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.


tpy said...

Some Christian philosophers have strongly objected to your claim that God knows things through being affected by them. (In this way, God's knowledge might be of a radically different sort than ours.)

Jonathan Edwards (and I think also Aquinas) thinks that God wouldn't be God if God had to be affected by a thing to know about it. This is (one reason) why Edwards thinks God needs to foreordain, not just foreknow, everything that happens. For Edwards, everything that happens follows (causally) from God (so to in Aquinas). And it is through God's self-knowledge that God knows what happens elsewhere, not by being affected by it.

So there is a way for all of God's knowledge to be self-knowledge and still have things distinct from God. Now, there is an interesting Spinozistic move to be made still that would try to collapse the distinction between the created world and the contents of God's mind/body/etc. But that takes extra work.

And as to the two God hypothesis, I've been struggling recently to understand Samuel Clarke's argument to Joseph Butler (in the anonymous letters appended to later editions of Clarke's Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God). Clarke argues that God's independence is not to be understood as not-being-dependent on anything else, but goes further in ruling out the existence of any other independent being. That's why there can't be two gods. The argument is unclear, and I don't think this strong sense of independence is supported by what he says in the Demonstration, but maybe that should be its own post. But I thought I would draw your attention to it.

Geoffrey Gorham said...

Is Edwards' view that God's knowledge of external events is indirect or inferential from his knowledge of his own volitions? But wouldn't most theists want to hold that God's knowledge of all things is direct and un-mediated?