Reason and the First Person -- a serious problem with this argument for theism

[Note: the contents page for this series can be found here. The previous entry, the final for chapter 19, can be found here.]

[This entry constitutes Chapter 20. While I'll recap relevant issues below, I definitely recommend being familiar with the case so far. A 25 page summary (from a couple of different directions, including one of supreme importance to me) of the 125 pages of discussion and analysis in this Section, up to now, can be found starting here.]

One of the key points to my past few chapters is that philosophies can be broken down into two mutually exclusive categories--atheisms, and not-atheisms--and that if one of those general branches requires a contradiction of the Golden Presumption, then it should be deducted from the option list. Using this strategy, I pared off atheism, leaving the branches of 'not-atheism' for further scrutiny.

However, there is a potential problem looming: would the same tactic also deduct not-atheisms from the option list?

Does the proposition of an ultimate Act-er contradict the Golden Presumption? Is it self-consistent to claim that actions of God produce actions of derivative entities such as you and I? (Or, are we derivative entities after all?!)

Everyone, I think, agrees that actions can produce reactions, insofar as they acknowledge the existence of actions at all (which as I argued previously everyone has to at least tacitly do, in regard to at least themselves). But the whole point to the Golden Presumption is that we must presume you and I are not utterly reactive. A conclusion of not-atheism therefore leads to the question of whether it is nonsensical to propose that actions can produce actions.

It is easy to slur this problem, because in our direct experience we see active people interacting all the time: one person creates conditions through action, which provide a situation for the next person to choose between. If we are playing chess, and I choose to move a pawn a certain way, you now have a situation within which to make your own choices. That situation would have been different had I moved a different piece, or had I not moved at all (by my choice or otherwise), but your ability to choose would remain. You may not be free within the rules of the game to respond exactly as you wish--that is why it is possible to 'lose' a chess game! But your reality supersedes that of the chess game, and you can always take actions above and beyond the subsystem of the chess rules: you can accede the game politely, or throw a fit, or distract me while you switch a couple of pieces around on the board, or ask me to return you a bishop so that we can play out a variation of the situation.

So far this is plain sailing, I think; this type of 'inter-action' between a derivative sentient and an Independent Sentient can easily be self-consistently imagined.

But that is not the problem. Granted I am already here and active, and granted a God Who chooses to relate to me personally (something I have not yet established in my argument, by the way), then He and I could respond and counterrespond to the situations created by one another's actions--as friends, as enemies, or even if one or both of us were ignorant of the other.

The problem is the 'Granted I am already active' part! Whence did I, as a derivative being, get my ability to act?

From God, if He is the ground of all existences.

But: how can it be cogent to suggest or require that God 'made' me 'act'?!

It is no use applying to incorrigible mystery; if I do that, then we run into the sheer assertion problem I torpedoed earlier: an atheist could just as easily sheerly assert, despite the logical contradiction, that a purely automatic system can produce a non-automatic entity such as you or I or he.

It is also no use for me to propose that what God acted to do was to provide me a natural vehicle for sentience, and then my sentience just sort of sprang up once the materials were in proper relation. Functionally that would be no better than an atheist's proposal that blindly automatic Nature (or Supernature) reacted and counterreacted in such a fashion, that a body (such as mine) resulted which somehow 'produces' sentience. It would either imply a discontinuity between my reasoning ability and God's, or else it would only put the problem one stage further back for no gain.

The problem I detect in atheism is that if atheism is true, then what I call my thoughts are ultimately produced by non-rational causes and thus (by the rule I use every day, simply put) those 'thoughts' of mine must not at bottom be rational.

On the other hand, if my thoughts are ultimately produced by active causes, then this might mean God is thinking His thoughts through me; but that would mean it is not the apparent 'I' who am rational, but merely God. Alternately, if God winds me up as a biological toy and turns me loose, I am merely reacting.

The problem might be put another way: if God is supposed to exist, what kind of God is He and what relation do I have to Him? This, I suppose, is the basic question dealt with by any religion that proposes an ultimate sentience.

Obviously, some of these questions must be deferred until later. At the moment, I only want to consider situations where it is not nonsensical to propose that actions produce actions.

One answer, as I have just suggested, would be that the Independent Fact is Sentient, but that we are not in any way declensions from It: this would be a proposal of some type of positive pantheism. The actions 'we' take would therefore be the actions of the IF itself directly. 'We' (according to this proposal) are God.

For what it is worth, I think this can be deductively removed from the option list; but the removal requires going rather further along the path I've started, so for the moment I'll let it stand. At least, it doesn't seem to immediately contradict your and my own presumed ability to think (and the properties we implicitly assign to this ability for ourselves).

A slight variation of this hypothesis (and again, one on which I touched a bit earlier) would be 'The Great Puppeteer': we are qualitative declensions from the IF (a supernaturalistically theistic rather than pantheistic hypothesis) but God is still doing all the acting.

In either of these cases, the action-to-action problem is mooted by (in essence) removing the subordinate action: what I perceive to be 'my' action is not really 'my' action at all, but only God's action.

I will have to decide later whether either of these concepts stand up to further scrutiny; but neither one seems to contradict the Golden Presumption, and I haven't yet gotten far enough along the logic trail for other necessary implications to collide with the proposals.

Yet, these options (although leaving open the path for deduction by avoiding contradiction) do not truly represent action to action; they reflect only God's direct action, expressed perhaps at different levels of reality. They avoid contradiction by proposing the existence of only one acting entity; which certainly allows reasons to be grounded, but does so at the expense of my own existence as a person.

If that is where the argument must go, then that is where it must go; but is there not meanwhile any non-contradictive proposal of action to action?

I think there is at least one such proposal; and although it does not lead immediately to a validation of my individuality, it does have a very direct--indeed necessary--link to the path of deductions about the characteristics of God. Indeed, had I not perceived the potential problem with my deduction (requiring this short chapter to state it), I still would have found myself nevertheless at this next step. And so I will advance to that next step with a doubled interest in the outcome.

But first I should, and shall, make a bit of a detour.

[Next up: Personhood and God.]


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking.

I changed the title to being a serious problem for this argument for theism, since that was more accurate than it being a problem for an argument against atheism: the argument might work equally well against both basic branches of metaphysics, but that wouldn't mean there was necessarily a problem with it vs. atheism.

(Although on the other hand, arriving at a conclusion that both of two mutually exclusive options should be rejected, has to mean there's a problem with the preceding argument somewhere...! {g})


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