How Should I Be A Sceptic -- an introduction to generaleism (or final abstraction)

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

As I follow my line of thought through these chapters, I am finding that certain issues which will be developed more clearly at the beginning of my second section are coming to the forefront now--and must necessarily do so. I worry about this, because I do not want to presume my later conclusions here in an unfair manner--for which I, as a sceptic, would be keeping a sharp and (rightfully) suspicious watch!

Furthermore, I suspect some of my Christian (and other theistic) brethren will be taken aback at the strong criticisms I have leveled at certain people on 'my side of the aisle'. I do think such criticism is necessary; and I have tried to explain why I think this, as I bring up the topics. Yet I would not blame such brethren for being suspicious, at this point, about where exactly I am going with all this.

Keeping these prudent suspicions in mind, let me take a moment before I forge the next link in my topical chain, to try to reassure both audiences.

To my sceptical readers: nothing I have written thus far, argues that God exists. I have of course introduced hypothetical instances where, to make my point, God must be presumed to exist; but these are not conclusions that He exists, and I have not treated them as such. A hypothetical discussion is one that does not need to be true, nor be accepted as true. For instance, given Robert Jordan's cosmological structure in his Wheel of Time series, readers of his books (like myself) can sit around all day working out his metaphysical logic (such as it is) without ever once believing that his works necessarily reflect our ultimate reality. I think my sceptical reader could treat my chapters up to this point in the same way: you could (and I hope do) agree with my logic so far, without accepting the reality of some of the topics I have discussed with (and for the sake of) my allies. Put another way, I think I am still fulfilling one of my key goals for this section: if I was an atheist (for instance), I would still be making these exact same points. I will not deny that I am, in certain respects, refuting some kinds of philosophical claims; but I am not yet replacing them with a particular set of religious beliefs. I have said this whole book is my testimony to why I believe Christianity to be true; you could say this first section would be my testimony to the kind of sceptic I would be if I nevertheless rejected the Christian philosophical position. [Footnote: I am not directly analyzing Christian historical positions in this book, though I do have something to say about them in my final section.] I would not be 'this' or 'that' type of unbeliever; and this is why. I think I am doing a fair enough job, so far, as an analytical sceptic.

"Yes, a 'damnably' good job!" the theist may snort. Well, that's the way my argument has gone so far, so I can hardly blame that sort of response. I can only ask you to hang on, because (as I know from hindsight) I will be getting back eventually to a fully supernaturalistic theism, with all the attendant philosophical details (including those specific to Christianity). I think I can even set up the argument so that many of my theistic-yet-non-Christian brethren (such as Jews and Muslims) will be able to follow along in agreement pretty far, and thus will find my book useful (up to those points, at least) for their own positions. I am not abandoning the faith. I am trying to clear it up by pointing out aspects of the faith as the faith has sometimes been presented which I consider hazardous; and I have tried to explain why I think this. I do indeed affirm many specific proposals which shall be entirely familiar to my theistic audience (including my specifically Christian audience), and toward which I am slowly working. Which leads me back to the topic for this chapter!

One potential objection to the type of argument I will be attempting, beginning in Section Two, is that God does not have particular characteristics to discover. He is, instead, an abstract generality.

The people who would make this objection might be pantheists or nominal deists or cosmological dualists. However not every adherent to these three ideas (which I will be discussing more fully later, in various places) would agree that God is an abstract generality. Therefore, I will artificially break such proponents into their own subgroup according to this common belief of theirs, and call them 'generaleists'.

A generaleist may have any of several grounds for believing God to be an abstract generality; and very often generaleists intend to render honor to Him (or perhaps I should say 'to the idea of Him') by expressing, through this concept, that God transcends discursive thought.

I do not deny that if God exists, He transcends, in some fashion, our ability to think about Him. But as I have already indicated, there is more than one way for God to transcend our thought. Do the generaleists have the correct, or at least the best, interpretation of this concept?

I think there are at least three ways to interpret this transcendence, and the first two are generaleistic positions:

a.) nothing we say about God can be true;

b.) everything we say about God can be true;

c.) what we can say about God can be true or false, and there are (effectively) an infinite number of topics concerning God which may be described this way.

[Footnote: even atheists are not left out of option (c): "God exists" is something we can say about God, and may, as far as I've gone, be false.]

Of these concepts describing God as 'transcending discursive thought', the first two do so by negating discursive thought. I do not consider 'transcending' and 'negating' to mean the same thing; so I am immediately suspicious about whether options 'a' and 'b' are viable.

Furthermore, I have been discussing variations of option 'a' already; and the key problem remains for me here: if option 'a' was true, then at best it would be something we never could have discovered, and at worst it refutes itself for it posits at least one 'true' thing we may say about God.

Calling such a situation a 'divine contradiction' does not help matters (as I argued in the [two entries of the] previous chapter) because such a tactic destroys its adherent's ability to propose one thing and not another as being true about God; which, despite appearances, is exactly what the generaleist does, although he may not have intended it.

If he claims that nothing we say about God can be true, he is concurrently denying that I can possibly be correct in discovering particular characteristics of God. But this proposed indescribability of God is one characteristic, and not another; which is precisely what the generaleist denies can be posited (or argued or discovered or whatever) about God.

Or, if he embraces this position as a contradiction, then he has no way of denying (short of flat assertion) a refuting position from me.

In the end, this strategy seems to me to lead away from rational thought altogether; I will not follow that route because it leads literally to nowhere. Thus, in a way, I have already argued against this position.

But I have a further qualm with generaleism that is specific (please pardon the pun) to the claims of its proponents: I do not think a generality can produce the concrete. This notion has quite a few links to some common misunderstandings of 'natural laws', so I will also try to defuse this potential landmine as I pass near it.

[Next time: particular problems with generalism]


Jason Pratt said…
Back when I first posted this chapter, I hadn't realized that without dropping in a comment I wouldn't be registered in the blogger system for comment alerts--despite being the author of the post!

So, here's the registration. {wry g}


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