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Rene Decartes and Theological Perspectives on Logical Impossibilty

Not too long ago, I posted some thoughts on the interesting possibility of a theology of logic. One of the interesting venues that a theology of logic could explore might be the nature of the relationship between God’s omnipotence on the one hand, and logical possibilty v. impossibility on the other.

It’s apperant that most Christian intellectuals (at least in recent times, and whose writtings I’ve come across) have more or less taken for granted that the logically possible (which is the broadest and most basic category of possibility) marks the boundary of what even God, in His omnipotence, could (or could not) do. I too, have taken this for granted. And while the average person who hears such a claim may take it as an unwarranted limtation of God’s power (After all, God is omnipotent!) it is easy to illustrate why so many CHristian intellectuals have accepted this view. And indeed why so many of them haveheld this view as compatible with the belief that there is nothing that God cannot do.

One way of putting it might be to say that, these beliefs are compatible by virtue of the fact that the logically impossible does not actually refer to anything at all. If something is logically impossible, that simply means that it entails a logical contradiction (i.e., it implies a statement of the form P & ~P, or “it is the case that P is true and it is not the case that P is true”. It’s important to note here that this refers to the logical form of a proposition, not the lingustic appearance of a sentence. In other words, the so-called “law of non-contradiction” entails that for a proposition of the form P &~P to constitute a genuine contradiction, P must be used univocally in both instances. In short, if P means something slightly different each time it appears in the sentence P & ~P, then this is not a contradiction, precisely because it is an equivocal use of the term P). If a sentence entails a logical contradiction, it actually doesn’t assert anything at all. Think about this. What could any sentence with the logical form of P & ~P possibly express? The first conjunct (P) assets one thing, and the second conjunct (~P) denies precisely that which the first expresses. The net result is that nothing is said. Since the logically impossible literally means nothing, to say that God cannot perform the logically impossible is perfectly consistent with the belief that there is nothing which God cannot do.

Interestingly, the idea that the logically impossible lies outside God’s omnipotence has not been universally accepted. Recently, I came across this interesting quote from Rene Decartes, wherein he seems to take the view that the logically impossible is something, something which, though it lies outside our ability to comprehend, is perfectly within the domain of God’s possibilities:

I turn to the difficulty of conceiving how God would have been acting freely and indifferently if he had made it false that the three angles of a triangle were equal to two right angles, or in general that contradictories could not be true together. It is easy to dispel this difficulty by considering that the power of God cannot have any limits, and that our mind is finite and so created as to be able to conceive as possible the things which God has wished to be in fact possible, but not to be able to conceive as possible things which God could have made possible, but which he has nevertheless wished to make impossible. The first consideration shows us that God cannot have been determined to make it true that contradictories cannot be true together [les contradictoires ne peuvent être ensemble], and therefore that he could have done the opposite. The second consideration assures us that even if this be true, we should not try to comprehend it, since our nature is incapable of doing so.

Interesting….

Reading G.A. Cohen’s “On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom” (Pt.2)

           In the first post of this (hopefully three-part) series on G.A. Cohen’s article On the Structure of Proletarian Unfreedom I challenged a fairly typical, common-discourse, defense of capitalism against the Marxist claim that under capitalism the working class is forced to sell their labor to those who own the means of production (namely the defense that says they are not forced because they have other options, i.e., poverty, crime, starve to death etc.). This facile, but typical response of course rests on a simplistic misunderstanding of what it is to be forced to do something. I followed Cohen’s reasoning that in ordinary usage, when we say “one is forced to do A, because one has no choice,” this is meant as shorthand for, “one is forced to choose to do A, because one has no reasonable or acceptable alternative.”

           But how does this Marxist claim about working-class unfreedom stand against a more serious criticism: namely real-life examples of individuals whose objective position within the relations of production under capitalism is identical to that of the proletarian, who nevertheless manage to work their way out of the working class to become small business owners or capitalists? Since such cases show that the working class are not relevantly forced to sell their labor – i.e., they have at least one option other than wage labor, beggary, or starvation, which appears perfectly reasonable and acceptable – this seems to form a powerful counterexample to the Marxist thesis. Cohen recognizes this as a powerful case against the Marxist claim about proletarian unfreedom, and even attempts to show how two of the most common arguments against this powerful counterexample fail to recognize the argument’s strength, and thus, ultimately do not work. Read more…

Towards a Theology of Logic?!

I’ve been thinking today: Is it possible to concieve of a “Theology of logic”? By this I don’t mean merely “doing theology” with the use of formal logic or something lame like that. I mean viewing philosophical logic itself from the perspective of Christian theology. In this sense, a theology of logic, would be similar to those other “Theology of…” disciplines (e.g., theology of the body, theology of money, theology of animals etc.) which seek to offer critical insights on a sepecific subject using the resources of theology (e.g., the bible, patristic writings, ecclesial practice, theologians etc.). A “theology of logic,” it seems, would most comfortably be categorized as a branch of theological anthropology (i.e., the nature of man/woman from a theological vantage point). But, it seems, it would also be much broader than this too, since any critique of logic would inevitably entail larger implications for empistmology, metaphysics, and ultimately the interface between human knowing and reality.

What can theology say about logic? A theology of logic might ask questions about the nature of the relationship of “the word” to “the world” in light of, say, a Johannine theology of the “logos,” or even “wisdom” in the book of Proverbs, or the Eastern church. It might ask questions about the relationship between “omnipotence” and logical im/possibility, e.g., “Does the omnipotence of God imply that God could instantiate a logical impossibility, or is this simply non-sense that has no meaning?” More simply perhaps, “Where does logic come from?” Does it bear an analogy to (and thus participate in) something immanent within the trinity? Is it a product of, or somehow affected by the fall?

Interesting….

Categories: Logic, Philosophy, Theology

The task of faith: Carlisle’s guide to “Fear and Trembling” no. 1

In the first section of her dedicated guide to Fear and Trembling, Clare Carlisle suggests that for Kierkegaard “faith is not only the highest task of a human life, but the most difficult” [p4]. The difficulty of actually achieving faith, is after all, one of the central tasks Kierkegaard sets out for himself in the text – just opening up to his preface, this is immediately impressed upon the reader. But why might faith be difficult to achieve? Carlisle shows how, for the Danish existentialist, “faith has to contend with two powerful forces: doubt and sin” [p5]. Indeed, she (partially) definies faith as “the opposite of doubt, on the one hand, and the opposite of sin, on the other.” [p5]. Intuitively, I really resonate with this way of putting it. But exactlywhat is itabout faith that situates it as the opposite of both doubt and sin?

Earlier on she makes the provocative point that faith – at least as Kierkegaard understands it – contains at it’s core a tension between responsibility and humble receptivity. To this point, she notes that the title Fear and Trembling is a reference to Philippians 2:12–13, where Paul writes, “work out your faith with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This imperative entails both accepting responsibility for one’s life (work out your faith), and also rejecting self-sufficiency (it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to work for his good pleasure). Doubt then, which “undermines a person’s belief and trust in the existence and goodness of God” [p5], poses a significant, and indeed a continuous challenge to faith. For “faith is not knowledge and thus it is always susceptible to being tested by doubt.” This trust is coextensive both with one’s ability to humbly receive one’s being as a gift from God, ans well as with one’s ability to courageously take responsibility for one’s existence. I say coextensive, because, although the obvious temptation would be to say that this trust is a necessary condition for such humble receptivity, terming it in this manner would give the sense that one must have this trust prior to, and separately from one’s own intiative, from one’s act of faith – the ultimate result of which would be that we are not truly responsible for our inertia and lack of faith. But I think this is incompatible with Kierkegaard’s view.

On the other hand, faith is also significantly challenged by sin. According to Carlisle, sin, in Christian theology, denotes the universal human tendency to turn away from God, to neglect “what is deep-down most important in one’s life.” She does make the point that the concepts of sin and doubt do not necessarily have to be confined to a specifically religious context. Despite the difficulty in establishing a precise definition of terms that would allow for a coherent separation of what counts as “religious” and what counts as “secular,” there is a good point here, I think. Kierkegaard’s treatment of such categories as doubt, faith, and sin, can be applied beyond the individual’s relationship to God. We do after all, have a “relationship to ourselves.” As Carlisle says: “One might find oneself contending with self-doubt; one might have an obscure sense that one is ignoring or avoiding something within oneself that, if it succeeded in claiming one’s attention, could turn out to be integral to one’s being.” [p6.] “Sin” in this sense would basically turn out to mean something like, “being untrue to yourself” (I think I puked a little just typing that out). But I don’t think that Kierkegaard, at least not in Fear and Trembling, really makes a distinction between this kind of “relationship to ourselves,” and one’s duty to God. Somewhere in one of his podcasts from Berkeley, Hubert Dreyfus refers to this as one’s “calling.” I rather like this term for it, not least of all because it is so commonly used to refer to this sense both inside and outside of the church.

Claire Carlisle, and Kierkegaard.

Clare Carlisle, who has published numerous works on Kierkegaard, has written an illuminative reader’s guide to Fear and Trembling. The book is entitled, simply enough, “Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: A Reader’s Guide.” – and it is part of a larger volume of like reader’s guides that the fabulous Continuum Press has released in accompaniment to many important philosophical works. I’ve been interested in Kierkegaard for a long time and have had trouble fully digesting his works on my own. My girlfriend, God bless her, doesn’t have a single philosophical bone in her body – she has been reading and discussing Carlisle’s guide along with me. Both of us have found her writting beneficial.

The first Chapter is an overview of themes and context. Some subsections focus on a particular of what Carlisle percieves are the books major themes, others discuss certain relevant issues outside the text (if indeed there is anything outside the text). The subsections include:

i. The Task of Faith: Relating to God

ii. Faith and Gift

iii. Soren and Regine: Fidelity, Love and Truth

iv. Spheres of Existence: Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious

v. Religion and Ethics: Faith and Reason

vi. Critique of the Modern Age – and of Modern Philosophy

vii. Telling Stories – and Who is Johannes De Silentio?

I will briefly discuss each of these sections in a series of “blahgs”. Some sections I found to be of more interest than others, some where, I felt, more provocative of thought or discussion, while others seemed merely informative. Those sections which provoked more thought for me personally, will be discussed at greater length. Some of those I found less interesting may not even be discussed at all. I do whatever I want.