On Malpass’s Dilemma

Alex Malpass has offered one of the most thoughtful critiques of the argument for God from logic in his 2020 Sophia article, “Problems for the Argument from Logic: a Response to the Lord of Non-Contradiction.” Here’s the abstract:

James Anderson and Greg Welty have resurrected an argument for God’s existence (Anderson and Welty 2011), which we will call the argument from logic. We present three lines of response against the argument, involving the notion of necessity involved, the notion of intentionality involved, and then we pose a dilemma for divine conceptualism. We conclude that the argument faces substantial problems.

In this post I will share some thoughts on the third of these “three lines of response,” which I take to be the most interesting point of criticism.1 (Note: I’m speaking only for myself in this post; Greg can speak for himself!)

The argument for God from logic involves defending a version of divine conceptualism (or better, “theistic conceptual realism,” to use Welty’s terminology) according to which the laws of logic, as necessarily true propositions, are ultimately just divine thoughts. Strictly speaking, the argument can be run from any necessary truths, not just the laws of logic, but the laws of logic serve as familiar and convenient examples of necessary truths.2

Horns of a DilemmaIn the last major section of his article, Malpass presents a “dilemma for divine conceptualism.” Rather than quote him at length, I will try to summarize the thrust of his challenge. He begins by observing that parts of our argument appeal to a distinction between “thoughts and the content of those thoughts” (see, e.g., footnote 31 of our 2011 article). But then he points out that this seems to raise a problem for the claim that propositions are divine thoughts. In the first place, he argues, “a thought cannot be the content of itself” (p. 251). The idea that a thought can be its own content is either flat-out incoherent or leads to a “vicious infinite regress” (p. 252). To avoid this, the divine conceptualist has only two options:

  1. A divine thought has no content.
  2. A divine thought has content distinct from the thought itself.

Option 1 looks like a non-starter. If divine thoughts have no content, they can’t be about anything. Isn’t it obvious that God’s thought that 2+2=4 is contentful? Doesn’t it have some content that distinguishes it from other thoughts (e.g., God’s thought that Socrates is mortal)?

Option 2, however, doesn’t look any more promising. Recall our contention that the laws of logic, as necessarily true propositions, are a special category of divine thoughts. Let LL be some proposition that expresses a law of logic (e.g., the law of non-contradiction). LL is ultimately just a divine thought, so we argue. But according to option 2, the content of LL is something other than LL itself. So what could it be? Presumably that content would have to be propositional or intentional in nature. But it couldn’t be a proposition other than LL, for two reasons. First, that would mean LL has the wrong content; the divine thought would be about something other than what it’s supposed to be about. To use Malpass’s example, LL couldn’t have the Pythagorean theorem as its content; it’s supposed to be about the law of non-contradiction, not a geometrical theorem. The second reason is that if the content of LL is a proposition, but not LL itself, then it must be some other proposition, and therefore (given divine conceptualism) some other divine thought. Call that other divine thought LL*. But then the same considerations will apply to the content of LL*, in which case we’re on the road to a never-ending regress of divine thoughts containing divine thoughts, their content being endlessly deferred.

So, to sum up Malpass’s dilemma:

  • For any divine thought t, either (A) t has no propositional content or (B) t has some propositional content p distinct from t itself.
  • Horn A is unacceptable because it implies that God’s thoughts aren’t really about anything (or, alternatively, that a divine thought could be just as much about one thing as any other thing).
  • Horn B is unacceptable because it invites an infinite regress of nested divine thoughts, where no ‘inner’ (contained) thought provides the right (i.e., relevant) propositional content for the ‘outer’ (containing) thought.

There are two parts to my response. In the first place, it’s crucial to see that our argument does not depend on a universal distinction between thoughts and their content, only on a distinction between human thoughts and their content. When Malpass claims that we make a distinction between “thoughts and the content of those thoughts” (p. 250) he is drawing from footnote 31 of our article, where we address the objection that the necessary existence of certain thoughts does not presuppose a necessarily existent mind. Here’s the footnote in full (italics original, bold added):

It might be objected that the necessary existence of certain thoughts entails only that, necessarily, some minds exist. Presumably the objector envisages a scenario in which every possible world contains one or more contingent minds, and those minds necessarily produce certain thoughts (among which are the laws of logic). Since those thoughts are produced in every possible world, they enjoy necessary existence. One problem with this suggestion is that thoughts belong essentially to the minds that produce them. Your thoughts necessarily belong to you. We could not have had your thoughts (except in the weaker sense that we could have thoughts with the same content as your thoughts, which presupposes a distinction between human thoughts and the content of those thoughts, e.g., propositions). Consequently, the thoughts of contingent minds must be themselves contingent. Another problem, less serious but still significant, is that this alternative scenario violates the principle of parsimony.

In the case of human thoughts, we have to distinguish between those thoughts and the propositional content of those thoughts precisely because we have to account for the fact that humans can share thoughts, i.e., have thoughts with the same content, and that content must exist independently of those human thoughts. Thus, for example, you and I may both have the thought that 2+2=4, but the content of our thoughts (the proposition that 2+2=4) must be distinct from those thoughts because you could have had that same thought had I never existed, and vice versa. Indeed, someone else could have had that same thought (i.e., a thought with the same propositional content) had neither of us ever existed. (This points to what Welty calls the “objectivity condition” for propositions; propositions are the objects of human mental attitudes and activities — believing, knowing, desiring, hoping, etc. — and those objects must be independent of the human minds that entertain them.)

But here’s the key point: none of this requires that divine thoughts have content distinct from those thoughts. The considerations that drive us to distinguish human thoughts from their propositional content simply do not apply to God’s thoughts (although presumably they would apply to other creaturely thoughts, e.g., angelic thoughts). Indeed, in the case of God’s thoughts, we deny that there is any such distinction, because we argue for identity between propositions and divine thoughts. In other words, the propositions that serve as the content of human thoughts (such as the proposition that 2+2=4) just are divine thoughts, precisely because only divine thoughts would have the kind of features (objectivity, necessity, intrinsic intentionality, and so forth) that propositions must have in order to play the roles that we take them to play.3

If the critic wants to insist that all thoughts must have content distinct from those thoughts, divine thoughts included, he owes us an independent argument for that conclusion. Nothing in our argument for divine conceptualism presupposes that kind of universal claim about thought-content.

Now comes the second part of the response. Having established that we reject any ontological distinction between divine thoughts and the content of those thoughts, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see how Malpass’s dilemma can be answered. We deny that A and B are the only two options. For any divine thought t, t doesn’t have propositional content distinct from itself; rather, t just is propositional content. In other words, t just is what we call a ‘proposition’: that which serves (or at least could serve) as the propositional content of our own thoughts.4

But aren’t we then committed to the idea that a divine thought can be its own content, which is precisely the notion Malpass argues against in order to set up his dilemma? Obviously we aren’t committed to the idea that a divine thought t can be its own propositional content p where p is some entity distinct from t. That would indeed be incoherent; but that is not our position. Rather, our position is that divine thoughts “have content” simply in virtue of being propositions (i.e., being those entities that play the role of propositions, the propositional objects of human thoughts).5

If someone objects that it is impossible for something both to have propositional content but also to be identical to that propositional content, I would point out that this objection, if successful, would refute any realist view of propositions, not merely divine conceptualism. Take, for example, the Fregean platonist view according to which propositions are mind-independent abstract entities (i.e., real immaterial entities that exist necessarily and independently of any mind, human or divine). Consider the Fregean proposition that 2+2=4. Does that proposition “have content”? Is it contentful? Yes, of course; otherwise it wouldn’t be the proposition that 2+2=4 rather than (say) the proposition that Paris is beautiful in the spring. But is the content of that proposition some entity distinct from the proposition itself? No, of course not; otherwise we’d be on the road to an infinite regress. There has to be some fundamental entity that plays the role of propositional content, and that fundamental entity is… wait for it… a proposition. A proposition just is propositional content.

An analogy with Plato’s theory of the Forms may help to reinforce the point. According to Plato’s view of property possession, S is P if and only if S participates in the Form of P.6 For example, Socrates is good if and only if Socrates participates in the Form of the Good. But now consider this question: Is the Form of the Good itself good?

Plato certainly wants to say yes. If anything is good, surely the Form of the Good is good! But someone might raise a parallel to Malpass’s dilemma. Given the principle that no form can participate in itself, either (A) the Form of the Good participates in no form at all or (B) the Form of the Good participates in some form distinct from the Form of the Good. Clearly both of these options are going to be problematic with respect to the claim that the Form of the Good is itself good. But Plato’s response will be to reject both horns of the dilemma and insist that the Form of the Good is good simply in virtue of being the Form of the Good. After all, something has to play the role of the Form of the Good (i.e., the universal in which all good particulars participate), and whatever that thing turns out to be, it’s going to be good precisely because it plays that role.

In a similar way, we might argue, something has to play the role of the propositional content of human thoughts, and whatever that thing turns out to be, it’s going to be contentful precisely because it plays that role. Our argument is that divine thoughts play that role. Now, one can dispute that by defending some alternative metaphysical theory of propositions (e.g., the Fregean platonist account or some non-theistic conceptualist account) but the point is that Malpass’s dilemma (or a counterpart of it) can be directed just as well to that alternative theory. So Malpass’s criticism doesn’t really target a distinctive feature of divine conceptualism, and once we grant that propositions must be “their own content” in some sense, the dilemma evaporates.

All this to say, the answer to the question, “What is the content of proposition p?” is either “Just p itself” or “The question is misguided.” (It’s like asking Plato, “What makes the Form of the Good good?”) Hence, if propositions are ultimately divine thoughts, as the divine conceptualist argues, then the answer to the question, “What is the propositional content of divine thought t?” turns out to be either “Just t itself” or “The question is misguided.”

One final remark. None of this hangs on any particular theory about the structure of propositions (e.g., simple versus complex) or about how propositions possess or express content. As far as I can tell, divine conceptualism (and the response to Malpass’s dilemma I’ve offered here) is compatible with various theories about propositional content. At any rate, the burden of argument lies with the critic who claims otherwise.

  1. This criticism also came up in our conversation last September hosted by Parker Settecase.
  2. As we note in our paper, someone might take the laws of logic to be something other than propositions (e.g., relations), but in that case we can simply restate the argument in terms of necessarily true propositions about the laws of logic.
  3. For a more detailed discussion of how the argument for divine conceptualism depends on identifying the functional roles that propositions must play, see Greg Welty, “The Conceptualist Argument,” in Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology, ed. Colin Ruloff & Peter Horban (Bloomsbury, 2021).
  4. Strictly speaking, we are not committed to the claim that every divine thought is a proposition or could serve as the propositional content of a human thought. We are committed only to the claim that all propositions — that is to say, all primary bearers of truth-value — are ultimately divine thoughts.
  5. To say that divine thoughts “have content” is somewhat misleading on the face of it, because it seems to imply a distinction between the thought and the content. It would be more apt to say that divine thoughts are contentful. They do not lack content (Malpass’s Horn A) but also they do not have content distinct from themselves (Malpass’s Horn B).
  6. Whether or not Plato actually held this view doesn’t matter for our purposes here. If Plato didn’t hold this view, we may attribute it to the fictional philosopher Schmato instead.

2 thoughts on “On Malpass’s Dilemma”

  1. Excellent response! I was thinking along these lines after you responded to a question I had about this. I kept thinking that Malpass wasn’t getting it (neither was Parker) on the podcast. As always clear crisp writing on your part.

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