Thursday, October 26, 2006

Athens, Jerusalem, and the Enlightenment

There's an interesting discussion over at Bill Vallicella's blog about the interaction between faith and reason and the importance of that to the vitality of Western culture. A comment by David Tye is especially illuminating:
Athens as traditionally understood could have a conversation with Jerusalem because both Athens and Jerusalem agreed there was something to talk about – to wit, the true nature of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Athens claimed to know those things through reason, Jerusalem through revelation. Kant’s contribution to the conversation was to dismiss most of what both Athens and Jerusalem had said as a waste of time because the conversation up to that time was based on an illusory “metaphysics.” Kant ended that conversation and started a new one. The new conversation would be restricted to the humanly knowable, as defined by a critique that would define those limits. The substance of the conversation would change. Instead of a search for the true nature of the good, the true and the beautiful, the conversation would be about how we manage to live in a world where we can never truly know those things.

I happen to have Will Durant’s “Story of Philosophy” at hand. I know this is far from a definitive history of philosophy and may generate nothing but chuckles here, but its contents are revealing and typical. Pages 1 through 95 consider philosophy from Plato until Francis Bacon. Then pages 96 to 528 are philosophy from that point on. Herbert Spencer gets more space than Aristotle. Like most modern surveys of philosophy, ancient philosophy is treated as a necessary formality that must be gone through, if only to say that it existed, before “real” philosophy begins with the moderns. That was the same attitude I found in the university philosophy courses I took. Plato and Aristotle were mentioned only as a painful preliminary, out of respect I suppose, and quickly dismissed as “naïve” when Descartes and Kant were brought in to end the boring metaphysical squabbling, the old gents never to be heard from again. ...

The lack of vitality in the contemporary university ... is, I think, a result of the fact that the conversation held in the university is no longer the conversation on which universities were originally founded. A young man goes to the university, full of energy, hope and desire to be initiated into the mysteries of the true nature of friendship, love, justice, the soul and, maybe, being itself. If the student is fortunate enough to find himself at the University of Paris, circa 1275, he will find teachers who share his desire and hope. If he is unfortunate enough to find himself in a Western university in 2006, the first thing that will happen is that his desire and hope will be beaten out of him as a naïve dream that was “debunked” three hundred years ago. Then he will either give up his hope and become a student ticket-puncher like everyone else, or if he is lucky, discover the wisdom of ancient philosophy on his own.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

How Not to Think About Formal Logic

I teach a course on Critical Thinking each semester and we're now getting into some formal logic - just scratching the surface, really. But each time I notice that some students catch on very quickly and just accept the principles as I lay them out; others catch on quickly but immediately want to challenge the principles, especially when it comes to translating ordinary English into standard logic form; still others seem to never catch on, in some cases because of a mental block toward anything that seems even quasi-mathematical. This has gotten me thinking about different attitudes toward formal logic, of which it seems to me that there is one healthy attitude and at least three different sorts of unhealthy attitude.

The first unhealthy attitude is indifference. Formal logic, who cares? If I can't use it to bake a loaf a bread, what good is it? Fair questions, but easily answered by the fact that setting our reasonings out in explicit, formal terms is often indispensable for making them clear enough for our reasoning to reach any significant degree of rigor. Just imagine where disciplines like mathematics and physics would be today if no one had ever bothered to formulate mathematical axioms and physical laws in explicit, formal terms. Certainly those fields would be nowhere nearly as advanced, and we would be without many of the technological developments (e.g., computers) made possible by those advances.

The second unhealthy attitude that of fear and loathing. For some students applying any kind of formal regimen to their thinking is about as fun as pulling teeth. The formal rules seem so abstract, so alien, and if they can't immediately bring things back into concrete and familiar terms, they feel lost and adrift in a unending sea of incomprehensible symbols. In response to this, I would simply point out that the basic rules of formal logic are not as alien as the formal mode of representation might make them seem. Formal logic is really just applied set theory. And that, in turn, is really just a matter of comparing and contrasting groups of things, something we do all the time. "These two groups are really identical (e.g., triangles and 3-sides polygons)." "This group is a subgroup of that one (e.g., squares and rectangles)." "That group only partially overlaps with this one (e.g., heroes and celebrities)." "These two groups are wholly distinct (humans and fish)." Etc. Anyone who can classify ordinary objects in commonsense ways already has all of the conceptual tools they need to do basic formal logic.

The third unhealthy attitude is an uncritical zeal. When some people first encounter formal logic, they are so impressed by the power it gives us to make nice, tight formal proofs, that they learn the rules and immediately apply them with abandon, often in a rote "plug and chug" way. Take an ordinary English statement, formalize it in terms of the logical resources that have been learned, construct a formal proof, and then translate the conclusion back into ordinary English. The main problem with this is that the translation from ordinary English to logical formalization is sometimes problematic. The rigor and power of formal logic come from the fact that it tightly regiments and limits the expressive power of ordinary language. There's a tradeoff here. By sacrificing expressive power we gain in rigor, but we also court the danger that imposition of standard logical forms on ordinary language cuts out something really important and thus distorts the meaning of what we're trying to express. In short, we must bear in mind that formal logic has intrinsic limits. We can develop more and more complex formal systems to account for additional nuances of meaning, but there is no way to capture the full expressive power of ordinary language in formal terms. Syntax cannot replace semantics.

The healthy attitude toward formal logic is, therefore, one of critical respect - respect for the power of formal logic as a tool that can help us make our ideas clear and construct rigorous proofs and disproofs, but a respect that is critical because it bears in mind the limitations of formal logic and is cautious in application.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Incompatible Property Arguments - An Exchange

Since I'm doing a series on incompatible property arguments against God's existence, I thought it'd be appropo to link to a short discussion between two philosophers - one a theist, the other an atheist - on this issue.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Incompatible Properties Arguments against Theism (Part 2)

The next several arguments that Drange presents (see here) turn on the idea of divine immutability, that God is incapable of change in any sense, and attempt to draw out a contradiction with other divine attributes. Here's the first:
The Immutability-vs.-Creation Argument
  1. If God exists, then he is immutable.
  2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
  3. An immutable being cannot at one time have an intention and then at a later time not have that intention.
  4. For any being to create anything, prior to the creation he must have had the intention to create it, but at a later time, after the creation, no longer have the intention to create it.
  5. Thus, it is impossible for an immutable being to have created anything (from 3 and 4).
  6. Therefore, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).
Is this argument any good? Well, in my previous post I expressed some qualms about premise 2, which would be rejected by any theist who holds that creation is a free act of God's. Again, I won't dwell on that point. While a legitimate critique, it's not a decisive knock-down of the above argument because theists would concede that God has in fact created the universe, and that's enough for Drange's argument to get off the ground.

Now, for my part, I'm quite unmoved by this argument because I think premise 1 is false. I don't think that God is immutable in the strong sense of being incapable of any sort of change. A great many theistic philosophers of religion today would reject absolute divine immutability, so this argument would be wholly ineffective against their position. At most, it's a refutation of the idea of an absolutely immutable God, an idea that many theists don't accept anyway.

But neither do I think that theists who do embrace the idea of absolute divine immutability should be greatly disturbed by this argument as it stands. From their perspective, premise 4 is completely unacceptable. In the first place, the premise speaks of God's having an intention "prior" to creation. This implies that God stands in a temporal relation with creation and thus that God is, in some sense, in time. But this is question-begging because advocates of divine immutability typically also hold that God is essentially timeless and thus does not stand in any temporal relations with creation whatsover. In the second place, advocates of divine immutability would insist that God's creative intentions do not and cannot change. Rather, God changelessly and timeless wills that there be a creation of a certain sort. In other words, we aren't to think of God as first deliberating over his options and then, after some time has passed, deciding to create universe #47838.

Drange defends premise 4 as follows:
Creation is a temporal concept. This is built into the very definition of "create" as "to cause to come into being." X cannot cause Y to come into being unless X existed temporally prior to Y.
But this too is question-begging. Drange assumes that creation is a kind of causation and that causation requires that a cause be temporally prior to its effect. But the latter assumption in particular is one that an advocate of divine immutability would reject. For him, God's creative causality cannot be assimilated to the standard model of event-event causation, which presupposes that causes are prior to their effects. Rather, the cause (God) timelessly wills that a temporal creation be. In other words, time is a result of God's creative activity, not a precondition of it.

In conclusion, then, Drange's second argument is ineffective. It carries no force against theists who reject divine immutability, and it is question-begging against theists who affirm divine immutability. Of course, the notion of divine immutability is a difficulty notion, and one that raises a number of perplexities. It may in the end prove incoherent, but
it's going to take much more argument than Drange provides to show that.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Incompatible Properties Arguments against Theism (Part 1)

Haven't posted much in awhile, but I thought I would do a short series of posts on a group of "incompatible properties" arguments against theism delineated by Theodore Drange. He presents the arguments here.

Basically, incompatible properties arguments against theism try to show that theism is false because the concept of God is in some way internally inconsistent, such that one or more of the attributes ascribed to God harbors a contradiction. I should mention that the ten arguments Drange gives are not the only arguments of this sort that have been offered, nor would I claim that they are the best such arguments. In fact I am going to critique some of Drange's arguments rather strongly.

Without further ado, here's Drange first argument:
The Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument (Version 1)

1. If God exists, then he is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. A perfect being can have no needs or wants.
4. If any being created the universe, then he must have had some need or want.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).
This argument is valid, but several of the premise require scrutiny. First, theists generally would not accept premise 2 because they don't think that God had to create. In other words, most theists hold that creation was a free act on God's part and that God could have refrained from creating at all, so premise 2 is false. This criticism is a relatively minor one, though, since the argument could easily be reformulated to avoid to problem (I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader).

Premise 3 also deserves scrutiny. Why think that 3 is true? The idea seems to be that any being that had needs or wants would ipso facto be lacking in some way, and consequently would be imperfect. That's a somewhat plausible line of thought, but it suffers from the conflation of "needs" and "wants". That a perfect being could not have "needs" seems hard to gainsay, but that a perfect being could not have "wants" is hardly obvious. There's an apparent tension in answering "Why did God create the universe?" with "because he needed to", but there's no apparent tension in answering with "because he wanted to". To fix the argument at this point one would have to argue that all wants stem from needs, but I don't see how to make out a plausible case for that point. Premise 3 is, therefore, rather weak.

Finally, premise 4 is not beyond question. It should probably be read as "if any being deliberately created the universe, then he must have had some need or want". That strikes me as plausible, though some theists might want to insist that God can neither have needs or wants, properly speaking, and thus that God's creation of the universe is not to be explained either in terms of God's needed to create or wanting to create but merely as expression of divine whim (thus, creation is a "whimsical" act). This seems more charitable that Drange's suggestion that creation would be "accidental" on God's part, but I would agree with him that the traditional theist position has generally been to say something stronger, namely, that creation was deliberate.

Drange offers a second argument under this rubric:
The Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument (Version 2)

1. If God exists, then he is perfect.
2. If God exists, then he is the creator of the universe.
3. If a being is perfect, then whatever he creates must be perfect.
4. But the universe is not perfect.
5. Therefore, it is impossible for a perfect being to be the creator of the universe (from 3 and 4).
6. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1, 2, and 5).
Similar comments apply to premise 2 as above, namely, it wrongly implies that God had to create, which most theists deny. But, again, that's only a minor criticism. The real crux of this version of the argument is premise 3. In the first place, there's an ambiguity in the notion of creation's "being" perfect. Does this mean merely that creation must start out as perfect, or does it mean the stronger claim that creation must also remain perfect? On the former reading, the inference from 3 and 4 to 5 is invalid. That the universe is not now perfect is not incompatible with the claim that God creates a world that is initially perfect, provided that the initial perfection of creation is compatible with subsequent departures from perfection. That this is plausible is shown by the possibility that a perfect initial creation could include morally free creatures who subsequently misuse that freedom to do evil. It appears, then, that Drange's argument requires the stronger reading of premise 3, namely, that creation must remain perfect. That reading makes the logic from 3 and 4 to 5 strong, but it also makes premise 3 implausible.

In the second place, it's not clear what it would mean for creation to be "perfect". Obviously, "perfect" can't mean the same thing in relation to creation that it does when used to describe God as "perfect". With respect to God, perfection entails things like having maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, necessary existence, and so forth. But we can't sensibly say that creation has those maximal great-making attributes, much less that it exists necessarily. What, then, does "perfect" mean with respect to creation? If it means that this world would be a hedonistic paradise for sentient creatures like us, then it's obvious that premise 4 is correct. But there's very little reason to think that a perfect God, if he creates, would be required to create a world that was "perfect" in that sense, in which case premise 3 looks extremely dubious. Indeed, why can't the theist simply say that creation was initially "perfect" in the sense that it was an ideal vehicle for accomplishing God's purposes for creation, whatever those happen to be? And if part of God's purpose for creation is to have an environment in which free creatures can learn to love God and each other and gradually develop the virtues needed for full enjoyment of the kingdom of God, then this world may still be a pretty darn good place overall despite the imperfections introduced by creaturely misuse of free will.

In short, the fundamental problem with this argument is that it's not easy to articulate a notion of the "perfection" of creation on which both premises 3 and 4 remain acceptable and the argument from 3 and 4 to 5 remains valid. Drange himself concedes as much when he writes that "There is a certain unclarity, and perhaps subjectivity, in the idea of 'perfection' which poses an obstacle to any sort of rigorous reasoning about the concept."

Conclusion: Neither version of the Perfection-vs.-Creation Argument is convincing.