Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Paul Thaggard's The Brain and the Meaning of Life

An Unpublishable Book Review: Paul Thaggard's The Brain and the Meaning of Life
I've recently read an interesting book by Paul Thaggard, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life". Since I'm a philosopher of mind and have taught about the meaning of life, it seemed a natural book to read. I thought it might be about how to make room in a physical world for meaning. However, it is not really that book. Instead, it is an attempt to construct a scientifically informed theory responding to great philosophical questions about freedom, morality, and meaning presented to a general audience. It feels unfair to criticize a general interest book for failing to come fully to terms with all the problems it raises. It is, in addition, a fairly reasonable account of how we can live in an ethical and meaningful way without belief in God, freedom or an immaterial soul. I do not have substantive criticisms of his arguments for the value of science, the denial of the existence of God and the soul, or (mostly) his views on free will. That said, I have serious reservations about the book.

First, however, I'll describe Thaggard's book a little more.

The work is an anti-philosophical work of philosophy. Thaggard works in the tradition of C.S. Peirce, who argued that the metaphysical intuitions of his contemporaries were just disguised prejudices of their culture, no better than an appeal to popularity. Thaggard is particularly skeptical of the thought experiments one often finds in the professional literature, especially on topics such as personal identity or free will and determinism. I think there is reason to be skeptical of our intuitions, but it's also not clear what else we have to go on for claims about morality and meaning.

Indeed, given Thaggard's distrust of philosophical and a priori intuitions, it's not clear how he can justify the arguments in his own work. His goal is to rely only on empirical evidence, but it's not obvious how empirical evidence is to apply to most or all of his questions. For example, Thaggard relies on surveys of subjective well-being to argue that money (beyond a certain minimum) is not necessary for a meaningful life. The features he does find in the literature are rewarding work, love and play, which appeal to basic human needs. It's not entirely clear what makes these qualify as needs since one can survive without at least some of them. He relies on an account of human needs found in the literature on psychology, but classification of these goods as needs does not have any empirical justification (at least, I don't recall him giving any.)

On the other hand, Thaggard argues that having children contributes to the meaning of life. Yet, it turns out that having children does not contribute to subjective judgments of one's own happiness or well-being. Thus, when it comes to the value of children for the meaning of life, we must abandon the empirical evidence that links meaning to subjective judgments of well-being. I suspect most will agree with Thaggard that happiness (understood subjectively) is not the same as meaning. We may even agree that children do contribute to the meaning of life despite the lack of an effect on subjective judgments of happiness. The difficulty, however, is that Thaggard offers no concrete evidence to take children to be an exception to the empirical evidence he uses in his other claims about meaning. Thaggard, instead, appears to rely on our popular intuitions about meaning. This appears to be exactly the kind of intuitive, a priori reasoning that Thaggard pretends to reject.

Thaggard must realize that one cannot draw normative conclusions (about the meaning of life and morality of actions) from descriptive phenomena (such as subjective judgments of happiness), but he offers nothing in the way of a method to replace the one that he claims to reject and indeed appears to rely on that very method himself. I would be much happier with a book that offered some reason to accept these intuitive judgments about normativity even if they might be less reliable than conclusions drawn from scientific evidence.

Thaggard's rejection of a priori intuitions and reasoning is, in fact, much stronger than one finds in even most hardened empiricists. He rejects claims that mathematics and logic can provide any true knowledge. At least Thaggard considers the case and gives reasons to deny that even mathematics can give real knowledge of something beyond our own minds. Thaggard's reason to reject a priori knowledge of even mathematics is that some people (in particular, postmodernists) have rejected even the most apparently simple and undeniable a priori claims such as the law of non-contradiction. If, he says, people can believe that two logically contradictory claims can both be true, then there is literally nothing that everyone accepts as logically and necessarily true. Thus, there are no universal, a priori, logical truths.

This is peculiar reasoning. First, relying on what postmodernists say about their beliefs is unreliable. Jacques Derrida, for example, may claim that the law of non-contradiction is not true, but that may be (and probably is) just for the fame that comes from denying something that everyone knows to be true. There are significant social rewards for contrarianism, and it's more likely that he's saying something that he doesn't believe than that he really believes.

Nonetheless, people may believe all manner of crazy things, so it's possible that some people really do reject the law of non-contradiction (just as many have attempted to believe in the holy trinity). The problem with Thaggard's reasoning is that he demands that everyone believe something in order for it to count as a priori knowable. He even comments that we can learn about mathematics by studying human psychology. But these are just outright wrong-headed claims. This is simple psychologism. Mathematics and logic are not about what people believe. More people accept affirming the consequent as valid than accept modus tollens. Should we revise our logic texts to reflect that? In fact, I doubt more than a single percent of the population as a whole could understand, let alone properly apply, the inference patterns of a standard symbolic logic text. But we should not delete them from the curriculum, or take them to involve invalid reasoning, for that. The point is that when these rules of inference or logical claims are properly understood, using truth tables, for example, to show why they are in fact valid or invalid, then their validity or truth is undeniable by a rational being. Yes, my reasoning is shot through with assumptions about normativity and abstraction, but the alternative is nothing short of absurd.

Consider the possibility that logic is about what people believe. For one thing, since people sometimes believe contradictory things, we have no reason to reject contradictions as false. How, then, are we ever to prove anything if, despite our most cogent proof, it is still perfectly acceptable to deny the claim that we have just accepted?

If a priori truths are determined by what everyone believes, then if everyone believes that a priori truths are not determined by what everyone believes, then they are not in fact determined by what everyone believes. (Thaggard may have the out that he at least does believe they are based on psychology, and anyway, the fact that his claim is contradictory is not great problem.) If this is Thaggard's standard, then his entire work is a waste of time since people could perfectly reasonably accept the empirical evidence for his conclusions and at the same time believe the exact opposite since there is no objective logic proving that this is an invalid inference. (In fact, that's how many ordinary readers might respond to his work: "I don't see what's wrong with his reasoning, but I reject it anyway." One hopes that Thaggard would not find this an adequate reason to reject his work. So, why accept a theory of a priori knowledge that allows for it?)

Am I being unfair to Thaggard? Maybe. He does claim that mathematics is a kind of fictional discourse, and one can make true or false claims about fiction even if nothing in reality corresponds to them. Does fictionalizing mathematics resolve these problems? I don't think so. For one thing, we have no clear understanding of how truth works in fiction. You cannot explain how mathematics can be true by relying on another field in which truths are not understood. You cannot solve a mystery (truth of claims in mathematics) with another mystery (truth claims in fiction).

But suppose we understood fictional discourse. That still would not resolve the problem. Fiction is essentially arbitrary. The color of Harry Potter's eyes is chosen by J.K.Rowling; there is no reason or justification for her choices, and there need not be one. I'm sure that Thaggard would say that the basic laws of logic, valid inference patterns etc. could not be justified either and so would be equally arbitrary. It is, in fact, hard to see what justification one can offer for modus ponens (besides looking at the truth table which, no doubt, are a lot less obvious than is modus ponens itself and, indeed, might even rely on it to be understood). Nonetheless, it logically follows that if Harry Potter's eyes are entirely blue all over all the time, then they cannot also be entirely brown all over all the time. Why does this follow? Is this also an arbitrary choice made by Rowling? No, she probably would never have thought any such thing. They are not brown because making them blue entails that they are not brown. Similarly, she did not also have to think that they are not green, not red and not tuning forks. Logic still must hold for fiction; logic is a basic underpinning of the truths in fiction and cannot be just another arbitrary system on a par with it.

The self-refutation argument is probably the best way to see this. If logic is just an arbitrary system, determined by a set of people, call it the "math/logic community", which defines those rules, then suppose the community believed that those rules were universally applicable with a force beyond simple psychology. (They need not actually have said this; it must just be possible.) Then, if mathematical/logical statements are true just in case they are accepted by the community, then mathematical/logical statements are true universally, not just for those in the linguistic community. If they are true, they must be universally true.

In reply, surely, one must say that these are no universal a priori, logical truths, only truths relative to a community. But what is the justification for this? Is this true because it has been accepted in a community? (Actually, relativism has rarely been accepted by any group.) Or is it universally true, applying even to the logicians who reject it? If so, then Thaggard has contradicted himself, claiming there are no universal, a priori truths, while offering a universal a priori truth (and if this claim is a posteriori, I'd love to know what his evidence is). If not, then the universalist's claim takes precedence over the relativist's claim. The relativist says: there are only relative truths. Realist says: Realism is universally true for me, and therefore it is universally true and so true for you as well.

These major reservations aside about his problems with having a consistent method for his reasoning and his absurd rejection of all a priori knowledge, Thaggard does have some reasonable thoughts to offer about morality and meaning. Some of it misses the point (he talks about how moral sensibility develops in humans when he raises the question of what justifies moral claims or justifies us in being moral), and he does not properly justify his theory of meaning (given his rejection but continued use of a priori reasoning). Still, general readers would come away with a better way of thinking about themselves, their lives and how to live them than they would have if they continued in their traditional religious beliefs.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Burden-Shifting Arguments and God (Reposted)

Never let it be said philosophers are shiftless layabouts. Indeed, we do a great deal of shifting, and it is not precisely laziness that leads us to such shifting. Nonetheless, it is often burdens, more precisely, the burden of proof we shift, and that shifting is always an attempt to take the onus off ourselves and place it on our opponent.

Gary Gutting, writing in the New York Times philosophy blog, argues that the atheist attempt at burden-shifting fails; the burden should remain on atheists, not on theists, or, at least, not exclusively on theists. Before we examine his argument, I want to make clear why philosophers care so much for shifting of burdens.

In most ball-sports--basketball, football--only the team with the ball can score, so having the ball is necessary for winning. Philosophy is not that kind of game. It's more like a game of chess if one's opponent spots you his/her queen; as long as you don't make any egregious mistakes, you are practically guaranteed a victory. Or, maybe, it's like that TV gameshow Wipeout when you've inexplicably traversed the course successfully and have the time to beat. All you have to do is make sure the people racing after you slip up or get knocked down. Philosophers want the other side to bear the burden of proof so they get to play defense, only needing to undermine the other side's arguments, without needing to prove a positive case themselves. Burden of proof matters in philosophy the way it does in a criminal trial: all you need to do is show that the prosecution has not made its case and the defendant is (one hopes) declared innocent. Given that any philosopher worth his/her salt can find flaws in even the best arguments, it's easy to see why the burden matters. If S bears the of proof, S has to present clear, complete, compelling evidence and overcome every niggling objection his/her opponent can conjure up. If S's opponent bears the burden of proof, S gets to be the one raising niggling (or, in extreme cases, actually compelling) objections. If both sides bear the burden of proof, the game most likely ends in stalemate. Thus, philosophers try to shift the burden of proof to the opposition.

Traditionally, then, the burden of proof is taken to be on the side of one making a positive existential claim, a claim that such-and-such exists. This, it is thought, is only fair because it is theoretically easy to prove that something does exist. You just find it and show it to people. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to prove a negative existential. There are few circumstances in which it would be reasonable to ask someone to prove that something does not exist. It's possible to disprove the existence of the Loch Ness monster if you could, say, drain the entire lake and show that Nessie was not left flopping in the ooze. In practice, however, such disproof is unlikely. And with generous escape clauses, it is impossible. Disproving the existence of Bigfoot is rendered nearly impossible by adding that Bigfoot is shy and elusive.

On the point of the present inquiry, to disprove the existence of a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God, it ought to be sufficient to show that there is one instance of totally unnecessary evil, one case of suffering that served no greater good or purpose (or to show that God would not be morally vicious enough to torture people in order to achieve such a greater good). Theists, however, claim that, for all we know, all the suffering we see really is necessary for some greater good that God has a moral obligation to create despite our inability to see it. Thus, God's working in mysterious ways renders such empirical falsification impossible. Such a generous escape clause means that disproof of God's existence is impossible, and, for basic fairness' sake, it would appear that the burden of proof should be borne by those attempting to prove God's existence, not on those attempting to prove God's non-existence. (And with an uncountably infinite number of epistemic possibilities, shouldn't we err on the side of caution and only add things to our ontology only when necessary? Ontological explosion appears the only alternative.)

Now we come to Gutting's burden-shifting argument. He writes,
Of course, philosophical discussions have not resolved the question of God’s existence. Even the best theistic and atheistic arguments remain controversial. Given this, atheists may appeal (as many of the comments on my blog did) to what we might call the “no-arguments argument.” To say that the universe was created by a good and powerful being who cares about us is an extraordinary claim, so improbable to begin with that we surely should deny it unless there are decisive arguments for it (arguments showing that it is highly probable). Even if Dawkins’ arguments against theism are faulty, can’t he cite the inconclusiveness of even the most well-worked-out theistic arguments as grounds for denying God’s existence?

He can if he has good reason to think that, apart from specific theistic arguments, God’s existence is highly unlikely. Besides what we can prove from arguments, how probable is it that God exists? Here Dawkins refers to Bertrand Russell’s example of the orbiting teapot. We would require very strong evidence before agreeing that there was a teapot in orbit around the sun, and lacking such evidence would deny and not remain merely agnostic about such a claim. This is because there is nothing in our experience suggesting that the claim might be true; it has no significant intrinsic probability.

But suppose that several astronauts reported seeing something that looked very much like a teapot and, later, a number of reputable space scientists interpreted certain satellite data as showing the presence of a teapot-shaped object, even though other space scientists questioned this interpretation. Then it would be gratuitous to reject the hypothesis out of hand, even without decisive proof that it was true. We should just remain agnostic about it.

The claim that God exists is much closer to this second case. There are sensible people who report having had some kind of direct awareness of a divine being, and there are competent philosophers who endorse arguments for God’s existence. Therefore, an agnostic stance seems preferable atheism.

Here's where the importance of burden-shifting becomes obvious. Gutting must know that the testimony of believers based on their mystical experiences, revelations or direct awareness of some divinity are highly problematic. No responsible philosopher would rely on these as evidence for the existence of God. Here are just two quick reasons:

1. The experiences are not intersubjectively verifiable: they rely on no known perceptual apparatus that others can use to verify or falsify the claims.

2. The experiences are inconsistent: people from different religious traditions have qualitatively similar experiences but interpret them differently according to the religious tradition of which they are part. Christian mystics see God; Buddhists see their connection to all reality without a God; Voodoo practioners see Loa. The experience means what it is interpreted to mean within the tradition itself.

My point is that this direct awareness is not reliable evidence for the existence of God and so could not be considered an argument for God's existence, but Gutting does not expect it to do that work. Instead, all Gutting wants this evidence to do is shift the burden of proof onto the atheist. Given, then, a competent theist who gets to play defense, the atheist cannot win the game.

I have two things to say here. First, we should find this move highly suspicious because this burden-shifting argument against the atheist starting point really plays the role of an argument for theism. If something functions like an argument for P, it ought to be acceptable to evaluate it as an argument for P.

Second, and this is true even if one rejects my first point, this evidence should not be taken seriously enough even to shift the burden of proof to the atheist. Lots of people have claimed to see Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster or space aliens. In fact, they even relied on perceptual experiences that, while imperfect, at least we understand and have the capacity to evaluate. Does this mean we should suspend judgment about the existence of Bigfoot or Nessie? Obviously not. We require good evidence before we shift the burden from the positive existential claim here, and we should require no less for God.

So, God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good creator and designer of the universe who exists eternal and unchanging outside time, knows and sees everything directly throughout all time and space, yet nonetheless intercedes in the workings of the universe, who somehow maintains the universe in existence at every moment, who cares about and loves us, while inexplicably allowing millions to suffer and die for apparently no purpose whatsoever, lacks intrinsic probability. I don't know exactly what "intrinsic probability" is, but I'd say that being doesn't just lack intrinsic probability, it's outright intrinsically improbable. That's a damn sight more intrinsically improbable than Bigfoot.

Gutting needs to shift the burden of proof given, as he admits, the inconclusive nature of arguments for (and against) the existence of God. He wants testimonial evidence from direct awareness of God, mystical experiences of the divine, to shift that burden while (presumably) reckoning these experiences to be inadequate as arguments for the existence of God. However, the burden does not budge based on this knowably inadequate evidence. Showing that people sometimes have experiences they interpret as having a divine cause does not imply that people (e.g. theists) bear any less obligation to prove the experiences accurate. When my students claim to see ghosts, that is no reason (given all the problems with such experiences) to suspend judgment about the existence of ghosts until such a time as I can explain what the nature of their misperception was. Denying the existence of ghosts is still the rational thing to do even when someone claims to have seen them.

Before leaving Gutting, however, I want to highlight his connection of this issue to contemporary philosophy of mind. Gutting notes that Dawkins could hitch the improbability of God to the probability of materialism. If there's good reason to think everything is material, then there's good reason to deny that God exists absent compelling argument to the contrary.

But what is the evidence for materialism? Presumably, that scientific investigation reveals the existence of nothing except material things. But religious believers will plausibly reply that science is suited to discover only what is material (indeed, the best definition of “material” may be just “the sort of thing that science can discover”). They will also cite our experiences of our own conscious life (thoughts, feelings, desires, etc.) as excellent evidence for the existence of immaterial realities that cannot be fully understood by science.

One hopes that Gutting is not serious here, that he is just throwing things to see what sticks, because it's bloody obvious that "our experiences of our own conscious life" is simply not good evidence that our minds are immaterial. Our first-person experience has no access to the real nature of anything, including our minds. How something appears to us is no indication of what it ultimately is. Moreover, it is increasingly unclear to me why our experiences are supposed to appear to be immaterial in the first place. How, precisely, is it that our experience of our minds could reveal that they are immaterial? (I know, I know, lack of spatial location, etc. But I just cannot take this seriously.) Obviously, they do not appear to be immaterial any more than they appear to be material. Even Nagel, in his highly flawed argument in "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" only ever suggests agnosticism about materialism.

At this point, the dispute between theists and atheists morphs into one of the most lively (and difficult) of current philosophical debates—that between those who think consciousness is somehow reducible to material brain-states and those who think it is not. This debate is far from settled and at least shows that materialism is not something atheists can simply assert as an established fact. It follows that they have no good basis for treating the existence of God as so improbable that it should be denied unless there is decisive proof for it. This in turn shows that atheists are at best entitled to be agnostics, seriously doubting but not denying the existence of God.

Gutting commits a strawman/false dilemma here. The alternatives are not reduction and dualism. There are non-reductive accounts of the mind that are not substance dualist accounts. The "lively" current debate is not between reductionists who think that conscious is a brain state and dualists who think that it is not. Dualism, the view that the mind consists of a non-physical, immaterial stuff that "occupies" and perhaps interacts with a physical brain, is effectively defunct in contemporary philosophy of mind. "It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisibule." The lively debate is between varieties of materialism, reductive vs. non-reductive, not between materialism and dualism. Is the mind identical to the specific type of physical brain one finds in humans and similar organisms or could there be other types of physical entities (say, properly programmed computers) that also can accurately be described as thinking things? The question debated is only which variety of materialism best coheres with the evidence and our pre-theoretic intuitions, not whether materialism is true at all. If Dawkins' argument for the improbability of God depends on the debate in philosophy about the tenability of dualism, then Dawkins is on very firm ground indeed.

Divine Simplicity (Reposted)

I am very happy to see serious attempts by philosophers to present their arguments to the public. And I'm equally happy to see a non-expert (Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels) trying to understand them. This is the first of two posts on this blog post for the New York Times philosophy blog by Gary Gutting. Since these issues, especially those discussed in this entry on divine simplicity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Divine Simplicity, are far from clear, I thought I would attempt a little explanation and my own critique.

Gutting argues that Dawkins is not justified in assuming as a premise that God is complex, and that God's complexity requires explanation. There is some brief mention that Dawkins addressed arguments by Richard Swinburne but did not address the serious thinkers on divine simplicity. I'm glad to know that Swinburne can be excluded from the club of serious thinkers. Even so, according to Gutting, Dawkins cannot assume that God is complex, and so Dawkins's argument, that God must require at least as much explanation as the complexity of the universe that God is posited to explain, fails. Gutt enjoins Dawkins to review the serious thoughts from this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on divine simplicity.

As a first pass at divine simplicity, we might claim that God is a simple, non-physical substance and so is simple in that sense. God might have complex thoughts that occur in a substance that has no parts and so no possibility of complex relations among its parts. How this thinking might occur without any interaction of cognitive systems is all very mysterious. And immaterial substances are highly problematic entities. We have no way of verifying or falsifying claims about them. Why think, for example, that God is constituted by only one immaterial stuff rather than two? Why think that God's immaterial stuff is the same stuff from one day to the next? What does it even mean to say that immaterial stuff is the same or different? Immaterial stuff is so mysterious that it is hard to see how there could be any such substance, divine or not. These problems with the concept of a simple, immaterial substance are probably insuperable. But let's move on.

Even if God does not have parts, God is still informationally complex in the Shannon-sense that representing God's knowledge and potential behavior--assuming that God created and designed the universe and considered all possible alternatives in doing so--would require an enormous, indeed infinite, number of bits. I believe some theists will say that this is a mistaken view of God's knowledge of the world. God, it might be said, does not represent anything but knows it directly in a non-representational way. I cannot make sense of this if God considers alternative possibilities in creating the universe. Merely possible objects cannot be their own representation. So, how God's informational complexity is instantiated in God's supposedly simple substance is another significant mystery.

All this suggests that Dawkins is right that God is complex--and if not, there is no way to understand what God is and so there could be no reason to believe that God exists. Even so, it would not follow that God's existence and complexity must be explained by reference to anything outside God's own nature. A better alternative for theists is not to argue that God is informationally simple but to argue that God, or God's complexity, can be explained by God's own nature or concept. That is a key assumption of the cosmological argument and evaluation of such a claim goes far beyond my discussion here. However, the idea of divine simplicity discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is altogether more bizarre and probably incoherent if not logically inconsistent.

The author of the SEP piece William F. Vallicella suggests another notion of divine simplicity. This notion is that God is not a thing that has properties but is those properties, or, as Vallicella writes,

Besides lacking spatial and temporal parts, God is free of matter/form composition, potency/act composition, and existence/essence composition. There is also no real distinction between God as subject of his attributes and his attributes.

There is no distinct stuff that makes up God and the properties that God has. There is no distinction between God's nature, the properties God "has", and God's existence. God is God's properties; for God, our ordinary conception of objects as things with properties does not apply.

What could motivate such a strange and seemingly incoherent doctrine? One central consideration derives from the Anselmian definition of God as maximally perfect, as that than which no greater can be conceived. A God who was less than maximally perfect would not be an absolute reality and appropriate object of worship. A God who was less than ultimate and absolute would be an idol. Now an absolute reality must be a se, from itself, and so not dependent on anything distinct from itself for either its nature or its existence. If God had properties in the way creatures have them, however, he would be distinct from them and so dependent on them. This is the case whether one thinks of a property of x as a constituent of x, or as an entity external to x to which x is tied by the asymmetrical relation (or nonrelational tie) of instantiation. If the properties of x are constituents or ontological (proper) parts of x, then x will depend on them in the same way that any whole composed of parts depends on its parts. But if x is tied to its properties by the asymmetrical relation of instantiation, it is still the case that x will depend on them: if x is F in virtue of x's instantiation of F-ness, then F-ness is a logically prior condition of x's being F. In sum, the divine aseity would seem to require that God be rather have his attributes.

Translation: if God is "composed" of a stuff that has properties, then God would depend on that stuff and those properties in order to exist. The immaterial stuff and the divine properties would be more basic than God. But God cannot depend on anything; nothing can be more fundamental than God. So, God must not be "composed" in this way.

The author defends this view of God against the charge that it is incoherent or logically inconsistent. This is an extremely low bar, but I do not think he meets it. Or, he might meet it in the very weak sense that it might be logically possible for 2 + 2 not to equal 4. That is, if I were completely mistaken about everything I think I know about numbers, then this might somehow be logically consistent even though I could have no idea what such a claim could even mean. In this case, it might be logically possible that God be identical to God's (singular) property if I somehow was completely wrong about everything I think I know about what objects are, what God is supposed to be and what properties are.

It is at least as plausible a conclusion of the previous argument that God does not exist. Since everything that exists is "composed" in this way of substance with properties, and if God cannot be so composed, then God does not exist. Unfortunately, as nice as it would be to have such a simple argument against the existence of God, I think the assumptions of this argument are incorrect.

Do things depend for their existence on the properties and underlying stuff that "composes" them? I don't think so. First, it's not plausible that anything depends for its existence on its properties. On the Aristotelian conception, properties depend on their instantiations (the things that have them). Bob would exist whether he was tall or short. Bob does not depend on his tallness in order to exist. Possibly things have essential properties, but it's hard to see how even then the thing would depend on its properties. How could Bob depend for his existence on his humanity? Aristotle supposes that properties depend on their instances, so humanity as a property would not exist without humans to instantiate that property. Even if we do not accept Aristotle's view, it is bizarre to suggest that Bob depends for his existence on his humanity (even if Bob could not exist without being human).

It is more plausible that God's existence might depend on the stuff that makes God up. For example, we might think that humans are constituted by physical stuff that could exist even if those humans did not exist. In that case, the stuff that makes us up is more basic than we are. But this is not the sense of "constitution" Vallicella mentions.

We should not think the matter that constitutes things is more fundamental than the thing itself when we get to the most basic stuff. Humans might depend on the organs and cells that make them up, and those cells and organs might depend on the molecules and atoms that make them up. But it is a fundamentally different situation when we get to the basic constituents of the world, quarks, say. If we ever reach bottom, there will not be a stuff more basic which constitutes that bottom level. And in that case, it does not make much sense to say that a quark depends on the matter that constitutes the quark. There is no other matter (or energy) there besides the quark; there just is the quark. The quark is not "constituted" by matter and properties in any sense that makes this matter and these properties more basic. It may still be correct to say that the quark is matter with properties, but it does not follow from this that the matter of the quark exists more fundamentally than the quark and the quarkiness of it is a property that also preexists (one might say) the quark itself. This "pincushion" model of reality in which a thing is undifferentiated matter with properties imposed on it to give it structure--especially one in which the pins and the pincushion are more fundamental than the thing itself--takes us from the realm of common sense (i.e. things have properties) to the realm of highly problematic metaphysics. If I am right about this, and God is a simple substance, then there's no more basic stuff that constitutes God, and so God does not depend on God's properties and undifferentiated stuff. Vallicella continues:

A central threat to coherence is the question of how a thing could be identical to its properties. Alvin Plantinga (1980, p. 47) maintains that if God is identical to his properties, then he is a property, and they are a single property, in which case God is a single property. Given that properties are abstract entities, and abstracta are causally inert, then God is abstract and causally inert — which is of course inconsistent with the core tenet of classical theism according to which God is the personal creator and sustainer of every contingent being. No abstract object is a person or a causal agent. No abstract object can be omniscient, or indeed know anything at all. More fundamentally, no abstract object can be identical to any concrete object.

Vallicella is making a very clever move here without it being at all obvious what he's doing. This is a form of the strawman fallacy, one I call the fallacy of Spurious Specificity. This fallacy occurs when one takes only one specific idea or argument, rather than the broader set of such ideas or arguments of which it is a subset, and counters only that narrower idea. Plantinga and those arguing for the view of facts as abstract objects are not the only ones who might object to the doctrine that God is identical to God's property, and so you cannot undermine objections to the doctrine by rejecting Plantinga's view. And you cannot reasonably pretend that this debate is a matter of some obscure, debatable program of one particular philosopher. The problem with divine simplicity is not exhausted by Plantinga's argument that it entails that God is abstract. Vallicella comes close to the problem by saying that "More fundamentally, no abstract object can be identical to any concrete object."

The problem with Vallicella's account of divine simplicity is basic and obvious. It does not even make sense that a thing, being or entity, an individual object, is identical to a property. Properties are features or characteristics of things. A property cannot itself be a thing. Let's consider why philosophers even talk about properties; properties are things that are shared by multiple objects; they account for sameness or similarity of individual things. There are lots of different accounts of properties, whether they must be abstract, or whether we can understand properties completely as sets of individuals (or sets of actual and possible individuals). A theory of properties that did not somehow account for similarities among objects would not be a theory of properties at all. But the reason we talk about them in the first place is because we need to account for how two things can share something in common, how, for example, two things can both be red. If there is some property, redness, that they each have, then we have an explanation for why they are both red and how the statement "John McCain's angry visage is the same color as a ripe tomato," is true. That means that nothing can do the job of a property if it cannot, in some sense, be shared among individual things or instances of that property.

God, an individual thing, cannot be shared, exemplified, instantiated or otherwise exist in more than one thing. The reason we call them "individual things" is that they cannot be shared by other individuals (not in this sense, anyway). You might say that God is everything (in which case we are all part of the individual object that is God), or you can say that God is omnipresent (in which case that individual thing pervades the universe like a particularly invasive gas), but you cannot say that anything is an instance of God. Even God is not an instance of God but is identical to God. Even if there were only one red thing in the universe, redness would not, could not, be that thing. Redness would be a property with a unique instance, but it just makes no sense to say that being red could be identical to a red thing. (Even for the nominalist about properties, the unit set is distinct from its element.) What I'm saying is that individual, distinct, enumerable objects cannot at the same time be characteristics or qualities that can be shared by distinct individuals.

In short, the only way to understand God as a property is to throw out everything that properties are for and understand properties in your own unique way. This is a bit like saying, "Well, in your ordinary language 2 + 2 = 4, but in my vernacular, '4' refers to a rabbit's rectum, not a number, so on my way of understanding '4', 2 + 2 is not equal to 4." Fine, you can change talk of properties in this way if you want to, but when you do so, you have given up any possibility of making sensical claims that anyone else can accept.

My argument here might be little more than an incredulous stare: how can a thing be a property or a property be a thing? Those are mutually exclusive ontic categories (types of being). Properties can be shared by individuals, and individuals can exemplify properties, but neither can be identical to the other.

In sum, to say that God is the property Godness (say), is nonsensical; it contradicts everything we understand about the nature of properties. This whole construct of divine simplicity is misguided. Even though there are lots of issues philosophers discuss that he should take seriously, in this case, Dawkins has no obligation to evaluate such a bizarre theory. Gutting may as well have demanded that Dawkins, if he denies the existence of angels, must have a complete theory of angelic nature--including their pin-head-dancing proclivities--before denying their existence. Some theist arguments are too arcane, bizarre, wrong-headed or incoherent to be seriously entertained outside academia. The claim that God is identical to God's singular property is one such claim.

Note: I started this post months ago and finally finished it, so I've posted it under the original date as well.

Plantinga, A., 1980, Does God Have a Nature?, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.

Lust on the Streetcorner

"Lust!" screamed the street-corner evangelist. "You must remove the lust in your heart, so God's love can fill it."

A row of homeless people, his only audience, stared vacantly into the middle distance, their lust, apparently, having overcome God's ability to save them.