God and the principle of contradiction (pt. 1)

I’ve been trying for a week to articulate a theological rule and I can’t get it right. Here’s something like what I want to claim:

You cannot say anything about God’s properties without some idea of why God exists at all.

The motivation for the claim is that one can read contemporary philosophers discuss Molinism, the Trinity, Open Theism, predestination, etc. without ever being able to detect a reason why they think God exists at all. The debates about God thus become parodies of what Russell said about mathematics: one never knows what he is speaking about, or whether what he is saying is true.

One objection to this is to say that one can say all sorts of things about God without knowing anything about God in particular. Contradictory properties, for example, can’t be said of any subject, and so we can have theological arguments about, say, divine simplicity just by noting various logical contradictions in the idea of simplicity. Now it’s true that contradictories cannot be both true of some subject, but it’s false to think that a consideration of the subject itself is not relevant to what will count as contradictory. The compatibility of contradictories or contraries depends on their mode of existence. Light drives out darkness in the space in a room, but light constitutes darkness in a definition, and both can be unified in one power (say, a light switch) whether that power be active (like my intention) or purely passive (the light bulb). If the definition of darkness were real, it would have light as essentially constitutive of its subsistent reality; and the active power to case both things just is a reality. But if we started from an idea of the existence of God, even a very basic notion would tell us he is a spirit, which gives us a good reason for thinking he is more to be understood though the sort of existence and idea has than the sort of existence a space in a room has. Again, even very basic notions of God see  him a power that causes the universe, and this also gives us reason to see all properties in the universe (even contradictory ones) as in him so far as they are beings to be caused. A power to actively cause contraries (like my ability to make the room light and dark) contains both contraries in itself in an uncontroversial and very intelligible way, but in a way that would be contradictory if we tried to have both contraries exist in one complete space. And so we cannot blithely assume that we can take some idea like divine simplicity, the Trinity, etc. and critique it by finding logical contradictions that we suppose would be true of any subject, whether God or a creature. What counts as a contradiction cannot be determined apart from some agreement about the subject one is speaking of. It is only because the default setting of our thought is to material substances in time and space that we can assume a broad agreement for what will count as contradictory, when in fact what will count as contradictory is not the same for material beings and for a supposed subsistent idea, or even for the active material and physical powers we find in present in space and time, which actually contain real contradictories (in first act, not in second).

And so arguments about God’s “properties” (I dislike the word, but Analytic philosophy has said it so long and loud that no other word fits anymore) are fallacious if there is no stipulation or agreement about why God exists at all. If the argument is from revelation, we still need to work from an idea of God that specifies what will count as a contradiction when we speak of him. If, for example, your revelation tells you that God is truth, life, wisdom, and other such things, this counts as at least prima facie evidence that a concrete being can be an abstract one, or that some abstract beings subsist. If you don’t want to accept this revelation prima facie, but critique it, say by critiquing the supposed logical coherence of the identity of a concrete and abstract being, you cannot turn to some supposed intuition of the universal repugnance of the concrete and non-concrete, since all this would amount to is a repugnance that would obtain if we assumed everything existed as some of the things that exist in the space-time continuum (physical active powers are not included). But this is itself a contradictory assumption. How can all beings exist as only a part of them do?


  1. Mark said,

    February 8, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Hello Dr. Chastek,

    I couldn’t find any contact info, so I’ll take a comment box (if you please) to say thank you and then ask a question about the post. I find reading your blog extremely enlightening and you’ve helped me clear up some questions I have been struggling with. I also have taken the liberty of posting some of your science related posts on my wall in the office for the benefit (maybe enlightenment!) of my agnostic/atheist physicist co-workers.

    Now for the post…

    You say: “Now it’s true that contradictories cannot be both true of some subject, but it’s false to think that a consideration of the subject itself is not relevant to what will count as contradictory.”

    But in speaking about God we *don’t* have a clear grasp of the subject. So how do we keep this process of adjusting what “counts” as contradictory from being arbitrary?

    Also, I don’t believe that the last assumption you mention is contradictory. In fact, for my atheist compadres, they would say they don’t have enough warrant to believe otherwise, even if asserting it as %100 invariably true would perhaps be unwarranted.

    • February 8, 2012 at 11:50 am

      But in speaking about God we *don’t* have a clear grasp of the subject. So how do we keep this process of adjusting what “counts” as contradictory from being arbitrary?

      The degree of clarity we have about any subject depends on how precisely we want to give an account of it. Take an idea like “a black hole”. The general idea of the thing has been known for centuries – it’s an object so heavy that its escape velocity exceeds the speed of light. How simple! And yet the more one develops this idea, the more bizarre the black hole seems, even to the point of seeming contradictory. The same is true of a straight line touching a curved one, like a line tangent to a circle. Taken generally, such a thing is obvious and even not worth mentioning. But when you start asking about the angle which such lines form, it seems so odd that it seems impossible. This happens all the time – many ideas of evident things, irrespective of where there evidence comes from, seem impossible if we try to develop our ideas of them to any great extent. The idea of God is the same way. Taken generally, everyone gets that God is “the highest/ greatest being” or “the one who made everything” or “a spirit who cares for the world, or the greatest such one”, but if we try to develop this idea using the methods that would be appropriate to developing it, we quickly hit on controversies. All this is normal stuff, and it would not cause any problem except that we demand that, when it comes to theology, everyone should form complete opinions all by himself apart from any authoritative consensus of those who are esteemed to know what they are talking about. This is rather like forcing everyone to form exact opinions about black holes or geometrical problems all by himself. In such a situation, there would be a good deal of nonsense flying about, and a good deal of people with terrible or half-baked ideas about physics and geometry mixed up with insightful truths. The whole debate would quickly collapse into two sides talking past each other, with each side suspecting the competence and motives of the other, as happens even now when people dispute about, say, climate change.

      I mention all this since what counts as a clear grasp of something is in great part determined by a community of reasoners as opposed to being something purely given by the subject we are treating of. Reason is in great part social, and this goes a long way to determining what some group of reasoners calls “clear” and what they call “unclear”.

      But am I just preaching relativism here? Is this a claim that, at the end of the day, all one can say is that God is clear to some and unclear to others? I don’t think so. What we’re saying here is that the idea of the clarity of God, taken of itself, is much more open than it looks, and any attempt to restrict it or render it unclear by some snappy criterion is doomed. Truth is whatever the mind wants. To try to restrict this to the empirically verifiable or to what is given by physics is, in fact, the arbitrary redefinition of truth into something that is either false or vacuous. One can’t observe ideal gasses, space without gravitational fields (a la special relativity), point-test particles, black bodies, and many other physical objects (that is, things that a physicist must know in order to do physics). For that matter, we’ll never be able to do experiments about much of what is known about black holes. What can count as true depends on the insight and argument we have for it in in a particular case, and this cannot be restricted a priori to one class of possible beings. There is no magic bullet, just a gradual refinement of arguments and the slow attempts to make the reasoning community more open to the truths that we discern, that is, to the things which we can experience within ourselves as delighting intellect.

      I don’t believe that the last assumption you mention is contradictory.

      It’s a strightforward contradiction. The whole is greater than its part, and that last sentence articulates a claim that the part is equal to the whole.

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