Monday, July 13, 2009

Agnosticism and Philosophy

This is a response to the really excellent round of comments published at the end of the last blog post. I think the substance of the respective comments is consistent enough not to do a "1),2)" kind of thing (that I often do, finding distinct arguments). But this topic is also fun, I notice, because everyone's got something to say.

Kevin Vond has in the past expressed to me that metaphysics, in any literal sense of that word, might be impossible if our conceptual structure was so 1) arbitrary: could have been radically otherwise within the same natural world, and 2) important in the role it played in our science, our general describing and explaining of the world, for us to ever be in a position to claim that we were actually doing "metaphysics." (And interesting that Kevin tends to be the critic of Wittgenstein vs. my attempts to apply what I take to be Wittgensteinian interpretations).

This is recognizably a descendant of German Idealism, and of course it is the whole drift of the Continental version of language philosophy (Habermas,Foucault, Derrida) of recent decades. It is also the popular view: the story one gets from an intelligent person with a passing interest in philosophy. I am part of a resurgence in metaphysics that has developed among English-speaking philosophers over the past thirty years or so, I think it is to some degree a consequence of the enormous attention that community has given to the philosophy of mind for many years.

I do think that what I like to call "metaphysics" may, for the existentially squeamish, be translated to "semantics." But I for one think that I can think about what sorts of things exist. Probably this all starts in thinking about materialism and the mind/body problem. I studied the metaphysics of universals, say, or propositions, possible worlds, essences and all sorts of things motivated by trying to get a handle on the metaphysics of reductive materialism vs. functionalism etc. N.N. mentions Alvin Plantinga, his debate with David Lewis about possible worlds as a battleground for nominalism vs. Platonism is out towards the deeper waters.

So first I want to talk about Kevin's experiments with concepts in his comment here. Let's think about "America," "justice," "God," and "the external world." If Kevin is right, all of these concepts ought to function in the same way. I like the anthropological behaviorist (a kind of reading of Wittgenstein) criterion that we can be said to be communicating when our communicative act makes a difference, when a person's choices are influenced. This is a definition of "meaning" intended to be eliminativist about Platonic entities, about some nonreducible semantic "property" and so forth.

I think that {"America" and "ethics"} are distinct from {"God" and "the external world"} as subjects of sentences thus: "I believe/don't believe that X exists." By the way I don't need to suggest that agnostics are disengenuous, only that they are confused. I take it that confusion on the present issues is the problem, not wanton disregard of these issues (fully understood!). We might say that "America does not exist" for any number of reasons. We might be talking to an American who was too nationalistic, or we might be talking to a foreigner who was too anti-American. Looks like the same case: we want them to see that they ought not be using the concept to do so much work, because it is leading them into reactionary territory. We want them to use their imaginations a little more and appreciate that the concept "America" is highly complex and has its explanatory and justificatory limits. That is, when we say that they go "too" far, we mean that we no longer accept that their account of things is reasonable. Fair enough. But notice that we cannot possibly mean to make a blanket metaphysical claim such that we claim that every time you mention "America," you are talking about a non-existent entity that in fact has no explanatory or causal role to play in our talk about the world. People just don't talk that much about unreal things. I know that sounds fast, but let me elaborate using the concept "ethics."

What happens in the undergraduate ethics class is, there's always someone who argues that "ethics does not exist." This has to be a metaphysical claim, and it has to be wrong. It has to be a metaphysical claim because it can't be any kind of pragmatic claim: it's a strange description of reality to say that "ethics doesn't exist" if your own metaphysical attitude tends to hold that the only thing there is to "existing" is what people think about and talk about all day. Whatever that is, the epistemological idealist is also, by definition, committed to saying it's real, if "knowing" is only a matter of having a concept that is functioning to influence behavior. Thus, as with "America," I sometimes say "There is no justice" (I admit that I might never say, "There is no ethics," but I could to the same end). For example when I am talking to my students about the importance of education and having a good future. I want them to see that an education is a precious thing that few people receive. I'm giving them some tough talk. But that we live in a world where we are confronted with ethical problems is as nonnegotiable as that we live in one where we are confronted with America.

"God" and "the external world" are not like that. Let's think about "the external world." One can't say, "Well look, we talk about the external world all the time. Not a minute goes by that we don't think and talk about the external world: same as ethics." But this is wrong. We never talk about the external world, if we mean by that something that might not exist given the experiences that we are having right now. Wittgenstein thought that there could be no propositions about ethics (or aesthetics: values in general), if by that a philosopher meant that he was explaining why some things are good and some things are bad. They just are, W. insisted, detecting a limit to language (this is what he and Popper got into a fight about that is described in the book Wittgenstein's Poker, that I haven't read). Note that here we can clearly see the empiricist Wittgenstein: Hume, Mill, the Modernists all share in this non-cognitivist tradition, vs. Continental rationalism.

But he thought it was nonsense to talk about either "the external world" or "phenomenal experience" if one claimed to be talking about anything over and above description of plain experience. (That is a basic reason why I am interested in Wittgenstein: I think he has a good argument for the elimination of phenomenal properties.) If God is (according to you) something in the world, then maybe it is something that exists or does not exist, and that you cannot now know about for one reason or the other. But if God is global the way the external world is global then the concept plays no real role and thus refers to nothing. If we are talking about the kind of thing about which one can neither "know" nor "not know," then agnosticism is impossible to the extent that agnosticism is the claim that "I do not know whether God exists."

However, Wittgenstein also appears to hold that there was "spiritual" reality that was as much a part of the (inexpressible) world as values. He himself took these things to be among the most important in life. That is what gets us finally to the concept "God." It looks like I can use the concept of God to the same rhetorical effect as in the first two examples. I can influence others by saying "There is no God!" I'm trying to shake up a hidebound thinker of one sort or another: a narrow dogmatist, or a paralyzed fatalist, or a self-pitier, or any number of other cases. Of course we also very frequently do this by saying "There is a God!" I'm pretty sure most people (both of us) who have read this far would interpret people, who mentioned God a lot while discussing what to do in daily life, as talking about some ethical character of the world: aiming for good outcomes and to avoid bad ones. But there is another thing, and maybe Plato gets it right.

There is the organized nature of the world. Now let me state out front that I take that in no way to demonstrate the existence of some "designer." In fact to claim to explain design by appeal to a designer just pushes the problem back a step: from whence the designer? It is a perfectly vacuous argument, taken that way. But I see the formal organization of the world as a plain fact like the existence of ethics: the world is like that. This may commit me to some kind of dualism after call: if "The world exists" is not the only existential truth, if "the world that exists is formally organized" is also true and ineffable, then Plato is right: there are two distinct ontological facts: 1)the bare existence of matter/energy, and 2) its formal organization. If that is what is taken as "God" (Plato thought it was "the Good," the source of intelligibility and value in the world), then that is something real that might not have existed, but does.

But that's perfectly acceptable as a pagan fact. I don't need to add God to that. Formal organization is already doing the work. Why is the universe formally organized? Why does it exist? There is no sense of "might/might not be" in either case. Not a subject of "belief" at all. If God is like that, agnosticism is impossible.


  1. Hi, VS Bandaneer here,
    It boils down to what is possible. Is God possible? yes. No.
    take your pick. How would you prove that there is no possibility of a God? Seems whether there is a possibility or not --is rather an assumption either way.
    I think "external world" does add something that was not there
    prior to the notion--and that is the point of view that there is
    a sense of the internal and a sense of the external---thought is internal and sense is external.
    One could also say that there are two aspects of experience--internal and external--or subjective and objective.
    To say that these notions add nothing to the world is to simply assume that concepts or mentality somehow aren't part of the world, of existence--or some such. And it is to assusme that there is one description of the world that is the correct one--I'd like to see an argumewnt for that.
    In the broadest sense words concepts mentality are part of the world; simply because whatever shows up--whatever is present--is part of the world.
    The notion of God adds something to the world that wasn't there before--the notion of God.
    To assume a mental world and a physical world and a clear dividing line between them seems mistaken to me. For I can point out that your construction of an objective physical world--is a subjective thing--so subjectivity must be part of the world.

    To deny that the
    external vs. internal or god changesthe world---it seems to me would be like denying that Einstein's notion (mental notion) relativity changes the world---
    If you want to deny mentality--
    well, that, it seems ,would make thoughts part of the physical world--the world--and we are back to square one (unless you want to deny that thoughts exist)
    As brilliant as Wittgenstein was----he still operated under the sway of the mind body split-- an intractable problem.
    A split that I do not subscribe to.
    Rather I see the world as manifesting in various aspects--or points of view--the mental is one and the physical another. There are lots of aspects---none of them necessary.
    God--as notion or as being or as whatever-- god--showed up--so it is part of the world. But of course you can insist that it makes no difference to science whether there is a god or not---
    but this is different from saying that the notion does not change the world. It does--- everything that shows up changes the composition of the world-- what is manifested.
    If the most obvious aspect of the world is that it is--its being-its presence-then certainly whatever has presence--is part of the world.
    You could reply that touch and sense is all you trust and god has not yet deigned to shake your hand
    or knock you on the head--I will reply, again, that such a physical world as you posit as the only validity-- may be viewed as a mental notion.
    Personally, god is a concept I
    have no interest in.
    I think that no matter what, subjectivity will remain in play---as a point of view--as pert of the world.

  2. So your foundational premise for this argument is that the question of existance must have a yes or no answer?

  3. Brown,

    I admire your persistence and ambition, but I'll be entirely honest- I've heard this all before. I find that taking the risk to find that one glowing kernel of originality is worth everything.

    I think that your way of synthesizing material for your own purposes is original in itself, but it's only based on a principle of organization- a donning of masks and muffled scholar sound.

    And though it's cliche and, in vogue, even, to state that philosophers are getting it all wrong nowadays (just as it is cliche to say sentences shouldn't really start with "and"), I must admit that many philosophers are trained to ask incessant and unnecessary question in a covert attempt to bypass their own true discoveries (i.e. when confronted with new ideas that could potentially revolutionize their thinking and overturn unseen paradigms within which they've been playing blind sycophant).

    In essence, you strike me as an (un)official mouthpiece for a particular "mass-mind", for a discipline, rather than for yourself. Take risks. Be original.

    Wittgenstein is not God and conversely it is bogus to derive any kind of subtle pleasure from proving him wrong. His ideas are outdated, period. Stepping stones- that's all his words were.

    Daniel Dennett- brilliant to a very concrete limit. True discovery comes about by seeing HOW something can work with established conceptions, despite how alien, and NOT by attempting to disprove it. It's sad that such educated lack the true creativity to make connections between ideas and so do others a disservice by just working with coagulated concepts. All I see are followers and spoon-fed "thinkers" with name extensions.

    Try some originals: Cioran, JP Carse, Kevin Langdon- follow smoke for it's better to find the right fire or choke than to rest one's legs in the dangerous in-between which is what hurts us. Or if I may be so