theistic conceptual realism

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.

  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.

A Conversation with Alex Malpass

Last week I had the pleasure of interacting with British philosopher Dr. Alex Malpass on the topic of the argument for God from logic. (Many thanks to podcaster extraordinaire Parker Settecase for hosting and moderating the discussion.) Dr. Malpass recently published an article in the journal Sophia in which he leveled several objections at the Anderson-Welty argument. Here’s the abstract for the article:

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 our 90-minute-or-so live-broadcast discussion, Dr. Malpass summarized his three criticisms and I gave responses to each one. We also fielded a few questions from viewers. In the end, there was a surprising (but gratifying) amount of agreement between us regarding some of the logical and metaphysical issues at stake, even though Alex remains unpersuaded by the argument! Anyway, you can watch the exchange and draw your own conclusions:

Be sure to watch right to the end, where the two Brits are invited to weigh in on the contentious coffee-versus-tea debate.

I’m grateful to Dr. Malpass for his willingness to participate in what proved to be an illuminating and good-humored discussion, and I look forward to further exchanges (including, I hope, a published response to his article). For those interested, Dr. Malpass has his own blog here.

Why One?

Earlier this year I received the following thoughtful question from DG (as I will refer to him) about the argument for God from logic, which I quote in full:

In his essay [in Beyond the Control of God?] Professor Welty points out that in TCR [Theistic Conceptual Realism] “objectivity is secured by there being just one omniscient and necessarily existent person whose thoughts are uniquely identified as AOs.” But how do we get to this one from within the confines of a TCR approach alone? And in “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” you and Professor Welty state: “If the laws of logic are necessarily existent thoughts, they can only be the thoughts of a necessarily existent mind.” Here we go from plural thoughts to a singular mind as we do in the conclusion: “But if there are necessarily existent thoughts, there must be a necessarily existent mind; and if there is a necessarily existent mind, there must be a necessarily existent person.” But why not minds or persons? In note 31, you partially address my concern: “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.” You then show how this option fails and I agree. But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths? This is certainly ontologically extravagant and, as Adams notes in his book on Leibniz (p. 181), perhaps we can simply appeal to Ockham’s Razor to deduce one mind. But he adds, and I agree, that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable”.

At first I thought we could, as Quentin Smith suggests in his essay “The Conceptualist Argument for God’s Existence”, claim that the actual world is an infinite conjunction of all true propositions and that such a proposition, following conceptualism, could only be an accusative of one omniscient mind. But to claim there is such an infinite conjunctive proposition that needs a mind to account for it, given the view that propositions are mental effects, seems to assume there is an infinite mind who is thinking the infinite conjunction. Thus the addition of the actual world in the argument appears to beg the question.

I also considered Leibniz’s argument that without one divine mind we can’t account for how necessary truths “can be combined, any one to any one, because any two propositions can be connected to prove a new one”. But here we also seem to presuppose one mind sustaining the infinite conjunction of necessary truths that we discover in our finite combinations. Pruss, in his discussion of Leibniz’s approach, brings in a possible worlds option by pointing out that “the idea of a possible world will contain the ideas of all other possible worlds since at that world it will be true that they are possible” (Actuality, Possibility, and Worlds, 207). But wouldn’t we need one omniscient mind intending the world ensemble that is supposed to help us infer there is one omniscient mind thinking the ensemble?

I suppose we could appeal to a premise that states it is impossible for there to be a necessarily existing mind different from God. But this doesn’t seem persuasive to me at the moment.

As I understand it, the objection can be boiled down to this. Even granting that we’ve shown that necessary truths (such the laws of logic) presuppose a necessarily existent mind, it doesn’t follow that these truths are grounded in only one such mind. As DG puts it:

But what excludes many necessary beings each of which sustain some necessary truths?

An obvious first move would be to appeal to the principle of parsimony. We should not multiply entities beyond necessity. If necessary truths need to be grounded in a necessarily existent mind, then one such mind will suffice. There’s no explanatory need for further minds. But I also agree that “a more rigorous argument would be desirable,” so what follows is a preliminary sketch of one.

Six Views on God and Abstract Objects

Readers interested in the argument for God from logic will want to check out a forthcoming book: Beyond the Control of God? Six Views on the Problem of God and Abstract Objects, edited by Paul Gould, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.

From the publisher’s website:

The question of God’s relationship to abstract objects touches on a number of perennial concerns related to the nature of God. God is typically thought to be an independent and self-sufficient being. Further, God is typically thought to be supremely sovereign such that all reality distinct from God is dependent on God’s creative and sustaining activity. However, the view that there are abstract objects seems to be a repudiation of this traditional understanding of God. Abstract objects are typically thought to exist necessarily and it is natural to think that if something exists necessarily, it does so because it is its nature to exist. Thus, abstract objects exist independently of God, which is a repudiation of the traditional understanding of God. Philosophers have called this the problem of God and abstract objects.

In this book, six contemporary solutions to the problem are set out and defended against objections. It will be valuable for all students or scholars who are interested in the concept and nature of God.

A Friendly Question about God and Logic

Here’s a thoughtful email query I received with the title “Friendly Question about God and Logic”:

Recently, I have been reading about God and abstract objects and came across your article in Phil-Christi with Greg Welty regarding God and logic. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both persuasive and useful. In doing further reading on your website I came across a follow up article where you argue that atheism presupposes theism (and so does every other ism) and your argument gets close to an objection to the claim that logic depends on God that I have long wondered about. In the article, in reference to Atheism you argue the following:

(1) God does not exist. [assumption for reductio]
(2) It is true that God does not exist. [from (1)]
(3) There is at least one truth (namely, the truth that there is no God). [from (2)]
(4) If there are truths, they are divine thoughts.
(5) There is at least one divine thought. [from (3) and (4)]
(6) If there are divine thoughts, then God exists.
(7) Therefore, God exists. [from (5) and (6)]

Consider the following reconstruction:

(1*) God does not exist. [assumption for reductio]
(2*) It is true that God does not exist. [from (1*)]
(3*) There is at least one truth (namely, the truth that there is no God). [from (2*)]
(4*) Therefore, truth does not depend on God. [from (1*) and (3*)]

Let me make explicit why I think (1*-4*):

(5*) The laws of logic are divine thoughts.
(6*) According to the aseity-sovereignty doctrine if God did not exist then nothing would exist.
(7*) If God did not exist there would be no divine thoughts.
(8*) Therefore, there would be no laws of logic.

But if (5*-8*) hold, the proposition either God exists or He does not, would be a truthful description of that state of affairs and be an instance of the LEM. Likewise, the proposition God exists, would be false, not true. Not both true and false, thus an instance of the LNC.

Or another way of stating it would be:

If God did not exist then nothing would exist. But it seems that even if God did not exist there would be at least one thing that would exist, the state of affairs, nothing exists. Doesn’t that imply/entail that there is at least one truth about that state of affairs, the truth nothing exists? If that is the case don’t we have laws of logic?

I assume my objection is misguided in some way. If you have time to address this question and clarify my error I would appreciate it.

God and Propositions: The Saga Continues

Previously on Analogical Thoughts:

  • In an article co-authored with Greg Welty I argued that if there are laws of logic then there must be a God. A key part of the argument is to explain why propositions should be understood as divine thoughts.
  • In a comment on a subsequent post Jeff asked how I would respond to the claim that God doesn’t think propositionally.
  • In a comment on my answer Jeff cited (without necessarily endorsing) some remarks to the contrary by Nate Shannon and William Lane Craig. Another commenter, Ray, also mentioned some relevant footnotes in Scott Oliphint’s God With Us.

In this week’s exciting episode, I examine the arguments of Shannon, Oliphint, and Craig. Do they show that God doesn’t think propositionally or that propositions couldn’t be divine thoughts? Does the doctrine of divine simplicity rule out Theistic Conceptual Realism? Should anyone care either way? We’ll be right back with some answers after the following short section break!

Does God Think Propositionally?

Commenter Jeff posed a question in response to an earlier post:

I was wondering though how you might respond to the view held by some in the Reformed camp such as Oliphint (I think at least, so don’t hold me to it) and Poythress that God does not think propositionally. I am not sure if they would advocate the contingency of propositions, then, but if you ever have the time, could you explain how the argument might still go through, or if the objection has no effect at all?

It depends on what exactly is meant by “thinking propositionally”. If the claim is that God’s thoughts aren’t dependent on propositions (conceived as truth-bearing abstract entities) that exist externally to God and independently of God, in some kind of self-existent Platonic realm, then I wholeheartedly agree. Welty and I have argued that propositions are divine thoughts, which would rule out that Platonist scenario.

However, if the claim is that God does not think in terms of propositions at all, then I strongly disagree. For that amounts to saying that God does not think in terms of truth and falsity. Propositions are conventionally defined as the primary truth-bearers (see, e.g., the recently revised SEP entry). Propositions are simply those entities that are non-derivatively true or false. If God has any true thoughts then it follows by the very definition of ‘proposition’ that God thinks propositionally. And, of course, God does have true thoughts. (How could God reveal truths to us without first having true thoughts?)