Is it ever rationally believe in the occurrence of miracles on the basis of testimony of others? I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid’s position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell. Reid thought that this was a “gift of nature” (current cognitive scientists would call it maturationally early or innate), which only gets attenuated over time through experience. I will follow Harris’ attribution of these views to Hume and Reid for convenience’s sake, keeping in mind that their actual positions are more complex.
I got back last night from the third LOGOS conference (and there’s more to come), which was hosted this year by Notre Dame and organized by Mike Rea and his team as part of the Analytic Theology Project. The general theme was Scripture, Revelation, and Canon, and more specifically, the question was posed whether (very roughly, cut me some slack here) the methods analytic philosophers apply when doing, for relevant example, philosophical theology, can be fruitfully applied in broader horizons within theology, especially to the more specific topics of the conference.
An example of this kind of research project can be found in Crisp and Rea’s _Analytic Theology: New Essays in Philosophical Theology. (As far as I know, Mike Rea coined the term.) In his key note speech William J. “Billy” Abraham issued a grave but friendly challenge to the project of analytic theology. It included a raft of challenges facing analytic theologians (I’ll see if I can’t get Billy to put up a draft). He was explicit that he was not at all suggesting that these challenges couldn’t be met–in fact he seemed to be optimistic about it–but they are still bridges that must be crossed on the way to building a viable analytic theology. I think many of them have in fact already been met in the process of developing the philosophical theology of the last few decades. I’ll wait to comment more on that until I can see if I can get a draft of Billy’s paper. But I think the main challenge is this–and this may overlap considerably with Billy’s concerns.
Analytic philosophers have made great strides in their treatment of core theological issues such as the trinity and incarnation. But it is time to branch out to concerns which might be even more complex in a way: revelation, inspiration, the normativity of tradition, and the individuation of ecclesial bodies. Swinburne is the only analytic philosopher/theologian who has treated any of these issues in much detail that I can think of (please post other instances you are aware of). Most analytic philosophers reject flat-footed verbal plenary inspiration, but what do they put in its place? These are the sorts of questions which were treated at LOGOS and which need to be treated in the next several decades of analytic theology.
[MM: See William Abraham’s Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine]
Last week, I had the great good pleasure of hosting Richard Cross for a number of events at Baylor. To my knowledge, he’s one of the few people willing to defend (not necessarily as his own view, but as a perfectly sensible position) Scotus’ thesis that there must be *some* univocal concepts involved in predications concerning God. This got me to thinking about religious language.
It’s been a decade since I studied this, but the following argument is one I find highly suggestive. It sides with Scotus and, as I recall, the followers of Cajetan, in arguing that religious language can’t be analogy “all the way down.” Here’s my simple (perhaps simplistic) reasoning.
Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan’s contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.
There are several people who hang around here who resist skeptical theism, that is the view that we should consider our conceptual resources and factual knowledge insufficient to render a judgment about whether God could be justified in allowing the evils apparent in the world.
I suspect most of these people accept the book of Job as divine revelation. Yet it seems to me that the point of the book of Job (or at least one of its main points) is something very close to what skeptical theists want to assert, namely that we aren’t in the sort of position to make judgments about why God must have done or allowed various things that happen.
I’m curious, therefore, how those who resist skeptical theism see the book of Job if it does not in fact make that point.
Seems that describing it as “shameless self-promotion” absolves one, though I doubt it. But that’s the line so I hereby use it, whatever purgatory consequences… My new collection, in draft form, LaTeX’ed to beautiful purposes by Oxford’s document class, is here.
Any thoughts welcome, of course–would love to minimize the errors!
Wittgensteinians lay stress on the idea that
- One cannot understand central worldview concepts without living as part of a community that operates with these concepts.
The non-Christian cannot understand the Christian concept of the Trinity; the Christian and the atheist cannot understand the Jewish concept of God’s absolute unity as understood by Maimonedes; the theist cannot understand the concept of a completely natural world; and the non-Fascist cannot understand the concept of the Volk. It is only by being a part of a community in which these concepts are alive that one gains an understanding of them.
Often, a corollary is drawn from this, that while internal critique or justification of a worldview tradition such as Christianity, naturalism or Nazism is possible, no external critique or justification is possible. In fact, there is an argument for this corollary.
- (Premise) One’s evidence set cannot involve any propositions that involve concepts one does not understand.
- (Premise) Necessarily, if a proposition p uses a concept C, and a body of propositions P is evidence for or against p for an agent x, then some member of P involves C.
- If x is not a member of the community operating with a central worldview concept C, then x does not have any evidence for or against any proposition involving C. (1-3)
- (Premise) External critique or justification of a worldview of a community is possible only if someone who is not a member of the community can have evidence for or against a proposition involving a central worldview concept of that community.
- Therefore, external critique or justification of a worldview of a community is not possible. (4 and 5)
This is a particularly unfortunate result in the case of something like Nazism, and may suggest an unacceptable relativism.
The argument is valid but unsound, and I think unsalvageable. I think that (5) is false, and on some plausible interpretations of (1), (2) and (3) are false as well.
This post doesn’t come out of extensive research but just a wondering about petitionary prayer. Consider the following two scenarios:
1) When Percy learns of his wife Sally’s sickness, he says a prayer for her. However, when he hears from the doctor that this sickness is life-threatening, he calls his relatives and church community, asking them to also pray for her healing.
2) Hermione says a prayer for her friend’s well-being. However, Hermione desires more than anything else for her daughter’s well-being in college. She goes to bed every night, asking God for this.
From what I know, many religious communities find the actions in (1) and (2) to be commonplace, normal, and even rational. (We see an analogy to persistent prayer in Jesus’ parable of the woman asking the judge for justice, and we see communal prayer all throughout Acts and the epistles.) But I wonder why, exactly, more petitionary prayers are supposed to be helpful. Here are some possibilities:
The end of the semester is fast approaching, which means an even more hectic academic schedule, followed by a vacation. This post will be a brief remark on Sobel‘s treatment of omniscience, which completes his interlude on divine attributes. Following this, I will leave off until after the holidays, at which point I will deal with the remainder of the book, which treats arguments against the existence of God, and also ‘Pascalian’ practical arguments for belief in God.
The main puzzle Sobel finds with omniscience is one pushed by Patrick Grim. The thrust of the argument is this: (1) a Cantorian diagonalization argument shows that there can be no set of all truths. But, (2) for any being, there is a set containing all and only the propositions known by that being. Therefore, (3) no being knows all truths. (This is my simplified reconstruction; Sobel spells out some of the set-theoretic details related to (1).)
As Sobel rightly points out, there is no reason for the theist to accept (2) and, as a result, the argument fails. (Sobel also considers a similar argument from Grim to the effect that the sentence ‘there is a being who knows every proposition’ fails to express a proposition, because there are no propositions about all propositions. Sobel is, I think, correct in saying that Grim’s premises involve details of a theory of propositions, rather than just an intuitive definition of propositions and ‘aboutness’, and any theory of propositions that has this consequence is clearly unacceptable.) All I want to note here is that Sobel doesn’t point out what I take to be one of the more interesting reasons theists might reject the premise. Consider the following argument in support of (2):
(a) For every distinct proposition p known by a being S, S is in a distinct mental state which (partly) constitutes S’s knowledge that p.
(b) No being can be in a proper class of distinct mental states.
Therefore, (c) No being can know a proper class of propositions, i.e. (2) is true.
(a) is plausible insofar as knowledge either is itself a mental state (as Williamson says), or else is partly constituted by belief, which is a mental state. (b) seems plausible probably because we typically think of mental states as concrete entities, and we balk at the idea of a proper class of concrete entities. (Having countably or continually many concrete entities is mind-boggling enough.)
I think Sobel probably has an argument like this in the back of his mind, and this is why he offers the suggestion (pp. 384-388) that if we aren’t too wedded to pure actuality and atemporality as divine attributes, we might hold that only some set of propositions is before God’s mind at any given time, but these propositions are such that God can easily (instantaneously) deduce any of the other propositions from them whenever he likes. Sobel calls this ‘virtual’ knowledge.
But, as Sobel realizes, the theist is at liberty to reject (b), and so to continue rejecting (2). What Sobel doesn’t seem to realize, is that certain theists, those who accept the strong (Western) form of divine simplicity, are under independent pressure to reject (a). According to this view, God is identical to each of his attributes. Therefore, if God knows that p, and God knows that q, then God’s knowledge that p = God’s knowledge that q = God, and similarly for God’s belief in each of these propositions. If this idea makes any sense (and I suppose we shouldn’t just take for granted that it does), then God can know a proper class of propositions without being in a proper class of mental states.
[Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
After considering arguments for the existence of God, Sobel has a brief interlude on the divine attributes, before going on to arguments against the existence of God. Chapter 9 concerns omnipotence and the famous Stone Paradox. Sobel defines omnipotence (roughly) as the ability to do anything that can be done. (He improves this basic definition in a few ways, but these need not concern us.) The Stone Paradox, Sobel rightly recognizes, is no real problem for omnipotence as such, for if a being can do anything that can be done, then that being can take away some of the powers it has, just as I can take away some of the powers that I have. As a result, there is no problem with an omnipotent being creating a stone it can’t lift; it is simply that it must lay aside its omnipotence in the process. However, as this analysis shows, essential omnipotence is something else altogether, and this points to a more general problem: the God of the religious tradition has essential properties (in fact, it is most common, historically, for theologians to hold that he has all of his properties essentially). But then there are things I can do that God can’t, such as making myself less knowledgeable. (Of course, God could make me less knowledgeable; what he couldn’t do is make himself less knowledgeable.) Sobel comes up with a proposal for a coherent understanding of the feature the theologians want to attribute to God, but denies that this feature is properly described as ‘omnipotence’. In this post I will discuss Sobel’s proposal. In the next post, I will make a proposal of my own, and argue that it is sensible to call the feature I identify ‘omnipotence.’
Sobel says that although nothing could be essentially omnipotent, a being could possess a feature Sobel calls ‘only necessarily self-limited power’ (ONSLIP). This is the property of being such that:
[one is] capable of each task t that it is logically possible that some being should do, which is such that (i) for each attribute, if any, that x has essentially, x’s performing t is consistent with its having this attribute … and (ii) if x has necessary everlasting existence, then performing t is consistent with its continuing to exist. (p. 365)
In other words, God’s power is limited only by God’s own nature. This is, I think, the sort of thing the theologians have in mind. However, as Sobel points out, a being might have this feature and not be anything like omnipotent. To use his example, a being might be “essentially incapable of creating something from nothing” (ibid.), and so be an ONSLIP without having that power. So Sobel is right that the property of being an ONSLIP ought not to be called ‘omnipotence’ (or ‘almightiness’). I wonder, however, if perhaps we might get an omnipotence “worth the name” by specifying the sorts of attributes the being can have essentially. For instance, an ONSLIP who essentially possesses all positive properties (if we can get a decent understanding of ‘positive’ in this context) is not going to seem limited to us in the way an ONSLIP who is essentially incapable of creating something from nothing does.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]