Notes on Kant and Aquinas Against Anselm

“Thus when I think a thing, through whichever and however many predicates I like (even in its thoroughgoing determination), not the least bit gets added to the thing when I posit in addition that this thing is. For otherwise what would exist would not be the same as what I had thought in my concept, but more than that, and I could not say that the very object of my concept exists” (Critique of Pure Reason, A600/B628).   
It is important to note the context of Kants rejection of existence as a predicate, which is his criticism of the ontological argument. Kant, as he says above, took Anselm to be arguing that predicating the concept ‘being’ of anything added something to the concept of a thing. This is not entirely correct, however, when we look at Anselm, who says that something which exists only in the understanding is not as great as something which exists in reality. Thus, a god which actually exists is greater than one which exists merely in the understanding.
So having noted that Kant is not a terrific reader of Anselm, is he in fact wrong? Lots of folks have argued that being is not a predicate or a property of individuals. Russell is probably the most well known – he argued that existence or being is a second-order concept. So, to say that X doesn’t exist is just to say that the property of being X is not instantiated. This makes more sense if you look at his debate with Meinong, which really turns out to be a debate over whether existence is equivocal or univocal. Meinong held to the former, Russell the latter (Frege as well). Russell took it to be the case that everything exists, while Meinong too it to be the case that not everything that exists exists. If existence is a predicate, then the problem of negative existentials really looms large, which is probably the main reason Russell held to his view. That is, if existence is a predicate, it becomes quite easy to argue from, say the existence of donkeys to the existence of, say, Eeyore (there’s actually issues here, but bracket those for the moment).

The fundamental disagreement between Aquinas and Anselm, IMO, occurs in the SCG, where Aquinas says that

‘No difficulty, consequently, befalls anyone who posits that God does not exist. For that something greater can be thought than anything given in reality or in the intellect is a difficulty only to him who admits that there is something than which a greater cannot be thought in reality.’

Obviously, this is in direct conflict with Anselm’s invocation of the Fool, but to me it also shows that the Ontological Argument is more logical than metaphysical. Anselm is basically interpreting negative existentials as being both about something ‘in the understanding’ that does not exist in reality: Anselm is trying to derive a logical contradiction or absurdity here. In other words, Anselm is trying to show that ‘There is no God’ or ‘God doesn’t exist’ is a contradiction. But this is easily avoided if we employ something like Russell theory of definite descriptions: we can say that ‘God’ = ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. The fool can be taken to be saying that ‘there is nothing which fits the description ‘‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived’. To avoid the contradiction, all we have to do is translate that to ‘For any given thing, in the understanding or in reality, a greater than it can be conceived’, and, since Anselm’s argument doesn’t require the Fool to know that his statement is true but only to state it without contradiction, we have avoided Anselm’s contradiction. Aquinas’s quote above is basically the same as what I just laid out.

A Rather Simple Concern

This is a post about the doctrine of divine simplicity – or, more precisely, a meta-post on the doctrine of divine simplicity. I’m not going to defend or critique any given model of simplicity (there are plenty of models, critiques and defences) but I’m going to try and unearth that which the doctrine of divine simplicity is concerned with from a theological standpoint. The point here is to identify why one would want to hold to simplicity – in order to move forward in a constructive (or de-constructive) way.
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Notes on Analogy and Univocity

– Aquinas and Scotus have two different ways of speaking and knowing of God – analogy and univocity, respectively. The former is more well known (and in this old post I give a quick overview of it).

– Scotus is concerned primarily with with developing a concept of being that applies to both God and man, because, as Scotus sees it, unless there were such a concept, we could not have objective, positive metaphysical knowledge of God. We could have negative knowledge of God, but Scotus sees that as empty (if that’s our only knowledge of God). To say only what God is not cashes out like this: we can say that God is not a rock, but we can say the same thing about anything not a rock. All we know, then, is that God, like anything not a rock, is not a rock.

– He holds that if our knowledge of God is equivocal (as Henry of Ghent held), then we can have no real knowledge of God, since our terms would be emptied of all their meaning.

– So what exactly is this univocal concept of being? This: a concept such that it cannot be both affirmed and denied without a contradiction. So, in the case of being, both God and man fall under the concept of being, but not in the sense that they are both under a single genus – Scotus’ univocity is logical, and not metaphysical  concept. Put another way, God and man are both infinitely different in their being – but they are both opposed to nonbeing, though opposed in different ways.

– Scotus and Aquinas are both in agreement that knowledge of God comes from knowledge of creatures – our experience of creatures is the source of all our concepts that we apply to God. They also both agree that these concepts don’t apply to God directly or perfectly. Aquinas holds this by way of analogy, where concepts apply to God in both a similar and dissimilar sense. Scotus holds, however, that analogy is fundamentally a kind of equivocity, and that for analogy to work at all it must presuppose some kind of univocity.

– Scotus holds that our concepts apply to God via abstraction – that is, he abstracts the creaturely imperfections in, say, our concept of wisdom, and them applies them to God with maximum perfection.

Notes on Sellars and Philosophy of Nature

– Sellars spends a good deal of time in his essay ‘Aristotelian Philosophies of Mind‘ critiquing said philosophies of mind on the grounds that they represent a prescientific way of thinking about intellect, cognition, etc. They’re simply outdated, Sellars seems to say (though his goal is more to elucidate when/how such ideas went wrong than to simply knock them around).

– I suspect that some of these critiques can be deflected if we distinguish between a scientific account of how (say) sensation works and a philosophical account of the nature of sensation, or what sensation is. James Madden notes in ‘Mind, Matter, Nature’, that it is the latter, not the former, which Aquinas is offering, and thus far from being refuted by our given psycho-physical understanding of the brain is open to really just about any empirical findings.

– Put another way, Aquinas’ account of sensation as caused by physical impressions on our organs from which the forms are abstracted by the intellect into a formal identity between the knower and known isn’t a play-by-play description of the physiology of the brain – if this were so, than this would be a rather easily refutable theory (to use Sellars example, if this account were a scientific account of what cognition is, then if I thought of a lion, I would have to have a lion in my brain and in my eye! Easily refutable would be an understatement) Aquinas’ account of the mind may jive more easily with this or that empirical finding, but on its own its simply a category mistake to take it as an empirical account of cognition or sensation.

– A case in point would be in Sellars’ closing, where he cites findings in the empirical science of the brain against the existence of the active intellect (and as it happens, I think the passive/active intellect can map very well onto contemporary accounts of cognition).

– Madden also points out, keeping with the theme above, that the accusation of being prescientific is absolutely correct if the Thomistic philosophy of nature (form, matter, etc) is taken to be an account of the conduct of science – Madden affirms that when it comes to the empirical sciences, it is indeed a proper methodology to exclude things like form, final cause, etc. These are concepts which serve as the ground of the empirical sciences – the nature of physical law, change, etc. This being the case, Sellars’ objections lose some force, since what he’s critiquing as being a prescientific kind of empirical science is in fact a more fundamental consideration.

Thomistic-Wittgensteinian Concept Formation and a Problem For Naturalism

I’m reading Haldane’s and Smart’s debate, ‘Atheism and Theism’, and Haldane makes an interesting point regarding what he takes to be a problem for a materialist/naturalistic metaphysic – that of our formation of abstract and universal concepts – such as square or triangularity. He gives a quick look at the two more traditional options – innatism, where concepts are just, as the name suggests, innate. We’re just born with them.The other option is abstraction – where, again as the name suggests, we abstract our concepts from our experience with objects. He notes problems for each: on innatism, how many concepts are we born with, and why that many? How did they get there? Are we born with the concept of both square and rectangle? Why or why not? On abstraction-ism, he cites Geach’s argument:

‘In the late 1950s Peter Geach produced a powerful argument against this latter thesis [abstraction-ism]. The suggestion that the concept square, say, is acquired by experiencing a variety of square objects and attending to their squarenss, while bracketing their other aspects, is absurd because in order to attend selectively to the squareness of square objects you must already have the concept square: attending to an instance of a feature F as such, is to exercise the concept f.’ (p. 102)

Haldane proceeds to give an answer along Wittgensteinian lines – basically, our concepts are neither innate nor abstracted but taught. The later Wittgenstein more or else held that our language and understanding (and one may reasonably assume concepts to fall under those two headings) are developed, taught and shaped by our actually participating in life and non-linguistic activities – against, say Augustine, Wittgenstein holds that the public is prior to the private in language. As we become part of a community, we learn and acquire language from the community – so our concepts aren’t innate, since we have to be participating in the life of the community, and they aren’t abstracted, since by the same token the concept wasn’t available until it was taught.

Haldane then ties Aquinas in thus:

‘In order for something like the Wittgensteinian explanation to work it has to be the case that the child has a prior disposition or potentiality to form concepts under appropriate influences; it also has to be the case that there is one that is itself already possessed of the concept. Alice will not pick up the meaning of the term ‘cat’ unless she has a relevant potentiality, unless the structure of her receptivity is of the right sort. By the same token, that potentiality will not be actualized except by an intellect that is already active in using the concept, her older brother James, for example…here I am forging a link with Wittgenstein’s linguistic communitarian account of the origins of thinking in the individual, and that suggests diving these aspects of the intellect, at least in the first instance, between the teacher and the taught. In these terms one may say that Alice’s intellect is receptive to, or potentially informed by, the concept cat, while the mind or intellect of James who has already mastered the use of the term is active with, or actually informed by this concept. In teaching Alice the word, James imparts the concept and thereby actualizes her potentiality. This picture grants something both to innatism and abstractionsim. One the one hand, in order to explain possession of concepts a native power has to be postulated; but on the other it is allowed that, in a sense, concepts are acquired through experience.’ (p. 103)

The dilemma that Haldane sees for naturalism can be roughly stated as follows: given that neither innatism or abstractionism provide an adequate account of our grasp and use of concepts, something like the Wittgensteinian picture must be the case so as to avoid the horns of the dilemma. But if the Wittgensteinian picture is the case, then we have a problem of infinite regress: if the explanation of Alice’s conceptual ability is explained by James’ ability, then James’ conceptual ability calls for an explanation, and then that explanation calls for an explanation, and so on and so on. While the Wittgensteinian picture escapes the innatism/abstractionism dilemma, it opens itself up to the charge of infinite regress unless it can be shown coherently how concept-formation may have arisen.

Haldane forsees a possible way out by arguing for a kind of ‘fading conceptuality’ history of language:

‘…no history of thought or language can be philosophically adequate if it tries to meet the genesis problem by postulating ‘fading conceptuality’. Though it is not put in there terms, or indeed very often discussed at all, something of this sort is presumably part of a naturalistic versiuon of Wittgenstein’s linguistic theory. On this account the history of concept-formation and use is the history of language; a history that leads us back to pre-lingustic activities, back further to pre-mental life, to pre-replicating life and ultimately to pre-animate matter…what needs to be accounted for is a natural transition from the non-conceptual to the conceptual and that is not the same distinction as one between degrees of conceptual complexity. Doubtless Stone Age cave dwellers made fewer and less abstract discriminations than a contemporary physicist, but that is irrelevant; the point is that the ability to make any general classifications is a conceptual power.’ (p. 106)

While this line of argument isn’t a bullet-proof argument against a naturalistic theory of concept-formation, there do seem to be some genuine difficulties here.

Aquinas on Necessity

‘It should be noted that there are two kinds of necessity, namely, absolute necessity and conditional necessity. That necessity is absolute which proceeds from prior causes in the order of generation, and these are the material and the efficient causes; for example the necessity of death which comes about from matter, namely from the disposition of contrary components–and it is called absolute because there is no impediment to it. This necessity is also called the necessity of matter. On the other hand, conditional necessity proceeds from causes which are posterior in generation, namely, from the form and the end; for example, we say that it is necessary that there be conception if a man is to be generated. And this necessity is also called conditional, because it is not absolutely necessary that this woman conceive but only under this condition, namely, if a man is to be generated. And this necessity is called the necessity of the end.’ (Thomas Aquinas, ‘On the Principles of Nature)

Reading Notes 2/22/15: How God Became Jesus and Aquinas

I picked up the response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book, ‘How Jesus Became God’, which is titled, ‘How God Became Jesus’. So far it’s a solid little volume – Simon Gathercole’s piece on what the earliest Christians thought of Jesus is so far the winner of the group, though I did enjoy Mike Bird’s expositions of the return-of-YHWH-to-Zion theme in the NT. What caught my eye with Gathercole was an interesting note on Psalm 110:1, which, to paraphrase Gathercole, shows that Jesus doesn’t simply climb over his enemies, as it were, to defeat them, but rather they are placed under his feet by God. That would be itneresting to flesh out further within the context of a Christus Victor atonement theory. All in all a handy little book on some key New Testament christological topics – early Christian worship, Jesus’ self-understanding, burial traditions, etc. It feels a bit rushed in places and it definitely could have been bigger, but, given the popular nature of Ehrman’s book, it makes sense that a poplar level response was put out. Enough references are made to more specialized studies, though, that should the reader want more it can be easily found. Also, despite its rush to press and some negative reviews floating about, this is not a knee-jerk conservative reply to a big bad nonchristian scholar. While a bit rushed feeling, as I said, this represents genuine engagement with a serious scholar raising good questions about the nature of early Christian devotion to and worship of Jesus

I also got a selection of readings of Aquinas, which is already proven very helpful. All the big topics are covered – the soul, being and essence, principles of nature, ethics, proofs of God – and it’s handy to have all this in one good-sized paperback for quick reference (I’m a big believer in references books, in case you didn’t know). Aquinas’ style is fairly easy to read though the subject matter can be a bit dense. His writing and argumentation definitely improves the older he gets though – his first works are pretty wham-bam, but by the time we get to the Summa, it’s a very patient, almost relaxed style.