A reader inquires, "I'm curious, if someone asked you what you were more certain of, your hands or belief in the existence of God, how would you respond?"
The first thing a philosopher does when asked a question is examine the question. (Would that ordinary folk, including TV pundits, would do likewise before launching into gaseous answers to ill-formed questions.) Now what exactly am I being asked? The question is ambiguous as between:
Q1. Are you more certain of the existence of your hand or of the existence of God?
Q2. Are you more certain of the existence of your hand or of your belief in the existence of God?
My reader probably intends (Q1). If (Q1) is the question, then the answer is that I am more certain of the existence of my hands than of the existence of God. My hands are given in sense perception throughout the day, every day. Here is one, and here is the other (he said with a sidelong glance in the direction of G. E. Moore). It is not perfectly certain that I have hands, or even that I have a body -- can I prove that I am not a brain in a vat? -- but it is practically certain, certain for all practical purposes.
By the way, it borders on a bad joke to think that one can prove the external world by waving one's hands around as Moore famously did. Still, if I don't know basic facts such as these 'handy' facts, then I know very little, things of the order of 'I now seem to see a hand' but not 'I now see a hand.' (I am using 'see' as a verb of success: If S sees an F, there there exists an x such that x is F and S sees x.)
So, for practical purposes, I am certain that my hands exist. But I am not certain in the same sense and to the same degree that God exists. The evidence is a lot slimmer. This is not to say that there is no evidence. There is plenty of evidence, it is just that it is not compelling. There is the evidence of conscience, of mystical and religious experience, the consensus gentium; there is the 'evidence' of the dozens and dozens of arguments for the existence of God, there is the testimony of prophets. But none of this evidence, even taking the whole lot of it together, gets the length of the evidence of my hands that I get from seeing them, touching them, clapping them, manipulating things with them.
When I fall down and feel my hands slam into the hard hot rock of a desert canyon, then I know beyond any practical doubt that hands exist and rock exists. Then I say with 'Cactus Ed' Abbey, "I believe in rock and sun." In that vulnerable moment, alone in a desolate desert canyon, it is very easy to doubt that there is any providential order, that there is any ultimate intelligibility, that there is any Sense beyond the flimsy and fragmented sense we make of things. But it is practically impossible to doubt hands and rock and sun.
The difference could be put like this. The existence and the nonexistence of God are both of them epistemic possibilities: for all I can claim to know, there is no God; but also: there is a God. Both states of affairs are consistent with what I can claim to know. But it is not an epistemic possibility that these hands of mine do not exist unless one takes knowledge to require an objective certainty impervious to hyperbolic doubt.
In the case of my hands there is really no counter evidence to their existence apart from Cartesian hyperbolic doubt. But in the case of God, not only is the evidence spotty and inconclusive, but there is also counter evidence, the main piece of which is the existence of evil. It is worth noting, however, that if one would be skeptical, one ought to doubt also the existence of evil, and with it, arguments to the nonexistence of God from the putative fact of evil. How do you know there is evil? No doubt there is pain, excruciating pain. But is pain evil? Maybe pain is just a sensation that an organism feeling it doesn't like, and the organism's not liking it is just an attitude of that organism, so that in reality there is no good or evil. Pain is given. But is evil given? Pain is undeniable. But one can easily deny the existence of evil. Perhaps the all is just a totality of value-indifferent facts.
As for (Q2), it makes reference to my belief in God. Whether you take the belief as a disposition or as an occurrent state, the belief as a feature of my mental life must be distinguished from its truth-value. I am not certain of the truth of my belief that God exists, but I am certain of the existence of my belief (my believing) that God exists. As certain as I am that I have hands? More certain. I can doubt that I have hands in the usual Cartesian way. But how can I doubt that fact that I have a belief if in fact I have it?
Moore's health was quite good in 1946-47, but before that he had suffered a stroke and his doctor had advised that he should not become greatly excited or fatigued. Mrs. Moore enforced that prescription by not allowing Moore to have a philosophical discussion with anyone for longer than one hour and a half. Wittgenstein was extremely vexed by this regulation. He believed that Moore should not be supervised by his wife. He should discuss as long as he liked. If he became excited or tired and had a stroke and died -- well, that would be a decent way to die: with his boots on. Wittgenstein felt that it was unseemly that Moore, with his great love for truth, should be forced to break off a discussion before it had reached its proper end. I think that Wittgenstein's reaction to this regulation was very characteristic of his outlook on life. A human being should do the thing for which he has a talent with all of his energy his life long, and should never relax this devotion to his job merely in order to prolong his existence. This platonistic attitude was manifested again two years later when Wittgenstein, feeling that he was losing his own talent, questioned whether he should continue to live. (Emphasis added)
Yes! No wife, only fair Philosophia herself, should preside over and supervise a philosophical discussion. If an interlocutor should expire in the heat of the dialectic, well then, that is a good way to quit the phenomenal sphere.
G. E. Moore famously responded to the hedonist's claim that the only goods are pleasures by asking, in effect: But is pleasure good? The point, I take it, is that the sense of 'good' allows us reasonably to resist the identification of goodness and pleasure. For it remains an open question whether pleasure really is good. To appreciate the contrast between open and closed questions, consider Tom the bachelor. Given that Tom is a bachelor, it is not an open question whether Tom is an unmarried adult male. This is because the sense of 'bachelor' does not allow us reasonably to resist the identification of bachelors with adult unmarried males. It is built into the very sense of 'bachelor' that a bachelor is an adult unmarried male. But it is not built into the very sense of 'good' that the good is pleasure.
It occurred to me while cavorting in the swimming pool the other morning that a similar Open Question gambit can be deployed against the thin theorist.
Suppose a thin theorist maintains the following. To say that Quine exists is to say that Quine is identical to something. No doubt, but does the something exist? The question remains open. Just as 'good' does not mean 'pleasurable,' 'something' does not mean 'something that exists.' Otherwise, 'Something that does not exist' would be a contradiction in terms. But it is not. Consider
1. A matter transmitter is something that does not exist.
It follows from (1) that
2. Something does not exist.
I am not claiming that (2) is true. I hold that everything exists! My claim is that (2) is neither a formal-logical contradiction, nor is it semantically contradictory, i.e., contradictory in virtue of the senses of the constituent terms. Here is an example of a formal-logical contradiction:
3. Something that does not exist exists.
Here is an example of a sentence that, while not self-contradictory by the lights of formal logic, is semantically contradictory:
4. There are bachelors that are not unmarried adult males.
'Some cat is fat' and 'A fat cat exists' are logically equivalent. But do they have exactly the same meaning (sense)? This is an open question. And precisely because it is an open question, the two sentencces do not have the same meaning, pace London Ed, van Inwagen and the rest of the thin boys. For there is nothing in the very sense of 'Some cat is fat' to require that a fact cat exist. Compare 'Some unicorn is angry.' Does that require by its very sense that an angry unicorn exists?
Am I getting close to the point where I can justifiably diagnose van Inwagen and the boys with that dreaded cognitive aberration, existence-blindness? Or is it rather the case that I suffer from double-vision?
The following quotations from Ernest Gellner's Words and Things are borrowed from Kieran Setiya's site.
Academic environments are generally characterised by the presence of people who claim to understand more than in fact they do. Linguistic Philosophy has produced a great revolution, generating people who claim not to understand what in fact they do. Some achieve great virtuosity at it. Any beginner in philosophy can manage not to understand, say, Hegel, but I have heard people who were so advanced that they knew how not to understand writers of such limpid clarity as Bertrand Russell or A. J. Ayer.
It is not clear whether Moore should be called a philosopher or a pedant of such outstanding ability as to push pedantry and literal-mindedness to a point where it became a philosophy. [. . .] One might say that Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words. . . .
Absolutely brilliant! When I first read Moore and his remark to the effect that he would never have done philosophy if it hadn't been for the puzzling things he found in books by men like Bradley, I took that as almost the definition of an inauthentic philosopher: one who gets his problems, not from life, but from books. I should say, though, that over the years I have come to appreciate Moore as a master of analysis. But I can't shake the thought that there is something deeply perverse about finding the impetus to philosophizing in philosophical claims and theories rather than in the realities attendance to which gave rise to the claims and theories in the first place. Imagine a scientist or an historian or even a theologian who proceeded in that way.
In this passage Gellner explains the appeal of the later Wittgenstein:
The linguistic naturalism, the reduction of the basis of our thought to linguistic etiquette, ensures that there is no appeal whatever to Extraneous Authority for the manner in which we speak and think. Naturalism, this-worldliness, is thus pushed to its final limit. But at the very same time, and for that very reason (language and custom being their own masters, beholden and accountable to no Outside norm), the diversified content of language and custom is indiscriminately endorsed. Thus the transcendent, if and when required, slips back ambiguously, in virtue of being the object of natural practices, customs, modes of speech.
(This is an entry from the old Powerblogs site. It was written a few years ago. It is just a bit of pedantry in which I wax peevish over pleonasm.)
‘On the ground’ is getting a bit too much use for my taste. What the devil does it mean? "Coming up, a live report from Geraldo Rivera, on the ground in Fallujah." Where else would he be if not on the ground? Hovering in mid-air? Burrowing underground? Why not just say that he is in Fallujah? Or does it mean that he is literally on the ground?
Of course, very few civilized mortals spend any appreciable time literally on the ground, i.e., in direct contact with the surface of the earth. I don’t reckon that Geraldo, tough guy that he is, has ever walked barefoot over the Iraqi sand. I am now sitting with my pants and underpants on in a chair which rests on a rug and a pad beneath which is a concrete slab. Thus my gluteal contact with the earth is subject to a six-fold mediation. And when I go backpacking and sleep in the wild, my contact with the ground is subject to a similar manifold mediation: clothes, sleeping bag, self-inflating ThermaRest mattress, tent floor, groundcloth. And yet that could be called sleeping on the ground as opposed to sleeping in a warm bed at home.
Thoughts such as these may have been at the back of G. E. Moore’s mind when he penned a passage in "A Defence of Common Sense" (1925) that some have found puzzling. Speaking of his body, he writes,
Ever since it was born, it has either been in contact with or not far from the surface of the earth . . .
What did Moore have in mind with "not far from the surface of the earth"? Did he do much jumping? Go up in planes or balloons? Or was he thinking that while sitting in his study, he was not in contact with the surface of the earth but also not far from it either?
Two commenters in an earlier van Inwagen thread, the illustrious William the Nominalist and the noble Philoponus of Terravita, have raised Moore-style objections to an implication of PvI's claim that "every physical thing is either a living organism or a simple" (MB 98), namely, the implication that "there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms." (MB 1) The claim that there are no inanimate objects, no tables, chairs, ships and stars will strike many as so patently absurd as to be not worth discussing. Arguments to such a conclusion, no matter how clever, will be dismissed as unsound without evaluation on the simple ground that the conclusion to which they lead is preposterous. This is the essence of a Moorean objection. If someone says that time is unreal, you say, 'I ate breakfast an hour ago.' If someone denies the external world, you hold up your hands. If someone denies that there are chairs, you point out that he is sitting on one. And then you clinch your little speech by adding, 'The points I have just made are more worthy of credence than any premises you can marshall in support of their negations.'
I myself have never been impressed with Moorean rebuttals. To my mind they signal on the part of those who make them a failure to understand the nature of philosophical (in particular, metaphysical) claims. See, e.g., Can One See that One is not a Brain in a Vat?
Though I disagree with van Inwagen's denial of artifacts, I think he can be quite easily defended against the charge of maintaining something 'mad' or something refutable by a facile Moorean rejoinder.
Chapter 10 of Material Beings deals with the Moorean objection. Van Inwagen does not deny that we utter such true sentences as 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's.' But whereas most of us would infer from this that walls exist, and thus that composite non-living things exist, van Inwagen refuses to draw this inference maintaining instead that the truth of 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's' is consistent with there being no walls.
This is not as crazy as it sounds. For suppose that what the vulgar call a wall is (speaking with the learned) just some stacked stones, some stones arranged wall-wise. And to simplify the discussion, suppose the stones are simples. Then the denial that there is a wall is a denial that there is one single thing that the stones compose. But this is consistent with the existence of the stones. Accordingly, the sentence 'There is a wall that separates my property from my neighbor's' is true in virtue of the existence of the stones despite the fact that there is no wall as a whole composed of these stony parts.
Or consider the house built by the Wise Pig years ago out of 10, 000 blocks (which for present purposes we may consider to be honorary simples.) (The tail tale of the Wise Pig is recounted on p. 130 of Material Beings.) At the completion of construction, did something new come into existence? I would say 'yes.' Van Inwagen would say 'no.' All that has happened on PvI's account is that some blocks have been arranged house-wise. His denial then, is that there is a y such that the xs compose y. He is not denying the xs (the blocks construed as simples); he is denying that there is a whole that they compose. And because there is no whole that they compose, the house does not exist.
Furthermore, because the house does not exist, there can be no question whether the house built by the Wise Pig years ago, and kept in good repair by him and his descendants by replacement of defective blocks, is the same as or is not the same as the one that his descendants live in today. The standard puzzles about diachronic artifact identity lapse if there are no artifacts.
Does this fly in the face of Moorean common sense? If madman Mel were to say that there are no houses he would not mean what the metaphysican means when he says that there are no houses. If Mel is right, then it cannot be true that I have been living in the same house for the last ten years. But the truth of 'I have been living in the same house for the last ten years' is consistent with, or at least not obviously inconsistent with, PvI's denial of houses (which is of course not a special denial, but a consequence of his denial of artifacts in general). This is because PvI is not denying the existence of the simples which we mistakenly construe as parts of a nonexistent whole.
But then how are we to understand a sentence like, 'The very same house that stands here now has stood here for three hundred years'? Van Inwagen proposes the following paraphrase:
There are bricks (or, more generally, objects) arranged housewise here now, and these bricks are the current objects of a history of maintenance that began three hundred years ago; and at no time in that period were the then-current objects of that history arranged housewise anywhere but here. (133)
I am not endorsing PvI's denial of artifacts, I am merely pointing out that it cannot be dismissed Moore-style.
A reader, recently deployed to Afghanistan, finds time to raise an objection that I will put in my own words to make it as forceful as possible:
You endorsed William Lycan's Moorean refutation of eliminative materialism, but then you criticized him for thinking that Moorean appeals to common sense are also effective against standard idealist claims such as Berkeley's thesis that the objects of ordinary outer perception are clusters of ideas. You maintained that there is a crucial difference between the characteristic claims of eliminativists (e.g., that there are no beliefs, desires, intentions, pleasures, pains, etc.) and the characteristic claims of idealists (e.g., Berkeley's thesis just mentioned, McTaggart's thesis of the unreality of time, Bradley's of the unreality of relations.) The difference is that between denying the existence of some plain datum, and giving an account of a plain datum, an account which presupposes, and so does not deny, the datum in question. In effect, you insisted on a distinction between identifying Xs as Ys, and denying the existence of Xs. Thus, you think that there is an important difference between identifying pains with brain states, and denying that there are pains; and identifying stones and physical objects generally with collections of ideas in the mind of God and denying that there are physical objects. But in other posts you have claimed that there are identifications which collapse into eliminations. I seem to recall your saying that to identify God with an unconscious anthropomorphic projection, in the manner of Ludwig Feuerbach, amounts to a denial of the existence of God, as opposed to a specification of what God is. Similarly, 'Santa Claus is a fictional character' does not tell us what Santa Claus is; it denies his very existence.
Now why couldn't Lycan argue that this is exactly what is going on in the idealist case? Why couldn't he say that to identify stones and such with clusters of ideas in the mind of God is to deny the existence of stones? Just as God by his very nature (whether or not this nature is exemplifed) could not be an anthropomorphic projection, so too, stones by their very nature as physical objects could not be clusters of ideas, not even clusters of divine ideas.
It seems you owe us an account of why the reduction of physical objects to clusters of ideas is not an identification that collapses into an elimination. If you cannot explain why it does not so collapse, then Lycan and Co. will be justifed in deploying their Moorean strategy against both EM-ists and idealists. They could argue, first, that idealism is eliminationism about common sense data, and then appeal to common sense to reject the elimination.
John Greco (How to Reid Moore) finds Barry Stroud's interpretation of G. E. Moore's proof of an external world implausible:
According to him [Stroud], the question as to whether we know anything about the external world can be taken in an internal or an external sense. In the internal sense, the question can be answered from “within” one’s current knowledge —- hence one can answer it by pointing out some things that one knows, such as that here is a hand. In the external sense, however, the question is put in a “detached” and “philosophical” way.
If we have the feeling that Moore nevertheless fails to answer the philosophical question about our knowledge of external things, as we do, it is because we understand that question as requiring a certain withdrawal or detachment from the whole body of our knowledge of the world. We recognize that when I ask in that detached philosophical way whether I know that there are external things, I am not supposed to be allowed to appeal to other things I think I know about external things in order to help me settle the question.5
According to Stroud, Moore’s proof is a perfectly good one in response to the internal question, but fails miserably in response to the external or “philosophical” question. In fact, Stroud argues, Moore’s failure to respond to the philosophical question is so obvious that it cries out for an explanation -- hence Malcolm’s and Ambroses’s ordinary language interpretations. Stroud offers a different explanation for Moore’s failure to address the philosophical question: “He [i.e. Moore] resists, or more probably does not even feel, the pressure towards the philosophical project as it is understood by the philosophers he discusses.”6 Or again, “we are left with the conclusion that Moore really did not understand the philosopher’s assertions in any way other than the everyday ‘internal’ way he seems to have understood them.”7 The problem with this interpretation, of course, is that it makes Moore out to be an idiot. Is it really possible that Moore, the great Cambridge philosopher, did not understand that other philosophers were raising a philosophical question? (bolding added)
So how does one know that one is not a brain in a vat, or that one is not deceived by an evil demon? Moore and Reid are for the most part silent on this issue. But a natural extension of their view is that one knows it by perceiving it. In other words, I know that I am not a brain in a vat because I can see that I am not. [. . .] Just as I can perceive that some animal is not a dog, one might think, I can perceive that I am not a brain in a vat. (21)