Welcome to the first Virtual Colloquium of the spring term! Today’s paper is “Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited” by H.D.P. Burling. Hugh Burling is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge (UK) and a Visiting Graduate Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. He work has been published in Religious Studies. His research concerns religious disagreement, method in theology, and the concept of God.
Anselm, not Alston: The Reference of ‘God’ Revisited.
We instinctively characterise religious disagreement as disagreement either about what there is, or about what the same thing – God – is like. A common dialectical move made in modern theology, both academic and popular, sits between these two possibilities. Often, we read a theist of one stripe claiming that theists of another stripe don’t worship the same God. They are ‘idolaters’, or, more diplomatically, they just so badly misconceive God that they don’t ‘mean’ the same ‘thing’ by His names. It is not easy to explain what is mistaken about this move when it seems mistaken. My first publication concerned a particular version of it, in which natural theology is attacked as having to do with some other being than the God Christianity concerns. ‘Debunking’ local instances of the manoeuvre is worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied, and wanted a more general strategy which might show what is wrong with adopting partisan definitions of ‘God’ in order to avoid deeper engagement with others’ claims about God.
The strategy I adopt in the following article is to regard that manoeuvre as just one of the many features of theistic religious language which is curious – one of the explananda for a semantics for theism. So, we start by asking what we ‘mean’ by ‘God’, and answer that question by attempting to infer the rules of the ‘theology game’ by watching people play it. The conclusion I come to is that ‘God’ implicitly denotes, in Russell’s sense, whichever being is worthy of our worship. This secures co-reference between theists of extremely different stripes, whilst explaining the high-stakes nature of theological disagreement, and why parties to it o not just ‘walk away’ when apparent parity is reached, or one party attempts to squirrel his definition of “God” in favour of his claims about God. If both parties implicitly understand something Anselmian by ‘God’, then when the Christian insists that by ‘God’ he just means the Holy Trinity, the Muslim’s response to this makes sense. Rather than walking away (‘If they’re what you mean by ‘God’, I don’t care what you claim about them’), she will challenge him.
The article itself shows how my crypto-Anselmian understanding of God copes better with other desiderata for a semantics for theism than rival theories in the nascent literature. The view I defend makes it very easy for humans to successfully pick out God with ‘God’ because the basic ethics of worship are something we pick up fast, and, plausibly, most of us are introduced to God-talk in an appropriate context to get stuck in with worshipping the One we intentionally pick out with that Name. Kripkean views according to which ‘God’ is a proper name whose reference is passed down via a causal chain, however, threaten ease of access for speakers because the chain is so messy and fragile. Non-Anselmian descriptivist views struggle because their content is often harder for speakers to have in mind.
I hope the article is persuasive in defending a view about the semantics of ‘God’ which, I think, is the best candidate for being ‘the’ traditional view. (I think that Anselmian descriptivisms, and descriptivisms which appeal to lists of metaphysical divine names, only come apart in practice when our axiologies do not reflect those of the theologians responsible for the lists of divine names.) But I also hope it’s persuasive to theologians who lean towards identifying God in a confessional manner. Otherwise, I think identifying God the way I do can help explain a lot about the commonalities between different behaviours and literatures we call ‘religious’.
Within the scope of the article, I do not have space to go through alternative iterations of the ‘Specified Singleton’ view, other than my preferred option. So I’d be particularly curious to hear about alternatives which strike readers as preferable.
The complete paper is available here
|Today’s colloquium paper is “How to be Omnipresent” by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. Dr. Cowling received his PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 2011 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He has published papers on a variety of topics in metaphysics, and his first monograph, Abstract Entities (Routledge) is scheduled to be released on March 1. It’s available for pre-order now!|
How to be Omnipresent
Sam Cowling and Wesley D. Cray
Thanks to Kenny Pearce and everyone else here at the Prosblogion. We are Sam Cowling (Denison University; email@example.com) and Wesley Cray (Texas Christian University; firstname.lastname@example.org), and we’re excited to be a part of the new Prosbloglion Virtual Colloquium series. Today, we’re presenting the penultimate draft of our paper, “How to Be Omnipresent,” which we’re happy to say is forthcoming in American Philosophical Quarterly.
Though the topic of omnipresence itself is perhaps one most naturally located within philosophy of religion, we hope that the paper is of interest to metaphysicians more generally—especially those who are invested in questions about occupation and location. We also think it has the potential to lead into neat discussions about abstract entities. And even among philosophers of religion, we hope that the paper will be of interest to those working outside of the constraints of philosophy of Western, monotheistic religion. Discussions of omnipresence do, of course, show up in other religious traditions—and we take it to be a virtue of our account that it stretches across (and even outside of) traditions, rather than remaining bound to any particular tradition.
Anyway, we develop and defend a new account of omnipresence, which, we argue, is preferable to more familiar views, such as the Occupation View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it occupies every region) and the Dependence View (according to which an entity is omnipresent iff it can exert its will or power at every region). Our view, which we call the Existential View, takes an entity to be omnipresent iff it exists at every region.
Consider a version of necessitism along the lines of the views endorsed by Williamson and Linsky & Zalta. On such a view, the stock of entities is modally invariant, with all entities existing at all worlds. Despite enjoying necessary existence, (many or most) entities are only contingently concrete. When not concrete, they exist as abstract entities. We take it that these entities occupy regions only while concrete. For any world w, they still exist at w while abstract, even though they don’t occupy any region at w. So, the existence facts are separable from the occupation facts. We can make parallel comments and observations about the temporal case, looking to versions of permanentism.
In developing the Existential View, we repurpose the machinery of necessitism and permanentism and explore a spatial analog. If necessitism and permanentism are coherent—and we think they are—then, again, existence facts are separable from occupation facts. Now, just apply that to the spatial case: an entity might exist at a spatial (or spatiotemporal) region without occupying that region. An omnipresent entity is just an entity that exists at all regions, regardless of which regions, if any, it occupies.
On necessitism and permanentism, the stock of all entities is modally or temporally invariant, respectively. We don’t want to go that far in the spatial case. Instead, we take omnipresence to be a metaphysically distinctive feature, rather than one enjoyed by all entities. In fact, we take it to be an open question whether any entity actually enjoys omnipresence in the sense we develop. But we do think that it is metaphysically possible that an entity be omnipresent, and, by our lights, it’s good to have a account of what that means.
We call our view the Existential View because we tie existence to quantification, a la Quine. We might say that an entity exists at a world iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that world. Likewise, we might say that an entity exists at a time iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that time. By extension, we find it natural to go on to say that an entity exists at a region iff it is included in the scope of the existential quantifier when restricted to that region. To be omnipresent, then, is to be within the scope of the existential quantifier, regardless of regional restriction.
The biconditionals above are certainly not meant to offer reductive analyses. We leave it as an open question whether existence-at-a–world/time/region is something that can be reduced to more basic notions or whether it itself should be taken as basic. But even if we opt for the latter approach, the Existential View is still informative: an entity’s status as omnipresent depends, not on facts about its power or on facts about which regions it occupies, but on facts about where it exists. Omnipresent entities exist everywhere, even if they have no power or will or no regions that they occupy.
So, that’s the idea. In the paper, we go into more detail in developing the account, and give reasons why one might prefer it over the Occupation and Dependence Views. We also defend against a few objections. Maybe we’ll get the opportunity to try to defend it against a few more in the comments section here. We’re looking forward to the discussion!
The complete paper is available here. Discussion welcome below!
Part of the beauty of natural systems is their wildness. We intuitively value things that are un-spoiled, pure, natural, wild and free. A field of sunflowers would seem less beautiful if we found out that the sunflowers were plastic replicas. The beauty of Old Faithful would be much diminished if the National Parks Service had to install pumps to keep the geyser operating regularly. And fishermen would find their “appreciation for catching cutthroat trout in an isolated and rugged mountain valley reduced by reports that the Department of Fish and Game stocked the stream the previous week.” There is great value, then, in letting natural systems remain free of the external influence of persons. Tampering in the natural order strongly detracts from the aesthetic value that wildness brings to the the Earth.
If we look at the world in its entire history, it seems as if God values wildness very much even though wildness comes at an enormous cost to individual creatures. The graceful tiger leaping for its prey with unsheathed claws is an awe inspiring sight but it led William Blake to wonder, “what immortal hand or eye dare frame [the tiger’s] fearful symmetry?” Although the untamed wild is stunning–beauty often flourishes on the same tangled vine where the grotesques and horrors bloom. We now know that the existence of wild animals, parasites, viruses and bacteria were not the result of the Fall, but are part of God’s original design plan. It is perhaps because of the great good of wildness that God chose to let the first creation evolve under natural laws without much, if any, divine intervention. An all-powerful being could have intervened in our evolutionary history to keep parasites and predators from evolving, to redirect hurricanes and still tsunamis and to rescue lambs from lions, but He does not. Presumably one reason God chooses not to intervene in the natural world is because such interventions would detract from the wildness of natural systems and would thereby destroy their inherent beauty and value. Such interventions would come at the cost of the wildness.
If God valued wildness the first time around, perhaps He will include a space for the untamed in the New Creation. Wild nature is beautiful but, at least in our world, it comes with its costs. It be disappointing if the New Earth is one large cultivated garden; I would hope that there are spaces that are untouched by persons where animals run free. But I also hope that much of the natural evil that causes so much suffering in our world will not be present in the new creation. There are hints in the Bible that the New Creation will not be ‘red in tooth and claw.’ (I’m sure that the rabbits living in the Eschaton would prefer not to be torn apart by hounds.) Perhaps we can have it both ways in the New Creation—maybe we can have the natural beauty of the untamed wild without the predation, disease, decay and death. But perhaps we can’t have it both ways. If it were possible to have wildness without suffering in the first creation, wouldn’t God have done it that way? Perhaps untamed wilderness is a good that can only be had in the first creation and in the eschaton untamed wildness will be replaced by another kind of good.
 Ned Hettinger and Bill Throop, “Refocusing Ecocentrism: De-emphasizing Stability and Defending Wildness,” 140.
 Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 148.
This is the first of a series of blogposts exploring theological and philosophical reflections on the new creation. The format is the following: each week, we’ll have one blogpost (of about 800 words) where an author pitches a new, thought-provoking idea. The other participants as well as the wider internet community can then join in and write comments, to which the author can respond. We hope many readers will participate! The next weeks on Thursdays we will have essays by Trent Dougherty, Kevin Timpe, Beth Seacord and John Schneider.
This week, we have Cara Wall-Scheffler, Associate Professor of Biology at Seattle Pacific University. She considers whether there would still be evolution in the new creation.
As a biological anthropologist, I am interested in human adaptations and variation that chart the evolution of Homo sapiens. In particular, I see to explain how human characteristics (e.g. long limbs, pelvis shape, sexual dimorphism) emerged within different geographical areas and ecosystems.
As a Wesleyan, I am further interested in a theology of sanctification; that is, how, through attentive interactions with the Holy Spirit, faithful humans might form a more ‘in tune’ relationship with the Creator, with other creatures, and especially with one another. Because Scripture claims and the Church confesses that a sovereign God loves and cares for every creature that God as made (e.g. Job 38-42), and because this world is filled with organisms that continue to evolve, I see no reason why this dynamic interaction between the Creator and the created will not continue to exist in New Creation.
Because I understand Scripture’s narrative of First Creation’s relationship with God as ‘very good’ but clearly not ‘perfect’ in a static sense (so Genesis 2:18-20), I hypothesize that New Creation will be a place—an ‘ecosystem’—in which creatures will continue to evolve beyond which a world that already has evoked God’s joy and good pleasure. Furthermore, Scripture claims that New Creation will occupy the same “geographical area” as the First Creation. Whilst an apocalypse of full salvation decisively marks the transition between the two, New Creation continues from the First Creation.
An Argument for the View that God has a Sense of Humor
Does God have a sense of humor? Here is one argument to think that he does. Let us start with the following uncontroversial premise:
(1) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for human beings.
This does not seem to need much by way of defense: surely, ceteris paribus, we prefer someone with a sense of humor over someone without a sense of humor. In fact, when asked what we deem most important in relationships with other persons, the attribute of humor is usually in the top five. The second premise is as follows:
(2) For any property P, if P is a good-making property for entity X and P is intrinsically good, then for any entity Y that can have P, P will be a good-making property for Y.
Let me point out two important features of this premise. First, it says that if something is a good-making property for X, then it is a good-making property for Y if Y can have that property. The following example illustrates the relevance of this restriction. It is good for a building to be hurricane-resistant. However, since God is an immaterial being, it would be ridiculous to think that God is hurricane-resistant. God does not even have all good-making properties that humans have. Being a fast swimmer is a good-making property, but, of course, God is not a fast swimmer—nor is he a slow or an average one; he is simply not a swimmer at all, given that he does not have a body. That some property P (say, being hurricane-resistant or being a good swimmer) is a good property for one thing X (say, a building or a human being) does not mean that it is also a good-making property for some other thing Y (say, God). Only if Y can have that property is it good-making for Y.
A second important feature of (2) is that it is restricted to properties that are intrinsically good. It is a matter of philosophical debate precisely how we are to spell out what it is for goodness to be intrinsic rather than instrumental, but it seems the following will do for our purposes: something is intrinsically good if it is good in itself or for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. It is good that the water in my cup is fluid, but merely because I want to drink it. It is, therefore, merely instrumentally good. However, the beauty of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride or the courage of a fireman who attempts to save someone’s life by risking his own life are intrinsically good, because they are good in themselves and for their own sake.
The third premise is:
(3) Having a sense of humor is a property that is intrinsically good.
To have a sense of humor seems to be a property that is intrinsically rather than (merely) instrumentally good. To have a sense of humor is good in itself or for its own sake, not merely because it is a means to something else. Among the things that are usually considered to be intrinsically good are happiness, beatitude, contentment, and pleasures and satisfactions of certain kinds. To be amused seems to be one of the pleasures and satisfactions that are intrinsically good, for it seems that if someone is amused at something and there is nothing morally wrong about that, then that is a good thing in itself: it need not serve any further purpose in order to be good.
From (1) through (3) it follows that:
(4) If God can have a sense of humor, then having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise is:
(5) God can have a sense of humor.
I return to this premise below. (4) and (5) together allow us to infer that:
(6) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise says that:
(7) If having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God, he has that property.
And from (6) and (7) we conclude that:
(8) God has the property of having a sense of humor.
Let me now defend the two premises not yet discussed. The reason to embrace (7) is that God is perfect in all regards. This is not to say that God will have any good-making property that he could have. It is, presumably, a good-making property of God that he has actualized the actual world. Assuming that God was free in actualizing this possible world, he could have actualized another possible world, and if he had done so, he would have exemplified the good-making property of having actualized that possible world. But God cannot actualize this possible world and another possible world. Hence, God will not have all good-making properties that he could have. With the property of having a sense of humor, things are different, though. There seems no property or set of properties that God contingently exemplifies, such as having actualized this possible world or having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that rules out his having a sense of humor.
This leaves us with (5), which says that God can have a sense of humor. Is this true? Well, I see no reason to think that it conflicts with God’s omniscience. And I cannot think of a good reason to think that it would be ruled about by God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, or any other properties that are traditionally ascribed to God as essential properties that he has. There seems to be nothing in the nature of being amused or having the disposition to be amused that is ruled out by God’s nature. Thus, for all we know, God can have a sense of humor.
It follows from the argument that God has a sense of humor.
Here’s a dilemma that might be worrisome for theists. It’s, in any case, a worry for me. Consider, first, the thesis in (1).
1. Possibly, God actualizes a morally perfect possible world or a morally very good possible world.
Most of us believe that (1) is true, indeed, many of us believe that (1) is necessarily true. But if we affirm (1), we have to deny (2).
There is widespread belief that compatibilism + theism cannot offer a credible solution to the logical problem of evil. Why does anyone believe that? I think they’re reasoning this way: if compatibilism is true, then, necessarily, God can actualize a morally perfect world. That’s of course true, and it entails that the free will defense fails. But then they reason, if, necessarily, God can actualize a morally perfect world, then, necessarily, God does actualize a morally perfect world. It is then observed that, obviously, there is evil. So, compatibilism + theism is incoherent; it cannot solve the logical problem.
Here is an interesting theistic argument that I call the ‘leveling argument’. The leveling argument takes as a premise the common assumption in (1). I agree that (1) is tendentious.
1. God cannot actualize a suboptimal world.
Now take any level of value v and suppose that every possible world has an intrinsic value no higher than v. If a possible world w has value v, then God could actualize w. God would have optimized in actualizing w. But if w had value v and w’ had value v+, then God could not actualize w. God would have failed to optimize in actualizing w. So, whether God can actualize a world w depends on what other worlds w’ he might actualize. It is the comparative value of worlds that determines whether God could actualize them, not their intrinsic value. Immediately, we can reach two broad conclusions.
Molinists urge that we can avoid necessitarian conclusion–the conclusion that there is just one possible world–if it is true in some worlds that God is not able to actualize the best world. This is false. The necessitarian conclusion follows from the plausible principle that God must actualize the best possible world, if there is a best possible world. I don’t think it’s difficult to show that there must be a best possible world, so I leave it as an exercise. Here’s the proof contra the Molinist.
1. Necessarily, God actualizes the best possible world. Basic Principle
2. God is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent & necessarily existing (all as a matter of absolute necessity). Assumption.
3. w is the best possible world. Assumption
4. God actualized w in w. From 2,3
5. It is true in w that necessarily, God actualized w. From 1, 4.
6. Necessarily, God actualized w. From 5, S5
7. w is the only possible world. From 6
8. Necessitarianism is true. From 7.
Many theists are libertarians about free will. I take it as a minimal implication of libertarianism that at any time t at which an agent S freely chooses A, S might have chosen ~A instead. The future branches into many genuinely possible alternatives. I want to make a few observations.
1. Note first that the free will defense (FWD), as Plantinga offers the argument, simply assumes that we have libertarian freedom. It is the assumption of libertarian freedom that makes it possible for (what I’ll call) bad CCF’s to be possibly true: recall we are invited to consider a world in which CCF’s of the sort, God creates S in T ☐⟶ S goes wrong, are true. Such counterfactuals could not be true unless we assumed that there are worlds in which God exists and agents produce evil. He could have ended the argument right there, after affirming that at least one of these is true somewhere in metaphysical space, since that is the conclusion we’re after.
2. That brings me to my second quick observation. For all of the fuss in the FWD, all we really need, for Plantinga’s purposes, is one counterfactual of the sort, God creates S in T ☐⟶ S goes wrong, to be true in some possible world. The rest of the argument is unnecessary for the main purpose. If there is such a true counterfactual, then God exists in some world where there is evil, contrary to the logical argument from evil. So ends the dispute.
My main point is that atheological opponents might reasonably balk at the idea that libertarian freedom is compatible with theism. Here’s why. Assume we have libertarian freedom. For any rational agent S, if S has libertarian freedom with respect to action A, then S can perform ~A. For actions A with moral significance, libertarian freedom entails that you can perform the morally wrong action ~A. But the modal claim that you can perform the wrong action ~A entails the further modal claim that God can actualize a world in which you go wrong. So far, I assume, so good. Now, unless it is true that you and everyone else is universally transworld depraved in every possible world in which you go wrong, which is simply not credible, this means that God can actualize a world in which you go wrong when he might have actualized a world in which you go right instead. Certainly, there is some world like that under the assumption of libertarianism. But why should an atheological opponent accept that? He shouldn’t. Why wouldn’t an atheological opponent urge instead that God cannot actualize a world in which you freely go wrong when he might have actualized one in which you freely go right. He would. But then it’s reasonable to believe that libertarianism is not compatible with theism.