Adventus

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Can We Just Change the Subject?



Rebecca Goldstein has published a novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The novel includes an appendix which details, briefly, 36 actual arguments for the existence of God, complete with Goldstein's critique and rebuttal of each one (and some of them quite novel, including a proof derived from William James' The Variety of Religious Experiences.

I have, somewhere at home, quite a long book detailing all the classical and modern arguments for the existence of God, and pointing out, through rigorous modal logic, their many flaws. The only proof not addressed fully in that book is Charles Hartshorne's modern variant on Anselm's "ontological proof," which Kant didn't dispel nearly as fully as Ms. Goldstein insists he did (it was dispelled, but Kant's analysis of it misses a few salient features. Anselm's proof is, in many ways, the subtlest and most difficult to deal with. And Hartshorne's version of it is so subtle in it's own right, that it requires a separate consideration from any analysis of Anselm's, which is why the book I refer to doesn't include one. Which isn't to say I subscribe to Anselm's or Hartshorne's arguments. It is to say that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.). Ms. Goldstein's appendix is not meant to be as comprehensive as that book, but it still glosses over some very real issues which continue to make this entire discussion both moot, central only to those who think philosophy is ultimately about chasing epistemic shadows, and a complete waste of time. As Kierkegaard wisely said: if you don't begin by assuming God, no argument will overcome your assumption, and if you do, no argument is needed.

But still the conversation persists....

What's missing from Ms. Goldstein's appendix is not only the barest reference to Hartshorne, but also any reference at all to Kierkegaard (she even ascribes the infamous "leap of faith" to William James). Oddly enough, after 50 years of his Danish texts being widely available in English, he is still dismissed as a "religious thinker" who was neither a philosopher nor a theologian; or he is overlooked entirely. His prediction that his work would be overlooked because he wrote from Denmark continues to come true. Not fully embraced by the Continental school, and dismissed out of hand by the Anglo-American school (which Ms. Goldstein is trained in, if not representative of), he continues to wander in a netherland where his thought adds a great deal of clarity but only, it would seem, for those who choose to believe in him. Odd thing, this subject of belief: we don't subscribe to it at the very moment that we do, without admitting it. It is not, to put it in terms of Toulmin logic, our warrants that really matter, it is the backing for them. And that backing we never truly examine.

Of course, this entire discussion is on the fringes of the fringe. This book as been out since January, and I just now noticed it on a bookstore shelf. I've heard absolutely zero about it, which means it hasn't drawn as much attention as the even more mindless rantings of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins ("mindless" in this subject, I mean). So perhaps I should just ignore it and go on. But this obsession with the "existence of God" is annoying precisely because it has regained some popularity, and some (atheists and believers alike) think it is valuable turf to fight over.

It isn't.

No one, as James pointed out (and Goldstein ignores in her gloss on James) devotes their life to the conclusion of a proof about the existence of "God." So it's equally stupid to say the defeat of all possible proofs destroys any possible belief in "God." (I'm putting "God" in quotes, because we haven't even defined what or who "God" is.) As I've pointed out before, the very question "Does God exists" commits a category error, and for the very reason that the way phenomenology (which is largely a Continental philosophy) and empiricism (and its children, largely the Anglo-American school) use the same word ("being") in very different ways. Or, as Johannes Climacus so succinctly puts it:

For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who indeed does exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium or the eternal prius, it can never be demonstrated.
These are, to put it simply, deeper waters than Dawkins or Hitchens ever imagine, but I don't expect them to fathom such depths. A Ph.D. in philosophy, however, as Goldstein is; well...it's no slight on her bravely didactic novel, but the appendix leaves much to be desired.

Then again, the whole subject has had all the water wrung out of it long, long ago. It's the pretense that it ever mattered, that I find so annoying.

22 Comments:

Anonymous rick allen said...

What are called proofs of the existence of God are often explorations of what we mean by God or what the reality of God entails.

There are really very few proofs of anything (though I think I can prove that there is no highest prime number).

Anselm's proof makes us think about what the "highest," "greatest" mean. St. Thomas' first proofs make us think about infinity and its implications. His last proof asks us what cosmic order implies. Kant's "postulates of practical reason" raise the issues of conditions to the very existence of freedom and justice.

These ways of thinking are admittedly far different than the biblical style of thinking about God, but I don't think that they are therefore out in left field, or illegitimate paths that Christian thought has followed out.

They are not proofs, but they are reasons, or, to say almost the same thing, they are rationales, they result from that thinking about what we believe, that attempt to concretize the sense that the unexamined life isn't worth living. They don't make much of an impact on unbelievers, and they probably don't touch many believers. But for some few of us they are meaningful, as correspondences from one internal realm to another, as intellectual correlates to emotions and the moral sense and those aesthetic intuitions that all mutually reinforce the reality of that mystery called "God."

8:35 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Rick--

All true, and well said. Again, it's a question of "language games," as "proof" is taken, by those who don't converse on the subject as you do, as "validation" or even "establishment of reality." Goldstein makes this error in her discussion of Anselm's proof, when she critiques it (having first rejected the critigue, too) as one that could as well establish that unicorns exist. The error she makes and doesn't even understand is the error of assuming unicorns cannot exist, therefore no proof of their existence is possible.

But the nature of existence described by Anselm is not the nature of existence attributable to a unicorn. Which is also part of what Kierkegaard was getting at, taking the "proof" of "existence" as something proving validity. Which is not an error on Kierkegaard's part, but an effort by Johannes Climacus to use the language game of people like Hitchens. Or Goldstein.

I'm with you; I find the considerations within the proofs fascinating. It's the misuse of them that drives me nuts.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

Well, if you slogged through that, you may as well reward yourself with this, which I think you'll enjoy.

9:42 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

"The error she makes and doesn't even understand is the error of assuming unicorns cannot exist, therefore no proof of their existence is possible."

It sounds like she's being somewhat cavalier about definitions. What is a unicorn? If it's a horse-like animal with a horn, there's no reason such a thing couldn't exist. Stranger things than that are all around us.

Presumably, she'd define "unicorn" with reference to a specific narrative in which she doesn't believe. Which seems to me like an odd thing for a philosopher to do...unless, I suppose, that philosopher is writing about the "proof" for God.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Well, if you slogged through that, you may as well reward yourself with this, which I think you'll enjoy.

Goldstein is particularly dismissive of James, which is interesting. Tells me a lot about the state of modern American philosophy, the late work of the late Richard Rorty notwithstanding (of course, Rorty was a pragmatist in the lineage of James, so....)

10:48 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Rick--

Your thoughts on "proof" remind me of a scene in Logicomix where Bertrand Russell is shown working for a year (or longer?) on a proof, which he finally concludes. The proof? That 1+1=2.

Seriously. There were serious reasons for establishing that, but then again, Russell founded the only school of philosophy which actually and fully died. But it goes to the nature of "proof," and the question of language games (which are part of what did in logical positivism).

10:53 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

Goldstein is particularly dismissive of James, which is interesting. Tells me a lot about the state of modern American philosophy, the late work of the late Richard Rorty notwithstanding (of course, Rorty was a pragmatist in the lineage of James, so....)

I read her book on Spinoza, which irritated me. IIRC, she advertised him as the person who "gave" us modernity, and then proceeded to define modernity in terms that seemed to me to be a few millennia old.

To be fair, I get annoyed any time someone is plucked out of history and patted on the back for getting things right, according to our current prejudices, so I realize that my reaction says more about me than Goldstein.

10:41 AM  
Blogger ProfWombat said...

It's occurred to me that were a proof of the existence to be developed--a real, irrefutable, 100% confirmed proof, like that (I know, no such thing, but bear with me)--it'd only beg the question further, rather than put it to rest...

Russell and Whitehead were trying to get arithmetic out of logic, and mathematics out of arithmetic. They followed a late 19th century movement to bring rigor to areas of math long in use, but of dubious foundation. (Frege shows up in Logicomix, too, I think.) So they had to pay particular attention to 1+1=2. And nobody was planning on the demonstration that a closed system must be incomplete; once that's allowed, the lavish application of rigor on behalf of closing a system becomes a bit less attractive.

Self-reference. Even for the Holy Spirit, it's not just for breakfast anymore...

7:14 PM  
Anonymous rick allen said...

"But the nature of existence described by Anselm is not the nature of existence attributable to a unicorn."

Yes, I think that's right. Anselm isn't talking about an object so much as the necessity of what we might call an absolute of absolutes.

What I find interesting about Anselm is how he has been presented, piecemeal, academically. I took a course in medieval philosophy in college, and so read "the ontological proof of God's existence," the Proslogian. Later, in private reading about theology I came across something attributed to Anselm, a supposedly novel "theory" of the atonement, substitutionary atonement, set out in something called Cur Deus Homo. Both I understood as discreet "arguments."

Last year I had occasion to read some Anselm in a volume of his works, admittedly sporadically, but even skimming through various kinds of writing it became apparent, first, how these works were primarily devotional. It's a hard point to see because Anselm understood God as, inter alia, Reason, and the spinning out of inferences as an act comparable in devotion to meditating on the scriptures. His work rests on what we would see as an almost naive confidence in rationality, and in an overall attempt to demonstrate that the Christian revelation and story follows from a few premises apart from revelation. He was apparently criticised in his day for relying so little on scripture in his treatises.

So whether he is talking about God's nature, or God's existence, or the means by which God could reconcile a corrupt and rebellious race, Anselm employs this highly rationalistic method, which he might indeed have seen as proof, but which he might equally have seen as apologia, as defense of the faith at a time when reason apart from revelation was possibly feared as eclipsing the Christian revelation.

I don't doubt that he understood his arguments as valid, and, if we judge them to fall short of mathematically rigourous demonstration, that may be a just judgment, but it doesn't thereby make his work fruitless.

9:45 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

So they had to pay particular attention to 1+1=2. And nobody was planning on the demonstration that a closed system must be incomplete; once that's allowed, the lavish application of rigor on behalf of closing a system becomes a bit less attractive.

Which is why Russell abandoned philosophy (largely) and Whitehead turned to bad (IMHO) "theology."

And that, children, is today's lesson in idol worship.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

I read her book on Spinoza, which irritated me. IIRC, she advertised him as the person who "gave" us modernity, and then proceeded to define modernity in terms that seemed to me to be a few millennia old.

Funny how many books I've seen/read lately about the philosopher (always a different one) who "gave" us modernity.

Must be something in the water....

10:48 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

It's a hard point to see because Anselm understood God as, inter alia, Reason, and the spinning out of inferences as an act comparable in devotion to meditating on the scriptures. His work rests on what we would see as an almost naive confidence in rationality, and in an overall attempt to demonstrate that the Christian revelation and story follows from a few premises apart from revelation. He was apparently criticised in his day for relying so little on scripture in his treatises.

A better summation of the "medieval mind" I've not read. And it goes to the problem of "proof" in current ('modern'? 'post-Enlightenment'? How should we label it?) thought. It is that emphasis on "proof" that engender the misunderstanding. And to call it "language games", at least when I do it. is simply to shuffle off the issue. There is a fairly direct answer; but I don't seem to be coming around to it very directly.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Grandmère Mimi said...

Oddly enough, after 50 years of his Danish texts being widely available in English, he is still dismissed as a "religious thinker" who was neither a philosopher nor a theologian; or he is overlooked entirely.

Odd, indeed, since the 3 works of Kierkegaard you you got me to read, Robert, had a rather profound effect on me. I've never quite recovered from reading Fear and Trembling, and there is no way that I could dismiss the book.

With respect to "proofs" that God does or does not exist, I don't understand why people continue in the illusion that either is possible. But that's me.

I've never not believed in God. I've wavered in being convinced that God has anything to do with me, which period I label as my loss of faith, but I never stopped believing in God.

When I think of reasons for believing in God, the thought that makes the most sense to me is that it seems highly unlikely that the complex universe could have come about by chance. In fact, it seems absurd to me, so I think there must be an intelligence that intentionally brought the universe into being. This explanation works for me, but I rarely think about it and by no means consider that it's anything resembling a proof.

Regarding the God of my faith, at some point along the way, probably after my loss of faith that God cared about me, I made the "leap of faith" that God did, indeed, care very much about me.

6:13 PM  
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2:16 AM  
Anonymous rick allen said...

When talking about religious proofs we tend to contrast the decisiveness of mathematical proofs with the indeterminacy of theological ones. But I think it's important to realize that there are many other realms of discourse relying on arguments as tenuous as those of religion where we are quite comfortable with the flexibility and contestability of conclusions.

I've been working as an attorney for almost thirty years now, and so belong to the guild of professional arguers. Up to a limit we take a position for a fee, and are not scandalized that there are arguments for both sides of a position. We dispute furiously about justice, and come to various conclusions, but, so far as I can tell, there is no widespread questioning whether justice exists, or anxiety that we are worlds apart about what justice may require in a particular situation.

In other words, we should have no more concern about the indecisiveness of our theological discourse than we should be having about the indecisiveness of our legal or political discourse. In all these areas touching the heart of the human, we should expect something short of solid QED's, and recognize that religious discussion is quite similar to other kinds of discussion whose utility no one would question.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Rmj said...

Rick--I agree, and the confusion rests on what Kierkegaard was on about in the Philosophical Fragments: the nature of being, and the proof of "existence."

When arguments about justice or beauty arise, no one imagines we are talking about the concept of being. But when God is discussed, it seems God can only be discussed in terms of being, but never of "pure being" (that is considered waffling), or even as the "Ground of Being" (because no one remembers Tillich). The discussion, of course, should then enter the realm of phenomenology and, at least, Heidegger, but it doesn't, nor is it allowed to (except among Continental philosophers. And I hasten to point out that Dawkins and Hitchens are British.). God is presumed to have a human existence, or rather (and taken as even more absurdly) a super-human existence.

And there the troubles begin.....the nature of God is never explored, because that discussion is deemed "theological" (and, of course, it is) and thus requires acceptance of the premise one is trying to prove (i.e., the "existence" of God), which ends the discussion (back to Kierkegaard's observation, although, again, no one notices). But without examining the nature of Being and existence and then the presumptions about the nature of God, no discussion about the "existence" of God can take place.

And 'round and 'round it goes.....

4:03 PM  
Anonymous rick allen said...

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And serve the made gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Phila said...

When arguments about justice or beauty arise, no one imagines we are talking about the concept of being. But when God is discussed, it seems God can only be discussed in terms of being, but never of "pure being" (that is considered waffling), or even as the "Ground of Being" (because no one remembers Tillich).

Or Peirce, for that matter.

12:20 PM  
Blogger ProfWombat said...

rick: there's a minority, but a real one, who dispute the decisiveness of mathematical proof, notably Imre Lakatos in 'Proofs and Refutations'. And there are distinct parallels when the philosophy of mathematics is compared and contrasted with that of law and jurisprudence.

There are Platonists, who see math as reflecting an underlying reality (natural law). There are contructivists, who demand that only entities that can be constructed be considered, and formalists, who think it all a game to be played under the rules (so-called 'strict contructionists' and original intenters). Then, there are those like Lakatos, who think proofs in math, as observations, theories and interpretations in science, are social activities, whose truth value is indeterminate absolutely, only consensually (critical legal studies, common law to an extent).

Kingdoms of the mind, with daggers, too...

6:24 AM  
Anonymous rick allen said...

PW, I wish I had the time, patience and training to learn more about math. Having now the honor of getting a second child through high school I am again re-relearning algebra and geometry and shortly trigonometry and calculus. And it's like when I was in high school--it's not easy for me, but I kind of enjoy it, and, with the perspective, now, of having studied philosophy in law school, and having practiced law for a number of years, it's strange to pick up a book like Hardy's "Theory of Numbers" (which I must admit I have given no more than cursory attention since purchasing it used some years ago) and thinking, "Here is a book of arguments and proofs which appear generally accepted as valid by those who are able to handle them. What is in here has a strong claim to be Truth, even though I can't use it to tell me how to know how to reform health care or create jobs and make myself good."

I did have some inkling that my undeniably naive view of mathematics and mathematical proof are far from those who have thought long and hard about them. Some years ago I read an account of Godel's proof, dumbed down for the non-mathematician, and for one brief, shining moment I think I understood what he was getting at. But I was under the impression that there the point was not so much necessary internal contradiction as necessary incompleteness, possibly disturbing not not yet shaking my confidence in the non-existence of that highest prime.

Being sort of a Platonist about life, it's easy to be one about mathematical objects as well. Conversely, seeing how even in the pristine kingdom there are doubts and parties and controversies, it does cause one to doubt that we can really come to grips in an ultimate way about, say, what it means to be free.

3:15 PM  
Blogger ProfWombat said...

Best account of Godel I've seen is the short, beautifully written 'Godel's Proof' by James Newman and Ernest Nagel. Hofstadter's 'Godel, Escher, Bach' is woolier but lots of fun if it's your thing.

And you're right, it isn't contradiction but incompleteness. Godel's proof constructs a proposition within an axiomatic system whose truth value cannot be established within the system. I don't find that disturbing; I kind of like it that it's an actual proof of the limitlessness of math, that there will always be something else to discover...

Algorithm. Who could ask for anything more?

5:58 PM  
Anonymous rick allen said...

"the short, beautifully written 'Godel's Proof' by James Newman and Ernest Nagel"

That was it. I'd certainly recommend it. I'm just embarrassed that, when the day is done, there's so little of it that I can honestly say I retained.

I had the Hofstadter book in college, and really loved it, but stopped reading it when the cute stuff started thinning out and it became a chore to follow. Still, I wish I hadn't gotten rid of it, and I'll credit it with leaving me with a lifelong love of Bach's six-part ricercar (if that's the word I'm looking for).

7:41 PM  

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