lunar unicorn, a 'lunicorn,' if you will.
But this is to assume something that a sophisticated theist such as Thomas Aquinas would never grant, namely, that God, if he exists, is just another being among the totality of beings. For Aquinas, God is not an ens (a being) but esse ipsum subsistens (self-subsistent Being). God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. Admittedly, this is not an easy notion; but if the atheist is not willing to grapple with it, then his animadversions are just so many grapplings with a straw man.
Why can't God be just another being among beings in the way an orbiting teapot would be just another being among beings were it to exist? I hope it is clear that my point is not that while a teapot is a material object, God is not. That's true, of course, but my point cuts much deeper: if God exists, he exists in a way dfferent from the way contingent beings exist.
First of all, if God exists, then God is the metaphysical ground of the existence of every contingent being. Every such being on classical theism is continuously maintained in existence by the exercise of divine power. Thus every contingent being is radically dependent for its existence on divine activity. The same cannot be said about an orbiting teapot. If 'ontic' means pertaining to beings, and 'ontological' means pertaining to the Being of beings (the esse of entia), then 'God exists' is both ontic and ontolological. It says that there is a being possessing such-and-such divine attributes, but it also says something about the Being of what is other than God, namely, that its Being is createdness, a form of continuous ontological dependency. 'An orbiting teapot exists,' however is merely an ontic claim. It says or implies nothing about the Being of anything distinct from it. Now this difference between an ontic-ontological claim and a merely ontic one strikes me as very important. It is a difference that throws a spanner into the works of such facile comparisons as Russell's.
Second, on some accounts necessarily existent abstracta are also dependent on God. If (Fregean) propositions are divine thoughts then they are dependent on God despite their metaphysical necessity. The exist necessarily, but they have their necessity not from themselves but from another. Not so for the teapots and the unicorns.
Third, God is not only the ultimate ground of all beings, both contingent and necessary (except himself); he is also the ultimate ground of the intelligibility of all beings, of their aptness to be understood by us or anyone, their aptness to be subjects of true predications. Propositional or sentential truth is made possible by ontic truth, the intelligibility of that which is veridically represented by true propositions. But I don't think one would want to say that an angry unicon on the far side of the moon is the ultimate ground of intelligibility.
Fourth, God is the ultimate source of all value.
Fifth, God is the all-pervasive One, immanent in each thing yet transcendent of all things. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility and its value snd its unity in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic purely spiritual being, a being who does not have existence like a teapot but is its existence
So, on a sophisticated conception, God cannot be just one more being among beings. The Source of being is not just another thing sourced. The ground of intelligibility is not just another intelligible item. The Thinker behind every thought is not just another thought. The locus and source of all value is not just another valuable thing. The One is not just another member of the Many.
These differences between God classically conceived and outlandish specimens of space junk is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments to God from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides. But as far as I know there are no similar arguments to teapots or unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters.
The very existence of these arguments shows two things.
First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something merely in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Affirming and denyng the existence of God is not simply a matter of adding to or subtracting from a pre-given ontological inventory. For God does not make a merely ontic difference, but an ontological one as well. The existence of God changes the ontology. For if God exists, then the Being of non-divine entities is createdness, hence different from what it would be were there no God. Socrates is a being whose existence/nonexistence makes no difference to the system of ontological categories, and no difference to the nature of existence, property-possession, etc. God, however, is a being whose existence/nonexistence does make such a difference.
Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.
People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the classical theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.
God is a not a being among beings, but the very Being of beings. To deny God, then, is not like denying an orbiting teapot; it is more like denying Being itself, and with it, beings. Or it is more like denying truth itself as opposed to denying that a particular proposition is true.
One who appreciates this ought to find discussions about the antecedent probability of theism as compared to teapotism faintly absurd. The question of the antecedent probability of something like Russell's teapot makes sense and has an easy answer: very low! The question of the antecedent probability of there being truths has no clear sense. The probability of a proposition is the probability of its being true. Hence, that there is truth, or that there are truths, is a presupposition of any meaningful talk of probability. It is therefore senseless to ask about the antecedent probability of there being truths, and the following answer is clearly absurd: the antecedent probabilty of there being any true propositions is extremely low.
Now my point is that the God question is like the truth question, not like the teapot question.
Unfortunately, the line I have sketched here will be rejected both by all atheists, but also by many theists, those theists who think of God as a being among beings, uniquely qualified no doubt, but no different in his Being or in the way he has properties than any other being qua being. Or, in the quasi-Heideggerian jargon employed above, these theists will say that 'God exists' is an ontic, not an ontic-ontological claim, and as such no different than 'Socrates exists' or 'Russell's celestial teapot exists.'
And the widely-bruited 'death of God?' It is an 'event' of rather more significance than the discovery that there is no celestial teapot (or Santa Claus, or . . . ) after all. As Nietzsche observed, the death of God is the death of truth.
The Humean reasoning in defense of (3) rests on the assumption that conceivability entails possibility. To turn aside this reasoning one must reject this assumption. One could then maintain that the conceivability by us of the nonexistence of God is consistent with the necessity of God's existence.
I’m not convinced this is right. Conceivability has a close analogue with perception. If it seems to S that p, then S is prima facie justified in believing that (actually) p. So consider cases of perceptual seemings. Care must be taken to distinguish two forms of negative seemings:
1. It does not seem that p. 2. It seems that ~p.
Clearly, (1) is not properly a seeming at all; it is denying an episode of seeming altogether. If I assert (1), me and a rock are on epistemic par with respect to it seeming to us that p. (2) also faces an obvious problem: how could ~p, a lack or the absence or negation of something, appear to me at all? Photons do not bounce off of lacks. There are ways around this, but for now I just want to register the distinction between (1) and (2) and the prima facie difficulties with them that do not attend to positive seemings.
BV: Excellent so far, but I have one quibble. Suppose I walk into a coffee house expecting to encounter Pierre. But Pierre is not there; he is 'conspicuous by his absence' as we say. There is a sense in which I perceive his absence, literally and visually, despite the fact that absences are not known to deflect photons. I see the coffee house and the people in it and I see that not one of them is identical to Pierre. So it is at least arguable that I literally see, not Pierre, but Pierre's absence.
Be this as it may. You are quite right to highlight the operator shift as between (1) and (2).
So now consider conceivability. The analogue: If it is conceivable to S that p, then S is prima facie justified in believing that possibly p. Now for our two negative conceivablility claims:
1’. It is not conceivable that p. 2’. It is conceivable that ~p.
Again, (1’) is trivial; it is (2’) we’re interested in. Does (2’) provide prima facie evidence for possibly ~p? It depends. What we do when we try to conceive of something is imagine "in our mind’s eye" a scenario—i.e., a possible world—in which p is the case. So really (2’) translates:
2’’. I can conceive of a possible world in which ~p.
BV: Permit me a second quibble. Although 'conceive' and 'imagine' are often used, even by philosophers, interchangeably, I suggest we not conflate them. I can conceive a chliagon, but I cannot imagine one, i.e., I cannot form a mental image of a thousand-sided figure. We can conceive the unimaginable. But I think we also can imagine the inconceivable. If you have a really good imagination, you can form the mental image of an Escher drawing even though what you are imagining is inconceivable, i.e., not thinkable without contradiction.
More importantly, we should avoid bringing possible worlds into the discussion. For one thing, how do you know that possibilities come in world-sized packages? Possible worlds are maximal objects. How do you know there are any? It also seems question-begging to read (2') as (2'') inasmuch as the latter smuggles in the notion of possibility.
Given that the whole question is whether conceivability either entails or supplies nondemonstrative evidence for possibility, one cannot help oneself to the notion of possibility in explication of (2'). For example, I am now seated, but it is conceivable that I am not now seated: I can think this state of affairs witout contradiction. The question, however, is how I move from conceivability to possibility. How do I know that it is possible that I not be seated now?
It is obvious, I hope, that one cannot just stipulate that 'possible' means 'conceivable.'
(2'') seems innocent enough, but whether it gives us prima facie evidence for possibly ~p will depend on what p is; in particular, whether p is contingent or necessary. Consider:
3. There is a possible world in which there are no chipmunks. 4. There is a possible world in which there are no numbers.
(3) seems totally innocent. I can conceive of worlds in which chipmunks exist and others in which they don’t.
BV: It seems you are just begging the question. You are assuming that it is possible that there be no chipmunks. The question is how you know that. By conceiving that there are no chipmunks?
(4), on the other hand, is suspect. This is because numbers, unlike chipmunks, if they exist at all exist necessarily; that is, if numbers do not exist in one world they do not exist in any. Thus, what (4) really says is
(4*) There is no possible world in which there are numbers.
BV: (4) and (4*) don't say the same thing; I grant you, however, that the first entails the second.
With its conceivability counterpart being
(4’) I cannot conceive of a possible world in which there are numbers.
which looks a lot like the above illicit negative seemings: negations or absences of an object of conceivability. But my not conceiving of something doesn't entail anything! But suppose we waive that problem, and instead interpret (4’) as a positive conceiving:
(4’’) It is conceivable to me that numbers are impossible
The problem now is that (4’’) is no longer a modest claim that warrants prima facie justification. In fact, (4*) has a degree of boldness that invites further inquiry: presumably there is some obvious reason—a contradiction, category mistake, indelible opacity—etc. apparent to me that has led me to think numbers are impossible. But if that’s so, then surely my critic will want to know what exactly I’m privy to that he isn’t.
Mutatis mutandis in the case of God qua necessary being.
BV: You lost me during that last stretch of argumentation. I am not sure you appreciate the difficulty. It can be expressed as the following reductio ad absurdum:
a. Conceivability entails possibility. (assumption for reductio)
b. It is conceivable that God not exist. (factual premise)
c. It is conceivable that God exist. (factual premise)
d. God is a necessary being. (true by Anselmian definition)
e. It is possible that God not exist and it is possible that God exist. (a, b, c)
f. God is a contingent being. (e)
g. God is a necessary being & God is a contingent being. (d, f, contradiction)
~a. It is not the case that conceivability entails possibility.
Is short, as John the Commenter has already pointed out, it seems that the Anselmian theist ought to reject conceivability-implies-possibility.
Philosophy is its problems, and they are best represented as aporetic polyads. One sort of aporetic polyad is the antilogism. An antilogism is an inconsistent triad: a set of three propositions that cannot all be true. The most interesting antilogisms are those in which the constitutent propositions are each of them plausible. If they are more than plausible, if they are self-evident or undeniable, then we are in the presence of an aporia in the strict sense. (From the Greek a-poros, no way.) Aporiai are intellectual impasses, or, to change the metaphor, intellectual knots that we cannot untie. Here is a candidate:
1. God is a perfect being.
2. A perfect being is one that exists necessarily if it exists at all.
3. Whatever exists exists contingently.
It is easy to see that the members of this trio are collectively inconsistent. So the trio is an antilogism. Now corresponding to every antilogism there are three valid syllogisms. (A syllogism is deductive argument having exactly two premises.) Thus one can argue validly from any two of the propositions to the negation of the remaining one. Thus there are three ways of solving the antilogism:
A. Reject (1). The price of rejection is high since (1) merely unpacks the meaning of 'God' if we think of God along Anselmian lines as "that than which no greater can be conceived," or as the greatest conceivable being. It seems intuitively clearly that an imperfect being could not have divine status. In particular, nothing imperfect could be an appropriate object of worship. To worship an imperfect being would be idolatry.
B. Reject (2). The price of rejection is steep here too since (2) seems merely to unpack the meaning of 'perfect being.' Intuitively, contingent existence is an imperfection.
C. Reject (3). This is a more palatable option, and many will solve the antilogism in this way. If ~(3), then there are noncontingent beings. A noncontingent being is either necessary or impossible. So if God is noncontingent, it does not follow that God is necessary. He could be impossible.
Unfortunately, the rejection of (3) is not without its problems.
According to David Hume, "Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent." (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) I would put it this way, trading Latin for plain Anglo-Saxon: no matter what we think of as existing, we can just as easily think of as not existing. This includes God.
Try it for yourself. Think of God together with all his omni-attributes and then think of God as not existing. Our atheist pals have no trouble on this score. The nonexistence of God is thinkable without logical contradiction.
The Humean reasoning in defense of (3) rests on the assumption that conceivability entails possibility. To turn aside this reasoning one must reject this assumption. One could then maintain that the conceivability by us of the nonexistence of God is consistent with the necessity of God's existence.
The price of rejecting (3) is that one must deny that conceivability entails possibility.
Is our antilogism an aporia in the strict sense? I don't know.
I still read your blog conscientiously, but sometimes stare at your words in ignorant awe.
I have a question for you this morning which may be of interest. In a recent conversation with someone who described himself as a "gay" Christian (or is it a Christian "gay" ?), I gave reasons for observing that "gay Christian" is an oxymoron. My interlocutor said I must not be judgmental and justified his position by the saying, “You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way, it does not exist.” I made no headway with my argument that a belief in moral relativism is incompatible with a belief in God. If God is the incontestable ground of moral absolutes, it seems to me you can't have one without the other. Am I on the right track ?
Thank you for reading. Several points in response.
1. Can one be a Christian and a homosexual? I don't see why not, as long as one does not practice one's homosexuality. So I don't see that 'gay Christian' is an oxymoron. (AsI am using 'practice,' a homosexual man who succumbs to temptation and has sexual intercourse with a man on an occasion or two, while believing it to be immoral, is not practicing his homosexuality. The occasional exercise of a disposition does not constitute a practice.)
2. To be judgmental is to be hypercritical, captious, cavilling, fault-finding, etc. One ought to avoid being judgmental. But it is a mistake to confuse making moral judgments with being judgmental. I condemn the behavior of Ponzi-schemers like Bernie Madoff. That is a moral judgment. (And if you refuse to condemn it, I condemn your refusal to condemn.) But it would be an egregious misuse of language to say that I am being judgmental in issuing either condemnation.
3. If your friend thinks it is wrong to make moral judgments, ask him whether he thinks it is morally wrong. If he says yes, then point out that he has just made a moral judgment; he has made the moral judgment that making moral judgments is morally wrong.
4. Then ask him whether (a) he is OK with contradicting himself, or (b) makes an exception for the meta assertion that making moral judgments is morally wrong, or (c) thinks that both the meta judgment and first-order moral judgments (e.g., sodomy is morally wrong) are all morally wrong. (C) is a logically consistent position, although rejectable for other reasons.
5. He might of course say that 'must not' in 'must not be judgmental' is not to be construed morally, but in some other way. Press him on how it is to be construed.
6. Is moral relativism compatible with theism? No. If the God of the Christian faith exists, then there are absolute (objective) moral truths. This is quite clear if you reflect on the nature of the Christian God. It is not clear, however, that the arrow of entailment runs in the opposite direction. A Christian could affirm that it does, but he needn't. Either way, moral relativism and theism are logically inconsistent.
7. A further point. When your friend 'went relativistic' on you, there was nothing unusual about that. Alethic and moral relativism in most people are not thought-through positions, but simply ways of avoiding further discussion and the hard thinking necessary to get clear on these matters. It is a form of 'psychic insulation': "You can't teach me anything, because it's all relative."
8. A final point. That there are moral absolutes leaves open what they are. While moral relativism is easily dismissed, especially if one is a theist, it is considerably less easy to say what the moral absolutes are, even if one is a theist. So there is no call to be dogmatic. One can, and I think ought to, combine anti-relativism with fallibilism.
London Karl refers me to this piece by Stephen H. Webb in which we read (emphases added):
I recently reviewed Hart’s new book, The Experience of God, at First Things. Hart defends three basic points: First, there was a consensus among ancient philosophers and theologians regarding the simplicity of God. Divine simplicity can be stated in many ways, but it basically means that God has no parts. Or you could just say that God is immaterial (since anything material can be divided). Second, this consensus was shared by nearly all the world’s oldest religions. Third, this consensus is crucial for the Christian faith. It is, in fact, the only way to make sense of God, and thus it is fundamental for everything that Christians believe and say about the divine.
The first bolded passage is inaccurate. On traditional theism God is of course immaterial, and is maintained to be such by all traditional theists. But the doctrine of divine simplicity is not identical to the claim that God is immaterial, a claim rejected by many traditional theists. The simplicity doctrine entails the immateriality doctrine, but not vice versa. Thus the simplicity doctrine says more than the immateriality doctrine. If God is simple, then God has and can have no (proper) parts, hence has and can have no material parts; a simple God is therefore an immaterial God given that every material thing is partite, actually or potentially. But an immaterial God needn't be simple. The simplicity doctrine implies that there are no real distinctions among:
God and his existence
God and his attributes
Any divine attribute and any other one
Existence and nature in God: God doesn't have, he is, his nature.
Potency and act in God: God is actus purus.
Matter and form in God: God is forma formarum.
Consider God and the attribute of omniscience. According to the simplicity doctrine, God does not exemplify omniscience; he is (identical to) omniscience. And the same holds for all the divine attributes. For each such attribute A, God does not have (exemplify) A; he is (identical to) A.
Someone who holds that God is immaterial, however, holds that God has no material parts (and also no spatial parts, and no temporal parts if there are temporal parts). One can hold this consistently with holding that God is disinct from his attributes as he must be if he exemplifies them, exemplification either being or being very much like a dyadic asymmetrical relation.
But what if one were a constituent ontologist who thought that the attributes of a thing are parts thereof (in some suitably extended, non-mereological sense of 'part')? Then too the simplicity doctrine would not be identical to the immateriality doctrine. For immateriality has to do with a lack of material parts while simplicity has to do with a lack of material and 'ontological' parts such as attributes.
As for the second bolded passage, it is certainly false. Webb needs to read Plantinga and Swinburne.
When I reported to Peter Lupu over Sunday breakfast that Hugh McCann denies that natural causation is existence-conferring, he demanded to know McCann's reasons. He has three. I'll discuss one of them in this post, the third one McCann mentions. (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, p. 18)
The reason is essentially Humean. Rather than quote McCann, I'll put the matter in my own rather more detailed way.
But first I should limn the broader context. McCann's God is not a mere cosmic starter-upper. He keeps the universe in existence moment to moment after its beginning to exist -- assuming it has a beginning -- such that, were God to cease his creative sustenance, the universe would vanish. On such a scheme, God is needed to explain the universe and its continuance in existence even if it always existed. But now suppose natural causation is existence-conferring and the universe always existed. Then the naturalist might argue as follows: (i) the universe is just the sum-total of its states; (ii) each state is caused to exist by earlier states; (iii) there is no first state; ergo (iv) every state has an immanent causal explanation in terms of earlier states; (v) if every state has an explanation of its existence in terms of earlier states, then the universe has an immanent, naturalistic explanation of its existence; ergo, (vi) there is no need for a God to explain why the universe exists, and (vii) if there were a God of McCann's stripe, then the existence of the universe would be causally overdetermined.
The above reasoning rests on the assumption that natural causation is existence-conferring. This is why McCann needs to show that natural causation is not existence-conferring. Here is one reason, a Humean reason.
One monsoon season I observed a lightning bolt hit a palm tree which then exploded into flame. A paradigm case of event causation. Call the one event token Strike and the other Ignition. One would naturally say that Strike caused Ignition. To say such a thing is to refer to the salient cause without denyng the contribution of such necessary causal conditions as the presence of atmospheric oxygen.
But what exactly did I observe? Did I observe, literally observe, an instance of causation? Not clear! What is clear is that that I observed two spatiotemporally contiguous events. I also observed that Strike occurred slightly earlier than Ignition. Thus I observed the temporal precedence of the cause over the effect. But I did not observe the production (the bringing-into-existence) of the effect by the cause. Thus I did not observe the cause conferring existence on the effect. Strike and Ignition were nearby in space and time and Ignition followed Strike. That I literally saw. But I did not literally see any producing or causing-to-exist. What I actually saw was consistent with there being no causal production of the effect by the cause. Admittedly, it was also consistent with there being unobservable causal production.
The point is that conferral of existence by natural causation is not empirically detectable. One cannot see it, or hear it, etc. Nor is there any such instrument as a causation-detector that one could use to detect what one's gross outer senses cannot detect.
Nothing changes if we add the third Humean condition, constant conjunction. Some event sequences are causal and some are not. How do we distinguish the causal from the noncausal? Since we cannot empirically detect existence-conferral, we cannot say that causal event sequences are those that involve existence-conferral. So the Humean invokes constant conjunction: in terms of our example, whenever an event of the Strike-type occurs it is spatiotemporally contiguously followed by an event of the Ignition type. Accordingly, there is nothing more to causation on this empiricist approach than regular succession. A causal event sequence is one that instantiates a regularity. What makes a causal sequence causal is just its instantiation of a regularity. But then, causation is not the bringing into existence of one event by another. The two events are what Hume calls "distinct existences." The events are out there in the world. But the causal link is not out there in the world, or rather, it is not empirically detectable.
I hope my friend Peter will agree to at least the following: if we adopt a regularity theory of causation, then natural causation is not existence-conferring. The regularity theory can be stated as follows:
RT. x (directly) causes y =df (i) x and y are spatiotemporally contiguous; (ii) x occurs earlier than y; (iii) x and y are subsumed under event types X and Y that are related by the de facto empirical generalization that all events of type X are followed by events of type Y.
If this is what causation is, it is is not existentially productive: the cause does not produce, bring about, bring into existence the effect. On the contrary, the holding of the causal relation presupposes the existence of the cause-event and the effect-event. It follows that causation as understood on (RT) merely orders already existent events and cannot account for the very existence of these events. Since Peter is a B-theorist about time, he should be comfortable with the notion that the universe is a four-dimensional space-time manifold the states or events of which are all tenselessly existent logically in advance of any ordering by whatever the exact relation is that is the causal relation.
Peter should tell me whether he accepts this much.
Of course, the naturalist needn't be a Humean about causation. But then the naturalist ought to tell us what theory of causation he accepts and how it can be pressed into service to explain the very existence of events. My challenge to Peter: describe a theory of natural causation on which the cause event confers existence on the effect event, as opposed to merely ordering already existent events. Nomological and counterfactual theories won't fill the bill (or satisfy the Bill.)
Here is another little puzzle for Peter to ruminate over. Causation is presumably a relation. But a relation cannot obtain unless all its relata exist. So if x directly causes y, and causation is a relation, then both x and y exist. But then x in causing y does not confer existence on y. To the contrary, the obtaining of the causal relation presupposes the logically antecedent existence of y.
This little conundrum works with any theory of causation (regularity, nomological, counterfactual, etc.) so long as it is assumed that causation is a relation and that no relation can hold or obtain unless all its relata exist. For example, suppose you say that x causes y iff had x not occurred, then y would not have occurred. That presupposes the existence of both relata, ergo, etc.
For details and a much more rigorous development, see my article "The Hume-Edwards Objection to the Cosmological Argument," Journal of Philosophical Research, vol. XXII, 1997, pp. 425-443, and the second article below.
In January and February of 2009 I wrote a number of posts critical of Ayn Rand. The Objectivists, as they call themselves, showed up in force to defend their master. I want to revisit one of the topics today to see if what I said then still holds up. The occasion for this exercise is my having found Allan Gotthelf's On Ayn Rand (Wadsworth 2000) in a used bookstore. Gotthelf is a professional philosopher who teaches at Rutgers. So I thought that if anyone is able to disabuse me of my extremely low opinion of Ayn Rand he would be the one to do it.
On p. 48 of Gotthelf's book, we find:
The "first cause" (or "cosmological") argument maintains that God is needed as the creator and sustainer of the material universe. But that is to say that existence needs consciousness to create or sustain it. It makes a consciousness -- God's consciousness -- metaphysically prior to existence. But existence exists. It can have no beginning, no end, no cause. It just is. And consciousness is a faculty of awareness, not of creation. The first cause argument violates both the axiom of existence and the axiom of consciousness.
Now axioms are self-evident truths needing no proof. (37) So if the cosmological argument violates the two axioms mentioned, it is in bad shape indeed! But what exactly are the axioms?
According to the axiom of existence, "Existence exists." Gotthelf takes this to mean that Something exists. (37) If that is what it means, then it is indeed a self-evident truth. For example, it is self-evident (to me) that I exist, which of course entails that something exists. But it is equally self-evident (to me) that I am conscious. For if I were not conscious then I would not be able to know that I exist and that something exists. "That one exists possessing consciousness is the axiom of consciousness, the second philosophic axiom." (38)
The first axiom is logically prior to the second. This is called the primacy of existence and it too is axiomatic though not a separate axiom. "The thesis that existence comes first -- that things exist independent of consciousness and that consciousness is a faculty not for the creation of its objects but for the discovery of them -- Ayn Rand call the primacy of existence." (39)
Now how does the cosmological argument (CA) violate these axioms? Gotthelf tells us that the argument makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to existence, and therefore violates the axiom of consciousness. But it does no such thing.
'Existence' just means all existing things taken collectively, as Gotthelf points out. (p. 48, n. 6) So if the CA makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to existence, then the CA makes God's consciousness metaphysically prior to all existing things. But this is just false: the CA does not make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to God's existence, nor does it make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to the existence of abstract objects. So the CA does not make the divine consciousness metaphysically prior to all existing things. What it does is make God's consciousness metaphysically prior to some existing things, to contingent beings, including all material beings.
One reason, and perhaps the main reason, why the vast majority of professional philosophers consider Ayn Rand to be a hack is that she argues in an intolerably slovenly way. She gives arguments so porous one could drive a Mack truck through them. It is surprising to me that a philosopher with Gotthelf's credentials could uncritically repeat these arguments in the same slovenly way. Surely he understands the difference between all and some. Surely he can see that the argument of his that I quoted is a bad argument trading as it does on an equivocation on 'existence' as between all existing things and some existing things.
A cosmological arguer could cheerfully grant that the following are self-evident truths: Things exist; consciousness exists; the existence of conscious beings is metaphysically prior to their being conscious. The existence of God is logically consistent with each of these truths and with the three of them taken in conjunction.
One of the problems with Rand is that she smuggles substantive, controversial content into what she calls her axioms. I grant that it is axiomatic that "existence exists" if that means that something exists. But how is it supposed to follow from this that the things that exist "have no beginning, no end, no cause"? My desk exists, but it obviously had a beginning, will have an end, and had a cause.
Or does she and Gotthelf mean that what has no beginning, end, or cause is that something or other exists? That is rather more plausible, but obviously doesn't following from the trivial truth that something exists.
Gotthelf uses retortion to show that it is undeniable that something exists. (37) For if you maintain that nothing exists, you succumb to performative inconsistency. The propositional content of the statement that nothing exists is shown to be false by the existence of the speech act of stating, the existence of the one who speaks, and the existence of the context in which he speaks. But please note that there is nothing performatively inconsistent in stating that the things that exist have a beginning, an end, and a cause.
There are similar 'smuggling' problems with respect to the axiom of consciousness. It is indeed axiomatic and self-evident that conscious beings exist. And it too can be proven retorsively. For if you maintain that no one is conscious, then your performance falsifies the content of your claim. (38) But how is it supposed to follow from conscious beings exist that every consciousness is a consciousness of something that exists independently of the consciousness? For this is what Rand and Gotthelf need to show that "The very concept of 'God' violates the axioms . . . ." (49) They need to show that "to postulate a God as creator of the universe is to postulate a consciousness that could exist without anything to be conscious of." (49)
Rand and Gotthelf are making two rather elementary mistakes. The first is to confuse
1. Every consciousness is a consciousness of something (objective genitive)
2. Every consciousness is a consciousness of something that exists. (objective genitive).
(1) may well be true; (2) is obviously false. One who consciously seeks the Fountain of Youth seeks something, but not something that exists. There can be no consciousness without an object, but it does not follow that every intentional object exists.
The second mistake is to think that (2) follows from conscious beings exist. One lands in performative inconsistency if one denies that conscious beings exist. One does not if one denies (2).
It is important not to confuse the subjective and objective genitive construals of (2). (2) is plainly false if the genitive is objective. (2) is trivially true if the genitive is subjective. For it is trivially true that every consciousness is some existing thing's consciousness.
One gets the distinct impression that Rand and Gotthelf are confusing the two construals of (2). They think that because consciousness is always grounded in the existence of something, that every object of consiousness must be an existent object.
Gotthelf's claim that "to postulate a God as creator of the universe is to postulate a consciousness that could exist without anything to be conscious of" (49) is plainly false and deeply confused. For one thing, God is conscious of himself and of all necessarily existent abstract objects. And 'after' the creation of the universe, he has that to be conscious of as well.
What Rand does is simply smuggle the impossibility of a universe-creating conscious being into her axioms. Gotthelf uncritically follows her in this. But that has all the benefits of theft over honest toil, as Russell remarked in a different connection.
God is self-existent. The universe is not. As Hugh McCann puts it, unexceptionably, "the universe is directly dependent on God for its entire being, as far as time extends." (Creation and the Sovereignty of God, Indiana UP, 2012, p. 27.) God is a sustaining causa prima active at every moment of the universe's existence, not a mere cosmic starter-upper. Now if God is self-existent or a se, while the universe depends for its entire being (existence, reality) at each instant of its career on the self-existent creator, then I say that God and the universe cannot be equally real. God is more real, indeed supremely real. The universe is less real because derivatively real. The one has its being from itself, the other from another. I say that there is a difference in their mode of existence: both exist but they exist in different ways. McCann, however, will have none of this:
Existence does not admit of degrees. A world sustained by God is . . . as real as it could [would] be if it sustained itself. (Ibid.)
Let's see if we can sort this out.
0. To keep this short, I will not now worry about the difference, if any, between modes of existence and degrees of existence.
1. The underlying question is whether it is intelligible to posit modes of existence or modes of being. I maintain that it is intelligible and that it is simply a dogma of (most) analytic philosophers to deny the intelligibility of talk of modes of existence. See my "Existence: Two Dogmas of Analysis" in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives in Metaphysics, eds. Novotny and Novak, Routledge Studies in Metaphysics, forthcoming. But not only is it intelligible to posit modes of existence, in several areas of philosophy it is mandatory. The present subject is one of them.
2. One thing McCann and I will agree on is that there is a sense of 'exist(s)' according to which God and the universe exist in exactly the same way. This is the quantifier sense. Let 'g' be an individual constant denoting God and 'u' an individual constant denoting our universe. We can then write
For some x, x = g
For some x, x = u.
Removing the individual constants and replacing them with a free variable yields the predicate expression 'for some x, x = y.' I grant that this predicate is univocal in sense regardless of the value of 'y.' In plain English the predicate is 'Something is identical to ___.' So in the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' God and the universe exist in the same way, or rather in no way: they just exist. In the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' it makes no sense to speak of modes of existence or degrees of existence. Is-identical-with-something-or-other does not admit of degrees. So in the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' It makes no sense to say that God is more real or more existent than the universe.
In the quantifier sense of 'exist(s),' then, existence does not admit of degrees and no distinction of mode or degree can be made between a universe sustained by God and a self-sustaining universe. If this is what McCann is saying, then I agree.
But please note that the quantifier sense presupposes a first-level sense. It is trivially true (if we are not Meinongians) that Socrates exists iff something is identical to Socrates. This presupposes, however, the singular existence of the individual that is identical to Socrates. Now while there cannot be modes of quantifier or general existence, there can very well be modes of singular existence. (The arguments aginst this are all unsound as I argue in my Routledge article.) God and Socrates are both singular and both exist. But they exist in different ways. The same goes for God and the created universe as a whole
That was but an assertion. Now for an argument.
3. McCann tells us that the universe U has the same reality whether it is self-existent or entirely dependent on God for its existence. But then what would be the difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent? The things in it and their properties would be the same, and so would the laws of nature. Perhaps I will be told that in the one case U has the property aseity while in the other case it does not. But what is aseity? Aseity is just the property of being self-existent. Existence, however, is not a quidditative property, and neither is self-existence: they do not pertain to what a thing is. U is what it is whether it exists from itself or from another. It follows that aseity is not a quidditative property. The conclusion to draw is that aseity is a way of existing or a mode of existence.
In sum: there is a difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent (dependent on God). This difference is not a quidditative difference. The nature of U is the same whether it self-exists or not. Nor is it a difference in general or quantifier existence: both are something. The difference is a difference in mode of singular existence. God and the universe exist in different ways or modes. These three questions need to be distinguished: What is it? Is it? How is it?
4. Could one say that the difference between U as self-existent and U as non-self-existent is that in the one case U is related to God but in the other case U is not? This cannot be right since God confers existence upon U. (McCann very plausibly argues that secondary or natural causation is not existence-conferring; primary or divine causation is and must be, as McCann of course maintains.) U is nothing apart from divine existence-conferral. It is not as if God exists and U exists, both in the sdame way, and they are tied by a relation of creation. Creation cannot be a relation logically subsequent to the existence of G and U: U has no existence apart from this relation. It is siply nothing apart from God. But this amounts to saying that U exists is a different way than G. U exists-dependently while G exists-independently. One can abstract from this difference and say that both exist in the general or quantifier sense, but that is a mere abstraction. U and G in their concrete singularity exist in different ways.
5. God is not a being among beings, but Being itself. This is a consequence of the divine simplicity affirmed by McCann in his final chapter. God is self-existent in virtue of being Existence itself. McCann's commitment to the divine simplicity is logically inconsistent with his claim that "A world sustained by God is . . . as real as it could [would] be if it sustained itself."
In his excellent book McCann resurrects and defends certain Thomist themes without realizing that some of these themes are inconsistent with key tenets of analytic orthodoxy, chiefly, the dogma that there are no modes of existence.
James N. Anderson and Greg Welty have published a paper entitled The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic. Having worked out similar arguments in unpublished manuscripts, I am very sympathetic to the project of arguing from the existence of necessary truths to the necessary existence of divine mind.
Here is a quick sketch of the Anderson-Welty argument as I construe it:
1. There are laws of logic, e.g., the law of non-contradiction.
2. The laws of logic are truths.
3. The laws of logic are necessary truths.
4. A truth is a true proposition, where propositions are the primary truth-bearers or primary vehicles of the truth values.
5. Propositions exist. Argument: there are truths (from 1, 2); a truth is a true proposition (3); if an item has a property such as the property of being true, then it exists. Ergo, propositions exist.
6. Necessarily true propositions necessarily exist. For if a proposition has the property of being true in every possible world, then it exists in every possible world. Remark: in play here are 'Fregean' as opposed to 'Russellian' propositions. See here for an explanation of the distinction as I see it. If the proposition expressed by 'Socrates is Socrates' is Russellian, then it has Socrates himself, warts and all, as a constituent. But then, though the proposition is in some sense necessarily true, being a truth of logic, it is surely not necessarily existent.
7. Propositions are not physical entities. This is because no physical entity such as a string of marks on paper could be a primary truth-bearer. A string of marks, if true, is true only derivatively or secondarily, only insofar as as it expresses a proposition.
8. Propositions are intrinsically intentional. (This is explained in the post which is the warm-up to the present one.)
9. The laws of logic are necessarily existent, nonphysical, intrinsically intentional entities.
10. Thoughts are intrinsically intentional.
The argument now takes a very interesting turn. If propositions are intrinsically intentional, and thoughts are as well, might it be that propositions are thoughts?
The following invalid syllogism must be avoided: "Every proposition is intrinsically intentional; every thought is intrinsically intentional; ergo, every proposition is a thought." This argument is an instance of the fallacy of undistributed middle, and of course the authors argue in no such way. They instead raise the question whether it is parsimonious to admit into our ontology two distinct categories of intrinsically intentional item, one mental, the other non-mental. Their claim is that the principle of parsimony "demands" that propositions be constued as mental items, as thoughts. Therefore
11. Propositions are thoughts.
12. Some propositions (the law of logic among them) are necessarily existent thoughts. (From 8, 9, 10, 11)
13. Necessarily, thoughts are thoughts of a thinker.
14. The laws of logic are the thoughts of a necessarily existent thinker, and "this all men call God." (Aquinas)
A Stab at Critique
Line (11) is the crucial sub-conclusion. The whole argument hinges on it. Changing the metaphor, here is where I insert my critical blade, and take my stab. I count three views.
A. There are propositions and there are thoughts and both are intrinsically intentional.
B. Propositions reduce to thoughts.
C. Thoughts reduce to propositions.
Now do considerations of parsimony speak against (A)? We are enjoined not to multiply entities (or rather types of entity) praeter necessitatem. That is, we ought not posit more types of entity than we need for explanatory purposes. This is not the same as saying that we ought to prefer ontologies with fewer categories. Suppose we are comparing an n category ontology with an n + 1 category ontology. Parsimony does not instruct us to take the n category ontology. It instructs us to take the n category ontology only if it is explanatorily adequate, only if it explains all the relevant data but without the additional posit. Well, do we need propositions in addition to thoughts for explanatory purposes? It is plausible to say yes because there are (infinitely) many propositions that no one has ever thought of or about. Arithmetic alone supplies plenty of examples. Of course, if God exists, there are no unthought propositions. But the existence of God is precisely what is at issue. So we cannot assume it. But if we don't assume it, then we have a pretty good reason to distinguish propositions and thoughts as two different sorts of intrinsically intentional entity given that we already have reason to posit thoughts and propositions.
So my first critical point is that the principle of parsimony is too frail a reed with which to support the reduction of propositions to thoughts. Parsimony needs to be beefed-up with other considerations, e.g., an argument to show why an abstract object could not be intrinsically intentional.
My second critical point is this. Why not countenance (C), the reduction of thoughts to propositions? It could be like this. There are all the (Fregean) propostions there might have been, hanging out in Frege's Thrid Reich (Popper's world 3). The thought that 7 + 5 = 12 is not a state of an individul thinker; there are no individual thinkers, so selves, no egos. The thought is just the Fregean proposition's temporary and contingent exemplification of the monadic property, Pre-Personal Awareness or Bewusst-sein. Now I don't have time to develop this suggestion which has elements of Natorp and Butchvarov, and in any case it is not my view.
All I am saying is that (C) needs excluding. Otherwise we don't have a good reason to plump for (B).
My conclusion? The Anderson-Welty argument, though fascinating and competently articulated, is not rationally compelling. Rationally acceptable, but not rationally compelling. Acceptable, because the premises are plausible and the reasoning is correct. Not compelling, because one could resist it without quitting the precincts of reasonableness.
To theists, I say: go on being theists. You are better off being a theist than not being one. Your position is rationally defensible and the alternatives are rationally rejectable. But don't fancy that you can prove the existence of God or the opposite. In the end you must decide how you will live and what you will believe.
I am reviewing Hugh J. McCann's Creation and the Sovereignty of God (Indiana University Press, 2012) for American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. What follows is an attempt to come to grips with Chapter Ten, "Creation and the Conceptual Order." I will set out the problem as I see it, sketch McCann's solution, and then offer some criticisms of his solution.
I. The Problem
How does God stand to what has been called the Platonic menagerie? All classical theists will agree that divine creative activity is responsible for the existence of concreta. But what about abstracta: properties, propositions, mathematical sets, and such? These are entities insulated from the flux and shove of the real order of space, time, and causation. They belong to an order apart. McCann calls it the conceptual order. Does God create the denizens of the conceptual order? Or are the inhabitants of this order independent of God, forming a framework of entities and truths that he must accept as given, a framework that predelineates both the possibilities of, and the constraints upon, God's creative activity? For example, it is a necessary truth that the area of a circle is equal to pi times its radius squared (my example). Is God constrained by this truth so that he logically cannot create a circle not satisfying it? This question obviously bears upon the sovereignty issue. If God is absolutely sovereign, then neither his will nor his intellect can be constrained by anything at all, and certainly not by a bunch of causally inert abstracta and the necessary truths associated with them. (My slangy way of putting it, not McCann's.)
II. Three Types of Approach to the Problem
As I see it, there are three main positions. But first a preliminary observation. Most abstracta are necessary beings: their nonexistence is broadly logically impossible. Not all: Socrates' singleton, though an abstract object, is as contingent as he is. But I will ignore contingent abstracta since they are not relevant to our problem. By 'abstracta' in this post I mean 'necessary abstracta.'
A. The first view is that God must simply accept abstracta as I must. They form a logically and theologically antecedent framework that predelineates his and my possibilities while constraining his and my actions. He does not create abstracta in any sense. They do not depend on God for either their existence or their nature. Their existence and nature are independent of all minds, including God's. McCann and I both reject this view.
B. The second view is that abstracta depend on God for their existence but not for their essence. The property felinity, for example, though a necessary being, depends for its existence on God in this sense: if, per impossibile, God did not exist, then felinity would not exist. (I see no difficulty with a necessary being depending for its existence on another necessary being. See here and here.) I incline to a view like this. Abstracta are divine thought-accusatives, merely intentional objects of the divine intellect. They have an extramental existence relative to us but not relative to God. They cannot not exist, but their exstence is (identically) their being-objects of the divine intellect. This places a constraint on God's creative activity: he cannot create a cat that is not a mammal, for example, or a triangle that is not three-sided. But this constraint on the divine will does not come from 'outside' God as on (A). For it does not come from a being whose existence is independent of God's existence.
On the second view, God is the ultimate explanation of why the universal felinity exists and why it is exemplified. Felinity exists because it is a merely intentional object of the divine intellect. You could say that God excogitates it. Felinity is exemplified because God willed that there be cats. On the second view, however, God is not the explanation of why this nature has the essence or content it has. The essence necessarily has the content it has independently of the divine will, and it can exist unexemplified independently of the divine will. Thus on (B) the divine will is constrained by the truth that cats are mammals such that God could not create a cat that was not a mammal. The proposition and its constitutive essences (*felinity,* *mammality*) depend for their existence on the divine intellect, but they limit God's power. You could say that the objects of the divine intellect limit the divine will. Accordingly, God is not sovereign over the natures of things or over the conceptual truths grounded in these natures, let alone over the necessary truths of logic and mathematics. Triangularity, for example, necessarily has the content it has and God is 'stuck' with it. Moreover, the being (existence ) of triangularity is not exhausted by its being exemplified -- which implies that God has no power over the nature in itself. He controls only whether the nature is or is not exemplified.
C. McCann takes a step beyond (B). On his radical view God is absolutely sovereign. God creates all abstracta and all associated conceptual truths, including all logical and mathematical truths. But it is not as if he first creates the abstracta and then the contingent beings according to the constraints and opportunities the abstracta provide. Creation is not a "two-stage process." (201) God does not plan, then produce. Creation is a single timeless act in which natures and associated necessary truths are "created in their exemplifications." (201) Creating cats, God creates felinity by the same stroke. The creation of cats is not the causing of a previously existing unexemplified nature, felinity, to become exemplified. It is the creation in one and the same act of both the abstractum and the concreta that exemplify it. Another way God can create felinity and triangularity is by creating cat-thoughts and triangle-thoughts. Although my thinking about a triangle is not triangular, my thinking and its object share a common nature, triangularity. This common nature exists in my thinking in a different way than it does in the triangle. More on this in a moment. But for now, the main point is that God does not create according to specifications pre-inscribed in Plato's heaven, specifications that God must take heed of: there are no pre-existing unexemplified essences or unactualized possibilities upon which God operates when he creates. God does not create out of pre-existing possibilities, nor is his creation an actualization of anything pre-existent. The essences themselves are created either by being made to exist in nature or in minds.
III. Some Questions About McCann's Approach and His Use of Thomistic Common Natures
I now turn to critique.
It would seem to follow from McCann's position that before there were cats, there was no felinity, and in catless possible worlds there is no felinity either. It would also seem to follow that before cats existed there was no such proposition as *Cats are mammals* and no such truth as that cats are mammals. (A truth is a true proposition, so without propositions there are no truths.) Or consider triangles. It is true at all times and in all worlds that triangles are three-sided. How then can the essence triangle and the geometrical truths about triangles depend on the contingent existence of triangular things or triangle-thoughts? Surely it was true before there were any triangles in nature and any triangle-thoughts that right triangles are such that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the remaining sides.
McCann attempts to deal with these fairly obvious objections by reverting to the old Thomistic doctrine of common natures. McCann does not use the phrase 'common nature,' nor does he mention Aquinas in precisely this connection; but what he says is very close to the Thomistic doctrine.
It is surely counterintuitive to say that felinity began to exist with the first cats, lasts as long as there are cats, and ceases to exist when -- horribile dictu -- cats become extinct. To avoid being committed to such an absurdity, McCann takes the line that felinity in itself has no being or existence at all. It has being only in its instantiations (203) whether in a mind, as when I think about or want or fear a cat, or in extramental reality in actual cats. "Felinity is in itself is not a being but an essence, and to think of it as such is to set aside all that pertains either to actual or to mental existence." (204) Actual existence is what Thomists call esse naturale or esse reale. Mental existence is what they call esse intentionale. Felinity in itself, however, has no esse at all. Now if felinity in itself has no mode of being or existence, then it cannot be said to begin to exist, to continue to exist, to cease to exist, or to exist only at those times at which cats exist. Nor can felinity be said to exist at all times. It is eternal, not sempiternal (everlasting, omnitemporal), says McCann. Substantial universals such as felinity and accidental universals such as whiteness are "timelessly eternal." (203) The eternal is that which is "excluded from the category of the particular." (204)
The objection was this: If God creates felinity by creating cats, then felinity comes into existence with the first cats. But it is absurd that felinity should come into existence or pass out of existence. Ergo, it is not the case that God creates felinity by creating cats.
McCann's response to the objection, in effect, is to deny the major by invoking the Thomistic doctrine of common natures. Felinity in itself neither comes into existence nor passes out of existence nor always exists. So the major is false and the objection fails.
The trouble with this response to the objection is that the doctrine of common natures is exceedingly murky, so murky in fact, that it causes McCann to fall into self-contradiction. I just quoted McCann to the effect that felinity in itself has no being. Now felinity, according to McCann, is a universal. (204). It follows that universals have no being.
But McCann, fearing nominalism, fails to draw this conclusion when he says that "universals do have being . . . ." (204) Now which is it? Do universals have being or not? If they have being then the above objection goes through. But if they do not have being, then they are nothing, which is just as bad. McCann fudges the question by saying that universals have being in their instantiations. This is a fudge because when felinity is instantiated in the real order in cats, felinity is particular, not universal.
Fudging the matter in this way, McCann fails to see that he is contradicting himself. To avoid nominalism, he must say that universals have being or existence. To avoid the above objection, he must say that they lack being or existence. He thinks he can avoid contradiction by saying that felinity has being in its instances. But felinity in its material instances is not universal, but particular, not one, but many. The Thomistic doctrine, derived from Avicenna, is more consistent: common natures such as felinity are, in themselves, neither universal nor particular, neither one nor many. McCann would have done better to take the classical Thomistic tack which accords to common natures a status much like Meinong's Aussersein. McCann does not go this route because he thinks that if universals have no type of being whatsoever, then ". . . we would grasp nothing in thinking of uninstantiated natures like unicornality." (204)
Trouble Even If 'Common Natures' Doctrine is Tenable: Collapse of Modal Distinctions?
I don't believe that the 'common natures' doctrine is tenable, either in McCann's version or in the strict Thomistic version. Suppose I am wrong. The doctrine -- which is needed to evade the above objection -- still presents problems for absolute divine sovereignty. Even if common natures have no being whatsoever, they nevertheless have or rather are definite natures. Felinity is necessarily felinity and logically could not be, say, caninity. So God is constrained after all: not by an existing nature but by a nonexisting one. He is constrained by the nature of this nature. He has no control over its being what it is. It is, in itself, necessarily what it is, and God is 'stuck' with the fact.
So a further step must be taken to uphold divine sovereignty in its absoluteness. It must be maintained that there are no broadly logical possibilities, impossibilities and necessities that are ontologically prior to divine creation. Prior to God's creation of triangles, there is no triangularity as an existing unexemplified essence or as a nonexisting unexemplified essence, and no possibilities regarding it such as the possibility that it have a different nature than it has, or the necessity that it have the nature it has, or the possibility that it be exemplified or the possiblity that it not be exemplified. (211). The idea is that triangularity and the like are not only beyond being but also beyond modality: it is neither the case that triangularity is necessarily what it is nor that it is not necessarily what it is. The modal framework pertaining to common natures is not ontologically prior to them or to God's will: it is created when they are created, and they are created when things having those natures are created. As McCann puts it, " . . . It is only in what God does as creator that the very possibilities themselves find their reality." (212)
In this way, God is made out to be absolutely sovereign: there is nothing at all that is not freely created and thus subject to the divine will. My worry is that this scheme entails the collapse of modal distinctions. Notionally, of course, there remain distinctions among the senses of 'possible, 'actual,' necessary,' and other modal terms. But if in reality nothing is possible except what is actual, i.e., what God creates, then the three terms mentioned have the same extension: the possible = the actual = the necessary.
The violates our normal understanding of modality according to which the possible 'outruns' the actual, and the actual 'outruns' the necessary. We normally think that there are in reality, and not just epistemically, possbilities that are not actual, and actualities thatare not necessary. We suppose, for example, that there are merely possible state of affairs (including those maximal states of affairs called 'worlds') that God could have actualized, and actual states of affairs that he might have refrained from actualizing. On this sort of scheme, creation is actualization. But on McCann's it is clearly not.
So I am wondering whether McCann's absolute sovereignty scheme entails the collapse of modal distinctions. Might God not have created cats (or a world in which cats evolve)? No. He created what he created and that is all we can say. We can of course conceive of a world other than the world God created, but on McCann's scheme it is not really possible. It is not really possible because there is no modal framework that predelineates what God can and cannot do. Such a framework is inconsistent with absolute sovereignty. God does what he does and that is all we can say. Real modal distinctions collapse. God's creation of the world is neither necessary nor contingent.
I think this collapse of modal distinctions causes trouble for McCann's project. For the project begins in his first chapter with a cosmological argument for a self-existent creator. Such an argument, however, requires as one its premises the proposition that the world of our experience be contingent in reality. (If it is not contingent, then its existence does not require explanation.) I don't see how this proposition is logically consistent with the last sentence of Chapter Ten: "'Could have' has nothing to do with what goes on in creation." (212)
The problem in a nutshell is this: McCann argues a contingentia mundi to a creator whose absolutely sovereign nature is such as to rule out the reality of the very modal framework needed to get the argument to this creator off the ground in the first place. To put it another way, if McCann's God exists, then the world of our experience is not really contingent, and his cosmological argument proceeds from a false premise.
Perhaps Professor McCann can straighten me out on this point.
In the chapter "Atheism as a Purification" in Gravity and Grace (Routledge 1995, tr. Emma Craufurd from the French, first pub. in 1947), the first entry reads as follows:
A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure that my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion. (103)
What are we to make of writing like this? Contradictories cannot both be true and they cannot both be false. By their surface structure, God exists and God does not exist are contradictories. So, obviously, they cannot both be true if taken at face value.
Faced with an apparent contradiction, the time-tested method for relieving the tension is by making a distinction, thereby showing that the apparent contradiction is merely apparent. Suppose we distinguish, as we must in any case, between the concept God and God. Obviously, God is not a concept. This is true even if God does not exist. Interestingly, the truth that God is not a concept is itself a conceptual truth, one that we can know to be true by mere analysis of the concept God. For what we mean by 'God' is precisely a being that does not, like a concept, depend on the possibility or actuality of our mental operations, a being that exists in sublime independence of finite mind.
Now consider these translations:
God does not exist: Nothing in reality falls under the concept God.
God exists: There is an inconceivable reality, God, and it is the target of non-illusory love.
These translations seem to dispose of the contradiction. One is not saying of one and the same thing, God, that he both exists and does not exist; one is saying of a concept that it is not instantiated and of a non-concept that it is inconceivable. That is not a contradiction, or at least not an explicit contradiction. Weil's thesis is that there is a divine reality, but it is inconceivable by us. She is saying that access to the divine reality is possible through love, but not via the discursive intellect. There is an inconceivable reality.
Analogy: just as there are nonsensible realities, there are inconceivable realities. Just as there are realities beyond the reach of the outer senses (however extended via microscopes, etc.), there is a reality beyond the reach of the discursive intellect. Why not?
An objection readily suggests itself:
If you say that God is inconceivable, then you are conceiving God as inconceivable. If you say that nothing can be said about him, then you say something about him, namely, that nothing can be said about him. If you say that there exists an inconceivable reality, then that is different from saying that there does not exist such a reality; hence you are conceiving the inconceivable reality as included in what there is. If you say that God is real, then you are conceiving him as real as opposed to illusory. Long story short, you are contradicting yourself when you claim that there is an inconceivable reality or that God is an inconceivable reality, or that God is utterly beyond all of our concepts, or that no predications of him are true, or that he exists but has no attributes, or that he is real but inconceivable.
The gist of the objection is that my translation defense of Weil is itself contradictory: I defuse the initial contradiction but only by embracing others.
Should we concede defeat and conclude that Weil's position is incoherent and to be rejected because it is incoherent?
Not so fast. The objection is made on the discursive plane and presupposes the non-negotiable and ultimate validity of discursive reason. The objection is valid only if discursive reason is 'valid' as the ultimate approach to reality. So there is a sense in which the objection begs the question, the question of the ultimate validity of the discursive intellect. Weil's intention, however, is to break through the discursive plane. It is therefore no surprise that 'There is an inconceivable reality' is self-contradictory. It is -- but that is no objection to it unless one presupposes the ultimate validity of discursive reason and the Law of Non-Contradiction.
Mystic and logician seem to be at loggerheads.
Mystic: "There is a transdiscursive, inconceivable reality."
Logician: "To claim as much is to embroil yourself in various contradictions."
Mystic: "Yes, but so what?"
Logician: "So what?! That which is or entails a contradiction cannot exist! Absolutely everything is subject to LNC."
Mystic: "You're begging the question against me. You are simply denying what I am asserting, namely, that there is something that is not subject to LNC. Besides, how do you know that LNC is a law of all reality and not merely a law of your discursive thinking? What makes your thinking legislative as to the real and the unreal?"
Logician: "But doesn't it bother you that the very assertions you make, and must make if you are verbally to communicate your view, entail logical contradictions?"
Mystic: "No. That bothers you because you assume the ultimate and non-negotiable validity of the discursive intellect. It doesn't both me because, while I respect the discursive intellect when confined to its proper sphere, I do not imperialistically proclaim it to be legislative for the whole of reality. You go beyond logic proper when you make the metaphysical claim that all of reality is subject to LNC. How are you going to justify that metaphysical leap in a non-circular way?"
Logician: "It looks like we are at an impasse."
Mystic: "Indeed we are. To proceed further you must stop thinking and see!"
How then interpret the Weilian sayings? What Weil is saying is logically nonsense, but important nonsense. It is nonsense in the way that a Zen koan is nonsense. One does not solve a koan by making distinctions, distinctions that presuppose the validity of the Faculty of Distinctions, the discursive intellect; one solves a koan by "breaking through to the other side." Mystical experience is the solution to a koan. Visio intellectualis, not more ratiocination.
A telling phrase from GG 210: "The void which we grasp with the pincers of contradiction . . . ."
But of course my writing and thinking is an operating upon the discursive plane. Mystical philosophy is not mysticism. It is, at best, the discursive propadeutic thereto. One question is whether one can maintain logical coherence by the canons of the discursive plane while introducing the possibility of its transcendence.
Or looking at it the other way round: can the committed and dogmatic discursivist secure his position without simply assuming, groundlessly, its ultimate and non-negotiable validity -- in which event he has not secured it? And if he has not secured it, why is it binding upon us -- by his own lights?
The following is from an interview with A. C. Grayling who is speaking of the open mind and open inquiry:
It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”
It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.”
A. C. Grayling, like many if not most militant atheists, sees the difference between religion and science in the difference between pre-packaged dogmas thoughtlessly and uncritically accepted from some authority and open-ended free inquiry.
That is not the way I see it. For me, mature religion is more quest than conclusions. It too is open-ended and ongoing, subject to revision and correction. It benefits from abrasion with such competing sectors of culture as philosophy and science. By abrasion the pearl is formed.
All genuine religion involves a quest since God must remain largely unknown, and this by his very nature. He must remain latens Deitas in Aquinas' phrase:
Adoro te devote, latens Deitas, Quæ sub his figuris vere latitas; Tibi se cor meum totum subjicit, Quia te contemplans totum deficit.
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore, Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more, See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
But as religion becomes established in the world in the form of churches, sects, and denominations with worldly interests, it becomes less of a quest and more of a worldly hustle. Dogmatics displaces inquiry, and fund-raising faith. The once alive becomes ossified. All human institutions are corruptible, and are eventually corrupted.
Mature religion must be more quest than conclusions. It is vastly more a seeking than a finding. More a cleansing of windows and a polishing of mirrors than a glimpsing. And certainly more a glimpsing than a comfortable resting upon dogmas. When philosophy and religion and mysticism and science are viewed as quests they complement one another. And this despite the tensions among Athens, Jerusalem, Benares, and Alexandria.
The critic of religion wants to pin it down, reducing it to dogmatic contents, so as to attack it where it is weakest. Paradoxically, the atheist 'knows' more about God than the sophisticated theist -- he knows so much that he knows no such thing could exist. He 'knows' the divine nature and knows that it is incompatible with the existence of evil -- to mention one line of attack. What he 'knows,' of course, is only the concept he himself has fabricated and projected. Aquinas, by contrast, held that the existence of God is far better known than God's nature -- which remains shrouded in a cloud of unknowing.
The (immature) religionist also wants religion pinned down and dogmatically spelled out for purposes of self-definition, doxastic security, other-exclusion, worldly promotion, and political leverage. This is a reason why reformers like Jesus are met with a cold shoulder -- or worse.
How is it that someone as intelligent as Grayling could have such a cartoonish understanding of religion? The answer is that he and his brethren utterly lack the religious sensibility. They lack it in the same way many scientists lack the philosophical sensibility, many prosaic folk the poetic sensibility, and so on.
This is why debates with militant atheists are a waste of time. To get a taste of the febrile militancy of Grayling's atheism, see here.
Your latest blog posts on the problem of existence prompted me to question you about one philosophical problem which keeps "nagging" me:
- When we make plans for the future (e.g. when choosing out next move in chess), we analyze different possibilities. Until the moment we decide our move, each possibility is only that: a possibility, and not an actual move. By moving a piece, we irretrievably select one possibility. The irretrieveability is caused by the existence of a world, outside our minds, which is affected by our decision and prevents it from being "taken back".
- God (were He to play chess), would be able to analyze all possible moves to an infinite depth, since He is an infinite mind. What would make one of this possibilities actual? I assume that, like in the case of a finite mind, it would be His decision on what piece to move and when.
I understand that so far, this is not a philosophical problem, but merely an intuition that choosing an actuality amongst infinite possibilities implies acting on something outside oneself (the chessboard in this instance). My problem arises when thinking about the act of creation:
- In a way similar to a chess game, when God created the universe he would have been able to see in full detail all possible universes. He chose one of these, making it be. How does creation (i.e. actual existence) differ from potential existence in this instance? In everyday life, like in a chess game, actual existence depends on acting one way or the other on something that exists apart from the mind. How can we think about it in that moment when nothing exists apart from the infinite mind of the Creator? In other words, from the point of view of an infinite mind, what is the difference between a piece of fiction and a piece of non-fiction before the world is created?
I am not sure I have been able to piece my thoughts together in a coherent way. . . At least, everybody with whom I try to discuss this seems to think I am splitting hairs over a non-issue. . .
Well, Pedro, you are certainly not splitting hairs over a non-issue. The problem is genuine, and if anything, you are not splitting enough hairs. But first we need to state the problem more clearly. I suggest that the problem can be formulated as the problem of giving an account that allows all the following propositions to be true:
1. God creates ex nihilo: creation is not an acting upon something whose existence is independent of God's existence.
2. Creation is actualization: God creates by actualizing a merely possible world. Of course, 'once' (logically speaking) it is actual, it is not merely possible.
3. There is a plurality of broadly logically possible worlds.
4. God is libertarianly free: God could have done otherwise with respect to any world he actualizes. There is no necessity that God create any world at all, and any world he creates is such that he might not have created it. If 'A' is a name (Kripkean rigid designator) of our world, the world that is actual, then 'A is actual' is contingently true, and 'God creates A' is contingently true.
Suppose we give the following account. The divine intellect 'prior' (logically speaking) to creation has before it an infinite array of broadly logically possible worlds. These possible worlds have the status of complex divine thought-accusatives. They exist only as intentional objects of the divine intellect. It follows that they do not exist apart from God. On the contrary, their existence depends on God's existence. The actualization of one of these worlds depends on the divine will: God wills one of the possible worlds to be actual. As it happens, A is the chosen world. This is equivalent to causing our universe, with Socrates and Plato, me and you, etc. to exist extramentally, 'outside' the divine mind, but still in continuous dependence on the divine mind.
On this account, is creation a creation out of nothing? Yes, insofar as it not an acting upon something whose existence is independent of God's existence. God creates out of mere possibilities, which are divine thought-accusatives, not Platonica. So there is a sense in which creation is ex Deo.
Light. It is a fire that does not burn. (Notebooks, 21)
Just as the eyes are the most spiritual of the bodily organs, light is the most spiritual of physical phenomena. And there is no light like the lambent light of the desert. The low humidity, the sparseness of vegetation that even in its arboreal forms hugs the ground, the long, long vistas that draw the eye out to shimmering buttes and mesas -- all of these contribute to the illusion that the light is alive. This light does not consume, like fire, but allows things to appear. It licks, like flames, but does not incinerate. ('Lambent' from Latin lambere, to lick.)
Light as phenomenon, as appearance, is not something merely physical. It is as much mind as matter. Without its appearance to mind it would not be what it, phenomenologically, is. But the light that allows rocks and coyotes to appear, itself appears. This seen light is seen within a clearing, eine Lichtung, which is light in a transcendental sense. But this transcendental light in whose light both illuminated objects and physical light appear, points back to the onto-theological Source of this transcendental light.
Augustine claims to have glimpsed this eternal Source Light upon entering into his "inmost being." Entering there, he saw with his soul's eye, "above that same eye of my soul, above my mind, an unchangeable light." He continues:
It was not this common light, plain to all flesh, nor a greater light of the same kind . . . Not such was that light, but different, far different from all other lights. Nor was it above my mind, as oil is above water, or sky above earth. It was above my mind, because it made me, and I was beneath it, because I was made by it. He who knows the truth, knows that light, and he who knows it knows eternity. (Confessions, Book VII, Chapter 10)
'Light,' then, has several senses. There is the light of physics, which is but a theoretical posit. There is physical light as we see it, whether in the form of illuminated things such as yonder mesa, or sources of illumination such as the sun, or the lambent space between them. There is the transcendental light of mind without which nothing at all would appear. There is, above this transcendental light, its Source.
One could characterize a materialist as one who is blind to the light, except in the first of the four senses lately mentioned.
I just remembered this old post from the Powerblogs site, a post relevant to present concerns. Written February 2008.
I raised the question whether divine revelation is miraculous. I answered tentatively that it is not. Though revelation may be accompanied by miraculous events such as the burning bush of Exodus 3:2, I floated the suggestion that there need be nothing miraculous about revelation as such. So I was pleased to find some support for this notion from another quarter. The following is from an essay by Leo Strauss on Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism:
Revelation is the continuation of creation since man as the rational and moral being comes into being, i.e., is constituted, by revelation. Revelation is as little miraculous as creation. (Leo Strauss, Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, U. of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 237.)
This is an extremely interesting suggestion in that it may offer us a way to make sense of the notion that God creates man in his image and likeness but without interfering in the evolutionary processes most of us believe are responsible for man's existence as an animal.
Man as an animal is one thing, man as a spiritual, rational, and moral being is another. The origin of man as an animal came about not through any special divine acts but through the evolutionary processes common to the origination of all animal species. But man as spirit, as a self-conscious, rational being who distinguishes between good and evil cannot be accounted for in naturalistic terms.
As animals, we are descended from lower forms. As animals, we are part of the natural world and have the same general type of origin as any other animal species. Hence there was no Adam and Eve as first biological parents of the human race who came into existence directly by divine fiat without animal progenitors. But although we are animals, we are also spiritual beings, spiritual selves. I am an I, an ego, and this I-ness or egoity cannot be explained naturalistically. I am a person possessing free will and conscience neither of which can be explained naturalistically.
I suggest that what 'Adam' refers to is not a man qua member of a zoological species, but the first man to become a spiritual self. This spiritual selfhood came into existence through an encounter with the divine self. In this I-Thou encounter, the divine self elicited or triggered man's latent spiritual self. This spiritual self did not emerge naturally; what emerged naturally was the potentiality to hear a divine call which called man to his vocation, his higher destiny, namely, a sharing in the divine life. The divine call is from beyond the human horizon.
But in the encounter with the divine self which first triggered man's personhood or spiritual selfhood, there arose man's freedom and his sense of being a separate self, an ego distinct from God and from other egos. Thus was born pride and self-assertion and egotism. Sensing his quasi-divine status, man asserted himself against the One who had revealed himself, the One who simultaneously called him to a Higher Life but also imposed restrictions and made demands. Man in his pride then made a fateful choice, drunk with the sense of his own power: he decided to go it alone. This rebellion was the Fall of man, which has nothing to do with being expelled from a physical garden located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Original Sin was a spiritual event, and its transmission was not by semen, but by some spiritual (socio-cultural) means.
If we take some such tack as the above, then we can reconcile what we know to be true from natural science with the Biblical message. Religion and science needn't compete; they can complement each other -- but only if each sticks to its own province. In this way we can avoid both the extremes of the fundamentalists and the extremes of the 'Dawkins gang' (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, et al.)
Returning to Hermann Cohen's suggestion above, as mediated by Leo Strauss, we can say that the divine-human encounter whereby the animal man becomes spirit is God's revelation to man. God's revealing himself is at the same time a creation of man as a spiritual being. In Heideggerian terms, at the moment of encounter moment man becomes Dasein, the Da of Sein, the site where Being (Sein) achieves finite self-understanding. But there is nothing ontically miraculous in this, no contravention of any law of nature.
Revealing himself to man as Being itself -- Exodus 3:14 "I am who am" -- God creates man as understandor of Being.
Like you, I think meaning is bestowed, or endowed, by agents. However, I may hold a stronger view, which is captured by what I call the Endowment Thesis:
(ET) Any object x has meaning iff x has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
BV: In the post in question I did not endorse the thesis that meaning is bestowed by agents; I made the conditional claim that if existential meaning is bestowed by each upon himself, then the identification of existential meaning with subjectively bestowed meaning collapses into an elimination of existential meaning. But your (ET) is plausible and its consequences are worth exploring.
(In fact, I normally state ET as true of value, not meaning. But I think ET holds for both value and meaning. But I’ll follow your post and state the puzzle with meaning instead of value).
BV: I think existential meaning has both a teleological and an axiological side. Thus a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life, but not every purpose-driven life is meaningful: the purpose must have positive intrinsic value. If someone sets himself as the central task of his life the parsing of every sentence in Moby Dick, his life has purpose; but since the value of such an accomplishment is questionable, the same goes for the meaningfulness of a life consecrated to such a task. See Teleological and Axiological Aspects of Existential Meaning.
The puzzle arises when we stipulate that x is God, God has meaning (or is a meaningful being, has a meaningful existence), and that God is the sole inhabitant of a world. So: God has meaning iff God has meaning by virtue of being endowed meaning by one or more agents.
There are two ways this could work: Either God, as a single agent, endows himself meaning, or God is in some way more than one agent (God is whole of which agents are parts—as agents, the parts can endow each other value, and God has meaning by virtue of each of the parts having meaning).
Now, both possibilities seem to require us to say that God does not have meaning logically prior to being endowed meaning (which leads me to think you may reject ET).
BV: Yes. Neither God nor Socrates can bootstrap himself into existence. And it seems that the same goes for meaningfulness: neither can bootstrap his existence into meaningfulness. So what I argued in my post with respect to finite agents like us holds also for God. It cannot be the case that God gives his existence meaning. Not even God can be a subjectivist about existential meaning!
But the former possibility—where God has meaning by virtue of endowing himself meaning—requires making sense of endowing oneself meaning, which you—as well as I—find problematic. I have my own objections to this possibility, but I’m curious to what you think of it. Assuming (ET) is true, can God sans creation endow himself meaning (or value)? Would your arguments in the post apply to God with equal force here?
BV: Yes, it seems to me that the arguments apply to God with equal probative force.
Also, I hope we can bracket divine simplicity for the sake of the argument. Thoughts?
BV: These considerations seem to add up to an argument against your (ET). The universal quantifier 'any' causes trouble. But surely some (many, most) objects are such that their meaning, value, and purpose are not had by them intrinsically but are bestowed upon them by one or more agents acting individually or collectively. I may assign a rock the purpose of being a paper weight, a purpose that it does not have intrinsically, and to a book that has collectively been assigned a purpose I can add an idiosyncratic purpose such as serving as a door stop or to fuel a fire. I can use a topographical map to swat a fly, and a flyswatter to scratch my back or direct an orchestra. Or consider the value of water. That value, it seems, is not intrinsic to water, but it is also not assigned by me or you or all of us collectively. But it is relative to our physical need for the stuff. Water is not intrinsically valuable, else it would be good for electronic gear, paper, and fires.
So it seems safe to say that some purposes, values, and meanings are relative to agents even if those agents don't have the power to assign them arbitrarily.
As for God, he is a counterexample to (ET). God does not have a purpose because he assigns himself one; he is intrinsically purposive, intrinsically good, intrinsically valuable, intrinsically meaningful. This intrinsicality would be nicely underpinned by the divine simplicity, but it is not clear that one needs that doctrine to underpin it.
Now suppose there is no God. Then human existence is ultimately (as opposed to proximately) meaningless, purposeless, and valueless. But we have the sense that it is none of these. This sense gives us reason to seek God, even though it does not furnish materials for a compelling proof of the existence of God.
I have gone out on a limb here, which will afford you an opportunity to practice your sawing skills.
I maintain that there are modes of being. To be precise, I maintain that it is intelligible that there be modes of being. This puts me at odds with those, like van Inwagen, who consider the idea unintelligible and rooted in an elementary mistake:
. . . the thick conception of being is founded on the mistake of transferring what properly belongs to the nature of a chair -- or of a human being or of a universal or of God -- to the being of the chair. (Ontology, Identity, and Modality, Cambridge 2001, p. 4)
To clarify the issue let's consider God and creatures. God exists. Socrates exists. God and Socrates differ in their natures. For example, Socrates is ignorant of many things, and he knows it; God is ignorant of nothing. God is unlimited in power; Socrates is not. And so on. So far van Inwagen will agree. But I take a further step: God and Socrates differ in the way they exist: they differ in their mode of being. So I make a three-fold distinction among the being (existence) of x, the nature (quiddity, whatness) of x, and the mode of being of x. At most, van Inwagen makes a two-fold distinction between the being of x and the nature of x. For me, God and Socrates differ quidditatively and existentially whereas for van Inwagen they differ only quidditatively (in respect of their natures).
One difference between God and Socrates is that God does not depend on anything for his existence while Socrates and indeed everything other than God depends on God for his/its existence, and indeed, at every time at which he/it exists. I claim that that this is a difference in mode of existence: God exists-independently while creatures exist-dependently. There would be an adequate rebuttal of my claim if thin translations could be provided of the two independent clauses of the initial sentence of this paragraph. By a thin translation of a sentence I mean a sentence that is logically equivalent to the target sentence but does not contain 'exist(s) or cognates or 'is' used existentially. Translations are easy to provide, but I will question whether they are adequate. Let 'D' be a predicate constant standing for the dyadic predicate ' --- depends for its existence on ___.' And let 'g' be an individual constant denoting God.
1. God does not depend on anything for his existence
2. Everything other than God depends on God for its existence
2-t. (x)[(~(x = g) --> Dxg].
I will now argue that these thin translations are not adequate.
I begin with the obvious point that the domain of the bound variable 'x' is a domain of existent objects, not of Meinongian nonexistent objects. It is also obvious that the thin translations presuppose that each of these existents exists in the same sense of 'exists' and that no one of them differs from any other of them in respect of mode of existence. Call this the three-fold presupposition.
Now consider the second translation, (2-t) above. It rests on the three-fold presupposition, and it states that each of these existents, except God, stands in the relation D to God. But this is incoherent since there cannot be a plurality of existents -- 'existent' applying univocally to all of them -- if each existent except God depends on God for its existence. It ought to be obvious that if Socrates depends on God for his very existence at every moment, then he cannot exist in the same way that God exists.
I don't deny that there is a sense of 'exists' that applies univocally to God and Socrates. This is the sense captured by the particular quantifier. Something is (identically) God, and something else is (identically) Socrates. 'Is identical to something' applies univocally to God and Socrates. My point, however, is that the x to which God is identical exists in a different way than the y to which Socrates is identical. That 'is identical to something' applies univocally to both God and Socrates is obviously consistent with God and Socrates existing in different ways.
Here is another way to see the point. To translate the target sentences into QuineSpeak one has to treat the presumably sui generis relation of existential dependence of creatures on God as if it were an ordinary external relation. But such ordinary relations presuppose for their obtaining the existence of their relata. But surely, if Socrates is dependent on God for his very existence, then his existence cannot be a presupposition of his standing in the sui generis relation to God of existential dependence. He cannot already (logically speaking) exist if his very existence derives from God.
The point could be put as follows. The Quinean logic presupposes ontological pluralism which consists of the following theses: everything exists; there is a plurality of existents; each existent exists in the same sense of 'exists.' Ontological pluralism, however, is incompatible with classical theism according to which each thing distinct from God derives its existence from God. On classical theism, everything other than God exists-derivatively and only God exists-underivatively.
On the Quinean scheme of ontological pluralism, the only way to connect existents is via relations that presuppose the existence of their relata. So the relation of existential dependence that is part and parcel of the notion of divine creation must be misconstrued by the Quinean ontological pluralist as a relation that presupposes the logically antecedent existence of both God and creatures.
The ontology presupposed by Quine's logic is incompatible with the theism van Inwagen espouses. One cannot make sense of classical theism without a doctrine of modes of being. One cannot be a classical theist and a thin theorist.
If the reality of spirit and the reality of free will cannot be encountered in ourselves, in the depths of our subjectivity, why should we think that they can be encountered outside ourselves -- in God, for example?
I don't understand those who attempt to combine theism with materialism about the human mind. I don't deny that it is a logically possible combination. But mere absence of formal-logical contradiction is no guarantee of metaphysical coherence. (I develop the thought in "Could a Classical Theist be a Physicalist?" Faith and Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 2, April 1998, pp. 160-180.)
If reality has a spiritual core we will be able to learn about it only by studying ourselves, by plumbing our subjective depths, not by reducing self to not-self, not by trying to understand spirit and consciousness in material terms. They cannot be understood in those terms, and attempts to do so end up eliminating the very means of access -- mind and language -- to the material world.
. . . a good theistic argument doesn’t have to be irrefutable, but surely we should expect the conclusions of our arguments to rise above the level of mere plausibility. If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), and God’s existence can be “clearly perceived” from the creation (Rom. 1:20), it would appear that God has given humans something stronger than “clues” about his existence.
I tend to differ with Professor Anderson on this point. I don't believe theistic arguments can deliver more than plausibility. Here below we are pretty much in the dark. Just as our wills are weak and our hearts divided by disordered and inordinate loves, our minds are clouded. The existence of God is not a plain fact, but the infirmity of reason is. The believer hopes that light will dawn, fitfully and partially in this life, and more fully if not completely in the next. But he doesn't know this, nor can he prove it. That there is Divine Light remains a matter of faith, hope, and yearning. There is light enough in this life to render rational our faith, hope, and yearning. But there is also darkness enough to render rational doubt and perhaps despair. The individual must decide what he will believe and how he will live. He remains free and at risk of being wrong. There are no compelling arguments one way or the other when it comes to God and the soul.
If a black cat jumps on my lap in a well-lit room, I have no doxastic 'wiggle room' as to whether a cat is on my lap. It's not the same with God. I don't believe God's existence can be "clearly perceived" from the existence or order of the natural world. What is "clearly perceived" leaves me quite a lot of doxastic wiggle room.
I have reviewed two of Barry Miller's books. My review of A Most Unlikely God appeared in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review (vol. XXXVIII, no. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 614-617). My review of From Existence to God appeared in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Summer 1993), pp. 390-394, I post a version of the latter here.
Barry Miller, From Existence to God: A Contemporary Philosophical Argument (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. x + 206. $42.50.
Arguments for the existence of God a contingentia mundi usually proceed by way of some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), where this embraces principles of intelligibility and causality. Professor Miller's book is a bold but rigorous defense of a contingency argument that makes no use of any of these controversial principles. He thus evades the standard objections to PSR-based arguments. The engine driving Miller's argument is Non- Contradiction, a principle he deploys at various stages of his treatment. (cf. pp. 172-174) Accordingly, his central thesis is that there is "a hidden contradiction in claiming both that, say, Fido exists and that God does not." (p. ix)
If so, the existence of God should follow by dint of sheer analysis of what it is for a concrete individual to exist, in the presence of the uncontroversial premise that concrete individuals do in fact exist. By 'God' Miller understands the god of classical theism, a being that is the uncaused sustaining cause of the universe, where "The Universe is everything existing which either is a concrete individual or is individuated by individuals." (p. 131) This uncaused cause is unique, identical with its existence (and thus subsistent existence), metaphysically (not logically) necessary, and an individual only in an analogical sense of this term. (p. 137) Thus the above definition of 'universe' does not imply that God is in the universe. God cannot be an individual in the strict sense since He is not distinct from his existence; but He is nevertheless a concrete entity since capable of causal activity. (p. 126) The 'omni-properties' (omniscience, etc.) are not discussed. Thus Miller starts here below with existing concrete individuals, works his way up to the uncaused cause of their existence, and only then embarks on a discussion of those of the divine attributes relevant to the analysis of existence. This in marked contrast to the usual procedure of beginning with a definition of 'God' and then considering whether anything satisfies the definition.
A central challenge Miller faces is to show that the existence of concrete individuals is not a brute fact, where "a brute fact is by definition one for which any explanation is simply unnecessary." (p. 79) He meets this challenge by arguing that the existence of concrete individuals would harbor a contradiction if taken to be a brute fact. Given this putative contradiction, an inquiry into how it is possible that any such individual exist becomes logically inescapable. It turns out that the contradiction can only be removed if the existence of concrete individuals is not a brute fact but is dependent on something external to them. (p. 84)
Wherein lies the contradiction? Consider Fido's existing. On Miller's preferred analysis, Fido's existing has two constituents, Fido and Fido's existence. Whereas Fido is a complete entity, one capable of independent existence, Fido's existence is a property-instance and therefore incomplete: incapable of independent existence, it requires a complete entity for its "individuation." (p. 38, n. 22) As constituents, Fido and his existence are ontologically, not chronologically, prior to Fido's existing in the sense that "...Fido's existing must be constructible conceptually from Fido and his existence." (p. 10) But such a construction would make no sense if Fido could not be conceived prior to Fido's existing. Yet chapter 3 ("The Inconceivability of Future Individuals") issues in precisely this conclusion: "Fido could neither be referred to nor conceived of before he existed." (p. 11)
Thus a contradiction emerges at the heart of concrete individuals: Fido's existing is a complex whose ontological constituents are such that one of them (Fido) must be and cannot be conceived prior to Fido's existing. Fido must be independently conceivable if he is to be available for the conceptual construction; but he cannot be so conceivable since "prior to its existing no concrete individual could be conceived of by anyone or in any way." (p. 42)
To establish that there is this contradiction, Miller must first of all develop a constituent ontology of individuals. This he does in chapter 2, "Sense Structure and Ontology." The analysis is pushed further in chapter 4, "Existence is a Real Property." Here he argues (convincingly to my mind) against the dominant Frege-Russell line that 'exists' and cognates are never legitimately predicable of individuals. The upshot is that existence is a first-level property.
Further argument is to the effect that it is a real (as opposed to a 'Cambridge') first-level property. Miller is now in a position to think of Fido's existing as built up from two constituents, Fido and Fido's existence. But what is Fido in distinction from his existence? One way to think of this is in terms of the question, What was Fido before he came to exist? Was he conceivable or referrable-to before he existed?
Chapter 3 defends the thesis that concrete individuals can neither be conceived of nor referred to prior to their existence, not even by God. This implies that, prior to Socrates' coming to exist, there was no de re possibility of his coming to exist. Thus there are no singular propositions about future individuals; all such propositions are general. (p. 42) Further implications are that the coming into existence of an individual is not the actualization of a merely possible individual, or the exemplification of any such exotic property as a Plantingian haecceity.
Now if Fido is inconceivable before he existed, then, "he cannot be conceived of except as existing or as having existed..." (p. 62) If so, how can Fido be a constituent of his existing? The result of chapters 2 and 4 thus contradicts that of chapter 3.
Given the obvious fact that Fido does exist, the contradiction in Fido's existing must be merely apparent. But if the analyses in chapters 2, 3 and 4 are correct, Fido's existing can neither be a brute fact needing no explanation, nor a fact explainable in terms of its constituents. So Fido's existing must be "dependent upon something other than either it or its constituents." (p. 84) This is the thesis of chapter 5, "Why existence? The penultimate answer."
The ultimate answer is provided in chapter 6, where it is argued that nothing is amiss in the idea of a causal regress that terminates necessarily in an uncaused cause. A causal series terminates necessarily if its members are intrinsically such that the series must terminate. (pp. 98-99) I take it that the series of causes that reaches back some 13-15 billion years ago to the Big Bang (assuming the truth of current cosmology) is a contingently terminating series: there is nothing in the nature of an ordinary physical event-cause that necessitates that a series of such causes should terminate, or should not terminate. So if there are no necessarily terminating causal series, there is no hope for a contingency argument that does not apply some version of PSR to an initial event like the Big Bang.
The main challenge Miller faces in showing the possibility of necessarily terminating causal series derives from Hume's contention that in an infinite series of causes each member is wholly explained by the preceding member without any member being uncaused. If so, there is no a priori reason why a causal regress must terminate. To the objection that this would leave the series itself unexplained, the Humean rejoinder is that the explanation of each member by the preceding member suffices to explain the series as a whole. Miller responds to Hume's challenge by distinguishing five types of causal series. The justice of Hume's remarks is admitted with respect to types I-III. But types IV and V are argued to escape Humean censure.
It is impossible in the short space allotted to summarize Miller's intricate and carefully argued discussion of causal series. But perhaps the gist of it can be rendered as follows.
Miller needs a causal series that is both explanatory and necessarily terminating. But if a series is such that each of its members is caused by that which precedes it and causes that which succeeds it, then that series cannot be necessarily terminating. "Series IV and V, however, are cases of causal series in which each part neither is caused by that which precedes it, nor causes that which succeeds it . . ." (p. 111) How? Let a be the cause of Fido's existing, and suppose (to put it roughly) a is caused to exist by b, b by c, c by d, and d by m. Miller's idea is that when properly formulated, what causes a to exist is not b, but b inasmuch as it is caused to exist by c inasmuch as it is caused to exist by d inasmuch as it is caused to exist by m. (p. 112) Now m must be an uncaused cause, says Miller, on pain of the series' no longer being able to cause anything. (p. 112)
Having thus arrived at the uncaused cause, the remaining chapters consolidate and elaborate this result. Chapter 7, "The Uncaused Cause," argues that the ground of the uncaused cause's status as uncaused is in the lack of "any distinction between itself and its existence" (p. 117) and defends this consequence of the doctrine of divine simplicity against charges of incoherence. Miller also addresses the question whether the universe might be the uncaused cause, and concludes that it cannot since it is distinct from its existence, and what is so distinct can exist only if caused to exist. (p. 135)
Chapter 8 ("Necessary Existence") explains the sense in which God's existence is necessary "in terms of the more basic notion of something's lacking any distinction from its existence." (p. 148)
Chapters 9 and 10 treat, respectively, "Objections to the Contingency Argument" and "The Contingency Argument Misconceived." The book concludes with three appendices in support of chapters 2, 3 and 4 respectively, and a useful index.
The production job is reasonably good, although the quality of the paper inspires little confidence in its ability to resist the onset of yellowing. I note only four typographical errors: p. 1 has 'prologomena' instead of 'prolegomena.' P. 35, line 16 sports 'Fido's existing' in place of 'Fido's blackness.' P. 38, n. 22, line 6 shows 'predicate' where it should have 'property.' And a spot check of the index revealed on p. 202, col. I, line 7 a reference to p. 74 when it should be to p. 76.
Miller's book is a significant contribution not only to philosophical theology, but also to metaphysics and the philosophy of language. He engages a fundamental question ("How ever can it be that the Universe does exist?" (p. 1)) and he does so in a clear and rigorous manner. Equally important, he develops a line of reasoning which has been largely ignored in the theistic renaissance of recent decades. Along the way, a number of dogmas come under fire, among them the dogma held by atheists and theists alike that the doctrine of divine simplicity is incoherent. Miller leaves no doubt that he is historically informed, but does not allow himself to be led down exegetical sidetracks. All in all, an exciting and important work.
I conclude with a couple of critical comments, offered in the spirit of a request for clarification.
Miller's contingency argument is motivated by "the recognition that to accept Fido's existing as a brute fact would be to accept that Fido and his existence were simultaneously both constituents and non-constituents of Fido's existing."(p. 116) Suppose we take a closer look at this putative contradiction. Given that they are constituents, Fido and his existence are ontologically, not chronologically, prior to Fido's existing. (p. 10) But if Fido is ontologically prior to Fido's existing, how is this priority contradicted by the fact, if it is one, that Fido is inconceivable until he exists? Fido's being nothing, not even a possible entity, chronologically prior to his existing seems logically compatible with his being ontologically prior to his existing, and therefore a constituent of his existing. The fact that "...Fido's existing should be conceptually constructible from Fido and his existence" (p. 83) seems consistent with Fido's being "disqualified [from being the starting point of the construction] by being inconceivable until he has completed his existence." (p. 83) A conceptual construction is presumably not a temporal process, despite Miller's talk of "beginning" the construction, moving through its "steps" and "stages," (p. 81) and "finishing" it. (p. 82) This talk is surely to be taken nontemporally. If so, it is not clear why Fido cannot be both ontologically prior and chronologically simultaneous with his existing. Surely Miller is not equivocating on 'prior'?
A second point concern's Miller's oft-made admission that Fido's existing admits of more than one legitimate analysis. (p. 37, n. 18, p. 81) Miller's analysis generates a contradiction; but if there is a legitimate analysis that does not generate a contradiction, would this not undercut Miller's argument? He would not think so, since "The nub of the argument is that a legitimate analysis cannot generate an insoluble paradox." (p. 81) But isn't the fact, assuming it is a fact, that Miller's analysis issues in a contradiction, together with the fact that alternative legitimate analyses are available, prima facie evidence that his analysis is illegitimate? It seems that for Miller's argument to work he must show, or at least render credible, the view that his analysis is the only legitimate analysis.
A reader experiences intellectual discomfort at the idea of a being that is both concrete and necessary. He maintains that included in the very concept concrete being is that every such being is concrete. To put it another way, his claim is that it is an analytic or conceptual truth that every concrete being is contingent. But I wonder what arguments he could have for such a view. I also wonder if there are any positive arguments against it.
1. We must first agree on some terminology. I suggest the following definitions:
D1. X is concrete =df x is possibly such that it is causally active/passive. A concretum is thus any item of any category that can enter into causal relations broadly construed.
D2. X is abstract =df X is not concrete. An abstractum is thus any item that is causally inert.
D3. X is necessary =df X exists in all possible worlds.
D4. X is contingent =df X exists in some but not all possible worlds.
The modality in question is broadly logical.
2. Now if this is what we mean by the relevant terms, then I do not see how it could be an analytic or conceptual truth that every concrete being is contingent. No amount of analysis of the definiens of (D1) yields the idea that a concrete being must be contingent. God is concrete by (D1), but nothing in (D1) rules out God's being necessary.
3. Off the top of my head, I can think of three arguments to the conclusion that everything concrete is contingent, none of which I consider compelling.
Everything concrete is physical Nothing physical is necessary Ergo Nothing concrete is necessary Ergo Everything concrete is contingent.
The second premise is true, but what reason do we have to accept the first premise?
Whatever we can conceive of as existent we can conceive of as nonexistent Whatever we can conceive of is possible Ergo Everything is such that its nonexistence is possible Ergo Everything is contingent Ergo Everything concrete is contingent.
One can find the first premise in Hume. I believe it is correct. Everything, or at least everything concrete, is such that its nonexistence is thinkable, including God. By 'thinkable' I mean 'thinkable without logical contradiction.' But what reason do I have to accept the second premise? Why should my ability to conceive something determine what is possible in reality apart from me, my mind, and its conceptual powers? If God is necessary, and exists, then he exists even if I can conceive him as not existing.
Nothing is such that its concept C entails C's being instantiated A necessary being is one the concept C of which entails C's being instantiated Ergo Nothing is necessary.
The first premise is true, or at least it is true for concrete beings. But what reason do we have to accept the second premise? I reject that definition. A necessary being is one the nonexistence of which is possible. The existence of God is not a Fregean mark (Merkmal) of the concept God.
Is there some other argument? I would like to know about it.
For Spencer who, though he no longer believes that the Mormon God concept is instantiated, yet believes that as a concept it remains a worthy contender in the arena of God concepts.
What jobs would a being have to perform to qualify as God?
I count four sorts of job, ontological, epistemological, axiological, and soteriological, the first two more 'Athenian,' the second two more 'Hierosolymic.' The fruitful tension between Athens and Jersualem is a background presupposition. (The tension is fruitful in that it helps explain the vitality of the West; its lack in the Islamic world being part of the explanation of the latter's inanition.) This macro-tension between philosophy and Biblical revelation is mirrored microcosmically in human beings in the tension, fruitful or not, between reason and faith, autonomy and authority. (Man is a microcosm as Nicholas Cusanus maintained.)
1. Ontological Jobs. Why does anything exist at all? To be precise: why does anything contingent exist at all? A God worth his salt must play a role, indeed the main role, in any explanation. In brief: the reason why contingent beings exist is because God, a necessary being, (i) created them out of nothing and (ii) maintains them in existence. God is thus the unsourced source of all finite and contingent existents. Maybe nothing does this job. It might be that the existence of contingent beings is a factum brutum. But nothing could count as God that did not do this explanatory job. Or at least so I claim.
But I hear an objection. "Why couldn't there be a god who was a contingent being among contingent beings or even a contingent god among a plurality of contingent gods?" I needn't deny that there are such minor deities, not that I believe in any. I needn't even deny that they could play an explanatory role or a soteriological role. (I discuss soteriology in #4 below.) My argument would be that they cannot play an ultimate explanatory role or an ultimate soteriological role. Suppose a trio of contingent gods, working together, created the universe. I would press the question: where did they come from? If each of these gods is possibly such as not to exist, then it is legitimate to ask why each does exist. And if each is contingent and in need of explanation, then the same goes for the trio. (Keep your shirts on, muchachos, that is not the fallacy of composition.)
If you say that they always existed as a matter of brute fact, then no ultimate explanation has been given. Suppose time is infinite in both directions and x exists at every time. It doesn't follow that x necessarily exists. To think otherwise would be to confuse the temporal with the modal. An ultimate explanation must terminate in a being whose existence is self-explanatory, where a self-explanatory being is one that exists as a matter of metaphysical necessity and thus has no need of explanation in terms of anything distinct from it.
"Perhaps an ultimate explanation in your sense is not to be had." Well then, the ontological job -- the job of explaining why anything contingent exists at all -- won't get done, and there is no God. Here I may be approaching a stand-off with my interlocutor. I say: nothing counts as God unless it does all four types of job, including the ontological job. My opponent, however, balks at my criterion. He does not see why the God-role can be played only by an absolutely unique being who exists a se and thus by metaphysical necessity.
If you believe in a contingent god or a plurality of contingent gods, and stop there, then I can conceive of something greater, a God who exists of metaphysical necessity and who not only is one without a second, but one without the possibility of a second. But this just brings us back to the Anselmian conception of God as 'that than which no greater can be conceived,' God as the greatest conceivable being, or the maximally perfect being, or the ens reallisimum/perfectissimum, etc. This conception of deity is very Greek and very unanthropomorphic residing as it does in the conceptual vicinity of the Platonic Good and the Plotinian One. But that is what I like about it and my interlocutor doesn't. It's inhuman, 'faceless,' impersonal, he complains. I prefer to say that God is transpersonal and transhuman -- not below but beyond the personal and the human. As I have said before, religion is about transcendence and transformation, not about a duplicate world behind the scenes, a hinterworld if you will. Whatever God is, he can't be a Big Guy in the Sky. And whatever survival of bodily death might be, it is not the perpetuation of these petty selves of ours. An immortality worth wanting is one in which we are transformed and transfigured. The proper desire for immortality is not an egotistical desire but a desire to be purged of one's egotism.
2. Epistemological Jobs. What accounts for the intelligibility of the world and what is its source? A God worth his salt (salary) must play a role, indeed the main role, in any explanation of why the world can be understood by us. The explanation, in outline, is that the world is intelligible because it it is the creation of an intelligent being. As an embodiment and expression of the divine intelligence of the intellectus archetypus it is intelligible to an intellectus ectypus. Maybe the world has no need of a ground or source of its intelligibility. Or maybe we are the source of all intelligibility and project it outward onto what is in itself devoid of intelligibility. But if the world is intelligible, and if this intelligibility is not a projection by us, and if the world has a ground of its intelligibility, then God must play a role, the main role, in the explanation of this intelligibility. Nothing could be called God that did not play this role.
Now if God is the ultimate source of intelligibility and the ultimate ground of ontic truth and, as such, the ultimate condition of the possibility of propositional truth as adequatio intellectus ad rem, then he cannot be just one more intelligible among intelligibles any more than he can be just one more being among beings. A God worthy of the name must be Being itself (self-existent Existence) and Intelligibility itself (self-intelligent Intelligibility), and ontological truth. And so God could not be a contingent being, or a material being, or a collection of contingent material beings. He couldn't be what Mormons apparently believe God to be.
3. Axiological Jobs. By a similar pattern of reasoning, I would argue that nothing could count as God that did not function as the unsourced source of all goodness and the ultimate repository of all value. God is not just another thing that has value, but the paradigm case of value.
4. Soteriological Jobs. Every religion, to count as a religion, must include a doctrine of salvation, a soteriology. Religions exist to cater to the felt need for salvation. It is not essential to a religion that it be theistic, as witness the austere forms of Buddhism, but it is essential to every religion as I define the term that it have a soteriology. A religion must show a way out of our unsatisfactory predicament, and one is not religious unless one perceives our life in this world as indeed a predicament, and one that is unsatisfactory. Sarvam dukkham! as the First Noble Truth has it. I would go a step further and add that out unsatisfactory predicament is one that we cannot escape from by our own power. Self-power alone won't cut it; other-power is also needed. 'Works' are not sufficient, though I suspect they are necessary.
When it comes to salvation we can ask four questions: of what? from what? to what? by what? Here is one possible answer. Salvation is of the soul, not the body; from our unsatisfactory present predicament of sin, ignorance, and meaninglessness; to a state of moral perfection, intellectual insight, peace, happiness, and meaning; by an agent possessing the power to bring about the transformation of the individual soul. God is the agent of salvation. To be worth his salt he must possess the power to save us. Since the only salvation worth wanting involves a complete overhaul and cleansing of our present wretched selves, this God will have to have impressive powers. He cannot be a supplier of material or quasi-material goodies in some hinterworld in which we carry on in much the same way as we do here, though with the negatives removed. The crudest imaginable paradise is the carnal paradise of the Muslims with its 72 black-eyed virgins who never tire out the lucky effer; but if I am not badly mistaken, Mormon conceptions are also crudely materialistic and superstitiously anthropomorphic to boot.
What I'm driving towards is the thesis that a God who can play the ultimate soteriological role cannot be some minor deity among minor deities who just happens to exist. He must be a morally perfect being with the power to confer moral perfection. This moral and soteriological perfection would seem to require as their ground ontological and epistemological perfection. Not that I have quite shown this . . . .
I should thank (or perhaps blame) Spencer Case for sidetracking me into the thickets of Mormon metaphysics. But I have no cause to complain seeing as how my motto is "Study everything, join nothing." Earlier I made a preliminary response to some of Spencer's concerns about the "facelessness" of the full Anselmian conception of deity. Here I am not concerned to defend that conception in all its aspects. Indeed, I will concede arguendo all of the following for the space of this post: divine simplicity is incoherent; divine simplicity is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity; the latter doctrine is incoherent; and so is the doctrine of the Incarnation. I make these concessions to focus the issue and to make clear that my interest as a philosopher is neither apologetic nor polemical. I want to put Blake Ostler and other Mormons at ease: I am not here interested in attacking their faith or defending the sort of God conception found in Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Philosophy is first and foremost inquiry; its purpose is not to attack or defend any worldview. It does not exist to shore up or legitimate antecedently accepted worldviews or ideologies. (So it is not ancilla theologiae, not the handmaiden of theology or of natural science or of anything else.) Religions are worldviews; philosophy as inquiry is no more a worldview than is mathematics or physics. It is also important to note that if the Augustine-Anselm-Aquinas conception is incoherent it doesn't follow that the Mormon conception is coherent: they could both be incoherent.
The issue I will discuss is precisely whether the following assertion by A. A. Howsepian is true: ". . . nothing countenanced by Mormon metaphysicians could possibly count as God." ("Are Mormons Theists?" Religious Studies, vol. 32, no. 3, Sept. 1996, p. 367) Since I am not familiar with the particulars of Mormon doctrine, I will simply assume that they are what Blake T. Ostler says they are in his response to Howsepian in "Worshipworthiness and the Mormon Concept of God," Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 3 (Sept. 1997), pp. 315-326. So what I will be doing is examining Ostler's view of the the Mormon conception of God with an eye to deciding whether it is an adequate God conception.
1. The Anselmian Criterion of Deity
Obviously, not just anything could count as God. So we need a criterion of deity. According to the Anselmian criterion, which both Howsepian and Ostler accept, at least in the main, it is a matter of broadly logical necessity that nothing could count as God that is not the greatest conceivable being (GCB). The Anselmian provenience of this notion is clear: God is "that than which no greater can be conceived." The greatness of the GCB consists in its unsurpassibility in respect of all perfections or great-making properties. The GCB possesses all great-making properties and the highest degree of those that admit of degrees. Among these properties are the traditional omni-attributes, e.g. omniscience. Only the GCB is an adequate object of worship.
Let's note that if a being is unsurpassable by any being distinct from itself it does not follow that it is unsurpassable, period. For it might be "self-surpassable in some respects." (Ostler 315) Obviously, a being that was unsurpassable by any other but self-surpassable could not be actus purus inasmuch as it would have to harbor unrealized potentialities. We ought therefore to distinguish an unmodified and a modified GCB criterion:
Unmodified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being, including itself.
Modified: If a being counts as God, then that being is unsurpassable in point of perfection by any being distinct from itself.
2. Does the Mormon God Satisfy the Modified Anselmian Criterion?
It is obvious that the Mormon God cannot satisfy the unmodified criterion since that criterion leads to the ontologically simple God in whom there is no composition of any kind, whether of form and matter, act and potency, essence and existence, supposit and attributes. Since Mormons can reasonably reject ontological simplicity, they needn't be fazed by the unmodified criterion. Ostler maintains, however, that the Mormon concept of God can satisfy the modified criterion. It may have a chance of doing so if 'God' is construed as 'Godhead.' (319). This Godhead, Ostler tells us, is the one supreme being. (319) If henotheism is the view that there is at least one God, then the Mormon view as Ostler presents it is henotheistic. If monotheism is the view that there is exactly one God, then the Mormon view is not monotheistic. Ostler tells us that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct Gods. (319) So there are at least three distinct Gods in the Mormon pantheon, which prevents the view from being strictly monotheistic. They are nonetheless one Godhead in that the three "divine personages" are united "in love and unity." (320)
Each of the divine persons is "corporeal" and "located in a particular space-time." (320) The Godhead, however, is not corporeal, at least if Godhead is the same as Godhood. Ostler employs both of these terms without explaining whether or how they differ. (320) My impression is that he is using them interchangeably. If that is right, then Godhead/Godhood is not corporeal. This is because ". . . Godhood refers to the immutable set of properties necessary to be divine. There is only one Godhood or divine essence in this sense." (320-321, emphasis in original) Presumably, an immutable set of properties is not corporeal. The same goes for a set of immutable properties, and a conjunctive property the conjuncts of which are immutable properties.
How are God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost related? They are related in a "relationship of divine love" which is "contingent and not necessary." (321) It is contingent because "Love is a voluntary attitude freely chosen." (321) "The divine persons can kenotically empty themselves of the divine glory by separating themselves from the divine unity of the Godhead." (321) Despite this ability of the persons to separate themselves from the unity of the Godhead,
. . . there always has been and always will be a God in the sense of divine persons united as one. The divine persons obviously can so plan that there will always be at least two joined as one to govern the universe. (321)
The individual divine persons are subject to "eternal progression," progression in knowledge, power and dominion. (321) Does it follow that "Godhead as a whole" or "God-as-divine-persons-in-relationship" is subject to eternal progression? No it doesn't, says Ostler, and to think otherwise would be to commit the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy with which Ostler taxes Howsepian.
3. Preliminary Evaluation
My question is precisely this: Does the Mormon conception of God/Godhead, as explained by Ostler, satisfy the modifed Anselmian criterion? The modified criterion requires that a candidate for GCB status be necessarily unsurpassable by another, but allows the candidate to be self-surpassable in some respects. Ostler tells us that
. . .there cannot be a greater being than God qua the divine persons united as one Godhead in Mormon thought. God is necessarily unsurpassable by any other being. (323)
Here is one difficulty I am having. Ostler claims that the divine persons are contingently related to each other. It follows that the Godhead as the unity of the persons contingently exists. Please note that if x always existed and always will exist,it doesn't follow that x necessarily exists. (If x exists at all times in the actual world, it does not follow that x exists in every possible world.) If the divine persons "c an so plan that there will always be at least two joined as one" (321, emphasis added), it doesn't follow that they must so plan. Now if the Godhead contingently exists, then there can be a greater being than "God qua the divine persons united as one Godhead," namely, a being having the same properties bu existing necessarily.
I conclude that the Mormon conception as explained by Ostler cannot satisfy the modified Anselmian criterion. For whether God/Godhead is or is not self-surpassable, he must be a necessary being. But he can't be a necessary being if the divine persons are merely contingently related. If they are contingently related, then they are possibly such as to be unrelated. But if they are possibly such as to be unrelated, then their unity is possibly nonexistent, i.e. not necessary. So it looks as if Howsepian is right in his claim that ". . . nothing countenanced by Mormon metaphysicians could possibly count as God."
Does Ostler have an escape via his talk of Godhood as opposed to Godhead? (320-321) Godhood or "the divine essence" is "the immutable set of properties necessary to be divine." This set counts as a necessary being unlike Godhead which we have seen is a contingent being. But although metaphysically necessary, Godhood cannot be the one God who is "the governing power of the enture universe." For no such abstract object as a set can play that role. But, to be charitable, I won't hold Ostler to his talk of a 'set.' Let us take him to mean a conjunctive property the conjuncts of which are the divine attributes. It too is a necessary being, but it too is causally impotent and cannot be the governing power of the entire universe.
In sum, Godhead is powerful but contingent while Godhood is necessary but powerless. To satisfy the modified Anselmian criterion, Ostler needs a being that is both necessary and powerful.
One of the striking features of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006) is that Dennett seems bent on having a straw man to attack. This is illustrated by his talk of the "deformation" of the concept of God: "I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation." (206) He speaks of "the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts." (205)
Why speak of deformation rather than of reformation, transformation, or refinement? Dennett's view is that the "original monotheists" thought of God as a being one could literally listen to, and literally sit beside. (206) If so, the "original monotheists" thought of God as a physical being: "The Old Testament Jehovah, or Yahweh, was quite definitely a super-man (a He, not a She) who could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful." (206, emphasis in original). The suggestion here is that monotheism in its original form, prior to deformation, posited a Big Guy in the Sky, a human being Writ Large, something most definitely made in the image of man, and to that extent an anthropomorphic projection.
What Dennett is implying is that the original monotheistic conception of God had a definite content, but that this conception was deformed and rendered abstract to the point of being emptied of all content. Dennett is of course assuming that the only way the concept of God could have content is for it to have a materialistic, anthropomorphic content. Thus it is not possible on Dennett's scheme to interpret the anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament in a figurative way as pointing to a purely spiritual reality which, as purely spiritual, is neither physical nor human. Dennett thereby simply begs the question against every sophisticated version of theism.
Dennett seems in effect to be confronting the theist with a dilemma. Either your God is nothing but an anthropomorphic projection or it is is so devoid of recognizable attributes as to be meaningless. Either way, your God does not exist. Surely there is no Big Guy in the Sky, and if your God is just some Higher Power, some unknowable X, about which nothing can be said, then what exactly are you affirming when you affirm that this X exists? Theism is either the crude positing of something as unbelievable as Santa Claus or Wonder Woman, or else it says nothing at all.
Either crude anthropomorphism or utter vacuity. Compare the extremes of the spectrum of positions I set forth in Anthropomorphism in Religion.
Dennett's Dilemma -- to give it a name -- is quite reasonable if you grant him his underlying naturalistic and scientistic (not scientific) assumptions, namely, that there is exactly one world, the physical world, and that (future if not contemporary) natural science provides the only knowledge of it. On these assumptions, there simply is nothing that is not physical in nature. Therefore, if God exists, then God is physical in nature. But since no enlightened person can believe that a physical God exists, the only option a sophisticated theist can have is to so sophisticate and refine his conception of God as to drain it of all meaning. And thus, to fill out Dennett's line of thought in my own way, one ends up with pablum such as Tillich's talk of God as one "ultimate concern." If God is identified as the object of one's ultimate concern, then of course God, strictly speaking, does not exist. Dennett and I will surely agree on this point.
But why should we accept naturalism and scientism? It is unfortunately necessary to repeat that naturalism and scientism are not scientific but philosophical doctrines with all the rights, privileges, and liabilities pertaining thereunto. Among these liabilities, of course, is a lack of empirical verifiability. Naturalism and scientism cannot be supported scientifically. For example, we know vastly more than Descartes (1596-1650) did about the brain, but we are no closer than he was to a solution of the mind-body problem. Neuroscience will undoubtedly teach us more and more about the brain, but it takes a breathtaking lack of philosophical sophistication — or else ideologically induced blindness — to think that knowing more and more about the physical properties of a lump of matter will teach us anything about consciousness, the unity of consciousness, self-conciousness, intentionality, and the rest.
This is not the place to repeat the many arguments against naturalism. Suffice it to say that a very strong case can be brought against it, a case that renders its rejection reasonable. (See J. P. Moreland's The Recalcitrant Imago Dei for one case against it.) Dennett's reliance on naturalism is thus dogmatic and uncompelling. Indeed, when he pins his hopes on future science and confesses his faith that there is nothing real apart from the system of space-time-matter, he makes moves analogous to the moves the theist makes who goes beyond what he can claim to know to affirm the existence of a spiritual reality within himself and beyond himself.
Dennett needs to give up the question-begging and the straw-man argumentation. His talk of the "deformation" of the God concept shows that he is unwilling to allow what he would surely allow with other subject-matters, namely, the elaboration of a more adequate concept of the subject-matter in question. Instead, he thinks that theists must be stuck with the crudest conceptions imaginable. Thinking this, he merely projects his own crude materialism into them.
Genuine religion is ongoing, open-ended and (potentially) self-correcting. It is more quest than conclusions. We don't hold it against science that its practioners contradict each other over time and at times. That is because we understand that science is an ongoing project, open-ended and self-correcting. That is the way we should treat religion as well. If you protest that there are huge differences between religion and science and that the latter has been highly successful in securing consensus while the former has not, I will simply agree with you and chalk that up to the great difference in their respective subject-matters.
It is no surprise that natural science secures consensus: it has available to it the touchstone of sense experience. We all have sense organs, while the same cannot be said of moral and spiritual 'organs.'
This is the fourth in a series of posts on Plantinga's new book. They are collected under the rubric Science and Religion. In the third chapter of Where the Conflict Really Lies, Plantinga addresses questions about divine action and divine intervention in the workings of nature. A miracle is such an intervention. But aren't miracles logically impossible? Plantinga doesn't cite Earman, but I will:
. . . if a miracle is a violation of a law of nature, then whether or not the violation is due to the intervention of the Deity, a miracle is logically impossible since, whatever else a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity.
According to one way of thinking, miracles are violations of laws of nature. And so one may argue:
1. A miracle is an exception to a law of nature. 2. Every law of nature is an exceptionless regularity (though not conversely). Therefore 3. A miracle is an exception to an exceptionless regularity. Therefore 4. Miracles are logically impossible.
Please note that (2) merely states that whatever a law of nature is, it is an exceptionless regularity. Thus (2) does not commit one to a regularity theory of laws according to which laws are identified with exceptionless regularities. The idea is that any theory of (deterministic) laws would include the idea that a law is an exceptionless regularity.
The above argument seems to show that if miracles are to be logically possible they cannot be understood as violations of laws of nature. To avoid the conclusion one must deny (1). How then are miracles to be understood? Plantinga supplies an answer:
Miracles are often thought to be problematic, in that God, if he were to perform a miracle, would be involved in 'breaking,' going contrary to, abrogating, suspending, a natural law. But given this conception of law, if God were to perform a miracle, it wouldn't at all involve contravening a natural law. That is because, obviously, any occasion on which God performs a miracle is an occasion when the universe is not causally closed; and the laws say nothing about what happens when the universe is not causally closed. Indeed, on this conception it isn't even possible that God break a law of nature. (pp. 82-83)
As I understand him, Plantinga is saying that a miracle is not a divine suspension of a law of nature, but a divine suspension of causal closure. Conservation and other natural laws apply to isolated or closed systems (78). God cannot intervene without 'violating' closure; but that does not amount to a violation of a law since the laws hold only for closed systems. "It is entirely possible for God to create a full-grown horse in the middle of Times Square without violating the principle of conservation of energy. That is because the systems including the horse would not be closed or isolated." (79)
Plantinga is maintaining that it is logically impossible, impossible in the very strongest sense of the term, for anyone, including God, to contravene a law of nature. But it is logically possible that God contravene causal closure. This implies that causal closure is not a law of nature.
But isn't it a proposition of physics that the physical universe is causally closed, that every cause of a physical event is a physical event and that every effect of a physical event is a physical event? No, says Plantinga. Causal closure is a "metaphysical add-on," (79) not part of physics. That's right, as far as I can see. I would add that it is the mistake of scientism to think otherwise.
Whether or or not God ever intervenes in the physical world, I do it all the time. It's called mental causation. That it occurs is a plain fact; that mental causes are not identical to physical causes is not a plain fact, but very persuasively arguable, pace Jaegwon Kim. So if a frail reed such as the Maverick Philosopher can bring about the suspension of causal closure, then God should be able to pull it off as well. (This comparison with mental causation is mine, not Plantinga's.)
The following post draws mainly upon Robert Oakes, "Does Traditional Theism Entail Pantheism?" American Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 1 (January 1983), pp. 105-112. Reprinted in Tom Morris, ed. The Concept of God (Oxford U. Press, 1987).
The question arises: Does my construal of creatio ex nihilo in terms of creatio ex Deo commit me to pantheism? If so, how does that comport with my avowed onto-theological personalism? I will try toshow that my construal does not commit me to pantheism, or at least not to the pantheism that Oakes seems to embrace.
The logically first question concerns just what pantheism is and is not. I’ll begin with what it is not.
A. Pantheism worth discussing is not the view that God (G) is identical to the physical universe (U). For that would amount to saying that God does not exist. Whether or not God exists, the divine nature excludes the possibility of God’s being a system of physical objects. The reduction of G to U thus amounts to the elimination of G. Therefore, the use of ‘God’ to refer to U is simply an egregious misuse of the term ‘God,’ a misuse on a par with Tillich’s misuse of ‘God’ to refer to one’s ultimate concern.
B. What of the opposite reduction of U to G? This is also a type of pantheism not worth discussing: it implies that God exists but the physical universe does not. For it is self-evident that the physical universe cannot exist unless it is in some sense distinct from G. After all, G is immutable whereas U is mutable; hence, by what McTaggart calls the Discernibility of the Diverse (the logical contrapositive of the Indiscernibility of Identicals), U cannot be identical to G if both exist.
C. If pantheism is to be worth discussing, it must somehow allow for a difference of some kind between God and the cosmos. It must steer a middle course between a strict identity of G and U and a type of difference that would render them ‘indifferent’ to each other, i.e., a type of radical difference that would allow the possibility of U existing without G existing. A viable pantheism must therefore avoid three positions: (1) God is world-identical; (2) The world is God-identical; (3) God and the world are externally related in the sense that either could exist without the other.
One way to satisfy these requirements is by saying, Spinozistically, that created entities are modes of God, or as Oakes says, "aspects or modifications" of God. (p. 106 et passim) For if x is a mode (aspect, modification) of y, then x is not identical to y, y is not identical to x, and x and y are not merely externally related.
It is important to realize that classical theism must also satisfy the requirements, (1)-(3). In particular, classical theism must deny that U can exist without G. For it is a central tenet of classical theism that God is not merely a cause of the inception of the universe, but a cause of its continuance as well. God is not merely a deistic 'starter-upper,' but a moment by moment conserver. How exactly creatio originans and creatio continuans fit together involves problems that cannot be discussed in this post. (Cf. William F. Vallicella (2002), The Creation–Conservation Dilemma and Presentist Four-Dimensionalism, Religious Studies 38 (2):187-200.) But there can be no doubt that for classical theism as it is found in Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley and others, creation in the full sense involves both notions, both originating creation and continuing creation.
Now given the fact just mentioned, how are we to distinguish classical theism (CT) from pantheism in the (C)-sense, the only sense in play here? Does (CT) perhaps entail pantheism? (To say that p entails q is to say that, necessarily, if p is true, then q is true. Equivalently, it is to say that it is impossible that p be true, and q false.)
You will notice that the doctrine of conservation ‘shortens’ the ‘ontological distance’ between creator and creatures. It implies that at each moment divine activity is required to keep the creature from lapsing into nonbeing. The point is not merely that God as a contingent matter of fact conserves creatures moment by moment, but that creatures are necessarily such that they are conserved moment by moment by divine activity. This suggests that the very being of creatures is their being-conserved moment by moment, which in turn gives rise to the following worry: How then can creatures retain any ontological independence?
Drawing on Oakes, the following Argument from Conservation can be mounted for the thesis that classical theism entails pantheism (but of course not pantheism in the absurd (A) or (B) senses). (The argument is in Oakes, but the reconstruction is mine.)
1. Every contingent being is necessarily such that it is existentially dependent on God at each moment of its existence.
2. If anything X is necessarily such that it is dependent on something Y at each moment of its existence, then X is a mode (aspect, modification) of Y.
3. Every contingent being is a mode (aspect, modification) of God, which amounts to pantheism.
The validity (formal correctness) of this argument is not in question, and premise (1) merely states the conservation doctrine, an essential subdoctrine of classical theism. So the soundness of the argument rides on premise (2).
Premise (2) fits some cases very well. A wrinkle in a carpet satisfies both the antecedent and the consequent of (2). Same holds for the dance and the dancer. Suppose Little Eva is doing the Locomotion ("C’mon baby, do the Lo-co-mo-shun . . ..) There is the dance-type and its various actual and possible tokens. Little Eva’s gyrations at time t constitute one of these tokens such that the token in question could not possibly exist except as an aspect or modification of Little Eva at t. Similarly for felt pleasures and felt pains. The esse of a pain just is its percipi: a pain cannot exist except as perceived. Pains and the like are therefore plausibly construed as aspects or modifications of perceivers. Finally, it is plausibly maintained that a particular thinking, believing, imagining, is an aspect or modification of a thinker or a believer or an imaginer.
But now consider an object imagined as opposed to the act of imagining it. I mean an object that does not exist apart from its being imagined, a purely intentional object. (A rich vein of gold at the base of Weaver’s Needle; a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater.) Said object does not exist on its own, but only as the accusative of an act (or acts) of imagining. Now while it makes sense to say that the act (the occurrent episode) of imagining is an aspect or modification of an imaginer, it does not make much sense to say this of the intentional object (the accusative) of the act. Indeed, we cannot even say that the intentional object is an aspect or modification of the act trained upon it. Why not?
Note that if x is an aspect or modification of y, then x cannot exist without y, but y can exist without x. (A carpet wrinkle cannot exist without the carpet of which it is the wrinkle, but the carpet can surely exist without that, or any, wrinkle.) By contrast, if x is the intentional object of act y, then x cannot exist without y, AND y cannot exist without x. An imagining cannot exist except as the imagining of a definite object, and that object, qua intentional object, cannot exist without the act. I conclude from this difference that the intentional object cannot be an aspect or modification of the act. It is not a property of the act, but its object or intentum. A fortiori, it cannot be an aspect or modification of the subject of the act, the imaginer in the case of an act of imagining.
We therefore have a class of counterexamples to premise (2) above. The Argument from Conservation therefore fails, and classical theism does not collapse into pantheism – or at least not for the reason that Oakes provided in the article under discussion.
So far, then, I cannot see that I am committed to pantheism in any of the three senses lately distinguished by my construal of creatio ex nihilo as creatio ex Deo.
1. God is an absolute, or rather the absolute. That is a non-negotiable starting point for both of us. To uphold the divine absoluteness, however, it is necessary to think of God as ontologically simple, as devoid of metaphysical complexity and composition. For if God is absolute, then he cannot depend on anything else for his existence or nature. It follows that God cannot be an instance of his attributes but must be them; nor can he be an existent among existents: he must be his existence and existence itself. Indeed, God as absolute must be ipsum esse subsistens, self-subsisting Existence. These are hard sayings and sharp heads, Plantinga being one of them, find them incoherent. For details and a bit of a response to Plantinga, I refer you to my Stanford Encyclopedia article. Note also that an absolute cannot be lacking anything or in need of developing itself: it is, eternally, all that it can be. This implies that there is no act/potency distinction in God, no unrealized powers or potentialities. In the classical phrase, God is actus purus, pure act, wholly actual. Dolezal puts it very well when he writes, "The consideration of God as ipsum esse subsistens and actus purus is crucial for any confession of God's absolute existence." (214)
2. But to uphold the divine absoluteness, it is also necessary that God be libertarianly free in his production of creatures. For suppose there is something in the divine nature that necessitates God's creation. Then God would depend on the world to be himself and to be fully actual. He would need what is other than himself to actualize himself. This entanglement with the relative would compromise the divine absoluteness. God would need the world as much as the world needs God. Each would require the other to be what it is. (210)
3. So God must be both simple and free to be absolute. But it is very difficult to understand how a simple being could be free in the unconditional 'could have done otherwise' sense. If God is simple, then he is pure act in which case he is devoid of unrealized powers, potentialities or possibilities. To act freely, however is to act in such a way that one (unconditionally) could have done otherwise, which implies unrealized possibilities. Now Dolezal's view if I have understood him -- and he can correct me in the ComBox if I am wrong -- is that it is not only difficult to reconcile simplicity and freedom, but impossible for us, at least in our present state. "Though we discover strong reasons for confessing both simplicity and freedom in God, we cannot form an isomorphically adequate notion of how this is the case." (210) In footnote 55 on the same page, Dolezal brings up wave-particle duality: light behaves both like a particle and like a wave. We have good reason to believe that it is both despite the difficulty or impossibility of understanding how it could be both. On the basis of the quotation and the footnote I hope that Dolezal will forgive me for pinning the label 'mysterian' on him, at least with respect to the simplicity-freedom problem which is only one subproblem within the the divine simplicity constellation.
4. I grant that if we have good reason to believe that p is true, and good reason to believe that q is true, then we have good reason to believe that p and q are logically consistent (with each other) despite an absence of understanding as to how they could be mutually consistent. What is actual is possible whether or not one can render intelligible how it is possible. To give an example of my own, motion is actual, hence possible, despite my inability in the teeth of Zenonian considerations to understand how it is possible. Many similar examples could be given.
And so a mysterian move suggests itself: We are justified in maintaining both that God is simple and that God is free despite the fact that after protracted effort we cannot make logical sense of this conjunction. The fact that the conjunction -- God is simple & God is free -- appears to us, and perhaps even necessarily appears to us, given irremediable cognitive limitations on our part, to be or rather entail an explicit logical contradiction is not a good reason to reject the conjunction. The mysterian is not a dialetheist: he does not claim that there are true contradictions. Like the rest of us, the mysterian eschews them like the plague. His point is rather that a proposition's non-episodic and chronic seeming to be a contradiction does not suffice for its rejection. For it may well be that certain truths are inaccesible to us due to our mental limitations and defects, and that among these truths are some that appear to us only in the guise of contradictions, and must so appear.
Of course, Dolezal's mysterian move cannot be reasonably made unless the extant attempts (by Barry Miller, Eleonore Stump, Brian Davies, et al.) to reconcile simplicity and freedom are failures. Since I agree with Dolezal that they are, I grant him this.
5. So what are some possible questions/reservations?
First, if a (conjunctive) proposition's seeming, after careful and repeated scrutiny, to be or entail an explicit logical contradiction is not sufficient evidence of its being a contradiction, what would be? To put it another way, my inability to explain how it could be true both that p and that q does seem to be pretty good evidence that p and q are not both true. Now I said above that the actual is possible whether or not I can explain how it's possible. Granted, but if I cannot explain the how, doubt is cast on the actuality.
How adjudicate between these opposing lines of argument: A: Because X is actual, X is possible, whether or not anyone can explain how it is possible! B: Because no one can explain how it is possible, it is not possible, and therefore not actual!
Second, if all extant attempts to reconcile simplicity and freedom fail, it does not follow that there isn't a solution right over the horizon. How can a mysterian rule out the possibiity of a future solution? The mysterian seems committed to saying that it is impossible (at least in this life) that there be a solution. How can he be sure of this?
Third, if a proposition appears under careful scrutiny to be or entail a contradiction, then is there even a proposition before the mind? If you require for my salvation that I believe that God is one and God is three, what exactly are you demanding that I believe? Before I can affirm a proposition as true I must understand it, but how can I affirm as true a proposition that appears necessarily false? Such a 'proposition' is arguably not a proposition at all. (This requires development, of course . . . Richard Cartwright's Trinity paper will help you see what I am getting at.))
In an e-mail Michael Sudduth asked me what I thought of panentheism. I suspect my position, as developed in A Paradigm Theory of Existence and various articles, points in a panentheistic direction. For when I think about the relation of the One and the Many, I think of the Many as 'in' the One in a manner analogous to the way an intentional object is 'in' the mind. The manifold of contingent beings is 'in' the divine One. The present post will sketch a way panentheism might be teased out of classical theism.
Classical theists hold that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. This phrase of course carries a privative, not a positive, sense: it means not out of something as opposed to out of something called ‘nothing.’ This much is crystal clear. Less clear is how creation ex nihilo (CEN), comports, if it does comport, with the following principle:
ENN: Ex nihilo nihit fit. Nothing comes from nothing.
The latter principle seems intuitively obvious. It is not a truth of formal logic -- since its negation is not self-contradictory -- but it does appear to be a truth of metaphysics, indeed, a necessary truth of metaphysics. But if (ENN) is true, how can (CEN) be true? How can God create out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing?
It would be unavailing to say that God, being omnipotent, can do anything, including making something come out of nothing. For omnipotence, rightly understood, does not imply that God can do anything, but that God can do anything that any possible agent could possibly do. But there are limits on what is possible. For one thing, logic limits possibility, and so limits divine power: not even God can make a contradiction true. There are also extra-logical limits on divine power: God cannot restore a virgin. There are past events which possess a necessitas per accidens that puts them beyond the reach of the divine will. Nor can God violate (ENN), given that it is necessarily true. God is subject to necessary truths. Some may see a problem with that, but I don’t. Necessary truths, like all truths, are accusatives of the divine intellect and so cannot exist unless the divine intellect exists. The divine intellect limits the divine will.
So the problem remains: How can God create the world out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing? How can we reconcile (CEN) with (ENN)?
One response to the problem is to say that (CEN), properly understood, states that God creates out of nothing distinct from himself. Thus he does not operate upon any pre-given matter, nor does he bestow existence on pre-given essences, nor create out of pre-given possibles. But if God creates out of nothing distinct from himself, this formulation allows that, in some sense, God creates ex Deo, out of himself. Creating the world out of himself, God creates the world out of nothing distinct from himself. In this way, (CEN) and (ENN) are rendered compatible.
In sum, ‘Creatio ex nihilo’ is ambiguous. It could mean that God creates out of nothing, period, in which case (CEN) collides with (ENN), or that God creates out of nothing ultimately distinct from himself. My proposal is that the Latin phrase be construed in the second of these ways. So construed, it has the sense of ‘creatio ex Deo.’
But what exactly does it mean to say that God creates out of God? A critic once rather uncharitably took me to mean precisely what I do not mean, namely, that God creates out of God in a way that implies that the product of the creative operation (creation in the sense of created entities) is identical to its operator (God) and its operand (God). That would amount to an absurd pantheism in which all distinctions are obliterated, a veritable "night in which all cows are black," to borrow a phrase from Hegel.
When I say that God creates ex Deo what I mean is that God operates on entities that are not external to God in the sense of having existence whether or not God exists. I build a rock cairn to mark the trail by piling up otherwise scattered rocks. These rocks exist whether or not I do. My creation of the cairn is therefore neither out of nothing nor out of me but out of materials external to me. If God created in that way he would not be God as classically conceived, but a Platonic demiurge. So I say that God creates out of ‘materials’ internal to him in the sense that their existence depends on God’s existence and are therefore in this precise sense internal to him. (I hope it is self-evident that materials need not be made out of matter.) In this sense, God creates ex Deo rather than out of materials that are provided from without. It should be obvious that God, a candidate for the status of an absolute, cannot have anything ‘outside him.’
To flesh this out a bit, suppose properties are concepts in the divine mind. Then properties are necessary beings in that they exist in all metaphysically possible worlds just as God does. The difference, however, is that properties have their necessity from another, namely God, while God has his necessity from himself. (This distinction is in Aquinas.) Inother words, properties, though they are necessary beings, depend for their existence on God. Suppose that properties are the ‘materials’ or ontological constituents out of which concrete contingent individuals – thick particulars in Armstrong’s parlance – are constructed. (This diverges somewhat from what I say in PTE, but no matter: it is a simplification for didactic purposes.) We can then say that the existence of contingent individual C is just the unity or contingent togetherness of C’s ontological constituents. C exists iff C’s constituents are unified. Creating is then unifying. (We have a model for this unifying in our own unification of a sensory manifold in the unity of one consciousness.) Since the constituents are necessary beings, they are uncreated. But since their necessity derives from God, they are not independent of God.
In this sense, God creates out of himself: he creates out of materials that are internal to his own mental life. It is ANALOGOUS to the way we create objects of imagination. (I am not saying that God creates the world by imagining it.) When I construct an object in imagination, I operate upon materials that I myself provide. Thus I create a purple right triangle by combining the concept of being purple with the concept of being a right triangle. I can go on to create a purple cone by rotating the triangle though 360 degrees on the y-axis. The object imagined is wholly dependent on me the imaginer: if I leave off imagining it, it ceases to exist. I am the cause of its beginning to exist as well as the cause of its continuing to exist moment by moment. But the object imagined, as my intentional object, is other than me just as the creature is other than God. The creature is other than God while being wholly dependent on God just as the object imagined is other than me while being wholly dependent on me.
A critic thinks that "The notion of total dependence, dependence in every respect, entails identity, and therefore no dependence at all. If a is dependent on b in all respects, then a ‘collapses’ into b, taking dependency, and difference, with it." So if the creature is dependent on God both for its existence and for its nature, the creature collapses into God. And of course we can’t have that. It is obvious that the manifest plurality of the world, the difference of things from one another and from God, must be maintained. We cannot allow a pantheism according to which God just is the world, nor one on which God swallows up the plural world and its plurality with it.
The principle lately quoted is refuted by every intentional object qua intentional object. The object imagined is totally dependent in its existence on my acts of imagining. After all, I excogitated it: in plain Anglo-Saxon, I thought it up, or out. This excogitatum, to give it a name, is wholly dependent on my cogitationes and on the ego ‘behind’ these cogitationes if there is an ego ‘behind’ them. (Compare Sartre’s critique of Husserl on this score in the former’s Transcendence of the Ego.) But this dependence is entirely consistent with the excogitatum’s being distinct both from me qua ego, and from the intentional acts or cogitationes emanating from the ego and directed upon the excogitatum. To press some Husserlian jargon into service, the object imagined ist kein reeller Inhalt, it is not "really contained" in the act. The object imagined is neither immanent in the act, nor utterly transcendent of the act: it is a transcendence in immanence. It is ‘constituted’ as a transcendence in immanence.
The quoted principle may also be refuted by more mundane examples, examples that I would not use to explain the relation between creator and creature. Consider a wrinkle W in a carpet C. W is distinct from C. This is proven by the fact that they differ property-wise: the wrinkle is located in the Northeast corner of the carpet, but the carpet is not located in the Northeast corner of the carpet. (The principle here is the Indiscernibility of Identicals.) But W is wholly (totally) dependent on C. A wrinkle in a carpet cannot exist without a carpet; indeed, it cannot exist apart from the very carpet of which it is the wrinkle. Thus W cannot ‘migrate’ from carpet C to carpet D. Not only is W dependent for its existence on C, but W is dependent on C for its nature (whatness, quiddity). For W just is a certain modification of the carpet, and the whole truth about W can be told in C-terms. So W is totally dependent on C.
So dependence in both essence and existence does not entail identity.
Somehow the reality of the Many must be upheld. The plural world is no illusion. If Advaita Vedanta maintains that it is an illusion, then it is false. On the other hand, the plural world is continuously dependent for its existence on the One. Making sense of this relation is not easy, and I don't doubt that my analogy to the relation of finite mind and its intentional objects limps in various ways.
Nothing could count as God that did not have the property of aseity, or in plain Anglo-Saxon, from-itself-ness. The concept of God is the concept of something that by its very nature cannot be dependent on anything else for its nature or existence, and this holds whether or not anything in reality instantiates the concept. This is equivalent to the assertion that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. But if everything that exists exists contingently, as philosophers of an empiricist bent are likely to maintain, then we have the makings of an ontological disproof of God. In a 1948 Mindarticle, J. N. Findlay gave essentially the following argument:
a. God cannot be thought of as existing contingently. b. Everything that exists can only be thought of as existing contingently. Therefore c. God does not exist.
This ontological disproof of God turns Anselm on his head while retaining the Anselmian insight that God is “that than which no greater can be conceived.” Precisely because God is maximally great, supremely perfect, id quo maius cogitari non nequit, he cannot exist. For if everything that exists exists contingently, then nothing exists necessarily. Necessary existence, however, is a divine perfection. Ergo, God does not exist.
The trouble with Findlay’s 1948 argument, an argument which the older and wiser Findlay renounced, is that premise (b) is by no means obviously true, even if we replace ‘everything’ with ‘every concrete thing.’ Indeed, I believe that (b) is demonstrably false. But the argument for this belongs elsewhere.
In the context of a reply to a "nasty attack on [Alvin] Plantinga by Jerry Coyne that cannot go unanswered," James Barham explains why he is an atheist:
The other reason I balk [at accepting a theism like that of Plantinga's] is that I can’t help suspecting there is a category mistake involved in talking about the “necessity” of the existence of any real thing, even a ground of being. When we speak of the ground of being’s existing “necessarily,” perhaps we are conflating the nomological sense of “necessity”—in the earth’s gravitational field an unsupported object necessarily accelerates at 32 feet per second squared—with the logical sense of the word—if all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then necessarily Socrates is mortal.
Many experience intellectual discomfort at the thought of a being that is, as Barham says, real (as opposed, presumably, to ideal or abstract) but yet exists of broadly logical (metaphysical) necessity. To discuss this with clarity I suggest we drop 'real' and use 'concrete' instead. So our question is whether it is coherent to suppose that there exists a concrete being that necessarily exists, where the necessity in question is broadly logical. The question is not whether it is true, but whether it is thinkable without broadly logical contradiction, and without 'category mistake.' But what does 'concrete' mean? It does not mean 'material' or 'physical.' Obviously, no material being could be a necessary being. (Exercise for the reader: prove it!) Here are a couple of definitions:
D1. X is concrete =df X is causally active or passive. D2. X is abstract =df X is causally inert, i.e., not concrete.
The terms of the concrete-abstract distinction are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive: everything is one or the other, and nothing is both. And the same goes for the physical-nonphysical distinction. The distinctions are not equivalent, however: they 'cut perpendicular' to each other. There are (or at least it is coherent to suppose that there could be) nonphysical concreta. Whether there are physical abstracta is a nice question I will set aside for now.
Plantinga's God, if he exists, is concrete, wholly immaterial, and necessarily existent. Obviously, one cannot imagine such a being. (A point of difference with Russell's celestial teapot, by the way.) But I find Plantinga's God to be conceivable without contradiction or confusion or conflation or category mistake. Barham thinks otherwise, suggesting that the notion of a necessarily existent concretum trades on a confusion of nomological necessity with logical necessity. I find no such confusion, but I do find a confusion in Barham's thinking.
First of all, there is a genuine distinction between nomological necessity and logical necessity. Barham's sentence about an unsupported object in Earth's gravitational field is nomologically necessary, but logically contingent. It is the latter because there is no logical contradiction in the supposition that a body in Earth's gravitational field accelerate at a rate other than 32 ft/sec2. The laws of nature could have been other than what they are. But what does this have to do with the possibility of the coherence of the notion of a concrete individual that exists in all broadly logically possible worlds if it exists in one such world? Nothing that I can see. Barham points, in effect, to a legitimate difference between:
1. Necessarily, an unsupported object in Earth's gravitation falls at the rate of 32ft/sec2 and 2. Necessarily, if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.
The difference is in type of modality. In (1) the modality is nomological while in (2) it is logical. Both cases are cases of de dicto modality: the modal operator operates upon a dictum or proposition. But when we speak of God as a necessary being, we are not speaking of the necessary truth of a proposition, whether the necessity be nomological or logical. We are speaking of the necessary existence of a 'thing,' a res. Accordingly, the modality is de re. So I am wondering whether Barham is succumbing to de dicto-de re confusion. Of course, there is the proposition
3. Necessarily, God exists
where the necessity in question is broadly logical. The truth-maker of this proposition, however, is God himself, a necessarily existent concrete individual.
My point, then , is that there is no logical mistake involved in the concept of God as necessary being, no confusion, no category mistake. Even if the concept fails of instantiation, the concept itself is epistemically in the clear.
Barham will no doubt continue to be an atheist. But he ought to drop the above accusation of category mistake. He can do better. He could argue that all modality is de dicto. Or that all necessity is linguistic/conventional in origin. Or he could give J. N. Findlay's 1948 ontological disproof, which I will feature in my next post.
This is the third in a series on Plantinga's new book. Here is the first, and here is the second. These posts are collected under the rubric Science and Religion besides being classified under other heads. This third post will examine just one argument of Dawkins' and Plantinga's response to it, pp. 26-28. Here is Plantinga in Chapter One of Where the Conflict Really Lies quoting from Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, p. 141. (The ellipses are Plantinga's; the emphasis is Dawkins'; I have added a sentence from Dawkins that Plantinga did not quote; and I should note that Plantinga gives the wrong page reference. The passage is on 141, not 140.)
Organized complexity is the thing we are having difficulty in explaining. Once we are allowed simply to postulate organized complexity, if only the organized complexity of the DNA/protein replicating engine, it is relatively easy to invoke it as a generator of yet more organized complexity. . . . But of course any God capable of intelligently designing something as complex as the DNA/protein replicating machine must have been at least as complex and organized as that machine itself. .... To explain the origin of the DNA/protein machine by invoking a supernatural Designer is to explain precisely nothing, for it leaves unexplained the origin of the Designer. You have to say something like "God was always there", and if you allow yourself that kind of lazy way out, you might as well just say "DNA was always there", or "Life was always there", and be done with it. (1986, p. 141)
Dawkins seems to me to be arguing as follows.
1. What is needed is an explanation of organized complexity as such. 2. God is an instance of organized complexity. 3. If God is invoked as that whose existence and operation explains organized complexity as such, then the explanation is manifestly circular: the explanandum has been imported into the explanans. 4. Circular explanations are worthless: they explain nothing. Therefore 5. To posit God as cosmic designer fails as an explanation of organized complexity as such.
The argument on my reconstruction is unexceptionable, but how is it relevant? if the task is to explain organized complexity as such, this cannot be done via an instance of it. No doubt. But the argument misses the point. The point is not to explain organized complexity as such, or even the organized complexity of all actual or possible life, but to explain the organized complexity of terrestrial life. More precisely, the point is to show that this cannot be done by invoking God in one's explanation. Obviously the argument as reconstructed does not succeed in showing that.
Note that there is no mention of any facts of biology in the above argument. Now Plantinga doesn't say the following, but I will: the argument is purely a priori. It is a proof, from concepts alone and without recourse to empirical facts, that an explanation of organized complexity as such cannot be had if the explanans mentions an instance of organized complexity. How then, Plantinga asks, does the (empirical) evidence of evolution reveal a world without design? (p. 27)
Now suppose we substitute the following proposition for (1):
1* What is needed is an explanation of the organized complexity of terrestrial life.
But if we plug (1*) into the original argument, and modify (3) accordingly, then (3) is false and the argument is unsound. If we are not trying to explain organized complexity in general, but only the organized complexity of terrestrial life, then there is nothing fallacious about invoking an explainer that is an instance of organized complexity.
The Dawkins passage suggests another sort of argument, oft-heard: If there is a supernatural designer, what explains his existence? If you say that God always existed, then you may as well say that life always existed.
This puerile argument is based on a failure to understand that explanations, of necessity, must come to an end.
Why did that tree in my backyard die? Because subterranean beetles attacked its roots. If the explanation is correct, it is correct whether or not I can explain how the subterranean beetles got into the soil, or which other beetles were their parents, and grandparents, etc. Explanations come to an end, and an explanation of a given phenomenon in terms of its proximate cause can be perfectly adequate even in the absence of explanations of other events in the explanandum's causal ancestry.
It is the puerile atheist who demands to know what caused God. As Plantinga remarks, "Explanations come to an end; for theism they come to an end in God." (p. 28) I would add that this is obvious if God is an necessary being: such a being is in no need of explanation. But it holds also if God is a contingent being. For again, not everything can be explained.
But if God was "always there" as Dawkins puts it, why not say that life was "always there"? Because life wasn't always there!
Ultimately, the theist explains everything in terms of the divine mind. Since explanations must come to an end, the theist has no explanation of the existence or complexity of the divine mind. But, as Plantinga remarks, p. 28, the materalist or physicalist is in the same position. He cannot explain everything. He "doesn't have an explanation of the existence of elementary particles or, more generally, contingent physical or material beings . . . ." (28) I would also ask whether the materialist can explain why there are natural laws at all, why the universe is intelligible in terms of them, and why there are these laws and constants rather than some other possible set.
There is one point that ought to be conceded to Dawkins, however. It certainly would be a "lazy way out" to invoke divine intervention in cases where a naturalistic explanation is at hand.
We’ve never chatted. I’m Tom Belt, a friend of Alan Rhoda. I believe you know Alan.
Yes, in fact I was thinking about him just the other day in connection with his espousal of presentism.
I’ve always appreciated being challenged when I drop by your blog. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to help me understand something.
I'll do my best.
I’ve been exploring Hartshorne’s Modal/Ontological Argument with a friend, Jeff. Basically Jeff wants to agree that some manner of ‘necessity’ needs to be posited in order to explain the existence of the universe. So he agrees that CH's "Something exists" entails "Something exists necessarily." But he then argues that both ‘an infinite regress of created beings’ and ‘a single, necessary being’ equally fit the bill. Both are equally possible and both have the same explanatory value. So his point is, “Look, parsimony is the only thing that gets us a single, necessary being; there's no obvious metaphysical advantage that a necessary being has over an infinite regress of created beings. Either might be the case, and parsimony is all we have to adjudicate the choice between them.” But something seems wrong here.
There is indeed something wrong here.
But first let's lay out Jeff's suggestion -- or a plausible candidate for that office -- a bit more clearly. To make things hard on the theist we begin by assuming that the universe has an actually infinite past. Hence it always existed. Let us also assume that the each total state of the universe at a time is (deterministically) caused to exist by an earlier such state of the universe. A third assumption is that the universe is nothing over and above the sum of its states. The third assumption implies that if each state has a causal explanation in terms of earlier states (in accordance with the laws of nature), then all of the states have an explanation, in which case the universe itself has a causal explanation. This in turn implies that there is no need to posit anything external to the universe, such as God, to explain why the universe exists. The idea, then, is that the universe exists because it causes itself to exist in that later states are caused to exist by earlier states, there being no earliest, uncaused, state. We thereby explain why the universe exists via an infinite regress of universe-immanent causes thereby obviating the need for a transcendent cause.
If this could be made to work, then we would have a nice neat self-contained universe whose existence was not a brute fact but also not dependent on anything external to the universe.
The five or so assumptions behind this reasoning can all be questioned. But even if they are all true, the argument is still no good for a fairly obvious reason. The whole collection of states, despite its being beginningless and endless, is contingent: it might not have existed at all. The fact that U always existed, if it is a fact, does not entail that U must exist. If I want to know why this universe of ours exists as opposed to there being some other universe or no universe at all, it does no good to tell me that it always existed. For what I want to know it why it exists AT ALL. I am not asking about its temporal duration but about its very existence. Why it exists at all is a legitimate question since there is no necessity that there be a universe in the first place.
So Jeff is wrong when he says that both a single necessary being and and infinitely regressive series of contingent causes "have the same explanatory value." The latter has no explanatory value at all. And this for the reason that it is contingent.
I mentioned to him Hartshorne’s point that the only conceivable way to posit the non-existence of a necessary being is to hold such a being’s existence to be impossible. A necessary being can only exist or not exist necessarily. So I told him he’s free to say “I can’t figure out which is in fact the case, an infinite regress of contingent beings or a single necessary being,” but that once he settles upon the latter for reasons of parsimony, what this moves amounts to is settling for the necessity of one option over the impossibility of the other, since the (modal) possibility of an infinite regress of contingent beings entails the impossibility of a single necessary being. But he’s not buying.
First of all, considerations of parsimony come into play only when we are comparing two theories which are both explanatorily adequate. In that case Occam's Razor enjoins us to give the nod to the more parsimonious of the two. After all, the stricture is not against 'multiplying entities' tout court, but against mutiplyng entities beyond necessity, i.e., in excess of what is needed for purposes of adequate explanation. But in the situation before us, Jeff's theory is not explanatorily adequate. It completely fails as an explantion of why there is a universe rather no universe or some other universe.
If the universe has an explanation then it must be in terms of a noncontingent explainer. As you appreciate, if such an entity exists, then it is necessary, and if it does not, then it is impossible. But the rest of your reasoning is dubious which is why your friend is not buying it. The point you need to insist on is that Jeff is not offering an adequate alternative explanation. He falsely assumes that the collection of contingent beings is a necessary being. It is not. It is as contingent as its members.
That aside, it doesn’t seem to me that an infinite regress of instances seeking [needing?] explanation really is conceivable EVEN IF actual infinities per se are conceivable. A necessary being may be temporally eternal. That’s one thing. But an infinite regress of contingent beings, each created by the previous? I don’t see how such a regress is conceivable, or how it embodies the necessity Jeff agrees has to be posited in order to explain the existence of the world. Surely if every member in an infinite regress is contingent, then the regress is contingent and the whole thing in need of the same explanation any particular member needs, no? We can’t reify the regress per se and attribute necessity to IT while positing the contingency of every member.
Right. That's exactly the point I made above. But surely such a regress is conceivable in the manner I explained above. Just don't use the world 'create' because that muddies the waters.
Lastly, wouldn’t it be the case in such a regress that every member god would HAVE to create something, so that no one of them could be free to not create at all? That seems to follow. If any member in the regress is free to not create at all, and every member is created, then any member might not have been created at all (which is just to say each is contingent). But that is to posit the contingency of the regress and thus abandon its explanatory value. No? Yes?
I agree. Jeff's suggestion is much stronger if he thinks of the regress as one of ordinary empirical causes in tandem with the assumption that causation is not probabilistic but deterministic. But if he is talking about a regress of free gods, then an added dimension of contingency comes in via the libertarian free will of these gods.
Am I nuts? Personally I think an infinite regress of created/contingent beings is impossible.
You are not 'nuts.' You are basically right. But it is not clear that an infinite regress of contingent beings is impossible. Why should it be impossible? There are benign infinite regresses. What you want to say is that an infinite regress of contingent beings cannot do any explanatory work re: the question, Why does the universe exist?
One person fears loss of contact with reality and is willing to take doxastic risks and believe beyond what he can claim strictly to know. The other, standing firm on the autonomy of human reason, refuses to accept anything that cannot be justified from within his own subjectivity. He fears error, and finds the first person uncritical, gullible, credulous, tender-minded in James' sense. The first is cautious lest he miss out on the real. The second is cautious lest he make a mistake.
The second, brandishing W. K. Clifford, criticizes the first for believing on insufficient evidence, for self-indulgently believing what he wants to believe, for believing what he has no right to believe. The second wants reality-contact only on his own terms: only if he can assure himself of it, perhaps by ‘constituting’ the object via ‘apodictic’ processes within his own consciousness. (Husserl) The first person, however, is willing to accept uncertainty for the sake of a reality-contact otherwise inaccessible.
What should we fear more, loss of contact with objective reality, or being wrong?
Analogy. Some are gastronomically timorous: they refuse to eat in restaurants for fear of food poisoning. Their critical abstention does indeed achieve its prophylactic end -- but only at the expense of the foregoing of a world of prandial delights.
Now suppose a man believes in God and afterlife but is mistaken. He lives his life in the grip of what are in reality, but unbeknownst to him, life-enhancing illusions. And of course, since he is ex hypothesi wrong, death cannot set him straight: he is after dying nothing and so cannot learn that he lived his life in illusion. But then why is his being wrong such a big deal? Wouldn't it be a much bigger deal if his fear of being wrong prevented his participation in an unsurpassably great good?
"But he lived his life in the grip of illusions!"
To this I would respond, first: how do you know that he lived his life in untruth? You are always demanding evidence, so what is your evidence for this? Second, in a godless universe could there even be truth? (No truth without mind; no objective truth without objective mind.) Third, even if there is truth in a godless universe, why would it be a value? Why care about truth if it has no bearing on human flourishing? Doesn't your concern for evidence only make sense in the context of a quest for truth?
Haecceitism is the doctrine that there are haecceities. But what is an haecceity?
Suppose we take on board for the space of this post the assumptions that (i) properties are abstract objects, that (ii) they can exist unexemplified, and that (iii) they are necessary beings. We may then define the subclass of haecceity properties as follows.
A haecceity is a property H of x such that: (i) H is essential to x; (ii) nothing distinct from x exemplifies H in the actual world; (iii) nothing distinct from x exemplifies H in any metaphysically possible world.
So if there is a property of Socrates that is his haecceity, then there is a property that individuates him, and indeed individuates him across all times and worlds at which he exists: it is a property that he must have, that nothing distinct from him has, and that nothing distinct from him could have. Call this property Socrateity. Being abstract and necessary, Socrateity is obviously distinct from Socrates, who is concrete and contingent. Socrateity exists in every world, but is exemplified (instantiated) in only some worlds. What's more, Socrateity exists at every time in every world that is temporally qualified, whereas Socrates exist in only some worlds and only at some times in the worlds in which he exists.
Now suppose you are a classical theist. Must you accept haecceitism (as defined above) in virtue of being a classical thesist? I answer in the negative. Franklin Mason answers in the affirmative. In a comment on an earlier post, Mason gives this intriguing argument into which I have interpolated numerals for ease of reference.
 When God created the world, he knew precisely which individuals he would get. Thus  he didn't need to have those very individuals in front of him to know which ones they were. Thus  there must be a way to individuate all possible individuals that in no way depends upon their actual existence.  Such a thing is by definition a haecceity. Thus  there are haecceities.
I don't anticipate any disagreement with Mason as to what an haecceity is. We are both operating with the Plantingian notion. We disagree, however, on (i) whether there are any haecceities and (ii) whether classical theism is committed to them. In this post I focus on (ii). In particular, I will explain why I do not find Mason's argument compelling.
My reservations concern premise . There is a sense in which it is true that when God created Socrates, he knew which individual he would get. But there is also a sense in which it is not true. So we need to make a distinction. We may suppose, given the divine omniscience, that before God created Socrates he had before his mind a completely determinate description, down to the very last detail, of the individual he was about to bring into existence. In this sense, God knew precisely which individual he would get before bringing said individual into existence. Now either this description is pure or it is impure.
A pure description is one that includes no proper names, demonstratives or other indexicals, or references to singular properties. Otherwise the description is impure. Thus 'snubnosed, rationalist philosopher married to Xanthippe' is an impure description because it includes the proper name 'Xanthippe.' 'Snubnosed, rationalist, married philosopher,' by contrast, is pure. (And this despite the fact that 'married' is a relational predicate.) Pure descriptions are qualitative in that they include no references to specific individuals. Impure descriptions are nonqualitative in that they do include references to specific individuals.
Now if God has before his mind a complete pure description of the individual he wills to create then it could apply to precisely one individual after creation without being restricted to any precise one. (Cf. Barry Miller, "Future Individuals and Haecceitism," Review of Metaphysics 45, September 1991, p. 14) This is a subtle distinction but an important one. It is possible that Socrates have an indiscernible twin. So the complete description 'snubnosed, rationalist philosopher, etc.' could apply to precisely one individual without applying to Socrates. This is because his indiscernible twin would satisfy it just as well as he does. The description would then apply to precisely one individual without being restricted to any precise one. So there is a clear sense, pace Mason, in which God, prior to creation, would not know which individual he would get. Prior to creation, God knows that there will be an individual satisfying a complete description. But until the individual comes into existence, he won't know which individual this will be.
Creation is not the bestowal of existence upon a a pre-existent, fully-formed, wholly determinate essence. It is not the actualization of a wholly determinate mere possible. There is no individual essence or haecceity prior to creation. Creation is the creation ex nihilo of a a new individual. God creates out of nothing, not out of pre-existent individual essences or pre-existent mere possibles. Thus the very individuality of the individual first comes into being in the creative act. Socrates' individuality and haecceity do not antedate (whether temporally or logically) his actual existence.
Mason would have to be able rationally to exclude this view of creation, and this view of the relation of existence and individuality, for his argument to be compelling. As it is, he seems merely to assume that they are false.
Could God, before creation, have before his mind a complete impure description, one that made reference to the specific individual that was to result from the creative act? No, and this for the simple reason that before the creative act that individual would not exist. And therein lies the absurdity of Plantingian haecceities. The property of identity-with-Socrates is a nonqualitative haecceity that make essential reference to Socrates. Surely it is absurd to suppose that that this 'property' exists at times and in possible worlds at which Socrates does not exist. To put it another way, it is absurd to suppose that this 'property' could antedate (whether temporally or logically) the existence of Socrates.
We are now in a position to see why Mason's argument is not compelling. If  is true, then  doesn't follow from it. And if  follows from , then  is false. Thus  conflates two distinct propositions:
1a. When God created the world, he knew precisely which pure complete descriptions would be satisfied.
1b. When God created the world, he knew precisely which individuals would exist.
(1a) is true, but it does not entail
2. God didn't need to have those very individuals in front of him to know which ones they were.
(1b) entails (2), but (1b) is false.
I conclude that classical theism does not entail haecceitism. One can be such a theist without accepting haecceities.
In one of its senses, superstition involves attributing to an object powers it cannot possess. But the same thing is involved in idolatry. Someone who makes an idol of money, for example, attributes to it a power it cannot possess such as the power to confer happiness on those who have it. So we need to work out the relation between superstition and idolatry.
What is idolatry? I suggest that its essence consists in absolutizing the relative and finite. To make an idol is to take something of limited value and relative being and treat it as if it were of unlimited value and absolute being. Practically anything can be idolized including pleasure, money, property, name and fame, another human being, family, friends, country, the Party, the Revolution. There are theologians who idolize their idea of God.
Money, for example, is instrumentally good, and undeniably so. I think it is a plain mistake to consider money evil or the root of evil, as I argue in Radix Omnium Malorum. But its value cannot be absolute since money is relational in its very nature as a means to an end.
To idolize money, to pursue it as if it were a thing of absolute value, is to commit a philosophical mistake -- even if there is no God. For only something absolute is worthy of worship, and money is not absolute. If there is no absolute reality, then nothing is worthy of worship and everything should be treated as relative and finite including one's own life. If there is an absolute reality, God for example, then everything other than this absolute reality should be treated as relative and finite.
If there is no God, then idolatry is a philosophical mistake. If there is a God, then idolatry is both a philosophical and a religious mistake, and as the latter, a sin. Man is both an idol-erector and an idol-smasher. Our setting up of idols is rooted in a deep spiritual need to worship, honor, respect, and glorify. We need to look up to something. But we are limited sense-bound creatures who tend to latch onto foreground objects in the mistaken hope that they can satisfy us. We think a job, a house, a man, a woman, will satisfy us. What we want they can't provide, but failing to realize this we succumb to the illusion of attributing to them powers to satisfy us that they cannot have. What is romantic love if not the illusion that possession of man or a woman could make one completely happy?
Idolatry gives rise to iconoclasm. Idol-positing leads to idol-smashing. What is revealed as hollow and unsatisfactory is destroyed in the name of the truly valuable. Both our tendency to erect idols and to smash them derives from our being oriented to the Absolute, our being unsatisfiable by the merely finite. Idolatry is the mistake of absolutizing the relative, infinitizing the finite. Iconoclasm tries to undo the mistake by destroying the would-be absolutes in the name of the true Absolute. It runs the risk, however, of falling into nihilism. In the twilight of the idols there arises the specter of nihilism, a specter which, despite all his heroic efforts, Nietzsche could not lay.
In Gravity and Grace (Routledge 1995, p. 53), Simone Weil writes:
Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop.
What Weil is saying is that the absolute good is accessible only to inner listenting, inner passivity, an attentive stillness of the mind and heart. But cultivating such attention demands a patience we do not possess. So we create idols to do duty for the transcendent and inaccessible Absolute.
True religion is actually the enemy of idolatry and superstition. One who worships the true God sees the finite as finite and is secure against the illusion that the finite is ultimate. The true religionist is a bit of an iconoclast and indeed an atheist since he denies the God made in man's image. As Weil puts it, "Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other." (p. 103)
Earlier (here and here) I asked how an all-good God could sentence a human agent to sempiternal punishment, punishment that has a beginning but no end. If the punishment must fit the crime, and the crimes of finite agents are themselves finite, then it would seem that no one, no matter what his crimes, would deserve sempiternal punishment. To make this a bit more precise we ought to substitute 'sin' for 'crime.' They are different concepts. Sin, but not crime, implies an offense to God. If there is no God then there cannot, strictly speaking, be any sin. But there could still be crime relative to an accepted body of positive law. And if there is no positive law, but there is a God, then there could be sin but no crime. (Positive law is the law posited by human legislators.)
So let us say that the punishment must fit the sin. My claim, then, is that no sin or sins committed by a human agent is such as to merit sempiternal punishment. To put the point more sharply, a God who would condemn a finite human agent to unending misery is a moral monster, and not God. (I am assuming that the agent in question has come to admit the error of his ways and is truly sorry for them. I have no problem with the unending misery of a recalcitrant rebel.)
In response, Leo Mollica said that the offense to God, as an offense to a being of infinite dignity, is itself infinite and so deserves sempiternal punishment. This prompted me to ask how an impassible God could be offended, which is the topic of this post.
Impassibility. To say that God is impassible is to say that nothing external to God can affect God. As Brian Leftow points out in his SEP article, impassibility is not the same as immutability. He gives two reasons, but all we need is one: a God who induces a change in himself is not immutable but still could be impassible. Now if God is impassible, then he cannot be offended by the antics of the Israelites as when they fell to worshipping a golden calf, etc. He cannot be offended by sin. And if he cannot be offended by sin, then he cannot be 'infinitely' offended by it. Or so I maintained.
In response Mollica made a clever move. He pointed out, rightly, that a person could be offended (wronged, slandered, calumniated, etc.) without knowing that he is. Such a person would be offended without being affected. I took the suggestion to be that God too could be offended without being affected. Thus impassibility does not rule out God's being offended.
To this my reply was that God is omniscient. He knows everything there is to know. So although it is true that a finite person could be offended without knowing it, and so not affected by the injury that was done to him, God could not be offended without knowing it. Good Thomist that he is, Mollica came back at me with the notion that God is not affected by what he knows. So when the creature sins, God is offended; but his being offended in no way affects him: he is not affected 'cognitively' by his knowledge that he is being offended, nor is he affected or injured 'morally' by his being offended.
Very interesting, but very problematic, as problematic as the Thomist line on divine knowledge. If God is God, then he must be a metaphysical absolute and the pressure is on to say that he is both impassible and immutable. (An immutable being is one that cannot undergo 'real' as opposed to 'mere Cambridge' change.) After all, a decent absolute is not the sort of thing that could change or be affected by other things. If it underwent change or affection it would be relativized. But how could such an unchanging God know anything contingent? If God is unchanging, then his knowledge is unchanging: it cannot vary over time, or from possible world to possible world. Here is an argument adapted from Hartshorne.
1. If p entails q, and q is contingent, then p is contingent. 2. *Tom sins at time t* is contingent. 3. *God knows that Tom sins at t* entails *Tom sins at t*. Therefore 4. *God knows that Tom sins at t* is contingent. Therefore 5. The property of knowing that Tom sins at t is an accidental (not essential) property of God. 6. God has no accidental properties: it is no part of his unchangeable essence that he know any contingent fact, any fact that could have been otherwise. 7. (5) and (6) are contradictories. So one of the premises must be rejected. (6) is the premise most plausibly rejected; but then impassibility and immutability go by the boards.
The challenge for our resident Thomist is to explain how an impassible and immutable God can know any contingent fact.
Richard E. Hennessey coins the useful term 'theomonism' to describe the onto-theological position of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. "Theomonism is the conjoint thesis that (1) there is but one and only one being, and thus the 'monism,' and (2) God is that being, and thus the 'theo.'" So there is exactly one being, and that being is God.
One wonders what creation could be on such a scheme. If God is the sole reality, and if, as is obvious, God is not a creature, then it would seem to follow that there are no creatures. Moreover, if it is necessarily the case both that God is the sole reality and that God is not a creature, then it would seem to follow that it is impossible that there be any creatures. How can it be true both that God is the sole reality and that God created the world? Hennessey quotes Nasr:
Since the One God is Infinite and Absolute as well as the Infinitely Good, He could not but create. His Infinitude implies that he contains within Himself all possibilities, including that of negating Himself, and this possibility had to be realized in the form of creation.
Hennessey glosses the quotation as follows:
There seems, that is, to be at work here a thought sequence something like the following: The creation of the non-divine is the negation of the divine. Now the divine is the real and thus the negation of the divine is the negation of the real. But the negation of the real is the creation of the non-real. It follows, therefore, that the creation of the non-divine is the creation of the non-real.
Only those among [us] who think that the many extended changing beings surrounding us are genuinely real could object.
Well, it seems to me that one could reasonably object to Nasr's theomonism even if the plural world revealed to the senses is not taken to be genuinely real. But it depends on what is meant by 'genuinely real.'
There is a clear sense in which the plural world is genuinely real: it is not nothing. Anyone who asserts that the plural world of planets and people, cabbages and computers, is literally nothing is either a fool or a sophist or doesn't understand the English language. A second sense in which the plural world is genuinely real is that it is not an illusion. This is not perfectly obvious and so requires a bit of arguing, but for now I take it as given that the world revealed by the outer senses (and their instrumental extensions) is not illusory. It may be Erscheinung in Kant's sense, but it cannot be Schein in his sense. (One could perhaps mount a Contrast Argument: Soviel Schein, soviel Sein! to invoke a German proverb.)
So the plural world is not nothing, and it is not illusory. But I would maintain that no one who holds that the plural world is a created world can maintain that the members of the plural world are independently real. So if 'genuinely real' means 'independently real,' then I would deny that "the many extended changing beings surrounding us" are genuinely real. They are not genuinely real because they are not independently real. They lack plenary reality. They are real all right; but dependently so. Assuming creatio continuans, the denizens of the mundus sensibilis are dependent at every instant on divine support for their very existence. That, I would urge, is an entailment of a sophisticated theism.
One could put the point by saying that God and creatures enjoy different modes of Being, but both truly are: creatures are not nothing and they are not illusory. This leads us back to the modes-of-Being problematic about which I have written a number of posts. (See Existence category.)
Nasr's theomonism is untenable because it denies a plain fact, namely, that there is a plural world. That is a datum, a starting point, a fact that is surely more evident than the existence of God. Extreme monism, a species of which is Nasr's theomonism, cannot accommodate the fact of plurality. A tenable theism is a moderate monism according to which there is exactly one independently real being that serves as the ultimate ontological ground of the plurality of dependently real beings.
A guest post by Peter Lupu. Minor edits and a comment (in blue) by BV.
In an intriguing paper “God and Moral Autonomy”, James Rachels offers what he calls “The Moral Autonomy Argument” against the existence of God. The argument is based on a certain analysis of the concept of worship and its alleged incompatibility with moral autonomy (pp. 9-10; all references are to the Web version). I will first present Rachels’ argument verbatim. Next I will point out that in order for the argument to be valid, additional premises are required. I will then supply the additional premises and recast the argument accordingly in a manner consistent with what I take to be Rachels’ original intent. While the resulting argument is valid, I will argue that it is not sound. Despite its deficiency, however, Rachels’ argument points towards something important. In the final section I will try to flesh out this important element.
Rachels’ Argument Verbatim (p. 10):
“1. If any being is God, he must be a fitting object of worship.
2. No being could possibly be a fitting object of worship, since worship requires the abandonment of one’s role as an autonomous moral agent.
3. Therefore, there cannot be any being who is God.”
Obviously, this argument is not valid. While the two premises have the form of if-then conditionals, the conclusion is not a conditional statement. There is no way of deriving an unconditional statement from conditional premises alone. Clearly, some additional premises are required. Let me now recast the argument in a valid form. I shall take the liberty to reword some of the premises so that their logical form is more apparent.
(A) FirstModified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
1*) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship;
2*) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship;
3*) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency.
4*) God does not exist.
Argument (A) is valid. The question is whether it is sound. Rachels maintains that premise (1*) is something like a logical truth. He says: “That God is not to be judged, challenged, defied, or disobeyed is at bottom a truth of logic. To do any of these things is incompatible with taking him as one to be worshiped.” (p. 8). So we are asked to assume that the very concept of God includes the concept of being worthy or fitting of worship, in the sense that being worthy or fitting of worship logically excludes one from being able to judge, challenge, defy, or disobey God. Let us grant this claim for now.
Rachels further claims that premise (3*) is supported by “a long tradition in moral philosophy, from Plato to Kant,…” (p. 9). Such support would go something like this. Worshiping any being worthy of worship requires the worshiper to recognize such a being as having absolute authority. Absolute authority in turn entails an “unqualified claim of obedience.” (p.9). But, no human being, qua autonomous moral agent, can recognize an “unqualified claim of obedience”. Hence, no human being qua autonomous moral agent can recognize any such absolute authority. Therefore, human beings cannot worship God without abandoning their autonomous moral agency.
What about premise (2*)? I think premise (2*) is false. And this fact reveals the underlying problem with Rachels’ argument. For suppose that the antecedent of premise (2*) is true. Does it follow from this fact alone that God is not a fitting object for worship? No such thing follows, for it may still be true that God is a fitting object of worship by creatures that are not autonomous moral agents. Or to put the matter somewhat more precisely: even if we suppose that worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, what follows from this assumption is that God is not a fitting object of worship by a being, qua autonomous moral agent. Of course, God may still be a fitting object of worship by a being as long as that being abandons their autonomy while worshiping.
If this is correct, then premise (2*) is false and, therefore, argument (A) is not sound. Clearly, we need to modify Rachels’ argument once again:
(B) Second Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy:
(1**) Necessarily, if God exists, then God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(2**) If worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God is a fitting object of worship by autonomous moral agents;
(3**) Worship requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4**) God does not exist.
Argument (B) is also valid. Is it sound? I believe that a theist may legitimately reject premise (1**). Remember that the necessity in the first premise of each of the above versions of the argument is intended by Rachels to express the claim that the very concept of God logically entails the concept of being worthy of worship, where being worthy (or fitting) of worship logically excludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God. But, clearly, an activity that logically rules out judging, challenging, defying or disobeying another being is an activity that logically requires abandoning the exercise of autonomous moral agency. And a theist may quite legitimately object to such a conception of God. In particular, a theist may consistently maintain that the exercise of worshiping God is not logicallyinconsistent with judging, challenging, defying, or even disobeying God. And if worshiping is not logically inconsistent with any of these activities, then worshiping is not logically inconsistent with maintaining one’s autonomous moral agency. Therefore, a theist can legitimately reject premise (1**). Therefore, the argument cannot be sound.
Comment by BV: It is not clear why the theist could not reject (3**). Why does worship require the abandonment of autonomous moral agency? Granted, if x is God, then God has absolute authority, which includes the right to command and the right to be obeyed. But equally, if if x is indeed God, then God will not command anything immoral; he will not command anything that would not coincide with what we would impose on ourselves if we are acting autonomously. Contrapositively, if x commands anything which is by our moral lights immoral, such as the slaughtering of one's innocent son, then x is not God.
Rachels attempts to meet this objection as follows: "Thus our own judgment that some actions are right and others wrong is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God. The upshot is that we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God's command; for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title "God" from the commander." True, but why should we think that obeying God ever involves suspending our own judgment? Rachels is assuming that there are circumstances in which there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what the creature knows is right. But it is open to the theist to deny that there are ever any such circumstances. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, the theist can say that what Abraham thought was a divine command did not come from God at all. Of course, the Bible portrays the command as coming from God, but the theist is under no obligation to take at face value everything that is in the Bible.
Kant, who was a theist, famously remarked that two things filled him with wonder: "the starry skies above me, and the moral law within me." Now the moral law stands above me as a sensible (phenomenal) being subject to inclinations. It is in one sense outside me as commanding my respect and my submission to its dictates. In respecting the universal moral law do I abandon my autonomy? Not at all. I am truly autonomous only in fulfilling the moral law. So the theist could say that God and the moral law are one, and that worshipping God is like respecting the moral law. Just as it is no injury to my autonomy that the moral law imposes restrictions on my behavior, it is no injury to my autonomy that God issues commands. We needn't follow Rachels in assuming that there is a discrepancy between what God commands and what by our lights (when they are 'shining properly') it is right to do.
If God is a tyrant for whom might makes right, then I grant that worship and autonomy are incompatible. But if the object of worship is a concrete embodiment of the moral law that is in me, the following of which constitutes my autonomy, then worship and autonomy are not incompatible.
I wish now to propose an argument, similar to Rachels, but without the objectionable assumptions accompanying the first premise of Rachels’ argument. Let us stipulate that the term ‘God!’ expresses the concept of a being that is just like the theistic concept of God, except that the following is true of this being:
(!) God! is worthy or fitting of submission; where fitting of submission logicallyexcludes judging, challenging, defying, or disobeying God!.
With the help of (!) I shall now restate Rachels’ argument and prove that God! does not exist, provided autonomous moral agents exist. The argument assumes that at least some autonomous moral agents exist.
(C) Third Modified Argument from Moral Autonomy.
(1!) Necessarily, if God! exists, then God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(2!) If submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency, then it is not the case that God! is a fitting object of submission by autonomous moral agents;
(3!) Submission requires abandoning autonomous moral agency;
(4!) God! does not exist.
Argument (C) is valid. Is it sound? I think it is. I think that every one of the premises is true and I am willing to defend this claim. Premise (1!) is true by stipulation. Premise (3!) is also true. For submission requires recognizing the absolute authority of another and doing so is not possible while retaining ones autonomy. What about premise (2!)? Premise (2!) might initially appear somewhat strange. But premise (2!) simply states the consequences of our stipulation regarding the concept of God!, when this concept is applied to the requirement that autonomous agents must submit to a being such as God!. I think that given the stipulation expressed by (!), premise (2!) is true. Hence, it is true that God! does not exist.
A theist of course would be correct to vehemently deny that the concept of God! as stipulated is identical to the concept of God in his sense: i.e.,that his concept of God includes (!). And it follows, then, that such a theist must also deny that worship is the same as submission. In particular, such a theist must deny that his God requires submission from autonomous agents. But, then, such a theist must cease to include in the concept of worship elements that belong more properly to the concept of submission.
It also follows that any religion, religious institution, or religious figure that promotes the idea that worshiping a deity requires submission to this deity presupposes that such a deity is God!. But since a being such as God! cannot exist alongside with autonomous moral agents that are required to submit to such a deity, it follows that anyone who promotes such things is promoting the existence of false gods.
A guest post by Peter Lupu with some comments in blue by Bill Vallicella.
[This essay is dedicated to the memory of Ann Freitag, my significant other, who passed away on April 17, 2010, 11:30am. She gave me two priceless gifts: Herself and a deep understanding that the love of life is not a mere gesture, but a way of loving every living being.]
The title of this essay expresses what it is like for me to experience an ever ascending spiral of theistic aspirations inhibited by atheist inclinations, and vice versa. My predicament is both intellectual as well as existential. It is a blending of the two that fuels a restless existence, one which propels me to journey on this ascending spiral of unfamiliar territory towards an unknown destination.
I. Why I am not an Atheist
Let me begin with atheism. Atheism is first and foremost a rejection of theism. However, the rejection of theism itself springs from several often misunderstood sources. A deep and personal disappointment with a particular religion frequently converts into a fervent rejection of theism and all that it means. A second source may begin with a genuine delight in the achievements of science which now and then, and quite unnoticeably, spills over into a materialistic metaphysics. The latter, in turn, bluntly opposes theism’s commitment to a transcendent reality. Thus, what starts as a delight in the potential of inquiry to unlock the mysteries of the physical universe migrates into an impatient and often mocking rejection of anything non-physical. Theism is a casualty of such a sentiment.
First of all, how does an atheist deny the existence of God? Well, he might just assertively utter
1. God does not exist.
But suppose our atheist is also a direct reference theorist, one who holds that the reference of a name is not routed through sense or mediated by a Russellian definite description that gives the sense of the name. The direct reference theorist denies the following tenet of (some) descriptivists:
The referent of a name N is whatever entity, if any, that satisfies or fits the descriptive content associated with N in the mind of the speaker of N.
For example, on the descriptivist approach there is associated with the name 'God' a certain concept in the mind of the person who uses the name, a concept which includes various subconcepts (immaterial, unchanging, omnibenevolent, etc.). The name has a referent only if this concept is instantiated. Further, nothing having a property inconsistent with this concept can be the referent of the name. Now if our atheist were a descriptivist, his denial of the existence of God could be expressed by an assertive utterance of
2. The concept of an immaterial, omniqualified, etc. being is not instantiated.
Clearly, if one's denial of the existence of God is to be true, the existence of God cannot be a presupposition of one's denial, as (1) seems to suggest; so (2) seems to be a well-nigh mandatory rewrite of (1) that avoids this well-known difficulty pertaining to negative existentials. Whether or not God exists, the concept God exists, and is available to be the subject of judgments. We cannot say of God that he does not exist without presupposing what we aim to deny; but we can say of the concept God that it is not instantiated.
But our atheist is a direct reference theorist, and so cannot avail himself of (2). He cannot say that the nonexistence of God is the noninstantiation of a certain concept. This is because the direct reference theory implies that the referent of a name can exist whether or not it instantiates any of the concepts associated with the use of the name. The theory implies that 'Socrates' names Socrates even if it should turn out to be false that Socrates was the teacher of Plato, the wife of the shrewish Xanthhippe, snubnosed, a stone-cutter by trade, etc., etc.
On the direct reference theory, for 'God' to have a referent it suffices that (i) there be an initial baptism of some being as 'God,' (ii) there be an historical chain whereby this name gets passed down to the present user; (iii) each user in the chain have the intention of using the name with the same reference as the one from whom he received it. Thus it is not necessary that the referent of 'God' fit any concept of God that the end-user might have.
Now the direct reference theory has an advantage I have already noted. It allows a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim to be referring to the same being when they utter sentences containing 'God' despite the fact that their conceptions of God are quite different.
How then does the direct reference theorist deny the existence of God? Since his denial cannot be about a concept of God, it must be about the transmission of word 'God' anits equivalents in other languages. He must deny that the name 'God' was ever introduced in an initial baptism; or he must deny that the historical chain is unbroken; or he must deny that all the various users had the intention of using the name with the reference of the one from whom they received it.
But how can the nonexistence/existence of God hinge on such linguistic and historical facts? The nonexistence of God, if a fact, is an objective fact: it has nothing to do with the nonexistence of some initial baptism ceremony, or some break in a link of name transmission, or some failure of intention on the part of the name-users.
More fundamentally, is it not just absurd to hold, as direct reference theorists seems to hold, that it is not necessary that the referent of 'God' fit ANY concept of God that the end-user might have? For that seems to imply that anything could be God. Could God be Abraham's fear during a lightning storm on a high mountain? Obviously not. Why not? Because 'God' used intelligently encapsulates a certain descriptive content or sense that constrains what can count as God.
Richard M. Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge UP, 1991), p. 11 :
First, because God is a supernatural being, he seem to defy being indexically pinned down or baptized. There are no lapels to be grabbed hold of by a use of 'this.' Some would contend that we can ostensively pin down the name 'God' by saying 'this' when having or after just having a mystical or religious experience, in which 'this' denotes the intentional accusative or content of the experience. This would seem to require that these experiences are cognitive and that their objective accusative is a common object of the experiences of different persons as well as of successive experiences of a single person.
Suppose Abraham or someone has an experience the intentional object of which he dubs 'God.' Suppose the experience is not 'cognitive,' i.e., not veridical: nothing in reality corresponds to the intentional object, the accusative, of the experience. Then there will not have been a successful reference to God. Successful reference is existence-entailing: If I succeed in referring to X, then X exists. Pace Meinong, one cannot refer to what does not exist. Reference is in every case to the existent. It therefore seems that Gale is right when he says that a successful baptizing of God requires the veridicality of mystical experience.
Andrew V. Jeffrey (Faith and Philosophy, January 1996, p. 94) responds to Gale as follows:
. . . the religious language-game could be played as if theistic experiences were both veridical and cognitive even if they were not; i.e., people could play the referential game even with a radically misidentified referent.
It seems to me that this response misses the point. Suppose the referent has been radically misidentified: Abraham dubs his Freudian superego, or an overwhelming sense of anxiety, or what have you, as 'God.' Then no successful reference will have been achieved. Is a long disquisition necessary to explain that God cannot be a feeling of anxiety?
And if you say that all baptisms are successful in that, after all, something gets baptized, then I say that this shows the utter hopelessness of the causal theory of reference. For the question to be answered is this: How in the utterance of a name does the speaker succeed in referring to an object? Under what conditions is successful reference achieved? A theory that implies that one always succeeds, that there are no conditions in which one fails to succeed, is worthless.
Yesterday I argued that whether 'God' and equivalents as used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims refer to the same being depends on one's philosophy of language. In particular, I suggested that only on a causal theory of names could one maintain that their respective references are to the same entity. The causal theory of names, however, strikes me as not very plausible. Here is one consideration.
The causal theory of names of Saul Kripke et al. requires that there be an initial baptism of the target of reference, a baptism at which the name is first introduced. This can come about by ostension: Pointing to a newly acquired kitten, I bestow upon it the moniker, 'Mungojerrie.' Or it can come about by the use of a reference-fixing definite description: Let 'Neptune' denote the celestial object responsible for the perturbation of the orbit of Uranus. In the second case, it may be that the object whose name is being introduced is not itself present at the baptismal ceremony. What is present, or observable, are certain effects of the object hypothesized. (See Saul Kripke Naming and Necessity, Harvard 1980 p. 79, n. 33 and p. 96, n. 42.)
As I understand it, a necessary condition for successful reference on the causal theory is that a speaker's use of a name be causally connected (perhaps indirectly) with the object referred to. We can refer to objects only if we stand in some causal relation to them (direct or indirect). So my use of 'God' refers to God not because there is something that satisfies the definite description or disjunction of definite descriptions that unpack the sense of 'God' as I use it, but because my use of 'God' can be traced back though a long causal chain to an initial baptism, as it were, of God by, say, Moses on Mt. Sinai.
If this is what the causal theory (or at least the Kripkean version thereof) requires, then the theory rules out all reference to abstracta: Fregean propositions, numbers, sets, etc. But it also rules out reference to future events.
Suppose meteorologists predict a hurricane that has the power to wipe out New Orleans a second time. Conservatives to a man and a woman, they introduce the name 'Hillary' for this horrendous event, and they introduce it via some appropriately complex definite description. (They can't point to it since it doesn't yet exist.) The meteorologists continue with their work using 'Hillary' for the event in question. Since the event lies in the future, there is no question of its causing directly or indirectly any use of the name 'Hillary.' Nor is there any question of the name's being introduced on the basis of effects of the event.
What we seem to have here is a legitimate use of a proper name that cannot be accounted for by the causal theory. For the causal theory rules out reference to a thing or event to which one does not stand in a causal relation. This suggests that there is something very wrong with the theory. (See John Searle, Intentionality, Cambridge 1983, p. 241.)
One morning an irate C-Span viewer called in to say that he prayed to the living God, not to the mythical being, Allah, to whom Muslims pray. The C-Span guest made a standard response, which is correct as far as it goes, namely, that Allah is Arabic for God, just as Gott is German for God. He suggested that adherents of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) worship the same God under different names. No doubt this is a politically correct thing to say, but is it true?
Our question, then, is precisely this: Does the normative Christian and the normative Muslim worship numerically the same God, or numerically different Gods? (By 'normative Christian/Muslim' I mean an orthodox adherent of his faith who understands its content, without subtraction and without addition of private opinions.) Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic. So if Christian and Muslim worship different Gods, then one is worshipping a nonexistent God, or, if you prefer, is failing to worship the true God.
1. Let's start with the obvious: 'Allah' is Arabic for God. So if an Arabic-speaking Coptic Christian refers to God, he uses 'Allah.' And if an Arabic-speaking Muslim refers to God, he too uses 'Allah.' From the fact that both Copt and Muslim use 'Allah' it does not follow that they are referring to the same God, but it also does not follow that they are referring to numerically different Gods. So we will not make any progress with our question if we remain at the level of words. We must advance to concepts.
2. We need to distinguish between the word for God, the concept (conception) of God, and God. God is not a concept, but there are concepts of God and, apart from mystical intuition, we have no access to God except via our concepts of God. Now it is undeniable that the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God partially overlap. The following is a partial list of what is common to both conceptions:
a. There is exactly one God. b. God is the creator of everything distinct from himself. c. God is transcendent: he is radically different from everthing distinct from himself. d. God is good.
Now if the Christian and Muslim conceptions of God were identical, then we would have no reason to think that Christian and Muslim worship different Gods. But of course the conceptions, despite partial overlap, are not identical. Christians believe in a triune God who became man in Jesus of Nazareth. Or to put it precisely, they believe in a triune God the second person of which became man in Jesus of Nazareth. This is the central and indeed crucial (from the Latin, crux, crucis, meaning cross) difference between the two faiths. The crux of the matter is the cross.
3. Now comes the hard part, which is to choose between two competing views:
V1: Christian and Muslim worship the same God, but one of them has a false belief about God, whether it be the belief that God is unitarian or the belief that God is trinitarian.
V2: Christian and Muslim worship different Gods precisely because they have different conceptions of God. So it is not that one of them has a false belief about the one God they both worship; it is rather that one of them does not worship the true God at all.
There is no easy way to decide rationally between these two views. We have to delve into the philosophy of language and ask how reference is achieved. How do linguistic expressions attach or apply to extralinguistic entities? How do words grab onto the (extralinguistic) world? In particular, how do nominal expressions work? What makes my utterance of 'Socrates' denote Socrates rather than someone or something else? What makes my use of 'God' (i) have a referent at all and (ii) have the precise referent it has?
4. It is reasonable to hold, with Frege, Russell, and many others, that reference is routed through, and determined by, sense: an expression picks out its object in virtue of the latter's satisfaction of a description associated with the referring expression, a description that unpacks the expression's sense. If we think of reference in this way, then 'God' refers to whatever entity, if any, that satisfies the definite description encapsulated in 'God' as this term is used in a given linguistic community.
Given that God is not an actual or possible object of (sense) experience, this seems like a reasonable approach to take. The idea is that 'God' is a definite description in disguise so that 'God' refers to whichever entity satisfies the description associated wth 'God.' Now consider two candidate definite descriptions, the first corresponding to the Mulsim conception, the second corresponding to the Christian.
D1: 'the unique x such that x is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, created the world ex nihilo and is unitarian'
D2: 'the unique x such that x is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, created the world ex nihilo, and is triune.'
Suppose that reference is not direct, but routed through sense, or mediated by a description, in the manner explained above. It is easy to see that no one entity can satisfy both (D1) and (D2). So if reference is routed through sense, then Christian and Muslim cannot be referring to the same being. Indeed, one of them is not succeeding in referring at all. For if God is triune, nothing in reality answers tothe Muslim's conception of God. And if God is unitarian, then nothing in reality answers to the Christian conception.
And so, contrary to what Miroslav Volf maintains, the four points of commonality in the Christian and Muslim conceptions listed above do NOT "establish the claim that in their worship of God, Muslims and Christians refer to the same object." (Allah: A Christian Response, HarperCollins 2011, p. 110.) For if reference to God is mediated by a conception which includes the subconcept triune or unitarian, the reference cannot be to the same entity.
A mundane example (adapted from Kripke) will make this more clear. Sally sees a handsome man at a party standing in the corner drinking a clear bubbly liquid from a cocktail glass. She turns to her companion Nancy and says, "The man standing in the corner drinking champagne is handsome!" Suppose the man is not drinking champagne, but sparkling water instead. Has Sally succeeded in referring to the man or not? Argumentative Nancy, who knows that no alcohol is being served at the party, and who also finds the man handsome, says, "You are not referring to anything: there is no man in the corner drinking champagne. The man is drinking sparkling water. Nothing satisfies your definite description. There is no one man we both admire. Your handsome man does not exist, but mine does."
Now in this example what we would intuitively say is that Sally did succeed in referring to someone using a definite description even though the object she succeeded in referring to does not satisfy the description. Intuitively, we would say that Sally simply has a false belief about the object to which she is successfully referring, and that Sally and Nancy are referring to and admiring the very same man.
But note how this case differs from the God case. Both women see the man in the corner. But God is not an object of possible (sense) experience, of Kant's moegliche Erfarhung. Hence the reference of 'God' cannot be nailed down perceptually. And so it seems that what we succeed in referring to is whatever satisfies the definite description that unpacks our conception of God.
5. My tentative conclusion, then, is that (i) if we accept a description theory of names, the Christian and Muslim do not refer to the same being when they use 'God' or 'Allah' and (ii) that a description theory of names is what we must invoke given the nonperceivability of God.
If, on the other hand, 'God' is a logically proper name whose meaning is exhausted by its reference, a Kripkean rigid designator, rather than a Russellian definite description in disguise, then what would make 'God' or a particular use of 'God' refer to God?
A particular use is presumably caused by an earlier use. But eventually there must be an initial use. Imagine Moses on Mt. Sinai. He has a profound mystical experience of a being who conveys to his mind such locutions as "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt not have false gods before me." Moses applies 'God' or 'Yahweh' to the being. But what makes the name the name of the being? One may say: the fact that the being or an effect of the being causes the use of the name.
But a certain indeterminacy seems to creep in if we think of the semantic relation of referring as explicable in terms of causation. For is it the (mystical) experience of God that causes the use of 'God'? Or is it God himself who causes the use of 'God'? If the former, then 'God' refers to an experience had by Moses and not to God. Surely God is not an experience. But how can God be the cause of Moses' use of 'God'? Causes are events, God is not an event, so God cannot be a cause.
If these difficulties could be ironed out and a causal theory of names is tenable, and if the causal chain extends from Moses down to Christians and (later)to Muslims, then a case could be made that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all referring to the same God when they use 'God' and such equivalents as 'Yahweh' and 'Allah.'
So it looks like there is no easy answer to the opening question. It depends on the resolution of intricate questions in the philosophy of language.