Putnam and Plantinga on religion

This discussion on religion with heavy-duty philosophers Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga is from way back in 2000, but I found it well worth a listen. Somewhat ironically–considering that Putnam is Jewish and Plantinga is a Christian–I found myself more sympathetic to Putnam’s overall approach. I’m not nearly as familiar with his work, but the way he draws on pragmatism, existentialism, and negative theology resonates pretty closely with how I think about this stuff.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

Idealism in twenty minutes

Keith Ward gives a concise overview and defense of metaphysical idealism:

This lecture is essentially a summary of the argument from his 2010 book More Than Matter. The basic claim is that mind or consciousness is a fundamental component or aspect of reality, and it can’t be reduced to or explained exhaustively in material terms. Ward points out that we’re immediately aware of consciousness, while the material world–at least as it appears to us–is something that is in part constructed by our minds. This doesn’t mean that the physical world isn’t real; but it does suggest that there’s something problematic about arguing for the reduction of mind to an aspect of reality that is itself partly mind-constituted. Minds are the only “things-in-themselves” we know first hand. On that basis, Ward says

What idealists maintain is that the ultimate nature of reality itself is mind-like, and that human and other finite minds are the best clues we have to what objective reality is like. The cosmos is not a mindless, unconscious, valueless, purposeless, yet somehow strangely intelligible, mechanism. Such a view is the result of extrapolating a machine-model, very useful in many scientific contexts, to provide the most comprehensive and adequate picture of the real cosmos.

Idealists propose that the human mind provides a better model from which to extrapolate to the cosmos as a whole. That is not because the cosmos looks like a very large human person or because there is some large person hovering just beyond the cosmos. It is because human minds play a creative and constructive role in producing the phenomenal world. They seem to point to a level of reality that is not merely phenomenal or an appearance to consciousness. Human minds generate an idea of reality as mind-like in a way that far transcends human mentality, yet that does include something like consciousness, value, and purpose as essential parts of its nature. (More Than Matter, p. 58)

Ward doesn’t claim to offer a knock-down argument for idealism, but he thinks it’s at least as reasonable as competing views, if not more so. He also points out that some form of idealism is arguably the majority view in the history of philosophy.

Even when I was an atheist, I never found materialism particularly compelling. And studying philosophy–particularly early modern philosophy–only reinforced that. It’s hard to come to grips with the arguments of Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant and still think that materialism is a straightforward, much less obviously true, understanding of reality.

Anselm on the divine nature

I want to shift gears away from Anselm’s argument for God’s existence and focus on his account of God’s nature (though, as noted, he doesn’t think these are wholly separable).

Recall that, for Anselm, God is that being greater than which none can be conceived (or, “the greatest conceivable being” for short). In chapter V, Anselm amplifies on this definition:

WHAT are you, then, Lord God, than whom nothing greater can be conceived? But what are you, except that which, as the highest of all beings, alone exists through itself, and creates all other things from nothing? For, whatever is not this is less than a thing which can be conceived of. But this cannot be conceived of you. What good, therefore, does the supreme Good lack, through which every good is? Therefore, you are just, truthful, blessed, and whatever it is better to be than not to be. For it is better to be just than not just; better to be blessed than not blessed.

“Whatever it is better to be than not to be” seems to be the controlling idea as Anselm discusses some of God’s key attributes. For example, he says that it is better to be “omnipotent, compassionate, passionless” than not (chapter VI).

In explicating these attributes, Anselm offers arguments intending to show, for instance, how God can be said to be omnipotent even though he can’t, say, lie or change the past, or how God can be compassionate even though he is “passionless.” He also attempts to reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. Furthermore, God, according to Anselm, does not exist in space or time, and God exists as triune (Father, Son, and Spirit).

Anselm’s arguments vary in their persuasiveness, but probably the most disputable point is his method of deriving divine attributes from general premises about “what it is better to be than not to be.” To take the most obvious example, much recent theology has questioned whether it is really better to be “passionless” and specifically whether divine impassibility is compatible with divine love and compassion.

Obviously, the tradition of “perfect being” theology that Anselm represents (and in large measure established) has been hugely influential in Christian theology. The question that has been asked by more recent theology, though, is whether the way this tradition depicts God is faithful to the disclosure of the divine nature that Christians believe occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and which is witnessed to in the Bible. I’m not dumb enough to think I can settle that issue in a blog post, but I do think that Anselm’s appeal to “what it is better to be than not to be” is bound to seem far less straightforward and persuasive today than it may have in his time.

Hartshorne on Anselm’s argument

I should say that I’m not at all confident that I correctly interpreted Anselm’s argument in the previous post. But at least one major interpreter–namely, Charles Hartshorne–agrees that chapter III of the Proslogion is where the action really starts; he refers to the (more famous?) iteration of the argument in chapter II as “but a preliminary try, and an unsuccessful one–elliptical and misleading at best–to state the essential point, which is first explicitly formulated in Proslogium III, and reiterated many times in the Apologetic I, V, and IX” (Hartshorne, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Basic Writings of St. Anselm, Open Court edition, 1962, p. 6). I’m not well read enough on more recent Anselm scholarship to say if this represents the consensus view or not, but it’s nice to get a little validation.

For Hartshorne, the key insight underlying Anselm’s argument is that divinity must be thought of as existing necessarily:

Anselm’s proposal can therefore be put thus: the contrasts, creature-creator and contingently-necessarily existent, should be seen as one and the same contrast, somewhat differently expressed. All things, except God are contingent–of course, says the theist, since they exist only thanks to the fact that it pleased God (and it might not have) to make their existence possible! But surely God does not exist because it pleased Him (and might not have) to make His own existence possible! In this and many other ways it may be shown that God cannot be contingent in a sense parallel to the contingency of ordinary existents.

To talk about “perfect islands” as analogous to deity is mere trifling, unless insular “perfection” (which, nota bene, is not Anselm’s word) is taken to include the status, “creator of all things else.” But then “insular” loses its meaning! When one reads some cheap and easy refutations of the Proof one gets the impression of the following strange course of thought: if God can exist necessarily, surely many other things can too; or, what God can do, others can do also; or, surely His unique excellence cannot go so far that His very mode of existing, His very relation to the category of existence, is unique also. Ah, but can it not? This may turn out to be the same as the question whether or not theism (and not simply an argument for theism) is logically possible. And if the logical possibility of theism is what the critic impugns, by all means let him say so! (pp. 6-7)

What Hartshorne is saying, I think, is that, for Anselm, if it is possible that God exists, then it is necessary that God exists. That is, necessary-existence is an essential part of the concept “God,” and so if that concept is internally consistent or coherent, then it must be instantiated in reality. The “logic” of the God-concept, so to speak, follows different rules than any other.

Anselm’s “Proslogion”: Divine existence

Over the weekend I reread Anselm of Canterbury’s Proslogion (as one does), partly motivated by my recent interest in thinking about the divine nature. In addition to setting out the (in)famous “ontological” argument for God’s existence, the Proslogion is a hugely important source for the development of “traditional” or “classical” theism in the Christian tradition.

On this reading, I think I got a better understanding of the ontological argument (a term Anselm doesn’t use, by the way, and which was coined, I believe, by Immanuel Kant). Anselm has often been interpreted as saying that since it is better to exist in reality than merely as a concept in the mind, then God, as the greatest conceivable being, must exist in reality, not just as a concept. As was pointed out by Anselm’s first critic, his fellow monk Gaunilo, this argument would seem equally to prove the real existence of the greatest conceivable island.

But Anselm’s argument is quite a bit more subtle than this, and not so easily refuted. Let’s take a look.

In chapter II, Anselm sketches his argument for God’s existence, in reply to “the fool who says in his heart there is no God” (Psalm 14):

For, it is one thing for an object to be in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. . . .

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it [i.e., the fool understands the meaning of the word “God” in some sense, even if he denies God’s existence]. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Now this does look like the version of the argument I summarized above: that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind, so the greatest conceivable being must exist both in the mind and in reality. And thus it would seem to be vulnerable to the common objection.

But in the following chapter Anselm provides what I think is an elaboration of the argument (rather than a second, distinct argument):

And it [i.e., the greatest conceivable being] assuredly exists so truly, that it cannot be conceived not to exist. For, it is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist;. and this being you are, O Lord, our God.

So truly, therefore, do you exist, O Lord, my God, that you can not be conceived not to exist; and rightly. For, if a mind could conceive of a being better than you, the creature would rise above the Creator; and this is most absurd. And, indeed, whatever else there is, except you alone, can be conceived not to exist. To you alone, therefore, it belongs to exist more truly than all other beings, and hence in a higher degree than all others. For, whatever else exists does not exist so truly, and hence in a less degree it belongs to it to exist.

Here Anselm qualifies the notion of divine existence in an important way. “It is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist.” In other words, he’s not (just) saying that it’s better to exist in reality than to exist only as a concept in the mind. He’s saying that it is better to have the property of not-being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist than to have the property of being-able-to-be-conceived-not-to-exist. That is, the greatest conceivable being would be one which not only exists, but whose non-existence is inconceivable.

So Anselm’s argument looks like this:

1. God is, by definition, that being greater than which none can be conceived.

2. A being whose non-existence is inconceivable is greater than one whose non-existence is conceivable.

3. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived is one whose non-existence is inconceivable.

4. But a being whose non-existence is inconceivable must exist, by definition.

5. Therefore, the being greater than which none can be conceived (i.e., God) exists.

I think the most questionable premise here is number 2, for a couple of reasons. First, it may be that “a being whose non-existence is inconceivable” is itself not a coherent or conceivable concept. At least it’s not immediately apparent to me that it is without further argument. One could also question Anselm’s entire method of ranking modes of being along a scale of “greatness.” Such ranking entails, it seems to me, a particular view of value that may not be universally shared. So, perhaps needless to say, I don’t think it’s a knock-down argument.

Still, it’s a darn interesting argument, and one that has a lot more going for it than is sometimes supposed. Moreover, Anselm’s understanding of God as “the greatest conceivable being” has been extremely fertile with regard to thinking about the divine attributes. That’s the topic I want to explore in the next post.

John Macquarrie’s dialectical theism

In his Gifford Lectures, published in 1984 as In Search of Deity, Anglican theologian John Macquarrie develops a view of God that he calls “dialectical theism”–to provide an alternative to what he calls “classical theism.”

According to Macquarrie, classical theism has over-emphasized certain attributes of God, resulting in a less-than-satisfactory concept of divinity from both a philosophical and religious point of view. For instance, he contends that it has over-emphasized divine transcendence, resulting in a “monarchical” picture of a God who is removed and aloof from creation. “The intellect demands a more dialectical concept of God, while the religious consciousness, too, seeks a God with whom more affinity can be felt, without diminution of his otherness” (p. 31).

This is not an unfamiliar criticism, but instead of simply swinging to the other extreme and positing an “immanent” God, Macquarrie argues that an adequate concept of God requires holding certain seemingly opposed attributes in a “dialectical” tension. Hence, “dialectical theism.”

Macquarrie describes a series of six “dialectical contrasts”, each side of which he thinks we need to attribute to God in order to have a more adequate concept of deity:

–Being and nothing: God is being, or as Macquarrie prefers to say, the power of “letting-be.” At the same time, God is not an existent in the same way that particular things in the spatio-temporal world are. So it is true, in a sense, to say that God does not exist. God is not “a thing” or “a being” alongside other beings, but that which gives to other things their being.

–The one and the many: God is one (or maybe better, beyond numbering) and is the ultimate unity that grounds the multiplicity of things. But there are also reasons for thinking that there is a kind of differentiation within the being of God: a divine “abyss,” and intelligible self-manifestation, and a drive toward unity or communion (echoes of the Trinity).

–Knowability and incomprehensibility: Because God expresses himself in creation, God is knowable, “intuited in the world as a presence or as its unity.” But this knowledge is indirect, mediated by symbols, and the inexhaustible being of God transcends what we can know about him.

–Transcendence and immanence: God is independent of the world in the sense that the world depends on God for its existence. But God is also deeply involved in the world, intimately present to the processes that make it up. Images of “making” and “emanation” provide complementary ways of picturing the act of divine creation.

–Impassibility and passibility: Because God transcends the world, the suffering in the world cannot overwhelm or destroy him–or ultimately defeat God’s purposes. But God experiences what happens in the world and it affects him–the world matters to God. Its history makes a real contribution to the divine life.

–Eternity and temporality: God transcends the succession of past, present, and future and “remains constant and faithful, neither his power nor his love is diminshed by the passage of time” (p. 182). But God is also involved in the movement of time, “engaged in the struggle,” “an active participant.” “God is himself in the events of history and is concerned about their outcome” (p. 182).

Macquarrie acknowledges that his view is similar to the “panentheism” often associated with Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, but he prefers to avoid the connotations that this term might have of “pantheism.” He also thinks his dialectical theism preserves a more robust sense of divine transcendence than one finds in Whitehead. You could say that Macquarrie’s version of theism is a characteristically Anglican “both/and” approach that tries to affirm the kernel of truth in seemingly opposed claims.

Models of God and the Christian life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.

As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.

Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.

The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)

As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.

But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?

Capitalism, liberalism, and the good life

I enjoyed this review by philosopher Gary Gutting of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much Is Enough? (I haven’t read the book.) The Skidelskys, according to Gutting, argue that, under capitalism, we find ourselves with relative material abundance but without enough time to pursue “intangibles such as love, friendship, beauty, and virtue”–which are essential ingredients of a good life. Moreover, capitalism, with its seemingly insatiable drive toward increased production and profit, creates in us the desires for more and better things, and these desires crowd out our desires to pursue the intangible “higher goods.” They say we need to redirect our society toward the good life with measures to curb these pernicious effects of capitalism–such as a guaranteed basic income and a consumption tax on luxury goods.

This isn’t an unfamiliar line of argument, but Gutting goes on to consider two types of objections. First, utilitarians might argue that the good life consists in maximizing subjective states of satisfaction (i.e., happiness as commonly understood), not the attainment of objective goods. Appealing to Robert Nozick’s “experience machine” thought experiment, Gutting replies that it’s implausible to think that subjective satisfaction is sufficient for a good life–though he agrees it’s probably necessary. And he thinks the Sidelskys could easily take subjective satisfaction on board as part of their account of the good life.

More difficulty for the Sidelskys’ argument is posed, Gutting thinks, by liberalism’s insistence on personal autonomy and its demand that the state be officially neutral among competing views about what constitutes a good life. Liberal societies, according to this view, shouldn’t try to impose a specific vision of the good life as a matter of public policy. So the Sidelskys’ proposals seem like non-starters because they would violate the liberal commitment to anti-paternalism.

Gutting thinks the liberal objection can be met by a renewed emphasis on liberal education. Such an education exposes us to different ways of living and can act as a counterweight to the acquisitiveness fostered by capitalist society. This would provide, Gutting hopes, a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” corrective to the problems the Sidelskys identify:

There is a risk that free citizens educated in this way will not arrive at the truth we have in mind. They may, free and informed, choose the material illusions of capitalism. But, in a democracy, an ideal of the good life has no force unless the people’s will sustains it. Liberally educated consumers—and voters—are our only hope of subordinating capitalism to a humane vision of the good life.

While this is good as far as it goes, I think Gutting may be underestimating the resources political liberalism has for addressing these concerns. Gutting says that the “basic goods” advocated by the Sidelksys, such as “health, security, respect, personal freedom …, harmony with nature, friendship, and leisure” differ from the “primary goods” that liberals advocate as prerequisites for effective individual freedom to pursue a variety of lifestyles. But I wonder if the Sidelskys’ list is really at odds with what liberals like John Rawls or Martha Nussbaum (or for that matter sophisticated utilitarians) would advocate at the level of public policy.

People sometimes underestimate how radical the implications are of what philosophical liberals advocate. If we really took seriously the requirement to ensure equal access to primary goods (Rawls) or capabilities for functioning (Nussbaum), or equal consideration of interests (utilitarianism), I think American society would look a lot different. It would be much more economically egalitarian and probably as a result would produce fewer luxury goods. Besides, on any reasonable, non-totalitarian view of public policy, there has to be some scope for people to make choices that depart from some officially preferred vision of the good life. Indeed, as liberals from J.S. Mill onward have argued, such freedom is an indispensable ingredient of the good life. On a practical level, then, I’m not sure how much the Sidelskys’ desired end-state differs from that of liberalism.

For what it’s worth

Consider this a kind of postscript to the last two posts. My personal view is that consciousness and mind are perfectly “natural” in the sense that no supernatural intervention was necessary to “insert” them into the process by which life developed. I take it that they emerged once living organisms became sufficiently complex, even though how this happened is still very incompletely understood. But at the same time, I think they are real features of the world and shouldn’t be explained away as mere epiphenomena. The temptation to treat them as such arises when theories or concepts are taken to be exhaustive descriptions of reality rather than abstractions that only capture certain aspects of it. So because consciousness, say, doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of measurement and quantification that have given theories in the physical sciences so much of their explanatory power, scientists (or more commonly philosophers and popularizers of science) sometimes dismiss it as somehow “less real.” What we need then is not an appeal to the supernatural to make room for mind, but an understanding of “nature” that is sufficiently rich to accommodate all the parts of our experience.

More specifically, I don’t think Christians have any theological stake in viewing mind or consciousness as somehow separate from nature. Even though most mainstream churches have made peace with evolution to some extent, there is still a tendency to make an exception for human minds. For instance, some theologians still insist that each human soul is directly created by God at the moment of conception. This not only seems to wreak havoc with the unity of the human person, but it undermines the observed continuity between humans and other animals. I think it’s preferable (and arguably more biblical) to see human beings as unitary organisms with both physical and mental aspects. Moreover, it seems more credible to think of God as creating a universe that already contains within it the seeds of consciousness and mind rather than as having to add them after the fact.