Some person’s done me the honour of linking to my blog, over at this “Rational Skepticism” post (the impartial observer may note how frequently the word “rational” is to an atheist what the phrase “People’s Democratic” is to a free and fair election).
I can’t respond there without registering, which I don’t like to do if I’m not going to be posting (and what could be more dull for an unbeliever than a sombre congregation of the devout?). So I thought I’d say a little something here.
First off, I am given as an example of “Neoplatonism or Advaita Vedanta”. I know very little about the latter, so on that I cannot comment, but regarding the former, the position I advanced in the Ontological Argument post is so directly contrary to everything that is platonist in neoplatonism that what I said might be regarded as ANTI-platonist, and I cannot fathom what sort of philosophical ignorance could conflate these two directly opposing points of view. Platonism, including Neoplatonism, is the triumph of the real over the actual, of the essential over the accidental, of the universal over the particular, and of the compulsory over the chosen. What I have said is the absolute contrary.
The more important point, however, is what they go on to say. “Sure, anyone can define a God into existence for their own convenience, but this is hardly a convincing reason for someone who doesn’t share your assumptions and habits of thinking to have faith in your God.” – well yes, I said that myself. But then: “These people have practically admitted that their God is a mental construct”.
Here we have a very serious misunderstanding. What a theist who accepted my earlier comments would have to acknowledge is that God, as we know of and conceive of him, is a creature of our own definitions. But there are two large errors in conflating this with the position that “God is a mental construct”.
The first is that “God” and “our conception of God” are not the same thing. The latter is created by definition, but that says nothing about the former. Consider the black box of skepticism: something is in there that causes various things to occur in response to stimuli. We put in X, we get out Y. What is in the box? We’ll call it Bod. Now, Bod’s behaviour is very complex, and some of us realise that predicting what will happen is a lot easier if we instead think of there being TWO things in the box, Bod-1 and Bod-2: instead of one complicated Bod, with an extremely complicated behaviour, we instead posit two quite simple Bods, interacting with the outside world, and each other, in quite a simple way. In addition, perhaps somebody notices that Bod-2 would be more or less the same as the things inside many OTHER black boxes (a type of thing already classified as the Gox).
Now, what is Bod-1? Well, our concept of Bod-1 is a concept born out of a voluntary definition. We don’t have to define Bod-1 as existing at all: we could ascribe everything to Bod-2. And once we DECIDE to posit Bod-1, we are still free as regards which behaviours we ascribe to it: there’s an infinite number of ways (well, a LOT of ways, at least) we could split up the behaviours between Bod-1 and Bod-2. So in the end, our only core conception of Bod-1 is “that being that, in combination with Bod-2, explains the outputs from the black box, if it is assumed that Bod-2 is, or is very similar to, a Gox”.
So, our concept of Bod-1 is a creature of definition: but is Bod-1 a mental construct? Well, let’s see: we bash open the box, and inside we find an ordinary little Gox of unexceptional type, and this other thing, which is indeed as we calculated Bod-1 would probably be. Look, a physical little creature! Not a mental construct at all! Our CONCEPT was mental, yes, but what concept is not?
The quick-minded realist among you will no doubt have noticed that Bod-1 can stand an analogy for ANYTHING. We are constantly forming concepts of the world around us on the basis of inadequate information. Some of that concept-formation occurs by (intentional or unintentional) definition; some of it, by (conscious or unconscious) calculation; some of it, perhaps, by various forms of rationalist or empiricist strong intuition or impression. But all these concepts are concepts, and all concepts, at least as they are present in the mind, are mental constructs (even if some people might want us to believe that they have been constructed according to, as it were, a floorplan of non-mental origin). So to say that our concept of God is the result of definition is not to say that God itself is a mental construct.
Now, it might be objected that something strange is going on in an ontological argument that concedes that the existance of God can only be “shown” if we make a definition without any exterior reason for doing so. Yet all that amounts to is saying “I only believe in the God I believe in because I have this particular concept of her”: but about what could this not be said? You do not believe in Gox, but then how could you, when you have not formed a clear concept of what Gox is said to be?
The difference, I suppose, is that with an OA-God, we are essentially saying that the concept itself cannot be formed except by definition… except we’re not, because although a believer in such a God CAN put forward an ontological argument, they may themselves have formed their concept in some other way already. So the concept of God is in much the same ontological condition as the concept of anything else.
However, there is still another point. It might be said that God, while not a mental construct precisely, is still in a different category from, say, snails. It may be a concept that is ‘disconnected’ from reality: there may not really be a God.
This is where I think that people like that “Rational Skeptic” are themselves perpetrators of platonism, in Kantian form. We have our understanding of a thing on the one hand, and the Real Thing Itself on the other. Some ‘understandings’ may have no correlate in Real Stuff. We may call these concepts “false”; and, in keeping with the spirit of our Skeptical friend we may call the putative “things” depicted in false concepts “imaginary” or “fictional”.
To illustrate this, back to the black box. We are talking about the contents of the box as Bod-1 and Gox, before we’ve broken in. Is our concept of Bod-1 false or unfalse? It is a concept drawn from definition, but does that make the thing it is a conception of, Bod-1, “imaginary”? No, not by itself. We may break in to the box and find Bod-1 within: then Bod-1 would clearly be “factual”.
What are we talking about when we say “Bod-1 is hungry!”? Are we talking about Bod-1? Presumably, if Bod-1 is factual. But what if Bod-1 is fictional? Well then, let’s see, would “Bod-1 is hungry!” be true or false? Or neither? Or both? Let’s insist: “hungry” must mean the same thing as usual. Well then, either we accept that we are right to talk about fictional things in the same terms as factual things (in which case “Bod-1 exists” will likewise mean the same thing, and be equally true, whether Bod-1 is fictional or factual), or we say that no, it is NOT true that Bod-1 is hungry if Bod-1 doesn’t actually exist. And yet: something is clearly truer in saying “Bod-1 is hungry” than “Bod-1 is not hungry”, if the black box behaves in the way that we are predicting when we ascribe hunger to the putative being inside. So maybe we are saying something true, but not about the fictional Bod-1? Maybe we’re actually talking about an aspect of a single Combi-Bod, which aspect we’ve named Bod-1?
Consider this from another side: when I say “I am hungry” and I’m not lying, I’m talking about a real thing, myself. Because when we ascribe things using unfalse concepts we ascribe them to true, real, actual, factual things. But when, it seems, we ascribe things using false concepts, we ascribe them to… well, surely we are still ASCRIBING them? But to what the Skeptic named “mental constructs”. But this means that we do not know whether we are talking about a construct or about an entity until we have opened the box! Until then, we must withhold judgement.
BUT: we can never open the box. “Opening the box” is comparing the real thing, if it exists at all, to our concepts of it. We have the real thing in one hand, as it were, and the concept in the other, and see if they weigh the same. But we can never “know” about a thing without our concepts of it. Knowing about a thing and having a concept (in the sense of an understanding, which need not be a conscious concept) of it are integrally connected concepts: the former requires the latter. Regarding this lightbulb here: I don’t get to say “well, I’ve got this phenomenal conceptualisation of the lightbulb, and I’ve checked that with the real lightbulb as it exists outside of my understand and experience of it, and they’re the same!”. We can never open the box. Which means that we must ALWAYS withhold judgement. We never know which things are “real” and which aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean that we should be skeptics in the sense of decrying our inability to “know” the external world. Because what would that mean? It means saying “the concept-lightbulb may not represent the lightbulb”. What does “lightbulb” mean in that sentence? If our lightbulb-concept is unfalse, the lightbulb is factual, and we are talking about lightbulbs. In which case, yes, the concept-lightbulb MUST represent the lightbulb. Or alternatively, our concept may be false, and “the lightbulb” is fictional. In which case, how does out concept of the lightbulb fail to represent the fictional lightbulb? Presumably because we say that the lightbulb is real but in fact the lightbulb is fictional. When do we say the lightbulb is real? Well, that’s assumed. We can assume that every time we use a word we’re making the claim “this is a real factual thing, not a fictional thing”.
What if we weren’t saying that? What if we never claimed the lightbulb was factual, but merely that that lightbulb could not be demonstrated to be fictional? Well then, in that case, “the concept-lightbulb may not represent the lightbulb” would be false – if the concept were unfalse, the claim would be untrue, and if the concept were false, the “lightbulb” in question would be fictional, but so long as it could not be shown to be fictional, our concept-lightbulb would not make any untrue claims about it.
So what does it mean, “to choose to use the word ‘lightbulb’ to mean a thing that is not demonstrably fictional”, in contrast to “to choose to use the word ‘lightbulb’ to mean a thing that is not fictional”. Well, it means that in one case we’d be wrong a lot without ever knowing, and in the other case we wouldn’t be. But which do we actually choose? Well, I don’t remember choosing. OK, so not a conscious choice. But what sort of choice at all? We choose to do X or to do Y – but what is the difference in this case? By definition, there is no possible circumstance where choosing A (not fictional) would lead to different behaviour from choosing B (not demonstrably fictional). In every possible world (given a suitably strong rendering of ‘demonstRABLE’) the two choices lead to identical behaviours – except, perhaps, how one chooses to talk about the choice, if you happen to read this blog post. To me, that’s a distinction without a difference. And that means that the concept of a concept failing to represent a real thing is unsupportable. And that means that failing to represent a real thing is not a failure at all. As Nietzsche put it: in abolishing the true world, we have abolished the apparant world also.
And there is another consideration also. What does it mean to say, even putatively, that a certain concept doesn’t represent anything? If we say “Bod-1 is hungry” and this predicts the behaviour of the thing in the box, surely “Bod-1” does represent something, even if not what we thought? A part of Combi-Bod, perhaps, or a combination of Bod-3 and Bod-4?
To put it another way: it doesn’t even matter whether we can open the box. And what if we can? We open the box and pick out what’s inside. One person says “that’s Bod-1 alright! But… it turns out he’s a little different from the way we thought he would be”. Another person says “that’s not Bod-1! That’s something entirely different!”. What does this argument really signify? How could it be resolved? Well, it can’t be. There’s no evidence could prove the case one way or another. Whether to call it the same thing with different behaviour or a plain different thing is a matter of our own free choice.
Imagine: “everything we say about the concept-lightbulb is really true, but the concept doesn’t reflect the real lightbulb”; “the concept reflects the reality, but everything we say about the concept is isn’t really true”. We cannot divorce the concept from its content.
What this should tell us is: we don’t actually care about the ‘connexion’ between concept and reality. As the case of Bod-1 shows, we can argue irresolubly about whether that connexion exists (whether the Bod-1 concept was false or unfalse) even when we agree upon the truth or falsity of everything said about Bod-1. The further matter of the “reality” of Bod-1 has no content that can be cashed out in experience. Our words, however are founded in experience, and anything that has no, even hypothetical, experiential ramifications is nothing but hot air. We can choose to believe in it or not as we are inclined.
So, I don’t accept that this distinction between fictional things and factual things exists. If talking about a thing has some use and import, that is enough for me – whether the “thing” has a mystical connexion to some unseeable, unhearable, unknowable, uninfluential and superfluous “Real Thing In Itself” is a matter for, ironically, theologians to bicker over, ‘Skeptical’ theologians included.
But another distinction could be made: between concepts that are “natural” and those that are merely the products of definition. Bod-1, it might be said, is actually a defined concept, but the definition matches a natural thing, and hence has a certain fitness. This ‘nature’ can be written out in terms of the experiential things around us, so does not fall prey to the same objections as the metaphysical dualism did.
But why bother with it? Imagine: you go to a volcanic island, and you do some measurements, and you realise that a huge chunk of rock is likely to fall into the sea at some point creating a tidal wave that will destroy half of civilisation. You call this chunk “Nemesis”. This “chunk” is actually contiguous with the rest of the island; it may be bordered by weak zones of rock that you calculate will break, but there is no clear defining fault. You don’t know the precise boundaries of Nemesis; indeed, they haven’t been ‘decided’ yet. Does Nemesis exist? It has been “created” entirely by your “definition”, and is thus a “mental construct”, not something that “really exists” – or to put it in the terms we’re now using, it’s not a natural thing, and hence the Nemesis-concept is artificial and purely man-made. But Nemesis will still fall into the sea and kill everybody, so the fact that it’s purely a creature of definition (at this stage!) doesn’t seem to be too important. Or imagine a beach of sand. You put markers in the sand and call the volume of sand they enclose “Albert” – by measuring the movement of the markers, you measure the movement of “Albert”. But Albert is a creature of definition – yes, but sand is still moving. We can always redefine through new definitions. A bicycle has too wheels? No, a bicycle has one tweel! The CONTENT of the definitions are the same, so how can an atheist come along and say “tweels are mere mental constructs created by our own definitions; what’s REAL is the existence of two-wheeled bicycles!”. Or, for that matter, “wheels are mental constructs, they’re really just our attempt to understand semi-tweels”.
What I’m getting at here is that regardless of the role of definition, a concept can still be used provided it has some content. Of course, some concepts can’t be used. Which? Well, try them and see. A common analogy to the ontological argument is the ontological proof of the “highest prime number”. But I don’t believe we can easily sketch out what we MEAN when we talk about coherently believing that there is a highest prime number; the words must be so redefined that they have little connection to the items of mathematics. And is that redefinition of any use? To my knowledge, nobody has suggested that it is. So, we can leave the issue until somebody makes that choice and tried to live with it. By contrast, people DO live with their belief in a deity. And since some of those are very intelligent and sane people, and some of those are also sincere in their beliefs, as best we can tell, we cannot say that their concept is incoherent.