Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dialectical Theology

In The Will to Believe (1897), William James, marshalling arguments for the defensibility of theistic belief, writes (p. 61):

God himself may draw vital strength and increase of very being  from our fidelity.

We may christen this  the Tinkerbell Theory of the nature of God.
[Note:  Not making fun of James’ idea,  just naming it.]

For:  Recall when Tinkerbell, having herself imbibed the poison potion, that Peter might be spared, was fading fast;  and Peter Pan, stepping boldly outside the frame of footlit fiction, turns to address the audience, bidding all who “believe in fairies” to demonstrate their faith by some sign, such as clapping or shouting or tossing five-dollar bills onto the stage.   The audience complies, and the sprite recovers -- at least, that was the drill in 1956, the year I saw the play on Broadway (with Mary Martin in the title role).   Who knows what kids today would do, their minds rotted by brutish masscult -- probably drown the little cross-dressing actress out with vuvuzelas.

The thought, thus limited, is plausible, on the analogy of the inner strength which parents gain while laboring to nurture their babies.  But the parents are fully present before the baby arrives.  Quite otherwise is a variant whereby the creatures themselves somehow bring the Creator -- or the invisibilia -- into being.  We might call this the “…chicken begat the egg begat the chicken begat the egg begat…” Hypothesis (again, just to give it a name).
Thus, we recur to Michael Dummett, “Truth” (1959), repr. in Truth and other enigmas (1978), who (as we saw earlier) wrote, on p. 18: “Intuitionists speak of mathematics in a highly anti-realist (anti-platonist) way:  for them it is we who construct mathematics; it is not already there”, and contrasted this with the full-bore Realist “Fregean notion of a mathematical reality waiting to be discovered”:  Intermediate between these opposing views, Dummett offers a compromise (to my mind, incoherent):

If we think that mathematical results are in some sense imposed on us from without, we could have instead the picture of a mathematical reality  not already in existence, but as it were  coming into being as we probe.  Our investigations bring into existence  what was not there before, but what they bring into existence  is not of our own making.

Here is another spin on this surprising idea:   John McDowell, in Evans & McDowell, eds., Truth and Meaning (1976), p. 48:

The alternative conception of sense would require a novel, anti-realist conception of the world:  if truth is not independent of our discovering it, we must picture the world  either as our own creation, or, at least, as springing up in response to our investigations.

And indeed, one of our own readers -- not a professional philosopher by any means -- recently commented:

God and Man are both Necessary and Contingent. The existence of one depends upon the other. The mind of man evolved to recognize and name God, therefore, God's existence is contingent upon man. God is also necessary because, logically, if Man, and the Mind of Man exist, then so too must God exist. And vice-versa. Man, or rather the mind of man, is necessary to recognize God and therefore bring God into existence.

The only thing I can make of these various related statements, is that they are conflating the notions of Reality or (Existence) and Reality(Existence)-for-us, a move to which I took exception here.


            This general style of thinking would seem to cohere with the contemporary complexus of attitudes which we may group under the rubric of “Gaia”.  These appear in many different forms.  Thus from Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), p. 297, commenting on the views of Wilfrid Sellars, Jay Rosenberg, and C.S. Peirce:

Sellars wants to substitute a way of looking at human inquiry which views “fated to be agreed upon” as a description of a causal process which leads to the creation of self-representings by the universe.  Thus we find Rosenberg echoing the later Peirce’s idealistic metaphysics of evolutionary love:
We must come to see the physical universe as an integrated physical system which necessarily “grows knowers” and which thereby comes to mirror itself within itself.

If you prefer that to simple Realism, fine.  “Fated to be agreed upon” sounds like an awfully roundabout way to avoid uttering the forbidden word true, but hey, de gustibus.


Note:  That mealy-mouthed “fated to be agreed upon” crap  is isomorphic to the celebrated formula of John Stuart Mill, to the effect that actual objects (like a cat) are “permanent possibilities of sensation”.  This was intended to avoid the agnostic absurdity of “it’s all just colour-patches and raw feels”, while skirting the forbidden Realism. -- To which I reply:  That’s the cat.  It’s on the mat.  Deal with it.

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