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
According to Leibniz, any answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ must bottom out in “a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to ‘carry the reason for its existence within itself?’ What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl Conee’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is devoted to arguing that no broadly Anselmian argument for the impossibility of the non-existence of God can succeed. Its relevance to the theme of the volume is not spelled out, but I take it that the above issues are in the background: Anselm’s argument purports to derive a contradiction from the supposition that there is no God. If the argument succeeded, it would thus amount to a defense of the existence of a necessary being, just the sort of regress-stopping being wanted for certain answers to the puzzle of existence.
Recall that Anselm’s general strategy is to argue that the Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) must exist because existence is greater than non-existence. If the GCB did not exist, then it would be possible to conceive of a being, GCB+, who was just like GCB except that GCB+ exists. This would make GCB+ greater than GCB, but of course it is by definition impossible to conceive a being greater than GCB, so the supposition that GCB does not exist yields a contradiction.
According to Conee, the mistake in the argument is a confusion between the level of greatness a being must have in order to satisfy a certain conception and the level of greatness a being satisfying a particular concept actually has. Thus the concept unicorn requires more greatness than the concept horse, but the things satisfying the concept horse are greater than the things satisfying the concept unicorn because the latter are merely imaginary. When we conceive of a GCB, this conception requires more greatness than any other possible conception, but it does not follow from this that some other conception is not satisfied by greater things, if the latter conception (e.g., horse) has real instances and the GCB is merely imaginary.
Conee’s objection is reminiscent of two memorable remarks of Kant’s on this topic:
To posit a triangle and cancel its three angles is contradictory; but to cancel the triangle together with its three angles is not a contradiction (A594/B622).
A hundred actual dollars do not contain the least bit more than a hundred [merely] possible ones (A599/B627).
The general idea here is sometimes called the ‘conditionalizing strategy.’ The idea is that the concept or definition of a GCB tells us what has to be true of something in order for it to be a GCB. Even if we build existence into the concept or definition, the only result we get is that in order for anything to be a GCB, that thing must exist, but this is totally uninteresting, since it is also true that in order for anything to be a triangle, that thing must exist.
What Conee wants to show is that ‘an optimal version of Anselm’s argument’ falls to this sort of objection. In order to count as a ‘version of Anselm’s argument’ Conee says, an argument must proceed from the conception of a GCB to the absurdity of denying the GCB’s existing via the assumption that “existence mak[es] a positive difference toward … greatness” (115-116). Thus, although Conee talks in the notes about the prospects for an argument that talks about necessary existence, he does not address modal ontological arguments in detail.
Can an argument which is Anselmian in this sense escape the conditionalizing strategy? With the help of some controversial assumptions, I think it can. Here is an argument that the Fool cannot coherently say (affirm) in his heart that there is no God:
- If one cannot coherently conceive of x as F, then one cannot coherently affirm that x is F.
- Beings conceived of as real are conceived of as being greater than beings conceived of as merely imaginary/fictional.
- It is possible to conceive of a GCB as real.
- One cannot coherently conceive of a GCB as merely imaginary/fictional. (If one did, then either one would conceive the GCB as both real and merely imaginary/fictional, which is a contradiction, or else it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than the GCB, namely, a real being that is just like the GCB.)
- One cannot coherently affirm that a GCB is merely imaginary/fictional.
Conee discusses Meinongian and anti-Meinongian versions of the argument, but I think this version, which appeals to imaginary/fictional objects, but not non-existent objects, is more faithful to Anselm, since Anselm talks about ‘existing in the understanding.’ Presumably objects that exist in the understanding exist.
What the Fool denies, on this reading, is that God is real. He thinks that God is a mere fiction, an imaginary being. (Atheists cannot very well deny that there is a character called ‘God’ in a great many stories.) This helps the argument to escape Hume’s objection that whenever we conceive of anything we always conceive of it as existing, for there seems to be a significant difference between how I conceive of Abraham Lincoln and how I conceive of Sherlock Holmes: I conceive of Lincoln as a real historical person, and Holmes as a fictional character. It is plausible to suppose that this is really part of the content of my conception.
I see two main weaknesses for this argument. First, one could question whether, by conceiving of something as real, we actually conceive of it as being greater than if we conceive of it as merely fictional/imaginary. Perhaps unicorns are still conceived as greater than horses, even when I explicitly include the fictionality of unicorns in my conception. Second, there are tricky issues here about the very nature of fictions. For instance, according to the fiction about Holmes, Holmes is a real (i.e. non-fictional) detective. Now, perhaps the right thing to say about this is that, when engaging imaginatively with the fiction, the reader conceives of Holmes as real, but the reader (who knows she is reading fiction) does not affirm this conception. The conception she affirms is the conception of Holmes as fictional.
These are tricky issues. In any event, the argument I have given is, I submit, superior to the one Conee calls the ‘Optimal Anselmian Argument,’ at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)