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Saturday, April 13, 2013


CGE asks me to comment on an argument [to speak] by Herbert McCabe, who lectured at Oxford.  The reference is here:

It would be too much to summarize McCabe's argument, so I am going to have to simply assume that anyone who is interested will take the time to follow the link and read McCabe's short article.  I realize this is not the way with the web, which seeks instant gratification, but I am too old to change, so I will do it the old-fashioned way.

McCabe's "argument" is typical of efforts by academic and intellectual believers in the post Hume and Kant era to keep talking in the old familiar ways while acknowledging that they no longer really have any coherent meaning.  McCabe seems to think that the endless quest for answers is God, or is belief in God, or is the search for God -- he really fails to distinguish among these.  He wants us to suppose that the persistence of the scientist in seeking the cause of each effect and the explanation of each as yet unexplained thing reveals a failure or unwillingness to ask the ultimate question, which is, why is there in general something and not nothing [as Heidegger put it].  I am reminded of Kierkegaard's wonderful observation [somewhere in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but I do not recall exactly where] that philosophers ask for the cause of an effect, and the cause of the cause, and the cause of the cause of the cause, and then after a while grow weary and conclude that they have proved the existence of God.

Kant has a more elaborate story about essentially the same thing [Kierkegaard had read Kant, of course.]  The mind forms a number of concepts of the Unconditioned, which Kant calls Ideas of Reason.  These Ideas can never be adequately instantiated in experience, because experience s through and through conditioned.  But the Ideas serve as Regulative Principles that guide ever further investigations.  So, for example, confronted with Galileo's laws of terrestrial motion and Kepler's laws of planetary motion, Newton seeks, and finds, laws of motion in general from which both Galileo's laws and Kepler's laws can be derived as special cases.  And then Einstein finds a way to unite Newton's laws of motion with the laws of electromagnetism.  And so forth.

Notice, by the way -- this is actually important -- that McCabe, after acknowledging and granting the standard critiques of Rational Theology, then goes right on referring to God as "he" or "him."  [But not with capital letters -- a big concession, we must imagine.]

McCabe actually invokes the notion of a Category Mistake introduced by Gilbert Ryle in his Concept of Mind, but without mentioning Ryle.  McCabe observes that it is an error to suppose that we can list the things in the world and then add God as though God were one more thing previously not mentioned.  Ryle's example is of someone who asks to be shown Oxford University, and after being taken to each college and to the Bodleian Library, then says, "But where is Oxford?" as though Oxford were something over and above the totality of the colleges, etc.  This is a category mistake, Ryle says [he is introducing the notion in order to argue that various classes of mental activities and powers are not things over and above their manifestations in behavior -- Logical Behaviorism, as it was called.]

But although McCabe is very sophisticated about all of this, and also quite charming and engaging, he really really really does not want to stop talking God talk, so he denies its meaning, and then goes on talking it anyway, as though the denial insulated him from the refutation.

Well, my apologies to CGE. I am sure he [or she] would have liked something more positive and admiring.  But there it is.  No God really means no God.


Michael Llenos said...

Dr. Wolff,
As you know, I have been trying to figure out why the onotological argument of St. Anselm is a correct argument, so I've posted many of my own versions concerning certain truths about it and related to it. The following text is my final summarization, and I hope that anyone who reads it will be somewhat entertained by the ontological argument's complex and intriguing message.

Mixed Ontological and Cosmological Arguments by St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Michael Llenos April 2013

1. God must exist in reality, if he is that which nothing greater can be thought: since to exist in the human mind and in reality is greater than just existing in the human mind.

2. However, if God just exists in the human mind, than he is that which something greater can be thought.

3. And if God is that which something greater can be thought, the two greatest things that exist (which are greater than God), that both exist in the human mind, and in reality, are the Universe as a whole and Time itself.

4. However, because the Universe and Time are finite in nature, they need a First Cause--which can only be God.

5. However, this God must exist in reality, and not just in the human mind, or he would be the same God mentioned in #2--which is impossible.

6. In conclusion, if you take the theist standpoint, God is proven to exist in reality, while if you take the atheist standpoint, God is also proven to exist in reality. However, when you take the atheist standpoint, God is proven to exist in reality more eloquently and more economically.

[Before the previous text can be considered a complete argument, I must explain (concerning #4) why the Universe and Time are finite and are a part of creation...]

A. The Universe is finite because parts of its whole are finite, and it would be ridiculous if parts of the Universe were finite but that its whole was infinite.

B. Now we must discuss why time is finite. If the Universe were made up of an infinite amount of time, there would exist more of an infinite number of hours than an infinite number of days, since there are 24 hours to every day.

C. However, there can only be one number for the infinite, since an infinite amount of time would be that amount of time which has no greater amount of time.

D. But an infinite amount of time would include both hours and days in it. So both hours and days in infinite time would be both an infinite amount of hours and days. This is impossible, however, since there are 24 hours to each day. Therefore, there only exists a finite amount of time in the Universe. Meaning, time and the Universe both needed to be created by a First Cause: and this is what we all know to be God.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think I need to declare a universal moritorium on any more God Talk. It is a dangrous narcotic!