Sunday, January 22, 2017

Can Kant refer to God?

Originally appeared here.

I am plodding on with Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, which I strongly recommend. He is committed to the Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) belief that not only that there is such a being as God, but also that we are able to address him in prayer, refer to him, think and talk about him, and predicate properties of him. This means using unique descriptions like ‘all-powerful’, ‘all-knowing’, ‘creator of the world’ etc by means of which we can single him out, giving a proper name such as ‘Yhwh’ to him via such reference-fixing descriptions.

The challenge for this belief is the idea, which Plantinga claims is widely accepted among theologians (I am not sure how to check this), ‘that Kant showed that reference to or thought about such a being (even if there is one) is impossible or at least deeply problematic’. To counter this, he devotes a whole chapter to showing that Kant did not show or prove this with anything the certainty that we might think.

He considers two competing scholarly interpretations of Kant. According to the one world picture, the terms ‘transcendental objects’ and ‘empirical objects’ should be understood to refer not to two different kinds of entity, but rather to different ways of talking about one and the same thing. He notes that this picture ‘would be accepted even by such staunch pre-revolutionaries as Aristotle and Aquinas.

According to the two world picture, which is the traditional interpretation, Kant held that there are two realms of objects, i.e. noumenal and phenomenal, which are fundamentally different. Noumena are things as they are in themselves, phenomena or ‘appearances’ are things as they are for us.
Appearances are the sole objects which can be given to us immediately, and that in them which relates immediately to the object is called intuition. Appearances are not things in themselves; they are only representations, which in turn have their object—an object which cannot be intuited by us, and which may, therefore, be named the non-empirical, that is, transcendental object = x. (A109)
Phenomena are objects that exist in space and time, noumena are neither temporal nor spatial, since space and time ‘are forms of our intuition rather than realities that characterize the things in themselves.’ Since phenomena are constructed by us out of the raw data of experience, they depend on us for their existence. Noumena, on the other hand, do not depend on us for their existence, as they are things as they are in themselves. They form two disjoint worlds: no phenomenal object is a noumenon, no noumenal object is a phenomenon.

Regarding the one world picture, if our concepts apply to anything, then to the things, because these are the only things there are. And if we refer, we refer to things. What would it mean to say that the category of causality does not apply to the things? This would mean is that noumena do not stand in causal relations to each other or anything else, and hence the complement property, namely not standing in causal relation, would apply to things. This seems problematic. What about being non-self-identical? And if no positive properties apply to things, we would make a mistake if we said that God is wise, or good, or powerful, or loving. ‘That would be because nothing is wise, good, powerful, loving, and the like.’

The two world picture makes more sense, because 'things' can then refer to phenomenal things. But how do we predicate one thing of another? This requires concepts. On a radical version of the two world picture, (as Plantinga interprets Kant) concepts are a sort of rule for synthesizing the perceptual manifold, i.e. ‘constructing’ phenomenal things out of the ‘blooming buzzing confusion’. Hence your concept of a horse is a sort of rule for putting together different items of experience, into a phenomenal object. And of course such a concept cannot apply to noumena, since they are not ‘given’ to us in experience, and so we cannot construct an object out of them. Moreover, it is not just that no noumenon is a horse, it is also that no noumenon is a non horse, since ‘being a nonhorse’ is also a rule for constructing a phenomenal object from the perceptual manifold. ‘So thought of, a concept could no more apply to [a noumenon] than a horse could be a number.

On this radical interpretation, our concepts do not apply to God, for God would have to be a noumenon, rather than something we have constructed from the perceptual manifold. And so, interpreted this way, ‘we can’t refer to, think about, or predicate properties of God’.

In the first place, Plantinga argues that this picture is deeply incoherent. Kant holds that noumena are causally connected to us, yet (on the radical interpretation) we should not be able to refer to them at all or attribute to them the properties of being atemporal and aspatial, ‘or even speculate that there might be such things’. Kant’s thought founders on the fact that the picture requires that he have knowledge the picture denies him. If this picture were really correct, the noumena would have to drop out altogether, so that all remains is what has been structured by us. The idea that there might be reality beyond what we ourselves have constructed out of experience would not be so much as thinkable.

In the second place, what powerful arguments does Kant deploy to justify the ‘startling’ conclusion that we can’t think about, refer to, or predicate properties of the noumena, given that concepts are really rules for synthesizing the (perceptual) manifold into phenomenal objects and so the only things we can think about are objects we ourselves have somehow constructed. What reasons does Kant give?

According to Plantinga, these reasons are ‘distressingly scarce’. Perhaps ‘those who urge [Kant's theory] are simply overwhelmed by what they see as its sheer intellectual beauty and power; they don’t feel the need of argument. Indeed, they find the picture so dazzling they are willing to put up with a strong dose of incoherence in addition to absence of argument’. But that, he says ‘doesn’t constitute much of a reason for the rest of us—those of us more impressed by the incoherence of the picture than its beauty—to accept it’ (laughter at the back of class).

The best he can find are the antinomical arguments, supposedly powerful lines of reasoning on opposing sides of a given question (such as whether the world had a beginning in time). Kant apparently intended the antinomies to support his transcendental idealism. They confront us with the problem that we take ourselves to be thinking about things in themselves – the noumena – as opposed to the things for us, the phenomena.
If in employing the principles of understanding we do not merely apply our reason to objects of experience, but venture to extend these principles beyond the limits of experience, there arise pseudo-rational doctrines which can neither hope for confirmation in experience nor fear refutation by it. Each of them is not only in itself free from contradiction, but finds conditions of its necessity in the very nature of reason—only that, unfortunately, the assertion of the opposite has, on its side, grounds that are just as valid and necessary. (A421, B449)
But he finds the antinomical arguments not ‘to put the best face on it, at all compelling’. Take the argument about the beginning of the world
If we assume that the world had no beginning in time, then up to every given moment an eternity has elapsed, and there has passed away in the world an infinite series of successive states of things. Now the infinity of a series consists in the fact that it can never be completed through successive synthesis. It thus follows that it is impossible for an infinite world-series to have passed away, and that a beginning of the world is therefore a necessary condition of the world’s existence. (A426, B454)
‘I am sorry to say it is hard to take seriously’, says Plantinga! Kant begins with the assumption that an infinite series can’t be completed by starting from some point finitely far from the beginning and adding members finitely many at a time at a constant rate, which is true. But it doesn’t follow that it is impossible for an infinite world-series to have passed away, and that a beginning of the world is therefore a necessary condition of the world’s existence, for this just claims what was to be proved: that the series in question had a beginning!
To conclude, as Kant does, that it is impossible that an infinite series of events has occurred is just to assume that the series in question had a beginning—that is, is finite—but that is precisely what was to be proved. So the argument really has no force at all.
It’s all very entertaining. I haven’t put on my especially reinforced thinking hat to examine the chapter in great depth, nor have I checked through my Kant to be certain of the ‘distressingly scarce’ claim. But I shall ask Vallicella the next time I see him.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Are all religions the same?

Originally appeared here.

I have been working through Alvin Plantinga’s excellent (but frustrating) book Warranted Christian Belief, and I am particularly intrigued by his critique of the work of theologian John Hick.
Hick began his spiritual odyssey as a traditional, orthodox Christian, accepting what I have been calling ‘Christian belief’. He was then struck by the fact that there are other religions in which the claims of orthodox Christianity—trinity, incarnation, atonement—are rejected. Furthermore, so far as one can tell from the outside, so to speak, the claims of these other religions, taken literally, are as respectable, epistemically speaking, as the claims of Christianity. Still further, according to Jesus himself, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The most important fruits, Hick thinks, are practical: turning away from a life of selfishness to a life of service; on this point, these other religions, he thinks, seem to do as well as Christianity. The conclusion he draws is that where Christianity differs from the others, we can’t properly hold that it is literally true and the others literally false; that would be, he thinks, a sort of intellectual arrogance, a sort of spiritual imperialism, a matter of exalting ourselves and our beliefs at the expense of others. Instead, we must hold that the great religions are all equally valuable and equally true.
How many of us recognise that spiritual odyssey and how many of us have reached that point in their journey? But as Plantinga carefully argues, it is full of pitfalls. Hick wants to declare that all the traditions are actually false. He says ‘literally’ false, but literal truth and falsehood, as Hick conceives them, are just truth and falsehood. The first problem is that if I am to remain a Christian, I must take part in Christian worship, which requires accepting the doctrines of traditional Christianity (‘I believe in Jesus Christ … who was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead’). But if I accept these doctrines as only mythologically true, i.e. really false, how can I at the same time accept these false doctrines as putting me ‘into the right relation with the Real’? ‘Is this posture in fact possible for a human being: can a person accept it, and accept it authentically, without bad faith or doublethink?’

Two, we want to avoid imperialism and self-exaltation by declaring that everyone is mistaken here (‘except for ourselves and a few other enlightened souls’). But aren’t we now exalting ourselves and a few graduate students over nearly everyone else?
Those who think there really is such a person as God are benighted, unsophisticated, unaware of the real truth of the matter, which is that there isn’t any such person (even if thinking there is can lead to practical fruits). We see Christians as deeply mistaken; of course we pay the same compliment to the practitioners of the other great religions; we are equal-opportunity animadverters. We benevolently regard the rest of humanity as misguided; no doubt their hearts are in the right place; still, they are sadly mistaken about what they take to be most important and precious. I find it hard to see how this attitude is a manifestation of tolerance or intellectual humility: it looks more like patronizing condescension.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Does God have a body?

Originally appeared here.

Dale writes:
A self is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships. A god is commonly understood to be a sort of extraordinary self. In the Bible, the god Yahweh (a.k.a. “the LORD”) commands, forgives, controls history, predicts the future, occasionally appears in humanoid form, enters contracts with human beings, and sends prophets, whom he even allows to argue with him. More than a common god in a pantheon of gods, he is portrayed as being the one creator of the cosmos, and as having uniquely great power, knowledge, and goodness.
Does this mean that God is a person? If so, does this mean that God has a body?

In The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel Benjamin Sommer argues that it was the normal view in Judaism and in other ancient near east religions that God does have a human-like body, based on Genesis 1. (‘made in his image and likeness’). See also the well-known passage in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God’s backside, but nothing else. “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” So God is able to move from one place to another, since he can ‘pass by’, and he also has a hand (and a face).

Sed contra: Deuteronomy 4:11 ‘Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.’

In this connection, I have been reading P.F. Strawson’s seminal 1959 work Individuals. Strawson writes (Individuals, p.58) ‘it is a conceptual truth that persons have material bodies’. Assuming that God is a self or a person, does this mean that God has a material body?

I looked at Strawson’s argument again, as far as I could make sense of it. It’s a transcendental argument, namely an argument that X is a necessary condition for the possibility of Y, that Y is the case, and so X is the case. Strawson defines the concept of a person as the subject of both M (material) predicates such as ‘weighs 200 lbs’ and P (psychological) predicates such as ‘is depressed’. This is merely a definition, but he goes on to argue (p.102) that the concept of a person, i.e. that which can satisfy both types of predicate, is logically primitive, whereas the concept of a subject who can satisfy P predicates is logically posterior, i.e. can exist only, if at all, as a secondary non-primitive concept, which itself is explicable only in terms of the concept of a person. Thus it is a necessary condition of our having the concept of a subject of experience that it must involve the same subject being able to satisfy material predicates like ‘weighs 200 lbs’ etc.; we do have the concept of a subject of experience; ergo such subjects must be persons as Strawson has defined ‘person’, i.e. a subject to which we attribute both P and M type predicates.

He adds (p.116) ‘It is for this reason that the orthodox have wisely insisted on the resurrection of the body’.

His reasoning is difficult to follow, but here is my interpretation. The predicate ‘depressed’ has the same meaning whether you say to me ‘I am depressed’ or I say, ‘you are depressed’, to you. The first is a case of self-assignment of an experience, the other is a case of assigning such an experience to another. This means that we have both the concept of an experience or state of consciousness, i.e. what is predicated by a P-predicate, and a concept of the subject of experience, i.e. the subject of the state of consciousness.

Now if I tell you that I am also depressed, it follows that different subjects can have the same experience, i.e. when you and I each say ‘I am depressed’ or, to each other, ‘you are depressed’, we are predicating the same thing of different subjects. But different subjects of experience must be distinguishable and identifiable (p.102) , and it is part of Strawson’s wider thesis that subjects can be distinguishable and identifiable only if they are embodied, that is, part of a unified spatio-temporal framework. Thus the concept of a subject of experience would be impossible if the concept were logically primitive. ‘For there could never be any question of assigning an experience, as such, to any subject other than oneself; and therefore never any question of assigning it to oneself either, never any question of ascribing it to a subject at all’. Thus the concept of a person, i.e. a conscious material being, is logically primitive.

This suggests that we can only have the concept of God as an individual being, i.e. a sort of extraordinary self who commands, forgives, controls history, predicts the future etc, if that concept also includes being the subject of predicates such as ‘has a human form’, ‘weighs X lbs’ and so on. Yet the people saw no form. How is that? Where does Strawson’s argument go wrong?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Necessarily so?

It ain't necessarily so
The t'ings dat yo' li'ble
To read in de Bible,
To read in de Bible,
It ain't necessarily so
In God as Biblical Character and as Divine Reality, the Maverick makes the curious distinction between a Biblical character, and the external reality corresponding to the character.
The two philosophers [Aquinas and Spinoza] are clearly referring to the same Biblical character when they write Deus. But their conceptions of God are so different that they cannot be said to be referring to the same being in external reality.
What could this mean? I was puzzled for a while, but then Bill and I discussed it in the comments boxes, and I noticed the label on the post: Fiction and Fictionalism. Then the penny dropped. Bill is comparing the Bible to fiction, or perhaps in the genre of historical fiction where some characters are in ‘external reality’, like Napoleon in War and Peace, and others are simply made up, like Natasha Rostov and Pierre Bezuhov. Thus Moses is the equivalent of Napoleon, and God, qua biblical character, is like Bezuhov. Except that unlike with Bezuhov, there corresponds an external reality to the fictional character God, a divine reality who is real, but not numerically identical with the fiction.

At least, that’s what I understand from his comment here.

There are many problems with this. Much of the Bible is written as history. Genesis, Exodus, Joshua to Kings, and much else, are written in a historical style (‘In the days when the judges ruled …’). And if that history, the story of a single people through hundreds of years, of their kings and priests, also involves supernatural beings, why shouldn’t those beings, who are crucial to the narrative, be included? Of course, a naturalist account would preclude the mention of any such things, except as beliefs in them affected people’s behaviour and influenced events. But that presumes naturalism. Why shouldn’t the history of the Jewish people and nation, properly understood, include the most important person (an omnipotent supernatural being) in that history. Why leave God out? It would be like leaving Napoleon out of War and Peace!

And of course if we have doubts about the most important character in the story, why not doubt the rest? There is no external evidence, i.e. no evidence outside the Bible, for the existence of Adam, or Eve, or Noah, or even Moses. If we ask whether Moses existed, we are not asking whether there was some external reality corresponding to but different from Moses. Rather, we are asking whether that same Biblical character existed in reality. The character is either one and the same with some historical person, or there was no such person.

Likewise with God. Did God really speak to Moses, face to face (Exodus 33:11)? If so, then God the Biblical character really did exist (and, being eternal, still does). If not, then why suppose any external reality corresponding to the character at all?

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Identity and necessity

Originally published here.

This week I have been pondering the question of whether the God of the Philosophers (a being who is omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent etc.) is the same being as the God of the scriptures (Eleanor Stump thinks he is, for example), and in particular the question of whether, if he is identical, he is necessarily identical. The philosopher Saul Kripke is famous for upholding the so-called ‘necessity of identity’ thesis, and for many years (I first studied his magisterial and influential Naming and Necessity in 1979). I thought I understood what his argument was. Now I am less sure.

My puzzle is that there are various ways we can get to the thesis of the Necessity of Identity, yet Kripke apparently accepts none of these. The thesis was first proposed (as far as we know) by modal logic pioneer Ruth Barcan Marcus in 1947 (‘Identity of Individuals in a Strict Functional Calculus of Second Order’, JSL 1947 12-15), although her paper was nearly rejected after Quine, the reviewer, found her methods ‘laborious and often rather obvious, while she seems to avoid the more difficult and interesting questions’. Quine later published a less laborious demonstration of the thesis in 1953 (‘Three Grades of Modal Involvement’ JSL 1953, 168-169), which involves just two assumptions, namely the Principle of Identity, that necessarily a=a, and Substitutivity, that a=b and Fa implies Fb. From these two it clearly follows that if a = b, then necessarily a = b. (Hint: let ‘F’ be ‘necessarily a = ---’, start with Fa, and substitute ‘b’ for ‘a’).

That is all clear and good. The problem is that Kripke doesn’t want to assume Substitutivity. He questions the universal substitutivity of proper names (N&N p.20), and as is well known he agrees with Frege that the identity of Hesperus the evening star and Phosphorus the morning star had to await discovery by a scientist (Pythagoras) and is thus not knowable from first principles. So ‘It is true from first principles that Hesperus is Phosphorus’ is false, yet ‘It is true from first principles that Hesperus is Hesperus’ is true! If we can change the truth value of the statement simply by substituting a name for the same planet, how can Substitutivity be true?

Nor does he want to assume that ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ is true in virtue of its meaning. He says (N&N p.20) that some critics of his doctrines, (‘and some sympathizers’) have taken him to be implying
that a sentence with ‘Cicero’ in it expresses the same ‘proposition’ as the corresponding one with ‘Tully’, that to believe the proposition expressed by the one is to believe the proposition expressed by the other, or that they are equivalent for all semantic purposes. Russell does seem to have held such a view for ‘logically proper names’, and it seems congenial to a purely ‘Millian’ picture of naming, where only the referent of the name contributes to what is expressed. But I (and for all I know, even Mill) never intended to go so far. My view that the English sentence ‘Hesperus is Phosphorus’ could sometimes be used to raise an empirical issue while ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’ could not shows that I do not treat the sentences as completely interchangeable.
This blocks a second route to the necessity of identity. Clearly if ‘a=a’ means the same thing as ‘a=b’, and if ‘a=a’ is necessarily true in virtue of its meaning, then ‘a=b’ is also necessary, since it expresses exactly the same proposition. But Kripke does not endorse such equivalence of meaning. Why then does he believe that the necessity of identity is a universal principle?

It is surprisingly difficult to find any positive argument in his work. Most of his well-known arguments are negative ones, demonstrating that apparent exceptions to the necessity principle are not exceptions at all. For example, we can suppose a situation in which some planet other than Hesperus was called ‘Hesperus’. But that would not be a situation in which Hesperus itself was not Phosphorus (N&N p.108). The only positive argument I could find is this:
If names are rigid designators, then there can be no question about identities being necessary, because ‘a’ and ‘b’ will be rigid designators of a certain man or thing x. Then even in every possible world, ‘a’ and ‘b’ will both refer to this same object x, and to no other, and so there will be no situation in which a might not have been b. That would have to be a situation in which the object which we are also now calling ‘x’ would not have been identical with itself. Then one could not possibly have a situation in which Cicero would not have been Tully or Hesperus would not have been Phosphorus. (‘Identity and Necessity’ p. 154, there is a similar argument in N&N p.104).
Let’s unpack this. Kripke’s notion of a rigid designator is clear enough, and is an important contribution to the philosophy of language. A rigid designator is one which designates the same object in every possible world. Or if you don’t like ‘possible world’ talk, a term which designates the same in a proposition prefixed by a modal operator like ‘it is necessary that’ or ‘it is possible that’ as when not so prefixed. Then his argument looks like this:

1. Let ‘a’ rigidly designate a and ‘b’ rigidly designate b
2. Suppose a=b
3. Then there is a single thing x, such that x=a and x = b
4. ‘a’ designates x and ‘b’ designates x
5. If ‘a’ designates x rigidly, ‘a’ designates x in every possible world, likewise ‘b’
6. If ‘a’ and ‘b’ designate x in some possible world w, and not a=b, then not x=x
7. Therefore a=b in w
8. But w was any possible world. Therefore, necessarily a=b.

Steps 1 and 2 are suppositions, step 3 follows from 2 by the nature of identity. Step 4 I will discuss shortly. Step 5 follows from the definition of rigid designator, step 6 probably requires further assumptions, but looks OK. Step 7 follows by contradiction, and step 8, the conclusion, by the principle that if we can prove p for any arbitrary w, then p holds for every w.

Let’s return to step 4, as I promised. We agree that ‘a’ designates a. And that a=x, by assumption. Why on earth would it follow that ‘a’ designates x? Well, let F be ‘‘a’ designates ---’, so ‘Fa’ says that ‘a’ designates a. And let x=a. How do we get from Fa and x=a to Fx? By our old friend Substitution, no less. Yet Kripke claims to reject the universal applicability of Substitution. He could argue that it simply fails to hold in this case, but the thing about being a logical principle is that if it fails in even one case, it has to fail in every case, unless we can find a sufficient reason why it fails in that case, but then of course the principle has to include that reason. Heavy stuff.