On Watson, Williams, and Wood

It was pretty sneaky of Ed to post his Summa contra Bill when he knew that I was at a wedding, traveling internationally, and unable to reply. And then he tried to play the Pascal card against me too! Unbelievable! But seriously, it is an honor to receive such extensive, thoughtful and respectful disagreement, and I hope that I can repay it in kind.

As I understand him, Ed claims that any argument for the existence of God necessarily purports to identify God using definite descriptions like “first cause” or “necessary being.” This project is doomed to fail, however, because our fallen wills and disordered loves prevent us from giving a clear meaning to such descriptions. We will falsely give our descriptions decontexualized, ideal meanings and fail to recognize that they are in fact products of social and contextual forces that are themselves shot through with the sin and self-deception of the fall. Moreover, the definite descriptions we use to pick out God will not really be definite at all. They will inevitably be ambiguous, and might pick out things other than God. The overall idea, I take it, is that fallen people in fallen societies can only have fallen concepts. And we cannot use our fallen concepts to establish the existence of God.

The first point I want to make in response is that much of Ed’s reply is aimed at making a general case for why a Pascalian or a Wittgensteinian ought to resist natural theology. But my own post was in the specific context of Williams’ first chapter, where I took Williams to be endorsing the Wittgensteinian-Thomist line on natural theology. (I stand by that interpretation of Williams, at least on the basis of Chapter One.) On that line, once again, the arguments of natural theology function as apophatic gestures that point to something beyond our worldly concepts, contexts and experiences without describing or capturing that something, and so they avoid the idolatry that infects more traditional forms of natural theology.

My questions were specifically directed at someone who would accept this alternative conception of natural theology but insist that it is somehow radically different from the more traditional kind of natural theology practiced by some philosophers of religion. That is the claim with which I disagree. I did not take myself to be arguing against any and all forms of Wittgensteinian opposition to natural theology, or to Barthian opposition (which is different again), or to people who just think the arguments of natural theology are unsound.

In that light, consider the following easy-peasy version of the cosmological argument.(Pretend it’s a more sophisticated version, if you like.)

(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) Call that cause ‘God.’

On the Wittgenstein-Thomas line, we should interpret this argument as bringing about a shift in context from (2) to (3). Although we begin with claims about intra-worldly, physical causes in (1) and (2), when we shift to (3) we are talking about a completely different sense of “cause” and therefore a completely different sort of causal agent. In (4), we stipulatively name that agent “God.” We haven’t really described God, because the term that we apply to God (“cause”) is not given a univocal meaning. We don’t learn anything about God except that in some non-standard, unspecified sense of the word “cause,” God is the cause of the universe. This is very apophatic.

Now consider a stereotypical philosopher of religion interpreting the same argument. How would his interpretation differ? I think he would likely insist on a univocal meaning of “cause” that encompasses both physical and non-physical causation. (Something like ‘C is a cause of E just in case C brings it about that E occurs.’). We would then interpret (4) as: “Call ‘God’ that which brings it about that the universe occurs (or begins to exist.)” Is that interpretation really so different from the W-T interpretation? I admit that it is slightly less apophatic. Very slightly: we have identified the meaning of a single additional word that we apply to God. Does that extra bit of semantic legerdemain constitute the difference between apophasis and idolatry? I don’t see how.

As a result of (1) – (4), the philosopher of religion is entitled to affirm exactly one proposition about God: “God brings it about that the universe occurs.” The W-T theologian , for his part, is only entitled to affirm “God causes the universe in some unspecified sense of the word cause.” But wouldn’t the W-T theologian also wish to assert that “God brings it about that the universe occurs”? This proposition seems entailed by the doctrine of creation, after all. I don’t see how any Christian, including the W-T theologian, could say that it is false or idolatrous.

As a result of (1) – (4), we still don’t know anything else about God, and just to be crystal clear, even though we do know the meaning of the word “cause,” in (4), we still don’t know how divine causation “works” or how it differs from non-divine causation. We haven’t obtained any robust knowledge about God, or “captured” God with our concepts, and the way in which we have “described” God is so thin as to be almost formal.

And here I would just say, in summary fashion, that a general theory of meaning on which we are not allowed to affirm that the word “cause” could have the same sense in (1) and in (4) is not plausible as a theory of meaning. And a theology so apophatic as to prevent us from saying that God brings it about that the universe occurs is too austere to be genuinely Christian.

If we want to say any more than that, and if we want to specify further the concept of God with which we are working, we will have to rely on something other than the argument given in (1) – (4). And it is here that Pascalian considerations properly enter the picture.

I appreciate Ed’s Pascalian points, and in fact I agree with them, but I don’t think they tell against natural theology in quite the way that he does. In my view, our fallen wills, biased beliefs, and tendencies toward prideful, self-deceptive reasoning don’t prevent us from giving a clear meaning to “cause” in (1) – (4), and they do not render the argument in (1) – (4) unsound. (It might still be unsound for other reasons, of course.)

Rather, Pascalian considerations about our fallen nature count against the arguments of natural theology in two other ways. First, they make it highly likely that one will not assent to the premises or accept the conclusions of an argument for the existence of God, even if those premises are true and the argument is sound. (Precisely because we are fallen, we don’t want to believe that God exists.) Second, Pascalian considerations make it highly likely that when we do try to specify further the concept of God with which we are working, we will do so in false, self-deceptive, and idolatrous ways. As Ed correctly points out, a claim like (4) it compatible with a wide variety of false conceptions of God. But that is the case precisely because the content of (4) is so minimal. Worries about idolatry and so forth enter the picture after the arguments of natural theology have done their work, not before.

In fact, on Pascalian grounds, I would say that hostility to natural theology is itself a sign of the fall. (Take that, Karl Barth!) “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true,” writes Pascal (L12/S46). Or elsewhere: “The proofs lie before their eyes, but they refuse to look” (L428/S682).


5 thoughts on “On Watson, Williams, and Wood

  1. One question: I’m guessing that ‘clear meaning’, understood as the univocity of the term ’cause’ across all the premises of your argument, is not enough to guarantee the soundness of the argument. After all, one could presumable pick out a clear meaning of ’cause’ for these sakes, but have that meaning relate to an incorrect usage of the word. How, then, does the philosopher of religion- taking into account potential difficulties when it comes to conceptualisation by cause(sic) of the will- arrive at a correct meaning, as well as a clear one?

    Second question: I think I more or less agree that the minimal conclusions of natural theology, when just taken in isolation, are actually harmless, maybe even positive. I would ask, however, to what extent they can *ever* be taken minimally, not because of our fallen nature, but because of the inherently connected nature of language? It seems to me that people will pretty much always try to further specify their concept of God, even if they’re analytic philosophers, and that this isn’t something which could be prevented, even on a strict diet of analytic asceticism (though that’s not to say such a diet couldn’t perhaps ward off some excesses!).

    Not a question: awesome piece. And I think you absolutely nailed what I was trying to say, which is helpful, because I can now use your summary paragraph to give a clearer account of it than I ever could.


  2. (To bring it round slightly, btw, completely agree with your analysis of apophatic Wittgensteinian Thomism: there are Wittgensteinian arguments for a ‘change of register’ in the cosmological argument leading to a change in the meaning of ’cause’, but as you say these arguments cannot (on their own terms) be absolutely generalised so as to rule out the soundness of natural theology. And this, I think/hope, is where the stuff I tried to write in my earlier post might become relevant: where it’s not *just* a question of clarity/ambiguity, but a combined Wittgensteinian/Pascalian account of concept formation undermining the capacity of that clear and unambiguous concept for correctness in relation to its subject matter. But we’ll see…)


  3. Many thanks to Ed and Bill. I am appreciating the opportunity to listen in on the conversation.

    Am I right in understanding this to come down to these two positions?

    1. No overlap between the meanings of ’cause’
    2. Minimal univocal overlap between the meanings of ’cause’

    I appreciate aspects of each position but don’t find either completely satisfying. How about a third possibility?

    3. An ‘oppositional’ relationship between the meanings of ’cause’

    This approach would take Barth’s idolatry criticism but challenge him with regards to the structure of idolatry (and thus the nature of his dialectic). On an ‘oppositional’ reading the attribution of creational causation to an idol is understood as antagonistically dependent on the proper attribution of creational causation to God. The meaning of ’cause’ is distorted in its employment against the Creator but remains open to redemption on account of the dependence relationship between the idol and God (which God upholds). The semantic point of contact is a point of redeemable opposition rather than a point of affirmable commonality. This line of argument would make the step from (3) to (4) the problematic one if ‘God’ is capitalised in (4).

    In terms of how we take the standard proofs, I would (tentatively) argue that they can work before and after faith but work in different ways in each case. Not assuming faith in God (and so starting from false faith) the cosmological argument would work to expose the futility of idolatry by highlighting the need for an idol to be the creator of all things. Assuming faith in God, the nature of causation in (1) can adequately match the nature of causation that is in line with (4).

    Does this ‘oppositional’ line of argument have any chance of succeeding?

    Before I finish, please may I ask one question of clarification? Bill, please could you say a bit more about what you mean when you argue, ‘Worries about idolatry and so forth enter the picture after the arguments of natural theology have done their work, not before.’ Specifically, what is the nature of the ‘after’ here? Is there a chronological priority at work? Or a logical priority of some other kind?


  4. Would love to see a full length post on this. Personally, would love to see it highlighting two particular points: first, how we determine what counts antagonistic dependence. Second, how exactly the cosmological argument would expose the futility of idolatry if an individual using it wouldn’t recognise its conclusion as an idol.

    (On an uber personal note: would love to see a fully analysis of how exactly antagonistic dependence entails an openness to redemption that a non-dependent antagonism wouldn’t have, and if the implication is that any antagonism would be dependent, then how you interpret the problem of evil.).

    (Agree with the reference to the capitalisation on God. Anyway, please do write this up full length if you have the time!)


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