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Tag Archives: Skepticism

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

The Backbone Concept

Graham Harman posts a brief summation of his thinking about the lasting historical heritage of a natural dichotomy in philosophy, occasionalism vs. skepticism. I can’t tell, maybe this was something of a response to my last post on his attempted complementary reading of Hume and Malebranche. If it is, it does not address the error of Malebranche and then Reid which produces this dichotomy of matching errors; but it does provide an interesting tracing of this split into contemporary philosophy (to some anticipated consternation of Kantians who thought Kant effectively changed the location of the Sun, for the better).

But Graham’s appeal to occasionalism brings to mind something larger, the difficulty in how much of a theistic philosophical metaphysics can or should be taken into non-theistic contexts. Graham for instance wants to describe the world as an occasionalist, wherein the explanatory feature of such a theory from the past is “God”. He seems to feel that all that remains is for someone to overcome the fear of blasphemy that contrained someone like Malebranche, and adopt the theory sans God, that is, sans explanans.

To my ear though, taking the explanatory feature of “God” out of occasionalist thinking (and many other Medieval to 17th century philosophical explanations) could be compared to taking the actual vertebra out of the organisms of the classification Vertebrates. It leaves something of a non-functioning organism of jelly. Impressive as a loose assemblage of visera. We see the conceptual organs all there laying in a puddle, but why can’t it lift itself or walk?

I think that as we examine and appropriate philosophies from other centuries, in particular theories that turn to a comprensive concept of God as an explanatory force, there is a danger of thinking that we can remove for ours own use all the non-theistic elements, as if they were the “real” philosophy, now stripped of their superstition. Part of this tendency (and one can see it when people talk about Descartes’ theory of Mind in a contemporary sense), comes from our experiences from science. It seems to us properly atheistic moderns that “God” was a kind of superfluous idea tacked onto real  physical explanation, something Occam’s Razor can simply shave off. Thinkers of the past were something like closet atheists, or immanent underdeveloped atheists. Aside from the distortion this brings to the history of Science itself such that we no longer understand what scientific theories meant to those that invented them, (Newton was after all a devoted Alchemist), in the conceptual jigsaw-puzzle realm of philosophy to take out the “God” part of a metaphysical explanation often does not often leave behind a functioning, coherent theory of the world. There is no residing “physical theory” lying beneath the “theistic theory” which structured the concepts organizing the metaphysics of Medieval, Renaissance and 17th century thought. One cannot simply peel away the layer of God, exposing the bones of rationality, for the concept  of God made up much of those bones.

This does not mean that one has to remain a theist in order to make use of strong influences from these centuries, but it does mean that one has to account, piece by piece, for the full explanatory function that the concept of “God” served in any such theory. One cannot simply subtract the “God” out of Augustine’s theory of a world of semiotics, nor even the “God” out of Descartes’ theory of cognition and Substance, and certainly not the “God” out of Malebranche’s occassionalism without a severe restructuring of coherent interrelations of concepts, and a restoration of the explantory power of the theory itself,  in replacement terms of its most dynamic concept. Philosophy is not science (and science is probably not even science).

Skepticism refuted in Under Ten Minutes

Philosophy is part performance (as much as it would like to purge every element of the contingent from its expression). Without the performative of bodies, and affects of words, images, metaphors, analogies, meanings would circulate airlessly. Convicition is performed, and Peitho was a goddess.

Watch Randy Helzerman “disprove” skepticism using Davidson’s notion of a Principle of Charity like a rapier, and see the whole thing cohere. Impressive.

As a secondary, more philosophical note, I find it interesting that as the skeptically deprived subject is “drained” of substantive belief, he becomes a determined thing, something indistinguishable from a “taperecorder”, not at all unlike Spinoza’s concept of our own “spiritual automaton” status. It would merely be an automaton with whom we could not communicate. Something out of the order of our Form of Life.

Anselm’s Proof of God, Wittgenstein’s Lion, Davidson’s Belief

 The Mystery of the word Understands

Anselm’s Ontological Proof of God

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; no more nor less.

This is the fairly concise wikipedia summation of his argument, taken from the second chapter of his Proslogion:

Anselm presents the ontological argument as part of a prayer directed at God. He starts with a definition of God, or a necessary assumption about the nature of God, or perhaps both.

“Now we believe that [the Lord] is something that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
Then Anselm asks if God exists.

“Then is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart: God is not?”
To answer this, he first tries to show that God exists “in the understanding”:

“But certainly this same fool, when he hears this very thing that I am saying-something than which nothing greater can be imagined-understands what he hears; and what he understands is in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it is. For it is one thing for a thing to be in the understanding, and another to understand that a thing is.”

Anselm goes on to justify his assumption, using the analogy of a painter:

“For when a painter imagines beforehand what he is going to make, he has in his understanding what he has not yet made but he does not yet understand that it is. But when he has already painted it, he both has in his understanding what he has already painted and understands that it is.

“Therefore, even the fool is bound to agree that there is at least in the understanding something than which nothing greater can be imagined, because, when he hears this, he understands it, and whatever is understood is in the understanding.”

Now Anselm introduces another assumption, which some authors have argued to have introduced a new version of the argument:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater.”

“Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be.”

Anselm has thus found the contradiction from which he draws his conclusion:

“There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”

Anselm responds to Guanilo’s critique of this so-called Ontological Proof of God with a metaphor of the sun, and the sun’s light. In a Plotinus-like analogy, he says that though we may not be able to look directly at the sun, that does not mean that we do not see the sun’s light, when we look at things in the world,

Do you not believe that the being of which these things are understood can be thought about or understood or be in the thought or understanding to some extent? For if he is not, then we cannot understand these things about him. If you say that he is not understood or in the understanding because he is not fully understood, say as well that one who cannot look directly at the sun does not see the light of day, which is nothing other than the light of the sun. Certainly “a being greater than which cannot be thought of” is understood and exists in the understanding at least to the extent that these statements about it are understood.

If you recall, Guanilo rebutted Anselm’s idea that merely because we can conceive of something perfect, does not mean that such a thing exists, hence imagining a perfect island does not mean that a perfect island exists. But Anselm wants Guanilo to see that thinking of a perfect island is not anything like understanding the concept of God, for God is not a “thing”, but really the condition for things to be things, the maximalization of all thought. One could say, without much distortion, that God is understood by Anselm to be the Principle of Coherence. And he is arguing that if indeed you understand what coherence is, you cannot argue against its existence. Apart from the meritoriousness of such an argument, what is key to seeing why Anselm is so convinced is that the argument trades upon the notion of what “understands” means.

It is for this reason that Anselm presents his “proof” not in syllogistic form, but in the narrative of an actual person engaging in the thought of God. He wants to question how someone can really understand something, and yet still deny it, an act that makes such a person a “fool”. This is how he frames it:

Chapter 4: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought How in the world could he have said in his heart what he could not think? Or how indeed could he not have thought what he said in his heart, since saying it in his heart is the same as thinking it? But if he really thought it because he said it in his heart, and did not say it in his heart because he could not possibly have thought it – and that seems to be precisely what happened – then there must be more than one way in which something can be said in one’s heart or thought. For a thing is thought in one way when the words signifying it are thought, and it is thought in quite another way when the thing signified is understood. God can be thought not to exist in the first way but not in the second. For no one who understands what God is can think that he does not exist. Even though he may say those words in his heart he will give them some other meaning or no meaning at all. For God is that greater than which cannot be thought. Whoever understands this also understands that God exists in such a way that one cannot even think of him as not existing.


If one examines his words closely, one can see that he says that there are two ways of thinking the words that are in your heart. The first is when the words themselves that are doing signifying, are merely thought. This has been translated to be something along the lines of “concieved”. The second is when the signified itself is understood (intellectum). In the second case, to deny this understanding is the sign of a fool. It is for this reason that the crux of his proof is put particularly in those terms, the terms of understanding:

Why therefore did the fool say in his heart “there is no God,” since it is so evident to any rational mind that you above all things exist? Why indeed, except precisely because he is stupid and foolish?

Chapter Three, Proslogion

Either the fool does not understand in the first place the concept of God, or, rather more absurdly for Anselm, he understands the concept, but still denies it. If we allow the transformation, something akin is in play in so many skeptical views towards knowing: if one understands what coherence is, it is absurd to deny that there is coherence.

I have great favor for critiques of coherence, either as an absolute, or in its concrete examples. The worlds of Derrida, Lacan and Adorno play with the light and dark possibilities of sense. But I think we are forced to engage Anselm’s analysis, to some degree, on its own ground.

R. W. Southern locates the precise fulcrum of Anselm’s argument in his debate with Guanilo. It is that for Anselm “understanding” is both ontological and experiential. Understaning the signified of God is a shift in ontological status in the thinker, and this shift is experienced in a direct way.

Southern writes,

[Anselm thinks] “if God exists, there must be a level of experience at which it is impossible to think of God as not existing”. So it is nearly beatific experience.

Responsio editoris 9, 138, 13-4.

As Eileen C. Sweeny observes, Anselm believes that if someone disagrees with his argument, he simply does not understand it. Besides the happenstance that this pretty much how all of us feel when others do not agree with us, because Anselm is dealing with the very limits of thought, (a thing which no greater a thing can be conceived and with coherence itself), one must ask, is there something to this notion of “understands” as experienced.

Wittgenstein’s Lion

There is a very different, in appearance, use of “understands” many centuries later that perhaps sheds light upon what Anselm is trying to say. It is in Wittgenstein gnomic and tantalizing reference to a lion imagined to speak:

If a lion could talk we could not understand (verstehen) him (Philosophical Investigations, Third Edition, p. 190).

This is a poetic and interesting thing to say, but what does it mean? Wittgenstein is said to be drawing out just how much the meanings in our language are dependent upon our “forms of life”, and he is suggesting that a “form of life” (its concerns and practices) maybe so divergent of our own that we could not understand whatever such a lion would mean. Quite unlike Anselm’s notion of “if you understand me, you will agree with me,” does it not rely upon a particularly opaque use of the word “understand”? For instance, an ethologist in Africa we would say “understands” lions, in a way that the average urban person does not, (as does perhaps an experienced lion tamer). So certainly the use of the word “understand,” even when there is no strict “talking” present, has meaning in the context of lions. One would imagine that given the addition of speech, such specialists indeed would only “understand” them better. Now why, on principle, would a lion imagined to speak then be incapable of being understood? What would be the measure of “understanding” be? Fluency?

My suspicion is that there is something in this analogy which is confessional, that is, Wittgenstein as a brilliant, German Jew, was a kind of un-understandable “lion” among the carefully kept minds of the English at Cambridge, as can be seen in the paragraph preceding the citation, where he speaks of “transparency” in the context of coming to the customs of a foreign country:

We also say of people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given the mastery of the country’s language. We do not understand (versteht) the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them (ibid).



Taken together, it would seem that Wittgenstein would like to say, “We would not be able to understand a lion if she could speak, that is, we would not be able to ‘find our feet with her’, but we would be able to know what she is saying to herself”. There would be a degree of separability which would not be conceptual. We may be able to read someone’s thoughts, but not their intentions (seen in the paragraph that follows).

When considering “real” lions (and does not Wittgenstein always want us to return to the concrete circumstances of communication), this seems like an odd thing to conclude, for it is really that ethnologists (and lion tamers), indeed do well predicting intentions (actions), and one would imagine that this would only be facilitated by the capacity for speech. After a few brief observations which speak to the community of knowledges, Wittgenstein ends up making a point about the instrumental “foundation” of predictions of behaviors. A third person pov has a different foundation for his prediction of my behavior, than I do:

Two points, however, are important: one, that in many cases someone else cannot predict my actions, whereas I foresee them in my intentions; the other, that my prediction (in my expression of intention) has not the same foundation as his prediction of what I shall do, and the conclusions to be drawn from these predictions are quite different.

I can be as certain of someone else’s sensations as of any fact. But this does not make the propositions “He is much depressed”, “25 x 25 =625” and “I am sixty years old” into similar instruments. The explanation suggests itself that the certainty is of a different kind.–This seems to point to a psychological difference. But the difference is logical (logischer) (ibid).

What began as a meditational approach to cultural (and perhaps even species) estrangement, the lack of understanding has dissolved into a point “logical”, the differing of “instruments”. What has happened to the claim that if a lion could talk, we could not understand him? If we accept Wittgenstein’s story of alienation and “not getting our feet” with someone (anyone?), understanding itself, as it is experienced, remains in tact. The instruments work together. Transparency, as he named it, exists, if only in degrees. And no one who can be said to communicate is utterly opaque, or what Wittgenstein calls a “complete enigma”. Instead really, it is against the backdrop of understanding that any failure to understand, takes place.

I believe here, in the very experience of understanding, of coherence, as it presents itself, that Anselm’s experiential proof lies.


Donald Davidson’s Unquestionable Belief

The last stop in the tour of understanding is philosopher Donald Davidson’s rebuttal of the skeptic who claims that it is possible that all our beliefs are false. Davidson’s reply, in short, is much like Anselm’s. If indeed the skeptic, or anyone else, understandswhat a belief is, he must understand that beliefs are by the very nature both veridical, and holistic in nature. Any doubt of a particular belief precludes the doubt of all beliefs.

This is the core of his argumentation:

What is needed to answer the skeptic is to show that someone with a (more or less) coherent set of beliefs has a reason to suppose that his beliefs are not mistaken in the main. What we have shown is that it is absurd to look for a justifying ground for the totality of beliefs, something outside this totality which we can use to test or compare with our beliefs. The answer to our problem must be to find a reason for supposing most of our beliefs are true.that is not a form of evidence.

My argument has two parts.First I urge that a correct understanding of the speech, beliefs, desires, intentions, and other propositional attitudes of a person leads to the conclusion that most of a person’s beliefs are true, and so there is a legitimate presumption that any one of them, if it coheres with most of the rest, is true. Then I go on to claim that anyone with thoughts, and so in particular anyone who wonders he has any reason to suppose he is generally right about the nature of his environment, must know what a belief is, and how in general beliefs are to be detected and interpreted. These being perfectly general facts we cannot fail to use when we communicate with others, or when we try to communicate with others, or even when we merely think we are communicating with others, there is a pretty strong sense in which we can be said to know that there is a presumption in favor of the overall truthfulness of anyone’s beliefs, including our own. So it is bootless for anyone to ask for some further reassurance; that can only add to his stock of beliefs. All that is needed is that he recognize that belief is inherently veridical…

…Take for example the interdependence of belief and meaning. What a sentence means depends partly on the external circumstances that cause it to win some degree of conviction; and partly on the relations, grammatical or logical, that the sentence has to other sentences held true with varying degrees of conviction…it is impossible for a speaker to understand a speaker and at the same time to discover the speaker to be largely wrong about the world. For the interpreter interprets sentences held true (which is not to be distinguished from attributing beliefs) according to the events and objects in the outside world that cause the sentences to be held true….

…What stands in the way of global skepticism of the senses is, in my view, that fact that we must, in the plainest and methodologically most basic cases, take the objects of a belief, to be the causes of that belief. And what we, as interpreters, must take them to be is what they in fact are. Communication begins where causes converge: your utterance means what mine does if belief in its truth is systematically caused by the same events and objects…

…All beliefs are justified in this sense: they are supported by numerous other beliefs (otherwise they wouldn’t be the beliefs that they are), and have a presumption in favor of their truth. The presumption increases the larger and more significant the body of beliefs which which a belief coheres and, there being no such thing as an isolated belief, there is no belief without a presumption in its favor.

“A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge”

Much like Anselm’s notion of understand, Davidson argues, though in a different fashion, for the logical coherence of beliefs, such that the very nature of beliefs precludes their global falsity. Because beliefs are an explanatory attribution (we atttribute them to explain the rationality of behavior) and do not exist apart from any such explanatory apparatus, it makes no sense to say that all our beliefs might be false. To put it another way, with each “might be false” that is added to the last “might be false”, when attending to beliefs, there is an geometric descrease in likelihood of falsity. At the lower end of any such approach to a “completely false” totality of beliefs, these simply are no longer beliefs. They would not longer be functioning as the explanation of behavior taken to be rational.

The skeptical problem arises in thinking that one belief can be held up to the world, and compared, in isolation from all other beliefs, and still remain a belief. It arises from thinking of correspondence as the determination of the “truth” of belief. Beliefs are something we do, and not merely have.

In a certain sense, to use a mechanical analogy, any one part of a machine could be broken (let us say, if it is not functioning up to par, but still functioning quite well), and there is even a possibility that this part is broken, and that part is broken, and that part too is broken. But the entire process of diagnosis which involves checking parts (like checking beliefs) would be meaningless if you therefore concluded “Hey, ALL parts might be broken”. This would change the notion of what a part is, and what broken is.

(This is why Spinoza, when taking up the possibility, changes the notion of “know” and says that falsity is only a privation.)

I believe that something of Anselm’s experiential, even beatific, foundations for conviction of coherence (God), and Davidson’s logical argument for the essential veridicality and coherent nature of belief, is what brackets what “understanding” means. Despite Wittgenstein’s claim about his lion, (and we all have experienced those that mystify us, with whom we can never get our feet), in principle, not only must a speaking lion be understandable, but she also must be predictable, for the very nature of understanding is that it provides prediction.

And though Wittgenstein would like to argue for a differential “foundation” for the prediction of behavior, where in you, “in many cases” are not able to predict what I will do while I seem quite privileged in the fact, because of a more ubiquitous quality to understanding, we each can become alienated from ourselves, saying nothing of customs, strange lands, and traditions, wherein the “foundation” of the observations of others can prove better able to predict our actions than we.