Thursday, June 5, 2008

how to stumble into Spinoza, or maybe Berkeley

Religious piety, combined with some traditional theses about the nature of (the Christian) God, can result in some surprises.

Christians believe that there is only one God. They might argue further that there can be only one God.

How could one argue for this? Here’s one way to argue for it by reductio that combines (a) a plain-vanilla thesis about omniscience and (b) a traditional, pious orientation towards whether or not God can be affected.

With respect to (a), if something is to count as God, then it must know everything that can be known.

With respect to (b), if God knows something, it has to be explained by reference to a feature intrinsic to God itself—in other words, in good Thomistic fashion, it’s got to be something other than God’s being affected, since being affected would imply an alteration of the type that counts against immutability and simplicity (and maybe atemporality).

Suppose that there are two Gods named Way-yeah and Hovah-Je. Does Way-yeah know about Hovah-Je? Either it does or it doesn’t. If it does not, then Way-yeah doesn’t satisfy the relevant restrictions on what would count as God. If it does, then ex hypothesi (since Hovah-Je is also a God), its knowledge is a function of its being affected—which implies that Way-yeah is not a God.

This might get the desired result: that there is and can be only one God.

However, doesn’t such an argument threaten to prove much more? It doesn’t promise to show only that there cannot be a God and another God. Doesn’t the argument also threaten to show that there cannot be a God and anything else?

By way of analogy, I know (or at any rate, have beliefs) about the computer screen in front of me because I am being affected by it.

By way of contrastive analogy, I know about my own beliefs (i.e., the content of my own mind) because either (i) my beliefs are a “part” of me or (ii) I am being affected by my own nature.

Replace Hovah-Je above with “the world” and amend the argument slightly:

Suppose that there are two things: a God and its creation, the world. Does God know about the world? Either it does or it doesn’t. If it does not, then it doesn’t satisfy the relevant restrictions on what would count as God. If it does, then its knowledge is a function of its being affected—which implies that it is not a God.

One way to block the second horn to is deny that God’s knowledge of the world is a function of its being affected by the world. One way to do that is to specify that its knowledge, in some interesting sense, comes from itself. However, an illuminating analogy for how that’s supposed to work is the one above that lines up this kind of knowing with knowing the contents of one’s own mind.

Bam: we’ve got pantheism (or atheism with “God” talk as reverent residue). Or maybe we’ve got Berkeleyan idealism... I don’t know.

Another way to block the inference is to deny traditional assumptions about the nature of God—which is to affirm that God can and does change and that it is affected by things outside of itself.
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