Friday, December 21, 2007

More on Kenny on God

The holidays are upon us so not much time for Daddy to philosophize but maybe a note about God would be appropriate for the season, so this by way of spreading holiday cheer.
The last remark by Prof. Kenny in Chapter 5 of What I Believe, "Why I am not a Theist - II," is as follows: "Human intelligence is displayed in the behaviour of human bodies and in the thoughts of human minds. If we reflect on the actual way in which we attribute mental predicates such as 'know', 'believe', 'think', 'design', 'control' to human beings, we realize the immense difficulty there is an (sic) applying them to a putative being which is immaterial, ubiquitous and eternal....we cannot really ascribe a mind to God at all." (pp. 52-53). I think that this is a very important argument, it is the one to which I alluded at the end of the last post but I didn't realize then that Kenny had himself stated the argument so prominantly. I think the argument goes like this: Say that God has the attributes of being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent (I guess there will be other God-like properties that would also serve the point, omnitemporal etc.). In the case of an ordinary use of the verb "to know," to say of Tony, "Tony knows about X" is informative because it is possible that Tony might not know. That is the meaning of the verb, the semantic function of the word. In a world where Tony had the property of knowing anything and everything, there would be no epistemic verb for Tony's condition at all. There would be, quite literally, nothing to talk about. And so Tony would not appear to us to be the kind of thing that "knows" things, and similarly for statements like "God caused X" or "God is located at X." In all cases, it looks like it is the finitude of the ordinary person that allows them to come under mental predicates. And location is just a straight-ahead physical property, so far as I can see.
Here's what's exciting about this argument: I think that mental properties are a really fancy subset of physical properties. I think that being a person is a property that only a being with a finite physical body could have. So that looks like a credible argument for physicalism about the mind. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reading Kenny on God

It's the week between the end of classes and holiday visiting, and the house-painting project is now in mopping-up stages, but I'm grabbing a minute here to think about God. Last year I used Anthony Kenny's Ancient Philosophy, the first of his four-volume history of western philosophy, in my Ancient class. It was very good, thematically arranged which I like (Irwin's Classical Philosophy shares this virtue). Coverage of Aristotle, a clear philosophical treatment of logic, etc. Next semester I'm going to use the fourth volume, Philosophy in the Modern World, in my Contemporary class and see what happens. My friend Jorge Ferrer has been reading Kenny's What I Believe (2006), so I Amazoned up a copy and am looking at it (or I should say not having time to look at it) this week. The philosophical memoir, as a sort of lucid summation of basic conclusions after a lifetime of study and exposition of the canonical texts, is a very brave and useful genre of philosophy.
Mr. Kenny can reasonably be expected to tell us something interesting about God, with his years of study under Vatican auspices and his subsequent 40+ years as an Oxford don and writer of numerous books on the topic. Although I think he compresses things a bit too much at points, he doesn't disappoint. I'm thinking of two sets of ideas just now:
First, the argument that "Since anything exists, something must exist necessarily" (Kenny doesn't necessarily endorse this argument). At first I thought it was transparently wrong, since I didn't see any reason why existence itself must be any less contingent than every existing particular. I'm not sure where I end up with that, but the Wittgenstein-inspired direction Kenny explores makes me nervous that maybe existence can't be considered contingent like particular existing things are (he also discusses Kant's handling of existence as a predicate). The Wittgenstein-like idea is that it makes no sense to talk about the universe not existing (what did Wittgenstein think of Parmenides?). The grammar-caused metaphysical illusion is the resulting sense of a "possible world" of empty space: we imagine "the universe" sitting in "space" one moment and then imagine it disappearing and leaving the "empty space." In fact this sort of argument is rehearsed by David Lewis, that master of talking about possible worlds, and I quote: "A world is not like a bottle that might hold no beer. The world is the totality of the things it contains....there isn't any world where there's nothing at all. That makes it necessary that there is something." (from On The Plurality of Worlds). The intuitive bother about these sorts of arguments is that they seem to involve an equivocation: surely there's a (metaphysical) difference between what can be meaningfully said and what is possible? Isn't it closed-minded to just stipulate that the bounds of reality are the bounds of sense? But that's the problem, I confess that I'm not so sure about that. Not so fast, Kant. On the other hand, this looks to me to be an entirely secular argument: a demonstration of the necessity of something is hardly a demonstration of the existence of God.
The second set of arguments might actually yield a plausible case for the existence of something that you could call "God." (Ironically Kenny's very learnedness brings up into relief the very fuzzy nature of this concept). I think that Plato and Hinduism ("atman") are on to this: if the evolution of consciousness is a reflection of the formally organized nature of the universe (impossible without it, inevitable with it), does this entail that the universe is itself in some general sense "mental"? (Spinoza). Another way of saying that if the universe is formally organized then materialism fails. Because it seems to me that if God is not a person then it's no longer the original concept of God, and this universal mind strategy is the only one that might be persuasive that accounts for a personal God. Provisionally my current view is that God can't be a person because persons are necessarily finite, such that they can be meaningfully said to "know," "act," "exist," etc. (notice that this is a Wittgensteinian argument as well). But the counter-argument that formal organization is constitutive of consciousness is interesting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Buddhism and Civilization

One of my basic positions as a philosopher, programmatic for my work on philosophy of mind, is that I don't accept a distinction between human nature and the rest of nature. I reject, for example, the view that language (or "rationality," or God's will, or "negation") somehow releases humans from the causal relations and physical explanations that we apply to the rest of the physical universe. But that's not to say that humans aren't very fancy natural beings, a point that I am sometimes accused of missing (in discussions of animal mind, for example) but that seems to me too obvious to mention. It's just that my opinion about methodology is that we won't figure anything out by making human distinctness axiomatic (like the linguists mistakenly do), we've got to get to human consciousness and thinking from non-conscious, non-cognitive origins. Otherwise we have explained nothing.
Like all good philosophical questions, the question about the extent and nature of human uniqueness is a simple one that quickly takes us into deep waters. And like most good questions about mind and consciousness, it is one that is addressed by the fantastically rich Buddhist tradition. One of the pivotal historical developments of Buddhism was the Tibetan Renaissance of the eighth century, when the rulers of Tibet, hitherto a land of war lords and warriors, were converted to Buddhism and subsequently invited scholars and holy men from India to build a Buddhist society, the founding of the "Tantric" tradition (tantras are methods, and the name refers to a heterogenous approach including various types of yoga, meditation, teaching and other practices). My thought today is about meditation and our concept of ourselves, and the experience of the Tibetans of the early classical period as a case of "civilization," if we think of civilization as including the emergence of this sense of humans as apart from the (rest of the) physical world.
To meditate is to become aware of consciousness. Like Descartes, Buddha tends to identify the self with consciousness (as distinct from the body), and like Descartes Buddha quickly gets to the distinction between consciousness and the contents of consciousness (I don't mean to say that Buddhism has exactly the same metaphysical problems of mind and body as the European tradition, but I don't romanticize Buddhism nor do I demonize all things Western: all just people). Elemental point: this "discovery" (creation?) of mind is an element in the emergence of civilizations, constitutive of a sense that humans have volitions and thus are not just (determined) things. Notice that traditional (in the West think: Pre-pre-Socratic) peoples tend to think that all causation is intentional (causes are volitions of gods and spirits), so locating mind in humans simultaneously gives rise to the idea of physical causation as non-volitional, non-mental causation. Whether any of this is a good or a bad thing I cannot say. I'd like to discover that the Buddhist tradition, that I love, somehow cuts through the mind-body problem in a simple way that the dumb old Europeans missed, but I cannot say that.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Visit by Khenchen Tsewang Gyatso Rinpoche

When I saw the poster advertising Tsewang Gyatso's visit here at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, I knew enough to know it was a must-attend event. In Buddhism, the two branches that are of widest interest are the Zen Buddhism of China and Japan and the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet (although there are others notably Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia). "Rinpoche" is the honorific spiritual title of ordained members of the Tibetan lineage, while "Khenchen" is an honorific scholarly title equivalent to "professor of Buddhist Studies." Right up my alley! But it got better: Tsewang Gyatso is the Khenchen of Palyul Nyingma Meditation and Study Centers, an international network of centers under the auspices of Namdrooling Palyul Monastery. There are four sub-branches of Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. Of these four, Nyingma (means "ancient") is the oldest, and the branch most closely identified with the body of classical Buddhist commentary originating in the Eighth Century "Tibetan Renaissance," the great flowering of Buddhism in Tibet. This literature is the specialty of the famous North American scholar Robert Thurman (see his The Jewel Tree of Tibet) and our deepest heritage of philosophical Buddhism. And here he was, a Rinpoche of the highest rank, visiting out-of-the-way Mayaguez: a unique event, to my knowledge (although San Juan has a Buddhist center and the Dalai Lama visited there last year).
Needless to say, there were only about eight or nine people there the first night, when Gyatso Rinpoche gave a basic introduction to the origins of Buddhism. One or two more showed up last night, when Rinpoche discussed dzogchen practice, the basic spiritual practice of nyingma tantra. Buddhism is such a simple thing, and yet it is so endlessly rewarding (spiritual) and fascinating (intellectual). Rinpoche was not talking about philosophy, he was talking about training the mind for loving kindness towards all living beings. I ask students in class sometimes, "Do you want to be nice?" A surprisingly subversive question, and one that often has a big impact considering how basic and simple it is. Philosopher that I am, in some moods I get hung up on the issue of idealism in the Buddhist tradition (idealism in the metaphysical sense: the view that primary being is somehow mental). It is certainly true that the language, at least as far as I can see reading English translations, is unequivocal: the mind creates the world. There is a Berkeleyan/Spinozistic subtext that here dates back to the original Vedic tradition: if the universe is the mind of God under some description (Spinoza) or if God is a transcendental constitutive mind (Berkeley), in Hinduism the atman, then idealism might be (just) an abstruse item of theological metaphysics. On the other end of the spectrum we could take it all as figurative (the way someone like me reads the Bible), smile at the world and the world smiles back at you, Gestalt, and all that sort of thing. Listening to Khenchen Gyatso, he didn't seem to fit either of those interpretations. He explained the destructive force of the atomic bomb, for example, as an effect of the mental states that created it (and he ran the same line on modern medical research). He was clear on the point that the mind was what made the difference. Everything is alright or not alright, he was sure, depending on the state of the mind. A very satisfying evening, a real treat for us far-off Mayaguezanos for sure.