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.

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