Is Divine Simplicity compatible with other Doctrines?

Introductory Warning: please note that when theologians call God "simple" that's a technical term.  It doesn't mean he is easy to understand.  It means that he is not composed of any parts of any kind.  (Depending on who you talk to, this could also mean stronger statements which are believed to follow from that, e.g. that all of God's attributes are really different ways of talking about the exact some thing, and that they only appear different to us from our limited earthly perspective.)

A certain St. Matthew J. Thériault, whom I met at Ratio Christi, sent me the following questions about whether divine simplicity is compatible with other Christian doctrines such as God's Omniscience, the Trinity, and the Incarnation:

Attached [click on this for a word file---AW] is the abstract to a presentation I intend to deliver at Ratio regarding the doctrine of Divine Simplicity. Regarding the Trinitarian objection there's no relation to physics, and you already personally addressed the Incarnation objection when you last visited Ratio (though I'd be interested if you've given any more thought to the matter of the simultaneity of the ascended Christ and the Church on earth). However, I imagine you'd be able to offer immense insight regarding my objection to Omniscience, which is partially informed by a short article linked within. Thank you in advance for any feedback you might be able to offer.

My reply email spiraled out of control, and having gotten permission to share it on my blog, I will now do so:

Dear Matthew,

Although as you say the simplicity of God is easier supported by philosophical than by scriptural arguments, nevertheless there is a little bit of Scriptural support for the doctrine of simplicity.  Traditionally, the doctrine was held to be taught in the Shema: "Hear O Israel, YHWH your God is one YHWH" (Deut 6:4).  Jews interpreted this to mean not just that there are no other gods, but also that this God has some kind of absolute unity of being.  Traditional Christianity, rather than deny this interpretation to make room for the Trinity, has tended to affirm it and then to assert that the Trinity does not contradict it, because the sense in which God is three is different from the sense in which God is one (the persons of the Trinity are not parts, or additional deities).

One could also gather some indirect support for divine simplicity from the tendency of Scripture to sometimes refer to God as "I am [attribute]" or "God is [attribute]".  Also, obviously a lot of the philosophical arguments depend on God's self-existence which is taught more explicitly by "I am who I am" in Ex 3, John 8, among other passages.

Nevertheless, I think one needs to proceed cautiously.  While it would be heretical and unreasonable to say that God is actually divided into parts, it seems to me that some theologians have subscribed to extensions of the doctrine of simplicity which go beyond what can necessarily be deduced from it.  As you know the very strongest formulations of divine simplicity can lead to a number of philosophical paradoxes which are difficult to resolve.

We must always remember that (whether we are talking about Natural Theology or Scripture), "for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known", and also that "no man shall see my face and live".  Mortal human beings are not capable of seeing the divine nature directly, but only deducing its existence through either revelation or more remote lines.  God may be known to exist from philosophy but he is also the Invisible and Incomprehensible Glory, the numinous Sanctus, that haunts all our experiences but can never quite be contained in any of them.

Therefore we should not be surprised if different attributes of God seem to be in some degree of tension with each other, in fact it would be more surprising if we could fully understand how all of the various attributes can be consistently combined.  Christianity has never shied away from paradox, as can be seen from the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  A paradox is not a logical contradiction per se, it is only a sign that our own understanding is limited, yet we can make progress by approaching the same thing from two or more viewpoints which appear to give conflicting information (just like our two eyes, by seeing slightly differing data, can produce a 3d stereographic perspective).

As St. Lewis said about a different theological quandary: "Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never really was any problem."

What I have just said about paradox is really my primary answer to all of your questions.  It would be grossly misleading if I gave the impression that I could 'resolve' paradoxes in the divine nature in the sense of providing a clear logical schema in which the nature of divinity could be fully grasped with the mind; any such scheme would necessarily be misleading and even impious.  But nevertheless, as a secondary matter, I think I can say some specific things to resolve some of the specific difficulties you list:

A. Omniscience.  This is only an issue if you assume that God's knowledge is, like ours, representational, that is, that it proceeds by means of making something like an image or duplicate of the object known, in some other physical system (in our case, the brain).  That viewpoint seems excessively anthropomorphic, and I have already argued against it here:

Fundamental Reality VII: Does God Need a Brain?

To put it into bite sized arguments, God's knowledge cannot be representational because:

1. The Redundancy Objection: If God is omniscient then his thoughts about the universe would necessarily be an exact copy of the universe not differing in any details.  But that is silly because if two things are identical in every respect, they may as well be identified.  Furthermore it would imply that God's knowledge is limited to the form of the thing (the structural attributes which are the same between the image and the reality) rather than the essence of the thing (which would not be shared between the universe and the image in its mind).  But that would be a limitation on God's intellect.  So instead we must assert that there is no division between God's knowledge of a thing, and the thing itself.

2. Infinite Regress Objection: Even human knowledge is not purely representational, because that would threaten an infinite regress.  For example, suppose we look at a lamp and form a mental image of the lamp somewhere in our mind/brain.  We are then aware of the lamp outside ourselves by means of the lamp inside.  But how is it then that we know the lamp inside?  By means of a second image of the lamp inside of us?  That would threaten an infinite regress.  Instead we must somehow have the power to directly perceive, without any intermediary representations, some things that reside in our own brains.  But God would have the power to directly perceive anything, without any limitations.

3. And of course because it contradicts Simplicity, as you point out.  But that just means we have the wrong model of how God's knowledge should work.

I think the article you link to ["Information Storage and the Omniscience of God", by Hollis R. Johnson & David H. Bailey] is completely off-base when it proposes that God's knowledge must be understood as if God were a giant computer.  They should have realized that it was this ridiculous idea of their own which they were refuting, and not anything in the Bible or theology as traditionally understood.  They say that:

"Some defenders of the traditional doctrine of God’s omniscience may respond to this argument by simply declaring that God is omnipotent and thus omniscient, in the sense of residing and operating completely outside the confines of the Universe and the natural laws that govern our Universe. In short, they may assert omnipotence and omniscience by fiat: God can store knowledge, even an infinite amount of knowledge, without any plausible physical storage mechanism or medium. This is because God’s ways are not ours, and our finite mortal minds cannot possibly hope to comprehend the means employed by this supreme Being. Against such reasoning there is no counter argument."

The reason there is no counterargument against this position is that it is obviously correct.  The idea that God is outside the confines of the physical universe and therefore does not store his knowledge on some physical medium such as a film reel, is not some arbitrary stipulation made to avoid falsifying Theism.  It is part of the definition of Classical Theism that God is outside the universe, for goodness sakes.  To explain God's knowledge by means of ordinary causal mechanisms, far from being a "scientifically tenable theology" would simply be the denial of classical theology, which holds that God as creator is not subject to the limitations and natural laws which govern creation.  If we found the giant film reel it would refute, not confirm, Classical Theism.  One may as well say that any theism compatible with modern biology would need an evolutionary explanation of why God the Father has a beard!

[Not in my original email: I looked it up, and the authors are actually Mormons.  That explains a lot.  Mormons are polytheists who believe that God the Father is merely an exalted human being, one of many deities who worked his way up in some sort of cosmic pyramid scheme, and that he has a physical body.  So according to them God isn't omniscient and probably does have a literal beard, and a brain with finite information storage capacity.  This is, of course, completely different from the classical Jewish-Christian-Islamic concept of God as the absolutely powerful and wise being who is the source of all existence.   Such a being, if he happened to exist, would not be a God at all in the traditional Classical Theist sense.  Why should I worship a being simply because he happens to be a finite amount more powerful, wiser, or moral than I am?  There are already human beings who are better than I am, that doesn't mean they are worthy of my worship!]

B. Trinity.  Here I think I need to quibble with some of your language.

While it is true that the Second and Third Persons in some way originate from the First, I do not think it is orthodox to say that only the Father is the First Cause, apart from the other two persons.  That would seem to gloss over the crucial distinction between "making" and "begetting".  The Father is not a separate metaphysical entity from the Son and the Spirit, indeed the Father has no separate existence apart from his act of begetting the Son and breathing forth the Spirit, since these acts were by metaphysical necessity; it could not have been otherwise.  (This does not mean it was involuntary, for God is spirit and his acts are therefore by will and love, not physical compulsion.)  The persons are so united that you can't have any of them without having the other two as well.  For this reason, I would say that the Triune God taken as a whole is the First Cause, rather than the Father alone.

John 5:26 says that "For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself", that is even though it is a gift, the nature of the gift is that the Son has life intrinsically, according to his identical divine nature, rather than derivatively and externally through grace.  Otherwise Christ could not say, in the divine sense, "I am", but rather should have said "I was made to be".

As you recognize the persons of the Trinity are not parts (since they are indivisible), but they are real distinctions in the divine nature.  It therefore seems inevitable that the analysis of the "relations" which define the persons (things like Paternal, Begotten, and Proceeding) must necessarily differ from the divine "attributes" such as power, wisdom, or love which are common to all persons because they belong to the single divine nature.  To that extent I agree with you.

But if this admission seems to contradict some specific analytic formulation of "Property Simplicity", why not simply acknowledge an accidental misstep, coming from an over-strong formulation of Simplicity, and retreat to a slightly weaker version of the doctrine?  For example, one might tentatively say that if God is One, then any of his properties must either be identical to himself OR ELSE to one of the persons, and then say that the latter possibility does not contradict simplicity because each person of the Trinity contains the other two within by "perichoresis".

You say that "Begotten" is "unidentifiable with and alien to" the First Person, but this seems to be stating it too strongly, since even though the Father is not Begotten he does have the reciprocal property of "Begetting", which is the exact same thing viewed from the other side.  The one implies the other.  Apparently God can have real distinctions within himself, but only involving relational terms, of the kind we are discussing.

Thus, since the doctrine of the Trinity is clearer in Scripture than the doctrine of Simplicity, we should adjust the latter to make room for the former, but without of course abandoning the doctrine of Simplicity altogether!  Implicit in this is the idea I sketched in my introduction, that God is mysterious, and that the philosophical "proofs" of his attributes, while perhaps compelling, do not amount to strict logical implications.  And therefore that there is room for "adjustments" in our very provisional understandings when we run into trouble!

C. Incarnation.  As you note, I was asked about this during the Ratio Christi meeting, but for clarity I'll repeat myself a little.  According to the Chalcedonian understanding, the Incarnation involves the union of a complete divine nature with a complete human nature into a single person, Christ.  Properties like Simplicity would apply only to the divine nature, and therefore it would not contradict Simplicity to note that Christ's physical body had parts and could change etc.

After the Resurrection and Ascension, Christ continues to have a human nature, but now his body and soul are glorified, possessing additional abilities and attributes.  This glorified Resurrection body transcends our current earthly state (although we too will be glorified when our bodies are raised from the dead.)  I would love to know more about this but our data from the Gospels and Acts is limited.  What we do know is that Christ's body was capable of being recognized (though not always immediately) and touched, that he could speak and eat, and that he was capable of teleporting instantaneously.  After which he ascended into "heaven" (i.e. somewhere else outside of spacetime as we know it, in which God's will is more fully done as in the Lord's Prayer, as in the angelic world), which he conceptualized as a return to the Father from whom he came, triggering the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

Obviously this cannot be understood in an excessively anthropomorphic way.  While Christ has a body by virtue of the Incarnation, God the Father does not, and therefore "sitting at the right hand of the Father" cannot be taken literally, to mean the proximity of two physical bodies at a common time.  Instead it is an Aramaic way of saying that Christ is placed in a position of full welcome and authority, that a formerly crucified and rejected man is now being given the governance of all Creation, with rebel angels and authorities now fully subject to him.  (Try searching the Psalms for "right hand".)  Christ's body continues to have an objective and real existence---and our earthly imaginations cannot conceptualize this except by imagining him residing in something like a "place"---but the nature of that "place" is not one that we can understand, until we ourselves follow him there (John 14:2-3).  There is no reason to think that the visible universe as we know it is anything other than a small portion of God's creation:

"There may be Natures piled upon Natures, each supernatural to the one beneath it, before we come to the abyss of pure spirit; and to be in that abyss, at the right hand of the Father, may not mean being absent from any of these Natures – may mean a yet more dynamic presence on all levels."--St. Lewis, "Miracles" (essay in God in the Dock).

How "time" works in this "place" is not something which I think we are in a good position to know.  I agree that Einstein's theories suggest that time is a feature of our own material universe, so that a completely disconnected universe would probably have a different timestream, if any.  However, if there are interactions between two such universes, then there would presumably still be causal relations between them, and hence (I suppose), some partial notion of prior/posterior events.

This agnosticism about the details might seem a little depressing, but I am afraid it may be the best we can do right now, fun as it may be to speculate on the details of the "control room" from which Christ currently reigns!

I am not sure why you think that there needs to be any "simultaneity" between Christ's body in heaven and the "physical universe in between his Ascension and Return", any more than there needs to be simultaneity between the eternal God and us, in order for God to answer our prayers.  Christ is present in the Church in a number of ways; as the Head who gives the Body life, through the presence of the Spirit, sacramentally in the Eucharist, and so on; but none of these ways seem to involve or require any one-to-one map between individual moments of Christ's existence in heaven and our individual existence on earth.  Even Christ's everlasting intercession for us comes not through continual labor, "offer[ing] sacrifices day after day", but rather by presenting his wounds to the Father once for all, as an eternal atonement for the sins of the whole world: past, present, and future.  We may be sure that he knows and cares for all of our needs, which suffices for practical spirituality, without getting into the mechanics of exactly how his glorified human nature shares in the universal knowledge of his divine nature.  Psalm 131.

All right; this has become quite a treatise.  Hope it helps!

Blessings,
Aron

PS Do you mind if I post this exchange on my blog?  This could involve as much or little of your identifying information and words as you wanted.

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford.
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33 Responses to Is Divine Simplicity compatible with other Doctrines?

  1. Mactoul says:

    "God's knowledge must be understood as if God were a giant computer. "
    Can even a man's knowledge be understood as if man was a giant computer?

    I think Mormonism does not entirely explain the authors' confusion. There is a separate confusion that identifies thought with what happens in a computer and how we remember things with how computer organizes its memory. Hence, I disagree with your conclusion that
    " To explain God's knowledge by means of ordinary causal mechanisms, far from being a "scientifically tenable theology" would simply be the denial of classical theology,"
    For, even human knowledge, nay even animal knowledge can not be explained by means of "ordinary causal explanations".

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    You say you are disagreeing with my conclusion, but what you are saying doesn't actually seem to contradict my quoted words. I would, however, deny any theology in which God knows things in the same manner as we do, but simply with fewer limitations. That would seem to blur the all-important distinction between the Blessed Creator, and any mere finite created being (however exalted).

    Also, I think I said something a little similar, in Argument #2 against God's knowledge being representational...

  3. Mactoul says:

    I failed to make myself clear. My point was Johnson and Bailey err in assuming that a mind stores memories in a way analogous to a computer. But this is most likely false and in any case, unproven and unfounded. We simply do not know how memory works. Whether it is finite or not.

    Thus, the error Johnson and Bailey make is not related to the Mormon theology but in their naive equation of minds to computer.
    They assume that minds work the way computers do. But this is false and is false for human minds, never mind the divine mind.

  4. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    Reading back to your post "Does God need a brain", I see that you are committed to a view similar to Johnson and Bailey and that is probably why you trace their error to their theology rather than to their view of mind as computer.
    "Because we have brains, our knowledge is necessarily limited (because there's a limit to the information capacity and reliability of a finite piece of matter) and also indirect (because we experience things in the outside world by representing them as particular patterns of firing neurons)"

    1) Is our knowledge necessarily limited? Are these limits known? And known without the model of brain/mind as computer.
    Perhaps our knowledge is like infinity of natural numbers. An infinity though smaller than the divine infinity.
    2) Re: particular patterns of firing neurons, I notice that you hedge it quite a bit when you say "Even human knowledge is not purely representational".
    In effect, human knowledge is not representational at all. We lack knowledge as to what patterns of firing neurons mean or do.

  5. staircaseghost says:

    "This is only an issue if you assume that God's knowledge is, like ours, representational, that is, that it proceeds by means of making something like an image or duplicate of the object known, in some other physical system (in our case, the brain)."

    So, my knowing that it's hot in Saudi Arabia in the summer means there's always some little part of my brain that's always over 120 degrees? Does my knowledge that cats reproduce sexually mean that my knowledge that my cat's parents did the deed consists in two tiny kitties in my head doing the deed? I don't think that can possibly be right, even as a loose metaphor of how belief in general works.

    The one thing Co-Respondence theory has going for it is that a minimum necessary (but not sufficient) condition for system to have some true descriptive belief B is that there must be a way to extract information from that system that co-responds to the information out in the world referenced by the semantic content of B. So if I know the acceleration produced by earth's gravity, you can pump me for information about the position of dropped balls at various times (even ones that have not yet been dropped); if I know 'chat' is French for 'cat' I have information about what mouth-flapping noises Parisians will reply with when asked if they own any pets etc.

    Note that this observation is substrate-neutral; it in no way assumes physicalism. If Slimer's ectoplasmic mind has true beliefs about faerie dust, or if St. Anthony has true beliefs about who is and is not calling on his name to help find their lost car keys, the same relation holds.

    Even though there may be practical barriers in many cases, we have a pretty good handle on the general principles around questions like whether a floppy or a flash drive can hold more information. And one thing we can say with confidence is, ceteris paribus, if I have n beliefs and you have those same n beliefs plus one unrelated belief, your belief system takes longer to describe and is therefore less simple than mine. A fortiori, if you have infinitely more beliefs than me, you are infinitely more complex than me. One thing you are not, then, is "simple".

    And if you feel tempted to say that God only believes in an analogical or metaphorical sense, or that you're referring to simplicity only with the idiosyncratic, arcane definition of the term, or that it's naive and unsophisticated to talk about God as any kind of system since he's not a being among beings, but is the ground of Being Itself... then I submit all parties involved should be consistent in our notation to indicate that we are only using our words in a "scare quotes" sense or in a "fingers crossed behind our back" sense.

    In which case, this post doesn't argue that divine simplicity is compatible with the existence of an all-knowing God, not really. It's arguing that divine "simplicity" is compatible with the "existence" of an all-"knowing" God.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    I agree with you that the mind is not like a computer in every respect, but that does not mean that it is not like a computer in any respects. It certainly seems, so far as we can tell from neurology and psychology, that the mind does not have access to memories unless those memories are laid down in the brain by a process organized by the hippocampus. Thinking about the brain as a physical processing device doesn't explain the hard problem of consciousness, but that doesn't mean we can't explain a lot of other things that way.

    However, even if we imagine some angelic being that was capable of storing a transfinite amount of infomration, the important point is that it would still be circumscribed and limited by its created nature. In that respect it would be similar to a finite being, and disimilar to the unlimited "divine infinity".

    staircaseghost,

    So, my knowing that it's hot in Saudi Arabia in the summer means there's always some little part of my brain that's always over 120 degrees? Does my knowledge that cats reproduce sexually mean that my knowledge that my cat's parents did the deed consists in two tiny kitties in my head doing the deed? I don't think that can possibly be right, even as a loose metaphor of how belief in general works.

    Obviously not. But representationalism doesn't assert that my idea of an X is exactly like the X is every respect. Only that there are certain features which are similar between the two. So my idea of Saudi Arabia doesn't need to be actually hot, it just needs to be wired somehow to the part of my brain that can image temperature. (Indeed, the whole reason we need to postulate these representations is that in many respects our ideas are quite dissimilar to the things they are representations of. They just have certain formal similarities.)

    The one thing Co-Respondence theory has going for it is that a minimum necessary (but not sufficient) condition for system to have some true descriptive belief B is that there must be a way to extract information from that system that co-responds to the information out in the world referenced by the semantic content of B.

    When you talk about "extracting" information are you presupposing that the entity in question is one that is subject to human control, and that one can do experiments on it? Even in the case of another human being this is a somewhat dubious assumption, I doubt that all of my beliefs can be "extracted" externally by any practical means.

    And one thing we can say with confidence is, ceteris paribus, if I have n beliefs and you have those same n beliefs plus one unrelated belief, your belief system takes longer to describe and is therefore less simple than mine. A fortiori, if you have infinitely more beliefs than me, you are infinitely more complex than me. One thing you are not, then, is "simple".

    You're confusing metaphysical simplicity (not being composed of parts) with algorithmic simplicity (how long does it take to describe the thing.) The two have very little to do with each other, it's just a question of words acquiring new meanings with time. (The former is a yes/no question, the latter is a matter of degree; the former is about the structure of an object, the latter is about an external description of the object.)

    Anyway, even if we think about algorithmic simplicity, in a certain sense all of God's beliefs can be described by a very simple rule: Everything that is true, and nothing that is false. That's pretty simple.

    (Of course the precise details of contingent reality, i.e. which particular propositions are true, may have a lot of complexity, but asserting that God knows them all adds no additional complexity. Since you had to specify those details in any case, and they aren't independent of each other.)

    And if you feel tempted to say that God only believes in an analogical or metaphorical sense, or that you're referring to simplicity only with the idiosyncratic, arcane definition of the term, or that it's naive and unsophisticated to talk about God as any kind of system since he's not a being among beings, but is the ground of Being Itself... then I submit all parties involved should be consistent in our notation to indicate that we are only using our words in a "scare quotes" sense or in a "fingers crossed behind our back" sense.

    I'm sorry that you seem to have an objection to technical terminology. I shudder to think how many scare quotes you'd insist on if I started explaining the nature of e.g. "spin" or "states" "in" "quantum" "mechanics". It's just a fact that the only way human beings can think about abstract subjects is by using various concrete metaphors and analogies to do so. Theology is not an exception to this universal rule.

    The whole point of analogy is that two things really can be objectively similar, even when they are in other respects quite different.

  7. staircaseghost says:

    "They just have certain formal similarities."

    No one has a detailed, positive account of how mental representation is instantiated. But I submit that my points about information (see what I did there) extraction capture our intuitions about what kinds of formal similarities those would have to be. (And by extraction I just mean in principle; if there is no way -- verbal report, brain scan, body language, something -- to extract information from you about how hot it is today in the way I can extract this information from looking at a thermometer or walking outside or listening to the weather report, then I submit there is no sense in which you can be said to "know" anything about the temperature.)

    But that's moot, since your new "certain formal similarities" verbiage is sufficiently far from the original "exact copy not differing in any details" claim I originally objected to that the Redundancy Objection no longer goes through.

    "I'm sorry that you seem to have an objection to technical terminology."

    Apologies, but I find that glib. The technical distinctions between things like e.g. heat and temperature, or force and momentum, are science's hard-won revisions of folk concepts. There are empirically-driven pathways from these things leading back to the primitive, pre-theoretical concepts defined by ostention.

    If I travel at a constant speed of 100mph in a circle, the man on the street is technically wrong to say my average velocity is 100 instead of zero, but physicists aren't going to jump down his throat for making that mistake.

    In contrast, technical vocabulary like "spin" and "charge" bear no coherent reference to those folk concepts, and don't even pretend to. They are more or less arbitrary verbal tokens.

    Sophisticated Theists love to snort and sneer and sniggle when dumb ignorant ignorant unsophisticated ignorant Dawkins makes his Ultimate 747 Argument. Doesn't he know that we have always believed God is "simple"?

    The apologist has a choice here. Either defend words like "knowing" and "simplicity" as genuine theoretical analyses of the folk concepts (in which case, you have to grapple with my concerns above about KC-simplicity being obviously fatal to the theological claim), or admit that they are arbitrary sonic stamps (in which case, you lose the ability to criticize Dawkins's "ignorance", and more crucially, the ability to claim to be talking about anything anyone would recognize as the sea-parting, Sodomite-smiting character from scripture.)

  8. staircaseghost says:

    This got cut off from the end of my CTRL-C, but:

    "Anyway, even if we think about alogorithmic simplicity, in a certain sense all of God's beliefs can be described by a very simple rule: Everything that is true, and nothing that is false. That's pretty simple. "

    Relatedly, the next time you need to upgrade the OS on your phone but don't have a gig of free space available, I'll send you a text message that reads "Everything that is part of iOS 9.3.3, and nothing that is not". Should do wonders for your data plan...

  9. Scott Church says:

    Staircaseghost,

    "The apologist has a choice here. Either defend words like 'knowing' and 'simplicity'" as genuine theoretical analyses of the folk concepts... or admit that they are arbitrary sonic stamps (in which case, you lose the ability to criticize Dawkins's "ignorance"..."

    The doctrines of divine simplicity and omniscience are genuine theoretical analyses and have been defended at length (Braine, 1988; Davies, 1992; Taliaferro & Meister, 2010; Feser, 2009b; 2010). Both were rigorously worked out centuries ago by "apologists" like St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, and many thinkers, all of whom began with axioms based on direct observation of the universe (Feser, 2009; 2014). Referring to them as "folk concepts" is a dead giveaway that one hasn't properly researched the subject (unless "research" includes New Atheist chat rooms and agitprop bestsellers).

    "No one has a detailed, positive account of how mental representation is instantiated..."

    "Mental" has nothing to do with it. You're presuming that God has a mind in the same sense that Cartesian minds or embodied creatures like us do--one that somehow stores, or contains "representative" information. This is completely wrong-headed. As Aron said, you are in fact confusing metaphysical simplicity and knowledge with algorithmic counterparts. In classical theism, God's knowledge is a consequence of His omnipresence--that is, a matter of His intimate presence with all that is in an eternal, timeless sense. It is analogous to our knowledge, but not identical to it (Feser, 2012; 2014, 2014b). And BTW, each of those terms has a formal definition that has been worked out at length, including analogy, which was developed at length by Aquinas among others. They're anything but "arbitrary sonic stamps."

    "The technical distinctions between things like e.g. heat and temperature, or force and momentum, are science's hard-won revisions of folk concepts. There are empirically-driven pathways from these things leading back to the primitive, pre-theoretical concepts defined by ostention [sic]."

    As already noted, so are the many technical distinctions of classical theology and Scholastic philosophy that lead to the doctrines of divine simplicity and knowledge. Furthermore, those distinctions had been fully explicated several centuries before the ones you listed were.

    As for Dawkins and his Ultimate 747 Argument, he and other New Atheists have been called ignorant because they're not only illiterate in these matters, but from all appearances, deliberately so. And it isn't just theists who are taking him to task for that either--he and other's of his ilk are being called out by atheist scholars as well (Ruse, 2009; Gray, 2014; Lowder, 2015). Virtually every statement Dawkins makes regarding Christian theology in The God Delusion is not only incorrect, but any reasonable attempt at due diligence should've been enough to correct the errors and clearly he made none. He's also the only person I'm aware of who's actually gullible enough to cite a gossip parody site as a serious source.

    I appreciate the concerns you've raised, and I do agree they should be addressed. But if you want to make a proper argument, your time would be better spent learning more about classical theism instead of trying to poison the well against it with condescending aspersions about "folk concepts" and "sonic stamps."

    REFERENCES

    Braine, D. (1988). The reality of time and the existence of God: the project of proving God's existence. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

    Davies, B. (1992). The Thought of Thomas Aquinas. Clarendon Press. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

    Feser, E. (2009). Aquinas: a beginner's guide. Oneworld Publications. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

    Feser, E. (2009b). William Lane Craig on divine simplicity. Edwardfesser at BlogSpot. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

    Feser, E. (2010). Davies on divine simplicity and freedom. Edwardfesser at BlogSpot. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

    Feser, E. (2012). Kripke, Ross, and the Immaterial Aspects of Thought. American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 87(1), 1-32.

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    Lowder, J. (2015). An Example of Why Atheists Need to do Effective Counter-Apologetics and an Example of How Not to Do That. Patheos. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

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    Taliaferro, C., & Meister, C. (2010). The Cambridge companion to Christian philosophical theology. Cambridge University Press. Available online <here. Accessed Aug, 2, 2016.

  10. Aron Wall says:

    In contrast, technical vocabulary like "spin" and "charge" bear no coherent reference to those folk concepts, and don't even pretend to. They are more or less arbitrary verbal tokens.

    Too tired to respond to the theology right now, but please allow me to correct your physics.

    As it happens, "spin" literally is angular momentum, even if it has counterintutive properties such as being quantized. If a macroscopic object absorbed enough photons with the same "spin", it would actually literally begin to rotate in that direction. So there is a coherent relationship between it and the folk concept of spinning. I'm not sure what you think the "folk" definition of "charge" is, but if you mean things like hair standing up on end and electric shocks, these literally are caused by the presence or absence of charged electrons.

    On the other hand, "flavor" has nothing to do with taste buds and quark "colors" have only the most superficial analogy with paint hues (in that combining all three colors makes something neutral). So there are cute terms in physics which are merely verbal tokens, but you can't tell from the cuteness of the term alone whether it falls into that category!

  11. Scott Church says:

    Aron,

    Regarding spin and charge you are of course, right. But it doesn't matter... even if you weren't, the fundamental problems with Staircaseghost's argument would remain. In essence, what we have here is the standard bread-and-butter Atheist argument;

    1) Declare Atheism synonymous with science. [ Thus making a meta-physic of science. ]

    2) Declare Religion synonymous with ancient folk mythology. [ False Dichotomy. ]

    3) Studiously avoid any due diligence that could potentially support or refute either of the above assertions. [ Obscurantism. ]

    4) Dismiss Religion as "folk" superstition, and by association religious believers as well. [ Poisoning the well, ad hominem. ]

    5) [Extra Credit] - Rattle off a long list of religious follies and evils like the Crusades, the Inquisition, belief in fairies, and the like, while studiously avoiding any atheistic counterparts (e.g. - Stalin, Pol Pot, the so-called "Christ Myth", etc.). [ Cherry picking, ad hominem. ]

    And there you have it... no less than six basic logical fallacies in a single chain of reasoning purporting to be a defense of "science." As long as one clings to this entire M.O., any attempt to address the specific failures therein will only bounce the rubble at Ground Zero. :-)

  12. Aron Wall says:

    To reply to myself, I suppose it may seem like a wild contradiction that I first argued that our concepts of spin involve metaphors and then later said it is literally angular momentum. But really my point is that it is meaningfully analogous to macroscopic angular momentum which involves actual rotating bodies. Just because something involves an enormous modification of a folk concept doesn't mean that it has no bearing on the original concept, it may be, like "spin", the natural extension and refinement of the folk concept to a new domain. All of the caveats about how it differs from our naive expectations don't mean it is just a silly label that has nothing to do with rotation, as for example by contrast "flavor" is just a silly name for kinds of quarks that has nothing to do with tasty snacks. That was my point.

  13. Mactoul says:

    Aron,

    My point that how our minds remember things (minds, not brains) is not understood at all is supported by link that you had provided.

    "The process begins with the creation of a memory trace or engram in response to the external stimuli. An engram is a hypothetical biophysical or biochemical change in the neurons of the brain, hypothetical in the respect that no-one has ever actually seen, or even proved the existence of, such a construct."

  14. Johannes says:

    Speaking as a Catholic, when discussing whether the Father or the Trinity should be regarded as First Cause, it is necessary to specify whether we are talking ad-intra the Godhead, i.e. about the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit, or ad-extra, i.e. about the creation of the universe.

    Ad-intra, according to the decree of Session 6 of the Ecumenical (for Catholics) Council of Florence:

    - the Father (alone) is "the source and principle of all deity, that is of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,"

    - the Father together with the Son are, according to the Greeks one cause, and according to the Latins one principle, of the Holy Spirit.

    The XV-century Latins did not use "cause" for the trinitarian processions because, for them, "cause" had the connotation of different essences while "principle" did not.

    Ad-extra, the dogma of the unity of divine operation ad-extra states that the three divine Persons are a single efficient cause in the creation and government of the universe.

  15. Scott Church says:

    Regarding out minds, memories, and thoughts, Robert Epstein has a pretty interesting essay at Aeon in which among other things, he discusses the evolution of our views of how the brain works, and why the current paradigm of viewing it as a biological CPU + storage computer isn't valid.

  16. Aron Wall says:

    Scott,
    I read that essay, and while I agree it was interesting I also found it incredibly frustrating and glib.

    I don't think he provided any evidence at all that memories are not in some way "stored" in the brain; the example of the dollar bill just shows that they are not stored in the naive sense of a perfect image file but rather in some more subtle, lossy way which captures the content of more abstract features, sufficient to recognize the bill if you see it again. And the idea that we don't literally have "memories" in the sense that computers do gets the etymology entirely backwards; people talked about human memories long before we invented computers; it is computer "memory" which is the metaphor! Of course memories are not literally "stored" in the brain the way grain is stored in a barn, rather the state of the brain must somehow change in a way that allows one to respond in an appropriate way later; but a change of state that changes how the system responds to the world is "information" by definition!

    I don't believe that the brain is just an information processer, first because no system is just information because a change of state cannot exist apart from some object which encodes that state, secondly because of all the biochemical details some of which are only "information based" in the weak sense that all physical processes are, and third because the algorithmic point of view taken in isolation cannot explain why we experience conscious awareness. But that doesn't mean we aren't processing information, it just means other things are going on as well...

    The question "Is the brain a computer: yes or no." is not a very useful question. It is better to ask "In what ways is it like a computer, and in what ways is it dissimilar?" Yes, comparing brains to algorithms can be a very misleading metaphor, but the idea that we can somehow get a "metaphor-free theory of intelligent human behaviour" seems hopelessly naïf. We can hardly think about anything without metaphors.

    I would go on more but I see that the author was already thoughly roasted by the Aeon commenters, and here.

    Mactoul,
    It is true that we have very little knowledge of the precise details of how memories are stored in the brain. This is not at all surprising given how complicated and difficult to understand the brain is! So I take your point that we need to be cautious in interpreting the data.

    But we know enough to know that the brain is made of neurons, that their connectivity stores large quantities of infomration, that physical aspects of the brain are involved in memory storage and retrieval. We also know that memories can be triggered by direct brain stimulation, and that the ability to remember can be impaired in numerous specific ways by brain damage. For example damage to the color processing center of your brain can make it so that even remembered objects seem to be colorless, one cannot even remember what color used to look like (citation: I think I read this in an Oliver Sacks book sometime).

    Of course we needn't resort to fancy neurological case studies to prove the obvious fact that memory is fallible and corruptible. One hardly needs to be an inflexible naturalist to notice that, whatever we are made of, human faculties are imperfect.

    All of this suggests that the process of remembering is, at least in large part physical and capable of being acted on through physical causes. If there is an immaterial element to cognition, it is so closely bound up with physical aspects that (at least in our current state of existence) it seemingly cannot function without them.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    staircaseghost,
    The main issue here is that you are simply assuming a computationalist-positivist view of reality where anything that cannot be reduced to measurable algorithmic input-output doesn't really exist. I think there are plenty of reasons to question whether such a view really captures everything about the universe. One is the Hard Problem of Consciousness, that we have subjective awareness of things which goes beyond what can be captued by external third party measurements. And certain related philosophical problems such as the difficulty of reducing seemingly meaningful concepts such as ethics to purely computational descriptions.

    But another is that it is too anthropocentric, just because we cannot dissect something by a physical measurement doesn't mean it can't exist. You can't see the inside of a black hole but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist. Given quantum uncertainty, you can't algorithmically compute what will happen a thousand years from now but that doesn't mean the future doesn't exist. Even in the realm of computer science, one can't solve the halting problem on a computer but that doesn't mean there isn't a well defined answer to whether or not each individual Turing machine will halt or not!

    Relatedly, the next time you need to upgrade the OS on your phone but don't have a gig of free space available, I'll send you a text message that reads "Everything that is part of iOS 9.3.3, and nothing that is not"

    Ha ha, but this begs the question. Obviously that wouldn't be a very useful description for me, a human being. but if you said it to an omniscient being they would know exactly what you were talking about.

    Nobody denies that iOS 9.3.3 is a very complicated nonfundamental concept, whereas the concept of "truth" seems like a much better candidate for a fundamental notion. At least I don't know how to describe anything without implicitly making reference to it.

    It is true that, as the work of Tarski and Turing showed, the notion of "truth" cannot be algorithmically reduced to any algorithmic process. But I think of Turing-computability as a property of physical entities subject to laws of physics like our own. In computer science one can define logically consistent "oracles" that have powers that ordinary Turing machines do not. If there were a nonphysical entity, there is no reason to think that it could not have powers which go beyond the powers which physical entities have. Especially if those powers can be given a very simple description, which is a very different thing from computability.

    Going back to an earlier statement:

    And one thing we can say with confidence is, ceteris paribus, if I have n beliefs and you have those same n beliefs plus one unrelated belief, your belief system takes longer to describe and is therefore less simple than mine. A fortiori, if you have infinitely more beliefs than me, you are infinitely more complex than me. One thing you are not, then, is "simple".

    But there do exist infinitely long strings of bits which have only finite KC-complexity. This shows that an infinite set of beliefs does not necessarily have infinite KC-complexity. Of course these bits are not "unrelated", but neither would the contents of God's thoughts be unrelated to anything else. Given his omniscience, God's beliefs about contingent matters are not determined by his essential nature, but rather by the state of the contingent world. Even if the world has high KC-complexity, God's beliefs don't add to that complexity since they are related to it, in fact they are in one-to-one correspondence with it, which means they actually don't add any KC-complexity to the world. If you copy a string of bits twice exactly, it has (basically) the same complexity as the original sequence.

    But I don't believe that KC-complexity is the right thing to minimize when invoking Occam's razor anyway. (One reason is that it fails its own test for simplicity: KC-complexity is uncomputable!) If you believe it is, you're going to have to provide some substantive argument for it. (As far as I know the most vigorous defense of this viewpoint on the internet is Eliezer Yudkowsky's sequences on LessWrong, but I haven't found the bits I've read particularly convincing, even though I do subscribe to Bayesian epistemology.)

    And, I repeat, KC-simplicity has little to do with noncompositeness, which is what the word "simple" used to mean (and still does mean in theology). This is not really an example of metaphor, so much as just that the meanings of words change with time.

  18. staircaseghost says:

    ”The doctrines of divine simplicity and omniscience are genuine theoretical analyses and have been defended at length.”

    So, excellent! I’ll mark you as one vote against “non-cognitive allusion” and one for “when you consider the functional role the concept plays in constructing our best models of experience, you’ll find that function optimized if you refine and revise your pretheoretic notions in accordance with this new analysis.”

    A pop singer tells me “love is like a burning fire”, and a scientist tells me “despite appearances, it turns out the rust on your Subaru is -- on a more fundamental level -- much more like a burning fire than the Sun in the sky, since the latter involves fusion and the former is actually oxidation.” Both of these are perfectly legitimate language games, so long as we don’t confuse ourselves and think we’re playing one sort when we’re really playing the other.

    ”Referring to them as ‘folk concepts’ is a dead giveaway that one hasn't properly researched the subject.”

    Referring to me referring to them as “folk concepts” is a dead giveaway you did not follow the structure of my argument, since I did no such thing. (The uncalled-for sneer about “new atheist chatrooms” and certain cached-thought aspects of the reply provide inconclusive but suggestive hints for how this might have come about.)

    The referent of my talk about our folk concepts is our folk concepts. I then asked our good host, given the many perfectly valid ways the vocabulary of these concepts can be pressed into service in novel contexts, whether he felt the relation of his use of the term ‘simplicity’ to the folk concept was more like the relation of a songwriter’s poetic allusion to fire, or more in the vein of the empirically-driven concept revision in the scientist’s notion of fire as oxidation. At which point, I noted that the choice of neither of the dilemma’s horns seems to be cost-free to other widely held commitments.

    At no point in the above process of asking a question has anyone “poisoned the well”. How would that even work?

    ”You're presuming that God has a mind in the same sense that Cartesian minds or embodied creatures like us do--one that somehow stores, or contains ‘representative’ information.”

    Actually, so was our host, for the sake of argument, in order to consider the Redundancy Objection line of thinking. I argued (successfully, it seems) that even his everyday notion of representation — specifically, that it involves making an “exact copy not differing in any details” (his words) — seemed faulty. Believe it or not, some people find value in dialectical rigor for its own sake, and not every objection they raise is to score a point or “pin” the opponent.

    But I did indeed use that discussion to pivot towards a more fundamental methodological flaw. Classical theists love to tell me what God’s mind is not like, what her goodness is not like etc. — even when these seem to negate essential aspects of what those words mean — but they don’t love to tell folks what these things are like. Or more accurately, they love to talk about what these things are like in front of friendly audiences, right up until the moment someone starts asking inconvenient questions; then go back to unqualified talk about God’s plans and God’s knowledge as soon as the skeptic’s “back is turned”.

    Heterotrophs and photo-autotrophs function very differently, but I have no trouble calling this bag of (overpriced imo) stuff from Lowe’s “plant food” because I can operationalize the analogies and disanalogies in a vocabulary that doesn’t use the word “food”. And crucially, I can specify this in advance, rather than lying in wait to spring an ad hoc gotcha like I’m playing some kind of philosophical Calvinball.

    Analogies are supposed to be inference-preserving. What inference is preserved by referring to God as a person with a mind? How would I expect my experience to be different if I drew the incorrect inference?

    A “mind” with no thoughts, no beliefs, no desires, no memories… the concept falls apart in my hands; I have nothing to hold on to, I’m clutching at fistfuls of smoke in a wind tunnel with the lights off. Why call it a mind at all?

    ”As Aron said, you are in fact confusing metaphysical simplicity and knowledge with algorithmic counterparts.”

    Is God simple in the algorithmic sense, yea or nay?

    If, as you say, the scholastic analysis is the correct way to think about the everyday concept of complexity, is the algorithmic sense the wrong way, in the way that phlogiston is the wrong way to think about fire? Absent naked contradiction, how would you know if your analysis was wrong?

    ”In classical theism, God's knowledge is a consequence of His omnipresence--that is, a matter of His intimate presence with all that is in an eternal, timeless sense.”

    Apologies, but this looks like attempting to give voice to thoughts more appropriately expressed in poetry or music. It’s no use of the word “consequence” that I’m familiar with. My keys are present in my pocket, but I can’t think of any sense by which a consequence of being present in my pocket is that my keys have justified true beliefs about my pocket. In itself, presence seems to be neither here nor there with respect to having beliefs.

    Unless, like “knowledge”, we are also supposed to add plain-English words like “consequence”, “presence”, “intimate”, and “eternal” to the list of ideas one must have a PhD in order to have a legitimate opinion about.

  19. Aron Wall says:

    staircaseghost,

    Although St. Scott is a welcome presence in this blog, I understand why you're a bit annoyed at being pattern-matched you onto a list of fallacies he has encountered in other atheistic writings. (Although, if you want to avoid guilt-by-association with arguments made by silly atheists, it would probably have been better not to mention Dawkins and his 747 argument...) I would appreciate it if all parties could try to reduce the stridency here just a little bit. Thanks.

    I realize that your comment is officially directed at Scott but I'd still like to make a few points in reply.

    Actually, so was our host, for the sake of argument, in order to consider the Redundancy Objection line of thinking. I argued (successfully, it seems) that even his everyday notion of representation — specifically, that it involves making an “exact copy not differing in any details” (his words) — seemed faulty.

    I think I may have realized now how my words could have occassioned a possible misunderstanding. I assume that your reference to "everyday notion of representation" refers to the usual use of the word in the context of the human mind, not the divine mind. Did you take me to be arguing in my post that representations in the human brain would involve an "exact copy not differing in any details"? Because if you thought I was saying that, I can see why you would think it was ridiculous. Obviously, if I look at a cat, whatever structures in my brain encode the information about the cat are very different from the cat itself. My mental model of the cat is incomplete and probably inaccurate in certain respects.

    Indeed, it is precisely the fact that the two are different, which allows my model of the cat to be incomplete or inaccurate as compared to the actual physical cat.

    So when I said that God's representations would have to be "an exact copy not differing in any details", it was not because I believed that representations in general are like that. Rather it was because of God's omniscience specifically, that, if God's knowledge is representational, those representations would have to be exactly like the originals. The idea is that any deviation or difference between the two would make God's knowledge imperfect, either incomplete or inaccurate.

    So did you think I was claiming that human representations are exact copies? If not, then I'm not sure what your comment above means.

    Analogies are supposed to be inference-preserving. What inference is preserved by referring to God as a person with a mind? How would I expect my experience to be different if I drew the incorrect inference?

    A “mind” with no thoughts, no beliefs, no desires, no memories… the concept falls apart in my hands; I have nothing to hold on to, I’m clutching at fistfuls of smoke in a wind tunnel with the lights off. Why call it a mind at all?

    But God does have thoughts, beliefs, desires, and (in a sense, since he sees the world timelessly) memories. He just does it (we claim) without being divided into distinct parts. It is true that, as a result, these mental concepts do not mean exactly the same thing as they would in the case of a creature with a brain. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have them, it just means he has them for a different reason than we do.

    The langauge here is somewhat metaphorical, but I claim it is somewhat inference preserving, or (as you say) there would be no point in doing it. We are, after all, making these assertions about the God of the Bible, with whom one can have a personal relationship, addressing him in prayer and then sometimes he may do quite specific things in the world as a result, related intelligently to the things we asked for. A impersonal, mindless being could not do that. Although we cannot understand the contents of his mind, treating him as a mind is the "least misleading" metaphor we can come up with.

    I then asked our good host, given the many perfectly valid ways the vocabulary of these concepts can be pressed into service in novel contexts, whether he felt the relation of his use of the term ‘simplicity’ to the folk concept was more like the relation of a songwriter’s poetic allusion to fire, or more in the vein of the empirically-driven concept revision in the scientist’s notion of fire as oxidation.

    Honestly, I really don't know what you mean by the "folk concept" of simplicity. I know what it means for something to be simple in the Scholastic sense (not composed of parts) and I know the definition of KC-complexity, but I am not sure which of the numerous possible "folk" concepts you think these are supposed to be elaborations of, which makes it difficult to answer your question. You realize that the definitions of simple such as "easy to use" arose later in time than the medieval scholastic definition, right? So the medieval definition is not a "refinement" of the modern folk idea, rather the modern folk ideas are bastardizations of the original medieval meaning. As for what "common folk" in medieval times may have thought the word "simple" meant, I haven't the faintest clue. So I really have no idea why I should care. It sounds more like an etymological question than a philosophical one.

    One thing I know for sure is that KC-complexity is not a "folk" concept of simplicity. :-)

    I've told you in what sense I do believe God is simple ("not composed of parts"), so feel free to just substitute in your brain "not composed of parts" for every such use of simplicity, without worrying about whether it is or is not related to other things called simplicity.

    If, as you say, the scholastic analysis is the correct way to think about the everyday concept of complexity, is the algorithmic sense the wrong way, in the way that phlogiston is the wrong way to think about fire?

    The scholastic definition is completely different from the KC-definition, so the applicability of the Scholastic defintion to God neither confirms nor denies the applicability of the algorithmic definition. There can be things which are not composed of parts described by models with both low and high algorithmic complexity, and there can be things composed of parts which are described by models with both low and high algorithmic complexity.

    Is God simple in the algorithmic sense, yea or nay?

    OK, if you insist on asking this question:

    Pendantically speaking, KC-complexity is only defined for a string of bits (or, with a slight extension, strings of some finite alphabet of characters) and after specifying a computer programming language which can output such strings. Now, God is not a string of bits, nor have you specified a computer programming langugage, therefore the question is meaningless, at least until you provide more details.

    But perhaps you mean to ask, "Is there any finite perl script that could in principle be written down, which would (by some systematic interpretation of the output string) perfectly accurately predict all the details of God's behavior?".

    To this question I think the answer is probably No.

    Followup question: "Does this mean we should assign 0 prior probability to such a God existing?"

    Again I would answer No.

    I don't believe that KC-complexity is the right approach for assigning prior probabilities, among other reasons because it seems rather ill-defined as a practical matter. Serious question: Can you tell me what the numerical value of KC-complexity of Einstein's theory of General Relativity is? And whether it is more or less than Newtonian gravity?

    this looks like attempting to give voice to thoughts more appropriately expressed in poetry or music.

    Poetry and music are indeed very traditional ways of expressing the greatness of God. It is true that this inevitably involves some quantity of metaphors, but it is questionable whether we can describe anything without some use of metaphor. So really this does not bother me as much as it bothers you. Given the fact that the God of the Bible sometimes reveals himself through physical miracles, it seems clear that there must be some objectively existing reality behind all of our attempts to provide poetic analogies.

    The theologians attempt to be more rigorous than the hymnals, but mostly that is by being explicit about the fact that most of the time we are either speaking by analogy, or else contrasting God with what he is "not" like (e.g. by removing various limitations which ordinary entities are subject to.). And yes this can happen even when the skeptic's "back is turned"; there is a long tradition of "negative theology" along these lines.

  20. Scott Church says:

    Staircaseghost,

    If I misunderstood your references to “folk concepts," my apologies. Aron is right--I did pattern match you... but only because your language and tone fit that pattern pretty damn well. You certainly sounded like you were trying to poison the well against his ideas as well as those others have presented here, up to and including remarks about theists who "love to snort and sneer and sniggle when dumb ignorant ignorant unsophisticated ignorant Dawkins makes his Ultimate 747 Argument," that believe in "the sea-parting, Sodomite-smiting character from scripture." If you were trying to formulate a Socratic question to stimulate dialogue about theological ideas, you could've been more careful with your words. As Napoleon once said, "Those who dislike war should avoid the pinpricks which precede the cannon shots. Nevertheless, if that wasn't your intention I stand corrected. :-)

    As for the rest, it isn't clear to me what you're trying to get at. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds as though you're claiming that in philosophy and theology, anything other than the definitive, concrete language of the laboratory is at best muddled, and at worst meaningless--especially apophatic language (that is, the study of what God is not rather than what He is). To a point, I agree. Far too may people are careless with their ideas and language when discussing God and ultimate reality, and history is riddled with philosophical and theological train wrecks that were ultimately the result of a misuse of language, especially where moral and political ideas are concerned. You are certainly right to call that out!

    But that said, the Doctors and Fathers of the church can hardly be accused of this, and neither can any of the Scholastic philosophers up to the present. Even after we've been as attentive as possible to the clarity of our ideas and reasoning, it's inevitable that confronting questions as big as the nature of God and ultimate reality is going to involve some mystery, ambiguity, and analogy in our language, as well as require us to think about many things in apophatic terms. As creatures bound by space-time we are a part of the universe, and our knowledge is of other things that are part of it as well. By its very nature it has to be representational and our contemplation of it is going to occur in time, and thus be "algorithmic." We are thinking, knowing persons who have personalities that are recognizable by how they manifest in history. By contrast, the God of classical theism is the eternal and omnipresent (beyond space and time), omnipotent, omniscient, ground of all being and personhood, and the creator and sustainer of all else that is (note the verb and plural forms in the former, and the absence of such in the latter). None of this is in any way hand-waved... it's developed at length in the works I cited to you and many other as well.

    At a bare minimum, God's knowledge and personhood are by necessity radically different from ours--as Karl Barth put it, He is "wholly other" (Isaiah 40:18). It isn't reasonable to think that we can understand His nature in the same terms by which we understand our own, and speak of Him without making use of analogy and language familiar to our own spacio-temporal experience. Because God is beyond space-time, all of history is one eternal present to Him and His interactions with it are going to reflect the response of His changeless nature to any particular historical event is going to be unique to that place and time. As creatures who are "moving" from the past into the future we're going to perceive that as change, much they way you would perceive an immutable landscape as changing if you were speeding past it in a car. This is what's done in the Bible, and what we do when telling our own stories of how God is working His will out in our lives.

    If you think I'm splitting muddled hairs here, note that science does the same thing. Earlier you made reference to "heat and temperature" as being "science's hard-won revisions of folk concepts." Well, I've got new for you... both of those "hard-won revisions" are a matter of classical thermodynamics... which is based on the statistics of molecular motion and derives both from the assumption literally false analogy that that molecules are little "billiard balls." In reality, they're many-body wave functions whose properties aren't instantiated until they're measured. Counter-intuitive as it may sound, they aren't even located anywhere until they're observed to be wherever they are. Nevertheless, leveraging the analogy of billiard balls we can mentally conceive is a close enough approximation to provide a robust, and mature science of heat transfer (a physicist might call this an asymptotic limit of the underlying field theory). Your refrigerator keeps your beer cold because it was engineered with a physics framework that's no less dependent on analogy than the Psalms. In philosophy, religion, and science, the closer we get to the bleeding edge of our knowledge, the more limited our understanding is... and the more important analogy and apophatic language become in our theories and dialogue.

    Years ago I worked with a guy whose brother was a lawyer. When speaking of the Bible, he'd fondly quote him as saying that the mark of a good document (which to his way of thinking the Bible wasn't) is that it can only be subjected to one interpretation. I have no doubt that sort of thinking works great for non-disclosure agreements and divorce settlements with one's cast-iron bitch ex-wife (I speak from experience... :D ). But when addressing ultimate questions--life, meaning, ultimate reality... or quantum cosmology--at best it's naive, and at worst deluded. Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot weren't lawyers. And, neither were Einstein, Heisenberg... or St. Thomas Aquinas. What these men and other like them contributed to posterity was hardly free of ambiguity, analogy, or apophatic thought. But for anyone to suggest that it was muddled and had little, if anything to teach us is not compelling.

    G.K. Chesterton once said, "The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." He was right. ;-)

    Best.

  21. Scott Church says:

    PS - Aron, your point about stridency is well taken... my apologies to all. I'll watch it in the future! :-)

  22. Aron Wall says:

    Well said, Scott!

  23. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    Granting as you do that the human knowledge is not entirely representational, it is puzzling why you must then continue to hold representational theory of human knowledge, particularly when there are far superior theories of human knowledge. The engram was proposed a hundred years ago and even now there is no confirmation. I suspect human memory to arise from non-formal aspects of matter, aspects that can not be captured in any mechanistic or algorithmic view.

    That an incorporeal being could know things in a way different from us would be true for angels too. Thus, non-representational aspects of knowledge (granting for the time being that knowledge of a corporeal being IS representational) do not confer omniscience.

  24. Mactoul says:

    Scott Church,
    I don't agree that
    "As creatures bound by space-time we are a part of the universe, and our knowledge is of other things that are part of it as well. By its very nature it has to be representational and our contemplation of it is going to occur in time, and thus be "algorithmic."

    We are in space-time but our intellectual faculties are immaterial. It is not the brain that knows but the mind. So, the point about representational does not hold. The knowledge can be propositional. There is a well-known example -- we can know precisely how a circle differs from a million-sided regular polygon.
    But the representation of a circle can hardly differ from that of a million-sided polygon.

  25. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    So on your view, why is it that we remember some facts and fail to remember others? For example, when a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can't remember it. What is your model of immaterial faculties that explains why they sometimes work and sometimes don't? Why do we have to expend effort to memorize things, and expose ourselves to the same information multiple times in order to remember it properly?

    The brain is an extremely complicated system, so I am not at all surprised that there are things we still don't know. I'd be more surprised actually if we did know exactly how memory works. Maybe it will still be mysterious a thousand years from now. It is only an argument against materialism that we don't know something, if we would expect to already know how it works.

    That is why the more sophisticated arguments against materialism rely on trying to show that certain things cannot in principle be done by a physical system, as opposed to simply saying that we don't know how it works yet ("dualism of the gaps", as it were). But these arguments do not, in my opinion, imply that any mental processing takes place in a separate realm apart from physical processing of information, it may just be that in addition to the physical "facts" about neural connectivity there is also an "interpretation" or "meaning" of those facts, as it were. A novel has a "meaning" in addition to being a sequence of letters, but that doesn't mean that the novel's meaning could exist apart from some physical system in which it inheres.

    I see no reason why at least the "information storage" aspects of memory cannot be done by a physical system. Sure, once the memories are done being retrieved into consciousness and their content is understood conceptually, then I agree that there are some deep questions about how mental concepts could possibly be understood to arise in a materialistic way. But in between the times that it comes into consciousness, the memory is not actually a concept in the usual sense (which seems to presuppose consciousness), it is only a disposition that provokes us to remember the concept in certain circumstances that remind us of it. And this function can obviously be performed by a physical system, for example I can write my grocery list onto a piece of paper and then I don't have to take the time and trouble to remember it, because I can look at it later. Strictly speaking the ink on the paper has no inherent meaning apart from the conventions of the English language, but they reliably cause my mind to remember certain concepts.

    So why can't there be a physical analogue of the "grocery list" stored in the connections of a neural network?

  26. Aron Wall says:

    Mactoul,
    Also, why do our memories degrade with time (e.g. I cannot now remember the names of most of my elementary school teachers)?

    As for angels, I have no idea whether their knowledge is representational or not. To me that would be arguing from the less well-known to the more well-known. I do not think we can determine much about the nature of angels by a priori reasoning, and our empirical data is extremely limited.

    As for the chiliagon vs. circle, you seem to be supposing that the only way a representation could encode information is by means of a visual mental image. That's what Hume would have said, but I don't agree with him about that.

  27. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    Your usage of "representation" is too vague. Could you give examples?

    I am not saying that memory is immaterial. I am saying that it is not self-evident that human memory is analogous to computer memory. See Jaki's Brain, Mind and Computers (chap 2 on Brains and Computers for detailed discussion of physical theories of human memories).

  28. Mactoul says:

    Aron,
    There are concepts and there are mental images. Per Hume, to have a concept is to have a mental image.
    You disagree and so do I. But you hold in addition, that to have a concept is to have a "representation".
    So, now you need to define it.

  29. TY says:

    Point #1: From reading Aron closely (see his reply to staircaseghost August 12, 2016 at 8:25 PM), “representation” is just that: a representation rather than an exact copy of the original.
    “Obviously, if I look at a cat, whatever structures in my brain encode the information about the cat are very different from the cat itself. My mental model of the cat is incomplete and probably inaccurate in certain respects.”
    So it is clear that Aron is defining representation as mental representation (with all the influences from his acquaintance of other cats like Schrodinger’s).
    Point #2: I see no problem using metaphors and “imprecise language” to explain the nature of or the concept of God. I can’t offer a better comment than Scott and I so defer to him (see Scott Church August 12, 2016 at 10:19 PM comment above). Physicists have enough difficulty in trying to explain atomic behaviour. See Richard Feynman, The Feyman Lectures in Physics. Vol 3, Addison-Wesley 1965) on the two-slit experiment.

  30. Mactoul says:

    "Aron is defining representation as mental representation"

    Naturally, this is what we are talking about. But Aron needs to tell us how does his "representation" differs from a "mental concept".

  31. TY says:

    Mactoul, can a concept be anything other than mental?

  32. Mactoul says:

    TY,
    OK. I take the correction. Given that a 'representation' is not the same as a 'mental image', how does a 'representation' differ from a 'concept'?

  33. TY says:

    Mactoul, I question if there is real distinction between “concept” and “representation”. Is the alleged distinction just semantic, i.e. both are one and the same function -- so to speak. Or is a representation a subset of concept? I’s afraid I don’t have a satisfactory answer.

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